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.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Long may She reign over us.....

The Queen has two abiding qualities that have made her so personally respected. One is her unquestioned commitment to duty (a lot of self-centred and self-indulgent media pundits could learn much from her in this regard). The second is the fact that she has resolutely kept her opinions, both political and otherwise, largely to herself and to her private councils with ministers, where she constitutionally advises and warns. She can thus, rightly, be a Monarch for all. Indeed, I myself remain a reluctant Monarchist precisely because she has always acted with such discretion.

By contrast, the thought of the Prince of Wales ever ascending the throne sends shivers down my spine. My own support for continuing with the Monarchy would falter at once and I would immediately be forced to join the ranks of those calling for a Republic. And today, yet again, we have one more instance of precisely why this particular Charlie should never be allowed to become King: 'Cancer surgeon rebukes Prince over alternative therapy support' (The Daily Telegraph, July 9):

"A leading breast cancer surgeon has issued a strong rebuke to the Prince of Wales over his support for alternative therapy for cancer patients.

Michael Baum, emeritus professor of surgery at University College London, told Prince Charles: 'With respect, Your Highness, you have got it wrong.'

Prof Baum says..... in the British Medical Journal that the Prince's reported support for Gerson therapy and more recently for coffee enemas and carrot juice cures are ill-advised.

In an open letter to Prince Charles he says: 'Over the past 20 years I have treated thousands of patients with cancer and lost some dear friends and relatives to this dreaded disease.

The power of my authority comes with knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. I don't begrudge you that authority but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life-threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies.

It is in the nature of your world to be surrounded by sycophants who reinforce what they assume are your prejudices. Sir, they patronise you. Allow me this chastisement.'

Prof Baum says that he has 'much time' for complementary therapies in the treatment of cancer when they offer improvements in quality of life and spiritual solace, providing that they are properly integrated with modern medicine.

'But I have no time at all for alternative therapy that finds itself above the evidence and practises in a metaphysical domain that harks back to the dark day of Galen,' he writes....." (read on).

Professor Baum's letter to the British Medical Journal is exemplary and is well-reported by the DT. There is no need to say anything beyond Professor Baum's devastating and magisterial indictment: "I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life-threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies."

Philip, long indeed, Ma'am, may you reign over us!

Thursday, July 08, 2004

An EnviroSpin short story.....

The orchid


The old German road ran straight through the pine trees to the sea. It ended, buried in a great mound of sand, the last dune before the shore.

To reach the beach, you had to climb a thorny path between grey sea-buckthorn, until the wind was fresh on the face, and you could watch the low waves coursing in from the west. It was a lonely place, despite the flotsam of life washed ashore from the shadow ships that sailed the distant horizon. Few people ever came then to la Nouvelle Pointe; the road was private, and the bent iron gates were locked and hidden by dense bushes, crowded beneath the shade of taller ash trees.

To the north, the coast presented a long, clean line, punctuated at intervals by small ephemeral hoiday resorts, where the front doors of the wind-beaten, coloured-concrete houses faced the land, their exposed back doors blocked by blown sand. To the south, the shore curved to the east, where it merged imperceptibly into sheep-grazed salt marshes that fringed the silted estuary of the wide river. Here tides governed the pattern of life, and slender wading birds strutted and stalked the pale mud. In winter, all was wild - resort, beach, or bay - and western rains lashed la Pointe, a lighthouse on its twin across the estuary flashing danger through the night. Yet, in high summer, behind the dunes, the land was warm, full of balm and gentle flowers, with the song of a quieter sea caught in the tops of tall waving pines and groves of birch, where red squirrels played.

The old road was now broken and pitted, patched with green moss and yellow lichen, its hard edges softened by a carpet of needles and cones. In dips, water and leaves collected to form black soil, rarely wholly dry, even in the hottest summer. To find the hidden gate, you had to take a rough track, which came, roundabout by ditch and dyke, from la Grande Patûre to the village of St Quentin. A large loop in the track ate into the forest edge, and it was here that the road to la Nouvelle Pointe began, although few knew of its existence, or sought the closed gates beneath the old ash tree that lay beyond the drainage channel which marked the end of Le Champ Neuf.


