Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Inside Radio 4

A Discussion about the media in the digital age

Lead by Adam Shaw of the Today Programme

1pm Wednesday 4th March

Darwin Lecture Theatre

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Insidious Economics of Climate Change

• Whilst it may be true that a change in our perspective of the world is a necessary prerequisite for a change in our behaviour in relation to it, it is worth remembering that human beings do not construct the world ONLY in this metaphysical sense. The intricate physical composition of the biosphere is dependent not only on the ‘environment’ - the ‘earth-as-stage’ - but on the creatures that animate and are an extension of it.

James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis (a theory that suggests the world is a self-regulating and interconnected living system) states the following:

“The atmosphere on earth may seem to us like the most natural thing, but its composition - 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen - is very odd. These gases were generated, and are maintained at an equable level for life's processes, by living organisms themselves; if the biosphere died, oxygen and nitrogen would disappear with it, leaving a greenhouse atmosphere similar to that of Mars and Venus (around 95% carbon dioxide and hundreds of degrees hot).”

If we learn to understand our place and functionality within the world, we may come learn to (re)value the earth itself. Both these processes, it seems, like countless others, are intimately bound up together and mutually constructive.

• Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies, now thought by many environmental economists to be the panacea for global warming, are, instead, another short-term fix designed to stave off the negative effects of pollution for another generation or two.

Rather than systematically rooting out the disease that underlies the symptoms of climate change, technologies such as CCS deal in the same ‘problem-solution’ rhetoric that has prolonged the failure of current governments to address the environmental crisis in a substantial and enduring way: in ways that recognise and respect the intrinsic value of the earth and not its value in terms of the future of human beings (e.g. the highly influential Stern Review).

CCS involves trapping industrial carbon emissions and then burying them, thereby preventing the escape of CO2 into the atmosphere and limiting its contribution to global warming.

Once the waste is swept under the carpet (i.e. old oil and gas fields, such as those in the North Sea), then what? Try to forget it is there because we can’t see it?

The lasting solution is to focus on low carbon manufacturing, sustainable development and to change our lasting perspective on a world which we still understand, experientially and intellectually, so little about.

• Simon Hoggart, writing in the Guardian last week, explains that instead of making green gestures such as switching your mobile phone off (doing so for a year would save the equivalent amount of energy that is used to run a hot bath) we need to think in terms of more substantive action, and on a broader scale:

“Much environmentalism is fundamentally religious, the equivalent of taking a tin of beans to Harvest Festival in the hope of ending world hunger or, as David Mackay puts it in his new book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, like baling out the Titanic with a teaspoon.”

• I would like to say a word in defence of the ‘fat cat bankers’ who we all (myself included) despise so much. The said financiers, especially those who have been at the centre of our spiralling economic crisis, are simply, in my view, successful capitalists – just as are those who employ slave labourers. Why should we blame them for mastering a same socio-economic system that we all support and aspire to succeed in without worrying too much about the welfare of others, at home or aboard?

(To set a precedent, animal rights philosopher Peter Singer donates a quarter of his wage to charity).

We should focus instead on fundamental, systematic changes that address the motives and values that underpin our culture as a whole, its institutions and prolonged direction, not merely on those who become TOO greedy.

Similarly, natural disasters (an inherently contradictory, humanly-biased term) are only indicators of a more serious environmental crisis, which is itself a consequence of a still wider, human crisis: a crisis of mind (which may itself prove to be a consequence of the homelessness we experience, living in a heavily industrialised world.)

• We cannot expect urban economies to suddenly become wholly organic systems, or even sustainable ones. But there is no reason why this utopian ideal shouldn’t be the goal which world leaders set in their sights.

Writing in the Guardian today, Suzanne Goldenberg reports that over two thirds of South Korea’s multi-billion dollar stimulus package will be spent on ‘green’ investments. The UK is investing just 7% of IT’S stimulus package in this way.

Given that wind and (in the UK) solar energy are inefficient energy sources, other than recycling our waste, what form can these ‘green measures’ take?

The U.S. package, recently passed by congress, includes: insulating buildings, investing in a new electric grid and improving public transport. Such action is vastly progressive for a country that, only a year ago, “was still in denial on issues of energy conservation” (Earl Blumenauer, a Congressman from Oregon and a champion of the environment.)

But until there is a cap on carbon emissions the inverted logic that ‘by saving the economy will hopefully also save the planet’ will continue to prevail and lead politicians and the public into a dark, carbon-sensitive alley.

• An assessment of the ‘green stimuli’ that should be put in place in order to help the economy and the climate, rated CCS as the ‘least good’ measure for triggering immediate fiscal growth, it was revealed today. The report, whose authors include Lord Stern, focused on ECONOMIC stimuli as those most urgently in need of attention, but also took into consideration the need to “lay the foundations” for low-carbon growth.

Although the report cited the need to increase “efficiency” and “make cuts” that might prove favourable for the environment, these and similar measures were discussed as a secondary concern, one that was considered predominantly in terms of its economic gain.

