Monday 8th January 2007
With fears about the runway at
Bristol, and all that fog at Heathrow, it’s ever more obvious that
we’re all getting hooked on flying. Yet, as we know, flying
somewhere puts far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than
would driving or going there by train. We have only one atmosphere
and danger looms. What should we do?
It’s now a couple of years since I
first heard of someone voluntarily giving up flying. I was amazed.
How could someone be that selfless and brave? I knew I couldn’t. I
spend my life flying around the world giving lectures and going to
conferences. It’s my job. It’s fun, it’s prestigious, it’s exciting.
Anyway, one person’s actions are a drop in the ocean to the scale of
the problem of climate change. And Greenpeace
people from making this – as they see it – useless gesture.
Yet two years on I find I have made
that same decision myself. As of 2007 I will make only the trips
I’ve already booked and after that I won’t be flying for work any
This decision, that I once thought
impossible, really made itself. I was sitting one day in a huge 747
when, before my lunch in a disposable plastic tray, the steward
brought me gin in a disposable bottle, tonic in a throwaway can, a
plastic cup to drink it out of and, for good measure, a spare
plastic cup to put in the little plastic stirring stick. Something
in me rebelled. This is madness. The whole thing is crazy. We don’t
need to fly everywhere. I could give lectures in England, and choose
conferences closer to home. I thought of my children and the world
that we are leaving for them and I knew I couldn’t do it any more.
It wasn’t selfless or heroic; it was just that something inside me
had turned and, although I must admit to being scared about what
I’ve done, I know there’s no going back. I also know that even if it
is a pointless gesture, the world would be better off if fewer
It doesn’t take religious belief, or
faith of any kind, to care about the rest of the world. It takes
only the simple recognition that we humans have only one planet and
we are all in this together.
I apologise. I wrongly said Greenpeace on Radio
Bristol. It was in fact Friends of the Earth who argued
that it is better to put pressure on our governments than make
personal gestures of this kind. I think both are necessary.
Monday 15th January 2007
After talking last week
about giving up flying, I received dozens of nasty comments and
horrible emails. I was upset. It hurt. But a few days on I began to
put it all in perspective and instead of thinking ‘why me?’ Thought
‘Why them? What’s going on here?’
I think it comes down
to a simple fact about human nature. We humans evolved living in
groups of about one or two hundred people, and our ancestors would
have known everyone they met and dealt with them face to face. In
this world our big, clever brains, evolved lots of mechanisms for
inhibiting impulsive actions and controlling anger and aggression,
but these inhibitions depend on seeing and hearing the other person.
What’s happened in
just the past century or so – a blink in the eye of evolutionary
time – is that modern technology has by-passed these natural
controls. On the phone you can hear someone’s voice but you have to
imagine their face. When it’s a call centre you don’t even know who
they are and you can’t imagine their face. Now I have to admit that
I can rather unpleasant too. When I’m hard at work and the phone
goes, and a voice says “Hello, this is just a courtesy call….” I’m
already opening my mouth to say … well … shall we say …ruder words
than I ought. I’m left upset as well as the caller.
The same has happened
with letters. People used to write slowly by hand, ending “I am,
dear sir, your humble obedient servant”, then faster with a
typewriter, signing off “yours faithfully”, and now with email we
don’t even bother to start “Dear Adam” but just launch in. It’s so
fast. It’s so easy. You don’t have time to imagine the person at the
other end but just press “send” before the slow processes of visual
imagery, let alone emotional imagery, have got to work. So we’re
ruder than perhaps we really want to be.
I’m going to do two
things. First I’m going to remember this the next time someone sends
me a horrible hate mail, and when I’m writing emails I’ll take a
moment or two to imagine the person I’m writing to and only then let
my fingers hit the keys.
(N.B. The comments
were mostly on my
Monday 22 January 2007
getting upset or depressed about those nasty incidents in the big
brother house. The Archbishop of York said it exposed the ugly
underbelly of society. I think, rather the opposite, that the fuss
exposes the great moral progress that we have achieved.
