Friday, January 19, 2007

Can the "race card" be dealt when there is no mention of race?

It seems that it can in today's Britain. See here for details of a BIG controversy in Britain at the moment -- one that has even got the government of India involved.

There is an attractive Indian lady, Shilpa Shetty, taking part in a British TV "reality" show together with some pretty rough British whites. Some of the whites have treated the Indian lady contemptuously. That is of course deplorable but is it racism? Lots of people are saying it is even though no specifically racist words can be pointed to.

The fact that a fine and attractive lady might be treated equally badly by the rough types involved even if she had a white skin does not seem to be given much consideration at all. People find racism "under every bed", as it were, these days.

None of that is of course the fault of the fine Indian lady involved.


So they lie instead

Doctors are struggling to meet Government accident and emergency waiting time targets because the NHS cash crisis is resulting in a shortage of beds, doctors' leaders warned today. A survey for the British Medical Association (BMA) found that a shortage of hospital beds was delaying the admission of patients from A&E in England. A third of those questioned said that figures were manipulated in order to meet the access targets. A total of 503 members of staff at all grades working in emergency departments responded to the survey. The Government target is that 98 per cent of patients should wait no more than four hours from arrival at A&E to admission, transfer or discharge.

The survey questioned UK staff from the British Association for Emergency Medicine (BAEM), with 86 per cent of the responses received from those working in England. Eighty-seven per cent of doctors in England said that the lack of in-patient beds was the main reason for not meeting Government targets. Staff shortages and patients attending A&E with minor problems were also blamed. Two-thirds of those in England said that patients were moved to inappropriate areas or wards to help meet the target, while 58 per cent said patients were being discharged from A&E to inappropriate areas or wards before they had been properly assessed.

Just over half of those in England said that their department was meeting the A&E target. But 49 per cent said their department had received extra cash to help them meet the target, and 53 per cent said agency workers and staff on short-term contracts had been brought in to help. Almost all of those who replied to the survey in England said that their workload had increased in the past 12 months, with most blaming the transfer of out-of-hours care from GPs to primary care trusts.

Today's survey also revealed that departments are at risk of being downgraded or closed altogether.It found that 48 units in the UK (42 of them in England) were at risk of being downgraded and 23 in the UK (19 of them in England) were at risk of closure.

Don MacKechnie, chairman of the BMA's Emergency Medicine Committee, said: "Many hospitals have cut bed numbers as part of their financial recovery plans and attempts to balance their books. "This means that there are fewer available beds for patients coming through A&E who need to be transferred within four hours to a hospital ward from the emergency department to meet the Government's access target. "The report finds that doctors and other staff are working exceptionally hard and putting in extra hours to meet access targets. Working towards the four-hour target on A&E waiting times has been a fantastic achievement, it has proved good news for patients and the extremely long waits seen in the last decade are now very rare. "However, respondents tell us that despite this success, the level of performance in many departments is proving unsustainable and these departments are finding it difficult to cope on a daily basis."

Martin Shalley, president of the BAEM, said: "Attendances at urban A&E departments continue to rise and pressure on beds remains a significant factor for achieving the four-hour target. "It is vitally important to separate acute and elective facilities so that each can perform efficiently and improve the patient journey." Government figures show that 98.2 per cent of patients were seen and treated within four hours in 2005/06.


The truth about organic food

It’s not healthier or Greener, and it's incapable of feeding the world. So why is it back in fashion?

It’s not like David Miliband to say something sensible. New Labour’s greener-than-thou environment secretary and warm favourite to be next leader-but-one is usually in the front rank of eco-worriers when discussing climate change or recycling, recently suggesting that people are right to fear global warming and that he was afraid, too. So imagine the annoyance of organic food supporters this week at Miliband’s comments about whether organic food is healthier: ‘It’s a lifestyle choice that people can make. There isn’t any conclusive evidence either way. It’s only four per cent of total farm produce, not 40 per cent and I don’t want to say that 96 per cent of our farm produce is inferior because it’s not organic.’ (1)

Cue outrage. ‘It is not just a lifestyle choice,’ insisted Soil Association spokesman Robin Maynard, ‘In terms of the environment, organic is better. Mr Miliband’s own government has recognised in the past that organic food can be better for that. In fact, organic farmers get an extra payment due to this. (2)’

Miliband’s remarks were surprising because the superiority of organic food has been taken for granted in recent years. It is assumed that organic food is more ‘natural’ and therefore by definition healthier and better for the environment – an assumption backed up by government subsidies for inefficient organic farmers. But is it true?

