Skip to content

Newsletter 8th December 2006

- More optimism this week - Rethinking the coach - More evidence that mobile phones are not a health risk - Pale green from Brown

More optimism this week
Last week, we covered the statement by James Lovelock that he expected “global heating” (his words) to decimate the human race, leaving only perhaps half a billion of us inhabiting favoured, island locations. Although a catastrophe by anyone’s standards, this represents a form of optimism in the context of Lovelock’s uniquely pessimistic view of how humans have caused harm to Gaia.
 
Some have taken a far more optimistic and pragmatic view of things than this, and been roundly condemned by the environmental establishment for their efforts. A few years ago, Bjorn Lomborg caused consternation – even outrage in some quarters – for daring to challenge what he called the “litany” of received wisdom on environmental issues (The Skeptical Environmentalist). Now along comes a book by Indur Goklany (see the review in the Spectator: http://www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/features/26726/the-world-is-rich...), entitled The Improving State of the World.
 
Of course, anyone writing a book like this has an axe to grind. But, when verifiable facts are quoted, the worst that can be said is that the author is taking an unbalanced view, or maybe forgetting other facts. Perhaps. But the sort of improvements we all take for granted – increased life expectancy, the absence of mass famine in the absence of war, incompetent governance or natural disaster and the improvements to our water and air quality – are often not top of mind when we hear stories of impending environmental disaster.
 
If we care for objectivity and balance, then books such as Goklany’s should be welcome. We should not, of course, accept that they are 100% accurate, but neither should we dwell solely on the negative, as we are so often encouraged to. It is quite right that we should deplore the fact that 800 million people are still undernourished, and we should do all we can to ensure they are properly fed. On the other hand, this number has remained pretty much the same while the world’s population has doubled, which surely is a sign of progress.
 
So, get ready for many commentators to dismiss this book as false and misleading, but then think again. Keep an open mind and look for a complex web of truth derived from a range of sources. Our critical faculties will help us to see which ones we should trust more than others.
 
Rethinking the coach
Useful ways of looking at issues can be found in the most surprising quarters and, once again, we find ourselves agreeing with George Monbiot. In his Guardian article I’m all for putting more vehicles on the road. As long as they’re coaches (http://environment.guardian.co.uk/climatechange/story/0,,1963957,00.html), he talks of the drudgery, unpleasantness and sheer length of time required to make many coach journeys today, and contrasts this with a more radical approach proposed by Alan Storkey. This would see urban buses taking passengers to motorway service areas, where they could board regular and frequent coach services and get off at the service area nearest to their destination, to finish the journey by bus. His rule of thumb is that a coach full of people saves a mile of cars.
 
Now, it’s easy to see the flaws in this model. While major routes can be covered, what about rural transport? And if you cannot get door to door without several changes (and waits) for buses or coaches, how many people will just get in their cars instead? But, although this long-distance coach idea is clearly not a panacea, neither should it be dismissed out of hand. Its disadvantages are essentially the same as the railways, but it has the enormous advantage of being far more flexible than rail. Routes can change and additional services added without major infrastructure investment.
 
But, to work properly, there must be a reasonable certainty that roads will not be clogged with traffic. That probably means running coaches on toll roads, and converting much of the present motorway network to a toll-based one would not meet with ready public acceptance.
 
The important thing is that this idea encourages us to look at transport in a different way. The problem for the future should not be just “how do we reduce the number of cars on the road at peak times?” or “how do we build enough roads to cope with traffic increases?” but the higher level one of “how do we get people affordably and reliably from their home to anywhere else in the country?”. Framing the question differently may ultimately encourage radical and helpful solutions. Not that we should expect them to last indefinitely: each new development raises its own problems.
 
More evidence that mobile phones are not a health risk
Despite our love affair with mobile phones (whatever did we do without them?) there have been concerns raised from time to time that extended use increases the risk of health problems, and the development of brain tumours in particular. This suggestion has been very gently squashed by a number of studies, including that conducted on behalf of the government by Sir William Stewart.
 
The problem has always been that, despite the lack of evidence of harm, health officials have continued to give out precautionary messages about reducing the use of mobiles. And the natural tendency then is for people to think that there is indeed a danger, even though the evidence has not yet been found. Now a team from the Danish Institute of Cancer Epidemiology has published a study based on the actual phone usage records of 56,000 people who had used a mobile phone for at least ten years (see BBC report: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6209960.stm).
 
And their conclusion? They found no evidence to suggest users had a higher risk of tumours in the brain, eye, or salivary gland, or leukaemia. Nevertheless, because there can never be “proof” of no risk, expert advice is still to limit mobile phone use among young people. And there is certainly no evidence of that happening.
 
Pale green from Brown
Gordon Brown gave what is almost certain to be his last pre-Budget report on Wednesday. This had been trailed as the one where he would establish his green credentials, against tough opposition from David Cameron. Astute politician that he is, his greenness consisted essentially of increasing fuel duty by 1.25 pence per litre (politically possible now that fuel prices have come down from their peak), doubling airport departure tax to £10 (a cause for grumbles but hardly likely to reduce passenger numbers) and abolishing stamp duty on “carbon-neutral” houses.
 
Predictably, the environmentalists have attacked this as “fiddling round the edges” rather than taking the “heroic” action necessary to halt the threat of climate change. Despite the rhetoric, Brown is a realist, and knows that there is a fine line between heroism and foolhardiness. He is not going to take any action which reduces his chances of leading the Labour Party to a fourth victory, and he correctly judges that the average person sees green taxation as just another way to extract more money from their pockets.