Generally Speaking

‘Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging.’

Thank you for helping me to remember that.

I don’t think I said very much.  I was looking at the little horse

I had suggested we stopped walking for a moment, ostensibly to look at the little horse (and photograph it, complete with its stumpy legs, as you see in the picture), but actually so that I could write down my precious new idea before I forgot it again.

Something about Reason – that was what I had been saying as we walked together yesterday morning – Authority, and what was happening in today’s world to Truth. There was some new way of putting it together that had come to me suddenly last night when I was in the last stage of consciousness before going to sleep. Too close to sleep to summon the willpower to rouse myself and write it down. In case it evaporated in the night.

Which of course it did.

A few hundred yards back, as our path emerged from the woods, I had started talking about the funny sense you get of some idea that you’ve lost – a feeling, a sort of fleeting glimpse. And the way the more you look to clarify what it was, to try to pin it down and bring it back, the more it retreats. Like some shy animal into a hole. Or like a pea stuck up a child’s nostril in our health centre treatment room years ago (I always think of that one, for some reason) and all you’ve done is drive it further into hiding, until even the elusive sense you had of it has evaporated as well. (I also think of it as the left hemisphere of my brain struggling to pin down and fossilise something that is semi-consciously, shimmeringly, alive in the right. But I’ll come back to that.)

This time, for once, and thanks to her, my idea did come back. But as I whooped and spoke out loud my flash of amazing insight, and then spoke it again, louder, her response was disappointingly low-key. Despite her having been my life-long soul-mate and collaborator, who has had, as I often say, ‘all my best ideas’, this shining new inspiration of mine had struck less of a spark with her than, let me admit it, the little horse.

When we got home I was still delighted with my idea and no less convinced that it would find receptive minds somewhere, so I sat straight down and posted it as one of my rather infrequent tweets. My Twitter profile tells me that I have just passed 300 followers, but my offerings rarely if ever provoke a response. But this one, I felt, would be special, and I took care in highlighting some key words as hashtags, and adding a line of explanation ‒ shrewdly judged, I thought, to hint at both its originality and its importance. Like this:

The above screenshot was taken two days later, and as you can see from the empty icons along the bottom, once again I had failed to make any impression, let alone spark some new kind of viral pandemic.

But I consoled myself with something I learned years ago from reading Edward do Bono – that genuinely new ideas always seem strange, or funny, or off-the-wall, otherwise people would know them already.  So, I told myself, this was all a good sign, my idea really was new. But another time perhaps I might try to spell it out a little more carefully.

Sure enough, another time presented itself lower down the same Twitter feed.  An item by the indefatigable James O’Brian caught my eye. (@mrjamesob ‒ he of the 755.1K followers!) His tweet was about Jacob Rees-Mogg claiming in parliament that Boris Johnson was ‘the most freedom-loving prime minister… for at least 100 years’:

O’Brien commented: ‘He’s going to go nuts when he finds out what’s happened to our freedom of movement’

Aah – the ambiguity of the word ‘Freedom’! Just the kind of cue I needed. So I added my idea, carefully reframed, to the comments underneath:

I am thinking that the ‘Freedom’ populists talk about includes freedom from what can seem the terrible Authority of Evidence, Reason, and Truth itself.
I am wondering whether this is an explanation for these people’s otherwise incomprehensible immunity from popular censure.

It was one of some 250 others, but in spite that, this time there was a response. Within 24 hours it had been flagged as Liked by no less than 21 people, and one of them had passed it on to their followers.

So now I’m going to take this to another stage. I’m going to use this blog to ‘unpack’ the idea that was phrased in the words of my late-night inspiration, as they came back to me the next morning on our walk, and to try to tease out and pin down why it seemed, and still seems, so meaningful to me.

Not just for readers who are kind enough to have got this far, but for me. Because, believe me, I am not writing this stuff straight off. I am using the writing of it, over what is turning out to be the best part of a week, to test out, confirm, and hopefully to explain, why somewhere in this idea I had is lurking a truth which is worth sharing. And here I return to the idea that this is a matter of using words as a left-brain tool to tease out and pin down a richly complex but amorphous conception in the right (see Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece, The Master and His Emissary, for his definitive account of the divided brain).

It was this process that I discovered three or four decades ago when it dawned on me that my Amstrad personal computer could be used as a revolutionary tool for recording ideas in a new form, a form that was fixed and provisional at the same time, and which then made it easy to progressively hone them.

That was when I was still deeply immersed in the life and work of a family doctor, with a stable list of patients whom I knew extremely well, in many cases over decades and several generations. Out of this experience, which in the modern world was already almost unique, I began to draw what I called ‘notes and jottings’, setting down things that struck me as surprising during my daily consultations. Surprise, I already knew from my reading De Bono, was another of his signals that something you’ve noticed conflicts with your existing picture of the world, and therefore that you should be paying it attention (because your existing ideas might be wrong)..

For years I worked like this on what I called my ‘project’. Just for fun, just out of private curiosity. But gradually I began to believe I had something worth contributing, so that my humble collection of thoughts developed until it was accepted for publication as my book, The Paradox of Progress. And after that, for me, the rest was history.

Although that digression does have some relevance to what I am getting at, it was mainly about the method I’m going to use. So, back to the short sentence I started with and let me try to work out why I found it so meaningful:

Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging’.