A new book just published in the US, The Truth About Organic Foods provides a thorough examination of the evidence. The author, Alex Avery, shares Miliband’s conclusion that organic food is no healthier than ‘conventional’ food produced by industrial methods – and also argues that the claim of organic food to be better for the environment is suspect. As Avery, a trained plant physiologist and biologist now working for the Hudson Institute told me, nobody has been putting the other side of the story on organic: ‘The “organic utopian” myth has become a serious roadblock to agricultural progress and I knew that some of the organic food industry’s main claims were simply smoke and mirrors and religious dogma.’

Healthy scepticism

Champions of organic food claim that pesticides and other chemicals used in conventional farming have the potential to cause ill-health, either through immediately poisoning us or through causing cancer in the long term. Take this statement from the Soil Association:

‘Chemicals designed to kill: Along with chemical weapons, chemicals used in farming are the only substances that are deliberately released into the environment designed to kill living things. They pose unique hazards to human health and the environment.’

Elsewhere on the Soil Association’s website we read:

‘Around 31,000 tonnes of chemicals are used in farming in the UK each year to kill weeds, insects and other pests that attack crops. There is surprisingly little control over how these chemicals are used in the non-organic sector and in what quantities or combinations. What we do know is that 150 of the available 350 pesticides commonly used have been identified as potentially [my emphasis] causing cancer and many of us would have been exposed to these pesticides before we were born. (4)’

However, most of our food does not contain residues of these chemicals. Of the minority of food products that still contain traces of pesticide, Avery provides some perspective: ‘[T]he pesticide residue data are a testament to our technical prowess in detecting incredibly tiny traces of specific chemicals in foods. Note that the synthetic pesticide residues… are consumed in microgram quantities, or one-millionth of a gram.’ Given that we tend to buy fruit and veg by the kilo, he notes: ‘Remember, this is equivalent to one penny in $10 million, or one inch in 16,000 miles!’

A host of different chemicals can cause cancer in rodents when researchers feed them to the animals in very large quantities. But the minute quantities involved in pesticide residues mean the same chemicals are harmless in food. There is no evidence of anybody ever dying or falling seriously ill from eating food carrying traces of man-made pesticides.

The over-reaction to the dangers from manmade pesticides is in sharp contrast to the complete ignorance shown towards naturally-occurring poisons. Everyday foods are full of natural pesticides. That’s hardly a surprise, since we tend to choose as crops things that seem resistant to pests and disease. The world-famous biochemist Bruce Ames makes the point clear elsewhere on spiked: ‘The natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens in a single cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of ingested synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens.’ (5) He is not arguing that coffee is dangerous – far from it. Rather, he’s pointing out that the tiny risk from manmade chemicals is actually smaller than other small risks we accept as a normal part of life.

As it happens, as Avery points out, organic produce is not entirely free from chemicals – it is simply that a much narrower range of such chemicals is allowed for food to qualify as ‘organic’, and they tend to be used less frequently. Given that some of the things that pesticides are designed to eliminate – like poisonous fungal growths – are pretty dangerous, that is not necessarily beneficial in any event.

Another assertion often made about organic food is that it is more nutritious. It is not clear, in principle, why this might be. However, some studies suggest it might be the case. Avery looks at these studies in detail and finds many of them deeply flawed. The best review of the evidence, a paper by Woese et al in 1997, concludes that it is very difficult to conclude anything at all. ‘Conventional’ foods contain more pesticide residues and more nitrates – hardly surprising given their greater use in conventional agriculture. But overall, the authors note:  ‘With regard to all other desirable nutritional values, it was either the case that no major differences were observed in physico-chemical analyses between the products from different production forms, or contradictory findings did not permit any clear statements. (6)’

In fact, not only do better quality studies in peer-reviewed journals show no consistent difference between the two types of food, Avery notes that even some organic advocates admit it. As William Lockeretz of Tufts University told an organic food conference in 1997: ‘I wish I could tell you that there is a clear, consistent nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods. Even better, I wish I could tell you that the difference is in favour of organic. Unfortunately, though, from my reading of the scientific literature, I do not believe such a claim can be responsibly made. (7)’

Even if there were nutritional differences between organic and conventional food, any benefit one way or the other is likely to be much smaller than variation based on the variety of a crop used, other growing conditions, freshness, cooking method - even which foods are consumed together.

