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13
Jun 2006

On my holidays

Just to let you know, dear reader, that I’ll be away for a few days. It’s possible that I’ll get a chance to post something during my brief trip, but unlikely I suspect. I’m due back on Saturday, so I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until then before reading my almost-complete piece on the madness of cannabis prohibition. So until then… take care of yourself. And be good.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements


11
Jun 2006

Chris Moyles is, like, soooo gay

I have quite a few friends who are gay or bi. In fact, for a goodly chunk of my late teens / early twenties my closest friend was gay (the bassist in the band I mentioned in a previous post as it happens). So despite being straight myself, I’ve been on a number of Gay Pride marches and I’ve always been pretty sensitive to homophobia, whether in the media or the world around me.

At the same time, however, I believe there’s sometimes an over-sensitivity to perceived prejudice, whether it’s racism, sexism, ageism or homophobia. This is completely understandable, and I am not levelling criticism here. Groups within society who are on the receiving end of genuine prejudice will inevitably develop heightened sensitivities towards the language used to speak about them. It is a natural defence mechanism, and to expect any different is unrealistic.

So when BBC dj Chris Moyles used the word “gay” on air to mean “rubbish”, there was a predictable backlash. Now, far be it for me to defend Chris Moyles. The little I know about the man suggests that he’s an arsehole. His on-air persona is infused with the “humour” of FHM and Heat magazine. New-laddism (also known as “wankerism”). This isn’t surprising; he’s obviously aiming at the same (depressingly large) demographic. And while fans of the free market will praise him to the roof for supplying the content to meet a demand. Me? I just see it as another nail in the coffin of western culture. Plus, a couple of years back he crossed a picket-line at the BBC. And that’s guaranteed to get my hackles up.

You just don’t cross picket lines. Ever*.

But leaving aside the separate issue of Moyles’ arseholeishness; was his use of the word “gay” homophobic? And here I have to agree with the BBC’s board of governors who dismissed the allegation. I don’t believe it was.

Language changes. And in the modern world of mass-mediation this process has accelerated so that it now occurs at a dizzying rate. There’s an entire generation alive today for whom the word “gay” meant “happy” for a significant portion of their life. And this isn’t a trivial point, because if you look at where this most recent redefinition of the word (gay = rubbish) comes from, it’s the schoolyards. It’s a generational thing. Shifts in language often are. It was the youth of the 50s who shifted “cool” from being a description of temperature into an expression of approval. In the 60s “heavy” changed meaning rather dramatically as did many other words (“gay” among them).

And as the language of youth evolved, so necessarily does the language of those speaking to the youth (dj’s and what have you).

It is clearly true that the root of this switch (gay = rubbish) derives from anti-homosexual sentiment. But the homophobia of the schoolyard is different to that in the world at large. I’m not saying it’s harmless (it isn’t!) but it is different. When I was in primary school, a common insult was “Your mother is a lezzer!” As a nine year old I used the phrase myself (I was bullied at school, the way quiet over-intelligent kids often are, and would respond – usually while blinking away tears – with whatever taunts were doing the rounds at the time). In truth though, I hadn’t the faintest idea what “a lezzer” was. Could I possibly have been being homophobic despite not knowing what homosexuality was?

Similarly, I am convinced that today’s kids – whilst infinitely more sophisticated than I was at their age – do not see any connotations of homosexuality when they describe another kid’s trainers as “gay”. They probably understand homosexuality to a degree, and are aware what “gay” means in that context, but will see it as an entirely separate usage of the word when using it to describe trainers or a car or whatever.

Lame:

1. Disabled so that movement, especially walking, is difficult or impossible: Lame from the accident, he walked with a cane. A lame wing kept the bird from flying.

2. Marked by pain or rigidness: a lame back.

3. Weak and ineffectual; unsatisfactory: a lame attempt to apologize; lame excuses for not arriving on time.

Right now the dictionary definition of “gay” does not include an analogue to definition 3 (above). But I suspect one day soon it will do. There can be little doubt that when “lame” began to be used to mean “weak” or “rubbish” (as it often is nowadays) it was connected to disability. But how many people today – straight or gay – if using the phrase “that’s just so lame!” are being consciously prejudiced against the disabled?

* Yes, yes, yes. I’m sure you can describe extreme hypothetical situations involving doctors and dying children where crossing a picket line may be morally justified. However, anyone who tries to shoehorn the presenting of a lowbrow Radio 1 programme by Chris Moyles into such a category will receive a personal visit from me and The Bastid Squad.