Green measures, said the report, would be a “useful” public investment in the current economic climate; not for their intrinsic value but because they are less financially risky than they previously have been, since they are “less likely to displace private spending in a recession”.

So whilst the growth of “green” technologies and “green” strategies is welcome news for environmental lobbyists, the same people may also, quite rightly, feel that the environment is not being rescued or respected but that it is being exploited in order to bolster economic growth. Any environmental gains will merely be a favourable by-product of economic ones.

Lord Stern’s report just confirms fears that the environment must still await its proper time and, when, or rather IF, that time comes, its advances will be charted with the subsequent economical benefits at its helm.

If energy resources such as coal and oil were not running out (as a result they become more expensive) and if the economy could thrive indefinitely, would these “green measures” even get a look in?

• By treating the natural world as a set of resources to be utilized for human use, we are simply disguising exploitation with the banner of ‘preservation’. And, by so doing, not only do we exploit the countless numbers of organisms whose quality of, and right to, life we destroy, but we are “debasing ourselves by debasing being itself” (Oscar Wilde).

Radical idealism should not stand in the way of practical changes in global industries - but, equally, it should not allow itself to become buried under a hollow heap of figures and arbitrary targets.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Match Report: A Short Paean to Diversity in a Local English Pub

"Dear Mother, Dear Mother, the church is cold,
But the ale house is healthy and pleasant and warm"

- William Blake

I was sat in Greyfriars last weekend, watching rugby in the late afternoon. The place was getting busier and the low din of conversation was beginning to buzz. Sat near me were two couples: one, a brightly dressed bi-sexual couple (one male, one female) and the other, a 60-year-old couple from Yorkshire, dressed in Sunday bests, washing down their Sunday roasts with pints of ale.

Mildly intoxicated with their first drinks and the knowledge that it was Saturday, the two couples had exchanged pleasantries and casual greetings, but little more - when I overheard the two women discussing the younger man’s naked form and his sexual tendencies. The Rugby commentary faded into the background. The older lady, the most drunk of them all - a large, energetic woman, dressed in pearls and high heels - had begun letting out long, sporadic screeches of laughter and talking enthusiastically about her own sexual interests, oblivious to the amused and disgusted stares of everyone around her.

The older Yorkshireman had remained silent and disinterested throughout, his gaze transfixed on the screen (that I now was only watching to conceal my new interest). He wore an old brown suit and had obviously hardened to his wife’s outbursts over the years. He seemed patient, but not liberal. So when his wife suddenly blurted out “and this one’s a gay”, the older man’s concentration broke and re-situated itself coldly in the direction of the younger man - I thought the whole thing might turn nasty and everyone would go home upset or shouting, or both…

The older couple were the type who would only talk to other English couples abroad (and by ‘only’ I mean do nothing else besides) - the type who would complain endlessly about the hostesses on the flight and then wake everyone up at the hotel with their wild cries of theatrical, drunken copulation which, the lady was eager to point out, “usually took place on a table”…

The husband nodded his approval. His eyes, long since receded into the depths of apathy, were an enticing contradiction compared with the occasional smile that emerged out of the corner of his lips, betraying his buxom, hidden passions.

When I looked around, the four of them had pulled their tables together and the conversation and laughter were in full flow. The old man extended his nonjudgemental lack of concern (punctured by the odd upwards glance of recognition and intrigue) to the younger couple’s confusing 'arrangement'. Whiskies went flying, laughter pervaded and the gossip was endless: sexual anecdotes, tattoos, Edif Piaf, gynaecologists, ferrets and lemurs and god knows what else were the baffling and wondrous subjects discussed with the same spirit of carefree joviality and ludicrous zeal that had somehow brought these disparate souls together, as one, on a cold Saturday afternoon in a warm English pub.

(Ireland 30 - 21 France)

Wednesday, 18 February 2009


Lecture: Thinking Like Darwin
24th February, 7pm Darwin Lecture Theatre

UCLAN's Darwin Day lecture for this year will feature Prof Armand Leroi, the evo-devo biologist from ICL whose TV documentary "What Darwin Didn't Know" was on BBC4 earlier this week (if you missed it, you still have until 4th Feb to catch it on the BBC iPlayer).

Lecture: Rock Guitar in 11 dimensions
13th March, 6pm UCLAN

What causes the revolutionary, history-changing sound of rock guitar, and how does it help us to understand the nature of the stuff we’re made of? Dr Mark Lewney explains the physics of rock using riffs from Vivaldi to AC/DC and demonstrates how string vibrations might answer Big Questions about our Universe.
This introduction to Superstring Theory explores cutting edge physics and maths, through the medium of rock guitar. Prepare to think in 4-, 5- or even 11 dimensions!

Free theatre tickets if you're under 26:

Monday, 16 February 2009

Goodbye to Planet Earth

Now that “environmentalism” has become “mainstream” [‘Welcome to Planet Earth’ published in The Guardian, 14 February] its activists and the general public must fully embrace political debate.

In order to do so we must first come to terms with the scope and foundation of ecological thinking that is often subsumed beneath the hot air headlines. “Environmentalism”, a distinctly general and somewhat ‘twee’ designation, must become “Ecology”, emphasising the idea of collective residence and responsibility – originating from the Greek word oikos meaning ‘house’.

