Wednesday, 18 March 2015

All this green crap

Pretty much every teenage boy will, at some point, indulge in reading fantasy novels, or comics, or participating in role playing games, or become over-excited by films based on any of the above.  There is something about a realm filled with smelly, grunting orcs and elegantly refined elves which speaks to the pubescent male psyche.  For my own sake, I read Tolkien one summer holiday round about thirteen and then put it to one side.  Still, though, I came back for more, I felt the grizzly pull of dwarfs clanging tankards.  Where Tolkien felt like a drudge, I whizzed through Terry Pratchett’s novels, but then those were both fantasy and not fantasy.

I was greatly saddened to read of Pratchett’s death last week.  His Discworld novels were an important part of my teenage reading and were partly the inspiration for the dreadful fantasy novel of my own, which I wrote aged fifteen.  My book poached many of the scaffholding concepts Pratchett used for his deliciously realised universe -  a strange realm reflecting, like a cracked mirror, our own, provided you were on acid when you looked in it - only I managed to do it with a significant lack of humour.  Still, at some one hundred and fifty closely typed pages it was, at least, a novel of sorts.  The first part of a trilogy, obviously, for all fantasy novels have to form part of a larger tapestry.  Even this Pratchett managed to better than most with his Discworld series comprising some forty odd novels.

But of course Pratchett only used fantasy as window dressing.  They are really satires of the modern condition and the human frailty; monumentally funny, at times bordering on the simply silly, but delightfully so.  They are propelled along by an acute sense of drama, dialogue and the core stages of a novel.  To an extent, they were formulaic but wonderfully executed none the less.  Anyone wanting to understand how to structure a novel – and to enjoy a few hours of blissful mirth – could do no worse than read a Terry Pratchett book.

Meanwhile, our current Lords and Ladies, led by an Eton educated variation of the Patrician with Granny Weatherwax in the Home Office and theLibrarian in the Treasury are happily self-satirising themselves in an endless spiral to oblivion.  In 2010 the Conservatives campaigned on the slogan of vote blue, get green.  The stressing of their environmental credentials was crucial to helping sway portions of the middle ground, swing voters concerned about the impending environmental catastrophe. 

In the five year run up, from Cameron’s ascendency as leader of her Majesty’s Opposition to the last election, he positioned himself as the champion of the environment.  His much covered trip to see the melting of the ice caps and hug a husky, which probably overall caused more harm than good as trips to the Arctic are hardly carbon neutral, attempted to show his caring and sensitive side.  All that’s gone by the wayside now, little more than a barely remembered fantasy. 

Or a satire on how to present politicians as electable.  We’ve gone round in circles so many times now, I’m no longer sure which it is.

Admittedly the realities of government were always going to bite into a party’s ideals.  Just look across the Atlantic for the disappointments of Obama, who turned out, after all, to not be the messiah but a politician forced into compromise like everyone before him.  So any ecological aspirations were always going to be tempered by legal issues, big business pressures, pandering to backbenchers in marginal seats, but still it is hard not to be surprised at how utterly toothless the promise to be the greenest government ever has ended up.

The Green Bank which could have been such a force for good, has been totally handcuffed by Austerity Osborne.  It is unable to act like any other financial institution, not even permitted to borrow money to generate revenue to invest and supplement the paltry budget gifted to it by the Treasury.  So rather than pump-priming new businesses and giving initiatives that could be a real force for change the investment they need, it shuffles around the halls of power offering snippets of advice, a reassuring clap on the shoulder but no actual, real cash.  It’s a pointless waste of space other than to allow the coalition to say it met its election promise in spirit if not in any meaningfulness.

Instead we get exasperations of let’s “get rid of this green crap”.  In other words, fuck the planet, screw the promises we made to the electorate, let’s just make life easier in the short term.  Governing shouldn’t be about making easy decisions in the face of adversity.  It should be about identifying the right, honourable and best path to everyone’s future and leading us there, despite the braying hysteria of climate change deniers.

We’ve had a government that tried to sell off the national forests, because of course nothing could ever go wrong in selling a commodity like land the economic potential of which wasn’t being reached.  The buyers were being asked, like those who took over the Post Office, to give a gentleman’s agreement that they would maintain them as they are.  What could have possibly gone wrong?

We’ve had a government which has permitted the introduction of fracking for shale gas, despite the data coming out of the significantly less densely populated regions of the United States suggesting serious environmental subsidence as a result.  Don’t worry, the whole island might just sink.  And even it doesn’t, as Lord Howell pointed out, there’s nothing in the desolate North East to be affected.  Aside from, y’know, Newcastle, Sunderland, Peter Lee, Middlesbrough, Durham and countless other towns.  Oh, no, he meant the North West.  That’s okay, then.  The residents of Manchester and Liverpool will be fine with the earthquakes.  A few tidal waves will liven up the jewel in the natural beauty crown, the Lake District.  Fucking idiot.

At times it has seemed as though the only person in parliament to recognise how insane this is, is Caroline Lucas.  The UK’s solitary Green MP had the courage of her convictions to the point of being arrested protesting against fracking in Surrey. 

Lucas has a banner in her office which reads “Well behaved women rarely make history.”  I’m reminded of a Pratchett quote:  “Something is only worth doing if someone, somewhere would rather you didn’t.”