First I should recall that as I went to sleep that night my preoccupation was still with the mystery I had been addressing here just a few days earlier: why almost half of America voted to give Donald Trump a second term, in spite of his record in his first. And I knew from the appreciative comments I was receiving, and indeed from the hit count on the blog ‒ by far the highest since the travelogue I posted here four years ago from our Golden Wedding trip up the west coast of North America – that I did seem to be able to contribute usefully on this subject.

So, that was the context, let’s start by asking who I was thinking of when I said ‘they’?

Easy – I meant the populists, specifically Trump. From the outset he set out to challenge authority, and his followers loved him for it. Because that picked up on a deep-seated, human resentment of authority. Which we can all understand because, to a greater of lesser extent, we share that feeling.

We hate our lives being constrained by rules, originally from our parents ‒ however much we loved and needed them ‒ later at school – then in adult life, both at the workplace and outside it ‒ e.g. speed limits on roads or the latest footling regulations on the use of garden pesticides.

And there is a tension in all of us between on the one hand our realisation that these constraints on our freedom are essential in a civilised society ‒ we know we can’t all choose which side of the road to drive on, or the voltage of our electricity supply ‒ and on the other hand our human desire for autonomy and freedom of action ‒ for the dignity and challenge of basing our actions on our own decisions.

It is that freedom that is at the heart of Americans’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of their ‘sweet land of liberty’.  Perhaps my two formative years at High School in Washington DC ‒- mentioned in another earlier post – has made that assumption second nature to me as well.

This kind of resentment of authority is more acute when such constraints on our freedom come from a source which we perceive to be alien. Which is why so many British resented ‘Brussels’, however generously we have been represented in the decisions taken there, and why the Westerner we met in the canyon in Capitol Reef National Park so bitterly resented being prevented from exercising his dogs in that fragile environment by distant ‘Washington!’.

But I also meant authority as a concept, in the way that Shakespeare personifies Love in his song, Who is Sylvia? – ‘Love doth to her eyes repair/To help him of his blindness/And, being helped, inhabits there’.

Which is why I spelled Authority with a capital A.

Trump attacked Authority in all these senses. He didn’t just rail against the Washington ‘swamp’. He didn’t just tell his followers, as Michael Gove told his in the UK, that they had ‘had enough of experts’. He didn’t just sack officials who failed to echo his every, self-contradictory whim. All of that is obvious, all of that has been rehearsed endlessly by critics. With zero effect on his followers.

The deeper idea that struck me as I went to sleep that night was that Trump went much further ‒ he attacked the very concept of Authority by attacking the foundations upon which legitimate Authority rested. His cheerful and absolute disregard for Reason and for Truth (which I also capitalised in my sentence) made him wildly popular with great swathes of supporters precisely because, as I suddenly realised, Truth and Reason were themselves aspects of the overbearing authority which had, step by ratchet-step throughout the modern era, progressively constrained their freedom of action, and even freedom of thought.

Here again, I have my own reasons for understanding this. My freedom of action as a doctor was progressively subjected to more and more constraints as my career went by. That was the background story to my forty years as a doctor. And that, and my attempt to resolve the resulting conflicts, was largely the subject of the book I wrote as I approached retirement.

On the instant I qualified as a doctor the way I was perceived by society changed. This was symbolised by my moving from the highest risk category for car insurance (as a medical student) to the lowest.

As my years as a junior hospital doctor progressed, I acquired steadily more freedom of action, but the ultimate clinical responsibility always rested with the consultant who headed the team–my ‘chief’. It was the chief who, at least in theory, faced the music when something went wrong.

And eventually, when I became a GP with my own list of patients, I took on that mantle of responsibility myself. I had nobody over me and nobody under me ‒ one of the many things I loved about the role. I also loved, although it was as daunting as it was stimulating, what now seems the extraordinary privilege of ‘clinical freedom’.

Clinical freedom did have its boundaries, which were policed with notorious severity by the General Medical Council. But that august body mainly concerned itself with drugs, sex, alcohol, and criminality. Freedom to treat our patients in whatever way we judged best remained to all intents and purposes absolute.

It made for a heady time when being trusted brought out the best in us a great deal of the time. But it also left too wide the door for bad practice and, crucially, for ignorance of what was an ever increasing cascade of scientific advances.

The end of those days can be traced with some accuracy to an editorial in the British Medical Journal of Saturday 29 October 1983. Headed The end of clinical freedom Its opening paragraph summarises what was a pivotal moment in medical history:

Clinical freedom is dead, and no one need regret its passing. Clinical freedom was the right‒some seemed to believe the divine right‒of doctors to do whatever in their opinion was best for their patients. In the days when investigation was non-existent and treatment as harmless as it was ineffective the doctor’s opinion was all that there was, but now opinion is not good enough. If we do not have the resources to do all that is technically possible then medical care must be limited to what is of proved value, and the medical profession will have to set opinion aside.

From then on, the changes were relentless. The god of Clinical Freedom was dead, only to be replaced by the god of Evidence Based Medicine. For the first time, government ‒ specifically Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1990, a year which my generation of GPs remembered for ever after as ‘when the darkness came’ ‒ saw its opportunity, as paymasters of the National Health Service, to call in what had been, ever since 1948, the independent contractor status of GPs. So began the imposition of more and more external rules and constraints on our practice. This, I have to say, was with the enthusiastic support of our Royal College, the academic body of British general practice, which saw nothing in the trend but progress.

