Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for June 28th, 2007

Treachery and greenery

with 8 comments

From The Economist print edition

An interesting analysis that compares the growing disagreements within the green community with factionalism in left wing politics.

I am not sure that I find the comparison all that compelling. First of all, environmentalists do not have to sign on to any single source of authority. There is no parallel here to the stale debates about “who is the true heir of Lenin”. Environmentalism is not born of reading one book or watching one movie, nor listening to one prophet. It is not an act of faith, but of reason, and rational, scientific, examination of how we can continue to survive on the spaceship we occupy. Because we haven’t got another one. That is a statement of indisputable fact, not an article of faith. And frankly, back in the late sixties, when I knew people who went to Marxists meetings, they were indeed much closer to Bible study students: just a different, big fat book full of assertions and puzzling concepts, and a lot of “because I say so”. The indoctrinated  Maoists, Trotskyites and Marxists-Leninists were as scary as the Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons or the Scientologists as far as I was concerned.

The first big doctrinal dispute was over the publication in 1998 by Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician and self-described green, of “The Skeptical Environmentalist”. Mr Lomborg argued that environmentalists were exaggerating many of the problems the planet faced.

But just because he called himself an environmentalist did not make him one – and I have grave suspicions of his motivation. And indeed some of the issues he identified – such as the rate of change in global warming – have indeed been accelerating: erring on the side of caution may be a more accurate characterisation than exagerration.

In 2005 Britons saw David Bellamy, a noted naturalist and wildlife enthusiast, threaten to chain himself to a wind turbine to protest against plans to build a wind farm in Cumbria, a remote and unspoilt part of England. Mr Bellamy objected on the grounds that the turbines would ruin the natural beauty of the moorland.

I am surprised that the Economist did not note that this is simply a difference in values – which are never objective and therefore cannot be common to all. David Bellamy placed a higher value on the unspoilt nature of Cumbria than people who wanted to make money out of energy – no suprise there. Visual and noise pollution from wind farms are just as objectionable as the local air pollution from coal fired power stations. The fact that one seems better than the other in terms of greenhouse gas emissions may not be enough to tip the balance for everybody. This is not doctrinal “schism” but a typical argument about how to measure values that cannot be traded in a market place.

But perhaps the biggest rift is over nuclear power. Here, disagreements reach the most rarefied levels. James Lovelock, a chemist who invented the Gaia hypothesis (the earth is a balance of interdependent mechanisms) and is godfather to a generation of greens, provoked much anger and soul-searching in 2004 when he declared that nuclear power offered the only credible solution to climate change. Opposition to atomic energy, said Mr Lovelock, was based on “irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media”. Equally influential organisations such as Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace preach the traditional anti-atomic doctrine.

But again, just because Mr Lovelock says it, does not make it true. Nuclear waste is a huge problem – and will be for millennia. Nuclear proliferation is also a huge issue. Iran says it just wants nuclear power stations for when its oil runs out – but who believes that? The cost of getting either of those wrong could be devastating. I think we are wise, again, to be cautious. We have had the “magic bullet” offered to us before – “power too cheap to meter” and all that. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t now.

Yes, I think we do have to have a serious debate about diesels. I do not think that we yet have the right balance between efficiency and emissions but progress is most definitely being made.

And that sort of decision needs to be made carefully and on the basis of evidence and objective peer review. Not ranting and acts of faith, and no-one is going to be sent out with an ice pick to track down James Lovelock, David Bellamy or Bjorn Lomborg.

The world does stand at great peril from the faith merchants. The ayatollahs of both Christianity and Islam equally place the world at risk in their desire to bring about “the end of times”. I do not think that the environmental movement thinks like that.

But politics is a dirty business, and getting things done often requires compromising high principles for the sake of practicality. The hard left was fractious because, fundamentally, their bickering didn’t matter. The environmental movement is becoming fractious because it does.

No it is not fractious or bickering. It is having a healthy, well informed debate about ideas and policies. Something that you cannot have if you occupy yourself with doctrines and faith.  And yes it does matter: which is why we had better be sure we get it right. And the best way to determine that is to have a vigorous debate.

Am I in the right place for an argument?

Written by Stephen Rees

June 28, 2007 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Environment, politics

Vancouver Sun discovers cycling

with one comment

Three stories in the West Coast News section this morning. Two positive and a Pete McMartin opinion piece.

Cyclists praise bike path progress -Vancouver adding more kilometres of bike routes this year than in the past eight combined by Jonathan Fowlie

City firms make cycling to work easier Bike rooms, showers part of company incentives by Fiona Anderson

Expect a corking gridlock finish to Friday’s commute – Critical Mass bike ride downtown is set for late afternoon by Pete McMartin

As a columnist, I suppose it is my duty to now declare whether I count myself as a friend or an enemy of Critical Mass.

So, for the record:

I count on working from home Friday.

In wish I could be there corking cars – but I will be at work too

Written by Stephen Rees

June 28, 2007 at 12:10 pm

Posted in cycling, Transportation

I am hearing but I support Equal Communication Access

leave a comment »

I do not read ASL.

My late mother and my late brother were both deaf. They were not born deaf, but had a familial condition which worsened as they aged. I probably have it too, as I have tinnitus, but all that does at present is annoy me and block some high frequencies. But I appreciate how frustrating it is to be deaf. As with so many disabilities, the real problem is not the condition itself, it is the attitude of other people. Deaf people are typically treated as though they are idiots – simply becuase they have difficulty understanding what we say – even though we cover our mouths when we speak, or mumble, or turn away while speaking.

But the biggest issue that I am aware of is the lack or inadequacy of subtitles. The advent of teletext in UK transformed my mother’s life: she could now get subtitles for most tv programmes – and subtitles that she could actually read. DVDs now usually have subtitles. Digital tv can add subtitles. But they are very rare on internet videos.

I have noticed that US broadcasters and some governments at least are now providing ASL – sometimes.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 28, 2007 at 7:44 am

Posted in disability

Give them the finger

with one comment

The Times

A comment on a much earlier post on the annual death toll on North American roads prompted me to go back to this story which I saw yesterday. Then I thought that very few readers here will see it if it is buried that far back.

It is the latest road safety campaign and there is not a mangled body in sight. Australian safety campaigners have decided to hit boy racers where they are vulnerable.

The television campaign, designed to encourage drivers to respect speed limits, features young women wiggling their little fingers at passing speeders.


Written by Stephen Rees

June 28, 2007 at 7:21 am

Posted in Road safety