‘I think I love Caroline Lucas,’ my fully paid up Labour party member wife said the other weekend over breakfast, a dreamy glaze coming over her face.  ‘No, I mean really love her.’  That’s what real leadership inspires.  That’s what it means to take the difficult decisions, Dave.

Rather than sort out – ie renationalise – the existing rail service, this government has embarked on the biggest programme of road building in decades.  We do get HS2, a London centric service which obliterates a stretch of the countryside hitherto relatively unblemished by industrialisation, but refreshing and rejuvenating the existing rail network should have been the way forward.  To encourage rail travel – and therefore not car travel – we need a system of reliable, cost-effective trains.  It should not cost two adults going to Devon by train triple what it would in my eleven year old Honda Civic. 

The only fully functioning, profit making rail service in the country is the East Coast Mainline which was state run after a bungled attempt to retender the contract, caused by Civil Service lay-offs.  Except now it isn’t; the tender has been redone – at great expense reminding us that people employed generally do have things to do (even if you disagree with what those are) - with proper governance and regular users can look forward to a rapid decline in service any week now.

Similarly, the row over airport expansion is framed in a distinctly non-environmentally friendly fashion.  The dispute is predominately over whether to expand Heathrow or somewhere else (Manchester promoting greater diversity, Boris’ ego rubbing island out in the Thames estuary, Gatwick or Stanstead on the flimsy evidence that less homes would be under the flypath) but nowhere do we seriously question whether the extra capacity is needed.  Anyone who suggests as such is labelled anti-business, willing to surrender our status as a hub to Frankfurt or Amsterdam. 

Of course, as I write this I can see a steady chain of planes entering the Heathrow queue over Oxleas’ wood, banking at Lewisham and heading right over Hilly Fields where we got married and, before then, our house.  At their current height, some twenty miles out, it is not the noise levels which is problematic but the persistency of their passing.  One every fifteen seconds or so creates a continual low drone.  I barely notice the noise, but it drives my wife mad and what cannot be disputed is the volume already fills the sky.  So we have a vested interest in less not more traffic through Heathrow – or, even better, varied flight paths which share the pain around the city. 

With one hand we’re continually told that business is modernising; that it is all Skype calls and cloud computing.  That physical infrastructures are increasingly unnecessary and yet we must build another runaway to accommodate more and more expensive, international business travel.  t makes as much sense as Jeremy Clarkson’s continuing employment with the BBC.

At my parents’ house last weekend I found a blue ring-binder with The Seventh Son scrawled in black marker on it.  My first pseudo-Pratchett novel.  I’d been thinking about it during the week, but hadn’t expected to stumble across a copy.  I opened the folder to find reams of black paper.  The old dot matrix print had faded over the intervening years leaving just the faintest intent to suggest that something had once been there.

This lasting impression is the sort generated by Cameron’s choice of Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.   Caroline Spelman was so effective a minister that her Wikipedia entry doesn’t even mention the highest office that she held.  Owen Patterson is a climate change sceptic who refused to accept a scientific briefing while in post.

UKIP MEP for Scotland David Martin called climate change and environmental efficiency a “middle class obsession” on Radio 4’s Any Questions.  He appears to suggest that a preoccupation with planetary survival bears no relation on the lives of ordinary people, as though we all don’t have children and grandchildren whom we might like to live.  To not act is to betray our children.

In 1931 Ramsey Macdonald was seen as a traitor to the Labour Party.  The man who had led the first party to its first government, the first Labour Prime Minister, was vilified for becoming PM again.  He did so as the head of a National Unity Government.  The majority of the three parties went to the electorate and said the country was facing an emergency.  The rolling shockwaves of the Great Depression were continuing to cause instability and strife across the world and extremist groups to the furthest right and left wings of the political spectrum were making merry havoc in the ruined wake.  This was not, Macdonald declared, a time for playing party politics.  This was a time for unified, concentrated national action. 

Not everyone in the three main parties agreed.  David Lloyd-George and his massive ego were still hanging around and led a smattering of Liberals against the national party.  The Labour Party saw Macdonald’s actions as pandering to big business and the established class structures, of abandoning the working man to his doom. 

The National Government won the election by a phenomenal landslide and despite the predominately Tory make-up of the party, Macdonald returned to Downing Street.  If we want to save the planet, this is what we need again.  A national – and international – concentration of leadership.  A unifying presence which doesn’t bicker over the detail but which focuses on making systematic structural changes which will reduce carbon emissions and build a sustainable future for us all.  Climate change isn’t going to be saved by the small number of businesses willing to stick their neck out to be potentially punished by their share holders.  It doesn’t make a difference, in the end, whether individuals put their rubbish in different colour coded bins and cycle to Norfolk for their holidays.  What we need is fundamental change and legislation.  The state needs to lead the way and force, if necessary, people and business to follow suit.  Everything else is like believing in magic, it’s charming, but it isn’t real.

Most of Terry Pratchett’s best lines were given to the skeletal personification of DEATH who crops up in many of his novels.  In Good Omens it says DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING.  THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO BEAT THE RUSH.  I’d rather we all were able to hang around and enjoy the view a bit longer, thanks.

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