Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dodging and diving

Hilary Benn claims UK on track to meet Kyoto emissions targets. The statement is nowhere near as mendacious and pernicious as the claims of Andrew Tyrie, but seems hard to credit given an NAO finding that Government figures hide scale of CO2 emissions (to which Mr Benn responded with what he said was The truth about CO2), not to speak of evidence that Government is 'missing its own carbon targets'.

A key point was well caught by Dieter Helm and collleagues in their report Too Good To Be True?:
On the UNFCCC basis, UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 15% since 1990. In contrast, on a consumption basis, the illustrative outcome is a rise in emissions of 19% over the same period.
[On UK nuclear policy these four have it right.]

P.S. 28 March: evidence that the reduction in headline UK emissions in 2007 was down to fluctuation in the coal price, not government policy in Cut in coal burning brings UK emissions down by 2%.

A money quote

...from the long, brilliant article Exposure: The woman behind the camera at Abu Ghraib by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris:
No one has ever been charged for abuses at the prison that were not photographed.
It doesn't take a brain surgeon to understand the signals and incentives sent by this fact.


The UK's treatment of asylum seekers falls "seriously below" the standards of a civilised society, says a report from the Independent Asylum Commission.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wilkins Ice shelf disintegration

The footage is linked at the top of this piece [P.S. and now here too].

"Antarctic life has nowhere to go if the warming continues", says Sven Thatje in Chilling Lessons from Ice Ages Past.

[P.S. Andy Revkin notes: the frozen continent, being a continent, is exhibiting a broad array of climate conditions, with some parts cooling and adding ice through accumulated snowfall, and others, like the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, potentially poised to lose large amounts of ice to the sea in coming decades. In the meantime, the thin floating veneer of sea ice that forms each austral winter and fades in summer has been larger than usual lately, in contrast to the sharp summer sea-ice retreats in the Arctic.]

'Life in Somalia'

* 2m rely on daily aid

* More than 1m internally displaced

* 20,000 flee Mogadishu each month

* Average monthly family income of those left in Mogadishu: $12.13

* Life expectancy: 47

Tax eaters

'High court to rule over release of MP expenses' gets media attention. Fine. Something worse was briefly exposed by File on Four in early March ( Development agency doubts - pdf)

Norman Baker MP discovered that the annual taxi and car bills to drive round James Brathwaite, the part time chairman of SEEDA, were £51,433.80. This was greater than the entire taxi bill for all Members of Parliament put together.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Creative destablization

On the horizon, after [a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq], is a re-ignition of the civil war at an even more brutal level, helped by the American rearming of the Sunni forces -- and indeed the American arming of Shia government forces as well. It is a curious reality, if we look again at the regional map, that the current geostrategic situation in the Middle East resembles nothing so much as the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s, in which the United States, along with Egypt, the Saudis, and the Jordanians supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its great war against Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. We see a similar array of forces today, with these two differences: First, we must move the line of conflict about two hundred miles west, shifting it from the Iraq-Iran border to a line running through Baghdad along the Tigris River. Second, the United States is now arming and supporting both sides. And behind the current configuration and the supposed "success of the Surge" looms the darkening threat of regionalization -- a region-wide struggle fought over the body of Iraq in the wake of an American withdrawal. It has become, to appropriate a phrase, a Very Complicated War.
-- from Taking Stock of the War on Terror by Mark Danner

The Empire morphed

as reported in Who pays the price of platinum? In the audio version (towards the end), Anglo American's Group Head of External Affairs, Edward Bickham, pauses for a very long time before answering a key question.

'Native Son'

Obama is staking his campaign on the very point he tried to make to Reverend Wright two decades ago: that the dreams and interests of hard-pressed Americans are more important than matters of race. Democrats have been trying to make that argument for a long time, while Republicans have been winning elections. For half a century, right-wing populism has been the most successful political force in America, aided greatly by the tendency of liberals to fall into the competing claims of identity groups. Obama is a black candidate who can tell Americans of all races to move beyond race. As such, he is uniquely positioned to put an end to this era, and uniquely vulnerable to becoming its latest victim.
-- from Native Son by George Packer.