The young boy had come, however. He was now riding furiously along the old road, avoiding the humps and holes, but revelling in the 'big-dipper' hollows, into which he rushed with whoops, his legs flailing wide of the pedals of his small bicycle. Eventually, however, he turned right through a thin corridor of pines into the open sun of a grassy plain, which spread wide between the seaward marram of the dunes and the darker edge of the inland woods. Soon the bicycle slowed in the softer ground, and he jumped off, running instead to the highest dune, where he scrabbled eagerly to the overhanging top, then leapt with abandon down the slithering slope, tumbling unhurt into the sand below. Picking himself up, he looked around, and he noticed a small pool of water in the heart of the sandy hollow; it shimmered green in the bright daylight, a miniature lake, an oasis in an otherwise dry land of sun and sand. He walked over to the edge of the pool, where he bent low to rinse his hands in the water.

It was then that he saw the orchid.

Just below his eye-level, a slender stem rose tall from narrow, rich-green, fleshy leaves, bearing a spike of loose flowers, deep red-purple, each like a strange tropical bird on the wing. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and to him, a small boy, the plant seemed so big - a giant among flowers. He moved closer; the leaves were covered with tiny purple spots (like measles, he thought) and he marvelled at the dark crimson markings on the lobes of each flower. He touched the plant carefully, and it rocked slowly on its ripe, round stem. He had no temptation to pick it; instinctively he knew that it was a secret plant of a secret place, and he simply wondered what it was.


But then they had come. At first, they had just teased him, surrounding him in a circle. Did the little boy like pretty flowers? Hadn't maman done his hair ever so nicely? Did he have any money? He hadn't, so they pushed him over into the pool. Sorry, of course, it was an accident. Weren't they clumsy? Maman will have to wash his nice clean clothes. He had tried to get up, but somebody must have put a heavy boot on his back, while another had rubbed his face in the sandy water. "Mustn't have a dirty face, boy!" "Get up, boy!" Then, they threw him over again, laughing. "I think he wants a drink. Does baby boy want a drink, then?" They dragged his head back by the hair, and from a scooped hand they forced him to swallow the gritty water. He coughed and spluttered, but at that moment they turned their attention to the orchid.

"Is this his pretty flower, then?" "I think he wants to eat it, don't you?" "Do you want to eat it?" "Are you hungry, boy?" Ripping up the orchid, they forced open his mouth, and stuffed the flower into his face, so that sweet sticky juice oozed round his lips and down his chin. They laughed again, and pushed him back into the water. Then, suddenly bored, they were gone, as unexpectedly as they had come, leaving a broken flower and a crying child in the warm hollow of a dune by the old German road near la Nouvelle Pointe, while the sea sang softly in the high pines and adders curled unawares in the mid-day sun.

Beyond the dune, there was a small bicycle with a bent frame and no wheels, lying in the grass.


Some forty years later, I returned to my home village. I had never forgotten the old road, the orchid, and my secret ordeal in the warm dunes by a lonely sea. Since then I had travelled the world, but no flower had ever seemed quite so big and quite so beautiful as that, my first, and I had often dreamed of it in lonelier hotel rooms following busy days. But I wish I hadn't returned. The bunkers of the old German road and the lost domain had been replaced by progress, by the noisy conviviality of 'La Nouvelle Pointe Camping' (Four****), with bar and barbecue, toilets and showers, and places for caravans and cars, all set in a land of scattered pines and trampled grass. My boyhood beating had been nothing compared to this.

Now you may choose the ending of the story, (a) or (b) or (c) or (d):

(a) Yet, among the debris that had fallen out of a litter bin by a dark pool, I refound a specimen of the orchid. It had survived everything, war, bullies, and progress; but now it was small, much diminished in my mind, and I turned away saddened.

(b) Yet, among the debris that had fallen out of a litter bin by a dark pool, I refound a specimen of the orchid. It had survived everything, war, bullies, and progress; but now it was small, much diminished in my mind, and I squelched it under my foot to save it further humiliation.

(c) And, of course, the orchid had vanished. It had survived the war and the bullies, but le camping had proved too much for it; anyway, a new development is always offset by an extinction. It is The Law of Nature. Yet, the orchid will remain forever in my mind, as large and beautiful as the day I first saw it in a lost land by a sighing sea.

(d) Your own ending to the story.

[This short story, here slightly adapted, was first published in: Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters, Vol.1(1), January 1991, pp. 5 - 6. © Blackwell Science 1991 and © Philip Stott 2004.]

Philip, in further retrospective reveries. Now deconstruct the language?

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Bringing UK energy policy down to earth.....

