Thought for the Day

Radio Bristol, 2007

Monday 8th January 2007

With fears about the runway at Bristol, and all that fog at Heathrow, it’s ever more obvious that we’re all getting hooked on flying. Yet, as we know, flying somewhere puts far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than would driving or going there by train. We have only one atmosphere and danger looms. What should we do?

It’s now a couple of years since I first heard of someone voluntarily giving up flying. I was amazed. How could someone be that selfless and brave? I knew I couldn’t. I spend my life flying around the world giving lectures and going to conferences. It’s my job. It’s fun, it’s prestigious, it’s exciting. Anyway, one person’s actions are a drop in the ocean to the scale of the problem of climate change. And Greenpeace ** actively discourages people from making this – as they see it – useless gesture.

Yet two years on I find I have made that same decision myself. As of 2007 I will make only the trips I’ve already booked and after that I won’t be flying for work any more.

This decision, that I once thought impossible, really made itself. I was sitting one day in a huge 747 when, before my lunch in a disposable plastic tray, the steward brought me gin in a disposable bottle, tonic in a throwaway can,  a plastic cup to drink it out of and, for good measure, a spare plastic cup to put in the little plastic stirring stick. Something in me rebelled. This is madness. The whole thing is crazy. We don’t need to fly everywhere. I could give lectures in England, and choose conferences closer to home. I thought of my children and the world that we are leaving for them and I knew I couldn’t do it any more. It wasn’t selfless or heroic; it was just that something inside me had turned and, although I must admit to being scared about what I’ve done, I know there’s no going back. I also know that even if it is a pointless gesture, the world would be better off if fewer people flew.

It doesn’t take religious belief, or faith of any kind, to care about the rest of the world. It takes only the simple recognition that we humans have only one planet and we are all in this together.

**  I apologise. I wrongly said Greenpeace on Radio Bristol. It was in fact Friends of the Earth who argued that it is better to put pressure on our governments than make personal gestures of this kind. I think both are necessary.

Monday 15th January 2007

After talking last week about giving up flying, I received dozens of nasty comments and horrible emails. I was upset. It hurt. But a few days on I began to put it all in perspective and instead of thinking ‘why me?’ Thought ‘Why them? What’s going on here?’

I think it comes down to a simple fact about human nature. We humans evolved living in groups of about one or two hundred people, and our ancestors would have known everyone they met and dealt with them face to face. In this world our big, clever brains, evolved lots of mechanisms for inhibiting impulsive actions and controlling anger and aggression, but these inhibitions depend on seeing and hearing the other person.

What’s happened in just the past century or so – a blink in the eye of evolutionary time – is that modern technology has by-passed these natural controls. On the phone you can hear someone’s voice but you have to imagine their face. When it’s a call centre you don’t even know who they are and you can’t imagine their face. Now I have to admit that I can rather unpleasant too. When I’m hard at work and the phone goes, and a voice says “Hello, this is just a courtesy call….” I’m already opening my mouth to say … well … shall we say …ruder words than I ought. I’m left upset as well as the caller.

The same has happened with letters. People used to write slowly by hand, ending “I am, dear sir, your humble obedient servant”, then faster with a typewriter, signing off “yours faithfully”, and now with email we don’t even bother to start “Dear Adam” but just launch in. It’s so fast. It’s so easy. You don’t have time to imagine the person at the other end but just press “send” before the slow processes of visual imagery, let alone emotional imagery, have got to work. So we’re ruder than perhaps we really want to be.

I’m going to do two things. First I’m going to remember this the next time someone sends me a horrible hate mail, and when I’m writing emails I’ll take a moment or two to imagine the person I’m writing to and only then let my fingers hit the keys.

(N.B. The comments were mostly on my blog)

Monday 22 January 2007

Everyone’s been getting upset or depressed about those nasty incidents in the big brother house. The Archbishop of York said it exposed the ugly underbelly of society. I think, rather the opposite, that the fuss exposes the great moral progress that we have achieved.

It’s not really surprising that people behave that badly, even though we find it disgusting. Biologically it makes sense that human beings tend to favour those who look like them, because people who look similar are more likely to share the same genes. And psychologists find that even very young children use skin colour as an easy way to recognise people. So there’s a natural tendency for people to behave better towards others they perceive as being like them. It’s a mark of civilisation that we can overcome this tendency, just as we work to overcome violence, aggression or the enjoyment of cruelty.

We should remember how far we have come. There is little doubt that in our far past racial hatred was commonplace and even encouraged. Such ancient books as the Old Testament and the Koran are full of ingroup-outgroup feuding, which now we try hard to prevent.

Today we find bear baiting and dog fighting horrific, although both were common only two hundred years ago, and both have a tendency to reappear, as, sadly, we’ve seen only recently. We give rights to women, children and the disabled that they never had in the past. And now, at last, we find it unacceptable to slag off others just because of their race or creed.

So instead of getting depressed about our failings, let’s look forward and think about what further changes we should be making. Will our descendents look back on something we do now in the way we look back on the horrors of slavery? One example might be the prohibition drugs which causes so much misery and crime. Another might be illegal prostitution. Perhaps you can think of other examples. We should all be thinking – how can we treat our fellow humans better and so ensure that we go on getting better, not worse.

Monday 22 January 2007

Once again our prisons are full, and criminals – even quite serious criminals – are being let out early or not locked up at all. It’s depressing. But it makes me wonder who are all these prisoners and why are the numbers always going up? Are people really so wicked, and getting worse all the time?

No. I think the blame lies not with the wickedness of ordinary people but with our topsy-turvy drug laws.