And, writing this now, another new thought strikes me. For the first time I have an uncomfortable realisation that the success of my book, for success it undoubtedly was, may have been because it struck ‒ surely not, heaven help me, like Trump! ‒ a populist chord with fellow GPs.

It also struck a chord amongst people from outside medicine who happened to come across it. Perhaps that was populism as well? One of them, for example, wrote from a ballet school in Switzerland to thank me for it, saying it was ‘just the same for them’. Quite recently a farmer in the North of England emailed me out of the blue to say the same.

So, this ‘paradox of progress’ that I tried to analyse in the context of NHS general practice, seemed to pervade more generally. Throughout contemporary society there seemed to be a perception that making things better was making them worse.

Perhaps my own sense of impotence in the face of the terrible authority of our increasingly systematised world was lurking somewhere in the background to my supposed flash of inspiration into the mystery of Donald Trump?

Perhaps it was like this: Many of us feel trapped by the inescapable Authority of Logic and Reason which underlies Progress ‒ what Trump did, which accounts for his astonishing immunity from censure by half of a vast and superbly educated nation, was simply to throw Logic and Reason out of the window.

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
   Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
   “They are merely conventional signs!

Extract from The Hunting of the Snark Lewis Carrol 1832-98

And can’t you just see the attraction! What do you do when some clever clogs ‘fact-checker’ keeps some tedious count and says your hero has just passed 20,000 lies on the public record? You say, ‘I don’t believe they were lies – that’s just another opinion, there are alternative facts which say the opposite.’    On with the party!

Just the same with the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Just the same with Covid-19 when it manifestly didn’t ‘vanish like magic’. Just the same with the ‘hoax’ of climate change. Just the same with dozens of wild claims over the last four surreal years.

But Trump’s truly radical innovation, I think I now see, is to take things one stage beyond this: He says ‘what the heck do numbers matter ‒ they are just numbers ‒ they are ‘merely conventional signs’. What is this stuff called ‘truth’ which you keep throwing at me? What is this thing called ‘reason’? It is time to cast ourselves free from the shackles of these outdated concepts which have enslaved us for so long! Time to see this monster ‘science’ for what it is –a conspiracy against our heritage of freedom, which preachifies of nothing but encumbrances to our rights to frontier lives, to the drilling of oilwells, to the driving of giant cars, to the building of private armouries of guns. Americans were born free. Born to think freely, like birds up in the air. Yet everywhere their consciences have been chained by this foul imposter ‘evidence’! 

And once a leader convinces people that their chains are mere illusion, and gives them permission to ignore such outmoded constraints, to think without the shackles of reason, and to believe everything they want to believe is true, the people are wildly grateful. Wey hey, let the good times roll! It is the coming of a new Messiah.

Of course such a leader can do no wrong, for in this new New World, wrong is meaningless and has nothing to do with the case.

Perhaps it is time to return to the little horse, and leave further consideration of this for another day…

‘I’ve always had my doubts about you lot’

ACAN – making a difference.

One year ago Alton Climate Action & Network did not exist. This post is an account of how much has been achieved since then – of our ambitious plans for the future – and of how much we believe there must be a future. (It also explains why I haven’t written much else here recently.)

It’s not that climate-change awareness wasn’t already alive in our town. Following our long-established town Greening campaign and our 2015 rally in support of that November’s COP21 Paris Climate Talks, Energy Alton last March organised a door-to-door survey of popular attitudes to climate change. This demonstrated widespread concern and willingness to make changes (albeit small ones, and largely focusing on single-use plastic).

The same month The Alton Society, Alton Local Food Initiative, and Energy Alton combined to show the powerful French film Demain (Tomorrow). This inspired those of us who saw it with the urgency of the need for action and showed just how much local initiatives can have far-reaching effects.

So, a small action group formed and began to sign up supporters, to set up a database of individual and group contacts, and to establish a public profile. My wife was a member of this core group and I became involved, not just because of my obvious sympathy, but because I knew how to set up things like email accounts, altonclimatenetwork@gmail.com and social media accounts, for which we used the handle @altonclimate on Facebook and Twitter.

I was also asked to use my experience with a Desk Top Publishing program to try out some designs for a logo. After playing around with various ideas I came up with this combination of font, colouring and background image that seemed, largely by happy chance, to work rather nicely.

Meanwhile, the core group set about building on the unprecedented impact on public consciousness that had been generated that Spring by the triple-whammy of peaceful Extinction Rebellion protests in London, the extraordinary Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, and the outspoken broadcast by David Attenborough. So the group began a Climate Awareness Stall at the Farmers’ Market in the High Street and appearances on our local Wey Valley Radio, both to continue monthly thereafter.

In June things really hotted up. We advertised the existence of the new group though an editorial for Round & About magazine, delivered free through every door in the area, and we paid for a multi-page ‘Green pull-out’ in the Town’s newspaper, The Alton Herald.

The banner I designed for the front page of the Alton Herald’s ‘Green pull-out’

And we ran a stall at the Town Council’s Community Fayre in the public gardens that month.

Open meeting flyer

But the big event was on the 17th with the Inaugural Open Meeting in the Alton Assembly Rooms. Our Chair, Jenny Griffiths, did the welcome, before introducing a trio of deliberately short presentations. One speaker gave a frank but ultimately optimistic view of the crisis facing the natural world, a second spoke powerfully from the perspective of Extinction Rebellion activism, and our County Councillor, Andrew Joy, had come straight from a Cabinet meeting in Winchester with the incredibly-timely news that they had decided that very morning to recommend to the full Council the immediate declaration of a state of climate emergency.

