A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

For the love of George M's oranges.....

Yesterday evening I was languidly watching, as one does, Newsnight (BBC 2), wondering who was going to be on 'Newsnight Review' (luckily it was Bonnie Greer, whom I admire greatly), when up popped good-old George Monbiot to deconstruct the latest conspiracy theories about the current G7 summit. After a couple glasses of semillon, I have to confess that the G7 fades into a stream of only vaguely-apprehended consciousness. But on this occasion, I found myself focusing sharply, neither on George, nor on his undoubted words of Savonarola-like wisdom, but on a most delectable bowl of oranges so tastefully positioned on his table. All was set off by a delightful rustic jug of flowers. The screen seemed to transform itself into that most exquisite of nature morte, the 'Still Life with Oranges and Walnuts' by Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), which hangs in The National Gallery. What luscious, juicy, orangey-oranges they were too, deep, deep orange in colour! I could have died for the love of three of them!

But then a series of dark queries slowly formed in my sluggish brain. Where had they come from? Spain, as in the still life? South Africa? Israel even? Not, I frowned, from a Florida Bush, from the Evil Empire? Yet, surely (the oranges looked so good!), they would have had to have been flown or shipped in from somewhere warm and balmy, and then taken by long-distance lorry to some distribution point, and then sold on, eventually to land, so perfectly, on George's most gorgeous table? Were they organic, I mused? Or waxed? And what of the air miles, the road miles, the problems of trade, and those carbon dioxide emissions? George would not approve of this! Was it the BBC 'sexing up' the image?

Or, were these very kings of fruit grown here in one of those wonderful Victorian or Edwardian orangeries, like that by Lutyens at Hestercombe Gardens in Somerset? But, again, what of the energy involved and of the emissions? Or, indeed, with all this jolly 'global warming', perhaps George was thrilled to be able to grow them himself on a small bush in his house, or on his patio? But shouldn't we buy produce from those places with a natural competitive advantage?

Ah! Of course, yes. I suspect they were fair-trade oranges - 'Orange Aid' even! Or, perhaps George (or the Beeb) just forgot that oranges are not the only fruit. I'm sure George could explain.

Still, those oranges play on my mind, even on this bright, sharp morning - just think what they symbolise: trade, aid, empire, conquest, kingship, luxury, - nay the very history of the world.....

..... The sweet orange was probably native to sub-tropical China and Southeast Asia. Our word is derived from the Sanskrit. The Arabs were the first to mention citrus in their writings. The Moors brought the fruit to Spain, where it was highly esteemed medicinally and even in religious services. It was planted in Versailles in 1421. Columbus transported oranges to South America in 1493, and by 1587 Cuba was covered with them. Later, Spanish missionaries brought the precious fruit to California, establishing the first orange groves in the 1700s.....

And now, from somewhere in the world, there they were, beautiful, rich oranges, squeezed together on George's table top. It's known as globalisation, George. The world is orange.

Philip, off for a Kentish apple. "Pippin, Merry! Care for a second breakfast?"

Friday, February 06, 2004

In praise of Latour.....the vade-mecum for all scientists, science correspondents and environmental journalists.....

We are currently obsessed by the 'battlefield' between 'Western enlightenment' and 'the Other'. We are likewise deeply concerned by a perceived rift between 'society' and 'science', and, within science, by snide distinctions between 'science' and 'media', between 'popularisers' and 'researchers', and between the science text and its communication. Should the construct, 'Susan Greenfield', be made FRS? Is emotion and hype destroying 'science'? Can people trust 'science' and 'scientists'? Why is the linkage between 'science' and 'policy' so fractured? Is 'science' being abused for political agendas? We all know the questions, on which there have been too many recent articles and commentaries, many facile, a few informative. Even 'Susan Greenfield' is constructed, and deconstructed, like a Picasso portrait, from many angles (e.g., see the front page of today's The Times).

What is strange, however, in all the media output on this, whether by journalists or by specialist science commentators, is the glaring absence of any reference to those philosophers who have been addressing such critical questions for the last ten years, or so, the most important of whom is undoubtedly Bruno Latour. Indeed, I would doubt the credentials of any to comment in depth if they have never read, for example, Latour's seminal We have never been modern (originally Nous n'avons jamais été modernes, 1991).(1) All scientists should be encouraged to read this profound work - many times (it is tough!). No scientist should be allowed to go down from a 'modern' University with a degree in 'science' if they have not done so. Indeed, I would be fascinated to know how many current FRS have confronted Latour themselves - The Royal Society would be a far more responsive, and socially-accepted, body, if they had.

