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After reading this I know I must check out the author’s website “A Bit About Britain”. If his unbiased approach to history demonstrated in this piece is reflected there then I shall rapidly become a fan.
Rebecca Bryn is an author who is content to self-publish. As such she is one of a handful of writers who deserve far greater recognition than is usually accorded to those who do not have the huge publicity machine of a conventional publishing company behind them.
I can unhesitatingly recommend all of her growing list of superbly written historical novels, not forgetting one of the best apocalyptic post-climate change fictions you are ever likely to read. Here she pays tribute to her grandfather and all those young men from ‘Pals’ regiments that endured the privations of World War I.
Am I alone in being cynical about the reaction throughout the West to the chemical attack in Syria earlier this week? In the context of six years of atrocities, of tens of thousands of deaths and many more mutilations, of millions driven from their homes, what makes is this particular act more reprehensible than a thousand others?
We – the Western powers, the ‘good guys’ – maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons which we are prepared to use if threatened. We permit certain other nations to do the same whilst imposing sanctions intended to prevent their acquisition by nations we fear. And we have trade deals worth $billions with Saudi Arabia, including the sale and maintenance of state-of-the-art weapon systems despite what that nation is doing to its neighbour, Yemen.
Is the plight of children starving in Yemen because the Saudis refuse to allow food aid to be delivered any less deplorable than that of the victims of chemical warfare in Syria? Or those being used as human shields in Mosul? Both conflicts now driven from our television screens by this latest Syrian atrocity.
The Middle East is a mess. It has been so for as long as I can remember. Every time one or other of the more powerful nations of the world, including the ‘good guys’, has intervened it has made things worse. Shelling an airfield might make Trump and his supporters feel good. I doubt it will make any difference to the lives of children in any Arab land.
Yesterday, fellow blogger Sha’Tara, aka Burning Woman, posted up a collection of “Anarchist memes, facts and headlines”. I challenged one of them in the comments. Another demands a longer response.
The world spent $1735 Billion dollars on war in 2012. It would take approximately $135 Billion dollars to totally eradicate (systemic) poverty.
For the sake of complete transparency I must admit a few things so that my readers can understand any bias I might bring to my analysis. First, I used to be a pacifist. I gave that up after giving serious consideration to the need to overcome tyranny – specifically that of dictators like Adolf Hitler – and concluded that the war that killed my father, along with several million others, many of them non-combatants, was unavoidable. There were enough pacifists who tried prior to 1939, but the point about tyranny is that it does not listen to reason.
Second, whilst I have the same distaste as most intelligent people for what President Eisenhower called ‘the military-industrial complex’, when I needed a secure job to see out the last decade before I retired, I had no qualms about joining one of the world’s largest defence companies.
With that out of the way, let me get down to analysng the above statement. I have no idea where the estimate of $135 billion dollars required to ‘totally eradicate poverty’ comes from. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it is accurate. The problem with the juxtaposition of these two ‘facts’ is that it seems to be based on the false notion that money is a ‘thing’, something like water in a pipe that can be diverted at the turn of a tap from one direction to another.
Money is not like that. Money is just an IOU. When you talk about changing priorities for spending, as the rest of the paragraph does, especially on such a grand scale, you are talking about moving resources around.
When I was young and learning about these things we used to call them ‘the three Ms’ – the factors of production, men, materials and machines. That was when women in the work force were invisible. Viewed like that, it is easy to see that switching resources from war to ‘ending poverty’ is not so simple as it sounds.
Let’s just consider some of the ways in which it might be possible to end poverty. The most obvious symbol of poverty is lack of food. If we are to increase the amount of food produced in the world, there are several ways it could be done.
We could destroy a few million more acres of rain forest and place them under cultivation. Disastrous for the environment, but who cares, we’re ending poverty here, the number one priority over all others.
Cutting out meat
And, of course, we don’t have to do it that way. We could cut down, or cut out altogether, our reliance on meat in our diet, and restore the pastureland presently used to graze cattle and sheep to growing crops for human consumption. I’m not sure how the reduction in methane production (good) that would result is balanced out by the additional energy and other inputs required (bad). I’m guessing it would work out as a positive for the environment, especially if we stuck to organic methods (although that requires that we continue to keep some animals for manure).