You see most prisoners are there because of drugs. I’ve had my house broken into several times, as have lots of people in Bristol, and each time the police say the same thing. Apparently drugs account for over half of robberies, three quarters of burglaries, most shoplifting and a staggering 95% of street prostitution.

Why? Because back in the 1970s we adopted the US approach and prohibited everything from heroin to cannabis. In effect we said “Hey – let’s take all these potentially dangerous substances and hand them over to criminals”. Instead of getting drugs under government control and raking in loads of tax, we let the gangs take them, fight over the vast profits to be made, and suck countless people into lives of crime and misery.

I’m told that in Bristol’s prisons drugs are easy to get, although alcohol isn’t, and that most prisoners, once released, fall back into the same life of crime, at the mercy of the only winners – the big-time criminals who take all the profits.

Perhaps we can learn something from the USA. There the drug laws are far tougher, the penalties higher, and far more money is spent on enforcing them. But this “get tough and lock ‘em up” approach just turns more people into criminals, and puts more of them in prison. The US has the highest prison population rate in the world. Let’s not follow them.

We’ll never solve our problem by building more prisons. We’ll never solve it by fighting a “War on drugs”. So let’s find a real solution for a better future. For that we need to do some courageous thinking, and look again at the drug laws that turn our kids into criminals and fill our prisons to bursting.

Monday 9th July 2007

Hasn’t the weather been weird! First there was that extraordinarily hot April, then all the wind and rain and floods and storms. In the midst of the misery everyone was convinced about global warming and behaving as though Armageddon was nigh. But then we have a lovely weekend. Al Gore’s Live Earth concerts come to seem more about fun than serious political change, and we write off the horrors as just one of the vagaries of the British climate.

So which is right? Is the latest dreadful weather a symptom of global warming, caused by greedy humans, or is it just natural variation in the weather?

Shouldn’t we scientists be able to say for sure?

The answer is no, and will always be no when it comes to individual events like last week’s rain. When science tackles complex systems it deals with probabilities and trends – and always must do. So even with the best climate science in the world no one will ever be able to say that this particular storm was caused by us.

So what should we do?

I think we must each make our own decisions about the causes of our freak weather and then – and this is the hard part – take responsibility for what we decide.

I tend to the apocalyptic, planning for a radically different future for me and my kids, and provoking endless family arguments, with one of my children being extremely frugal while the other’s a climate sceptic.

I was encouraged by this weekend’s 30th birthday party for Sustrans – the campaign for sustainable transport. I expect some of you were there too, in Bristol’s Castle Park with stalls and bands and lots of bikes. Did you know that there are more bikes than cars in Bristol? If everyone just sometimes used their bike instead of their car it would make an enormous difference.

But I don’t want to tell anyone what to do, I’d just like us all to remember that none of us knows the right answers, but in twenty years time each of us will have to take responsibility for what we decided about the climate today.

Monday 16th July 2007

My cat is dying. At least that’s how it looks to me. She is terribly thin, and her once shiny fur is all bedraggled. I don’t think she has the energy to wash any more. It tugs at me somewhere inside to stroke her sticky-out bones and watch her struggle to jump up onto my desk.

But she’s sixteen.

My son and I took her to the vet, suspecting hyperthyroid. The test, said the vet, would cost £73. I found myself thinking “she’s only a cat” and “we’ll get sucked onto an escalator of treatments”. And what for? To prolong a life that is coming to its natural and peaceful end. “Do you think she is in pain?” I asked. “No” said the vet “She hasn’t minded all my prodding. I think she’s fine”. So I said no to the test. As long as she’s not in pain we’ll let her quietly die.

Back home, I kept worrying. Am I being mean? Is it about money, or suffering, or what? She’s only a cat. But I’m only a human. So where do my moral choices come from? I’m not religious and have no book to give me guidance. So where do I turn?

To basic science; to the simplest facts about life on earth, that cats and dogs, and birds, and fleas, and humans all die. We humans have evolved to be capable of both suffering and the compassion that makes us want to reduce suffering. But we cannot avoid old age and death.

This year I’ve watched my mother die of vascular dementia; a horrible way to go. And now I’m seeing my 91 year-old Dad getting frail and forgetful and weak, but he’s contented enough. So thank you little cat for helping teach me that old age and frailty and fading away are all just part of life.

30 July 2007

I have to admit I’m a Harry Potter fan, and I haven’t finished reading the last book yet. I’m spinning it out, a chapter a day, hoping no one will tell me the ending.

“He dies!” cried our postman gleefully, when I opened the door to take in a big pile of mail. “Only joking” he said “But that’s what I tell the kids. D’you know some of them were waiting in the road and ran out to meet us on the big day.” He explained how it worked. Each postman was given just two books per bag to carry, with four bags per round. “Still bent from the weight” he laughed, lopsidedly.

Malcolm’s been our postman since I came to Bristol nearly 15 years ago, and he’s always cheerful. Well nearly always, but the postal strikes have got him down. “Some people think it’s all about pay” he said “But it isn’t about money for me. I’m upset because they want to make our hours even later.”

“We don’t see people so much now we start so late” he explained. “In the old days people were getting ready for work or school and we had time to talk. Now they’re all out by the time we get round.”

Clearly this is a complex dispute with many sides to it, but I was struck by the thought that there are people willing to start work at 4 a.m. and walk miles to deliver our post, but for purely economic reasons they’re not allowed to do it. What price a friendly face on the doorstep? What price a brief but cheery chat to enliven my morning’s work? What price someone who knows everyone and notices when things are amiss?

I guess it’s always true that you don’t appreciate things until they’re under threat, and I’m going to remember that. It might be fun to have my letters flown in by a snowy white owl, but for now I’m just appreciating something I hope we won’t lose, our friendly Bristol postmen.