Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

I hope pessimism is not contagious

with 18 comments

ContagionWhen I was an adolescent, I used to enjoy watching horror movies – The Exorcist, Hallowe’en, Texas Chainsaw Massacre – you name it; I probably watched it. However, like many other adults (I suspect), I could not watch them now… Irrespective of whether it is a sign of emotional maturity or mental fragility, I generally have no desire to watch unpleasant things happen to people anymore; life is unpleasant enough. However, despite this, I decided to watch Contagion on DVD recently. (N.B. Do not read more than the first paragraph of the Plot section of the Wikipedia page if you have not seen the movie).

I suspect that most people who have seen the movie The Day After Tomorrow will have been amazed by the special effects; but completely unconvinced regarding the plausibility of the scenario. There were grains of truth in it (such as networks of buoys monitoring our oceans to detect any evidence of changes to thermohaline circulation patterns). However, most people seem to agree that the movie was ruined by the implausibly sudden climate change. Indeed, the implausibility was relentless; with the storyline getting more and more improbable as the movie went on – I really do not know what the Director was thinking…

Contagion – on the other hand – is completely plausible; it dramatises a contagious disease pandemic disaster scenario that has, in fact, already happened:  Forget Swine Flu, Bird Flu, or SARS; the Spanish Flu pandemic (in 1918-20) killed 50 million people – a full 3% of the global population at the time – without the aid of globalised air travel to help spread the infection. The main reason that most people have not heard about it (or don’t talk about it); is that it happened at the same time as the First World War. However, more than twice as many people expired after catching Spanish Flu than were killed during the 1914-18 war. In fact, Spanish Flu killed almost as many people as died as a result of WW2.

Contagion is particularly scary because it includes all these historic facts; but it is also scary because of the way it has been crafted.  There is nothing implausible about it; it could happen tomorrow and – despite the fact our governments know this – they cannot prepare for it any more than they have already done.  So, are we ready for it? No, we are not; and we will never be ready. It is a global threat with consequences at least an order of magnitude greater than a major volcanic eruption on Iceland and, worse still, we have no early warning system for a flu pandemic.

Spanish Flu killed 3% of the global population – equivalent to over 200 million people today. However, today, it is considered that improvements in worldwide health care and access to medical facilities could offset the massively increased risk of rapid transmission of infection due to air travel. Based on all of this, in 2008, the World Bank estimated that a global flu pandemic could kill as many as 70 million people (i.e. 1% of the World’s population).  The World Health Organization is more optimistic:  Citing a figure of only 7 million, they say it is almost impossible to say how many would die  because there are so many critical variables (including incubation period, ease of transmission, rates of infection and/or recovery, etc).

Experts reckon that we would be much quicker at isolating and replicating a vaccine for any new global pandemic; but that success in bringing it under control would largely be down to the general public being sensible.

Sadly, our inability as a species to work together to mitigate anthropogenic climate disruption reminds me of jokes about being unable to extricate oneself from a paper bag and/or organise a decent party in a brewery… So, when told that the consequences of a flu pandemic will largely be determined by the extent to which the general public exercises common sense, I am inclined to respond by uttering four simple words: “Beam me up, Scottie!”

However, I cannot end on such a note of desolation…  I think we must all try to find a positive way to look at things…  and indeed earlier this week I found myself feeling very glad to be here at all…  It is 50 years ago this week that four Russian Nuclear Submarines left their base in the Arctic carrying torpedoes with nuclear warheads.  When eventually located by US Forces, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the Subs (B-59) came perilously close to firing its “special weapon” and, had it done so, the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) which kept the peace throughout the Cold War would almost certainly have become a reality.  The fact that the Russian Subs had nuclear torpedoes was not known until 2002, when it emerged that the Commander of the Russian Fleet, Vasili Arkhipov, on board submarine B-59, over-ruled the vessel’s Captain and Second Officer – who had wanted to use them.

As it happens, having unknowingly avoided nuclear annihilation, my parents went on to conceive me a few years later…  So, if humans can have the sense to step back from the brink of WW3, we can but hope they will step back from the brink of ecological catastrophe:  We can do nothing to prevent an Icelandic volcano eruption; and we cannot eliminate the possibility of a global flu pandemic.  However, we most certainly can, if we so choose, stop the unabated burning of fossil fuels from devastating the Earth’s current capacity to support life.  Therefore, I will end with the words of a famous prayer accredited to the German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

18 Responses

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  1. Even if a vaccine to nullify the effects of newly developed biological threats were to be developed, deployment would be patchy due to the ‘New World Government’ conspiracy theorists (of whom Monckton is a well-known example) spreading their misinformation about its purpose. Look at how we are still suffering from the MMR brouhaha.