We could drastically reduce our consumption of alcohol, freeing up vast tracts of land already under cultivation for the production of food.
We could dramatically reduce the amount of food we waste, so long as we can move it from where it arises to where it is needed whilst it is still fit for consumption.
A better way
But there is a better way. One that is highly efficient and does not require an increase in the amount of land under cultivation. Hydroponics can be done on shelves, stacked in layers. It does have one draw back, however: the amount of energy used. I’ve heard that police forces can detect an illegal grow-house by reading the electricity meter. But so long as the energy used is not generated using fossil fuels, it’s all good. Although not according to the opponents of wind and solar power, who point out that they, too, involve the use of scarce resources, including land.
None of this, of course, addresses the problem of distribution, getting the food from the point of production to the point of need. But that’s solvable too, after all, war involves a huge expenditure on logistics and that is one factor that can easily be diverted.
And there are other targets that might be considered for reprioritisation. Take sport for example, an industry valued at $620 billion per annum, a figure reportedly growing faster than overall GDP, a lot of it directed at encouraging us to increase our consumption of stuff that is not only bad for us, but does little in a constructive way to end poverty.
So it is certainly possible. It requires significant changes in lifestyle for millions of us, but it is in a good cause. Or is it? Time to look at some of the likely consequences of ending poverty.
When people cease to be poor, their health improves; they live longer, their children are more likely to survive into adulthood. So the population increases, even without any increase in procreation. And increased population means the need for yet more food production.
And poverty is not just about food. It’s about the quality of housing. It’s about health care and disease prevention. All factors that I’m guessing are included in that $135 billion price tag. And all requiring land, labour, materials and machines. All resulting in greater longevity and a further increase in population.
Is it possible to reach a state of equilibrium, in which universal well being and a stable population exist side by side? Humanity has been trying for centuries, yet, it seems, is no nearer to achieving it.
No simple answers
Thinking about money, rather than what it represents, is how idealists fall into the trap of thinking there are simple answers to these intractable problems. People need to start thinking in terms of work. Nothing that sustains life, or makes it bearable, exists without work. If you live in a shelter you didn’t build yourself, wear clothes you didn’t make and eat food you didn’t grow, then you owe a debt of service to those who did construct your shelter, carry out all the different processes required to convert natural skins and/or fibres into wearable garments, and to the growers of the food you eat.
With that in mind, it seems to me that one of the most effective ways of ensuring a fair distribution of those things that make life worth living is to ensure the fair distribution of work. And I’m afraid that means accepting immigration and the export of jobs. Neither of them things attractive to supporters of Donald Trump’s presidency, or the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
One of the most frightening aspects of a Trump presidency is not what it could do to America but the fact that, if he is able to return jobs to the USA, he will impoverish those Pacific Rim countries that depend on exports to the USA. Likewise, if it is no longer possible for people from Eastern Europe to take up low paid jobs in Britain, the poorest of those countries will have lost an important route out of poverty. The irony of this is that farmers who rely on that labour will not recruit native Britons to do they work – they are already planning to use robots for much of that work.
It would be nice to think that, in 2017, we might see fewer over-simplifications of the problems that beset the planet and, instead, some serious thinking about practical solutions.
How should we respond to disasters? Natural events – earthquakes, floods, forest fires – usually evoke an outpouring of sympathy accompanied by the dispatch of all manner of aid. Engineers, medics, machinery and food are flown in to the disaster area to ensure that victims receive succour. Appeals raise millions of dollars to support such efforts.
Is our response to famine different? Should it be? Are we more inclined to seek the cause of the catastrophe before making a commitment to assist? How deeply ingrained in our knowledge of Judao/Christian history is the story of how Joseph taught his Egyptian captors the importance of conserving the surplus from good years in order to provide for years when the harvest failed? We may not subscribe to Malthusian theories about the relationship between population and food production, but common sense tells us that there is indeed some form of interdependence between the two.
Natural disasters are just that. Largely unpredictable events beyond our control. Science has provided us with tools that reduce the unpredictability of earthquakes. Engineers have shown us how to design buildings capable of surviving any but the most intense. The same is true of floods. Even so, there are few circumstances in which we would blame the victims of such events. We might argue, after the event, that warnings had been ignored, that building design regulations had been flouted, flood defences neglected. In such circumstances we would be justified in apportioning blame to those responsible for the neglect, not to the victims.
