2008: the year of living dangerously?

Let’s put into perspective the mad panics – from melting ice to Olympian smog – that made the news in 2008.

Rob Lyons

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With the world economy in crisis, 2008 will no doubt be remembered as the year when the economic excrement hit the fan, provoking plenty of well-placed fears about what the immediate future will bring. But while the screens of financial markets have been turning red, the overblown scares of 2008 have mostly been tinged with green.

As ever, climate change has coloured thinking about almost every other issue, and the poster beast of global warming has been the polar bear. The cute white face of man’s inhumanity to nature is deemed to be in peril as warming seas in the north become ever-freer of ice. The bear-as-victim was personified by the erstwhile cuddly cub Knut in Berlin Zoo, though he is now a rather large predator. The facts don’t fit the image, however. Polar bear numbers are far higher now than in the past, despite warming temperatures, mainly thanks to restrictions on hunting. Alarmist predictions of the animal’s future have been criticised for failing to apply some basic principles of forecasting to the (often patchy) available data, preferring to assume a gloomy outlook rather than admit that this is a complex problem with many factors we’re not sure of (see Decimation of the polar bear: bearfaced lies?, by Tim Black).

The posh climate change stunter, Lewis Gordon Pugh, described an encounter with a polar bear earlier this year in his expedition journal. ‘Polar bears are an extraordinary mix: although huge – adult males typically get to 400 kg – they are as graceful and nimble as a domestic cat. They are also frighteningly quick, both in and out of the water. You can forget outrunning them.’ They may be magnificent creatures, but so was the monster in Alien. Quite why so many people get so sentimental about saving these half-ton killing machines, which dine out on the seals that animal lovers get so worked up about when Canadians want to ‘go clubbing’, is something of a mystery.

Still, in green terms, it’s a case of supporting my enemy’s enemy – and if you believe humanity is the biggest problem facing the planet, any victim will do.

The other big symbol of global warming alarmism this year was the North Pole itself. There is great concern that, within years, the Arctic may become ice-free during the summer months. The aforementioned Lewis Gordon Pugh undertook to become the first man to canoe to the pole, only to get trapped in sea ice and give up the attempt roughly 600 miles from his goal (which, given the uncritical coverage that his team was receiving from CNN in America and from ITN in the UK, was a tad embarrassing). Meanwhile, the much larger store of ice in Antarctica continues to grow. As the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted in 2007: ‘Current global model studies project that the Antarctic ice sheet will remain too cold for widespread surface melting and is expected to gain in mass due to increased snowfall.’

While the melting ice in the north is the much-touted ‘canary in the coalmine’ of global warming, it wasn’t the only pollution-induced scare this year. The air quality in Beijing was also widely talked up as a threat to its citizens and the visiting athletes for this year’s Olympic Games. ‘Athletes could die in Olympic smog, pollution expert warns’, reported The Australian in August, citing one Professor Dingle who said an asthma sufferer could (but almost certainly wouldn’t) keel over from overexertion in the city’s smoggy atmosphere. British television news was practically running a daily Beijing ‘Airwatch’ feature.

In the event, no harm came to participants (unlike in smoggy Los Angeles in 1984). Indeed, the article in The Australian noted that Australia’s athletes had, ironically, benefited from the scare. Team doctor Peter Bacquie said: ‘The air quality had been a concern but it’s been a blessing for us. It’s meant that we have really scrutinised our athletes and picked up people who otherwise may have well gone under the radar and had asthma that was affecting their performance… some are getting treatment [now] and they are finding extra petrol they never realised they had.’

Another long-running scare is terrorism. The people of Mumbai joined those of New York, Bali, Madrid and London as victims of a high-profile terrorist attack. The actual number of deaths in these attacks – with the exception of 9/11 – is still relatively small. In Mumbai, 174 people died in a city of 20million and a country with 1.1billion people. That is not to downplay the horror itself. But we need some perspective on the relative importance of terrorism in the problems that face the world. On average, over 2,000 children under the age of one die every day in India due to its still-high infant mortality rate. Our reaction to terrorism – our capacity to be terrorised – remains out of all proportion to the actual size of terrorism as a threat to global affairs.

As it happens, the Mumbai attacks, like many recent outrages, were informed by an anti-modernist outlook that could have come straight from the merry band of progress-sceptics in the West. While the terrorists’ murderous tantrum seems to have been motivated by a hotchpotch of grievances, including hatred of the West and of other religions, it is no accident that their target was India’s most modern and outward-looking city.

A more trivial crusade that gathered momentum this year was the assault on the humble plastic bag. Anti-bags campaigner Rebecca Hosking laid it firmly on the line, linking climate change (which will apparently mean the end of civilisation, if some are to be believed) with our attachment to the humble carrier. ‘Plastic bags clogging our waterways and climate change are two symptoms of the same problem – unsustainability’, she said. Following Ireland’s introduction of a bag tax in 2002, other cities and countries are now following suit, or have gone further and banned the two-handled terrors altogether. Supermarkets have pandered to the campaign by introducing all sorts of schemes, from charging for plastic bags to giving us loyalty card points if we reuse them.

However, plastic bags represent a tiny fraction of overall waste. While having them stuck in trees or flapping about in the wind might be an eyesore (unless you’re American Beauty director Sam Mendes, of course), it is a sad fact that public life is littered with such petty, puritanical campaigns.

Perhaps the most worrying panic of all in 2008 was the increasingly popular and narrow-minded view that there are just too many people. Once tackling climate change and reducing our ‘ecological footprint’ are accepted as the appropriate goals of an ethical life, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that we could cut our impact on the planet much further by reducing the pitter-patter of ‘ecological footprints’ altogether. Scientist Susan Blackmore put it most explicitly in a debate with the über-misanthropist John Gray on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves: ‘For the planet’s sake, I hope we have bird flu or some other thing that will reduce the population, because otherwise we’re doomed.’

It’s all rather reminiscent of the late, ‘maverick’ politician Tony Banks and a motion he put to the UK House of Commons in 2004, seeking support for the notion that ‘humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet’ and looking forward ‘to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out, thus giving nature the opportunity to start again’. The humanity-hating attitudes of Blackmore, Banks et al are likely to become even more mainstream in 2009. spiked will wage a war of words against them.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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