    The Spanish Flue epidemic provides salutary lesson for us should the worst effects of rapid climate change overtake us, but our ability to combat such outbreaks would be severely compromised by flooded ports and other damaged infrastructure and civil unrest due to food and water shortages.

    That Spanish flue epidemic has been well described in this book: Catching Cold: 1918’s Forgotten Tragedy and the Scientific Hunt for the Virus That Caused it .

    As for nuclear warhead tipped Russian torpedoes, that ‘we’ didn’t know about them until 2002 is a surprise to me. But of course I joined the RN in the wake of that Cuban missile crisis and over the years became well practised in the measures to reduce the dangers by deploying NBCD (Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Decontamination) techniques and also element of Civil Defence – rescuing people from damaged buildings and applying First Aid. The latter being an extension of our practice for damage control whilst at sea.

    Lionel A

    28 September 2012 at 12:40

    • Thanks for the link to the Spanish Flu book, Lionel. MMR/MRSA are classic examples of what happens when scientifically-illiterate jounralists get hold of and mangle a story. See my MMR and MRSA – health scares and bowel movements (OMG – posted exactly 1 year ago today!)

      As for nuclear-tipped torpedoes (as opposed to missiles), I suppose you are not at liberty to say if and when RN submarines carried them? From what I have seen and read, the US Navy appears to have been unaware at the time that B-59 was carrying them. If they had known, they might not have harassed the exhausted diesel-powered Sub quite so mercilessly to make it come to the surface (i.e. action that was misinterpreted by a desperate crew as an attack).

      Martin Lack

      28 September 2012 at 15:26

  2. Superstitious fundamentalist Niebuhr, an extreme rightist to the right of McCarthy during the anti-“Commie” crusade of the 1950s, sounded, indeed as much of a fanatic as the average Nazi, but he was actually a USA citizen. I know it’s fashionable to quote him in the USA. I also believe strongly that he lifted that quote from a Middle Age theologian, although superstitious fundamentalism is not my specialty. In other news, the USA invented apple pie.

    Patrice Ayme

    29 September 2012 at 01:06

    • One thing that is definitely not “news”, Patrice, is that you managed to mention the Nazis and mock organised religion in a single sentence. However, thanks for commenting; compared to you, I am unerringly optimistic.

      Martin Lack

      29 September 2012 at 11:15

      • The really optimistic bask in bad news, the erroneously pessimistic cling to daddy, that is Father Christmas, Christ, God, Muhammad, Huitzilopochtli

        Patrice Ayme

        29 September 2012 at 16:20

        • Patrice, if I was a holocaust-denying evangelical Christian pushing environmentalism based on some simplistic faith in God, your tiresomely repetitive comments would be explicable. However, I am not (and I am sure that you know I am not). Therefore, will you please change the record or go play it somewhere else?

          Martin Lack

          29 September 2012 at 23:50

  3. Talk of contagion is peculiarly timed: New SARS-like virus found, man critically ill in UK, Reuters, four days before your post.


    The main reason that most people have not heard about [the Spanish Flu outbreak about a century ago] (or don’t talk about it); is that it happened at the same time as the First World War.

    The other thing that happened at about the same time as WWI was (from Eradicating Ecocide by Polly Higgins, page 17:

    “An international conference [about pollution] was held in 1911 and American reformers joined their British counterparts. Information, reports and scientific data were shared and disseminated. Conversations about strategy, tactics and insights stoked the fire of reform and change.

    Industry argued for efficiency and technological fixes. Jevons’ paradox was quietly ignored and engineers were put to the task of researching and inventing more efficient installations.

    The government faced two choices: ban the use of coal or impose further restrictions.”

    And then, by a curious set of circumstances, World War I happened, and people had something more urgent to think about. After the dust had settled, the pollution question seemed to have been forgotten…

    Again: coincidence?

    I don’t know whether pessimism is contagious. But facing up to reality is not something that homo fatuus brutus will deserve to have as an epitaph.


    29 September 2012 at 12:25

    • War was decided, in December 1912, by 4 Prussian Staff generals, the top guys, and reluctantly agreed by the two top admirals. Then the American presidency pushed, very secretly, the Kaiser to war in May 1914. France and Britain did not see it coming.

      Patrice Ayme

      29 September 2012 at 16:35

      • France and Britain did not see it coming etc!
        And your sources to back up that astonishing bit of information are….?

        Suddenly a flat earth seems more probable.

        Lionel A

        29 September 2012 at 19:24

        • Lionel: Why do you need to insult me? I am a physicist, not a flat earth person. Be astonished, not abusive, please. That France and Britain did not see the attack of August 1914 coming is a historical fact. To wit:

          Britain had “no army” (Lord Kitchener said in a famous joke, after being named Sec for War). Great Britain was all into Irish problems, up to the end of July, as reading the press of the times shows. The entire French government was out in vacation. When it was clear the Prussians were going to attack, the under-secretary of agriculture in Paris had to decide to order General Mobilization, because (most of) the government was on a boat, out of touch (!).

          It is not a strange thing when people who are completely ignorant hide said ignorance below insult and offense. This is one of the sins the Bible does not recognize. It makes the Christian moral system quaint, obsolete. It should not be, as Christ said: “Forgive them father, because they know not what they do!”

          But it should be, now and thereafter: “Forgive them NOT Father, for protecting their crass ignorance below furious aggressivity, and leveraging their lack of knowledge into personal abuse.”

          I am used to people insulting me because their (lack of) knowledge, a precious flower they are cultivating, and that rose can only be defended by equating facticity to flat earth.

          One should stop just searching for authority, and a hyperlink to it, instead of thinking by oneself. What’s my source for 1 +1 =2? I am sure some will ask. Sorry, I cannot provide with the link, it’s just something I know.

          Anybody can access the British press archives of July 1914. Look at the front page of the Times of London, seven days before Earl Grey went to the House of Commons to request a war declaration against the fascist Reich.

          A week earlier, the frontpage of the Times of London was all about Ireland (while the fascist generals in Berlin had closed their trap, even sending the Kaiser away in vacation incommunicado, under false pretense, because they were afraid that he would stop them, after he realized the enormity of what was going to happen, namely a deliberate world war, and against the empire his own grand mother he admired so much, reigned over so long).

          Yes, France and Britain did not see World war One coming, and it was a sneak deliberate attack.

          I know that malevolent ignorant brutes are worse than malevolent knowledgeable brutes. Why? Because the ignorant ones think they are righteous, whereas the knowledgeable ones at least know that they are in the wrong. I also know that there are two types of ignorance: the one from happenstance, and the one from a willful cover-up, when ignorance itself is viewed as power, and is deliberately cultivated, as the Little Prince does with his rose. And it is because the herd is ignorant, and those who charge with it, mighty.

          So far, though, real history, made of real facts, always won, in the end. Cover-ups themselves become part of history. So why was the myth that France and Britain caused World War One, just like the Reich, created? Well, by the same malevolent ones who created the myth of Versailles…

          Patrice Ayme

          30 September 2012 at 18:40

      • Patrice, I am not going to delete this even though it is off topic. However, I really think it would be better for you and Lionel to have this discussion on your blog.

        Martin Lack

        1 October 2012 at 17:26

    • Pendantry, that poor man’s condition is purely coincidental.

      Thanks for reminding us all of that very significant Conference; and of the unfortunate amnesia humanity appears to have suffered in the wake of WWI. Personally, I am inclined to think this was politically convenient (as opposed to it being evidence that what Elke Weber called our “finite pool of worry” was in fact already full).

      Thnaks for the tpyo alret now corretcetd.

      Martin Lack

      29 September 2012 at 23:28

  4. Patrice,

    I intended no insult, my finishing remark was a way of underlining how astonished I was to learn that War was decided upon in 1912 by four Prussian generals with two top admirals going along with that decision. I was also startled to discover that the American presidency pushed the Kaiser to war in May 1914.

    In all my wide reading of the history of the naval arms race that developed, and I go back to the early days of the Prussian navy (mostly a coastal force) and then German navy, and the political-military-colonial expansion in which it was embedded I have never come across a sniff of either of those two assertions of yours. Thus I was truly astonished and interested in sources.

    I am deeply interested in history, as my library suggests and I am always interested to discover a new slant on old-history. But then any new slant, like claims about climate science, requires backing up. We are still learning things about the Battle of Trafalgar (and yes I have extensive literature about that and related themes) and even of the so called ‘Dark Days [Ages] of the Admiralty’ where some claimed that British naval policy was incoherent and the ships that were produced during the 1870s and 1880s were a motley collection of freaks designed by a naval constructor promoted above his capabilities, the Oscar Parkes, N. A. M. Rodger school of thought. Later reappraisals which encompass considerations of strategic imperatives, financially imposed restrictions and weaknesses in Admiralty and government departmental organisations come to a very different judgement of the DNC (Director of Naval Construction) Nathaniel Barnaby, the Andrew Lambert, John Beeler school. I had the pleasure of reviewing John Beeler’s book ‘Birth of the Battleship‘ for ‘The Mariners Mirror‘ a few years ago.

    I offer that information as an example of how one should be ready to reappraise history when new facts, documents or perspectives arise. This being in no way ‘revisionist’. Also as a way of demonstrating that I may not be quite so ignorant of historical aspects as you judged me to be. With very little cause I might add.