Huis Clos

"The supreme paradigm of exile was needed in order to construct a long-range memory in which an imagined and exiled nation-race was posited as the direct continuation of 'the people of the Bible' that preceded it," [Shlomo] Sand explains. Under the influence of other historians who have dealt with the same issue in recent years, he argues that the exile of the Jewish people is originally a Christian myth that depicted that event as divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel.
-- from Shattering a 'national mythology' (hat tip OT). The article appears in Haaretz, which also includes Ten ways Israel keeps Hamas afloat .

What's not to like?

For John Derbyshire, quite a lot in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (review)

I disagree with Derbyshire about some fundamentals. He seems to have no idea about the gravity of anthropogenic climate change - an inexcusably foolish position in 2008; and will cede no good intention to socialism (the driving spirit of which is well caught by Norm Geras here) . But in some instances Derbyshire's anti-sentimentality is a useful corrective, and he has the wit to recognise some of the merits of the likes of Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard and E O Wilson, Ed Abbey and others.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Out of control

In scaring their populations into war, both leaders also shattered many of the assumptions that we held about democratic states. We can no longer believe that liberal democracies avoid wars of aggression, or that they tend to fight only when absolutely necessary. We can also no longer assume that democratic governments will make careful and responsible arguments to their populations, or that governmental oversight and a healthy civil society will act as a check against fear-mongering. We can no longer rely on our open marketplace of ideas to ensure that suspicions are not treated as facts in our public discourse
-- from Michael Boyle on Iraq's most worrying legacy
In retrospect, it’s clear that the Clinton administration went along too easily with moves to deregulate the financial industry. And it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that big contributions from Wall Street helped grease the rails. Last year, there was no question at all about the way Wall Street’s financial contributions to the new Democratic majority in Congress helped preserve, at least for now, the tax loophole that lets hedge fund managers pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries. Now, the securities and investment industry is pouring money into both Mr. Obama’s and Mrs. Clinton’s coffers. And these donors surely believe that they’re buying something in return. Let’s hope they’re wrong.
-- from Paul Krugman on Taming the Beast

Sunday, March 23, 2008


The faint silvery warblings heard over the partially bare and moist fields from the bluebird, the song sparrow, and the red-wing, as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell! What at such a time are histories, chronologies, traditions, and all written revelations?
-- from Walden (Chapter 17)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

'Strategy, not sentiment'

Tibetan independence was lost 49 years ago when the Dalai Lama escaped into exile. His goal, and that of those who want to help the Tibetan people, should be to negotiate realistically with the Chinese state. The present protests, supported from overseas, will bring only more suffering. China is not a democracy, and it will not budge.
-- from He May Be a God, but He’s No Politician by Patrick French. Could French be right?

Pankaj Mishra (At war with the utopia of modernity) says the rage is directed at the consequences of capitalism, not communism:
Tibetans...seem to have sensed that they confront a capitalist modernity more destructive of tradition, and more ruthlessly exploitative of the sacred land they walk on, than any adversary they have known in their tormented history.
But the Chinese invasion in the 50s was not a picnic.

P.S. 25 March Parag Khanna writes that
China's near absolute sense of security over [Tibet and Xinjiang] is the greatest hope for a Chinese glasnost: China no longer faces any meaningful resistance to its rule and so some day may lighten up.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Positive feedback

"There seems to be a change of about 40 parts per million (ppm) in CO2 levels for every 1 °C change in temperature," says [Peter Cox of the University of Exeter]...Since further global warming is inevitable in the near future, it means we're heading for big natural increases in CO2 on top of human-made emissions.

This extra increase will boost global warming in the coming century to about 50 per cent above mainstream climate projections, says Cox, because they only include the effect of CO2 on temperature, and not temperature's effect on CO2.

"The system turns out to be more sensitive than we thought. If we get 4 °C of warming in the coming century, that by itself will raise CO2 levels by an extra 160 ppm.
-- from Rising temperatures bring their own CO2, Fred Pearce's report on Positive feedback between global warming and atmospheric CO2 concentration inferred from past climate change.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

RIP Jones the photographer

P.S. 24 March: obituary.

'Power to efface the memory of actual cruelties'

Nothing so much as language supplies our memory of things that came before today; and, to an astounding degree, the Bush and Cheney administration has succeeded in persuading the most powerful and (at one time) the best-informed country in the world that history began on September 12, 2001. The effect has been to tranquilize our self-doubts and externalize all the evils we dare to think of. In this sense, the changes of usage and the corruptions of sense that have followed the global war on terrorism are inseparable from the destructive acts of that war.
-- from Euphemism and American Violence by David Bromwich.