Discussion Groups. For the rest of the meeting everyone moved to their favoured topic labels fixed to the walls, and then spread out into discussion groups, some of which overflowed onto the lawn around the war memorial outside.

  • Green Spaces
  • Food
  • Less Stuff
  • Transport
  • Energy
  • Building Standards
  • Lobbying
  • Information and Outreach

These are a couple of the pictures I took of the meeting, which I put together with some video and subsequently posted as a short movie sequence on our Facebook page. (I seem to be able to post it here as well!)

In July we attended meetings by both District Council and County Council to lobby in support of their respective, successful, proposals for the declaration of climate emergency.

For those who are strangers to the bizarre way we organise local government in England: a town of 16,000 population like Alton has its own Town Council, with limited power, which is subject to a District Council (East Hampshire – population 120,000 – based in Petersfield) which is subject to a County Council (Hampshire – population 1.4 million – based in Winchester) which is subject to National Government – population 56 million – based in London. Got that?

The AVLAN garden leaflet

In August the Green Spaces group, which had by then transmogrified into Alton & Villages Local Action for Nature (AVLAN), produced a popular wildlife-friendly gardening leaflet. Which I put together on my computer.

We had a friendly and productive meeting with our elected Councillors at District and County levels, getting to know each other and establishing relationships of mutual respect.

Our window sticker

And we produced a centre-spread feature for Round & About magazine which included a ‘Climate Aware Household‘ window sticker.

For this I used the old drone image of the Alton Climate Rally which we held in 2015 in support of that year’s crucial COP21 Paris Climate talks. Slightly cheaty to split it in half and do a semi-repeat for the top, but again, it seemed to work.

In September the Food Group began a course of cooking instruction classes, majoring in ecologically-sound ingredients.

Cook and Eat together ad.

The take-up was small, but there was great enthusiasm, and in retrospect the team reckoned that through secondary contacts they had reached around a hundred different people.

Next we met with Gilbert White Museum in Selborne to discuss joint approaches to GW300 – celebrating the 300th anniversary of the great naturalist’s birth.

The Lobbying and Campaigning group, under my all-too inadequate chairmanship, lobbied key figures in the District Council to take the ‘Golden opportunity to incorporate strong environmental standards in the redraft of the local plan (currently under way)’. But with little apparent effect. 1,000 new homes are being imposed on Alton and there isn’t a solar panel in sight! Still less a heat pump.

And on the 20th we organised a popular demonstration in the market square in support of the International Children’s Strike. The photo I took from the window of the Town Hall was used to dominate the front page of that week’s Alton Herald, which, significantly, carried a supportive editorial feature inside.

My photo – and with a strongly supportive editorial feature inside.

October was another active month, when another subgroup brought its plans for a Repair Cafe to fruition.

I discovered an unsuspected talent for mending clocks. No matter how simple the repair (the one above required nothing more than cleaning up corroded battery terminals) the owners were, as you can see, over the moon with gratitude. It it continues to be an immensely rewarding monthly experience.

Our display in the town library

Also in October we contributed to Energy Alton‘s Home Energy Day, and mounted a display in the Town library.

In November we contributed more editorial material to Round & About magazine and set up our stall at the splendid Eco Fair at Gilbert White’s House in Selborne. Then my wife’s efforts with the Town Council to promote tree planting met with partial success as we assembled on one cold morning to be photographed with the Town Mayor and a developer around a suitably-labelled sapling that the latter had been persuaded to plant. A small beginning, but a beginning.

And the main event of November was our second open meeting, when the group leaders took it in turns to describe their achievements so far, before we split up to discuss how best to move things on in each area. ACAN sponsored a special running of the community bus to bring people to the meeting from the edges of the town, but this did not actually make a big contribution to what was another excellent and enthusiastic turnout.

December saw another key development – the opening of the Community Cupboard in a scout hut which was conveniently situated towards the more needy end of the town. For each session volunteers picked up unsold food from cooperating supermarkets (most of them quickly came on board) and handed it out to anyone who wanted it. Just after Christmas one store gave a whole batch of turkeys which had arrived too late for them to sell. They made sure that one of these, plus some vegetables, went to a woman who had literally no other food in her house.

So began 2020. January saw our members being asked to advise schools on making their grounds more wildlife-friendly and on two specific school projects – a ‘design an eco-hero’ competition, and an ‘eco-conference’.

The first of our columns in the Alton Herald

January also saw our website altonclimatenetwork.org.uk go live and the first of our regular two-weekly columns appear in the Alton Herald.

At the same time we saw our influence on our MP apparently reflected in these words from his new year message in the same paper:

We should be positive as we face the great challenges of the 2020s. Top of the list is climate change…

Ongoing activities throughout this time included establishing and maintaining positive relationships with all three layers of local government and with our MP. We continuously engaged with the public and spread the word in every way we could. When the occasion arose we promoted rail travel and other aspects of sustainable living by example. Sometimes we got evidence that people who had initially reacted with hostility to this sort of thing did eventually become more thoughtful.

Working with the District Council’s Climate Change Champion Cllr. Ginny Boxall, we are working to improve the planting of green spaces around the town to beautify it and improve biodiversity.