It’s not really
surprising that people behave that badly, even though we find it
disgusting. Biologically it makes sense that human beings tend to
favour those who look like them, because people who look similar are
more likely to share the same genes. And psychologists find that
even very young children use skin colour as an easy way to recognise
people. So there’s a natural tendency for people to behave better
towards others they perceive as being like them. It’s a mark of
civilisation that we can overcome this tendency, just as we work to
overcome violence, aggression or the enjoyment of cruelty.
remember how far we have come. There is little doubt that in our far
past racial hatred was commonplace and even encouraged. Such ancient
books as the Old Testament and the Koran are full of
ingroup-outgroup feuding, which now we try hard to prevent.
Today we find
bear baiting and dog fighting horrific, although both were common
only two hundred years ago, and both have a tendency to reappear,
as, sadly, we’ve seen only recently. We give rights to women,
children and the disabled that they never had in the past. And now,
at last, we find it unacceptable to slag off others just because of
their race or creed.
So instead of
getting depressed about our failings, let’s look forward and think
about what further changes we should be making. Will our descendents
look back on something we do now in the way we look back on the
horrors of slavery? One example might be the prohibition drugs which
causes so much misery and crime. Another might be illegal
prostitution. Perhaps you can think of other examples. We should all
be thinking – how can we treat our fellow humans better and so
ensure that we go on getting better, not worse.
Monday 22 January 2007
Once again our prisons are full, and criminals – even quite
serious criminals – are being let out early or not locked up at
all. It’s depressing. But it makes me wonder who are all these
prisoners and why are the numbers always going up? Are people
really so wicked, and getting worse all the time?
No. I think the blame lies not with the wickedness of ordinary
people but with our topsy-turvy drug laws.
You see most prisoners are there because of drugs. I’ve had my
house broken into several times, as have lots of people in
Bristol, and each time the police say the same thing. Apparently
drugs account for over half of robberies, three quarters of
burglaries, most shoplifting and a staggering 95% of street
Why? Because back in the 1970s we adopted the US approach and
prohibited everything from heroin to cannabis. In effect we said
“Hey – let’s take all these potentially dangerous substances and
hand them over to criminals”. Instead of getting drugs under
government control and raking in loads of tax, we let the gangs
take them, fight over the vast profits to be made, and suck
countless people into lives of crime and misery.
I’m told that in Bristol’s prisons drugs are easy to get,
although alcohol isn’t, and that most prisoners, once released,
fall back into the same life of crime, at the mercy of the only
winners – the big-time criminals who take all the profits.
Perhaps we can learn something from the USA. There the drug laws
are far tougher, the penalties higher, and far more money is
spent on enforcing them. But this “get tough and lock ‘em up”
approach just turns more people into criminals, and puts more of
them in prison. The US has the highest prison population rate in
the world. Let’s not follow them.
We’ll never solve
our problem by building more prisons. We’ll never solve it by
fighting a “War on drugs”. So let’s find a real solution for a
better future. For that we need to do some courageous thinking,
and look again at the drug laws that turn our kids into
criminals and fill our prisons to bursting.
Monday 9th July 2007
Hasn’t the weather been weird! First there
was that extraordinarily hot April, then all the wind and rain
and floods and storms. In the midst of the misery everyone was
convinced about global warming and behaving as though Armageddon
was nigh. But then we have a lovely weekend. Al Gore’s Live
Earth concerts come to seem more about fun than serious
political change, and we write off the horrors as just one of
the vagaries of the British climate.
So which is right? Is the latest dreadful
weather a symptom of global warming, caused by greedy humans, or
is it just natural variation in the weather?
Shouldn’t we scientists be able to say for
The answer is no, and will always be no
when it comes to individual events like last week’s rain. When
science tackles complex systems it deals with probabilities and
trends – and always must do. So even with the best climate
science in the world no one will ever be able to say that this
particular storm was caused by us.