And today Bush declares 'Strategic Victory': "In Iraq, we are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his terror network."

Germany neutralizes Polish menace.

Our fossil future

The Anglo-Dutch oil group is producing 155,000 barrels a day from tar sands, had plans to raise this to 500,000 barrels and has just formally applied for a licence to enable it to raise that figure to 770,000.
-- from Shell wants to produce five times more oil from tar sands.
Coal executives say they expect [U.S.] exports to reach 80 million tons this year, and with railroad and port improvements, to rise to as much as 120 million tons in the next few years.
-- from An Export in Solid Supply.

Ships queuing off Australia's biggest coal port, Newcastle, to load cargoes destined for China; at one point last June the line was 79 ships long.
-- from A ravenous dragon.

P.S. Maribo highlights a post from "In it" pointing out that [fossil] energy is unbelievably cheap.

The writing process

...requires a lot of head scratching, like this:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


In Obama's speech this (from what in rhetoric would be called the digression) gets it:
By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children. But it is where we start.
What a pity if, as the U.S. moves closer towards the possibility of overcoming the legacy of slavery, it were to reinforce injustices elsewhere.

Monday, March 17, 2008


If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.
-- from Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? by Hansen et al. It's a draft only, subject to corrections and criticisms.

P.S. 19 March Andy Revkin blogs it here.

'City of Walls'

--Ghaith Abul-Ahad
I asked one of my old friends there for a book on a 1960s poet. "Nothing on poetry," he said. "I have lots of books on religion these days. They come from Saudi and Iran, big leather-bound books for only 1,000 dinars (about 40p). Religion sells good."

Dream team

Clinton-Obama: Schminton-Schmobama. The observation that Cheney and McCain are in Baghdad at the same time prompts the question: is there a constitutional reason that Cheney (not Rice) cannot be McCain's Vice? A reminder:
In the spring of 2000, Cheney’s two worlds—commerce and politics— merged. Halliburton allowed its C.E.O. to serve simultaneously as the head of George W. Bush’s Vice-Presidential search committee. At the time, Bush said that his main criterion for a running mate was “somebody who’s not going to hurt you.” Cheney demanded reams of documents from the candidates he considered. In the end, he picked himself—a move that his longtime friend Stuart Spencer recently described, with admiration, as “the most Machiavellian fucking thing I’ve ever seen.
Cheney would offer a steady hand of continuity at the helm in a time of war.


Obama's approach is insistently charitable. He assumes decency and good faith on the part of those who disagree with him. And he wants to hear what they have to say.
-- from The Obama I know by Cass Sunstein.

Sunstein and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum are an item [on a list topped by these two]...not that who somebody is married to should colour one's judgment, of course.

(I saw this article in a link by Andrew Sullivan.)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

'Knowledge grows but...'

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world's pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.
As with much of John Gray's writing, The atheist delusion, from which this is taken, makes some good points. But while Gray may sometimes see further and deeper than some evangelical atheists, I am not convinced he delivers.

The increasing pace of scientific and technological development may not necessarily mean 'better' ethics and politics (and they may even be vain hopes - see, for example, Climate change, poetry and tragedy); but the huge scale and nature of the change and the challenges (including but by no means limited to changes in the biogeochemical cycle unprecedented in millions of years) points to at least two things: 1) it is necessary to try; 2) there may be discontinuities and surprises.

Clunking great metaphors for the global economy

A police chief memorably bought a sleek yellow Lamborghini, only to find he was too portly to fit in the driver's seat. "We just didn't know how to handle it all," a barefoot islander told me as he played his guitar beneath a tree.

"Hardly anyone thought of investing the money. Dollar notes were even used as toilet paper," his friend told me. "It's true," he insisted seeing my look of disbelief. "It was like every day was party day."
-- from Nauru seeks to regain lost fortunes.
Congolese are constantly pointing out that their country should be one of the richest in the world. It has huge mineral wealth, including the world's biggest reserves of cobalt and tantalum, a rare metal used in the circuitry of mobile phones and laptops. It also has rich seams of copper, diamonds, gold, manganese, uranium and zinc. And much of the country is covered with virtually intact tropical forests, thick with valuable hardwoods.
-- from Mutual convenience, an article in The Economist's series on China's quest for resources.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch

Carlyle Group will, apparently, emerge relatively unscathed.

