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My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
A recent paper in the journal Nature concluded
that species extinction caused by habitat loss is happening less
than half as fast as usually estimated. The normal method for
calculating rates of extinction assumes that doomed species merely
cling temporarily to a shrunken patch of habitat, on their way to
disappearing (an idea called "extinction debt"). Apparently, this
isn't the case: Although a larger patch of habitat has more species
in it, shrinking a patch does not lead to a proportional rate of
According to the authors of the study, the biologists Stephen
Hubbell and Fangliang He, estimates of extinction rates based on
the usual method are "almost always much higher than those actually
observed." Though you need a big patch of forest to attract a rare
species, you do not need such a big patch to retain it once it is
there. Mr. Hubbell added: "The method has got to be revised. It is
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.
My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street
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.
`Greener food and greener fuel' is the promise of Ensus, a firm
that opened Europe's largest (£250 million) bio-ethanol plant at
Wilton on Teesside last year - and has now shut it down for lack of
profitable customers. This is actually the second shut-down at the
plant - which takes subsidies and turns them into motor fuel - the
first being a three-week refit to try to stop the stench bothering
Welcome to the neo-medieval world of Britain's energy policy. It
is a world in which Highland glens are buzzing with bulldozers
damming streams for miniature hydro plants, in which the Dogger
Bank is to be dotted with windmills at Brobdingnagian expense, in
which Heathrow is to burn wood trucked in from Surrey, and
Yorkshire wheat is being turned into motor fuel. We are going back
to using the landscape to generate our energy. Bad news for the
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:-
Here's a piece I wrote for a Times supplement published
yesterday in print, not available online.
In the twentieth century, the world population quadrupled. By
the 1960s, it was growing at 2% a year. Yet, unlike the nineteenth
century when the prairies, pampas and steppes had been brought
under the plough, little new land was available to grow human food.
Some in the western world began to suggest that food aid to the
poor was only making the population problem worse. The ecologist
Paul Ehrlich forecast famines `of unbelievable proportions' by
1975; the chief organizer of Earth Day, 1970, said it was `already
too late to avoid mass starvation'; a professor in Texas said that
by 1990 famines would be devastating `all of India, Pakistan, China
and the Near East, Africa'.
Why did this not happen? Why was India a net exporter of food by
the mid 1970s? Why did China never revisit the horrors of Mao's
famines? Why has famine virtually disappeared from Africa except
where foolish dictators cause it? Why has the growth rate of the
world population halved to 1%?
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal,
with added links:
It's presumably neither ethical nor practical, but supposing
that somebody could sequence Osama bin Laden's genome, which genes
would you want to examine to try to understand his violent
I put this question to the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the
author of a new book called "The Science of Evil" (and a cousin of comedian
Sacha Baron Cohen). He replied that there is no evidence that bin
Laden's crimes came from his nature, rather than from his
experiences, so you might find nothing.
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.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall
Street Journal is about the innovation that leads to the cheapening
of technologies, as opposed to the invention that leads to new
Cheapeners deserve as much credit as inventors.
Last week a Minneapolis firm called TenKsolar announced that it
reckons it can soon cut the cost of rooftop solar power in sunny
locations to as little as eight cents a kilowatt-hour-which is
almost competitive with conventional electricity. It borrows an
idea from computer memory technology to wire up solar panels in a
new pattern so that the current can take many different paths
through the cells in the array. The result is that the output of
the panel is no longer limited to the output of the
worst-performing cell. Until now, a shadow passing over one cell
would cut the output of the whole panel.
I published an article in The Times this week about fossil
Booming demand and stagnant supply drove oil prices to $125 a
barrel last week. Is this a sign that fossil fuels are running out?
It is more likely a sign that the cheap-oil age is giving way to
the cheap-gas age. As the oil price heads north, the gas price is
In 1865 a young economist named W. S. Jevons published a book
titled The Coal Question in which he argued that
Britain's "present lavish use of cheap coal" could not continue as
coal would soon run out and continued prosperity was therefore
"physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice
between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity."
Gladstone, as Chancellor, found Jevons' "grave and ... urgent
facts" so persuasive that he proposed to Parliament, with the
support of John Stuart Mill, to retire the national debt while the
good times lasted.
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."
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on grain,
fruit and the economic underpinnings of democracy.
When I was young, I had a mug on a shelf in my bedroom, and on
it was a poem about a farmer-a simple hymn to self-sufficiency.
Here's a bit of it:
I eat my own lamb,
My own chickens and ham
I shear my own fleece and I wear it.
I have lawns, I have bowers
I have fruits, I have flowers
The lark is my morning alarmer.