21 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


10
Jun 2006

Thoughts on the report of a massacre

I was watching the TV news last night. From the Middle East came yet another horror story to chill the blood of anyone with an ounce of empathy or compassion. On the BBC website the story is headlined, Hamas militants vow to end truce. The wording of the headline angers me, although the events reported anger me far more.

There’s a trend among right wing mouthbreathers to insist that the BBC has a significant bias against Israel when discussing the Israeli / Palestinian situation. This trend is perhaps exemplified by Biased BBC but by no means confined to them (anyone citing Melanie Phillips as an authority rather than a cautionary example clearly isn’t receiving the medication they require).

I doubt, for instance, that the next deplorable act of Palestinian terrorism will be reported beneath the headline “Israeli army vows new airstrikes”. I suspect, rather, that the headline will quite rightly call attention to the innocent children murdered. So why is a report – the primary content of which is the murder of a Palestinian family by the Israeli military – headlined by a threat of violence from Palestinians?

Hamas news clipping

Perhaps there’s another story somewhere on the BBC site beneath the headline “Israeli military shells Palestinian children”, but if so it’s well hidden. Unlike the one on the site front page.

I’m also somewhat irate about the use of the phrase “apparent Israeli shelling”. I understand of course, that so soon after a chaotic event such as this, there can be no official confirmation of the causes. No investigations have been carried out, no forensic teams have reported their findings from the scene. But within minutes of a suicide bombing, the word “apparent” is dropped from reports. Certainly long before the Israeli government gives its official reaction.

This is because it is obviously a suicide bombing. Eye witnesses confirm it, and the aftermath tells its own story. Is there a tacit assumption that Palestinian eye witnesses just aren’t as reliable as their Israeli counterparts? Is there any reason at all to believe that the Palestinians killed had set up a makeshift bomb-factory on the beach (I’ll bet the sand plays merry hell with the microswitches) and they were a victim of their own murderous intentions? Any evidence that the eye-witnesses who talk about an incoming shell are deliberately covering up the truth?

Certainly the television news made it clear that there was some confusion as to whether the shell came from a naval gunship a few miles offshore, or whether it was army artillery to blame, but there seems no doubt that it was a shell from the Israeli military. It appears that…

For many months, the Israelis have regularly shelled open areas such as fields and orchards in an effort to prevent Palestinian militants using them to fire their home-made missile into crudely made missiles into nearby Israeli territory.

I wonder what the life-expectancy of Palestinian fruit farmers is? (And yes, I know that BBC quote is awful copywriting / editing)

Statistically speaking that’s a policy guaranteed – over a long enough timescale – to result in events like yesterday’s massacre. Whether it’s faulty mechanical equipment or human error, if you spend several months shelling areas, some of your explosives are going to stray off course. It’s what the perpetrators euphemistically refer to as “collateral damage”. What Condi described as “tactical errors”. What many moral philosophers and legal experts would describe as “murder”.

How’s this for a defence in court… “well yes, your honour, I did regularly fire my machinegun into the loft of my neighbour’s house. You see, he sometimes uses that loft to shoot at me. Unfortunately I wasn’t paying enough attention yesterday and sprayed the floor below it with bullets instead. I’m sorry to say that his lodger and her 3 year old daughter were killed. But really, what else am I supposed to do? Killing some of my innocent neighbours is the only way to ensure that my family remains safe.”

For me, blowing up someone else’s child in order to reduce the risk to your own is not an acceptable way to act.

The attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people.
- Albert Einstein

There can be little question that the Israeli people are failing that test.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


7
Jun 2006

The food of love

Ah music. Music music music.

About fifteen or sixteen years ago I was in my first band. We were good. No, really, we were. We weren’t “commercial” in any way but the sound we produced had the ability to transport some of our tiny audience to that sacred place where time stands still. It was in the days before CDRs and mp3s… the days of cassette. And it’s years since the last of those demo tapes disintegrated. Now there’s no record at all of the music we made.

I don’t see that as a great tragedy though. We were never that serious about “recording” and those tapes that did exist failed to capture our sound; our philosophy was about connecting directly with small groups of people, about removing as much of the mediation as possible between the act of playing and the act of listening.

Each performace would begin with Pete – the bassist – creating a deep throbbing drone… the bass was routed through numerous filters and distortion devices until it became an unearthly low growl. Then I’d begin to talk… barely audible over the sound of the bass… I’d describe a vision I had one evening after I spectacularly misjudged the amount of Psilocybe Semilanceata that it’s sensible to consume in one sitting. Or indeed, in 8 or 10 sittings.