An illuminating portrait, albeit a little out of date, in C for Capitalism.

Krugman writes:
I used to think that the major issues facing the next president would be how to get out of Iraq and what to do about health care. At this point, however, I suspect that the biggest problem for the next administration will be figuring out which parts of the financial system to bail out, how to pay the cleanup bills and how to explain what it’s doing to an angry public.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

C&C, German style

It cannot be that nations that make big cars are punished more than countries that make small cars.
-- Angela Merkel.

(It has been said that the Chancellor has embraced contraction and convergence.)

P.S. UK government approach is not much more promising. See Ministers challenged over backing for coal-fired power station.

P.P.S. Dieter Helm has a fiery commentary on current European and U.S. approaches in a letter in the WSJ titled Sins of Emissions:
The U.S. and Europe refuse to acknowledge that halting the relentless rise in the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will take a significant slice out of economic growth. It will probably mean living standards will have to be cut if our consumption is going to be environmentally sustainable. We are simply living beyond our -- and the planet's -- means.

This is not a welcome message for politicians to give to their voters. But it happens to be what is required to tackle this global crisis. Not since the late 1930s, in the run-up to World War II, has such a massive restructuring of major economies been required. Nobody told the British or American people then that the challenge of creating a wartime economy was going to be cheap. They should stop pretending that the enormous challenge of decarbonizing the major economies can be done on the cheap, either.

Street legal

Prostitution is inevitable, so we might as well legalize and regulate it. That’s a pragmatic argument that I used to find persuasive. If brothels were legalized and inspected, I believed, then we could uproot child prostitution and reduce AIDS and sexually transmitted infections.

I changed my mind after looking at the experiences of other countries. The Netherlands formally adopted the legalization model in 2000, and there were modest public health benefits for the licensed prostitutes. But legalization nurtured a large sex industry and criminal gangs that trafficked underage girls, and so trafficking, violence and child prostitution flourished rather than dying out.

As a result, the Netherlands is now backtracking on its legalization model by closing some brothels, and other countries, like Bulgaria, are backing away from that approach.
In contrast, Sweden experimented in 1999 with a radically different approach that many now regard as much more successful: it decriminalized the sale of sex but made it a crime to buy sex. In effect, the policy was to arrest customers, but not the prostitutes.

...the evidence is strong that the new approach reduced trafficking in Sweden, and opinion polls show that Swedes regard the experiment as a considerable success. And the bottom line is that if you want to rape a 13-year-old girl imported from Eastern Europe, you’ll have a much easier time in Amsterdam than in Stockholm.
-- Nicholas Kristof. But:
Many feel sex slavery is particularly revolting -- and it is...In a Bucharest brothel, for instance, I was offered a mentally handicapped, suicidal girl in exchange for a used car. But for every one woman or child enslaved in commercial sex, there are at least 15 men, women and children enslaved in other fields such as domestic work or agricultural labour. Recent studies have shown that locking up pimps and traffickers has had a negligible effect on the aggregate rates of bondage. And though eradicating prostitution may be a just cause, Western policies based on the idea that all prostitutes are slaves and all slaves are prostitutes belittles the suffering of all victims.
-- from A World Enslaved by E. Benjamin Skinner.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Climate change is best viewed as a threat multiplier which exacerbates existing trends, tensions and instability.
-- Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner (EU told to prepare for flood of climate change migrants).

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Earth and Moon from Mars

One of a set of photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Oh Tierra, Espérame

Vuélveme oh sol
a mi destino agreste,
lluvia del viejo bosque,
devuélveme el aroma y las espadas
que caían del cielo,
la solitaria paz de pasto y piedra,
la humedad de las márgenes del río,
el olor del alerce,
el viento vivo como un corazón
latiendo entre la huraña muchedumbre
de la gran araucaria.

Tierra, devuélveme tus dones puros,
las torres del silencio que subieron
de la solemnidad de sus raíces:
quiero volver a ser lo que no he sido,
aprender a volver desde tan hondo
que entre todas las cosas naturales
pueda vivir o no vivir: no importa
ser una piedra más, la piedra oscura,
la piedra pura que se lleva el río.

