Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.
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I have published two articles this week on the crumbing of the dogma that fat is bad for you. This was in the Times:
Britain’s obesity tsar, Susan Jebb, says that it is not fair to blame fat people for their failure to lose weight. Genetically predisposed, many people cannot realistically lose weight by eating less, especially when the food industry tempts them with snacks. Meanwhile, George Osborne is slapping a tax on sugar to tackle obesity.
The new obsession with sugar definitely makes more sense than the low-fat sermons we have heard for decades. And the prevailing idea in the public-health industry that you get fat simply by eating more calories than you burn is misleading to say the least. While of course that’s true, it says nothing about what causes appetite to exceed need by the tiny amount each day that can turn you obese.
My Times column on the role of UK emissions policies in driving aluminium, steel and other industries abroad:
Before Redcar and Port Talbot, remember Lynemouth, where Britain’s last large aluminium smelter closed in 2012. In aluminium, as in steel, China is now by far the largest producer, smelting five times as much as any other continent, let alone country. The chief reason aluminium left (though a small plant survives at Lochaber) was the sky-high electricity prices paid in Britain: electrolysis is how you make aluminium. For extra-large industrial users, British electricity prices are the highest in Europe, twice the average, and far higher than in Asia and America.
My Times column on the sensible proposal to reform the way protected species are helped during development:
Natural England, the government body charged with protecting Britain’s wildlife, is currently consulting on reforming the way protected species are rescued from bulldozers. The rethink is focused on the great crested newt, the bane of developers everywhere, and it sensibly suggests giving the newts new ponds so their populations can expand, rather than the futile gesture of surveying, trapping, deporting and excluding them from development sites one by one.
My Times column on the growing movement for marine protected areas in British overseas territories:
Britain may no longer have an empire, but it still rules a heck of a lot of waves. One of the manifesto commitments of the Conservative party in the last election was to create a “blue belt” of marine protected zones around the 14 overseas territories that still belong to this country. It has started fulfilling the promise and is already protecting more of the sea than any other nation.
My Times column on free trade the European Union:
The late Sir George Martin created substantial British exports. Had the import of his music to America been banned to save the jobs of US musicians, Britain would have missed out on some revenue but the American consumer would have been the biggest loser, missing out on the music. Trade benefits the importing country: that’s why it happens.
My Times column on Britain's delayed and every more expensive EPR nuclear power station
Last week the British and French governments announced that they remained confident that the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset will be built. But EDF, the company that wishes to build it, declined again to say when a “final investment decision” will be made. That decision, originally intended for 2012, was then expected last October, when the Chinese president was in London — a third of the finance is coming from China. Then it was expected in November, then December, then at the February board meeting of the company, then last week. Still no sign of Godot.
It is time to pull the plug. EDF cannot afford to build it and we cannot afford to buy its premium-price electricity. At two other sites, in Finland and France, the European pressurised reactor (EPR) design is beset by technical problems, many years behind schedule and several times over budget. The Chinese are building two and have also encountered technical obstacles. Apart from Hinkley, the order book is empty, so ours would probably be the last EPR to be built.
My Spectator article on what it would be like for the United States to join the American Union:
o the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, thinks his country has a ‘profound interest… in a very strong United Kingdom staying in a strong EU’, and President Obama is planning to join in campaigning for the Remainders too. They say this not because they think it is good for us, but because it is in their interests that we influence Europe in a free-trading, Atlanticist direction.
Well, two can play at that game. How would Americans like it if we argued that it is in our interests that the United States should forthwith be united with all the countries in their continent north of the Panama Canal — Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama — into a vast customs union governed by a trans-national, unelected civil service. Let’s call it the American Union, or AU.
My Times column on why the EU is bad for innovation:
For me, in the end, it’s all about innovation. The European Union is bad at doing it, good at discouraging it, repeatedly sides with those who have vested interests in resisting it, and holds Britain back from achieving it.
This may not be a fashionable reason for voting to leave. Pollsters tell us that safety is the first wish of most voters, not exciting change, and it’s clear that both sides are playing to that rule book: one side arguing for us to take control by leaving, the other saying we are more secure if we stay in. But if history teaches us anything it is that enterprise is the father of peace, that innovation brings not just economic but ethical improvements: it demonstrably makes us kinder and safer as well as richer. There is no security in stagnation.