After three minutes, the rest of the band would kick in… drums, guitar and keyboard… all improvising around the rhythms of my voice and the bass. Sometime before the 10 minute mark, what we called “the click” would occur. Everything came together. By this point my speech had become a kind of chant; each time different; I’d hit upon a series of short phrases in my little mushroom riff and work them into the music. By the end of 22 minutes the room would be too small for the music it contained… as though the hypnotic throbbing sound had expanded the very space around us. Then, at 23 minutes, Alison (our groupie) would unplug all the plug boards. Amps, instruments, microphones, all would suddenly get shut off and the 20 or 30 strong audience would freak out.

We’d take a five minute break for “refreshment” of various kinds, then play a couple of cover versions, a couple of fairly straight songs of our own, and then repeat the 23 minute jam. All in all we’d play for a little over an hour.

Last night I dreamt I was back there. Every detail, every burst of feedback, everything was exactly as it had been. Except our guitarist was Prince.

Fuck it was good.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


6
Jun 2006

Again with the Peak Oil

So what’s the relationship between “peak oil” and climate change? Is there one? After all, with less of the stuff to burn, there’ll be less “greenhouse gas” emissions. Right? Does fossil fuel depletion have a silver lining?

Well. No. I’m afraid not. Leastways if there is a silver lining on peak oil’s cloud, it’s not an antidote to anthropogenic climate change.

But you knew I was going to say that right? After all, I’m always soooo negative. But it’s not like I want to be a harbinger of doom. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than announcing; “hey! y’know all that peak oil malarky? Turns out it’s a bunch of arse. Magic pixie dust from space-land will sort everything out!”

One day I’ll have some good news for you. I promise. But statistically speaking it’s unlikely to be today.

Less oil = More emissions. Huh?

I know, I know. Counter-intuitive or what? But the world is a lot like that. It’s rarely as it seems. And even when it is, chances are you’re looking at it wrong. It’s a bit like Oliver Kamm walking into a room containing other people and not being punched repeatedly in the face by all present. Common sense insists it shouldn’t happen. Yet apparently it does.

The first thing that I want to stress is that there’s a fundamental sloppiness with the term “peak oil”. In reality, when I (and most informed people) use the term, we are using it as a shorthand for “peak oil and natural gas”. Even ASPO uses the shorthand… the name of the organisation is actually “Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas” but they clearly realised that ASPOaG isn’t the catchiest of acronyms.

There’s now data to suggest that conventional crude oil production peaked late last year. Dr. Colin Campbell has made it clear that total oil production will peak within 5 to 15 years of conventional crude. His analysis also suggests that we’ll reach a peak in natural gas production within a few years of peak oil production. Gas, however, has an entirely different depletion profile to crude oil (often referred to as the natural gas “cliff” to distinguish it from the relatively gentle Hubbert “curve” of oil depletion) and production rates plummet rapidly soon after hitting peak.

Unfortunately, as any free-market-economist-type person will tell you, even if oil and gas were to begin depleting (a scenario many of them will actually deny… insisting that greater demand will lead to greater investment leading to greater supply; what I refer to as “The Spoilt Child Hypothesis”), the market will merely switch to supplying alternatives. The demand isn’t for oil per se, but – more abstractly – for the uses that oil can be put to.

At this point some economists will use the phrase, “the infinite transformability of units of production”. However they’ll use it out of earshot of me as I’ve a tendency towards violence when I hear it.

Economists: Right about one thing

Well, they’re probably right about slightly more than one thing. But in this case they’re right about people not wanting oil for oil’s sake (or gas). They want something that’ll make their car go, or something that’ll generate the electricity for their homes, or something that’ll keep them warm in the winter and cook their food.

Unfortunately there are no adequate substitutes for either oil or gas. But there are plenty of inadequate ones. Which is where the carbon emissions problem raises its sooty head.

If the market is given free rein to attempt to fill the supply shortfall as demanded by consumers of the high-energy lifestyle, then we will see an inevitable return to coal-fired power plants. Replacing gas power generation with coal would see a massive increase in carbon emissions. Don’t believe that guff about “clean coal”… it’s sleight-of-hand, like the electric car; merely moving the emissions away from the end user. The atmosphere doesn’t distinguish between emissions from a “clean coal” processing plant and those from burning “dirty coal” in your fireplace.

