Uncharted Territory

June 24, 2010

Joe Romm’s New Scapegoat

This is unseemly, I know.  But it’s very disappointing when someone you thought was on you side reveals their true colors.  Ask Obama how he feels about General McCrystal.

BP’s CEO Tony Hayward has wisely decided to go into hiding.  So a new scapegoat has been found.  A Senator Joe Barton has dared to describe (Youtube clip) the $20bn the President has demanded as a “shakedown”.  He makes some perfectly reasonable comments.

Clearly the word “shakedown” must be incredibly offensive to Americans.  Much more offensive, I presume than using the term “veddy veddy” to (presumably) mock the English accent.

I don’t know how many readers Joe Romm has, but I would imagine a good proportion of them are in the UK.  I would have thought alienating them was straight out of the Tony Hayward school of poor PR.   Once again, the irony of it!

Oh, and maybe there are only 60 million Brits.  But there are over a billion Indians.  And they’re noticing the double standards being applied.

Shockingly, my comment in support of Joe Barton on Joe Romm’s silly post has been “awaiting moderation” since this morning.  I can only conclude I’ve been ostracised.  Lucky I have a thick Brit skin.

Anyway, here’s my shocking point of view:

“Well, I think Joe Barton has a valid point. There’s no legal basis for expropriating the $20bn from BP. It’s for consequential losses (e.g. the effects on tourism, fishers etc) for which the legal framework is compensation by fines per barrel of spill. So maybe BP is going to have to pay twice. Who knows?

Btw, to declare an interest, or rather not, I invest my spare pocket money in alternative energy not oil companies (though some Big Oil shares might be part of my managed pension fund). Anyway, I’m underweight BP, so I shouldn’t be so bothered. But this is a point of principle.

Joe Barton is just being shouted down by public opinion.

Since when are opinion polls a reliable guide to what’s right or wrong, true or false?

We have, on the one hand, public opinion, rather than the pre-existing legal framework, determining how much compensation BP should pay.

But, on the other hand, we have global warming, where, many would argue, we hope our leaders will listen to the science and not fickle public opinion.

Smart move, guys. Smart move.”


June 22, 2010

Joe Romm’s Veddy Veddy Thin Skin

Filed under: Oil, Other environmental issues, Politics, Reflections — Tim Joslin @ 7:21 pm

The Climate Progress blog is a useful assemblage of climate-related news stories. I visit often. I’m therefore especially sad that it’s become a casualty of Victim Syndrome. Yes, it’s part of human nature – more acceptable in some cultures than others, perhaps, or maybe it’s behaviour that can be indulged in more by the powerful – that perceived wrongs justify any kind of retaliatory behaviour.

Joe Romm, the owner of Climate Progress, has chosen to indulge in anti-British rhetoric over the BP Gulf of Mexico spill. In fact, the Climate Progress site lists no less than 177 posts under “BP Oil Disaster”, a number of them attempts at “humor”. One in particular grabbed my attention. It appears on Climate Progress under the title “By any other name ‘British Petroleum’ still smells bad”, and also at a site called Salon, as “It’ll Always be British Petroleum to me” subtitled “Memo to Brits: Quit whining about the name. Americans are incredibly pissed about what BP has done in the Gulf”.

The subtitle alone appears to say “your feelings don’t matter because ours are obviously more important”. Lucky isn’t it that we Brits aren’t, like, really upset then, isn’t it? Maybe then we’d be obliged to write: “Memo to Yanks: Quit venting, we’re really miffed.” Where would it all end?

To give the flavour of Romm’s “humorous” piece here are a couple of quotes:

“So are the Brits really saying that calling their veddy, veddy British company ‘British Petroleum’ is somehow an insult, a threat to our ‘special’ relationship?”

“We never thought of you as whiners until the CEO of your big oil company started saying stuff…”

and the conclusion:

“So, man up. We’re gonna keep calling it British Petroleum. And if you keep complaining, we might start calling it the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. Let’s see what that does for business.”

I’d never come across “veddy, veddy” before. I had to look it up. Apparently it’s: “Jocular or derisive of the way Englishmen are supposed to pronounce the letter r”. So that’s all right then.

The very first comment at Salon (undeleted by the moderator) gives a flavour of the sort of people smart-ass intellectuals like Joe Romm are egging on:

Tony Hayward, goggle-eyed sodding wanker Brit.

Man up, you gormless twits and own your monumentally stupid oil company, helmed by the most repulsive specimen of corporate clueless assholery ever to slither from an oil slick, Tony ‘I want my life back’ Hayward-Shithead. Today we in the US are looking at the results of your criminally incompetent, utterly negligent corner-cutting favorite company. A year from now I expect we’ll be looking at a dead ocean after the millions of barrels of oil, weaponized by a toxic dispersant, work through the water column of the northern Gulf of Mexico, poisoning every living thing in its path. Hayward should be shoved face first into a dead whale’s asshole. British Petroleum, a company stolen fair and square from the Iranians, should be nationalized by the US government and sold off in pieces of cover the as yet uncalculated and likely incalculable environmental and economic losses. Don’t like it? Fuck you. Start a war with the US, invade Washington, and burn down the White House. Please.

My first reaction to Romm’s rant was that the job of persuading people of the dangers of climate change requires clear-thinking and detachment. The point is that we might not be able to do everything we want. We might for instance have to take the difficult decision to leave some fossil fuel in the ground. It seems to me that such an already difficult task is incompatible with letting your emotions run riot. So I posted a very restrained comment at Climate Progress saying so.

But that wasn’t good enough for Joe Romm. No, he put his own comment on my comment. I replied. And get this: my second comment has not appeared. I would have thought this was a breach of netiquette. In fact, I would have thought any self-respecting blogger owes it to themselves not to selectively filter and therefore skew the comments on their own posts. What could I have said that was so offensive that it must not appear on the internet? And remember, the standard we’re talking about is one where “Tony Hayward, goggle-eyed sodding wanker Brit” is perfectly acceptable.

Here’s what I said to Joe Romm (it’s a bit of a ramble, so I’ve highlighted what I now realise is the insightful point – it’s not calling BP “British” that matters as such, it’s the deliberateness of it, which leaves the recipient trying to guess what’s behind the usage – it’s a “what are you trying to say mate?” situation):

JR wrote: “I have been to Great Britain many times and I’ve always admired you folks for your dry sense of humor. [Yeah and don’t we just love being the subject of patronising generalisations]. I read the piece again and it is light stuff. [I’ve seen worse, but why is this sort of thing necessary: “We never thought of you as whiners until the CEO of your big oil company…”? Nobody’s whining, mate, though there’d be every reason too – we just thought it was about time we stepped in to defend our interests.] Also, I don’t think there was ever much chance the company could be put out of business [I hope not, but plenty of people have been arguing that could happen. There’s no legal basis for the $20bn, e.g. paying for other oil companies’ idle workers is absurd – the decision to suspend all deep-sea drilling is tantamount to admission of regulatory negligence – so we’ve no idea what the US authorities are going to do next] — but why would you care if it’s not an specially British company? [Because “its stock happens to form a large proportion of UK pension funds”, as I said before].

BP likes to tout itself as a veddy veddy [I’ve no idea what you’re trying to communicate with this affectation, but I doubt it’s complimentary] British company when it suits his purposes, likes to pretend it is Beyond Petroleum when that suits its purposes. [OK, I think we can all agree that BP’s rebranding was too clever by half, they should have gone for “International Petroleum” – I gather British Airways/Iberia is going to become “International Airways” – but the fact of the matter is it’s called “BP”. To knowingly call it something different must surely be to make a point of some kind, even if the listener has to make up their own mind precisely what point]. The point of calling it British Petroleum is not so much the “British” part as the “petroleum” part. [I simply don’t believe you].

BTW, What “load of abuse” did the British people get? Seriously, what? “Politely”? [Yeah, politely – the op-ed pieces very gently pointed out the connection between politicians saying “British Petroleum” accidentally on purpose and the sort of abuse in the very first comment on your piece at Salon]. That is dry. Anyway, the piece was marked as humor. I’m sorry you didn’t like it.”

Three points:
1) A company is not a single entity, much as that would be convenient. It’s a web of many different interests. So when BP has to pay for the spill it is in fact the shareholders’ capital that is used. Fair enough – there’s a risk in holding shares. But as soon as politicians start making up the rules the fairness evaporates. And the perception over here is that a) BP may end up paying more than necessary – and of course we’re talking big bucks – and b) other companies and the regulator are not getting their share of the blame – and, in the case of Anadarko, trying to squirm out of their share of the bill. I’m shocked that the President feels it necessary to inflame rather than calm the situation. Given that this sort of behaviour often occurs around the world, though, I wonder whether an international court should be established to rule as a last resort on disputes between nations and multinationals. This would give investors a little more confidence in an era when political risks seem to be increasing.

2) You are engaged primarily in trying to convince the public of the rational arguments of the dangers of climate change. I came to your site today looking for your latest on Arctic sea-ice, and I found this garbage. I’m very puzzled why you would want to taint your brand by getting involved in this sort of irrational mudslinging. It undermines your credibility.

3) Why the heck is the US giving up the moral high ground? At the outset there was universal sympathy. BP was paying for everything anyway. In every crisis situation in my professional life, the leader has tried to take the emotion out, not reinforce it: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” and all that. I’m sure many “Americans are incredibly pissed”, but as soon as the big stick comes out, as it seems to all too readily over there, people over here start thinking: “Hang about, those guys aren’t trying to take advantage of us are they?”. And in this case, there’s the “British” angle, too, so there’s an implication of blame and responsibility attached – we’re thinking you’re thinking that the “British” caused the spill so you’re justified taking what you want from the disproportionately British BP shareholders. But, like any other shareholders, those of BP are entitled to be protected by the law, not presented with bills for anything that pops into the mind of a White House official. Perhaps it feels good to vent, but maybe anger isn’t always the best emotion to nurture.

The irony is that Romm’s whole point is that the “Brits” are supposedly thin-skinned whiners.

I’d be grateful if anyone could explain exactly how I’ve managed to upset a tough American.  If I knew, I could do it again!

November 4, 2009

The Guilty Fisherman

I’d just formulated my proposition that guilt may not be an appropriate emotion for dealing with the global warming problem, and, not having slept too well last night, I was pondering whether to change my usual habits and take an afternoon nap, when an old book of stories fell from my overloaded bookshelves. It fell open and I found myself starting to read…

“Once upon a time there was an old fisherman. He was fond of regaling his son and the other youngsters in the village with stories of the bounty he’d known in his younger days. ‘You didn’t have to cast a net, ‘ he’d tell them, ‘Fish would just land in the boat. And sometimes you could just go for a walk, miles from land – on the backs of great fish, of course!’ The boys would laugh excitedly. ‘Will we do that?’, they’d ask ‘when we grow up and go to sea?’ He’d nod and smile. He could see them telling their own tall tales to the next generation.

But he couldn’t help thinking that there was a grain of truth in his stories. He remembered days when in honour of some anniversary, festival or betrothal, or just for the hell of it, he’d drunk and sung with his friends until the early hours, not set sail until midday, yet been back long before sundown with his hold filled to the brim, with a shimmering, writhing mass of plump fish of whichever variety he’d sought. Nothing like that ever happened nowadays. And he wasn’t just becoming old and slow. The other fishermen agreed. Nowadays it was tough landing any catch large enough to feed a family, let alone sell on the quayside. And you couldn’t afford to throw anything back. You had to keep whatever miserable specimens you found in the nets.

The old fisherman pondered and pondered. Eventually he resolved to seek advice. Was it the fault of the villagers? Were they taking too many fish?

One day, when he’d landed a half-decent haul the day before, the old fisherman took his stick and climbed the mountain near the village. Many times he slipped and nearly fell, but eventually he made it to the craggy plateau where he knew an Old Woman lived. He hoped she still survived, as it was some months since she’d been seen.

He scouted around, and behind some rocks he found a small wooden hut. She was in. Her broom was propped outside, although only a few hazel twigs were left. Perhaps he should have brought her a new one.

He was still staring at the broom when a hand closed round his arm, the arthritic, clawed fingers more bone than flesh. He turned with a start. His pulse racing, he felt as if his heart would burst before he’d even asked his questions.

‘Steady on,’ she said, ‘I have to be careful not to fall. You wouldn’t believe the waiting list for a hip-replacement these days. Why do you think I grabbed you? You don’t think I fly around on that broom do you? If I tried’, she cackled, ‘my brittle bones would break into a million pieces on the rocks down there.’ The fisherman felt a little vertiginous as she gestured the way he’d just come.

He apologised and gave her the dried fish he’d brought. Her eyes lit up. Or would have done if it hadn’t been for her cataracts. Still, he sensed she was pleased with the offering.

She read his thoughts. ‘Yes, yes,’ she said. ‘Lovely, I hardly ever have fish. Just the odd half-digested morsel.’

As she spoke, they both became aware of a fluttering and a squawking. A seagull was trapped in a net she had strung between two heavy sticks wedged into crevices in the rock. The old woman walked slowly over, grabbed the bird with sudden, remarkable dexterity. There was an unpleasant crunch as she broke its neck.

‘Well, what do you think I eat?’ she said, ‘Sometimes there’s some fish still in the gullet, though I usually leave most as bait for the next bird. Would you like a nice cup of tea?’

As they sipped the hot drink, he explained his problem. Should they fish less? Should they instead try to scrape a living growing crops and hunting in the forest? Did they need to develop new skills?

‘Heh, heh, heh!’ the old woman laughed. ‘Why are you asking me?’

‘The whole village knows you for your wisdom,’ he replied.

‘But I am of Man,’ she said, ‘Even though you shun me.’

‘We’ll visit more often…’

‘That’s alright, young man, the feeling’s mutual. As I was saying,’ she continued, ‘I deal in the affairs of men. I provide harmless powders, so lovers can pretend to discover what they already know, so that angry men can make an enemy sick for a day in revenge for some ill-deed – better than bloodshed, don’t you agree? – but mostly I give advice to simply be calm or to act on desires, depending on the state of the visitor. These are the services I provide.’

‘I can’t help with your problem. You need to consult the Mermaid. She is born of the Earth and knows its ways. Not I, I only know the ways of Man’. She cackled. ‘You must go back whence you came.’

There was a silence as the fisherman contemplated the night he must spend alone on the Forbidden Rock.

‘I’m a pretty Mermaid! I know how Nature works! I pee in the sea, see!’ mocked the Old Woman cryptically, cackling. The fisherman was becoming a little disconcerted.

She saw him laughing and smiled. He saw her black teeth, but forbade himself to look away. She could tell, and laughed. He still met her gaze, but with even more effort. This only made her laugh more. Finally, she tilted her head back, cackling: ‘Positive feedback! Positive feedback!’

He didn’t know what she was talking about. He sipped his tea, now feeling very uncomfortable indeed.

‘Be guided by reason, not emotion,’ said the Old Woman after a long silence. ‘That’s the only advice I can give you.’

‘Well, mostly harmless powders,’ she muttered, after another long silence.

The fisherman glanced at his tea, then looked at her, worried.

‘It’s hard work getting the ingredients,’ she explained. ‘By the time I reach the forest, I’m too tired to look for newts. I just gave you a little something to make sure you get down the mountain safely.’ He was drinking only tea, but she knew he’d believe her and avoid a tumble.

The fisherman was determined. But even he was about to give up as the first ruddy rays of sunlight reflected on the sea to the East.

He heard it first, though he couldn’t tell where the sound of the wind and waves ended and the whispering voice began. ‘You seek my knowledge,’ he heard. He looked. She was there. He could feel her presence. Though he couldn’t tell where the glittering jewels of light on the rippling water ended and the Mermaid’s iridescent beauty began.

She seemed to read his thoughts. ‘You should have seen me in my younger days,’ a laughing voice seemed to tinkle, ‘I really was beautiful then!’

The music continued. ‘You must stop. Tell your people they may only fish but once a year, to provide for the great winter festival, and never beyond this rock. Otherwise the seas will never recover.’

He sat there staring, his mind in turmoil. At first, he sensed she was still there, but as the sun rose higher in the sky, the harsh light perhaps made her invisible, before she vanished beneath the waves.

The fisherman set sail for home. After a night without sleep his memory was confused. The Mermaid had confirmed his worst fears. But perhaps it had all been a figment of his imagination.

It was evening by the time he docked. His son was waiting to meet him. Apparently, for the first time, all the village’s boats had returned empty that day. A crowd gathered as he tied up his boat, worried and murmuring.

‘Did you see the Mermaid?’ ‘What did she say?’ ‘Was she as beautiful as the stories tell?’ They were crowding in on him.

He couldn’t let his people down. He had to tell them what they wanted to hear. Surely the young men deserved to experience what he had. If he told them they couldn’t, wouldn’t it be because of his own greed over the years?

Besides, he quite fancied a few more fish suppers himself during the years he had left.

He cleared his throat: ‘The fish will return,’ he said. There wasn’t really a cheer, just puzzled relief. They needed more convincing. ‘It’s a natural cycle,’ he improvised. ‘To do with sunspots. They affect the migration patterns of the fish, you see.’ One or two in the crowd aahed their understanding. He looked at the sea. ‘Like the waves!’ he said, triumphant, pleased that he’d come up with an analogy. His confidence was now reflected in his tone, ‘we’re just in a trough, that’s all. Soon we’ll be riding on the next crest!’

‘But go easy, don’t take too many fish,’ he added. But by then no-one was listening.

Was it his imagination? Or did he hear, over the sound of the wind and the waves, a long low moan in the distance, far out to sea?

The man who came to the Forbidden Rock was still young. But his hands were callused from scraping a living in the fields. Many villagers had died as, already near starving, they finally realised that the fish would not return and belatedly started experimenting with crops or hunting the rodents in the forest. If only they’d begun while there were still some fish left.

His father had been one of the first victims. As the catches worsened, he’d seemed to consume himself from within, while others were as yet merely hungry. They’d buried him here on the island where he’d claimed to have seen the Mermaid. By visiting his grave his son was hoping to understand what had happened.

Lost in his thoughts, an awful rotting smell seemed to creep up on him. The Mermaid hauled herself out of the sea, covered in green slime.

‘Look at me!’ she screamed. Her face was covered in warts and sores.

‘Why didn’t you listen!’ He saw her teeth were pointed and sharp, her red eyes burning into him.

‘We must now go our separate ways, Nature and Man,’ she hissed.

There was a cackle behind him. He turned and saw the Old Woman.

When he turned back the Mermaid was gone.

He turned again. The crone was still there.

‘How did you get here?’ he spluttered, forgetting to be afraid.

‘Never mind that. You’ll have to feed me too now. No fish, no gulls either!’ the Old Woman cackled.”

Well that was the story I found. The strange thing is when I looked for the book again I couldn’t find it. Where I’d put it down there was only a copy of a huge report on the science of climate change. And I don’t remember where it came from in the first place.

What could it all possibly mean?

July 13, 2009

Maggot Madness

I was more than usually bemused by this report on the Cambridge Evening News website.