Environmental concerns

The environmental case for organic mainly rests upon the pollution caused by producing agricultural chemicals and cleaning up after them. It is certainly true that producing fertilisers in particular uses energy and this inevitably means fossil fuels. But the production of chemicals is only one part of the energy used in putting food on our plates. As a recent article in the Economist notes, many of the assumptions made about what is the most ‘green’ way to supply food are simply wrong. It suggests that big supermarkets, with highly efficient logistics, are arguably ‘greener’ than trying to feed the nation through local farmers’ markets.

Citing research from the UK Department of Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the article says:  ‘[A] shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles. (8)’

To maintain the same overall level of food production using organic methods today would require far more land to be used for farming. In developed countries such as the UK, where the efficiency of industrial farming methods has left many small farms redundant, there might be space to indulge a small land-hungry organic sector. But if we truly pursued the idea of an organic-only economy, the effect on land usage would be dramatic. At a time when environmentalists complain about how wildernesses are being cleared to produce food, the need to clear more land is organic farming’s dirty little secret.

The other alternative is to grow less food. There is no way, using organic methods, that the world’s current population could be sustained on the 37 per cent of land currently used in agriculture. The solution for some, it would appear, is not more food but fewer people. In the words of one organic farmer quoted by Avery, ‘I want to argue that production is not the problem. The problem is the imbalance of humans relative to the millions of other species with whom we co-evolved. (9)’

Don’t mess with nature

The precise arguments of the Soil Association and other organic food groups are actually neither here nor there because no-one is really holding them to account - hence the shocked reaction to Miliband’s statement. The underlying temper of our times is that anything processed or industrialised can be seen as adulterated and harmful, while anything that appears to be natural or close to nature can be regarded as pure and uncorrupted. The precise facts about residues, nutrition or environmental impact are rarely discussed.

The ‘don’t mess with nature’ approach is illustrated by the organic movement’s attitude to genetic modification. Rather than embracing GM as opening up the possibility of greater control over the properties of plants, it is rejected as dangerous interference in nature with all sorts of unknown potential problems. GM crops have the potential to allow greater productivity, reduced use of pesticides and increased nutrition. The organic movement prefers to smear GM crops as the work of malevolent agribusiness trying to create monopolies.

Even if it is found that a particular GM crop did not live up to expectations or caused unexpected problems, that would not be a cause to dismiss the whole technology out of hand. Any process involving experimentation and new techniques will have problems along the way. The most logical approach would be to learn from our mistakes in order to continue improvements. If the entire world was well-fed and food was as cheap as it could be, the discussion might be academic. But when a large proportion of the world’s population is still undernourished, society must constantly explore ways to grow more, better, food.

The roots of organic

The rise of organic food has little to do with a cold assessment of its merits. As Avery notes, the scientific arguments in favour of organic are feeble. Instead, the organic movement began largely as a rejection of industrial society and materialism - one that continues today. As an editorial in the Independent noted, criticising Miliband, ‘The organic movement is flourishing because it is in tune with the zeitgeist, which favours the small and the local and hankers for alternatives to industrial-scale farming and what is an over-cosy relationship between big producers and supermarkets.’ (10) It is this suspicion of modern production methods (despite all the benefits they have brought), mixed with overblown health fears and tied closely to environmentalism, that has allowed organic ideas to become popular.

While the organic movement is often thought of as beginning with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the reaction to an agriculture based on man-made chemicals has existed almost as long as the fertilisers complained of. In his book The Origins of the Organic Movement Philip Conford makes the case for the 1920s, and 1926 in particular, as the moment the organic movement really began. During that year, the Chandos Group of predominantly Anglican thinkers first met in London in the wake of the failed General Strike. Conford argues that this group, who published the New English Weekly, were a driving force in popularising organic ideas, some 20 years before the formation of the Soil Association (11).