And it doesn’t end there.

A reduction in fossil-fuel availability will inevitably result in an increase in wood-burning and consequent increase in deforestation. As any school-child will tell you, trees are the planet’s natural solar-powered carbon sequesters. With fewer trees, less of our carbon emissions will be recycled out of the atmosphere. And this is part of a particularly vicious positive-feedback loop. Less trees begets less trees. Just ask the Easter Islanders.

And then there’s the staggeringly destructive idea of automobile biofuels. People don’t demand petrol, they merely demand that their cars work. And if palm oil will make them work, then they’ll fill up with palm oil. During the past 20 years, more than 85% of the deforestation in Malaysia was carried out to clear land for palm oil plantations for the export market. Not only did this involve the displacement of indigenous peoples and mass slaughter of wildlife, but also the drainage of large areas of swampland.

Anyone paying attention in biology class knows the problems associated with draining swamp and bogs… as the peat and mosses dry out they decompose releasing huge quantities of greenhouse gasses. Palm oil, it seems, is almost as big a contributor (barrel for barrel) to anthropogenic climate change as its fossil counterpart.

Not a supply-side problem

This is the crux of the matter. And it’s something that perpetual-growth capitalists just can’t get their head around. The problem we face is not how to replace oil and gas to meet the demands of energy-hungry consumers. The problem is how we manage the demands of those consumers so that they become less energy-hungry and more responsible.

I don’t know the precise solution to that problem. But I do know that it can’t be provided by free markets.

12 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


5
Jun 2006

Are We Changing Planet Earth?

The first target of my freshly loaded scatter-gun is, I’m sorry to say, David Attenborough. Or rather, the second programme in his latest series; Are We Changing Planet Earth?

I should point out that I’m a big fan of David Attenborough. The Blue Planet ranks high amongst the best things ever to grace a television screen, and over the years Attenborough has probably done as much for conservation and environmentalism as any individual. After all, it’s only by making the public aware of what they stand to lose that they will ever be motivated to change their ways.

His latest programme, Are We Changing Planet Earth? is a two-parter dealing with the issue of climate change, and specifically human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change. In part one, Attenborough revealed that he’d long been sceptical of the claims being made about anthropogenic climate change but that eventually the evidence provided by climatologists had become – to his eyes – utterly compelling. He presented that evidence in an easily-digestible format and by the end of the first episode had done a fine job of demonstrating that anthropogenic climate change is in fact occurring.

Episode one ended with a question; “What can we do about it?”; and the promise that episode two would answer that question.

But it didn’t. Or rather, it provided the wrong answer. Wrong by quite a margin.

I don’t know how much of the second episode was intended as sugar-coating; an attempt to get the ball moving by taking a resolutely optimistic stance and preaching business-as-(almost)-usual. Did Attenborough make an editorial decision “not to be depressing”? In a world where half of us seem to be on anti-deps, perhaps that’s unsurprising. But it’s also dishonest.

Let’s get something straight… there’s a lot of depressing shit going on right now. We can decide to hide behind denial and prozac, but that doesn’t make the shit go away. Indeed it tends to reinforce it and encourage it to multiply.

Attenborough presented a seven-point plan which aimed at ensuring that carbon emissions remain static between now and 2050. Right now, here in 2006, emissions are the highest they have ever been. Having spent an episode and a quarter revealing the damage already done and underway as a result of anthropogenic climate change, it was mind-boggling that he then chose to imply that 2006 emission levels were hunky dory.

Even worse, the seven-point plan didn’t make any sense. There was a recommendation to increase the amount of electricity generated by nuclear power by a factor of three. As I’ve pointed out before, estimates of remaining uranium reserves talk about another 50 or so years at current rates of consumption. Trebling that rate would – presumably – reduce the lifespan of nuclear power to roughly 17 years. Even if we double the known reserves (i.e. discover as much uranium ore between now and 2050 as we know currently exists), we still only get to 2040 before our reserves are depleted. What then?

And what about the carbon emitted by the construction of almost a thousand new reactors? And the threefold increase in uranium mining, processing and transportation? Are these numbers factored into the total “saving”? One number that isn’t factored in, of course, is what level of carbon emissions will be generated by the systems used to deal with the waste during the next 10 millennia. Perhaps it’s minimal… but we simply don’t know; so any claim that nuclear energy provides a net reduction in carbon emissions over the longterm is plainly dishonest.

