Even at this late hour, we – humanity – might still realistically hope to prevent the world’s final descent from catastrophe into meltdown – provided we took the real problems seriously enough and really were prepared to do, in Rishi Sunak’s bulldog phrase, “whatever it takes” to turn things around.
But of course we don’t do either of these things. Instead, through habit or convenience or because, in much of the world, we are liable to be shot or otherwise disappear if we don’t, we put our trust in governments. But modern governments in turn are beholden to corporates, and depend on financiers of various kinds including the whimsical super-rich like Bill Gates and Elon Musk. All take advice from experts and intellectuals, though only when it suits them (as the Covid inquiry is now making abundantly clear). On the whole they take advice only from people who say what they want to hear, which, in the main, is how to become even richer.
The world’s most influential people don’t waste time with pesky radicals (even the kind that have Nobel prizes) or turbulent priests. True democracy would surely help us to do better but democracy in practice is too difficult. The roughly twice-per-decade first-past-the-post general elections we’re accustomed to in Britain don’t really seem to fit the bill. British elections are usually a two-horse race and as the satirist, cartoonist, and jazz clarinettist Wally Faukes commented circa 1960, it’s usually like choosing between stale trifle and sweaty cheddar.
Taking it seriously
Many governments, or seriously influential people outside government, don’t take serious things seriously at all. Donald Trump still thinks global warming is a scam, put up by the wily Democrats, even as California and Florida, his favourite states, burn and flood or are simply blown away. Putin continues to pursue his wild and profligate dreams even though Siberia – Siberia! – lately burned like the Australian bush.
Whatever else it does, the war in Ukraine will not slow global warming. Neither will the war in Gaza. Both are driven by fanatical leaders backed by minorities – which are likely to be small minorities. On Channel 4 recently a senior Middle-Eastern ex-diplomat and scholar remarked that neither Hamas nor Netanyahu have the whole-hearted support of more than five per cent of their respected electorates. But still they are all-powerful. Fanatics triumph precisely because they are fanatical.
What of Britain? Sunak’s King’s Speech on 7 November had some good things in it, including a ban on the export of live cattle to be slaughtered on foreign soil, a perverse and cruel example of commercial chicanery. But there’s a lot more wrong with Britain’s and the world’s farming than that – the whole thing needs re-thinking and re-structuring.
Sunak’s virtual ban on smoking does nothing to solve the immediate and long-term problems of the NHS. Whole life sentencing for sadistic and sexually motivated murder does not easily square with the critical shortage of prison space. Tweaks to the leasing laws hardly seem likely to dent the huge and growing housing crisis. And it really isn’t easy to see how the extension of licenses for North Sea oil will help the promised transition to renewables, as the government claims, especially as the newly extracted oil is destined for export.
In short, the government’s stall that was spread out before us with all the pomp and ceremony at which Britain really does excel, and was introduced to us by the highest in the land, had very little on it. Like a bring-n-buy stall with nothing on it but a warm bottle of Liebfraumilch and a plastic fruit bowl (with a dead fly in it). Hardly worth putting on the gaiters for.
A limited agenda
In matters environmental Britain claims, as in all good things, to ‘lead the world’; though churls and killjoys may dare to suggest that the noxious condition of our rivers, lakes, and seashores, and the parlous state of our wildlife in general, and our paucity of trees compared to our European neighbours, and our uninsulated houses, and the continued enthusiasm in high places for industrial farming and building on erstwhile greenbelts, throw doubt on this.
We do however mount high-profile, high-sounding conferences, like the Global Food Security Summit that was held in London on 20 November. Again the doomsters and nay-sayers might suggest that a one-day gathering somewhat bizarrely co-hosted by the UK, UEA, and Somalia wasn’t exactly global. And even though there were representatives from 20 countries they weren’t national leaders, so it wasn’t exactly a summit.
The agenda, though, was even more limited than its line-up. Its stated purpose was to “galvanize action to deal with hunger and malnutrition” which sounds very promising. But as the rest of the opening sentence made clear, the emphasis was to be on “cutting edge UK-funded science and technology”. The fundamental question, of course, is whether and when “cutting edge science and technology” is what the world really needs – whether and when, as EF Schumacher put the matter in the early 1970s, high-tech is the most appropriate.
Some high-tech is indeed very useful – robust vaccines, accurate weather forecasts, the internet and mobile phones. AI in general surely has a lot more to offer on many fronts. But will GM crops and the Monbiot-style ersatz food factories that still stir such excitement in high places really help us to deliver good food for everyone without wrecking traditional societies and trashing the natural world?
I’ve discussed all this from various angles many a time and oft on my website. I don’t know whether these issues were discussed in depth or indeed at all but at a one-day meeting of self-confessed technophiles, co-funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this doesn’t seem very likely. I doubt whether the key concepts of agroecology or food sovereignty got much of a look-in. The closing address came from our brand-new and freshly refurbished and re-cycled foreign secretary Lord David (“That Green Crap”) Cameron. ’Nuff said.
This article is posted on my website, www.colintudge.com; and I discuss the main ideas behind it in my latest published book, The Great Re-Think (Pari Publishing 2021). Other relevant blogs on the website include: Of HS2 and GMOs, 31 October 2023; The philosophy of technology, 7 June 2023; From story book to cloud cuckoo land one easy step, 1 June 2023; Who are the real friends of science? 14 March 2023; GMOs: Seven obvious questions in search of straightforward answers, 28 December 2012.
Ed. note: The views expressed are those of the author.
Comments please to [email protected]