A number of other writers emerged in the 1920s promoting broadly similar ideas. Perhaps the most well-known, more for the schools he created than his ideas on agriculture, was Rudolf Steiner. His notion of ‘biodynamic’ farming sounds downright wacky today, and Avery takes great pleasure in quoting Steiner at length:

‘Have you ever thought why cows have horns, or why certain animals have antlers?… The cow has horns in order to send into itself the astral-ethereal formative powers, which, pressing inward, are meant to penetrate right into the digestive organism… Thus in the horn you have something well adapted by its inherent nature to ray back the living and astral properties into the inner life.’

So, horns and antlers are like nature’s satellite dish for cosmic forces. These forces are concentrated in the digestive system, according to Steiner, which explains the importance of manure: ‘What is farm-yard-manure?… [I]t has been inside the organism and has thus been permeated with an astral and ethereal content. In the dung, therefore, we have before us something ethereal and astral. For this reason it has a life-giving and also astralising influence upon the soil.’

If you want to improve the fertility of soil, therefore, you just need to get more ‘living forces’ into it by the simple method of filling a horn with manure and burying it in a field: ‘You see, by burying the horn with its filling of manure, we preserve in the horn the forces it was accustomed to exert within the cow itself… all the radiations that tend to etherealize and astralise are poured into the inner hollow of the horn.’

While Steiner was a first class space cadet, Avery notes that he has a surprising number of followers even today in the ‘biodynamic’ movement. After all, his ideas are hardly any more scientifically implausible than those of homeopathy where distilled water, somehow imprinted with the ‘memory’ of some active ingredient long since diluted out of it, can apparently cure all sorts of ailments.

However, while Steiner certainly had followers, his presentation was too esoteric for most. A more influential figure in the long term was Sir Albert Howard. He worked as an agricultural adviser in India in the 1920s but quickly concluded that he could learn more from the Indians than he could teach. He was impressed by the strapping good health of many of the tribes, particularly the Hunza, and concluded their rude fitness must be the product of their food and, by extension, their agriculture.

Central to the ideas that Howard was to promote in later years was the importance of compost. In fact, the Rule of Return – the idea that vital material from the soil must be returned through compost and manure – is a key idea of the organic movement. Howard advised and supervised the introduction of his Indore system of composting in many places both in the UK and America. His comments on the ruining of soil by modern methods could have been made by any modern environmentalist:

‘In allowing science to be used to wring the last ounce from the soil by new varieties of crops, cheaper and more stimulating manures, deeper and more thorough cultivating machines, hens which lay themselves to death, and cows which perish in an ocean of milk, something more than a want of judgment on the part of the organisation is involved. Agricultural research has been misused to make the farmer, not a better producer of food, but a more expert bandit… All goes well as long as the soil can be made to yield a crop. But soil fertility does not last forever; eventually the land is worn out; real farming dies.’

Howard’s predictions must have seemed prescient when American agriculture was doing its best to self-destruct during the years of the Dust Bowl, when a combination of inappropriate farming techniques, drought and depression created the conditions for strong winds to strip vast areas of topsoil. It is also the case that most farmers use manure and compost as means of improving soil quality. But Howard was ultimately wrong. Better understanding of the use of manmade fertilisers, selective breeding, and other techniques have greatly improved crop yields over the last few decades.

What is striking about the early organic pioneers is their rejection of modern society. In a world staggering out of one World War and towards another via economic and social turmoil, there were plenty of people who rejected capitalism. However, most in the organic movement rejected the communist and socialist alternatives, too, and recoiled from the class conflict embodied in the General Strike of 1926.

The social makeup of those prominent in the early organic movement suggests a group of people being squeezed out of modern society: disillusioned colonials from a declining and increasingly discredited empire, aristocrats seeking to preserve rural life as agricultural workers were replaced by machines, and churchmen trying to find a new setting for religious ideas.

Back to the future

So why are organic ideas that were based on disillusionment with modernity back in fashion today? Economically and politically, Western societies have stagnated over the last 30 years or so. The idea that tomorrow will look radically different from – and better than - today seems unrealistic to many. Both the traditional left and right are exhausted, their visions of the future bankrupt. Against this background those who hanker after an imaginary idyllic past, or are fearful of future change, can often exercise disproportionate influence over politics and culture. Alongside the aristocrats like Prince Charles we now have the disillusioned stockbrokers who give up the rat race to sell organic jam, the New Age religionists, and the middle-class hypochondriacs.

