A Mischief Of Magpies

If the Sun were the size of a beach ball then Jupiter would be the size of a golf ball and a Mischief of Magpies would be as small as a pea.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Apocalypse Not

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's brilliant film 'Amelie' was on television last night. It's a visually stunning, emotionally gripping, wonderfully whimsical story whose very plot is a glorious testament to the power of human virtue. It's this above all, that is so wonderful about it - it's positive, in the best possible way, about who we are, and how we live our lives.

In real life, however, people seem to be increasingly certain that we can't buy a happy ending. Doom-mongers and apocalypse-hunters are roaming the streets, and most significantly Fleet Street. If it isn't avian flu or the threat of terrorism, it's the impending doom we face because of our 'lack of inventiveness.'

I'm not joking. Neither, of course, are they. Still, this 'inventiveness' story appeared in yesterday's 'Sunday Times Magazine.' The writer, Bryan Appleyard, is hardly a writer to inspire great confidence. He penned, for example, an exceedingly stupid defence of 'Intelligent Design', completely destroyed here, and claimed, hilariously, that the 'first immortal human has now been born.' This man, lest we forget, is one of the senior science and philosophy columnists at The Times. I want particularly to rubbish what he wrote yesterday:

'We've taken the past 200 years of prosperity for granted. Humanity's progress is stalling, we are facing a new era of decay, and nobody is clever enough to fix it. Is the future really that black, asks Bryan Appleyard.'

This was the subheading for the column. It is totally erronous - Appleyard doesn't 'ask' anything, because he is already convinced:

'The greatest getting-and-spending spree in the history of the world is about to end. The 200-year boom that gave citizens of the industrial world levels of wealth, health and longevity beyond anything previously known to humanity is threatened on every side.'

See? Not 'asking', 'telling.'

'It's been said before, of course: people are always saying the world will end and it never does. Maybe it won't this time, either. But, frankly, it's not looking good. Almost daily, new evidence is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a new Dark Age is lying in wait for ourselves and our children.'

'Almost daily,' no such thing is happening. The statement that 'a new Dark Age is lying in wait' is certainly fatuous - more importantly, it is particularly irresponsible. There is a distinct lack of humanity about Appleyard's argument. In the Spiked! article linked to above, Brendan O'Neill rightly points out:

'The anti-terror warriors also place restrictions on our freedom of movement around the world, bringing in stringent security checks at airports everywhere. Those concerned about a bird-flu pandemic say movement is itself part of the problem, since 'globalisation and global air travel have made the spread of a pandemic, once started, almost instantaneous' (11). It's not enough that we have our scissors and matches taken away lest we try to blow up a flight; perhaps we should stop flying altogether. Where the anti-terrorists panic about evil individuals sneaking on to flights and doing bad things, the bird-flu worriers see all people moving around the world as the potential harbingers of death and disease.'

This is crucial. The amount of panic amongst certain sections of left-wing opinion about the ghastly effects of cheap and affordable air fares is horrific to behold - I stated in that link that 'there is an astonishing, snobbish elitism prevalent in the continual moaning about cheap flights.' I stand by that statement. It is almost always inevitably the case that those moaning are those on the left, who, had they lived in a different time, would instead have been demanding that working people had as much right to see the world as the highest-paid executive. It is an astounding remark on the transformation of the left that the best champions for the working man are free-market libertarians.

This is an important point to make. Appleyard and the avian flu panic merchants speak in the same language about travel, which ties in with his obsession with oil, about which more in a minute, but even more importantly, about people. He may appear to want to help us mere mortals by predicting doom, but in fact he quite clearly has very little time for actual individuals. Here's his take on population:

'By keeping humans alive longer and by feeding them better, progress is continually pushing population levels. With population comes pollution. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming caused by human activity is happening.'

In other words, 'the planet would be fine without all these pesky human beings, except maybe the educated ones like me.' In point of fact, a rising population is a sign of a healthy nation. For all his negativity about population growth, Appleyard neglects the fact that it is vital. In the time of the English Civil War, there were just 5.7 million people in Britain. Today, there are over ten times that amount, and despite this increase, people on average own more land, and they also obviously have a better quality of life and live for far longer. It is this last that makes a growing population necessary - obviously, a society with too many people too old to work is a society doomed to failure. Britain is a country - one of very few in Europe, incidentally - that is managing this well. We certainly do have more old people, and they are a greater percentage of the national population, but we also have a consistently growing population, with the number of persons of working age not declining too dramatically. If Appleyard wishes to collect his (enormous, I'm sure) pension, and more imprtantly if I am to get mine, then he should think about the consequences of his apparent distaste for humans.

