Lack of Environment

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

Posts Tagged ‘History

From Noah to Nordhaus via Inhofe

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US Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is a climate change sceptic primarily because he believes God has promised not to flood the Earth again; and the rainbow in the sky tells him it must be true.

Such ideologically-driven wilful blindness is very dangerous. Indeed, most climate scientists agree that it threatens the future of most life on Earth.

Sadly, such ideological blindness is not unique to those foolish enough to believe the Earth was created in 6 days only 6,000 years ago. As Stephan Lewandowsky et al have pointed out, adherence to libertarian ideology and free market economics are strongly correlated with a rejection of the scientific consensus that humans are the primary cause of post-Industrial climate change. Pseudo-skeptics may have attempted to discredit this research but, they cannot refute the empirical evidence for the above correlation.

Indeed, in his book Poles Apart: The international reporting of climate scepticism, James Painter provides ample evidence that climate change ‘scepticism’ is predominantly a feature of right-wing newspapers in English-speaking countries.

However, I digress from the story I want to tell…

It is no secret that stories of a global flood, like that of Noah and his Ark, are found in the earliest writings of numerous ancient civilisations around the World.  Until yesterday, however, I had no idea what this might have to do with an abrupt but temporary global cooling event, known as the Younger Dryas, which occurred between 11,500 and 12,900 years ago.

This came to my attention yesterday morning while watching television, when the presenters of BBC Breakfast began interviewing a journalist I had never heard of before.

For at least 20 years, Graham Hancock has, apparently, being telling anyone that would listen that a comet impact in Antarctica about 12,000 years ago – and the sudden sea level rise it caused – wiped out most evidence of an advanced human civilisation that predates any of the others by about 5,000 years. In doing some research on this yesterday, I discovered that this was something that the Huffington Post had picked up on in May this year.  However, digging a little deeper, I found that it is over 5 years since Hancock’s ‘smoking gun’ evidence was reported in the Scientific American magazine.  It would therefore appear that Hancock is very good at self publicity and recycling old news.

Even so, I nearly choked on my breakfast when Hancock suggested that the Giant Sphinx at Gaza was not built by the Egyptians. He pointed out that the Sphinx appears much more weathered (by rainfall) than the in-situ stone on the pyramids around it. However, the real clincher for his argument was the fact that organic material – which can be carbon dated – found at the Gobekli Tepe site in Turkey is about 12,000 years old. This is significant because all other early civilisations – that left behind monumental architecture – are thought to date from no more than 7,000 ago.

This has long been a mystery that archaeologists could not explain, but which is explained by the comet impact.

However, again as a result of research I did yesterday, I was amazed to find out that suggesting a comet impact might explain the origins of the story of Noah’s Ark was not just Hancock’s idea. It is one that can be traced all the way back to Edmund Halley in 1694, as blogger Jason Colavito pointed out in his summary of Graham Hancock at the end of last year.

So, Graham Hancock has used his skills as an investigative journalist to pull together evidence from different spheres of science to solve the archaeological mystery of Gobekli Tepe.  Therefore, given the amount of criticism he received 20 years ago for putting forward an idea with no supporting evidence, it is perhaps understandable that he is now making so much of the fact that the evidence has since been found.

However, even if the idea was not really his in the first place, I think this explanation for the Younger Dryas event is important because it highlights the fact that the vast majority of modern human civilisation is in danger of being wiped off the face of the Earth if large amounts of land-based ice slide into the sea.

Sadly, those who continue to dispute that this might happen – and/or assert that Antarctica is actually cooling – have picked a fight with science and history that they are bound to lose.

On what basis do I say this, you may well wonder. Well, for the record, here are two good reasons:

1. It is impossible to explain the totality of post-Industrial warming without acknowledging that the dominant factor is the 40% increase in atmospheric CO2 caused by the burning of fossil fuels (see also Fig 5 in Hansen et al 2007 below).

2. Although the interior of Antarctica may be cooling – and the sea ice around it may not be shrinking because of the huge expanse of the surrounding Southern Ocean – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and Antarctic peninsula are amongst the fastest-warming places on the planet.

Fig 5. in Hansen et al (2007), 'Climate simulations for 1880-2003 with GISS modelE'. Clim. Dyn., 29, 661-696

Fig 5. in Hansen et al (2007), ‘Climate simulations for 1880-2003 with GISS modelE’. Clim. Dyn., 29, 661-696

To conclude, I can do no better than to refer, once again, to the six reasons put forward by the formerly-sceptical economist William D. Nordhaus as to ‘Why the global Warming Skeptics are Wrong‘.


10 Sept 2015 (15:00 BST): With apologies for any confusion caused, this blog post has now been edited to remove repetition and ambiguity resulting from my hasty/poor proof-reading of the original.

Lobbying: from Fiji Fools to Fossil Fuels

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When the latest lobbying scandal broke in the UK last week, I must admit that I was somewhat surprised by the decision of Patrick Mercer MP to resign from the Conservative Party and announce he will leave Parliament in 2015.  However, having now watched the BBC Panorama programme about this last night, I understand completely.

Last week, I did not appreciate that Fiji had been expelled from the Commonwealth because it is currently being run by a cabal of Fijian Army officer who ousted a democratically elected government in 2006.  Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened in Fiji.

This is also not the first time that British MPs (and/or Members of the House of Lords) have been caught in Sting operations taking money from undercover journalists posing as Lobbyists.  However, this is not the only reason why Patrick Mercer comes out of all this looking so greedy and foolish.

Although Mercer admits (to the undercover journalist, Daniel Foggo) that he has never been to Fiji, he does not appear to be that bothered when Foggo explains (or reminds him of?) the recent history and circumstances of Fiji.  Mercer also executes some wonderful intellectual acrobatics in order to dismiss a potential conflict of interest between sugar cane production in Fiji (currently suffering due to exclusion from Commonwealth markets) and sugar beet production in his Newark constituency (on which 900 local jobs rely).

In the BBC Panorama programme, Foggo also manages to entice Lord Laird of Artigarvan (an experienced former professional lobbyist himself) into adding Fiji to what is probably a lengthy list of dubious causes he already promotes (such as the oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan).

However, what has this to do with fossil fuels?  Well, I was prompted to write this blog post by the contribution to the programme of Douglas Carswell MP, who is a prominent climate change ‘sceptic’ within the Conservative Party.  Carswell’s contribution included some very self-righteous pronouncements implying that lobbying was a corruption of the democratic process.

As an aside, this point was also made by someone in the audience of BBC’s Question Time programme last night; except that this astute member of the public chose to specify ‘professional’ lobbyists – those who make money out of getting politicians to do things for them.  As numerous people have pointed out, the thing that corrupts the democratic process is not lobbying – it is money. 

There is no better example of money being used to influence the political process – and thus no greater corruption of democracy itself – than the work of the Fossil Fuel Lobby (e.g. here).

Therefore, Carswell’s contribution to this programme was, at best, completely ironic, or, at worst, utterly hypocritical.  There are two options here because it is not clear (to me at least) whether Carswell is deliberately misinforming others or simply misinformed himself.

I will give you some examples of statements Carswell, a graduate in History, has made about climate science, and let you be the judge: Douglas Carswell is an outspoken backbench MP who was clearly so impressed by reading Ian Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth that he decided to blog about it (criticising Prof John Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for labelling Americans as being ‘ignorant about climate change’), as follows:

Perhaps we should send the Americans copies of Prof Ian Plimer’s book on the subject… to enlighten them?  …If we did, those ‘climate illiterate’ Americans would learn how some scientists are of the view that:  FACT 1: Global temperatures are not determined by the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.  FACT 2: The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is largely determined by geology – and human activity has only a very marginal effect…  But surely, good science is not about the weight of opinion, but about the weight of fact and evidence?  …In the free market of ideas, expect a correction soon (Douglas Carswell’s Blog 29/09/2009).

A few days later, he began another post on his blog by saying, “The lunatic ‘consensus’ on man-made climate change is starting to break down” (ibid – 12/10/2009).  Intriguingly, neither of these items appear to be viewable on his TalkCarswell blog today.  However, he definitely said them because he has been quoted and criticised in numerous newspapers.  Indeed, as a result of this latter comment, Carswell was criticised by many and got himself into his local newspaper, the Clacton Gazette, which quoted him as having said:

I have thought long and hard about it and in my view the climate is not changing because of human activity…  We know that it was a lot warmer in the middle ages.  In Essex, we know a variety of grapes were grown, it was that much warmer…  I read a book this summer which details less than half of one percent of all CO2 in the atmosphere and surface of the earth is caused by man (as quoted in the Clacton Gazette newspaper on 23/10/2009).

The UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Edward Davey, has recently said this:

Of course there will always be uncertainties within climate science and the need for research to continue…  We make progress by building on what we know, and questioning what we don’t.  But some sections of the press are giving an uncritical campaigning platform to individuals and lobby groups who reject outright the fact that climate change is a result of human activity.  Some who even deny the reality of climate change itself…  By selectively misreading the evidence, they seek to suggest that climate change has stopped so we can all relax and burn all the dirty fuel we want without a care…

For an economist, Davey’s words are refreshingly blunt and consistent with history, science and reality.  For more on this speech, see this post on the Think Progress website about it.

Therefore, the question remains, which camp are people like Carswell in:  Do they know what they are saying about climate science is rubbish or do they actually believe their own propaganda?

Views of Doha

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The 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the UN’s Framework Convention on climate Change (UNFCCC), ended in Doha (Qatar) last weekend.  Sadly, this event was not considered newsworthy in the mainstream media in the UK.  Irrespective of the outcome of COP18, the X Factor and the tragic death of a nurse following a hoax phone call were considered far more important than the diminishing prospects for international cooperation to avert a climate catastrophe.

Back in the real world – as opposed to the sweet-smelling rose garden of our celebrity-obsessed media – the consequences of the UNFCCC’s failure to prevent continual growth in carbon dioxide emissions over the last 20 years have been reported by a wide range of bodies.  The news is not good.

Even before COP18 had ended, Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo, was on record as having told the AFP news agency:

If we make a judgment based on what we’ve seen in these negotiations so far, there is no reason to be optimistic. – Fractious Doha talks bode ill for 2020 deal, observers say

Writing for the website of the Global Travel Industry News website – let’s not talk about its carbon footprint for now – Wolfgang H. Thome (a PhD from Uganda) reported the outcome of COP18 as follows:

In spite of the writing now being clearly on the wall, and climate change projections suggesting an average rise of temperatures by 2 degrees C 40 years from now, and up to 5+ degrees C by the end of the century, the main polluters have once again succeeded to push tough decisions into the future. – Doha’s failure spells doom for Africa

A team of observers from the Center for American Progress website, introduced their summary of events as follows:

The end of this year’s UN climate summit last weekend in Doha, Qatar, marked a period of transition… to… a three-year process to create a new comprehensive climate treaty, which will be applicable to all countries and cover 100 percent of global emissions. – See here for the full briefing on the outcome.


There is just one problem with the glacial speed of the UNFCCC’s progress towards a Treaty to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol – unlike glacier melting in the real world – it is not accelerating in response to the increasingly obvious warming of the planet.

With my thanks to fellow-blogger Paul Handover for alerting me to it – via his most recent post – the Yale Forum on Climate Change and The Media has reported that the renowned British climate scientist – and prominent critique of UK government policy – Professor Robert Watson, recently told a California audience that:

Fundamentally, we are not on a path toward a 2 degree world…  Average global temperatures could rise 2 to 7 degrees C by the end of the century, driving a litany of environmental change…  Therefore, we must adapt… – Forget About That 2-Degree Future

What scares me about this is that, as Clive Hamilton suggested (in Requiem for a Species), believing that we can adapt to the accelerating change that our leaders are ignoring is very probably a fanciful delusion in itself. –

We have failed to heed the warning signs and therefore, just as William Ophuls predicted (in Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity), we are currently in the process of reducing the Earth’s long-term ecological carrying capacity. Furthermore, the longer our political “leaders” take to acknowledge – and respond to – this fact, the greater the collateral damage is going to be. –,ecological_scarcity.html

In the long run, unmitigated climate change is almost certainly going to cause genocide on an unprecedented scale – at least 100 times greater than the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis 70 years ago. As was the case back then, an awful lot of people seem to be just standing around allowing it to happen.

China breaks new world record

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It’s amazing really; thanks to the hypocrisy of the Communist Party of China (CPC) since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China has achieved in 36 years what Western Capitalism has taken more than ten times as long to achieve.  Thanks to Andrew Marr’s History of the World, I recently became aware of the way in which stock markets were first created in the wake of the World’s first commodity trading bubble – the tulip mania of Holland in the 1630s…

Since that time, Western Capitalism has succeeded in inventing and then abolishing slavery (but not before making sure that this colonial exploitation denuded an entire continent of the one thing that might have enabled it to prosper on its own terms)…  It invented industry, pollution, and sewage treatment works…  It invented colonial exploitation and then made a great show of renouncing it; only to perpetuate it by other means – through the instruments of multi-national companies, stock markets, trade agreements, and global institutions…   It extended the right to vote to all men and then even women too…   It lifted huge numbers of people out of absolute poverty and tantalised millions more with the promise of a better life…  In the UK, we invented mandatory education for all children; and created and later abolished Grammar Schools – favouring instead the Comprehensive system that has succeeded only in failing all children equally…

In the final analysis, however, globalised Capitalism has – just like the Atlantic Slave Trade – served only the interests of those who were already better-off; and it has been spectacularly successful in one thing only – making them even more wealthy than they were before…  We may well have eradicated Smallpox but, in the last Century – irrespective of the changes of government –  the gap between rich and poor has grown steadily wider and wider.  The trickle-down effect of the Reagan and Thatcher era was a cruel myth; in reality wealth has become evermore concentrated in the hands of a super-wealthy elite.  Some, like Patrice Ayme, would call it a plutocracy but – whatever you want to call it – its only interest today is in ensuring its own survival.  In a way, it is analogous to the Skynet of the movie Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines:  It has become self-aware and is proceeding to exterminate its enemy – humanity itself.

As I said, the CPC has achieved all this in only 36 years and it too has now hit the growthmania equivalent of what Marathon runners refer to as “The Wall”…  Ten times as fast and just as successfully, having promised to raise all its people out of poverty, it has comprehensively failed to achieve its stated aims.  Once again, I find myself quoting John Gray from page xiv of the 2009 edition of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism:

Always a utopian project, global laissez-faire has run aground on its own contradictions.

Along the way, however, the CPC decided to construct a protective fortress around itself in the form of a million millionaires; and a burgeoning middle class…  The CPC has embraced the need to tackle climate change but only because it perceives it as a threat to its own long-term survival…  Sadly, although it has not taken its foot off the economic accelerator, the fuel tank is now empty…  It has lent so much money to the West and seen very little return in recent years…  It has cities the size of Lower Manhattan with dozens of skyscrapers built and no-one to rent them to…  What a mad, mad, World this is in which we all live…

But don’t just take my word for it, see it and read it for yourself, courtesy of the BBC’s China correspondent, Damian Grammaticas…  In the run up to the latest renewal of the CPC’s very own plutocracy, Damian is once again performing a valuable public service by focusing on the spectacular contradictions that the CPC’s multi-decadal abuse of power has caused:

In the past two decades China’s economy has grown by 10% a year and more than 400m people have been lifted out of poverty.  But China’s growth has been deeply uneven. Those in the right places with the right connections have been able to become astonishingly rich.  There are now 1.4 million Chinese US dollar millionaires. The number of billionaires has grown from 15 in 2006 to 251 today.
Week in China: Guizhou, the poorest province

China’s economic growth has been deeply uneven. Most have seen their lives improve in the past two decades, and 400 million Chinese have lifted themselves out of poverty. But those in the right places with the right connections, usually in the cities, have gained incredible riches. So China today is among the most unequal countries in the world. The serious and growing inequalities are a problem China’s next leaders know they must tackle as the gap between the rich and the rest grows wider.
China’s ever-widening wealth gap

For more of my thoughts on (the climate sceptic) Andrew Marr’s History of the World programmes, you will have to cut and paste the programme title into the search box in the right-hand column.

For more of my many thoughts on China, you can do a category search (or just click here) – which presents all my related posts in reverse chronological order.

Written by Martin Lack

2 November 2012 at 00:02

Andrew Marr’s ‘Age of Plunder’ is now

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‘Age of Plunder’ was the title of Episode 5 of Andrew Marr’s History of the World (which was first broadcast in the UK on Sunday).  Regular readers of this blog will by now be aware that, whilst I like Marr’s presentation style, I am more than a little suspicious of his political bias.  For those who have not read them, I would recommend you first read my posts about episodes 1 and 2  and episodes 3 and 4.  However, because of its synchronicity with the current state of global business and politics, I have decided to write about Episode 5 in isolation.

In Marr’s epic attempt to cover the whole of Human history in 8 hours, Episode 5 represents the opening part in the second half of the 8-part series.  Having concluded the previous episode in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper, Episode 5 begins in 1492 with the story of Christopher Columbus.  I am therefore sorry to have to say it, but, let’s face it, Columbus was an idiot.

Given that Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī had accurately determined the circumference of the Earth in the ninth Century (see Episode 4), why did Columbus think the Earth was much smaller?  I suppose you could argue that we should be grateful he did not still think the Earth was flat!  May be so but, was he, in fact, an early example of a contrarian thinker who, unlike Galileo, turned out to be wrong?  Galileo based his thinking on decades of careful observations by others; whereas Columbus appears to have rejected any evidence that conflicted with his preconceived ideas.  Does this remind you of anyone?

Marr’s next topic was Martin Luther’s rebellion against the hypocrisy of the Roman Catholic Church in 1517, which was selling indulgences (i.e. forgiving the sins of people and their dead relatives) in order to raise money for the replacement of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Obviously, this was just one of many objections that Luther had but his bravery in taking on his employer was I think another pivotal event in human history.  Not least because of the 11 million people that died in the 125 years of religious war his actions triggered.  No wonder British historian Lord Acton concluded that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  It was true 500 years ago – and it is true today.

In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas (revising the papal bull of 1493), gave an automatic right to Spain and Portugal to claim any new lands found west and east of the chosen line of longitude.  Unfortunately, due to lands already claimed, the diving line did not pass between Africa and South America (such as 30oW) and was not even a sensible number – it was decided by picking a point a certain distance west of the Cape Verde Islands – which is why people speak Portuguese in Brazil and Spanish in the rest of that continent.  Marr skipped over this historical accident to focus on the disgraceful entrapment by the Spanish of the Incan emperor Atahualpa (1497-1533): Despite the fact that Atahualpa had never seen a book before (and could not read), the Spanish used his rejection of a Bible as an excuse to kill thousands of his people and take him prisoner…  It is a disgraceful period of Christian history – one people tend to forget when watching movies like The Missionary and singing hymns like Amazing Grace

Other subjects covered in this episode included an examination of the events leading up to Shogun’s decision to order all Christians out of Japan in 1587; and the long history of trouble between England and Holland arising from the discovery (in 1512) of Nutmeg in the Banda Islands in what is now Indonesia.  However, my attention was caught by Marr’s rendition of the two other main stories he chose to tell:

1. Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia at a time when Europe was going through what is commonly known as the Little Ice Age (another favourite meme for those who dispute the modern consensus regarding anthropogenic climate disruption).  At the time, Russia was fairly insignificant but, thanks to Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of Siberia, Russia made a fortune out of trading furs with Europe (and Siberia also turned out to have been a fortuitous conquest when huge amounts of coal oil and gas were discovered – that of melting permasfrost is not so welcome I suspect).

2. The invention of commodity speculation in Holland in 1637, a country that went totally mad buying and selling tulip bulbs – so-called ‘Tulip mania’ – and then decided the whole thing was stupid.  The first ever stock market “bubble” to burst.

So it was that Marr decided to call his programme ‘The Age of Plunder’…  However, I think that the real age of plunder began with the Industrial Revolution.  Clearly one cannot deny all the benefits that have accrued to a (global) minority as a result, but, I believe that only a fool would way this benefit (which is yet to accrue to the vast majority) has been gained at no cost.  On the contrary, the exponential growth in human population, resource consumption, and waste production that has been facilitated by a super-abundance of cheap energy (i.e. fossil fuels) has pushed the dynamic equilibrium of our global life support systems (scientists like to call them “essential ecosystem services”) to – and I suspect now beyond – breaking point.

As I said on this blog way back in February this year:

We need to stop treating nature as an enormous warehouse whose goods can be used up without paying for them; and start living in a way that reflects the fact that our survival as a species is dependent upon nature not being degraded to the point that it ceases to function properly. If we do not, the Sun is not going to go out but, in not so many decades from now, it might get hot enough that we cannot go outside (much) to enjoy it.

Here then is another video you may enjoy:

Andrew Marr’s Last Eight Minutes of the World

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Two weeks ago, I posted a blog about episodes one and two of Andrew Marr’s History of the World.  Last week, I forgot to watch the third episode but caught up with it on the BBC’s iPlayer during the week.  Having now watched the fourth episode, as was just broadcast, I am going to comment here on both episode 3 and 4.  First though, a quick recap…  Despite the rather grandiose title for the series, it is a history of the World from the perspective of Homo sapiens only:
— Episode 1 – from 70 to 7 thousand years ago (i.e. up to the invention of agriculture and cities).
— Episode 2 – up to approximately 400 BC (i.e. the birth of democracy and the death of Socrates).
— Episode 3 – up to approximately 600 AD (i.e. the birth of Mohamed and the invention of Islam).
— Episode 4 – up to approximately 1500 AD (i.e. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper).

Therefore, if we were to represent the entire 4600 million years of the Earth history by one calendar year, the 70 thousand year history of Homo sapiens covered in this series of programmes would begin at 23:52 hrs on 31 December!

Having secured permission to make eight episodes of almost an hour in length, Andrew Marr apparently decided that this would give him sufficient time to tell no more than about 60 stories; and so set about choosing 60 significant events in human history.  In the second episode, the most significant event was the Greco-Persian battle of Marathon.

Episode 3
In the third episode, the most significant event was probably the life of the man who would become known to Christians as St Paul.  Marr spent quite a long time telling his story and, arguably, with good reason:  As with the battle of Marathon, things could have turned out very differently for Western Europe (and therefore modernity) if Saul had not become Paul on the road to Damascus in about 35AD.

The remainder of the episode was not without incident; returning briefly to both India and China – to note the spread of Buddhism to much of south east Asia thanks to Ashoka; and to cover the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, whose legacy includes the Terracotta Army in Xian.  However, by far the most traumatic event, alluded to at the start of the episode, but dramatised in full towards the end, was the martyrdom in Carthage in 203AD of Perpetua and Felicity.   Much of the story seems to have been recorded by Perpetua herself but, having refused to renounce her faith in Christ – and having handed over her baby to the care of her parents – her death at the hands of a young gladiator is described by those who witnessed it.  This whole thing made me feel very uncomfortable, as I find martyrdom very scary (but not for the reason you might imagine):  I am worried that there may not be that much difference between the bravery required to die rather than renounce your faith; and the brainwashing required to kill as many “non believers” as you can by killing yourself.

Moving swiftly on, Andrew Marr fitted in a visit to the Nazca Lines in Peru, to see how that civilisation came to an end, in similar fashion to the Maya in Central America, in an accelerating frenzy of human sacrifice in an attempt to appease their gods (who they thought were unhappy with them).  Yet again, it seems (to me at least), Marr gave cursory acknowledgement to the potential for human mismanagement of the environment to have unintended consequences; and emphasised instead his favoured meme that climate change is natural.  This time, the change in question being the year without sunshine of 535-36 AD.  Again, Wikipedia has a good summary and, within this, the key source (alluded to by Marr) appears to be a 1999 book by David Keys, entitled Catastrophe: A Quest for the Origins of the Modern World, in which is presented evidence for 30 years of heavy rain followed by 30 years of drought.  The strange thing is that, although the evidence for the long-term effects seems to be straightforward, there seems to be remarkably little agreement about which volcano was responsible.  However, to my mind, the whole thing just serves to underline the seriousness with which we should view a potential eruption of the Katla volcano on Iceland.

Andrew Marr then finished the episode by cheerfully noting that the chaos caused by this eruption (wherever it all emanated from) was global; and probably facilitated the Arabic conquest of Jerusalem (637AD) and, once the Koran had been written and agreed upon, the consequential spread of Islam. 

Episode 4
At this point, things start to get more familiar (to me here in the UK at least).  In episode 4 Marr covers the period the Vikings to the Renaissance; from the vacuum left behind after the fall of Rome – to the rediscovery of classical knowledge and the foundations of modernity.  Along the way, we are regaled by tales…
— Of the Viking leader Oleg who took control of Kiev (and then re-wrote their history for them to make it sound like he was invited in); and who then invited a whole range of religious leaders to try and convert him; chose to become Greek Orthodox; and then promptly re-fashioned it to make it more to his own liking – the Russian Orthodox church was born.
— Of the brilliant work of Muslim scholars and astronomers such as Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, (who accurately determined the circumference of the Earth in the ninth Century) and whose name is reflected in what we now call Algebra.
— Of Genghis Khan who forged the greatest Empire form a band of people who bucked the trend by not settling down and building cities – but remained nomadic – simply because the grasslands they called home were not fertile enough for growing crops.
— Of Marco Polo who spent 24 years travelling around Asia and the rest of his life telling highly exaggerated stories all about it.

In all of this there was very little in the way of mention of climate change; but plenty in the way of environmental mismanagement and an early forerunner of the Law of Unintended Consequences – the Black Death (an inadvertent import from China to Europe) being a case in point.  There was also the fascinating story of the arrival in Cairo (in 1324 AD) of an African King, Mansa Musa who, quite literally, put Mali on the map (i.e. the Catalan Atlas) by bringing with him so much gold – and handing it out so freely – that the price of the precious metal plummeted (was that an unintended consequence too?).

Running through the entire episode was an almost paradoxical juxtaposition of religious tension (if not outright war) and trade (i.e. mutually beneficial economic development).  For example, both before and after the great siege of Constantinople (1453 AD), the Venetians happily traded with their Muslim counterparts in the East.  However, it seems that with the creation of Istanbul, the Middle Ages came to an end:  It was replaced, of course, by the Renaissance; borne out of the indulgences of the nouveau riche of the City States of northern Italy.  One of the greatest beneficiaries of all being possibly one of the greatest polymaths of all – Leonardo da Vinci.  And the rest, as they say, is history…

Written by Martin Lack

15 October 2012 at 00:10

The crime of Socrates

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(or is it the curse of Cassandra?)

Andrew Marr’s History of the World is the latest BBC programme featuring the eponymous presenter (although the word Human is clearly missing from the title somewhere). The second installment was broadcast in the UK on Sunday night and, I have to say, it was an improvement on the first.  Some may ask, “If you thought the first was bad then why did you watch the second?”  Well, the answer is that I was almost willing Andrew Marr to prove me wrong.  You see, I suspect he is peddling a libertarian agenda; but I am hoping that he is not.

The first programme in the series covered the emergence of Homo sapiens from Africa 70,000 years ago – and their subsequent conquest of the entire planet (and the extinction of Neanderthals in the process) – up to the emergence of agriculture, urbanisation and civilisation 7,000 years ago. The worst thing about the programme was the repetitive – and almost subliminal – message that climate change is natural and we cannot stop it.  Wheareas Marr emphasised the way in which Homo sapiens were almost wiped out by natural changes in climate; he appeared to gloss over a complementary truth:  Modern civilisation only came about – and has only persisted – because of the relative stability of sea levels and temperature over that last 7,000 years.  I suspect, therefore, that Marr has been having too many lunches with the likes of Lords Monckton and Lawson.  Whatever the case may be, episode 1 does not seem to have impressed Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent newspaper either.

In the second programme, this ‘climate change is natural’ meme made a brief appearance at the start; only to be juxtaposed with the suggestion that, although nature has been a tough adversary, human beings are their own worst enemy.  Even though I not misanthropic, I am much more content with this assertion than the one that says climate change is natural and/or we must adapt to it:  This is an utterly fallacious argument that can only be sustained by ignoring the fact that the change now underway is much faster than all previous natural change because human activity is causing most of it.

Nevertheless, I think Andrew Marr redeemed himself somewhat in this second episode:  With his usual amiable style of delivery, he talked the viewer through the history of human civilisation, visiting places like the Assyrian city of Nineveh, the Persian city of Babylon, the Lydian city of Sardis, and the Greek city of Athens.  Also thrown into the mix were brief accounts of the rise and fall of the Phoenicians as a maritime trading empire; the emergence of Buddhism in India and of Confucism in China; and Alexander the Great’s admirable early attempts at cosmopolitanism and globalisation (nice ideas; shame about the outcome).

However, as indicated by the title of this post, the thing that grabbed my attention was the emergence of what we now call democracy in Greece (i.e. in Greek, Demos = people; and Cratos = power); and how contingent our concept of democracy is…  If the Persians had not gone down to such a highly-implausible defeat in a battle 26 miles from Athens, we might be missing a lot more than just a name for the longest event on the athletics schedule at the Olympic games:  Had the Persians beaten the Athenian army at Marathon, the course of human history would have been very different indeed!

So why have I focussed on the case of Socrates, who was effectively accused and convicted of being dangerously subversive in 399BC and, having been found guilty, was required to kill himself by drinking poison…?  Well, leaving aside the bizarre method of “execution”, what exactly was his crime?  According to Andrew Marr, Socrates merely raised questions regarding the limitations of democracy and/or how dissenters should be dealt with.  According to Wikipedia (link above), Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of the city and of impious acts (namely “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities”).   Socrates philosophical musings were clearly seen as subversive and anti-democratic.  However, all Socrates appears to have been guilty of is being one of the first to recognise the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas.  He basically challenged the notion that majority opinion will always be right; and championed the idea that expert opinions should carry more weight. He also held unusual religious views.  He was, in essence, a free thinker, a non-conformist, and anti-Establishment.

Modern science has much for which it should be grateful to Socrates; and so have Environmentalists:  In essence, environmentalism is the consequence of thinking outside the box; it arises from pursuing the consequences of science wherever they lead; and refusing to be prevented from reaching any particular conclusion simply because it may be politically inconvenient.

Nowadays, fortunately, those who challenge the received wisdom of our political leaders are not executed (by poisoning, hanging, beheading or any other unpleasant means).  Unfortunately, however, we just seem to be ignored instead.

Therefore, even though all we are really doing is embracing the Newtonian reality that all actions have consequences (especially when it comes to issues surrounding waste, pollution, and recycling), we seem to have swapped the philosophical legacy of Socrates for the mythological curse of Cassandra (whom no-one would believe).


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