Books like Avery’s are important to underline the factual errors of those who campaign for organic food. However, the discussion of food also illustrates a broader need to remind ourselves just how much modern society has achieved in changing the lives of people for the better through the application of science, industry and reason. Perhaps then we will all be better able to see the ideas of the organic movement for the manure that they are.


Only drastic surgery can save Britain's schools

The university where I whiled away my misspent youth had a notoriously tough entrance procedure, full of trick questions to trip up the unwary and humiliate them into the bargain. Oddly, however, the exams you took at the end of your three years weren’t much harder. The reason is clear to me now. The lecturers were far too grand to do anything as dreary as teaching, and the students were far too busy getting drunk. So the authorities had to make sure that they let in only students who knew enough when they arrived to pass their finals three years later.

I’m sure that this eccentric approach has been purged by now. But I was reminded of it last week when I read of the Government’s plan to raise the age at which children can leave full-time education from 16 to 18 — because I have a sneaking suspicion that many comprehensives are operating today rather like my old university operated 30 years ago. The brightest kids could easily sail through their GCSEs almost as soon as they come into the school at the age of 11 or 12. Instead, they spend five years getting more and more bored. But at the other end of the spectrum, at least 20 per cent of pupils couldn’t pass five GCSEs if they were kept in our current school system till they were 94. Or so the league tables suggest.

It’s against this lamentable background, and the monumental failure of the Government to tackle the problem of the failing 20 per cent, that this airy-fairy proposal to raise the school leaving age must be judged. Forget for a moment the billions of extra funding needed. What’s preposterous is the notion that a system incapable of teaching a huge number of children the basics of literacy, numeracy and decency after 12 years of full-time schooling should somehow magically be able to do so after 14 years.

The result of keeping disaffected kids in the system till they are 18 could be catastrophic. Perhaps you don’t recall the last time the school leaving age was raised — in 1972, when it went from 15 to 16. I have wry memories. A few months before going to university, I did work experience in a local school, and watched with incredulity as a bunch of stroppy 15-year-olds who had expected to escape the previous summer were forced to kick their heels for three more terms — and proceeded to run amok. The legacy of that misconceived move lingers still. Is there anyone, apart from dutiful Blairites, who believes that today’s 16-year-old school-leavers are better educated than the 15-year-old leavers of the 1960s?

There is a way to raise the leaving age without going through that pointless chaos again. But it would require a radical reshaping of the entire school system. Here, just for your amusement, is what I would do.

First I would extend primary-school education by two years (mirroring the prep schools in the private sector). That would allow these enlarged primary schools to beef up their arts, sports and music — because the best specialist teachers would be attracted by the chance to take older children to a higher level. It would give primary teachers six extra terms in which to drum the basics of reading and arithmetic into slower learners. And most crucially, it would allow the the decision about appropraite secondary education to be deferred until children were 12 or 13, when it is far easier to know whether a child is cut out to be “academic”.

Those that are academic would pass a wideranging test at 13 and get a “certificate of basic education” (let’s call it the CBE, just to be confusing) covering the minimum literacy and numeracy skills normally needed in life. They would then move to secondary schools that would prepare them for a much tougher and broader set of A-levels than we have at present.

Non-academics would take a different path. They would still work towards their CBEs, but also develop the vocational skills needed to go straight into work at 18. Indeed, they would spend much of each term on work placements: old-fashioned apprenticeships, except in contemporary industries such as IT, food technology and retailing as well as the old blue-collar trades.

“Aha!” I hear the Islington liberals cry. “You are simply reviving the old apartheid system with grammar schools and secondary moderns, albeit with a 13-plus exam instead of the old 11-plus.” Not so. The problem in the old days was the stigma of failure attached to non-grammar-school children. My system would invest the vocational educational route with as much dignity, pride and rigorous standards as the academic route. It is the only way forward if British craft and trade workers are to compete in an increasingly global market place. Ask yourself why London is heaving with foreign plumbers, welders, electricians and carpenters who do a far better job than their British counterparts.

And it’s also the only way forward if we want to stop our educational system from churning out thousands of unemployable teenagers each year. Grafting makeshift vocational courses on to the existing state educational structure is useless.

But such a big rethink calls for political courage. Forget it, then. What the Government has concocted is a headline-grabbing gimmick that applies sticking-plaster to a festering wound. How typical. Is there anyone, apart from Blairites, who believes that today’s 16-year-old school-leavers are better educated than the 15-year-old leavers of the 1960s?