So what should we do?
I think we must each make our own decisions
about the causes of our freak weather and then – and this is the
hard part - take responsibility for what we decide.
I tend to the apocalyptic, planning for a
radically different future for me and my kids, and provoking
endless family arguments, with one of my children being
extremely frugal while the other’s a climate sceptic.
I was encouraged by this weekend’s 30th
birthday party for Sustrans – the campaign for sustainable
transport. I expect some of you were there too, in Bristol’s
Castle Park with stalls and bands and lots of bikes. Did you
know that there are more bikes than cars in Bristol? If everyone
just sometimes used their bike instead of their car it would
make an enormous difference.
But I don’t want to tell anyone what to do,
I’d just like us all to remember that none of us knows the right
answers, but in twenty years time each of us will have to take
responsibility for what we decided about the climate today.
Monday 16th July 2007
My cat is dying. At least that’s how it
looks to me. She is terribly thin, and her once shiny fur is all
bedraggled. I don’t think she has the energy to wash any more.
It tugs at me somewhere inside to stroke her sticky-out bones
and watch her struggle to jump up onto my desk.
But she’s sixteen.
My son and I took her to the vet,
suspecting hyperthyroid. The test, said the vet, would cost £73.
I found myself thinking “she’s only a cat” and “we’ll get sucked
onto an escalator of treatments”. And what for? To prolong a
life that is coming to its natural and peaceful end. “Do you
think she is in pain?” I asked. “No” said the vet “She hasn’t
minded all my prodding. I think she’s fine”. So I said no to the
test. As long as she’s not in pain we’ll let her quietly die.
Back home, I kept worrying. Am I being
mean? Is it about money, or suffering, or what? She’s only a
cat. But I’m only a human. So where do my moral choices come
from? I’m not religious and have no book to give me guidance. So
where do I turn?
To basic science; to the simplest facts
about life on earth, that cats and dogs, and birds, and fleas,
and humans all die. We humans have evolved to be capable of both
suffering and the compassion that makes us want to reduce
suffering. But we cannot avoid old age and death.
This year I’ve watched my mother die of
vascular dementia; a horrible way to go. And now I’m seeing my
91 year-old Dad getting frail and forgetful and weak, but he’s
contented enough. So thank you little cat for helping teach me
that old age and frailty and fading away are all just part of
30 July 2007
I have to admit
I’m a Harry Potter fan, and I haven’t finished reading the last
book yet. I’m spinning it out, a chapter a day, hoping no one
will tell me the ending.
“He dies!” cried
our postman gleefully, when I opened the door to take in a big
pile of mail. “Only joking” he said “But that’s what I tell the
kids. D’you know some of them were waiting in the road and ran
out to meet us on the big day.” He explained how it worked. Each
postman was given just two books per bag to carry, with four
bags per round. “Still bent from the weight” he laughed,
Malcolm’s been our
postman since I came to Bristol nearly 15 years ago, and he’s
always cheerful. Well nearly always, but the postal strikes have
got him down. “Some people think it’s all about pay” he said
“But it isn’t about money for me. I’m upset because they want to
make our hours even later.”
“We don’t see
people so much now we start so late” he explained. “In the old
days people were getting ready for work or school and we had
time to talk. Now they’re all out by the time we get round.”
Clearly this is a
complex dispute with many sides to it, but I was struck by the
thought that there are people willing to start work at 4 a.m.
and walk miles to deliver our post, but for purely economic
reasons they’re not allowed to do it. What price a friendly face
on the doorstep? What price a brief but cheery chat to enliven
my morning’s work? What price someone who knows everyone and
notices when things are amiss?
I guess it’s always true that you don’t appreciate things until
they’re under threat, and I’m going to remember that. It might
be fun to have my letters flown in by a snowy white owl, but for
now I’m just appreciating something I hope we won’t lose, our
friendly Bristol postmen.