My Times column on harm reduction
The UN General Assembly is holding a special meeting on drug policy in April, its first since 1998. The mood of member states, as well as many international agencies, is now much less focused on law enforcement and abstinence, and much more favourably disposed to treating drugs as a public health issue, to be tackled by “harm reduction”, a phrase that was actually banned from use within publications of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime ten years ago. Harm reduction means offering safer alternatives, as the lesser of two evils.
When people behave in harmful ways, how do you stop them? You can punish them in the hope of deterrence, as we do murder, theft and fraud. You can hector them, as we do with tobacco, alcohol and sugar. Or you can try to offer safer alternatives, which is how we tackled HIV infection and heroin addiction in this country in particular, and is how we should deal with tobacco.
My Times column on the causes and consequences of low oil prices:
The continuing plunge in the price of oil from $115 a barrel in mid-2014 to $30 today is really, really good news. I know just about every economic commentator says otherwise, predicting bankruptcies, stock market crashes, deflation, political turmoil and a return to gas guzzling. But that is because they are mostly paid to see the world from the point of view of producers, not consumers. Yes, some plutocrats and autocrats won’t like it, but for the rest of us this is a big cut in the cost of living. Worldwide, the fall in the oil price since 2014 has transferred $2 trillion from oil producers to oil consumers.
Oil is the largest and most indispensable commodity on which society depends, the vital energy-amplifier of our everyday actions. The value of the oil produced every year exceeds the value of natural gas, coal, iron ore, wheat, copper and cotton combined. Without oil, every industry would collapse — agriculture first of all. Cutting the price of oil enables you to travel, eat and clothe yourself more cheaply, which leaves you more money to spend on something else, which gives somebody else a job supplying that need, and so on.
My recent essay in the Wall Street Journal on South Georgia:
When you tell people that you’re going to South Georgia, some will ask if you’re changing planes in Atlanta. In fact, the name belongs to an island near Antarctica. It’s about the size of Rhode Island but with mountains rising to over 9,000 feet. It is a wilderness, uninhabited except for two small scientific stations and teeming with spectacular wildlife.
But don’t be fooled: The apparently pristine natural beauty of South Georgia is new. Like an old master painting that was badly damaged but has since been painstakingly restored, South Georgia was once utterly desecrated and is now gloriously refurbished.
My Retrospective article on Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, published in Nature magazine:
Books about science tend to fall into two categories: those that explain it to lay people in the hope of cultivating a wide readership, and those that try to persuade fellow scientists to support a new theory, usually with equations. Books that achieve both — changing science and reaching the public — are rare. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) was one. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is another. From the moment of its publication 40 years ago, it has been a sparkling best-seller and a scientific game-changer.
My column in The Times on Britain's EU membership referendum:
Public opinion about the European Union is divided, like Gaul, into three parts: one third are already firmly in the “leave” camp, one third would remain in whatever happens, and the tussle is over who gets the middle, undecided third. It’s like pulling a Christmas cracker — part of it will go one way, part of it the other; it’s what happens to the middle bit that matters.
The infighting that has broken out among those campaigning to leave is partly about personalities, of course, but it is also about how to appeal to those swing voters in the middle. Specifically, do you win these people over by talking about immigration, the issue that dominates the news, shows the EU at its most incompetent and reverberates strongly outside the metropolis, where people worry about the effect it has on houses, hospitals, schools and local services? That seems to be the view of the Leave.EU campaign, led by Arron Banks and with Nigel Farage as its best-known spokesman. They make the case that the metropolitan elite is out of touch with the bulk of public opinion.
My column in The Times on how South Georgia's environment has been repaired:
In claiming the Falklands, the Argentinian government also claims South Georgia, even though it is 700 miles further away from its coast, was unambiguously claimed by Captain Cook when uninhabited, and is run as a separate territory by the British government. Indeed, as I found out last week when I was lucky to visit courtesy of the island’s government, it is a place where something truly astonishing has been achieved in the world of conservation.
In summer South Georgia teems with wildlife: four million fur seals crowd its shores, elephant seals are piled in somnolent heaps on beaches, penguin colonies boggle the mind in their scale, the cliffs and slopes are alive with more than 50 million albatrosses, prions and petrels, while whales once again blow in the surrounding ocean. This wealth of wildlife is the result of changing economic incentives plus regulation— to stop sealing, whaling and penguinning and to control fishing.
