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I heartily recommend a new book called "And the Band Played On"
by Christopher Ward, a friend of mine. It's a best-seller already
in the UK. It's about his grandfather, who was the violinist in the
band that played as the Titanic sank. But it's not about the
sinking, but about what happened afterwards, and in particular the
feud that broke about between the violinist's father and his
pregnant fiancee's family. It's an astonishing tale of fraud,
hoaxes, lawsuits, imprisonment and cruelty that would make a
fiction writer blush at having exaggerated.
But, for the purposes of this website, what struck this
rational optimist most was the examples of how non-good were the
good old days. A world in which a ship's musician has to buy his
own uniform on credit, to be deducted from his wages, is not very
nice. But a world in which those wages were stopped by his employer
at 2.20am on 14 April 1912 is shockingly awful. And a world in
which his father then receives a letter pointing out that the wages
having been stopped, there is still a sum owing for the uniform
buttons, which the father should settle by return -- takes the
biscuit. This was also a world in which a seventeen year old girl
who devised a cruel hoax to get revenge on her father and
stepmother was imprisoned in a brutal jail awaiting trial for
deception. Yet I suspect Scotland in 1912 was a lot kinder than it
was in 1812 or 1712.
Next time the Archbishop of Canterbury or some pontificating
busybody tells me the world is getting worse because people are so
much more selfish these days, I will suggest they read this
The Scientific Alliance newsletter has an interesting update on GM food. The public no longer feels
the visceral fear of these crops that they did 13 years ago, even
in Europe. But finding ways for politicians to climb off their high
horses, without upsetting their masters in the Big Green
organisations, is not proving easier. Here are three extracts:
Many farmers seem to like GM crops.
Only 15 years after they were first commercialised, 148 million
hectares were sown with biotech seeds around the world in 2010, a
10% increase over the previous year. According to the International
Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications
(www.isaaa.org), 15.4 million individual farmers grew GM crops,
over 90% of them in developing countries. This is not unexpected:
agriculture has evolved over the centuries by farmers trying and
adopting new technology if they see a benefit. Crop biotechnology
is just one more step on the road, and certainly not the
This anti-biotech activity has firm roots in
the broader environmentalist and anti-globalisation movements. For
most of the public, crop biotechnology is generally now a
non-issue, and greater availability of GM crops - without taking
away the critical element of choice - would be unlikely to cause a
real furore in many countries, except amongst the activist
minority. But that relies on governments taking the scientific
advice of EFSA and allowing more approvals...
Frank Dikotter's fine -- and vital -- book on Mao's Great
famine won the Samuel Johnson prize. But you can see a short film
and a discussion about my book on the BBC Culture showhere(from minute 17.17 onwards). It's
an honour to have made it to the shortlist.
has been published that the Great Barrier Reef is not in trouble
from climate change. The effects of bleaching are short-lived and
reversible. When I said this in my book, I was patronised from a
great height by a bunch of marine biologists in New Scientist. Will
they, and New Scientist, now apologise? As I keep saying, coral
reefs are indeed under threat from man-made problems -- pollution,
overfishing, run-off, but climate change is the least of their
worries. Here's the abstract of Osborne et al's paper in PLOS
Coral reef ecosystems worldwide are under
pressure from chronic and acute stressors that threaten their
continued existence. Most obvious among changes to reefs is loss of
hard coral cover, but a precise multi-scale estimate of coral cover
dynamics for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is currently lacking.
Monitoring data collected annually from fixed sites at 47 reefs
across 1300 km of the GBR indicate that overall regional coral
cover was stable (averaging 29% and ranging from 23% to 33% cover
across years) with no net decline between 1995 and 2009.
Subregional trends (10-100 km) in hard coral were diverse with some
being very dynamic and others changing little. Coral cover
increased in six subregions and decreased in seven subregions.