Sadly, it was necessary on a number of occasions to write letters to the local paper challenging climate science deniers. After debating whether these people’s missives, often immensely long and grossly misleading, were best ignored, we came to the view that, as had happened in the case of the organised denial of the link between smoking and diseases in the last century, they must never be left unanswered. So, along with other responsible correspondents, we did answer them. And the perpetrators often bounced back with further and even longer examples. And so it continues.

To some extent we have written to national media, including the BBC, mainly to congratulate them on the increased climate crisis coverage which so marked the year.

Not the least important of our functions is to provide mutual support to one another as we engage on a daily basis with the frightening realities of the climate crisis, and confront the intractability of its denial.

The big development for the future is the Community Hub. Thanks to generous donors and grants from town councillors, we have been able to hire a vacant room in the Community Centre for the coming year. There we intend to develop a whole range of our activities from a permanent base, as well as introducing new ones. As I write we know we have secured sufficient funding to go ahead, and, once again, I have been busy using my wholly-amateur skills designing a logo and a flyer.

Here is the second draft that I have just sent out to everyone for approval.:

To Reykjavik for the Nordic Congress of General Practice

Back home now after a week in Iceland. Primarily for The 20th Nordic Congress of General Practice, a huge event with 1,500 delegates in the magnificent new Harpa Conference Centre and Concert Hall for which I and four fellow GPs ran a workshop on the subject ‘Doctors as Social Activists’. Link to my presentation

Views of the astonishing Harpa conference centre

I was describing my efforts since retirement to challenge organised climate change denial. Link to my presentation

1,500 Nordic GPs coming out for coffee break from one of the plenary sessions in the main hall

This was the very opposite of a freebie because we paid all our own expenses and discovered, having dutifully followed the advice to book flights and accommodation well in advance, that all five of us would have to pay the £700 registration fee for the conference.

This was on top of Reykjavik being, with Tokyo, currently the most expensive capital city in the world, even without the devalued pound, so that everything – food, trips, entrance to exhibitions, goods in shops – was more than twice as expensive as at home. Nonetheless, Lesley and I gritted our teeth, tightened our belts (I lost 3½ lbs on the trip) and took the opportunity to see something of this fascinating country and its admirable people.


Apart from the conference we were lucky to be in Reykjavik for Iceland’s National Independence Day (from Denmark : 1944). In spite of a cold wind and intermittent downpours, the atmosphere was festive and friendly. We felt it a real privilege to be there. We heard the President give a speech and then an actress gave a beautiful recital of a poem in Icelandic. Then there was a parade to the fair-ground around the lake, where there were circus acts and the world’s oldest strong-man competition.


The houses and buildings in Reykjavik were extraordinarily varied, often brightly painted, and quite a few had large murals painted on them.


The famous Hallgrimskirkja cathedral dominated from the top of the city, It was striking outside, although the concrete was currently under repair – testifying to the extreme harshness of the climate. The inside was serenely beautiful, with the most magnificent modern organ I have ever seen, being played while we were there.


We were unlucky with the weather, but we shared a car for a day out to the Snaefellsjoekull National Park north of the city, and took a coach trip around the ‘Golden Circle’ on our last day – our only really sunny day.

The Golden Circle is very much a tourist route but you see the junction between the American and the Eurasian tectonic plates (separating at about a centimetre a year) at the Þingvellir National Park, the magnificent Gullfoss Falls, and the geysers at the Haukadalur Geothermal Area.

Everywhere you see beautiful blue lupins, apparently a recent, deliberate introduction to stabilise and enrich the soil (lupins of course being nitrogen-fixers) which are proliferating at an incredible rate and seem to be broadly welcomed.  You can see them in the foreground and in the hills in the picture bottom right above. We were told that the country was 85% covered by trees when the Vikings arrived, but they cut them all down for fuel, housing and ships.

 

One thing which surprised us was the sheer size of the country – more than 300 miles East to West and 200 North to South. So we only saw a small part close to Reykjavik.

And this yellow door was the entry to our little room, with its blind to make it dark when it ought to have been night.

the biggest science scandal ever

The journalist Christopher Booker has a way of trumpeting his discovery of what turn out to be non-existent science scandals.  Here he is on February 7 this year:

one

Two

This article, headed “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”, turned out to be a misleading account of perfectly proper adjustments to readings from outdated measuring equipment which Mr Booker mistakenly thought showed that scientists were tampering with the historical record and trying to deceive the world about the need for action over climate change. [Full explanation of his errors here].

Mr Booker is rather given to this kind of language. Six years ago he ran an article in the Sunday Telegraph with the eerily similar heading “This is the worst scientific scandal of our generation“. The full text of this article, dated 29 Nov 2009,  is still on the ST website  [here if you want it]

Christopher Booker in the Sunday TelegraphThat ‘worst scientific scandal of our generation‘ wasn’t a scandal either, although Booker wasn’t alone in trumpeting it and calling it by the ridiculous misnomer, Climategate. And in a curious coincidence of hyperbole (unless they were hand-in-glove) another journalist, James Delingpole, wrote an article in The Spectator the following week [here if you want it] referring to the same events as  ‘the greatest scientific scandal in the history of the world‘. Gosh!

Another curious coincidence was the timing: these journalists, and a few others, broke the news of this 2009 ‘scandal’ – based as it was on a perverse interpretation of a ten-year-old stolen email, selected from thousands and quoted out of context – just three weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Summit of that year. It was therefore perfectly timed to undermine the political will so essential to making that crucial conference a success. What is certain is that Climategate – later described by Professor Sir Paul Nurse (see below) as ‘the scandal that never was’, did indeed play a part in securing the limp outcome which was so bitterly disappointing to all but climate change deniers.