In deconstructing his own 'hybrids', Latour strikes at the roots of the questions I have listed above. I will quote a key passage (in the fine translation by Catherine Porter):

"The tragedy becomes more painful still when the antimoderns, taking what the moderns say about themselves at face value, want to save something from what looks to them like a shipwreck. The antimoderns firmly believe that the West has rationalized and disenchanted the world, that it has truly peopled the social with cold and rational monsters which saturate all of space, that it has definitively transformed the premodern cosmos into a mechanical interaction of pure matters. But instead of seeing these processes as the modernizers do - as glorious, albeit painful, conquests - the antimoderns see the situation as an unparalleled catastrophe. Except for the plus or minus sign, moderns and antimoderns share all the same convictions. The postmoderns, always perverse, accept the idea that the situation is indeed catastrophic, but they maintain that it is to be acclaimed rather than bemoaned! They claim weakness as their ultimate virtue.....

What do the antimoderns do, then, when they are confronted with this shipwreck? They take on the courageous task of saving what can be saved: souls, minds, emotions, interpersonal relations, the symbolic dimension, human warmth, local specificities, hermeneutics, the margins and the peripheries. An admirable mission, but one that would be more admirable still if all those sacred vessels were actually threatened."

I would encourage ("Get to it you lot!") all journalists, all commentators, and all scientists who wish to engage in the debate to read Latour before they even think about putting keyboard to screen on the topic again. Most of what has been written to date has been simplistic; some has just re-invented the pre-modern or modern wheel. Latour has said most of it already, and much more cogently.

I believe that both those who call themselves 'scientists' and those who designate themselves as 'environmental' or 'science' correspondents need urgently to learn how to deconstruct themselves, and their own 'hybrids', in, and for, our 'non-modern world'.

Your prime reading matter ("Pay attention there, you at the back!") for the weekend should thus be Latour's We have never been modern and J.-F. Lyotard's The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge (originally La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir, 1979).(2) A fine claret and Brendel playing Schubert might help the medicine go down.

But, I think you will be surprised by the reflections you see in the mirrors of these two great philosophers.
(1) Bruno Latour: We have never been modern. (Trans. Catherine Porter). Harrow: Pearson Education. ISBN 0-7450-1321-X (pbk), 1993.
(2) J.-F. Lyotard. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. (Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi). (Theory and history of literature, Volume 10). Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-1450-6 (pbk). 1984 (many later reprints).

Philip, trying to legitimise the problem (a bit)! Lunch.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Country Life opposes onshore windfarms.....

The latest edition of the magazine, Country Life (February 5), carries an excellent Editorial against the development of onshore wind farms in the UK. Under the heading, 'Jolly Awful Green Giants' (p. 35), it argues that a whole suite of current applications for wind farms are "about to assault the countryside" and that these "should be opposed vehemently." I entirely agree.

The Editorial correctly analyses the heavy environmental costs of turbines, "twice as high as Nelson's column", and also points out that any return will be modest, to say the least. Without lucrative renewable energy certificates to trade, most wind farms do not stack up commercially. Moreover, I must add that they will do precious little to manage climate change.

The Editorial also rightly asserts that: "Britain is one of the most crowded countries in Europe; the pressures on southern England, in particular, hardly need repeating. To add to them with wind farms would, ironically, fly in the face of every principle of sustainable development."

The Editorial concludes that "...the building of onshore windfarms should be abandoned....before the whisper of protest turns into a roar."

I congratulate Country Life for recognising so sharply the inherent dangers of onshore wind farms. The truth is painfully obvious - onshore wind power is very expensive, it doesn't deliver the environmental benefits it promises, and yet it carries substantial environmental costs. Promoting wind farms over other forms of energy generation will surely prove to be a most costly blunder, in every sense.

It is time, indeed, to roar out against this crass industrialisation of our countryside and our last remaining wilderness. The government has got this badly wrong, and wrong in environmental terms too. Government's view of wind energy is indeed 'green' - but only in the sense of naif!

Philip, getting the wind up and striking a 'blow' for landscape.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Watching 'GM Watch'.....

Unlike the witty lads at The Guardian (see Blog below), they do write some ad personam drivel at GM Watch (formerly NGIN), an organisation about which I have already had cause to blog ('Lowering the tone of the GM debate' January 9).

Here is part of their bizarre take on yours truly: "Although he presents himself as an expert debunker of environmental myths, Stott does not appear to have had a single paper published in a scientific journal in the fields in which he most frequently applies this 'expertise', eg climate change or tropical ecology."

Well, that would come as a big surprise to my former students who (and I sympathise with them) had to wade through pages of Stott in scientific journals and books on savannas, on tropical fire ecology, on rain forests, on tropical constructions of environmental knowledge, and on environmental change! I know libraries are a mirage to many good souls, but really.....! I have worked on, and supervised PhDs on, the tropics - especially on savannas - for a mere thirty years (trivial, I know) - but perhaps GM Watch doesn't recognise that savannas are a tropical and sub-tropical formation? (And, before anyone squeals, 'savanna' [not 'savannah'] is the preferred scientific spelling, and has been for 50 years).