The 'Summer' Issue (July, 2004) of Country Illustrated magazine (just out) carries my very serious article entitled 'Blueprint for filling the energy gap'. In my opinion, the UK Government's energy policy will prove a lethal Achilles heel for 'New Labour'. Here, below, I summarise an alternative policy for truly energising Britain for the future:

Manifesto for energising Britain

a) Ditch as quickly as possible the predication of energy policy on the foolish notion that we can manage in any predictable manner inexorable and complex climate change. What we need is a strong economy that can adapt to climate change, whatever its ultimate direction(s);

b) Base energy policy on the need to provide a reliable mix of energy generation to support economic growth with the least possible dependence on imported fuels;

c) Recognize the wisdom of James Lovelock's brave declaration that, for the mid–term (the next 40-to-50 years), there is no alternative to nuclear power. As the Royal Society likewise concluded recently: "In the short to medium term, it is difficult to see how we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels without the help of nuclear power." Moreover, it is time to acknowledge that much of what has been written about the dangers of nuclear power is pure myth. Indeed, statistics prove precisely the opposite. Nuclear power (currently 17% of the world's electricity supply) has the safest record of any major form of energy production. In the West, it has killed no one and injured no one. An analysis by The Paul Scherrer Institute of the number of serious accidents worldwide (i.e., those that killed at least 5 people) in the energy sector between 1969 and 1996 provides the following telling results: oil = 334; coal = 187; natural gas = 86; LPG = 77; hydropower = 9; nuclear = 1. We should further note that nuclear weapons require enrichment of over 90%; nuclear power needs less than 10%. Most nuclear waste is useless for making weapons. Moreover, the radiation from a nuclear power station is less than that from a coal-powered station or from a large hospital (and there are fewer superbugs too!). Lastly, if you remain worried about 'global warming', nuclear power stations release no 'greenhouse gases'. Indeed, over the whole energy cycle audit, they release lower levels of 'greenhouse gases' than any other energy source, including solar power and wind power. It is further worth noting that, by sharp contrast with the UK, China, Finland, France, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and the US, among others, including some smaller developing countries, all acknowledge the inestimable value of nuclear power for their future energy mixes. China, for example, is currently planning to develop one large nuclear power plant per year for the next ten years, while - of all countries, you might say - Sweden is developing one of the most politically-enlightened policies with regard to the safe storage of nuclear waste;

d) Encourage and support long-term (40-50 year) research into nuclear fusion;

e) While being entirely honest and open about the future reserves and the peaking of fossil fuels, continue to support their efficient use, including the 'Orimulsion' tars, but especially coal, which is due for a major resurgence. Even on conservative estimates, there are some 350-500 years of coal reserves in the world, and, with modern coal technologies, from advanced fluidized beds to gasification, coal is on an exciting new road to clean energy. Methods currently in use for CO2 capture include physical and chemical solvents, particularly monoethanolamine (MEA), membranes, adsorption onto zeolites, and cryogenic separation. The Canadian Clean Power Coalition (CCPC), for example, is a public-private partnership aiming to demonstrate CO2 removal from coal-fired plants by 2007-2010;

f) Do not be fooled by the doomsayers who predict an early demise for oil. According to a fascinating analysis, entitled 'Never cry wolf - why the Petroleum Age is far from over', which has just been published in a recent edition of Science magazine, proven world oil reserves exceed one trillion barrels. Far from the oil 'running out', the real story of the oil industry over the past 50 years has been the way in which technological change has continuously worked miracles, not only to yield new discoveries, but also to upgrade the size and extent of existing fields;

g) Support research into the long-term sequestration and storage of CO2 by ocean storage, by mineral storage, but, above all, by deep geological storage;

h) Be more open and honest about the genuine limitations of so-called 'renewables', including both the problem of intermittency of supply and their environmental downsides. Large-scale hydroelectric power involves the re-settlement of local people, interrupts fish migration, and causes the loss of habitat. Micro- and pico-scale hydroelectric systems become easily blocked with debris and are able to make only a marginal contribution overall. Tidal barrages disrupt complex and layered ecosystems. Geothermal projects mar sensitive ecological habitats. Wind farms are now known to kill important bird and bat species, including such iconic returnees as the red kite in Wales. They also despoil quite unacceptably rare remaining 'wilderness';

i) Be honest about the carbon and energy costs of manufacture in products such as solar panels;

j) Be more aware of the potential architectural damage to historic buildings that may be caused by over-enthusiastic schemes for energy efficiency and solar panels, and carry out much more research into the health problems of heavily-insulated houses and offices, from 'sick building syndrome' to fleas and radon;

k) Support realistic work on alternative fuels for vehicles, including compressed air, hydrogen fuel cells, sodium borohydride, and biofuels (biodiesel, bioethanol, and biomass fuels, like short-rotation willow coppice);

l) Always seek an energy mix that will support economic growth, and, above all, where appropriate, also assist the developing world in the provision of the best energy mixes for their own urgent growth and development;

m) Ditch the political paranoia about 'Saving the World', and, focus, instead, on practical energy development for people, for the countryside, and for industry.