My Times column on the winter floods in Britain:
My invitation to serve on the government’s flood defence review seems to have got stuck in the Christmas post. So here’s a memo, based on Northumberland gossip as well as published papers, for how it should go about its job.
My Times column on the Capability Brown tercentenary:
Next year marks the 300th birthday of Lancelot Brown at Kirkharle, in Northumberland, the man who saw “capability” in every landscape and indefatigably transformed England. In his 280 commissions, Capability Brown stamped his mark on some 120,000 acres, tearing out walls, canals, avenues, topiary and terraces to bring open parkland, with grassy tree-topped hills and glimpses of sinuous, serpentine lakes, right up to the ha-has of country houses.
Brown was not the first to design informal and semi-naturalistic landscapes: he followed Charles Bridgeman and William Kent. But he was by far the most prolific and influential. His is a type of landscape that is now imitated in parks all round the world, from Dubai to Sydney to Europe: it’s known as “jardin anglais” and was admired by Catherine the Great and Thomas Jefferson.
My Times column on the hedgehog decline, and the effect of badgers:
Hedgehogs, subjects of the Times Christmas Appeal, are to get their own summit, the Environment Secretary Liz Truss said last week. Hedgehogs really are in trouble. Their numbers have plunged, their range has shrunk and they have disappeared from large parts of the countryside altogether. The population has probably at least halved during this century and may now be 3% of what it was in the 1950s.
Yet when asked why this has happened conservation organisations nearly always talk of habitat loss and urban development. This makes no sense because hedgehogs now survive mostly in suburbs, not rural areas. The one thing the pressure groups hate mentioning is badgers. Yet the scientific evidence that an increase in Mr Brock may well be the chief cause of Mrs Tiggywinkle’s demise is – as I have been discovering by reading the scientific literature – overwhelming.
My article on the misuse of Malthus appeared in Standpoint magazine. It is an edited extract from my book, The Evolution of Everything. It is worth asking how John Gray could have reviewed that book and accused me of social Darwinism after reading this!
For more than 200 years, a disturbingly vicious thread has run through Western history, based on biology and justifying cruelty on an almost unimaginable scale. It centres on the question of how to control human population growth and it answers that question by saying we must be cruel to be kind, that ends justify means. It is still around today; and it could not be more wrong. It is the continuing misuse of Malthus.
My Times column on the underwhelming results of the climate conference and Britain's renegotiation with the European Union:
There’s an uncanny similarity between the climate negotiations that climaxed in Paris at the weekend and David Cameron’s European Union reform negotiations, which continue in Brussels this week. The original aims of both plans were far bolder than the outcome. Multilateral negotiation, however well intended, really is one of the great flops of the modern world.
My Times column on the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative:
Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan marked the birth of their daughter Max by promising to donate 99 per cent of their Facebook shares during their lifetimes to support good causes. For this they were pilloried by some. The economist Thomas Piketty called it a “big joke”. For author Linsey McGoey it was “business as usual, rebranding as philanthropy, and announced with a deceptive air of selflessness”.
We have reached new depths of cynicism when a couple say in a letter to their newborn child that “our hopes for your generation focus on two ideas: advancing human potential and promoting equality” and some people can only sneer. Much of the carping is deeply confused. The Zuckerbergs have been criticised for not handing their shares to a tax-deductible charitable foundation now, which would net them a big tax break up front, and in the very same breath for not handing over their fortune in tax.
I have written five articles on climate change science and policy in the past week, for Scientific American, The Times (twice), the Wall Street Journal and the Spectator. They follow here in the form of a lengthy essay. Sentences in square brackets have been added back in after being edited out when the pieces were shortened for publication.
First, on the science - from Scientific American:
My Times column on the rise of non-belief:
Fifty years ago, after the cracking of the genetic code, Francis Crick was so confident religion would fade that he offered a prize for the best future use for Cambridge’s college chapels. Swimming pools, said the winning entry. Today, when terrorists cry “God is great” in both Paris and Bamako as they murder, the joke seems sour. But here’s a thought: that jihadism may be a last spasm — albeit a painful one — of a snake that is being scotched. The humanists are winning, even against Islam.