The programme made much of the disintegration of Antarctic ice-shelves and the melting of the Greenland pack ice and Patagonian glaciers… processes that are still accelerating as a result of carbon emissions from the past couple of decades. Any plan, therefore, to stabilise emissions at current – historically high – levels is surely, by definition, too little too late.

Another of the seven points presented by Attenborough was the switch to fuel-efficient cars, along with a 50% reduction in our use of those cars. If we had a couple of generations in which to wean people off their cars, then this might be a sensible idea. But it’s just too damn late for mollycoddling motorists – the despoilers of our planet. Almost 50% of the carbon emissions produced by any private car (fuel-efficient or not) occur prior to the tank being filled for the first time. That’s right; half the carbon produced by your new car was produced before you bought it.

So you’ll understand why I balk at the idea of massively increasing demand for new cars. It’s music to the ears of the auto industry of course, but it just sounds like noise to me. Had Attenborough’s programme made all the same points (even the nuclear nonsense) but simply included a couple of lines about the basic unsustainability of the private car then this article would never have been written. But instead we have a programme that talks about purchasing new cars that get 60 miles to the gallon, and using them less. All in order to keep our carbon emissions at levels already causing significant shifts in our climate.

It makes no sense.

Of course, Attenborough should be praised for further raising the profile of this important issue. And most of his seven points were eminently sensible suggestions… greater energy efficiency in our homes (10% of our electricity is wasted by TVs and stereos left on standby)… a major expansion of wind power… a reduction in air travel. All good ideas whose time is already long overdue. But I am increasingly frustrated by those who suggest that a few minor tweaks to our absurdly energy-intensive lifestyle will solve the problem of anthropogenic climate change. That’s just not good enough.

So, off the top of my head, here’s my own 7-point plan to combat climate change:

  1. Halt all investment in both nuclear and fossil-fuel powered electricity generation (China is planning on building 50 new coal-fired power stations every year for the next two decades. Scary, huh?)
  2. Massively increase investment in wind and tide power generation. Allow individuals to offset the increase in electricity costs by all the efficiency measures discussed by Attenborough in his programme.
  3. Announce a tenfold increase in car tax, road tax, road tolls and petrol tax. The increases will occur 3 months after the announcement to allow people to plan for a drastic reduction in car use. Announce that these taxes will be increased by a similar rate year-on-year. Implement a similar tax on jet fuel.
  4. Invest heavily in public transport, but also in localisation strategies so that people don’t need to travel as far.
  5. Legislate so that all new homes are built to the Passivhaus standard.
  6. Legislate so that no electronic equipment may be manufactured with a standby mode.
  7. Pass laws which stipulate that a percentage of all produce stocked in a store must be sourced from within 50 miles of that store. This percentage to increase year-on-year.

Remember, these are off the top of my head, but I nonetheless guarantee that they’d make genuine inroads into dealing with the problem of anthropogenic climate change. Unlike Attenborough’s seven points. Which – at best – will keep things static… a non-solution.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


5
Jun 2006

Trivial

Writers block. Innit?

Well. Not quite. I’ve got a growing number of half-written drafts clogging up WordPress, but turning them into something worthy of publication is currently beyond me. There’s the Dubya Bush letter to Iran; a piece on the Catholic Church’s attitude towards climate change (and science in general); a second critique of The Euston Manifesto which doubles as an attack on democracy; an essay about immigration in Ireland; and some musings on the nature of “epiphany”. And I honestly have no idea whether any of them will ever see the light of day.

Right now I’m re-reading Gregory Bateson’s Steps To An Ecology of Mind, which I’d nominate as one of the most important texts of the 20th century. In the introduction, Bateson talks about his impatience with colleagues who “seemed unable to discern the difference between the trivial and the profound”. Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that this blog is filled with deeply profound writing (heaven forbid), but at the moment everything that flows from my keyboard feels painfully trivial. And that’s just not good enough.

Whether that’s a result of a dip in the quality of my writing, or of a shift in my perception of it, is somewhat irrelevant. After all I’m the one who decides what gets published and what remains mired in the drafts folder taunting me with unfulfilled promises.

Anyways, as a result of this I’m going to take a more scatter-gun approach. Kind of a monkeys-and-typewriters / david sylvian-and-recording studios thing. Hopefully I can write my way out of this dip in form, in much the same way that the authors of The Euston Manifesto have attempted to purge themselves of wet western wank by dumping it all onto their website.

We shall see.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion