Book Review: The Box by Marc Levinson

I come from a port city. When I was growing up in the 1970s, the Dockers seemed to be a protected species. They seemed well-off (a relative concept) and always at home. They were on strike often. The history of dock workers and their fight against exploitation through casual labour has been told, but I was not aware of it as a child. I inherited the prejudices against feckless dock workers. Levinson, however, confirms that in England, pay gains by dockers in the 1950s were “robust”. So much so that they earned 30 per cent more than the average male by the 1960s. This is precisely the period of my growing up.

The history of life on the “waterfront” is revisited by Levinson as he chronicles the economic and social history of the shipping container. There’s a paradox. One function of the shipping container mirrored that of the steam engine in capital’s fight with labour. It handed power to plutocrats and oligarchs who owned the specialised ports whilst simultaneously, making the work of dock workers – or those who were left – much safer (docking at its height was more dangerous than construction).

Without the shipping container, globalised supply chains would not have been possible. Prior to containerisation, the Waterfront was a huge cost to exporters and importers. Loading and unloading required a lot of men; and it was skilled, too. A badly loaded ship could capsize. Containerisation brought shipping costs down, considerably. So much so, that it became almost costless – a fraction of the overall costs of production. It enabled a true Ricardian revolution of comparative advantage. Of course, the externalities don’t feature. The use of dirty and carbon-laden fuels in ships is on no ledger.

Levinson details the machinations of port employers, unions and shipping companies. It is a story of men with egos – union leaders in New York and New Jersey on the east coast, and their counterparts on the west coast (LA and San Francisco). It is a tale of rejecting mechanisation and fraught negotiations (and strikes) over how many men not only each ship needed to be unloaded, but how many men per hatch. There’s a huge cast of sometimes unsavoury characters to keep track of. It is a story of demarcation – labourers vs crane drivers – and the difference between negotiating to get the best compensation for members’ job losses and negotiating to keep all men in work (on the west coast, the union negotiated a compensation scheme that enabled many men to retire, which was a most welcome opportunity after a life of hard dock labour). It’s a story of competitive politics resulting in public investment in NY Harbor’s piers and creaking and congested supporting infrastructure by politicians trying to maintain their own privilege but failing to see that the future was different and the investment was misplaced. Because all the while, the shipping companies – two in particular – were developing their own docking facilities on virgin land for the logistics of international containerisation.

There was a huge problem, however, preventing the diffusion of containerisation globally. There were no standards. There were firms that had invested in their own standards such as Sea-Land in New York, owned by one of America’s most iconic of entrepreneurs, Malcolm McLean, who constantly outflanked competitors, legislators and dock workers. McLean’s success was one of ad hoc decisions. “Find me someone who can design and build me a crane in 3 months” sums up this approach. By contrast, a west coast shipping company, Matson Navigation Company, a transportation and sugar conglomerate, took a very scientific approach under its President, John E. Cushing. Cushing brought in a university professor to consider holistically the business of containers – from the containers themselves, their loading, fitting, hauling, lifting, to the ships that would carry them and the trucks that would haul them. To use Levinson’s words “Matson moved deliberately. Pan Atlantic [Sea-Land’s original name], under McLean’s control, was a scrappy upstart building a brand new business, and it risked little by acting quickly.” (p80).

Standards

An upstart though McClean may have been, he did patent his design for a fitting device that locked containers into place in ships, on trucks or next to one another. If agreeing on a standard size of containers was not painful enough involving a cast of technocrats from organisations such as the ISO, The American Standards Association, The National Defense Transportational Association, The United States Maritime Administration (Marad), the fittings debate was fraught. These standards-setting bodies locked horns with the transportation firms and manufacturers of trailers such as Fruehauf – still a familiar name – Strick Trailers and the National Castings Company. The outcome was a classic fudge because an international standard had to reconcile global differences, whilst enabling firms that had already invested in containers not to lose too much money in converting their existing operations. McLean released his patent. It was then hastily modified over two days in Utrecht where the drawings for the final fittings were made in preparation to be presented to the ISO committee meeting in The Hague on 24 September 1965. That was not quite the end of the story. The new standard had never been tested, so when used on ships or trains they failed. Another group of engineers were needed to add strength to the design. In June 1967, the new design was approved much to the chagrin of existing transportation firms that had invested heavily in the old standard. Lesson – don’t approve standards in haste.