Persistent decline of corals occurred in one subregion for hard
coral and Acroporidae and in four subregions in non-Acroporidae
families. Change in Acroporidae accounted for 68% of change in hard
coral. Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci)
outbreaks and storm damage were responsible for more coral loss
during this period than either bleaching or disease despite two
mass bleaching events and an increase in the incidence of coral
disease. While the limited data for the GBR prior to the 1980's
suggests that coral cover was higher than in our survey, we found
no evidence of consistent, system-wide decline in coral cover since
1995. Instead, fluctuations in coral cover at subregional scales
(10-100 km), driven mostly by changes in fast-growing Acroporidae,
occurred as a result of localized disturbance events and subsequent
Here's what i wrote in my book.
Walter Russell Mead is always worth reading. Now he has written
a two-part essay on Al Gore and the climate debate (part one; part two) that is, I think, very perceptive.
It is angry, hard-hitting, and I don't agree with everything in it,
but it somehow gets to to the core of the issue in a way that so
much other commentary has not. This is the sort of old-fashioned
polemic from somebody with historical perspective that has been
lacking on this subject. Here's his conclusion:
The green movement's core tactic is not to
"hide the decline" or otherwise to cook the books of science.
Its core tactic to cloak a comically absurd, impossibly complex and
obviously impractical political program in the authority of
science. Let anyone attack the cretinous and rickety
construct of policies, trade-offs, offsets and bribes by which the
greens plan to govern the world economy in the twenty first
century, and they attack you as an anti-science bigot.
The Rational Optimist is one of 13 books long-listed for the Royal
Society Book prize for science books. If I make it to the
shortlist, this will be my fifth time on this shortlist. (I have
yet to win, though!)
I missed this news last month. For the second time in
history, human beings have eradicated a disease altogether. This
time it is rinderpest, which people cannot get, only cattle so it's
not such big news as smallpox or (soon?) polio.
I have written the following review of Tim Harford's book
Adapt, for Nature magazine:
Charles Darwin's big idea - that blind trial and error
can progressively build a powerful simulacrum of purposeful design
- got pigeonholed under biology. Yet it always had wider
implications in economics, technology and culture. Darwin probably
drew some elements of his bottom-up thinking from the political
philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment, notably Adam Smith and
Adam Ferguson. Biology is now
returning the favour.
Books such as Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From (Allen
Lane, 2010), Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants (Viking Books,
2010) and Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology (Free Press,
2009) are suffused with concepts from natural selection, as is my
own, The Rational Optimist (Fourth Estate, 2010). Tim Harford's
Adapt follows this tradition, focusing on the key role of failure -
the 'error' in trial and error - in economic and social
I have the following op-ed in today's Times:
Oxfam's chief executive, Dame Barbara
Stocking, claimed this week in a BBC interview that there will
"absolutely not be enough food" to feed the world's population in a
few decades' time.
Such certainty about the future is
remarkable, so I downloaded Oxfam's new "report" with interest.
Once I got past the fundraising banners, I found a series of
assertions that there is a food crisis caused by failures of
government "to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to
invest, which means that companies, interest groups and elites are
able to plunder resources and to redirect flows of finance,
knowledge, and food". Oxfam is calling for "a new global
governance" - effectively the nationalisation of the world food
I sent this letter to the Financial Times:
Sir, Gideon Rachman ("In defence of gloomy
columnists", May 24) is right to point out that terrible blips
will still happen in an improving world. Another way of making the
same point is that good news tends to be gradual, incremental and
barely visible, while bad news almost by definition comes in
sudden, newsworthy lumps: wars, crashes, disasters, epidemics. It
is impossible to see a field of wheat growing, but easy to see it
washed away by a flood.
It turns out I was right to be sceptical about the Howarth study
claiming that shale gas production produces more greenhouse gases
Ther's now a definitive study here thoroughly debunking Howarth and showing
that shale gas results in 54% less GHG production. Howarth claimed
that the gap between gas produced and gas sold indicated leakage.
Instead it indicates usage in powering equipment.
This is Howarth's second big mistake. His first last year was to
assume that coal mining produced no methane.
Now this is what I call magnificent writing in the
sprit of Swift: Sean Corrigan riffs on peak oil, finite resources
and the planet's carrying capacity:
It is much better to forget all that Sierra
Club/WWF elitist, anti-mankind, horse manure about 'the call on the
planet' exerted by us members of the 'plague species' and to take a
little Bjorn Lomberg, a smattering of Julian Simon, and a
riffle-through of Matt Ridley, regarding the minuscule size of the
impact which our tiny little ilk - unimaginably outweighed by
living forms we cannot even see - can really expect to exert on the
vast, negatively-feedbacked rock which we inhabit-and to glory in
the sustained quality of our response to the challenges which
confront us, even under the far-from-ideal conditions under which
we are usually asked to make it.
For example, just as an exercise in
contextualisation, consider the following:-
I wrote this week's Spectator diary (no link yet):
A day in London for the launch of my new report `The Shale Gas
Shock', published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I argue
that shale gas calls the bluff of the renewable energy movement in
the same way that genetically modified crops called the bluff of
the organic farming movement. Just as GM allows the organic dream
of drastic cuts in pesticide use to come true without high cost, so
shale gas promises gradually to displace both coal (in electricity
generation) and oil (in transport), drastically cutting carbon
emissions without needing subsidy. Since subsidy is the lifeblood
of most of the busybodies in the energy business, and since good
news is no news, few people turned up for my report's launch.
Back in the north, watching Newcastle United unconvincingly defeat
Birmingham at St James's Park, I tried to explain `Blaydon Races'
to my wife's Swedish cousin. Tyneside's national anthem chronicles
no climactic battle, doomed love affair, prolonged feud or heroic
feat, but the crash of a horse-drawn bus when a wheel fell off.
Bizarrely, the crash never even happened, let alone on the date
mentioned in the second line, 9th June 1862 - four
days after the song was first performed by the song's
writer, Geordie Ridley (no relation). Apparently the only bit that
came true, in a verse added after the event, is the line (in
Ridley's spelling) `The rain it poor'd aw the day an' myed the
groons quite muddy'.
By last weekend, it had not done that for weeks. I realised the
drought was getting to me when I dreamed about rain. For weeks we
have stared at the sky, and the web page of the Met Office rainfall
radar, in the hope of a smudge that might presage a deluge. But
still the sun shone every dawn, promising (in the Sarah Miles'
character's words from the film White Mischief) ``another ****ing
beautiful day''. The barley is beginning to suffer, though it is
not yet at the point of no return. A friend says in Iowa snow and
frost has delayed the maize planting to the point where it is
almost too late.
This is weather, not climate: noise, not signal. Just like last
December's cold, or Alabama's tornadoes, or Queensland's floods,
things are well within the pattern of normal variation. The global
average temperature in April was 0.12 of a degree above the long
term average, according to satellites: after 30 years of supposedly
worrying warming. Not that this will stop the climate preachers
claiming the drought as evidence of Gaia trampling out her grapes
of wrath. Watch for the have-it-both-ways words: `while no single
event can be blamed on climate change, this is the sort of weather
we can expect more of.'
The barley is grown on contract for Famous Grouse whisky.
Apparently, because there is not enough winter barley in Scotland
these days, they have had to redefine Scotland to Hadrian's old
border, the wall, and we are north of that. Can we vote in
Scotland's independence referendum, then?
Driving along the military road, atop Hadrian's wall, on another
****ing beautiful evening, I ponder a simple question: did it work?
We keep telling ourselves it was an act of visionary genius to
build an eighty-mile whinstone border fence with watchtowers, but
maybe it was just a bureaucratic folly, signed into existence by a
distracted emperor with whom nobody dared argue and then found to
be Maginot-useless at stopping regular barbarian incursions. Given
what we know about the relentless decay into self-serving
incompetence of all modern monopolies - public or private - I
suspect we are too forgiving in our accounts of ancient ones, the
Roman army included.
As I drive, a blizzard of hawthorn flies and other insects die
(dies?) on my windscreen. Judging by the Geiger-counter noise they
make, it must be hundreds a minute. And there are millions of cars
on the roads. Say ten billion deaths a day in Britain alone. Does
this worry Jain or Buddhist drivers, who don't like killing living
things? I google (actually Bing) the question and immediately find
a Buddhist who advises sticking Tibetan mantras on the car so that
`even if the insects get struck by the car and die, at least they
touched the mantras and purify their negative karma.' A bit like
papal indulgences, or carbon offsets.
On Saturday night, the rain came.
I stumbled on a BBC television program this evening (watch
it here), which was unintentionally revealing. It
was a compilation of extracts over several decades from its
flagship science series `Horizon', all on the theme of the `end of
the world'. The episodes covered asteroids, supervolcanoes,
contagious earthquakes, bird flu, the Y2K computer bug, the
greenhouse effect, the melting of Antarctica, the collpase of the
Gulf Stream as a consequence of global warming.
In every episode, the alarm was maximised, the worst case
emphasised, the language ludicrously extreme. Not one hint was
allowed, even in tonight's commentary linking the episodes, that
perhaps the failure of these extreme predictions of disaster should
lead to just a little caution about continuing apocaholism.
The BBC's unbalanced championing of alarm continues.
Read my report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation
on The Shale Gas Shock here.
The foreword is by Freeman Dyson.
This is the summary
The Rational Optimist has won the Hayek Prize from the Manhattan Institute. I
will be giving the Hayek Lecture when I accept the prize later in
the year. The Hayek Prize honors the book published within the past
two years that best reflects Hayek's vision of economic and
individual liberty. The Hayek Prize, with its $50,000 award, is
among the world's most generous book prizes. It was conceived and
funded by Manhattan Institute trustee Tom Smith to recognize the
influence of F.A. Hayek and to encourage other scholars to follow
his example. The winner of the Hayek Prize is chosen from among the
nominations by a selection committee of distinguished economists,
journalists, and scholars. Past winners include: William Easterly
for The White Man's Burden, Amity Shlaes for The Forgotten Man,
and, most recently, Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds for Money, Markets
This is a great honour because my central themes about
collective intelligence and spontaneous order are in many ways
prefigured in F.A.Hayek's work, and his ideas on the evolutionary
nature of economic progress are ones that I share and have built
The Rational Optimist has also won a silver
Business Book Award.
I don't have terribly strong views on the alternative-vote
referendum that Britain holds this week. But I found this radio exchange on the BBC between John
Humphreys and the prime minister, David Cameron, remarkable. If
even Humphreys does not know how the system would allow the second
votes of extremists to be counted more than those of moderates (and
he clearly does not), then it does not sound like a comprehensible
DC: "...you start counting some people's votes more than
JH: "No, you don't. That simply isn't true, that you
count some votes more than once."
Update: the Taxpayers' Alliance has a major report on this issue, by Matthew
Sinclair, which concluded that
Over £37 million was spent on taxpayer funded
lobbying and political campaigning in 2007-08. That is nearly as
much as the £38.9 million all three major political parties
combined spent through their central campaigns at the 2005
election. But, the true amount spent on taxpayer funded lobbying
and political campaigning may be much higher as this report has
taken a conservative approach, focussing just on the most clear-cut
Is anybody else as shocked by this as I am?
Master Resource reposts Julian Simon's
wonderful and inspiring message of 1 May 1995. For good and bad, it
has aged not at all:
"EARTH DAY: SPIRITUALLY UPLIFTING, INTELLECTUALLY
Update: The `hungry time' was even later in the
year than I said. See below.
A meditation on the English spring I wrote for
I live on the 55th degree north parallel. If I had gone round
the world along that line last week, through Denmark, Lithuania,
Russia, Kamchatka, Alaska, Hudson's Bay and Labrador, I would be
trudging through snow nearly all the way (there is a handy northern
hemisphere weekly snow map on the website of Florida State
University, whence I gleaned this fact). Yet instead I ate a picnic
on a Northumbrian riverbank as a blizzard of orange-tip butterflies
danced over a snowfield of wood anemones in the mild sunshine.
Correlation ain't causation.
But for some time I have been noticing that the correlations
between certain aspects of solar activity and certain aspects of
climate are getting really rather impressive -- far more so than
anything relating to carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide certainly can affect climate, but so for sure can
other things, and in explaining the ups and downs of past climate,
before industrialisation, variations in the sun are looking better
and better as an explanation. That does not mean the sun causes
current climate change, but it certainly suggests that it is at
least possible that forcings more powerful than carbon dioxide
could be at work.
The other day at a talk I was asked, as I often am, whether I
agree that only putting the state in control can clean up the
environment. I wish I had then read this, from the blog at Cafe Hayek: a letter
sent to the Los Angeles Times:
I was on BBC Radio 4's programme A Good Read (the link allows you to listen
again) this week, where I recommended the book that was my
favourite as a child, and probably still is: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
The others chose A Game of Hide and Seek and Great
Simon Singh and James Delingpole, both of whom I know, like
and respect as fine writers, have been disagreeing about climate
Beneath Simon's latest blog on the subject there is a
debate in which several very sensible and non-inflammatory things
are said by Bishop Hill and Paul Dennis. Do read it.
An especially good comment came from Climate Resistance, who
spoke for me and I suspect many others when he asked:
Prospect magazine has published my review of Hugh-Aldersey-Williams's
delightful chemistry book,
Periodic Tales. Here is an extract in which I was struck by the
parallels between finding specialised jobs for the metals and
finding specialised roles for individuals in society:
The best science writing emulates fiction,
creating plots, surprises and characters out of its esoteric
material. The science writer's trick is to transmute the dull
tinplate of fact and theory into the precious gold of truthful
entertainment. Thus James Watson turned the discovery of the
structure of DNA into a charming farce (The Double Helix, 1968);
Richard Dawkins turned gene-based evolution into a gripping
detective story (The Selfish Gene, 1976); and Simon Singh turned
the history of mathematics into an epic (Fermat's Last Theorem,
I have just found at Spiked Online Brendan O'Neill's superb recent essay on whether
the earth is finite, and I heartily recommend it. Here's a
Over the past 200 years, Malthusians have
tended to look at people as simply the users-up of scarce
resources. They have tended to view nature as the producer of
things and mankind as the consumer of things. And their view of
people as little more than consumers - almost as parasites -
inevitably leads to them seeing human beings as the cause of every
modern ill, and therefore reducing the number of human beings as
the solution to every modern ill. Their focus on finiteness means
they conceive of humanity as a kind of bovine force, hoovering up
everything that it comes across.
I read this while sitting in a hotel room at San Francisco
airport. Huge jets queue for take off in full view of my window. I
am in the middle of a great conurbation. But between me and the
jets lies a stretch of water, an arm of the Bay itself. And the
water is a bird watcher's paradise. There are rafts of ducks such
as buffleheads and wigeon. There are pelicans, grebes and two
speces of gull. Along the shore there are great white and little
egrets, willets, whimbrels, grey plovers, stints, dowitchers,
avocets, yellow-legs and tight flocks of sandpipers. Sea lions
cruise a litle further out, and an osprey has just plunged into the
water after a fish.
Update: I'd like to add one thing to the story
below. Stewart Brand, who I know and admire, played a prominent
part in the Channel 4 film. He's not a `convert' to these views. He
has always been strongly pro-GM food and mildly pro-nuclear. So my
comments here were not aimed at him.
Last night saw a TV programme in the UK called What the Green Movement Got Wrong, in which
various greens admitted that they had done terrible harm by
opposing nuclear power and GM food and indoor DDT. It was a pretty
good programme, especially on Chernobyl.
Tim Worstall has an enlightening essay on his specialist subject,
Rare-earth minerals are the 15
elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table --
known as lanthanides -- plus two others. About 95 percent of global
production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex
in Inner Mongolia. The lanthanides are essential to much of modern
electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds. The magnets
in windmills and iPod headphones rely on neodymium. Lutetium
crystals make MRI machines work; terbium goes into compact
fluorescent bulbs; scandium is essential for halogen lights;
lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius. For some of
these products, alternative materials are available (moving to a
non-rare-earth technology would make those cute little white
earbuds about the size of a Coke can, though). For others, there
simply isn't a viable substitute.
In other words, those vast wind turbines depend on surface
mining just as much as the fossil fuel industry does.
Here is Sunday'sNew York Times variety puzzlewhose
solution was a nice surprise for me (hat tip Steve
This video was made by an organisation funded partly by the UK taxpayer.
Here's the text of an opinion piece I wrote, which was published
in the Western Daily Press (link to home page, not
article itself) this morning to publicise a
talk I am giving in Wells Cathedral on Tuesday 14th. Come along
if you live nearby for the peculiar sight of me speaking in a
church. Will I get to use the pulpit?
``If you write a book saying the world is
getting better, you might get away with being thought eccentric.
But if you write a book saying that the world is going to go on
getting better and that in 2100 people will be healthier, wealthier
and wiser -- and have more rainforests too - you will be though
stark, raving bonkers. It is just not sane to believe in a happy
future for people and their planet.
Yet I cannot stop myself. I've looked at all
the statistics, facts, anecdotes, predictions and pronouncements I
can get hold of and they all seem to me to suggest that we will be
better off in 2100 than we are now. Much better off.
I noticed a curious thing recently. The BBC's coverage of the
Gulf oil spill for the last two nights was missing one thing:
A reporter went down in a minisubmarine and looked at a pristine
coral reef. Newsnight interviewed lawyers, fishermen and
But there was no sign of a slick, a slimed pelican or even a tar
ball in their reports.
Frederic Bastiat's writings are full of brilliant rebukes
against the restriction of trade, and the curtailment of human
happiness such restrictions always bring. But it is in a discussion
around the state funding of the arts that Bastiat most
clearly articulates the pessimism behind the bureaucratic state and
the life-enhancing optimism of those who believe in human
Our adversaries consider that an activity
which is neither aided by supplies, nor regulated by government, is
an activity destroyed. We think just the contrary. Their faith is
in the legislator, not in mankind; ours is in mankind, not in the
The latest evidence for the rationality of such optimism can, of
course, be found in my book.
Pertinent to my recent response to New Scientist on ocean
acidification, Willis Eschenbach has a fascinating piece at Wattsupwiththat on a study of ocean pH along a transect from Hawaii
to Alaska. Turns out that the further north you go, the less
alkaline the ocean:
As one goes from Hawaii to Alaska
the pH slowly decreases along the transect, dropping from 8.05 all
the way down to 7.65. This is a change in pH of almost half a
The study also measured the change caused by carbon dioxide from
For those who think my recent report on ocean acidification and
plankton is unrepresentative, do check out this comprehensive database that has collated
all studies. The conclusion is very, very clear: PH reduction has a
negative effect only at greater changes than are likely in the
twenty-first century. At likely changes, the effect is positive.
Can we have some honesty from scientists, please?
In the final graphical
representations of the information contained in our
Ocean Acidification Database, we have plotted
the averages of all responses to seawater
acidification (produced by additions of both HCl
and CO2) for all five of the life characteristics of
the various marine organisms that we have analyzed over the five pH
reduction ranges that we discuss in ourDescription of the Ocean Acidification Database
Tables, which pH ranges we illustrate
in the figure below.