My Times article on wind power is below. An astonishingly poor attack on the article was made in The Guardian by Mark Lynas. He failed to address all the main points I made: he failed to challenge the argument that wind power has not cut emissions, failed to challenge the argument that wind power has raised the cost of electricity, he failed to challenge my argument that wind speeds are correlated across Europe. And he made a hash of attempting to criticise my argument that wind has made the system less reliable. The gist of his case was that the recent short-term emergency that gave rise to price spikes was caused by coal-fired power station outages. But the point was that these coincided with a windless day. In a system of coal and gas, the weather would not matter, but in a system dependent on wind, then coal outages on a windless day cause problems. Surely this was not too difficult to understand, Mark? Note that Germany had a windless day too.
Mark Lynas then took to twitter boasting in troll-fashion that he had debunked my article where he was joined by the usual green cheerleaders. They have shot themselves in the foot, I am afraid. I remain astonished at the fervour with which greens like Mark defend wind power at all costs, despite growing evidence that it does real environmental harm, rewards the rich at the expense of the poor and does not cut carbon dioxide emissions significantly if at all. It might even make them worse, as I argue here. If they really are worried about emissions, why do greens love wind? It isn't helping.
I took part in a Munk debate on 6 November, in which Steven Pinker and I argued that "humanity's best days lie ahead" while Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton argued against us. It was entertaining and we shifted the audience our way a little, although three-quarters were on our side at the start (which is probably not representative of the population as a whole).
Here's a video of the debate: http://www.munkdebates.com/debates/progress
My Times column on the western origin of the one-child policy:
The abolition of China’s one-child policy brings to an end one of the most futile and inhumane experiments in top-down social engineering the world has seen. I say futile because it did not work. China’s birth rate roughly halved in the decade before the policy was introduced, then fell not at all in the next decade. A less coercive policy would probably have slowed China’s population growth just as much, if not more — as it did that of other countries in Asia.
The Wall Street Journal carried an extract from my new book The Evolution of Everything.
The article caused a lot of interest, and was criticised by some as being anti-science. Nothing could be further from the truth and most of those making this case are not quoting the article accurately. The article is about technology and how it changes. It argues that technology is more often the mother than the daughter of science, but that's not a criticism of science. I am a passionate supporter of science, but I think it deserves to be liberated from the straitjacket of being seen as necessarily there mainly to give birth to technology. In addition I argue that science would attract funding from sources other than governments, but again that's not to say I think governments should suddenly cut off funding from science, given how many other things they fund. Anyway, here's what I actually wrote:
My Times column on the constitutional confrontation between the Lords and the Commons:
‘How can you have a constitutional crisis without a constitution?” asked a Dutch friend coming to a meeting in the House of Lords last week. Of course, it is because there is no written constitution that today’s attempts by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to defeat the will of the elected Commons in the unelected Lords on tax credits, or tomorrow’s on the electoral register, are a constitutional outrage, even if not strictly illegal.
My Times Column on the surprisingly large benefits of carbon dioxide emissions:
France’s leading television weather forecaster, Philippe Verdier, was taken off air last week for writing that there are “positive consequences” of climate change. Freeman Dyson, professor emeritus of mathematical physics and astrophysics at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, declared last week that the non-climatic effects of carbon dioxide are “enormously beneficial”. Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, said in a lecture last week that we should “celebrate carbon dioxide”.
This is a longer version of an article I published in the Mail on Sunday:
The Volkswagen testing scandal exposes rotten corruption at the core of regulation. Far from ushering in a brave new world of cleaner air, the technologies adopted by European car makers, driven by policy makers in Brussels, have been killing thousands of people a year through an obsession with lowering emissions of harmless carbon dioxide, at the expense of creating higher emissions of harmful nitrogen oxides.
My Times column on the EU's idiotic attack on vaping:
When regulation goes wrong, people call for more regulation. Sometimes, though, regulation is the cause of the original problem. It is steadily becoming clear that the way the European Union does regulation is especially pernicious. It stifles innovation, often favours danger over safety, plays into the hands of vested interests and is inflexible and unaccountable. Volkswagen’s case is the tip of the iceberg.
In a shocking new case about dangerous emissions coming to court this week, the European Commission has passed regulations that are certain — not likely, certain — to hit the cleanest and lowest-emitting products much harder than their dirty competitors. I am not talking about diesel versus (cleaner) petrol engines, though I could be. Nor am I talking about pesticides versus (cleaner) genetically modified crops. Nor wood-burning versus (cleaner) fracking. I am talking about smoking versus (cleaner) vaping.
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