“Horrified pensioner Anne Flack, of Chartfield Road, Cherry Hinton, felt revolted when she found maggots crawling in the bottom of her black bin after it was emptied this week.”

“Another city resident, Joscelyn Carroll, of Sleaford Street, who has previously found maggots in his black bin, said: ‘I find it ridiculous that with ever increasing council tax they cannot provide a weekly rubbish collection in this heat.’ ”

[My emphasis].

Whilst I very much agree with the sentiment that the bins should be emptied weekly – I’ve even said as much en passant to my local Cambridge Councillor – the issue is (or should be) the green bins. We have black boxes for papers, newspapers and cans; blue boxes for plastic bottles; collection points for batteries; charity shops for old clothes and crockery; procedures for dealing with fridges (even if these would fit in a black bag! [obliquely referencing Doug’s recent anecdote]) and other electrical goods; green bins for garden and kitchen waste as well as cardboard – that is, for those with no biology qualifications, practically everything that could support the typical maggot lifestyle; and black bins for everything else, which should be eff all.

So, the Cambridge Evening News reader might well wonder, why aren’t Anne Flack, of Chartfield Road, Cherry Hinton and Joscelyn Carroll, of Sleaford Street following the instructions of the Cambridge Soviet to the letter? Aren’t they putting their food waste in the green bins? As well as compostables (including “all kinds of cardboard”), I dutifully separate out bottles (glass and plastic), paper, tins and even batteries. There’s absolutely nothing in my black bin to support a maggot-dominated ecosystem. It contains little but inert packaging, much of it the same plastics as in the recycled bottles (not forgetting shiny Christmas wrapping paper – future civilisations millennia hence will wonder at the purpose of this least degradable of all human artefacts). Incidentally, guess why they only recycle plastic bottles? Because the sorting machine can only deal with rolly things! (Pointing out the absurdity of this was the substance of my letter to the Councillor).

Of course, no-one knows (as they say) what happens to the waste in the green bin. One suspects the answer is that it goes somewhere similar to the contents of the black bin – landfill, incineration or a layby on the A14. I find the idea that the waste from everyone’s green bins is pure enough to grow food in to be rather implausible.

Here’s what the Council has to say by way of “clarification”:

” ‘Despite rumours, there is no public health risk associated with putting food waste in green bins in Cambridge and it is completely safe for people to do so.’ ”

Que?, as Manuel would say. Rumours? What rumours? Can you catch swine flu or something from this “food waste”? The green bins are intended for food waste, not just garden waste (hey, wouldn’t it be better if those with gardens maintained their own compost heaps, anyway?). At least that’s what Cambridge Council have been telling me for the last 5 years.

“The council’s advice is to get a kitchen caddy – which is free for Cambridge residents – to collect food waste in the kitchen. Wrap all food waste in paper, rinse off food packaging, and keep wheelie bin lids closed.” [NSS* on the last bit!].

Thanks for letting me know before. But what exactly is a “kitchen caddy”? I use an old plastic food container – the kind the Council won’t recycle. It seems to do the job.

And here’s the screamer:

“Residents are also encouraged to put food waste in their black bin one week, and green the next, to get a weekly collection of food waste.”

Unbelievable. What are we saying now? After all this, it doesn’t really matter what goes in what bin?

Maybe this is a good time to mention that the whole national recycling strategy is, of course, entirely misconceived. Government should simply take steps to create a market for recyclables (e.g. by acting as the buyer of last resort) so that suppliers to recycling companies buy the stuff off us (maybe via enterprising school-kids). Every newspaper, bottle, tin, potato peeling and so on that is recycled saves the landfill or other disposal cost so recycling could even be subsidised, though I’m convinced that, once established, the recycling industry would be profitable. And what’s more, you might find people clearing the bottles, cans and other trash from Parker’s Piece for nothing!

Give people clear incentives to do the right thing and we don’t need to try to run our lives on the basis of contradictory local council diktats.

*NSS = No Sh**, Sherlock! – of course!

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