Sick Britain's crazy police priorities

This is a country where even a rapist can get off with a police "caution"

A man who called a police surgeon a "f***ing Paki" was advised yesterday by a judge: "Next time call him a fat bastard and don't say anything about his colour." The judge gave the unusual advice after describing the decision by the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute the man for a racially aggravated offence as "a nonsense".

Matthew Stiddard had been taken into custody by police officers who mistook him for a suspect in another case. After two hours in a cell he demanded to see a doctor, complaining that his back hurt. But when Dr Imraan Jhetam arrived, Stiddart refused to be seen by him. Exeter Crown Court heard that Stiddart, 36, swore and told him: "I want an English doctor, not a f***ing Paki."

Stiddart had opted for the case to be heard at Crown court, where he admitted a charge of racially aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress. Judge Paul Darlow told the court that the case should never have been brought and suggested that Dr Jhetam should have let the insults "roll off his back".

The judge said: "I wonder what this is doing in the Crown Court. This was a single sentence to a man who should not have taken it so seriously. He is a man of some considerable standing in society and I cannot see that it caused him any distress or hurt.

"It should not have caused a problem in this case. "To charge it in the first place rather than, say, let it go by with a caution strikes me as rather odd. We let people hit each other and break into people's homes and they are not charged."

Ann Reddrop, for the prosecution, said: "When there is a burglary and it is in the public interest there will be a prosecution. This was a police surgeon and he is entitled to the same protection as anyone else."

Judge Darlow replied: "So next time call him a fat bastard and don't say anything about his colour. When we have an overstretched police force and an overstretched CPS one wonders why we are sitting here with long faces dealing with one sentence."

The judge said last night that his comments were "not intended to make light of racist remarks". He said: "Any reading of what was actually said in court would make it clear that the potential seriousness of what occurred was that a police surgeon was threatened with violence and non-racial abuse to the extent that he decided he needed to leave the cell to which he had been called. This amounted to an assault, but this was not the offence charged. "A gratuitous single piece of racist abuse was uttered as the surgeon left. This was the charge on which the full weight of the law had been brought to bear. My comments were not intended to make light of racist remarks.



A comment on what seems a mainly British phenomenon -- Greenie attacks on air travel

Is your journey really necessary? Who would have thought that, in the absence of world war and in the midst of unprecedented prosperity, the state would be telling us not to travel? Just as ordinary working people have begun to enjoy freedoms that the well-off have known for generations - the experience of other cultures, other cuisines, other climates - they are threatened with having those liberating possibilities priced out of their reach.

Perhaps there is still a bit of the Marxist agitator in me: when I hear the better-off trying to deny the rest of us enlightenment and pleasure, I reach for my megaphone. For thousands of people whose parents would never have ventured beyond our shores, air travel has been a social revelation. The environment may or may not be at risk from the multitudes of ordinary people who can now afford to escape regularly from their parochial isolation and the narrow-minded ignorance that goes with it. But before we give the green lobby the unconditional benefit of the doubt, can we look at the balance sheet?

It is not just air travel for the poor that the green tax lobby is engineering: it is a restriction on any mobility. The only solution is not to go anywhere. Stay at home and save the planet. The logical conclusion is a retreat from all the things that make metropolitan existence worthwhile: all the social, professional and cultural interactions that free mobility makes possible - and which, since the Renaissance, have made great cities the centres of intellectual progress.

But even devising a way to make a living while never leaving your house will not absolve you of ecological guilt if you make free use of the technology that has transformed domestic life. The working classes, having only discovered in the last generation the comforts of tolerable housing and plentiful hot water, are now being told that these things must be rationed or prohibitively taxed. Never mind that the generous use of hot water and detergent, particularly when combined in a washing machine for the laundering of bed linen and clothing, has virtually eliminated the infestations of body lice, fleas (which once carried plague) and scabies mites that used to be a commonplace feature of poverty.

Or that the dishwasher - detested for its "wasteful" use of water and energy - which cleans crockery and utensils at temperatures high enough to destroy bacteria, has vastly improved hygiene. Or, for that matter, that the private car, the greens' public enemy No.1, has given ordinary families freedom and flexibility that would have been inconceivable in previous generations. If politicians are planning restrictions on these "polluting" aspects of private life, to be enforced by a price mechanism, they had better accept they will be reconstructing a class divide that will drastically affect the quality of life of those on the wrong side of it.