At least four independent enquiries subsequently exonerated Dr Phil Jones and the Climatology Department of the University of East Anglia of all the charges of dishonesty which had been levelled so viciously against them. But the clearest description I have found of what actually happened was contained in a BBC Horizon programme by Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate. This programme is no longer available online but I prepared a transcript of some crucial sections at the time and posted them [here]. This extraordinary account makes it clear that Dr Phil Jones’ Department was the object of a coordinated campaign to undermine its authority as a world-leading centre for climatological research, and to undermine the credibility of the warnings it, and by implication climate science in general, was giving.

That 2009 campaign by Mr Booker and others of his persuasion was all too successful. The worry is now that they have their (short) sights on undermining the climate talks which are scheduled for this year. They must not be allowed to succeed this time – the world cannot afford another Copenhagen. You might even say that the concerted effort in which they have played a not-insignificant part – either as collaborators or, hopefully, as dupes – to deceive the world over the most serious existential threat mankind has ever faced, really is ‘the biggest science scandal ever’.

‘2071’ by Duncan Macmillan and Professor Chris Rapley, CBE

This is an extraordinary production. And, the Royal Court run being completely sold out, we were lucky to see it yesterday.

It is extraordinary because it is not presented by any sort of actor but by a top international scientist, and one who obviously believes that doing this – presenting climate science as clearly as he can to two London theatre audiences a day – is the most important thing he has to do at the moment. And as we read from the free handout that one of his many professional roles is Chairman of the Science Policy Advisory Committee of the European Space Agency, we could well imagine, on what was the day of maximum tension after their triumphant comet landing, Professor Rapley would rather have been much closer to the action .

But onto the stage he walked, without the slightest showmanship, sat down, and talked quietly for 70 minutes about the situation that faces the world.

Behind him, and perfectly synchronised with his words, were steadily-evolving images, graphs and diagrams on a huge, kaleidoscopic back-drop.

2071 - Chris Rapley

The fact that these graphics were almost entirely monochrome made the occasional use of red extremely striking. The sound track was equally subtle; gently supporting the narrative and punctuating it with hanging silences while he took a sip from his water glass. In all it was a deceptively sophisticated telling of a story which is, of course, far too dramatic to require theatricality. To my mind it was perfectly judged, and absolutely convincing.

Professor Rapley had been Director of the British Antarctic Survey and was particularly authoritative about the collapse of Antarctic Ice Shelves; now happening far more rapidly than ever expected. And as past Director of the Science Museum and Chairman of University College London’s Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science he presented a masterly overview of all aspects of his subject. He described this year’s report from the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, with its unequivocal call for action, as the most audited document in history. One easily-understood implication of this report being that three quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if humanity is to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of a more than 2°C rise in global temperature over pre-industrial levels. We have already had 0.8°C of that.

There were lots of young people in the audience, as well as older folks like us. But deniers were not at all in evidence. One day such people must realise that they have grandchildren too (Professor Rapley’s oldest will be the age he is now in 2071 – hence the title). Unfortunately, as things stand at the moment, that is going to be too late.

Our first impressions of owning an electric car

Our e-car
Our e-car. Note the distinctive running lights

Buying an electric car was something of an act of faith for us. There is still very little experience of them and even the dealer said it was only the second they had sold. A friend had shown us a Renault Zoe and his enthusiasm was infectious and persuasive, but we liked the fact that the new VW models have an option to charge from an ordinary 13 amp household plug.

But we didn’t, for example, know how well the electric VW would cope with hills. We were quite prepared for it to struggle a bit going up the steep incline from our garage to the road, and similarly on the steep zig-zag up the hill to where we live.

That just shows how little we had gleaned from our short test drive – we couldn’t have been more wrong. The way it gently, silently slips out of the garage and up onto the roadway, and the way it sweeps effortlessly up hills, absolutely ‘like the wind’, is a complete revelation and an intoxicating joy. We can’t resist going out at the slightest excuse to do it again. And we do that knowing that it isn’t costing anything at all: It doesn’t cause any noise; it doesn’t make any pollution. That’s because, charging on a reasonably sunny day, it draws less power than our solar panels are generating. So it  literally runs on the sunshine which would otherwise have heated up our roof tiles.  And – almost too obviously to point out – it doesn’t have an exhaust pipe, so it couldn’t emit exhaust gases if it tried.

With no gears the engine picks up strongly from rest and carries on pulling smoothly right through any amount of acceleration. This feels incomparably superior to the smoothest and most sophisticated of automatic gears. Apart from Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive you can select one further mode, B, by pressing momentarily on against a spring. This engages the recuperation system which, provided the battery isn’t absolutely fully charged (when there is presumably nowhere for the electricity to go), the motor operates in reverse when you lift off the accelerator, gently but increasingly-firmly retarding the car as it puts energy back into the battery. This means that 1) you rarely have to move your foot onto the brake pedal and 2) at the end of a long descent you find you have several miles more range than you had at the beginning.

It all takes a bit of getting your head round, something so new. The motoring journalists in the reviews I’ve seen missed it completely. The one in the Telegraph, although he said he liked the e-up!, seemed to think the only reason anyone would actually buy one would be to save money, and he declared the issue settled when he found that most people wouldn’t. No economic case at all: QED. It is hard to imagine him applying the same criterion to a Porsche – ten times as expensive and in my opinion ten times less fun. Not to mention immeasurably less sustainable. But then that would only count in the equation if he worried about sustainability, which as a rule motoring journalists tend not to.

