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Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
"It's strange that I could become a professional athlete,"
said the Australian winner of this summer's Tour de France, Cadel
Evans. "Physically, I was completely unsuitable for almost all
Australian school sports. Nearly all Australian school sports
require speed and/or size."
Belatedly, here is last week's Mind and Matter column from the
Wall Street Journal.
I once had a soft spot for the yeti, known in my youth as
the "abominable snowman." As a teenager I avidly devoured stories
of hairy bipeds glimpsed through snowstorms, strange cries echoing
across glaciers, or enigmatic footprints in the snow. Slowly it
dawned on me that the testimony was unreliable, the ecology
implausible, the demography impossible and the lack of specimens
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...
Update: I failed to make clear that negative
numbers in the drought severity index implies worse droughts. The
two findings below contradict each other. Here is another
"greening", of the Sahel:
Here's (belatedly) a piece I published in the Times last
British Gas is putting up the cost of heating and
lighting the average home by up to 18 per cent, or about £200 a
year. Indignation at its profiteering is understandable. But that
can only be a part of the story: the combined profits of the big
six energy supply companies amount to less than 1.5 per cent of
your energy bill, according to the regulator, Ofgem.
atest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on
Serendipity works in curious ways. Earlier this month, on the
day before I read news of the successful implanting of a synthetic
windpipe grown with a patient's own cells, I happened to have lunch
with a civil engineer who told me about the first use of a 3-D
printer to print structures in concrete. The two technologies are
very different, but as I read more about each, I soon found an
Mark Lynas's new book The God Species contains a few pages that
dispute my account of ocean acidification in particular. Mark
kindly alerted me to this and asked for my reaction. The result was
an exchange, which Mark has put up on his blog here, which I mirror here.
I thank Mark for taking my arguments seriously and suggesting an
exchange of ideas.
Lynas: In my book The God Species I take science
Ridley to task for downplaying the dangers of ocean
acidification. He responded via email, and I to him. Here is the
exchange. Matt's final short responses are also included, indented
as 'Ridley2′. Square brackets are mine, for clarification.
Ridley: You say [in The God Species]: "Why not
just admit candidly that whilst the human advance has been amazing
and hugely beneficial, it has also had serious environmental
impacts?" Answer: I do. Human beings have serious environmental
impacts. I say so and I do not deny them. For example: "Take
coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution, silt,
nutrient runoff and fishing - especially the harvesting of
herbivorous fishes that otherwise keep reefs clean of
algae." From megafaunal extinction to alteration of the
composition of the atmosphere, I detail lots of changes wrought by
humans. On both climate change and ocean acidification, I accept a
human alteration of the environment as real. What I argue with is
whether the negative impacts are always as great as claimed or the
positive ones always as small as claimed. That's quite different
from not admitting that there are impacts, serious and
Brian Eno, the musician and writer,
is more positive as a result of reading The Rational
"That kind of marks the change I've felt in
the past year or two. I wouldn't end an album like that now," he
says. Drums Between the Bells has a loose, funky
feel; it ends with the words, "Everything will be all right". Eno's
new-found positivity - partly sparked by eco-thinker and Eno friend
Stewart Brand's book Whole Earth Discipline and
popular science writer Matt Ridley's The
Rational Optimist - boils down to a belief that we've
never had it so good.
"Cultures have a tendency to be pessimistic.
The whole of the history of humanity is people going, 'It's all
going to fall apart, my God it's looking terrible, we're not going
to survive for another 20 years.' But, in fact, on average things
have actually been getting better for thousands of years. It's like
you're playing roulette in the casino and you keep winning and you
think I've got to stop, this is not going to carry on. Well, it has
been carrying on, by and large. Most of us in this country live a
hundred times better lives than we would have done 100 years ago.
So things are getting exponentially better for us, and we can't
believe our luck, so there's a tendency to say, 'It can't go
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the
strange phenomenon of contagious cancer in dogs and Tasmanian
devils, and whether it could happen to us. Elizabeth Murchison is
speaking about this at the TED Global meeting in Edinburgh next
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.
Nic Lewis's discovery of a statistical alteration applied
by the IPCC lends strong support to lukwarming
As most people know, I am a lukewarmer -- somebody who accepts
carbon dioxide's full greenhouse potential, but does not accept the
much more dubious evidence for net positive feedbacks on top, and
who therefore thinks that a temperatuire rise of more than 2C in
this century is unlikely.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Driving home the other day it occurred to me that almost none of
the greenery I could see-trees, garden shrubs, grass shoulders on
the highway-was going to be used by humans for food, fuel, clothing