“Environmentalism” has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years and has found its way onto most western political agendas and firmly into the backs of people’s minds across the world (whether as a pertinent topic of discussion or, already, in the form of tangible changes in the natural environment).

However, the subject will continue to provide a misguided offensive in the fight against climate change and the depletion of finite resources if it continues to seek solutions based on human-centred perspectives. “Our futures” and “the branch upon which we sit” should no longer be considered in terms of Homo sapiens alone and must be extended or, rather, deepened to include the earth and its countless organisms, seen as a complex and interconnected whole.

The fact that many basic (energy) resources are under increasing threat is worrying for many people. Millions of us rely on them daily for survival. But to only see as far as the human cost of human action is to remain entrenched in a way of thinking that contributed to the crisis in the first place; namely, anthropocentrism.

It may seem like a flippant question to ask but it is one which may be worth considering: is a change in the world’s climate necessarily a bad thing? Whilst it is surely indicative of deeper problems harboured by the ecosystem, the climate has been shifting for millennia and the world’s flora and fauna have adapted to the changes. It is only when the biodiversity of the planet is affected that this change becomes problematic.

The cognitive and behavioural shift that is required for a non-anthropocentric worldview to prevail will be successfully brought under ever closer scrutiny as a result of continuing media coverage and the subsequent public awareness. But the more objective and the less dramatic this exposure is, the quicker we will be able to understand the world in its own, myriad terms. Environmentalism needs to be made publicly appealing but must not become diluted as a consequence.

Etymological Back-Peddling

The “intended” scriptural meaning of the word 'dominion' cannot be used to account for Christianity’s prolonged contribution to the current environmental crisis [‘Sir David has Misunderstood the Scriptures’ published in The Independent, 31 January]. Christianity, however, can; in so far as it has perpetuated the negative interpretations of such words and has done little to counteract the actions that such (continuing) interpretations have lead to [Lynn White’s article The Historical Roots of Our Environmental Crisis, first published back in 1967, is probably still the most noteworthy study in this field].

The etymology of the word 'dominion' is of little importance when considered in relation to the rest of the Book of Genesis. Consider the word “subdue” for example: I doubt that it has many positive connotations. Scripture alone cannot be held to blame for the blindly hubristic actions of man (a term which I use here purposefully). It is simply a good excuse.

But, of course, it is not only Christianity that is responsible for disseminating the (predominately western) idea of man's superiority in relation to the non-human world. In proclaiming “I think, therefore I am” not only did Rene Descartes succeed in denying the non-human world an equal existence to man; he denied it any existence whatsoever!

By championing the rational intellect as the sole source of Truth, Descartes and other dualistic philosophers have, for centuries, stifled and misinterpreted the value of personal experience in conviviality with the non-human world.
Perhaps it is time we began to redress this balance in the most appropriate way possible: by making small but significant changes in our own lives, instead of indulging in repetitive and fruitless discussions about phraseology, policy-making and blame.


A group of anti-war campaigners were arrested today after staging a dramatic protest on the 50ft-high rooftop of the University of Central Lancashire.

The three protesters were perched precariously on the edge of the university's main building near the Adelphi roundabout, dressed in high-visibility jackets and carrying a megaphone and a 10ft banner, which flapped illegibly in the wind.

Within minutes of the protest breaking out, several police vans were on the scene along with 15 uniformed officers and several of the university’s security staff. Hundreds of onlookers, wondering how they might get to their next class, gathered to witness the spectacle unfold.

Rather than attempt to scale the roof themselves, like a strange collective magician the police produced a set of step-ladders from their armoured vehicle and asked the protesters to kindly come down - which, after around half an hour of walking around, they did.

Other than the occasional isolated cheer, the demonstration was greeted with puzzled smirks, a parade of uplifted mobile phone cameras and shouts of “sort your sign out” and “speak up a bit”, comments which roused a greater response than the campaigners' own.

The message concealed behind the largely inaudible ramblings from the megaphone was undermined throughout by the garbled delivery and listless, sweeping mentions of various (unconnected) wars and ‘causes’ currently ongoing around the world.

The protest by the Preston campaign group ‘Disobey’ was organised in response to the university’s affiliation with arms production company BAE Systems. The university owns over £20,000-worth of shares in BAE Systems and is involved in research projects linked to the company.

A day earlier the campaign group had assembled outside BAE’s Warton site to read out the names of children and young people who had died in Gaza.

The issue of arms development and the universities link therewith are clearly significant issues of public interest. But rather than bringing them to our attention by using unreadable cloth banners, dramatic stunts and megaphoned gibberish, surely organised and intelligent public debate is a more affective route to pursue, for both parties concerned.

Whilst there is no substitute, in terms of force-of-delivery, for a good-old-fashioned protest; in order to straighten out the facts and their implications in this matter, the debate chambers, rather than a windy rooftop on a Wednesday afternoon, is surely the most appropriate and constructive arena to provoke any serious or lasting change.