So the general impression is that it is an incredibly refined vehicle, uncannily quiet and unfussy, and a complete joy to travel in. It is hard to pin down what is quite so special about it, but it reminds me of a trip I once had in a glider, or of that wonderful sense of peace you get in a sailing boat when you get out of the harbour and kill the engine. As you slow down and stop, the engine stops. Silent, still, cool. Cars whose engines keep running until you turn them off begin to look a bit ridiculous. It could be quite soon that people come to see the internal combustion engine as crude and unsophisticated, and those exhaust pipes – no less than four huge ones on a Lamborghini I saw in a service station the other day – as frankly disgusting.

Everybody asks about the range. Well, a full charge takes it just over 80 miles. Another ten or so if you change to Eco+, which turns off the air conditioning and restricts the speed until you do a deliberate kick-down with the accelerator. Eco mode is somewhere in between. In Normal mode the e-up! zooms along the motorway and keeps up with and overtakes almost anything if you want it to. The instrumentation tells you exactly how much power you are using and the range remaining all the time.

So, we already do return trips to towns 35 miles away in complete confidence. [ADDENDUM – this should really say ‘in summer, using Eco+ mode’ –  see note added at the bottom*]  We have yet to try, or need, a rapid-charging station on a longer journey, but the thoroughly-integrated Garmin ‘Info-tainment’ centre tells us where they are when we do. We are registered with Ecotricity  and we have our swipe card, and charging will be free and take up to twenty minutes. The VW models use the new CCS connector which is currently being installed in charging centres. As far as we can tell we can also use the more common Type 2 connector as well. But I will edit this post to give clearer details of the practicalities of using these stations as we find them out. This is where the lack of people experienced in using the technology is so apparent. There is certainly a pioneering element which is probably part of the fun.

For the time being I would have two major reservations – I do not think we have reached the point where electric cars are practical as an only car for people who need to make long journeys. The extra range of the VW e-Golf might make the necessary difference but I think that remains to be seen.  And secondly, you really do need a garage where you can keep and charge it. I see no solution at the moment for the many people who have to keep their car in the street, and not even in a fixed position outside their house.

Otherwise, I’ve seen the future, and it works…

* Further note on Range 24 August:
Yesterday evening we took four adults on a 63 mile round-trip to the theatre.

Starting  with a full charge and on Eco+ mode the indicated range was 98 miles. As we started home it was 48 miles – battery charge dial showing between half and three quarters full. About ten miles from home we changed to normal mode, turned on the heating and stormed up a couple of hills to show off the car. Arriving home there were 8 miles remaining range indicated.

Full statistics of the journeys, from the VW Car-net e-remote smartphone app:

Out (Daylight, late afternoon)
31 miles in 53 minutes av 35 mph
Av. e-motor consumption 4.1 mpkWh (miles per kilowatt hour)
Av. recuperation 19.5 mpkWh
Av. secondary consumption (heating/lights, etc) 155.4 mpwWh

Return (Dark, temperature  <10°C)
32 miles in 57 minutes, av 33 mph.
Av. e-motor consumption  4.0 mpkWh
Av. recuperation 18.3 mpkWh
Av. Secondary consumption 28.3 mpkWh

 

What are we doing to our climate? Some links for people attending my talk today…

As promised, here are some links for people who attended my talk at St Mary’s, Clapham on Wednesday 18 June, 2014

1. Hilarious video showing what a statistically valid ‘debate’ about climate change would actually look like: http://tinyurl.com/k5uslqx (4.9 million views and counting – updated January 2015))
Sending up the folly of ‘false balance’ in reporting of climate change issues by media such as Fox News and (disgracefully) the BBC:

2. IPCC reports : Climate Change 2014

The links take you to the menu for each report – I particularly recommend the videos, and especially the first one.

Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis http://preview.tinyurl.com/kfwycog

259 authors from 39 countries

Key messages:

  1. The warming of the Climate system is unequivocal
  2. Human influence on the climate system is clear
  3. Continued Greenhouse gas emissions will cause further climate change

“Therefore we conclude: Limiting climate change requires substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Working Group 2: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability http://tinyurl.com/nxk7lab

309 authors from 70 countries

Adaptation and mitigation are complementary

Working Group 3: Mitigation of Climate Change http://tinyurl.com/nk68shs

235 authors from 57 countries

Global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half by mid-century and further after that.

Complete transformation in the energy system – especially electricity generation.

The atmosphere is a common resource – free dump for greenhouse gases

We need a broad portfolio of approaches

3. The five stages of Climate denial (beautifully exemplified in the Murdoch press, including The Wall Street Journal ) http://tinyurl.com/lz2ltaj
Stage 1: Deny the problem exists   it does
Stage 2: Deny we’re the cause we are 2b: deny the scientific consensus it’s 97%
Stage 3: Deny it’s a problem it is
Stage 4: Deny we can solve it (too expensive, will hurt the poor, etc.) the exact opposite of the truth
Stage 5: Say it’s too late anyway it isn’t, quite, no thanks to Murdoch

4. Five pieces of ice news revealing earth’s ice cover is in serious decline http://tinyurl.com/qeo8dfe

  1. Antarctic ice melt is twice as fast as 10 years ago
  2. West Antarctic Glaciers are collapsing and it’s “unstoppable” – 2-3 metre sea level rise may take several centuries
  3. The Greenland Ice sheet could melt faster than previously thought
  4. Other ice caps and glaciers in the northern hemisphere are melting faster too
  5. Soot from forest fires contributed to unusually large Greenland surface melt in 2012

5. Northern hemisphere hits carbon dioxide milestone in April Reuter report 26 May http://tinyurl.com/l5aa4vy Read the denialists’ comments at the bottom if you’ve got a strong stomach.