Uncertainty and climate change

How confident can we be about the way a system as complex as earth will respond to conditions it has never encountered before? Although greater uncertainty means climate change might be less bad than we fear – for example, an “iris” effect means increases in cloud cover may slow global warming – it also means it might be much worse. While the central predictions of climate change models are arguably not so much worse than many other difficult problems the world faces, the worst possibilities are far, far nastier.
-- from If climate sceptics are right, it is time to worry by Paul Klemperer.

Rage and occupation

In a comment on the new cipher-President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, David Remnick quotes Mikhail Delyagin saying that Putin (unlike Medvedev) "understands that rage is a big part of the Russian nature and aptly manages this knowledge."

No two countries are alike, of course, and Russia is unique (although framing political dissent as a pathology is not unique to the Russian-Soviet mindset). But deeply embedded historical rage is quite common. The example taking most media space in the West at present may be Israeli-US actions in Gaza (see Milne), and its consequences (see NGO report). A long view such as that of the historian Ilan Pappe may be helpful. In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), he asked:
The window of opportunity will not stay open forever. Israel may still be doomed to remain a country full of anger, its actions and behaviour dictated by religious fanaticism, the features of its people distorted by a quest for retribution. How long can we go on asking, let alone expecting, our Palestinian brothers and sisters to keep faith with us, and not to succumb totally to the despair and sorrow into which their lives were transformed the year Israel erected its Fortress over their destroyed villages and towns?
Yesterday Pappe wrote:
The 21st century Jewish state is about to complete the construction of two mega prisons, the largest of their kind in human history.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Onward and upward

Why shouldn’t 'high' culture include knitting as well as opera, Ian MacMillan once almost asked (see footnote 12 here). Fear not, for the Great Barrier Reef may yet be saved, with crochet.

And while we're on the power of arts to inspire change, I am disappointed to find no copy of Forever With Kim Jong-il available on YouTube - having learned about it in this article about the visit of the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang. For now, I will have to make do with Under The Banner Of Songun.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Climate change, poetry and tragedy

Here are the notes from which I spoke at Making nothing happen, part of the London Word Festival, at the Bishopsgate Institute on 29 Feb 2008. My talk was part of a set that included presentations and readings by Neil Astley, Melanie Challenger and Mario Petrucci.

1. Context

In Spring 2005 I edited a debate for and the British Council on the politics of climate change. Much of this was about politics and economics, of course, but we also looked at culture and the arts. I commissioned a piece from Bill McKibben (whose The End of Nature, published back in 1989, was of one the first major books on climate change for non-scientists). He said:
oddly, though we know about [climate change], we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?
Well, as this and many other events show, there is now a great deal of activity in the arts on the fringes of the boiling cataract of climate change. I thought I knew this, but I was surprised to learn just how much there is when I prepared for a talk last Autumn at a place called CRASSH at Cambridge University, part of their series on The Cultures of Climate Change. In that talk I referred to examples in the visual arts, music (including opera), film, novels and other media but hardly at all to contemporary poetry, of which I am shamefully ignorant (footnote 1).

More has appeared since then (a recent example of a work straddling politics and art is Burning Capital which I discuss here).

2. Apocalypse or not

Many of the examples I touched on in Cambridge last autumn were apocalyptic visions (for example I referred to the novels Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood, Children of Men – book by P.D. James and film by Alfonso Cuarón, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman). In this I was arguing against a point made by the writer Robert Macfarlane in September 2005. He wrote:
The problem is that climate change is not - not yet - apocalyptic in its consequences. Apocalypse comes swiftly and charismatically, and as such offers great opportunities for the literary imagination …

By contrast, climate change occurs discreetly and incrementally, and as such, it presents the literary imagination with a series of difficulties: how to dramatise aggregating detail, how to plot slow change. Though the cumulative impact of climate change may be catastrophic, and may push us into a post-natural world, this is not yet scientifically certain….climate change does not yet have its millenarian icons:

…any literary response to the present situation [needs] to be measured and prudent, and [needs] to find ways of imagining which remained honest to the scientific evidence. It might require, one would think, forms which are chronic - which unfold within time - and are therefore capable of registering change, and weighing its consequences. And it might require literary languages which are attentive to the creep of change; which practice a vigilance of attention and a precision of utterance (one thinks back to Thoreau, recording the day each year on which Walden Pond first froze, or of Ruskin, in his home on the shores of Coniston, making painstaking daily measurements of the blueness of the sky, to check the effects of air-pollution upon its colour).
I acknowledge the strength of Macfarlane’s argument. But I also want to put it in question because the science of climate change is looking pretty apocalyptic these days. As Joseph Romm wrote in the US online magazine Salon a couple of days ago:
According to both the 2001 and 2007 IPCC reports, neither Greenland nor Antarctica should lose significant mass before 2100. They both already are. Here again ['again' because he’s given other examples in the piece], the conservative nature of the IPCC process puts it at odds with observed empirical realities that are the basis of all science (2),[2a].
3. Names and feelings

It’s not just the IPCC that is slow on the uptake. The labels used in the media and everyday conversation to describe what’s going on lag behind the scientific reality [never mind the debased, jumped-the-shark clichés now common in politics and popular culture, of which one of the most jaw-droppingly stupid, as I mentioned in Cambridge, has to be a remark by a UK government minister late last year that ‘obesity is the new climate change’.]

A problem with well-established terms like 'global warming' and 'climate change' is well laid out in a post in Dot Earth, Andy Revkin's blog for the New York Times. Revkin quotes Seth Godin, a marketing expert:
Global is good.
Warm is good.
Even greenhouses are good places. How can “global warming” be bad? If the problem were called “Atmosphere cancer” or “Pollution death” the entire conversation would be framed in a different way.
Sober scientists don’t go quite that for, but John Holdren suggests ‘climate disruption’, while James Lovelock suggests ‘global heating’. What are the right labels? As poets know at least as well as anyone, words really matter here(3).

4. Poetry and consequences

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963, the Greek poet George Seferis said:
The Greek language has never ceased to be spoken. It has undergone the changes that all living things experience, but there has never been a gap. This tradition is characterized by love of the human; justice is its norm. In the tightly organized classical tragedies the man who exceeds his measure is punished by the Erinyes. And this norm of justice holds even in the realm of nature.
“Helios will not overstep his measure”; says Heraclitus, “otherwise the Erinyes, the ministers of Justice, will find him out”. A modern scientist might profit by pondering this aphorism of the Ionian philosopher...
In 1999 I interviewed James Lovelock for a magazine called Green Futures. At the time, the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that life and non-life are a tightly coupled system, was out of favour. Despite Gaia’s supposed lack of credibility as a scientific hypothesis, leading researchers at the UK’s Hadley Centre (which housed then and continues to house one of the world's leading climate models) were trying to take account of carbon cycle feedbacks. In other words, they were working within the kind of framework to which Lovelock had made such an important contribution. As anyone who has heard of threats such as Amazon dieback will know, the findings of this work are potentially extremely serious. At the time, Lovelock was disturbed but not surprised. He went on to say something that resonates with what I just quoted from Seferis. I quote from my 1999 article:
Much of what Lovelock has to say is decidedly grim. But there is a positive side to Gaia that he is particularly keen to emphasise. Of at least equal importance to [Gaia theory's] usefulness to science, he thinks, is the [moral] guidance it can offer.

"This has been occupying my attention probably more than anything else [says Lovelock]. People do need something to revere or worship, and religion is beginning to fade all over the world because it's failing to deliver in two fields. One: it used to be the source of information about life, the cosmos and everything - in other words it did science's job for it. And science now does that job so superbly well that religion has become almost redundant in that sphere. Two: it used to give moral guidance. And it's beginning to fail in that too...And so what do we do instead? Science offers nothing, or hasn't done so far, where moral guidance is concerned".

"But now it just happens, quite by accident and not by any conscious thought on my part or anybody else's, that Gaia does offer moral guidance. It does so because its rules are simple: any species that improves its environment favours the welfare of its progeny, whereas any species that adversely affects the environment dooms it for its progeny. And this is very moral. It gives us something to which we are accountable - the Earth itself".

Gaia, Lovelock stresses, is not and should never be the basis of a religion, because religions have faith. "The word I prefer to faith is trust. If we put trust in Gaia then it gives us something that will fulfil the same kinds of needs as religions have." And the problem is that industrial civilisation in its present form is profoundly betraying that trust
5. Science and justice

I recently read an estimate that much of the most carbon-intensive deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia could be drastically reduced for less than $10bn. You may know that deforestation currently accounts for around 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions. And reducing it is probably one of the single best and cheapest ways of significantly increasing the chance of reducing the risk of dangerous climate chance. [Another is massive and co-ordinated effort to use energy more intelligently (which will include regulation and incentives for demand management, and investment to unlock the benefits of much greater energy efficiency). Investment in genuinely clean energy technologies is important too. Serious support for adaptation and livelihood creation for those least able to protect themselves is also vital.]

The estimate of the cost to reduce deforestation looks to be well grounded, but let’s assume it's a serious underestimate, and that the cost is at least three times that - $30 billion. That’s still about zero point five per cent of the cost of the Iraq war, which according to Joseph Stiglitz is at least $6 trillion [$30 bn is perhaps a half to a third of what the UK government has staked on Northern Rock].

This looks like very like a world in which our priorities are massively, screamingly, madly out of kilter. Perhaps we should contemplate something Seferis quoted in his Nobel speech all those years ago: “We are lost because we have been unjust”.

6. Appetite and fear

A subheader in today’s paper says Spanish scientists warn of a ‘brainless menace’. They are referring to a massing of jellyfish in the Mediterranean, the 'result of overfishing and global warming'. It is likely to be a small but typical example of how human over-consumption can tip natural systems into turbulent change.

But I think there’s something more here. It speaks to a lurking sense that – in a cut-price, third-rate horror movie kind of way – we, humanity, are collectively the brainless ones, the zombies satirized in World War Z, the ‘hungry dust’ in a phrase from the narrator of Gould’s Book of Fish…or both subject and object of terrible forces unleashed by human folly in a Greek tragedy.

There is a sense, too, that over-consumption and fear feed off each other, running out of control. Is it too late to stop dangerous climate change? Does the increased instability it very likely brings risk accelerating the slide toward a nuclear exchange? One source for reflection here is Jonathan Schell's analysis in The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of the Nuclear Danger, where he writes that nuclear weapons were “born into the world...propelled by a momentum that no one knew how to stop” – what Einstein called the "ghostlike character" of their "apparently compulsory trend" – because the bomb's momentum is "rooted in the structure of the modern scientific enterprise".

7. Tragedy and hope

I'll finish by quoting again from Seferis's 1963 speech. We should recall that he was writing shortly after the Cuban missile crisis which nearly sparked a nuclear exchange that would probably have killed hundreds of millions of people:
poetry is necessary to this modern world in which we are afflicted by fear and disquiet. Poetry has its roots in human breath - and what would we be if our breath were diminished? Poetry is an act of confidence - and who knows whether our unease is not due to a lack of confidence?

Last year, around this table, it was said that there is an enormous difference between the discoveries of modern science and those of literature, but little difference between modern and Greek dramas. Indeed, the behaviour of human beings does not seem to have changed. And I should add that today we need to listen to that human voice which we call poetry, that voice which is constantly in danger of being extinguished through lack of love, but is always reborn.

Footnotes (added on 5 March):

1. To get less ignorant, a good place to start is Earth Shattering, an anthology of ‘ecopoems’ edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe, 2007).

2. See also Climate set for 'sudden shifts' and Antarctic glaciers surge to ocean. And, of course, RealClimate passim.

[2a. (added 5 March) For a response to Romm see Revkin: Do the Media Fail to Give Climate its Due?]

3. A cartoon accompanying Simon Retallack’s article in the March edition of Prospect has one executive saying to another: “ ‘Climate change is preferable’ to ‘global warming’, but the public doesn't like change, so let’s call it ‘a different weather opportunity.’ ”

4. James Lovelock has been pessimistic about climate change for longer than the press generally reports. An interview published in The Guardian the day after this talk was given says “Lovelock became convinced of the irreversibility of climate change in 2004”. My impression in 1999 was that he was already sure. For the record (once again), I disagree with Lovelock about nuclear power.

[update 7 March: audio original has been uploaded by festival organiser Tom Chivers here, with this contribution starting approx 15 minutes, 55 seconds in.]