This is just one of GM Watch's misleading sneers. I shall not, however, waste my time countering the rest, a large percentage of which seem to be trying to smear by association. But a final riposte: I am passionately anti-tobacco - please write and complain on my behalf if you see anyone, anywhere, hinting otherwise, even by remote association. I refuse to be traduced on that issue. Thanks.

Moreover, the last thing I claim to be is 'an expert' in anything - and GM Watch likewise seems far from 'expert' about those whom they attack so gratuitously. They really do represent the depressing face of the GM debate. It is just too pathetic. C'est la vie. Resort to ad personam abuse is always a last resort, I fear.

And the wit of The Guardian lads is much cleverer too.

Philip, now for some delicious gunpowder tea. That should 'blow' the bad taste away.....!
"Bless thee, Stotty! Bless thee! Thou art translated!"

My old sparring partners at The Groaniad have struck back! Well roared, Lions!

On opening the 'Environment' pages of the Society Section this merry Mid-Winter's morning, I thought I was dreaming as I confronted myself translated into the very Bard whose glorious verse I had so traduced to save the fair field of Agincourt from further despoliation by the windy French (see 'Windfarms at Agincourt? Non!' January 28, below).

Great picture, lads - a pity it's not online ("I must to the hair restorer, monsieur, for methinks I am marvellous bald about the pate.").

Still, we do have the "very tragical mirth" itself: 'Bard to worse' (scroll down). (And, of course, "Brevity is the soul of wit" - in parentheses, being the wrong play.)

For those who can face viewing the montage in the newspaper, I'm sure you will all agree that it is: "A proper man, as one shall see in a summer's day."

Stotty's Shakespeare -and, with all this 'global warming', I'm off to a bank "Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows/Despite the frost and all the snows!" Enough - too much bardinage for one day!

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

A wee dram of common sense....

For today's 'Home Planet' programme on BBC Radio 4, listen here (if you are in the UK, it is broadcast every Tuesday afternoon at 15.02 GMT on BBC Radio 4; if you are outside the UK, you may still listen to it, online, via the BBC 'Home Planet' Web Page: (a) on the day in question, choose the 'Listen Live' button; or, (b) for one week after the first broadcast, choose the 'Listen Again' button; or, (c) after one whole week, select the relevant date under 'Previous Programmes'.). Today, you get Stotty et al. on whisky and peat (a wee dram of common sense all round), marine parks, sprats, nuclear power and hydrogen, and tree rings! Biodiversity all round!

Philip, just a smidgen too early for a wee drop! Coffee will have to suffice.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Thank you Lord Hutton.....

I am deeply in Lord Hutton's debt. He has achieved the impossible. He has managed to disinfect the British Sunday press and the media of the persistent virus of environmentalist hype. No more 'W32/Ourdoom@mm' with my cornflakes!

This morning, breakfast was a peaceful affair, untroubled by the ending of the world, by asteroids, by 'global warming', by GM monsters, or by anything else from the modern panoply of angst and affectation. Sheer bliss! I could get on with my life, without the worryworts curdling the milk or sending me into to groans of incredulity. "I don't believe it!"

Instead, of course, we could tramp through more hectares than subsidised by the EU on journalists written by (yes, you've got it!) journalists. Indeed, there appears to be no topic more sacred to a journalist than that of 'journalists', especially, of course, 'wronged journalists'. The luvvies can't get enough of themselves. And what sensitive little bunnies they are proving to be. Luckily, however, I don't have to read this stuff, not living in Islington or East Anglia (Islington-on-Sea).

Of course, if Hutton had written what the journalists all 'knew' he would/should write, the man would have been canonised in the largest and most florid of fonts. Instead, with fastidious, be-gloved hands, he has upturned a dark stone under which the reptiles have been living, untouched by sunlight, for far too long. Now, shedding their tails in urgent defence, they are running around the newsprint compost heap, tongues dripping venom. It is not an edifying sight.

We were told, over and over again, to wait for Hutton. What a fine and impartial man he was! Now that he as shown himself to be precisly this, he has been instantly transmuted into an establishment patsy or a fool. It won't do! The image of so many journalists writhing in agony like the most operatic of Italian footballers ("Youa can'ta meana mea, Ref!") is pathetic (especially when they have just scored a spectacular own goal). The referee has blown his whistle and has shown the yellow card. Take it like men, and get up and play the game. After all, you expect so many of your own 'victims' to do precisely that. It is time to learn the adult game of being able to take criticism, not just to dole it out from beneath the stone.

Still, I don't mind the writhing for a little longer. No doubt, we shall all too soon be trundling off, yet again, to hell in the 'global warming' or GM handcarts. But thanks, Lord Hutton, for daring to call the reptiles' bluff. You are indeed a just and saintly man. A hype-free Sunday - I must make the most of it.

Philip, having a happy Sunday. "A day without ecohype/Is a day without tripe!"

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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