New love affair

It takes time to get your head around having your own solar power.

Our PV roof panels were switched on three days ago and we have already generated (…gets up to look at the meter behind him on the wall…) 57.1 kilowatt hours. That’s much more power than we have used in that time. That’s a lot. Much more than I imagined.

Our system has a little bonus gizmo so that when we are not using all the power we generate (most of the time) the excess is fed automatically into the immersion heater in our hot water cylinder. So we switched off the gas boiler when the PV came on stream and we still have piping hot water for showers each morning. (That means zero energy cost, folks.)

But the thing which is so novel and which takes some really believing is that during the day we can use as much hot water as we like and there is absolutely no cost whatsoever – not to us and not to the planet: we are just using the heat from the sun that would have fallen on that part of the roof anyway.

Wow!

Why isn’t everyone doing this!

Another thing: When the energy performance certificate for our house was done just six months ago the assessor estimated that a 2.5kW solar array would cost future owners (i.e. us) between £9,000 and £14,000. In fact our state-of-the-art array, installed with meticulous care and attention to detail last week, actually cost us £6,500. And it generates 4kW, getting on for twice as much as that estimate, for less than half the price.

Bottom line – even the experts have not understood how quickly solar power is becoming hugely cost effective.

And our bottom line is the profound satisfaction we are getting. We even have a new electric lawnmower, which – wait for it – gets used in summer and always during the day – isn’t that just beautiful.

Our system was generating 1kW at 8.00 this morning and 1.3kW at 6.00 this evening. And it is early April in supposedly dark and dreary England. Isn’t that beautiful too!

Oh yes, it peaked at just over 3kW. Eight panels on the East sloping roof and another eight on the West.

Am I becoming a  bore? Not to me. It’s wonderful!

My message to skeptics for Climate Week 2014

For at least three decades and with increasing urgency scientists throughout the world have been warning about dangers to the future of civilisation if we do not take radical steps to reduce carbon emissions.

You think the chance of them being right is smaller than I do, but we both accept that the chance exists. But in this particular case the warnings are so dire, are being voiced by such an overwhelming majority of scientists, and the consequences are so momentous, that for either of us to actively oppose the precautions being urged would be irresponsibility of the highest order.

However, for anyone to oppose these precautionary steps deliberately, by knowingly misrepresenting the science, or by deliberately setting out to undermine the scientists involved, in order to further the short-term interests of individuals or corporations with vested interests in maintaining the present course, would surely be a new kind of crime against humanity.

That is why people like me are passionate about the evil of organised climate change denial.

James A R Willis   Retired GP, Author, Grandfather

Climate Week 2014

My comparison of the brightness of different kinds of light-bulb.

Two days ago I tweeted a contribution to the upcoming 10:10 forum on LED lighting:

@1010 We have two LED bulbs billed as 60W replacements by Homebase which are much brighter than 100W

When this provoked some interest I added that I had kept meaning to test this impression by using the light meter of my camera.  10:10 replied that they would be interested in the results. So, waiting only for darkness to descend, I went ahead with my simple experiment. Which confirmed my assertion, thus:

Method:

Setup

IMG_20140211_190935Lumix G2 camera set on Aperture Priority mode.  Sensitivity at ASA 1600  Aperture fixed at f3.6

Night time. No other light sources present.

The only change made between each reading was the  bulb itself.

The two mini fluorescent examples were allowed to warm up to full intensity before taking their readings.

Results:

  • 60 Watt Incandescent:      1/60th second exposure required*
  • 100 Watt Incandescent:    1/100th second exposure required*
  • 15 Watt mini-fluorescent:   1/100th second exposure required*
  • 12 Watt LED:   1/160th second exposure required*
  • 30 Watt mini-fluorescent:   1/200th second exposure required*

*The amount of light produced by the bulb is presumably in inverse proportion to the length of the exposure required – i.e. the shorter the exposure the brighter the bulb.

Conclusion:

These results suggest that while the 30W mini-fluorescent is the brightest bulb tested, the 12 Watt LED bulb bought from Homebase produces nearly three times as much light as the 60 Watt incandescent bulb for which it was billed as a replacement, and is more than half as bright again as the 100 Watt example, just as I claimed in my tweet.

Discussion:

One factor inhibiting people from changing over to LED lighting in their homes (apart from the cost – which is falling dramatically) is the belief that you can’t really get an adequate replacement for a standard 100Watt light bulb. Homebase, at least, appears to be contributing to this misconception by underselling the particular LED bulb which I used in this comparison.

I had no means of testing the accuracy of the wattage marked on the different bulbs, but if these are roughly correct then this experiment also supports the commonly repeated claim that LED bulbs use approximately 1/10th the electricity for the same light output.

I can feel further blogs coming on re:

  • The emerging practicality of large-scale changeover to much more efficient means of domestic lighting
  • The enduring validity of amateur experimentation, even in cutting-edge areas.
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