Sunday, August 12, 2012

Circuses & Bread

The euphoria will pass. And then what?

Today, as the Olympic Games draw to a close, David Cameron hosts a two-hour summit meeting on hunger. It’s an excellent opportunity to talk about everything but the real issue. No doubt there’ll be much condemnation of barriers to global free enterprise (like communal land rights), a little token hand-wringing about over-consumption by the rich developed world, and no mention of exploding population. It will end with agreement to give money to the Third World, and with appeals to private corporations' consciences, all with no clear aim in mind about what good any of it will do.

Desertification in Africa’s Sahel is a disaster for those who live there, but it’s no good blaming man-made climate change and feeling fashionably awful about it. Niger, one of the countries worst affected, has the highest rate of population growth in the world. Already unable to feed half its 16 million folk, it is projected to have 55 million by 2050. Between 2010 and 2110 the Democratic Republic of Congo’s population is set to grow from 68 million to 149 million, Ethiopia from 85 million to 174 million and Nigeria from 158 million to 433 million. Bob Geldof will need rather more than a sticking plaster next time famine takes its toll.

Population experts Anne H. Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich, of Stanford University in the USA, have written about the problem as being principally one of perception (or wilful lack of it), as the following extracts from their work explain:

“To a large extent, refusal to recognize that continued population growth is a serious threat to the future of civilization can be blamed on the failure of educational systems to bridge key parts of the culture gap, the growing chasm between what we each know as individuals and all of the knowledge society possesses corporately. That gap leaves many well-educated people ignorant of today’s crucial environmental problems.

Misunderstanding of how demographic and environmental connections interact is common even among people who are interested in population problems. For instance, [many are] convinced that over-consumption is a much larger contributor to environmental deterioration than over-population. This is roughly like being convinced that the length of a rectangle is a much larger contributor to its area than its width.

This entire situation is made worse by ‘non-linearities’ in the population-consumption growth picture. Being clever, human beings use the easiest, most accessible resources first. This means that the richest farmland was ploughed first and the richest ores mined first. Now each additional person must be fed from more marginal land and use metals won from poorer ores. Thus, on average, each person added to the population disproportionately increases the destruction of environmental systems. The non-linearities involved in resource extraction were dramatically underlined by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The first commercial oil well in the United States was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. It started at the ground surface and struck oil at 69.5 feet. The Deepwater Horizon drill rig, 150 years later, started a well in the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling began under almost a mile of water and had penetrated almost three miles below the sea floor when the explosion occurred. Such diminishing returns are now evident everywhere, affecting virtually all the resources civilization needs to persist.

In addition, as the population grows, efforts to keep people supplied with consumer goods release more toxic compounds into the global environment. The toxification of Earth may be an even more dangerous trend than climate disruption or the extinction crisis, but it is increasingly clear that the scientific community has not even begun to address it properly.

People also should understand that population size is a major factor in the deterioration of the human epidemiological environment. The larger the human population (and the more hungry and thus immune-compromised people there are), the greater the chance of vast epidemics.

The history of claims that technological innovation will save us is instructive. When The Population Bomb (P.R. Ehrlich 1971) was published, the global population was 3.5 billion people, and we were assured that technological innovation would allow society to give rich, fulfilling lives to 5 billion or more people. They would be fed by algae grown on sewage, whales herded into atolls, leaf protein, or the production from nuclear agro-industrial complexes. That, of course, never happened. The population now exceeds 7 billion, and the number of hungry and malnourished people today is roughly equivalent to Earth’s entire population when we were born in the 1930s. Clueless European politicians, demographers, and pundits fear the ageing of the population that inevitably occurs when population growth ends. But all one really needs to appreciate the silliness of fearing an ageing population is realizing that the only way to avoid it is to keep the population growing forever.”

Africa’s problems may seem remote to us here in Wessex. We should reappraise, and do it fast. We live off food imports from countries that will one day stop sending us their food. Their young and growing populations will demand it and the political clout those growing populations will provide will ensure that there will be no negotiation over this. We have nothing vital to offer in return that they cannot get for themselves. Yet we gladly suffer fools like Jon Snow who would build four million new homes in England, as if farmland does nothing else besides look pretty. Joined-up thinking? We wish!

Knowing Your Boundaries

“I pay respect to wisdom not to strength.”

The quote is from C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life; the words are those of Loki, the Norse trickster god. In this part-autobiography Lewis described his experiences at Wyvern College, a pseudonym for Malvern College, the boys’ public school in Mercia. School sports were something he always found difficult to explain. “If sport is so popular,” he once enquired, “why is it compulsory?”

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, school. It can be remembered as fun and delight. Or as misery and trauma. Often the difference comes down to the legacy left by individual teachers. To micro-manage outcomes from the centre may meet targets, but it is unlikely to produce well-rounded citizens.

Yet London politicians, hyper-ventilating after a fortnight of Olympic triumphs and vanities, do indeed believe they know best. Britain’s top toffs, Dave and Boris, have been trying to out-run each other on the political playing field. Cameron has promised a f├╝hrer directive that all primary schools in England (& Cornwall) shall teach competitive sports (excluding only the free schools and academies, which are now way beyond any meaningful accountability for their mis-use of public money). There are two things wrong with this. One is the solution itself and the other is the way the solution is being imposed.

Solution to what? That is the question. Why do schools need to teach competitive sports? Physical activity is good for health, that’s true, Indian dancing more so than boxing. But competition, taken to its extreme where concern for the welfare of others is eliminated, has historically been the root of all evil. The Tories love it because it undermines the co-operative instinct, creating a climate of dehumanising aggression that’s good for a state of permanent war, whether military or economic. The sporting ideal of excellence coupled with respect is routinely abused from that source. Fortunately, co-operation always has its rebels who rise above such nonsense. They can be seen in any school football match, standing idly around the edges of a muddy field, cold and bored, while the biggest boys in the year fight over the ball. Competitive sports have nothing to offer them. It isn’t that they have failed physical education; it’s that physical education has failed them. Pouring public money into school sports might produce Olympic gold in 20 years' time but it will not produce a nation of 50 million Olympians. That the needs of the sporting elite and the needs of most others are radically different is a point that London politicians are happy to ignore. Sport for all is a wonderful idea; elite sport for all is an oxymoron.

As decentralists we are still more passionately involved in the other question: of why Cameron should have the power that he does to decree the curriculum in English community schools. He doesn’t own them. He doesn’t manage them: that’s the job of head teachers and their boards of governors, drawn from the local community to which they are accountable. It isn’t properly the job of the local education authority, unless schools were to agree voluntarily to pool curriculum development. It isn’t the job of the Education Secretary either; indeed, his entire department could be abolished with no ill effects, and many positive ones. And it certainly isn’t the job of the Prime Minister to confuse leadership with arrogant interference in the jobs of others. Use the rhetoric of localism if you really mean it, and if you don’t, then stop imagining we’ll think you a decent bloke for cherry-picking whatever issues play best in the tabloid press.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Changing Tack

It’s good news that Tory misgivings over half-baked proposals for Lords reform may now mean a LibDem veto over proposed changes to constituency boundaries. In our view, MPs, if we really have to have them, must represent the will of communities, not arbitrary blocks of territory filled with numbers.

The LibDem proposals for the Lords were so bad that one wonders where all that party’s brains have gone. It used to be home to clever, creative thinkers, who would never have suggested an elected chamber where the members are free to get up to whatever mischief they fancy for 15 years with no possibility of ever facing the electorate’s wrath. Elected, moreover, to represent those ghastly Prescott zones the Coalition pretends not to believe in.

We commend our own proposals for a Wessex Witan, first published in 1982, which were for a two-chamber regional legislature of Assembly and Senate. The balance of argument in favour of bi-cameralism in Wessex, we explained, is based on long-standing usage in British constitutional practice, on the extra manpower made available for committee work, and on the possibility it offers for the direct representation of local authorities, academic institutions and the professions. The devolved Parliament of Northern Ireland (1922-72) comprised a House of Commons and a Senate but its successor, the Northern Ireland Assembly, is uni-cameral. So too are the Scottish Parliament and the London and Welsh assemblies.

The idea that an elected second chamber at Westminster is ‘a good thing’ has taken off to the point where it’s now considered rude to ask why. Having more politicians must mean more democracy, mustn’t it? Well, no. It depends what they do, and especially whether they cancel each other out, so that all we get is noise. The first duty of a good legislature is to make good laws. And for that to happen, it needs to be composed of the best folk to make those laws. Quality matters. That is why campaigns to make our elected bodies more ‘representative’ in a purely statistical sense are so stupid. As well as being insulting to the voters by demanding the screening and filtering of the candidates for whom they’re allowed to vote. Let’s have more women, more minorities, more disadvantaged. Yes, if they’re the best candidates for public office. And if they’re not, then let’s not have them. Allow the voters to decide.

Which, in broad terms, is fortunately how those responsible for executive decisions are still elected. But there is more to organisation than executive decisions. Just as in left/right brain theory, so organisation has its own executive/sensory nexus. Current decision-making needs to be shadowed by other thinking focused on monitoring and review, research and longer-term development. Short electoral cycles are notoriously poor at delivering that. They’re all about advantage and cover-up. Posterity doesn’t have the vote.

A non-elected second chamber can help redress the balance, provided that those who comprise it are there on merit and widely respected for their expert knowledge and experience. Its role isn’t to stop bad laws, but to query them. It isn’t to pick a fight with the first chamber, but to remind it of the bigger picture. It isn’t to govern, but to scan the horizon.

You can have politics. Or you can have wisdom. Ideally, if we can manage it, we need both. Clegg’s proposals guaranteed more of the first and less of the second. And all the while they reinforce the crazy idea that only by gathering folk up and taking them to London can good self-rule be achieved. Successful constitutional reform requires more searching questions about what the Lords is for. But first there must be an answer to the question of what Parliament itself adds to our quality of life in Wessex that we ourselves could not more satisfactorily achieve by other means.