    Britain was, and remains, a maritime country, and one which chose to expend more on the material and manpower of its strategic, and at that time home defence, arm than on its army. Britain had, since Cromwell, a distaste for keeping large standing armies. That army wasn’t so little BTW and furthermore it was composed of a number of divisions of regular soldiers who could punch above their weight, as von Kluck’s Fifth Army discovered when advancing through Belgium. Indeed, Britain’s ‘contemptible little army’ could have held the Germans up longer were it not for Joffre’s need to pull back a French division on the British left flank. The race back to the Marne was then on, but where once again the British divisions caused the German forces damaging hold ups which led to what was then seen as ‘The Miracle of the Marne’. There were also a number of Territorial divisions which could be quickly called up at short notice and deployed if and when necessary. Sure Britain’s army was small in comparison to that of its continental neighbours but then her priorities were different.

    Both the Royal Navy and the Army had experienced periods of reform. The RN through responses to a series of German Navy Laws – passed to increase expenditure and expansion and the Army as the result of shortcomings exposed during the Boer War. Incidentally, Britain had a warning about Kaiser Wilhelm’s capricious whims over ‘The Kruger Telegram’ and more with Wilhelm’s eagerness to expand the German Navy to match that of his Uncle Edward. The arms race of Dreadnought construction is well know and is in itself testament to British concerns about Germany’s territorial ambitions.

    Another factor is the complex web of alignments between the powers. All out war was not a foregone conclusion even in the last week of July 1914 for even that late there were chances, admittedly missed, to pull back from the brink. But it was von Moltke’s fear from Russian partial mobilisation leaving him exposed with only one third of the Austro-Hungarian force to back him up, the remaining two thirds mobilising against Serbia (which was ironic for Serbia was not to be invaded for over a year) that pushed the, admittedly eager, Moltke to order full mobilisation against Russsia.

    Such a step, the German CoS knew would push France to do likewise. Thus, oversimplified somewhat, the stage was set for what the German’s had wished to avoid a war on two fronts simultaneously making the Schlieffen Plan rolled out without oner of the condistions necessary for its envisioned success.

    The contorted politics of the Austro-Hugarian empire and its near neighbours, one with a long history overlapping with the Ottoman Empire, was the root cause of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand it being the work of a Serbian terrorist organisation ‘Union or Death’ (Black Hand)which shared members with a Serb nationalist organisation, the ‘Narodna Odbrana‘.

    It was Austria-Hungry who by not accepting the capitulation of the Serbs to a number of conditions submitted by Austria-Hungary for the apprehension and trial of the offending terrorists that precipitated events. If Autria-Hungary had struck Serbia at short notice instead of dragging out for German support, she may well have achieved her aims before the continental powers had a chance to intervene.

    Now, irrespective of any lack of evidence to the contrary from sources such as The Times, elements of the British establishment, the navy and the army were well ready for eventualities as they unfolded and I can provide sources for all that if necessary.

    Now consulting sources suggested below will inform you that the Kaiser habitually took his yacht on a cruise at that time of year.

    Why you should have chosen to accuse me of hurling insults, being ignorant and other calumnies I cannot see given the brevity and spirit of my earlier reply.

    BTW You have not explained how America’s presidency figured in the events of 1914.


    Dreadnought: Britain,Germany and the Coming of the Great War‘ by Robert K Massie

    The First World War‘ by Hew Strachan

    The First World War‘ by John Keegan

    for a deeper, historically, view:

    The Long Fuse: An Interpretation of the Origins of World War I‘ by Laurence Lafore

    A first edition of that one I read in the early 1960’s and don’t have a copy, which I hope will be rectified shortly. Thank you for prompting ‘the little grey cells’. That latter reminds me that Belgium’s strategic value was obvious to a maritime nation this being another reason for supporting that country.

    For a longer, instructive, look at ‘The Balkans‘ then Misha Glenny’s book of that title is recommended.

    Lionel A

    1 October 2012 at 17:15

    • Lionel, I am not going to delete this even though it is off topic (as was Patrice). However, I really think the whole exchange would be more at home on a new post on Patrice’s blog. If he will do this, I would even be interested in where the discussion goes but, I would prefer that it goes no further here!

      Martin Lack

      1 October 2012 at 17:24

    • Lionel – Please note Paul Handover’s comment and my response below (Patrice has done as requested).

      Martin Lack

      2 October 2012 at 18:56

  5. It just crossed my mind that Lionel may not be aware that the conversation can, indeed, be carried on elsewhere. Patrice has opened up that window here

    Paul Handover

    2 October 2012 at 18:32

    • Thanks Paul. Just one problem with that suggestion that I can foresee: Lionel is an atheist as well as Patrice, which is why I found his aggression towards Lionel to be so inexplicable in the first place.

      Martin Lack

      2 October 2012 at 18:53

    • Well yes I did consider that but in the manner of these things I consider it a good idea to reply to such a tirade on the forum in which it occurred. And I never intended to labour the point here and will not do so further.

      Lionel A

      3 October 2012 at 12:47

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