I honestly believe that, if we continue to follow current Government policy on energy, we could pay extremely dearly for its foolish attempt to appease the vocifierous, but hopelessly utopian, Green lobby.

Philip, demanding a realistic energy policy for all our futures. Now, off to the Great Wen for the day.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Wise Independent advice on your web browser.....

The Independent has now followed where 'EnviroSpin' went first on June 30 (see my blog: 'Time to get foxy over your web browser'): 'Microsoft's browser dominance at risk as experts warn of security holes' (The Independent, July 5):

"Its curved blue 'e' sits on almost every computer desktop in the world, but the global dominance of Microsoft's web browser could soon be over following a stark security warning from a senior panel of internet experts who say it opens the door to online criminals.

They are urging all users of Internet Explorer (IE) to stop using the browser because they say it is vulnerable to hackers and credit card fraudsters.....

The team, which advises the US government and is a senior authority on Net weaknesses, said that flaws in the software expose users to criminals who can spy on their activities, steal their personal details or send junk e-mail from their computers without them knowing.

It said internet users should consider dumping the Microsoft software - which comes as standard installed on PCs - and switching to another web browser, such as the free Mozilla or commercial Opera products......" (read on)

This is precisely the view I took last week, having listened to pretty expert byte-sized soundings on the problem from my highly computer-literate son-in-law. I have now myself moved onto 'Firefox' for my browser and to 'Thunderbird' for my e-mail client (both from the open software Mozilla stable). They are excellent.

Here, therefore, are the download links to the recommended alternative web browsers:

(a) The 'Firefox' browser can be downloaded free from here: 'Firefox Download'. 'Firefox' runs on Windows (98 to XP, but it is especially suitable for XP), Linux, and Mac (full system requirements are provided - I believe it also supports Solaris and OS/2). The Windows download is a mere 4.78MB, which takes seconds on a fast broadband connection. I found the download to be easy to install and trouble free, and the browser runs seamlessly on my machine. You can even import all the original settings (e.g. Favourites) from your previous browser;

(b) The associated e-mail client, 'Thunderbird', can be downloaded free from here: 'Thunderbird Download'. Again, 'Thunderbird' runs on Windows (XP best), Linux, and Mac, and the Windows download is likewise small at 5.9MB. It supports IMAP/POP and HTML mail, and it has a simple system for auto-importing your address book from your previous mail client. I am really enjoying using and configuring 'Thunderbird' to my needs;

(c) The other notable alternative browser is 'Opera', and this can be downloaded from here, although it is not free (USD39). Nevertheless, PC World, US, voted it the 'Best Browser of 2004';

(d) And, finally, even 'Netscape 7.1' remains freely downloadable, (here).

As I wrote in my blog on June 30:

"What is clear... is that there is at last an excellent range of alternative browsers from which to choose, and one can, therefore, perhaps for the first time since the old 'Netscape' wars, exercise genuine consumer power.

I would thus recommend hunting with the 'Firefox' and the 'Thunderbird', or having a night at the 'Opera'."

Philip, pleased to see himself entirely in agreement with The Indy for once. Too early for morning coffee?

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Belching cattle and rotten bogs versus those SUVs.....

How much are Green politics really about the politics of envy? This little piece from The Sunday Telegraph (July 4) might help you to SUV it out: 'Let's ban all the methane machines':

"A single dairy cow belches and farts 114 kilos of methane a year. It is a methane machine. Methane is far more lethal as a greenhouse gas - assuming that one believes in all this - than carbon dioxide. It is 23 times more potent, although it does not last so long in the atmosphere. The methane produced by a single cow is equivalent to 2,622 kilos of carbon dioxide.

A Toyota Land Cruiser, meanwhile, if driven an average mileage, doles out 3,722 kilos a year. So a cow does 70 per cent of the damage of a Toyota - even more if you add on the methane given off by its manure. Given that a cow does so much environmental damage, anyone sincere about greenhouse gases should be demanding that they are banned or, at the very least, heavily taxed....." (read on)

Plus lots of udder comparisons,like rotten bogs and run-down rice fields. In Middle Earth, of course, the problem would have been those vast and mesmerising Dead Marshes rather than Pippin and Merry on their Old Toby Shire Cruisers.

Clearly, there are no pat answers. A case of the ignus fartus?

Philip, a 'will o'the wisp', in jolly mood for the European cup final this evening. No England, you see - we can enjoy it! Tea, but no milk - just think of the methane!

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

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