It is possible that the premises of the environmental campaigners are sound: that we are in mortal danger from global warming and that this is a result of human activity. Yet when I listen to the ecological warnings, I am reminded of an earlier doomsday scenario. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798, Thomas Malthus demonstrated in what appeared to be indisputable mathematical terms that population growth would exceed the limits of food supply by the middle of the 19th century. While population increased exponentially, he argued, food production increased only arithmetically. Only plague, war or natural disaster would be capable of reducing the numbers of people sufficiently to avert mass starvation within roughly 50 years. This account of the world's inevitable fate (known as "Malthusian catastrophe") was as much part of received opinion among intellectuals and social theorists of the day as the environmental lobby's warnings are today. (Interestingly, Malthus recommended sexual abstinence for the lower classes to avoid doom.)

Malthus made some critical conceptual mistakes. First, his mathematical projections underestimated the complexity of human behaviour. Population did not go on increasing at the same rate: it responded to economic and social conditions. But, more important, he discounted the force of ingenuity in finding ways to increase food supply. The introduction of intensive farming methods and the invention of pesticides transformed what he had assumed would be the simple, fixed relationship between numbers of people and amount of resource. He had extrapolated from contemporary figures what seemed to be a sound prediction without allowing for the possibility that inventiveness and innovation might alter the picture in unimaginable ways.

Warnings of catastrophe come and go; whatever their validity, we cannot and should not ask people to go back to a more restricted and burdened way of life. The privations would not work because they are impracticable. To the extent that they were enforced, they would be unfair and socially divisive. If we really are facing an environmental crisis, then we are going to have to innovate and engineer our way out of it.


UK 'green power' programs a fraud, says consumer group

Green power in Great Britain is largely a fraud, according to the United Kingdom's leading consumer group, the National Consumer Council, in a recent report, Reality or rhetoric? Green tariffs for domestic consumers."

Green tariffs, rates offered to consumer, at a premium, in order to deliver electricity produced by renewable resources, "don't live up to the environmental benefits claimed" in Britain, says the council's watchdog arm, energywatch. Among the key findings of the report: "Many green tariffs are not delivering the environmental benefits they claim. As a result, consumers may not be making the positive contribution they think they are."

The findings, said the report, "are worrying. There is a danger that consumers will be alienated from the behavior change agenda. This, in turn, could threaten the success of the government's sustainability strategy."

The issue is one that applies widely in the U.S. as well as in the U.K.: renewable energy mandates in place reduce the value of the green tariff, and have consumers paying twice for the same environmental benefit. The NCC report notes that the government is already requiring suppliers to generate 10% of their electricity from renewables by 2010 and 20% by 2020. This means, says the group, that every home in Great Britain is now paying œ7 ($13.75) annually for green energy in the normal electricity bill.

In a news release, the NCC adds, "Also the complex rules that encourage all energy suppliers to source renewably can mean the electricity's `greenness' is oversold. Even choosing a green tariff that offers to plant a tree would not contribute anywhere near enough to offset a household's carbon emissions." Consumers, said Lord Larry Whitty, the NCC chairman, "may think they are helping save the planet, but it's not clear that they are."The report notes that fewer than 200,000 homes (under 1%) of British homes purchase green power.


No connection? "Unemployment [in Britain] has fallen to the lowest level since last spring but wage increases have remained muted, official figures showed today."

Britain resists EU attack on democracy: "Britain is aiming to scupper German plans to revive the European constitution in a direct assault on the main project of the EU presidency of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. Such a campaign, if successful, would free Tony Blair’s successor from his promise to hold a referendum on the document... The British Government is keen to avoid holding a referendum on the constitution, despite Mr Blair’s pledge three years ago to do so. Under the German timetable a referendum would coincide with the next general election and cause problems for Mr Blair’s successor. .. A senior British official told The Times that the Government will argue that the EU is working well within its existing treaties and does not need a constitution nor a fresh round of referendums... The British position is at loggerheads with Mrs Merkel’s dream of restoring the bulk of the rejected document, including sections that would create a European foreign minister and end the British veto in home affairs and justice policy."

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