There’s more on standards, but not for this review. I had not realised just how much regulation the freight industry was subject to in the USA at this time. Freight bosses had to be as adept at navigating these restrictions as they did the roads and waterways. There were regulators trying to enforce “fairness”, operators trying to work with and around them, and politicians intervening. The rail companies were hidebound by both regulation and non-standardised gauges. But there were innovations, some of which still run today. A number of these companies rejected containers and provided unique services. The Trailer Train, for example, was an innovation in putting truck trailers on trains. It was run by the Pennsylvania Railroad between Chicago and St Louis starting in 1954. It also innovated in inviting all other rail operators to join creating economies of scale and a standardised operation including revenue collection and sharing. As is ever for these operators, they had legacy stock – boxcars, in particular – that would be redundant if containers were adopted.

Containers on rail passing through Crewe, UK
Containers on rails

In Europe, rail operators were keen to facilitate containerisation. In the UK, British Rail sought to develop freight out of Felixstowe; German and French national rail operators out of Bremerhaven. Rotterdam and Antwerp, were also developing their container operations. Seemingly containers bound for the United States were full of whisky!

And then something I had not really thought about, but troubles me as I write. Malcolm McLean’s success – like many of his ilk – was built on amorality. Business is business. What is legal is to be pursued. In the early years of the container revolution, the Vietnam war was ramping up. With 60 thousand soldiers in the country, the supply lines were vitally important. Vietnam had very poor infrastructure and only a single deep port, Saigon. Military logistics were struggling. McLean said he could he help. McLean transformed the fortunes of a second deep port, Cam Ranh Bay. Before McLean arrived, US military logistics had towed a DeLong pier – a whole 300ft pier – from North Carolina through the Panama Canal and across the pacific to be sunk into the bay. It was then re-inforced to support McClean’s monster cranes, suitable for lifting containers full of armaments and, separately, refrigerated foods.

The operation was hugely profitable for McLean, made more profitable when McLean opted to return to the USA via two Japanese ports, Tokyo/Yokohama and Osaka/Kobe to fill empty containers with consumer electronics. This was, apparently, a typical McLean venture – off the cuff. He is alleged to have simply said, “does anyone known anyone at Mitsui”? Two weeks later, a delegation from Mitsui was inspecting the Sea-Land docks in Newark, New Jersey. Profit and business notwithstanding, Levinson is bold enough to state that without McLean a sustained war effort by the US in Vietnam would have been unlikely. Knowing what we know now, that would perhaps have been a good thing? McLean actually enabled and prolonged the war.

McLean was also behind the development of one of England’s foremost container ports, Felixstowe. Similar to Sea- Land’s development of the container facility in Newark, NJ, Felixstowe was not encumbered by union agreements. it was a small and private wharf dealing with grain and palm oil. In 1966, Sea-Land reinforced the wharf and built a container crane at the fraction of the cost of the Tilbury (London) docks. By 1969 it was the 9th biggest container port (by volume) in the world. Leading the way in Europe was Rotterdam with its deep water, co-operative labour unions and necessary post-war reconstruction.

Supply chains – just-in-time delivery

The shipping container was a driver of globalised supply chains. For as long as shipping costs were high, cheap labour and other resources could not realistically be harnessed. As shipping containers got bigger and ports enabled “inter-modality” and computerised loading and unloading, the unit costs of each container went down, driving trade, economic growth and consumption. The containers became mobile warehouses rendering inventory stock outdated. And one-time empty containers being returned found themselves full of commodities such as soya and even grain. We are also at liberty to think about all of the waste – often public – associated with building container ports. Many were developed without tenants – and never got any. Others did, but tenants migrated to other ports with better facilities or access. These were all paid for by taxpayers. Our consumer products could have been even cheaper had ports and regions not speculatively competed with one another.

Climate

The most famous container ship, the Ever Given for getting stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021

Whenever I read books and non-fiction in particular – I am on the look out for environmental factors; acts that become normalised and pushed back nature. Sea-Land’s enormous container operation in Newark, NJ, is a case in point. I have subsequently viewed the area courtesy of Google. It even has a massive Amazon warehouse on it. The development was described in a very matter-of-fact way. The marshland that it colonised was “waste”. Though we know now that it was probably rich in wildlife that was displaced by the development. However, maybe there is a slip of the pen on page 263 in reference to Oakland, CA:

“…a timely $10 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, intended to generate jobs in the depressed city, supplied construction funds. A new terminal was rushed into construction, without a tenant, before new environmental regulations took effect.”

I say “slip of the pen” because I cannot gauge whether Levinson thinks that beating the regulation was a good move or not. Certainly if the development was assumed to have violated forthcoming environmental regulations, then it was not good. And those behind it, knew it. That is a story of environmental destruction, the world over through time. Those who do it, know what they are doing. They know what the impacts are, and they still do it.

The only silver-lining I could find was – cutting a long story short – McLean invested also in land. One piece of land was bought to turn into an intensive pig farm. When the shipping going got tough, the land had to be sold, it is now a park. No pigs.

Levinson’s book is one of these master works. it needed to be written. And it was done well. It is a social history told through the development of a familiar artefact. We are all part of its story and we of it’s. A metal box.

Pictures:

Ever Given By Robert Schwemmer for NOAA’s National Ocean Service – Flickr: Container Ship, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19073448

Protecting nature from nature

We’ve all seen them, those plastic spheres around newly planted trees, protecting them from…well, what exactly? Had me fooled, but a recent article by Richard Mabey, challenged my assumption that those who plant the trees actually know what they are doing. I’m not trying to challenge experts; my goodness, too many experts have been inexpertly challenged in recent years. But ask yourself, does someone go round and take off those plastic covers when the saplings are strong enough to cope with the elements? Seemingly not. They just stay there and either strangle the tree/plant or break off and add to the plastic problem of the countryside.

Of course saplings need protecting against the wind. Well, no actually. The history of our planet is littered with examples of saplings coping with wind quite well. Very well, in fact. Better, in fact. Trees and shrubs exposed to wind seemingly root better, because they have to. “Protecting” them does them a disservice.

What about grazing animals? Surely, the plastic protects against being eaten before they get established? Perhaps if they were higher than a sheep or deer, but they tend not to be. So sheep will eat them as they pop over the top of their protection. Actually, when they are planted because they are rarely totally “protected”.

Mabey highlights another feature of this replanting. It is monoculture. The variety being planted is a fraction of that from the past; often it is just hawthorn. I love hawthorn, but diversity is better – ash, aspen, sycamore, wild cherry and sweet briar. A mix attracts a range of other creatures, birds and insects.

This is not universally the case. On the Combe Valley in Hastings, UK, thousands of trees have been planted, many of them Hawthorn (right). These trees were given their own stick to offer support. Many of them have happily outgrown the sticks which will, in their own time, return to the earth.

The other thing that we notice in the autumn is the absolute brutality of the hedge trimming. The cutting equipment used could lay waste to the Amazon, let alone a roadside hedge. Let’s be kinder and more inclusive.

I’m now on the lookout for these protective tubes, not far from Combe Valley I did find a spot where they have clearly been removed from trees, but not removed from the landscape (left).

The LGB Alliance Are A Hate Group — Ruth On The Line

The LGB Alliance exists solely to attack transgender people’s well established place within the wider LGBT community, for no other reason than the personal bias against transgender people of the LGB Alliance’s founders. If WordPress doesn’t force me to take this down, I’ll turn this post into a list of bulletpoints explaining why they are […]

The LGB Alliance Are A Hate Group — Ruth On The Line

Book Review: Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert

This is an extraordinary book. It is not quite what I was expecting. And like all good books, I completed it with lots of questions, dilemmas and fears. When the UK voted to leave the EU, the BBC commissioned a number of public thinkers to provide commentaries. John Gray wrote that the populism that we are now experiencing is the norm. The period of liberal democracy, he argued, was always a blip and would not be sustained.

The same, it seems, is true of climate change. Whilst I had read before that ice bores from Greenland reveal that the climate that we have traditionally regarded as normal, is not. The present era – which is soon to change dramatically – is also a blip. It has been long enough to create human civilisation which, ironically, has also been long enough for civilisation to destroy the equilibrium that gave rise to civilisation.

This book charts a particular human history. It is a technological history in which human beings have clever solutions to all the world’s problems. Clever, but not clever enough. For every clever “solution” there is an unintended consequence. Many of these solutions spring from human beings introducing alien species into local environments with the consequential loss of biodiversity.

Take silver carp, for example. The opening chapter describes the extraordinary measures taken to prevent these fish from entering the great lakes in the USA. There are huge electric barriers that repel the fish optimised to their size so that other fish are less electrocuted. Then there is the extraordinary case of the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, all 93 of them. The whole world population lives in this flooded hole in the Nevada Desert – the biggest hole on the planet. At first read, one thinks that the Devil’s Hole is some top secret geological site, but not so. It has a Wikipedia entry and a viewing platform. Humans managed to introduce a beetle into the water. The beetle took a fancy to the eggs of the fish. As these fish produce a single egg, reproduction was heading negative. All sorts of interventions have been made to protect what is left of the species, including hand removal of the beetles when the eggs are sat on an exposed ledge.

Jacques Coutseau, 1971

The book also explores the world of coral. This had an effect on me that I remembered in my childhood watching an Australian TV series called “Barrier Reef”. I went looking for it on youtube. Of course it was there. I watched the first episode and discovered that the whole plot of the show revolved around attempts to exploit the reef and its natural resources (minerals, oil, etc.). This, of course, passed me by as a child, I was just mesmerised by the reef and fish. Whilst this show is not cited in the book, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” is. Another favourite of my childhood. Post-childhood I’d revised my view of Cousteau and viewed him almost as a Megalomaniac cod scientist given airtime. But actually, he was a polymath and had a significant impact on a generation of children sharing his extraordinary adventures onboard The Calypso. Though clearly not enough.

The early chapters in the book were simply taking us to an endpoint – geoengineering. The white sky relates to how the sky will look when – eventually – “powers” intervene to cool the planet by throwing into the stratosphere particles of some – as yet – undetermined mineral or compound (diamond is favoured). As one scientist tells the author:

People have to get their heads away from thinking about whether they like solar geoengineering or not, whether they think it it should be done or not. They have to understand that we don’t get to decide. The United States doesn’t get to decide. You’re a world leader and there’s a technology that could take the pain and suffering away. You’ve got to be really tempted. I’m not saying they’ll do it tomorrow. I feel like we might have 30 years. The highest priority for scientists is to figure out all of the different ways this could go wrong.

Quote from Dan Schrag, Director of Harvard University Center for the Environment

So, we have a perfect storm. Populism and climate catastrophe. My generation was far too worried about nuclear weapons and insufficiently so about geoengineering. It’s political.

Pictures – Jacques Cousteau: Peters, Hans / Anefo. – http://proxy.handle.net/10648/abe56934-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84

Climate watch: UK leading the way in disingenuousness

Deepsea Delta oil drilling rig in the North Sea.

The UK Government is deluding itself on its climate leadership ahead of COP26 in November. Notwithstanding the ignominy of trying to open a new deep mine for coal in Cumbria, in North West England and the debacle of the Green Homes Initiative, the Government has now granted licences to oil and gas companies to search for – and extract – new reserves in the North Sea. The justification, as far as I can see, is that by some amazing jiggery pokery, the oil industry will become carbon neutral and reduce carbon emissions by 50 per cent by the end of the decade. The Government will, meanwhile, invest £16bn to help the industry meet these targets while supporting 40,000 jobs.

Here we go again. First, no public investment should go into fossil fuel firms – public money needs to go into sustainable technologies and into retraining and building opportunities in a sustainable economy rather than subsidise unsustainable industries that will lead to climate collapse.

Second, even if the industry can meet emission targets, what about the fuel that they extract? When it burns, it will release its carbon. Where is that accounted for?

Third, the Government needs to get to grips with the UK financial services sector that continues to invest in fossil fuel companies. I draw here a quote from the Guardian Newspaper:

US and Canadian banks make up 13 of the 60 banks analysed, but account for almost half of global fossil fuel financing over the last five years, the report found. JPMorgan Chase provided more finance than any other bank. UK bank Barclays provided the most fossil fuel financing among all European banks and French bank BNP Paribas was the biggest in the EU.

The Guardian, 24 March 2021

I’m sure leaders of countries attending COP26 will remind the UK Government just how uncommitted it is.

Picture: Erik Christensen (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

The reply from my MP, Sally-Ann Hart

Not that I had much expectation in the reply, but to read that the police violence is justified because of the pandemic – no mention that the man arrested and charged with the murder of Sarah Everard is a serving police officer. No attempt to justify the inconsistency between free speech being imposed in universities whilst being withdrawn from civil society. But we have to get the balance right between people going about their lawful business and the right to protest (a right that existed previously), but now has to be balanced with silence.

Dear Mr Grantham,

Thank you for your email and taking the time to contact Sally-Ann. Please see her response below on the issues you raised in your email regarding the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill:

“Thank you for contacting me about protests and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
In this country, we have a long-standing tradition that people can gather together and demonstrate, and the right to protest peacefully is a fundamental part of our democracy.

As you will be aware, however, a national lockdown is currently in place. This means we must all stay at home and only leave for a small number of essential reasons as outlined in law. Everyone is required to follow these rules and it is for the police, in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service, to determine whether an action warrants possible criminal proceedings. We must not confuse current coronavirus regulations with a new Bill which introduces sensible measures to deal with disruptive behaviours whilst maintaining a right to peaceful protest.
.
Thankfully, due to the impact of the lockdown in England, as well as the ambitious vaccination programme, the Prime Minister has now outlined a roadmap out of lockdown. This outlines a safe and gradual lifting of restrictions culminating in hopes for an end to all legal limits on social contact from 21 June. I absolutely understand the strong desire to fully reinstate our civil liberties, and I would like to make clear that as soon as it is safe to do so this is something that I will wholeheartedly support. In the meantime, we must continue to follow the Prime Minister’s safe and gradual roadmap out of lockdown to help protect the NHS and save lives.

More generally, I would like to make clear that under no circumstances do I believe that protests should become violent. The rights to a peaceful protest do not extend to harassment, intimidating behaviour or serious disruption to public order.
Of course, the responsibility for the maintenance of public order lies with the police, who have a range of powers to manage protests. How they deploy their powers and the tactics they use are rightly an operational matter for the police but I am pleased that we live in a country where policing is done by consent.

Over recent years, I have been concerned by the extensive disruption that some protests have caused. In particular, stopping people getting on with their daily lives, hampering the free press and blocking access to Parliament. I welcome the fact that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect. These powers will allow the police to safely manage protests where they threaten public order and stop people from getting on with their daily lives. It is welcome news that the Government is taking action to ensure the crucial balance between the fundamental right to peaceful protest and the rights of people to get on with their daily lives is maintained.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me about this important topic and Bill.

Kind Regards, 
Sally-Ann Hart MP”

Book Review: What Would Nature Do? by Ruth DeFries

This book essentially says, if humanity had paid more attention to how nature deals with the uncertainties of life on Earth, then we might have avoided some of its calamities – for want of a better word. Of course, there are two so-called calamities afflicting humanity at the moment; namely, a global pandemic and climate change.

One can often tell the whether the author truly has something to say in the final chapter. Can the content be summarised and rendered coherent? Does it hang together? In this case, I am not entirely sure. In fact, the author herself admits it:

In a fit of writer’s block for this final chapter, I ventured downtown to the New York Public Library to see for myself the tiny Hunt-Lenox globe with medieval-style etchings of dragons and strange sea creatures…etched pictures of dragons and monsters signalled seas and lands not yet seen by European eyes, although other peoples had lived in those lands for eons.

(p151)

The dragons, of course, represent all of the things that humanity has not yet discovered. But in getting to where humanity sits currently, the global commons have been well-and-truly “over-grazed” and pathogens serially mis-managed, despite the lessons of history, let alone nature. I’ll return to the calamity shortly, but DeFreis does discuss what humans have learned, though probably inadvertently.

Ancient trees had arteries and veins in their leaves that if severed by a pest – or just something that ate them – the effect on the overall plant would be significant in a detrimental way. The ancient tree is the Gingko, which eventually evolved a toxin to put off insects. But other plants and trees evolved alternative approaches such as “loopy veins”. In the event of part of the leaf succumbing to insect lunch, the sugars created in the leaves could still be delivered to the rest of the tree because they could be re-routed. The most obvious human-created analogy of this is the internet’s packet system whereby the data generated by this blog are put into small packages and sent on their way, often taking different routes and then reconstituted in the reader’s computer and browser. However, much of the human world is hub-and-spoke; i.e. centralised. When things go wrong, bottlenecks occur and all things – commodities, manufacturing components, finished products, foodstuffs – get jammed. In the case of food, hunger ensues.

DeFreis (right) writes extensively about pathogens and viruses in the human and animal world. In the human world, in the absence of politicians, viruses have been dealt with and eradicated by science on the one hand, and (disease) management on the other. Management here is track-and-trace as well as equitable global distribution of vaccines and other technologies. As with Covid-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe. However, we can learn from ants, bees and termites. Ants, famous for living cheek-by-jowl, secrete disinfectant into their nests collected from wood resin. Termites spread their own faeces in their nest benefitting from antimicrobial properties (that seems counter-intuitive). Bees can kill pathogens by flapping their wings! And so on. Ultimately, though, highly social creatures can isolate their kin should they succumb to disease. Primarily, this is to protect the queen and not for the benefit of the sick individuals.

Moving on from viruses and disease, DeFreis talks about the commons – the atmosphere, the seas, water and land. I had not previously been aware of Garrett Hardin, a man who believed that the solution to the commons was to de-commonise them, enclose them and “protect” them from over-exploitation. DeFreis counters his work with a celebration of the studies of Elinor Ostrom who demonstrated that human beings can adequately manage and protect the commons. They do not need permission by a central authority. However, one size does not fit all; what works in one place, does not in others. This is, of course, part of the problem. People have to be given the space and time to work things out, set quotas and agree sanctions for those who either free-ride or break the rules.

Talking about breaking the rules, I had equally not previously been aware of the Biosphere experiment in Oracle, Arizona, back in 1991. Three men and three women entered a CELSS – closed ecosystem life support system – and stayed there for two years testing whether it was possible to replicate the Earth’s life support systems (with a view to building one on the Moon or a planet). It was funded by a Texan billionaire, Edward P Bass, the Elon Musk or his time, perhaps. It took 11 years to build. Nothing that was not already in the CELSS when they entered would be added. It was not plain sailing – crops were blighted by pests and the air became thin as the plants generated carbon dioxide and oxygen mysteriously disappeared.

And so back to what nature would do. Nature is parsimonious. The limiting factor is always energy. All energy is derived from the sun. First in plants, then animals and humans. Most animals conserve as much energy as they can. Certainly through a winter, food can be in short supply. However, nature also builds in redundancy. Those loopy leaves use more energy to build, but when under attack, they are a life saver. Some humans have adopted this principle in their products. Most aeroplanes have redundancy – if one part fails, another kicks in. Apollo 11 would not have made it to the moon had it not been for Margaret Hamilton’s redundant computer code! But our economy is parsimonious – global supply chains do not react well to disruption, something that is increasingly occurring.

Pumpjacks, Kern River Oil Field, California

Our economy is different in another way, too. It is extractive. Its whole rationale is perpetual growth. Its metrics – productivity, GDP – are just wrong. They perpetuate the extraction and ignore wellbeing. Moreover, instead of generating energy sustainably – from the sun as plants do – we draw on stored reserves of energy in fossil fuels. Growth is only possible by doing that. Nature does not do that. Nature is not capitalist. It does manage its commons – or it did until homo sapiens disrupted the equilibrium. DeFreis does not engage with this. The reality of an economic system that destroys not only itself by undermining the life-support systems of the planet is glossed over. There is no system change needed, only a closer attention to what nature would do.

I can see why this is not tackled. Authors who do end up being criticised like Andreas Malm was on publication of his book, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. It is not pretty. But neither is climate change.

Pictures:

Ruth DeFreis: By One Earth Future – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiU0AlDsiPgPeace in the 21st Century: Ruth DeFries, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96380874

Pumpjacks in Kern ROF, California: By Antandrus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16373401

The UK models itself on Hungary?

The populist conservative government in the UK has shown itself to hold democracy and the UK parliament in contempt. The PM prorogued the parliament – that is, suspended it – in order to thwart attempts to avoid a no-deal Brexit in the summer of 2019. The Brexit Bill bringing into law the TCA (Trade and Cooperation Agreement) between the UK and the EU was pushed through in less-than a week to avoid the scrutiny of the committee system, itself designed to ensure law is robust and able to stand up to interrogation. The shortcomings of that law are on display daily at ports, shops and exporting firms across the country.

The next illiberal bill being pushed speedily through the parliament is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. I got wind of its illiberal content and aims from Ian Dunt. Consequently, I have written to my Conservative member of parliament, Sally-Ann Hart, to register my concern (reproduced below).