To return to the third quotation here from his article, he is right to state that 'people are always saying the world will end and it never does.' Why does he think this is? Well, it turns out that he is a sort of modern-day survivalist who believes that our dependence on oil will cripple us in the short term:

'The first big problem is our insane addiction to oil. It powers everything we do and determines how we live. But, on the most optimistic projections, there are only 30 to 40 years of oil left. One pessimistic projection, from Sweden's Uppsala University, is that world reserves are massively overstated and the oil will start to run out in 10 years. That makes it virtually inconceivable that there will be kerosene-powered planes or petroleum-powered cars for much longer. Long before the oil actually runs out, it will have become far too expensive to use for such frivolous pursuits as flying and driving.'

Some writers bandy statistics around in enough numbers to make sure you don't read them too closely. Others just don't proof-read their work. Appleyard fits into one or other of those categories. Elsewhere in the article, in a sort of sidebox about the life of an even bigger eco-warrior, John-Paul Flintoff, we are told that the world 'currently requires more than thirty billion barrels of oil a year.' Trust me on this one - it doesn't require much more, because these people would be shouting about it if it did. We are also told at one point in Appleyard's article that Saudi Arabia has a 262 billion barrel reserve. Even the meanest intelligence should be able to work out that this means there is nearly enough for another nine years in Saudi Arabia alone, at the absolute meanest estimate, a figure that makes the not-terribly-prestigious University of Uppsala's figures ludicrously low.

It shouldn't really need pointing out that those figure only include Saudi Arabia. They don't include, amongst other big producers, the other OPEC nations, America, Canada or Russia. Flintoff claims that 'new discoveries [of oilfields] are at an all-time low.' Maybe so, but there certainly are new discoveries. In the last year or so, new areas have been found in the North Sea. If we can find new oil in somewhere as consistently picked-over as the North Sea, there's no knowing how much hasn't been found in the furthest stretches of Siberia, or anywhere else where proper, detailed geological surveys are either outdated or nonexistent.

Don't be fooled - these doom-mongers want the world to retaliate back at the human race because of the perceieved injustices we inflict upon it. How else to explain those who expressed cautious approval for the tsunami, or less cautious approval for Hurricane Katrina? Let's let them get on with it - meanwhile, we're doing just fine.

I do think that oilrigs have a certain brutal beauty to them.


At 7:00 pm, Blogger ill man said...

Don't see the opposition to cheap airfares as leftist thinking so much as just elitist thinking. The wet left haven never been about the working man.

Yes, oil reserves maybe arent as low as many would state, but they are finite. They will one day end. Ten years? Try fifty or a hundred. The outcome will be the same. Of course, non fossil fuel technology is being developed but oil will continue to be used until such time as it truly is on it's last legs. Hopefully an overlap will take place.

That said, I will miss the internal combustion engine. A thing of great beauty.

At 7:06 pm, Blogger Laura said...

nine years is a lot more problematic than you might think. building anything in this world takes forever. imagine the amount of time it will take to design, create, test, re-design, re-build (and so on a few times), invest in and actually implement a totally non-oil dependent world.

A time span of fifty to a hundred years is just about okay, but imagine the panic that will come when we get near those ending days if technology isn't in place. The petrol crisis is nothing compared to what would happen then.

Not that I'm doom mongering particularly. I mean, the world will get up and get on with it. It always does. But we should *probably* be investing in sustainable fuels all the same....

At 4:41 pm, Blogger Steve55 said...

Don't get me wrong, we obviously need to be investigating ways of continuing in the future potentially without oil. Nobody should suggest otherwise.

However, I think there is far too much pessimism about this. Petroleum companies are taking the situation very seriously. BP have even started calling themselves 'beyond petroleum.' Corporations, in this instance, have to do something about the future shortfall.

We will have plenty of options by the time petroleum becomes really expensive. Never forget: necessity is the mother of invention.


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