Often potential victims are able to insure against such risks, although the premium might be prohibitive if the risk is high. And an insurer’s reluctance to underwrite the risk should act as a warning to anyone choosing to dwell in an area prone to floods or earthquakes. In such circumstances we might well withhold our sympathy on the grounds that they were aware of the risk when they took the decision to build their home on a flood plain or near a fault line.
The causes of famine – crop failure, drought, floods – are potentially just as predictable as are earthquakes. Tools and techniques to mitigate such events are well known. Could there, then, be some justification in attributing blame to the victims of famine? Maybe they failed to install proper irrigation systems; they chose not to plant disease resistant strains of their preferred crop; they did not make use of other agricultural techniques, such as spraying with insecticides, or sensible crop rotations to conserve soil fertility whilst allowing the disease bearing organisms to die before re-planting with the susceptible crop.
The Elephant in the Room
There is another factor in all these situations: population pressure. As populations grow, demand for food and housing increases, forcing people to build their homes, or to grow crops, in unsuitable locations. The corollary is true also: in good times people reproduce. Infant mortality reduces. The elderly survive for longer. Population increases. The likelihood of disaster grows. So, too, does the likelihood of war. Another lesson from Judao/Christian history concerns the wresting of the “promised land” from its occupants in order to provide a fertile home for former exiles.
Were I not an optimist I would say that, even without climate change, our planet is headed for catastrophe driven by the inexorable rise in population. Why do I remain optimistic? Because I believe in the power of education, of science and of technology. There will be great suffering, for sure, there always has been. Wars, natural disasters and famines will continue. Perhaps they will intensify.
In the past these would often have been attributed to providence, or the wrath of some invisible deity. The response would have involved religious rituals and invocations. But the advance of knowledge has given humankind an understanding of the causes of these calamities and the means both to mitigate their effects and to prevent their recurrence. I believe it will give future generations the power to find a sustainable balance between population and resource use.
Warning: this is a rant. Some readers may be offended.
I’m talking living nightmares here, not bad dreams. I watch, nightly, scenes of ravaged cities that, a few years ago were bustling, modern metropolises teeming with people going about their business and tourists photographing historic buildings. I watch, too, over-loaded boats ferrying people, men, women and frightened children, across the Mediterranean or Aegean seas. And my television also shows me lines of similar people trekking across country or, more often these days, camping in unbelievably squalid conditions beside hastily erected fences. Many of these dispossessed people are the former citizens of those wrecked and ruined cities.
I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to see one’s home become a war zone. By ‘home’ I do not just mean the house one occupies with one’s family, I mean the familiar neighbourhood where you conduct your business at the corner shop, attend religious ceremonies at the church, mosque or temple around that same corner, where every morning you take your children to the nearby school.
I do not know what is worst: to be confined indoors because of street fighting, snipers on rooftops hiding behind the parapets, or to be afraid to remain indoors for fear of being shelled or bombed. Maybe you’d hope the nightmare would end soon. That the fighting would stop. That basic services would be restored. That the empty shelves in the corner shop would be replenished. At what point would you come to realise that the nightmare was not going to end? That the only escape was to leave what remains of the place you used to call home and to seek something closer to normality elsewhere.
To get to that new place involves another nightmare, almost, but perhaps not quite, as bad as the one you are leaving. Trekking for days across a hot desert, finding someone to carry you across an ocean, albeit, if you are lucky, a small ocean. Selling your most treasured possessions in order to pay for that part of the journey. Seeing friends, neighbours, close relatives, drown, having already lost many to the bullets and bombs of the war. And then to discover that all that is on offer is a makeshift tent in a filthy encampment.
That, surely, is the worst nightmare anyone can imagine. And yet it is the daily experience of tens of millions. We, the fortunate ones, have become so inured to seeing these human tragedies unfold on our screens. We worry about what is to become of these victims of the insanity of war only to the extent that our own comfortable lives might be disrupted. That these migrants will place pressure on public services. Our own access to quality health, education and housing will be impaired if we allow ‘this flood’ to reach our own shores. We are even prepared to risk all that has been good about Europe since our own cities were destroyed by bombs as we lived through our own nightmare more than 70 years ago. We learned the lessons – or I thought we had.
We learned that it is better to try to rub along together, to accept, even celebrate, differences in culture and religion. To share our good fortune with those less fortunate than ourselves, within the boundaries of Europe and further afield.
The fact that others are still slaves to intolerance and prejudice to the extent they are prepared to kill each other, and to attempt to terrorise us, out of whatever twisted motives, is hard to understand. And I wonder when our politicians will learn that our attempts to interfere in these disputes are making things worse. I am grateful for having been born at a time and in a place that made me a member of the most fortunate generation this planet has known. And I’m ashamed that our grandchildren will be unable to share much of that good fortune because of the greed and ignorance of many of my contemporaries.
Thursday 3rd. March the writers’ group set this prompt: The soil yielded effortlessly to the spade. The following Tuesday, 8th March, I planted a tree. Whilst I was doing that I began to think about the prompt. This is the result. I changed only the tense.
The soil yields easily to the spade. I’m planting a tree. I decided a while back that the garden needed another. I didn’t want it in the lawn, it would be too difficult to maneuver the mower around. Instead, I would enlarge the flower bed at the bottom of the lawn. Later I will plant perennials around the new tree. I marked it out yesterday. Now I’m pushing the spade into the turf at intervals along the curved line of the mark.
I slide the spade under the turf and roll it up in sections which I place on a woven plastic tarpaulin on the adjacent section of lawn. With the turf cleared from the new section of flower bed, I position the tree, still in its container, and walk back to a point close to the window from which it will be seen. I do this several times in order to establish the best position. Then I push the spade into the ground again, marking a circle about twice the diameter of the container.
I move the tree to one side and begin excavating the circle. I go deep. Once through the layer of top soil, I reach a seam of sandy sub-soil which I break up and lift out. I wonder if I have reached soil that our ancestors might have walked on. Celts, Vikings, Normans: did any of them pass this way? And, suddenly, the thought strikes me that we remember these ancestors much more for the hate-filled battles they fought with each other, than for the struggles they had with nature and which produced pretty much everything we see around us today.
Whether farmers and horticulturalists who developed new strains of plants; scientists and engineers who learned how to smelt, alloy and shape metals; builders who developed new ways of strengthening clay so as to make sturdier buildings, we owe them all a debt of gratitude. And yet the vast majority are anonymous. We celebrate, instead, the warriors and leaders of armies: Alexander, Nelson, Wellington, Grant, Churchill, Eisenhower.
Admittedly, some of us also celebrate Darwin, Flemming and Pasteur. But not to the same extent. We commemorate the anniversaries of great victories, revolutions, and the battles that became the turning points in our political history. The important scientific discoveries that made possible so many of the things we appreciate, whether for their beauty or their usefulness, go largely unmarked.
I think about hybrids of flowering species, bred for colour, form or scent, or any combination of those three. Varieties of grains and vegetables whose increased productivity and disease resistance enable many millions more to be fed than was ever the case in years gone by. Where are the commemorations of these important milestones? Are the men and women behind these developments not at least as important as the political leaders and victorious generals we revere?
With the hole dug, I place several of the pieces of turf, grass side down, in the bottom of the hole. I lower the tree into the hole to check for depth. There is room for a second layer of turf. I sprinkle a handful of pelleted chicken manure into the hole and onto the pile of soil. I pour in a gallon of water drawn from my rain-water butt. Now, it is time to remove the tree from the confines of its pot and tease out the roots that have encircled the root ball. I position the tree in the hole and back-fill with soil from the pile, firming it down with my boot as I go.
My thoughts move on from history to the present and the future. And it comes to me that it is not just that we fail to recognise the achievements of those people whose only motivation was the well-being of future generations. Not content merely to take these things for granted, we abuse their legacy. Instead of conserving and improving the natural environment, as they did, we pillage and pollute it with no thought for those who come after.
I know my tree will give me pleasure for the few years I have left in this life. But I also know the tree will continue to give pleasure to the next occupant of the garden. Or it will, if the next generation, or the one after, is not destroyed by a combination of continuing hate-filled battles with each other, and the pillaging and polluting of soil, sea and sky that, I am ashamed to admit, my generation began.