Viktor Orbán, PM, Hungary

As for heading towards being Hungary; the current PM’s predecessor fuelled the belief that the British courts were the enemies of the people when they were used to force the Government to follow the law. There is more of that to come, I’m sure. The UK will soon have its own version of Fox News – opinion rather than news. The existing regulator enforces partiality, but it is difficult to see how the two newly licensed channels are going to achieve that. Any doubters out there should also note that the new boss of the BBC has just cancelled – yes, cancelled – the satirical TV show, The Mash Report. Officially because it is not funny. Unofficially because it is.

11 March 2021

Dear Ms Hart,

Re: Free Speech

I work in a university with an honourable tradition of free speech. Your colleague, The Secretary of State for Education, believes that free speech is so important that it needs a champion to ensure that it is respected in our universities.

Meanwhile another of your colleagues, the Home Secretary, has published a bill designed to shut down free speech. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill has a number of provisions that are deeply anti-democratic. First, and for example, there is a potential for a noise restriction to be imposed on a demonstration if the police believe that it will cause a nuisance to anyone. I’ve been on many demonstrations exercising my democratic right to free speech. They are, by definition, noisy. That is the point, is it not?

Second, should a restriction be placed on the demonstration and a demonstrator violate it and arguing in court that they did not know about it, previously that was admissible. Under this law, it will not. A person on a demonstration will need to know all of the restrictions imposed on the demonstration or face prosecution.

Thirdly, a demonstration by a lone individual would have the same status.

Finally, the Home Secretary will be given powers to change a definition of “serious disruption” under a statutory instrument. This is a wholly inappropriate use of such a mechanism.

Why is there such a difference between the Home Office and the Department for Education on the question of free speech?

I trust that you will resist the attempt in the bill to curtail and criminalise free speech in our country.

Kind regards,

Andrew Grantham

Pic: European Peoples’ Party

Climate Watch: Ireland exports calves by air!

Amongst greenhouse gases, methane is probably the worst with carbon dioxide caused by burning fossil fuels being the most prevalent. Aviation fuel is still a fossil fuel last time I looked. The Irish Government clearly did some climate-denial overtime to come up with the following: in order to improve the welfare of unweaned calves, instead of packing them in lorries and sending them to the Netherlands, they’ll pack them in transporter planes instead (Guardian, 6 March 2021).

Notwithstanding the fact that veal is a low-welfare meat, transporting any food commodity by air is to be avoided. Transporting a sack of methane, doubly so. If our politicians cannot get their heads around the kind of changes needed to tackle the climate change emergency, what hope for everyone else?

Pic: By David Monniaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=234720

Climate Watch: nothing in the UK budget for climate mitigation

On 3 March 2021, Rishi Sunak (left) the British Finance Minister (aka Chancellor of the Exchequer), presented his budget for the year ahead and beyond. Headline issues – taxes are going up for corporations (from 19-25pc) and for workers (freezing of tax thresholds). Public-sector wages are going up at a level essentially half that of inflation (equating to a pay cut) and public services will receive less money into the future, including the National Health Service. There is no support for social care.

Whilst the idea of corporation tax going up seems good, it depends on how many small/medium-sized enterprises get caught out by it relative to those firms that offshore much of the taxable earnings.

The budget also provides perks for homeowners looking to sell already price-inflated properties (stamp duty). There are no proposals regarding wealth or capital gains taxes. Those with wealth will keep it, seemingly.

What about climate change? What about investment in sustainable technologies and lifestyle changes needed to reach net-carbon zero by 2050? Erm, nothing. One programme – £1.5bn green homes scheme – seemingly failed, despite grants available to insulate homes and switch to alternative heating methods such as heat pumps. What I did not know is that the government had outsourced this programme to a US company (Virginia) that failed to pay the grants to applicants. This led to some firms actually having to shed workers (Guardian, 5 March 2021).

There is a new investment bank being set up (the Cameron Government sold a very similar entity in 2012), but its capital is paltry – £12bn. That might sound a lot, but this is a climate emergency, and unlike the pandemic, it is not going away. And what is more, the investments are not guaranteed to be climate zero or below – the priority is jobs, it seems, not carbon.

Finally, as the Guardian rightly points out, there is no money for public awareness; to promote the small things that all citizens can do such as eat less meat, recycle/reuse, save energy, etc. Without a broad change in attitudes, it is business as usual until it is not.

Pic: By Chris McAndrew – https://tinyurl.com/yxyt5be7