Currently in Hay-on-Wye for the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival where it is constantly raining, not just rain but ideas, philosophy, politics, music, comedy and the most amazing beef and chicken pies.
A couple of interesting sessions yesterday, starting with a discussion between James Lovelock and Crispin Tickell.
These two venerable old-school scientists lamented the loss of scientific independence of the old days; Lovelock in particular looked back nostalgically to the old days when he was able to pursue his own interests without the constraints that today’s career scientists in large institutions are subject to. Tickell mentioned that he had once been to a talk by Rupert Sheldrake and how his theories of telepathy are not taken seriously for this reason: a rather bizarre point, ignoring the axiom that theories that are promoted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
More bizarrely still Tickell in particular seemed to want to focus on the population issue, which he later referred to as “global swarming” and discussed the now discredited theories of eugenics: he acknowledged that it was misused by the Nazis but implied that we should take another look at it again. Lovelock also agreed that we are close to, or have exceeded, the number of people the planet can support; and while they were both aware that education and empowerment of women for example was a key issue in demographics, neither mentioned that fertility rates are declining everywhere, or the broader issue that “carrying capacity” has no absolute meaning for humans, it being dependent on the development of technology. Paul Ehrlich was invoked with reverence, as if anything Ehrlich says is worth paying a blind bit of notice to.
Lovelock did not discuss his recent change of heart on climate change and the fate of humanity but opined that, inspired by the very hot but thriving city of Singapore, we would do better to move to air-conditioned cities where we might survive quite well in a warmer world, and “leave Gaia to run the rest of the planet.” Indeed he seems to now think that it is sheer folly to think that humans can control the climate, and said that it would be better for us to do nothing least we make matters worse!
Tickell also joined a panel discussion later in the afternoon on the theme of The World in Our Hands, along with Nigel Lawson, Bjørn Lomborg, Polly Higgins, and chaired by Jonathan Derbyshire.
Polly Higgins is the barrister campaigning for te introduction of a new international law of eco-cide, allowing individuals- for example, the CEOs of large corporations- to be held to account for crimes against the planet.
The obvious problem with this approach becomes apparent with first glance at her website:
Polly Higgins is a lawyer who has dedicated her life to one client – the Earth.
This explicit elevation of the supposed concerns of the somewhat abstract concept of “the Earth” above those of, for example the needs of billions of humans who benefit from the exploitation of same- sidesteps the whole discussion, which is surely at the very least about how to reconcile the two- and even that pre-supposes that a planet is an entity which might actually be worthy of having legal representation.
Higgins is adamant that the proposed law- which she has taken to the UN- is designed to be pre-emptive- “I don’t want to see anyone prosecuted.”
She also pointed out that there are already 10 countries that actually have an eco-cide law, including Kazhakistan and Bhutan- a point which Lomborg dismissed by asking “do we seriously want to be like those countries?” Lomborg says, we don’t burn fossil fuels just to annoy Al Gore, but obvioulsy becasue they are useful to us, and calls for a less polarized debate. He later asks Higgins- go back 30 years- would she say to the Chinese, you should not burn coal and therby bring 600million people out of poverty because of ecocide?
Higgins responds, it is all about creating a level playing field (as in some kind of cap-and-trade) and technology transfer: the Chinese are massively investing in renewables, while the West has not given clean energy the attention it deserves.
This is also ridiculed by Lomborg and Lawson: the Chinese get practically nothing from renewable energy themselves, but sell us solar panels “because they know we are mugs” (Lawson). Lawson claims that the temperature records show that the earth has not warmed the past 15 years, despite continuing increase in CO2 concentrations- a point strongly disputed by Tickell, who again invokes the population bug-a-bear, saying this is at least as much a problem as climate change. Lawson calls him “misinformed” and in fact Tickell does seem to concede the point, by arguing that the temperature is going up and down, the long-term trend is up- implying that he knows it will start to increase again soon.
Lawson says that scientists are divided on just how dangerous any putative warming might be, calling attempts to introduce international treaties to restrict CO2 emissions “absolute nonsense.” “Trying to stop the poor from burning fossil fuels to aid their development is the most immoral thing imaginable”. He said he had recently been discussing this with Freeman Dyson, who said that the only indisputable effect of CO2 is its beneficial impact on pant growth- all else is disputable and uncertain.
The packed audience did not give much away as to which side of this debate it favored- perhaps there should have been some sort of before-and-after voting. And as with all the sessions here at HTLGI there was only time allowed for a couple of questions afterwards. Neverthelss, it was a good discussion and interesting to see such diverse points of view as those expressed by Lomborg and Higgins represented on one platform.
I managed to grab a short interview with Bjorn Lomborg immediately afterwards: