Save our forests!

 The government appears to want to sell our public woodland to raise some cash and get rid of the administrative burden of looking after them. This should not be allowed to happen.

On the other hand, they are not fantastically well managed at the moment by the Forestry Commission or other bodies that look after them. We can use many of them, but often in a restricted way and with little imaginative organisation of events.

A pragmatic solution to all this is for communities to take control of their local woods and to use them as best fits local needs. Everyone would win with this: the government make and save money, the woods are preserved and people get better enjoyment from local countryside. The woods could also be put to use, if wanted, to generate income for the community or help improve welfare (such as youth schemes). The cost to communities would not be great; giving help in raising the cash would be perfect Corporate Social Responsibility for companies.

There are many example of this model across Europe, so it would not be difficult for community groups to work out the best ways to manage their woodland once they own it – just follow examples that already work well.

But proposing this will take a little political backbone, which is likely to be conspicuous by its absence unless there is enough pressure to force the issue. What will help is for as many of us as possible to send an e-mail asking for the forests to be saved for us all. To this end, just copy the wording below into your e-mail system and send to Caroline Spelman (address below). Add your name at the bottom or leave blank, as you like.



To: Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Dear Ms Spelman,

RE: DEFRA consultation on forestry sale.

I consider the British woodland to be one of the greatest treasures that the nation owns, regardless of its market value. I wish to have access to this woodland in the future, to see it properly managed for the good of all people and not sold off to the highest bidder. I wish to see our forests safe for future generations, forever.

I am also pragmatic. I understand that the nation needs to raise capital and that some of the loudest voices decrying these changes have previously berated the Forestry Commission just as loudly. I therefore ask you to consider the following proposal.

Sell the forests of Britain to its people. Let community organisations or charities be the only bodies able to bid for this land. The money can be raised by many means, including subscription, adopt-a-tree, corporate sponsorship, grants and many other ways that the ingenuity of the people can invent. We can raise the money, we just need you to sell us our forests.

Our woodland will not be valuable on the open market if sold with sufficient safeguards to ensure they remain accessible to everyone and are conserved for the future. Conversely, this will be their greatest attraction if sold to community organisations; the potential for generating revenue for those communities would simply be an added bonus.

Once owned by the people, their woodlands could become so much more than somewhere to walk the dog: they could become a serious asset of the people. There are many ways that our woodlands can enrich our lives. When communities own their own forests, people will have the power to decide how best to use them and they will continue to have this power as their communities change. Camping for our children, biomass for heating, forest craft or larders: we might all have different aspirations for our woodland, but none of us wish to lose it.

I ask simply that if the ownership of our woodland changes, let it change for the better.

Yours in hope,

I have been wondering about the purpose of death lately: what is it for and why does so much of life indulge in it? After all, in some respects single-cell creatures can be thought of as being immortal. Yet we humans replace cells all the time, hardly remaining the same person from year to year, so why do we slowly decay? Why do we die?

The answer, I though, might be that death started as an evolutionary advantage. What I am suggesting is that all really early organisms on Planet Earth were immortal: nothing ever died of old age before about 600 million years ago. Things did die, of course, but only when actively killed by outside forces, such as having a moutain fall on them. Then, about 550 million years ago, some creatures learnt how to die. They would reproduce then auto-destruct, leaving their offspring far better able to survive and flourish.

The very early planet was a tricky place to live, with conditions appropriate for life being rare and the total quantity of nutrients (or ‘food’) in each of those places being limited. Conditions could also change rapidly, both over distance and time. Single-cell beings divide rapidly and so random change can lead to rapid evolution, with each generation taking comparatively little food to produce. However, for more complex life reproduction is slower and more resource intensive, so that a greater proportion of the total available food is locked into each generation.

If the parent generations of more compex organisms do not die, there is competition for resources between parents and offspring: they are in direct competition with each other. This leads to a massive reduction in the chance that sufficient evolution will occur before (1) all the food is gone, or (2) the environment changes to make life untenable. This is because the genetic advantage of change through the generations is diluted if the original genes have as much chance of reproducing as the altered ones – it would be like Neanderthals still having as much chance of reproducing today as the most successful of society intelligentcia.

If the parent generations do die, then only those with the greatest chance of having altered genes will be competing for food. In each successive generation, only individuals with genes altered by natural selection will survive to produce the next generation. This will result in a far greater chance that changes will be compounded over the generations and so useful, pronounced adaption will occur. The death of the parent generation will also release food back into the system, increasing the chances that their offspring will adapt before the food runs out.

The species that died therefore survived, out-evolving their immortal cousins and populating the planet with their offspring. That is why about 1 billion years ago there was an explosion of complex life on Earth: it had learnt how to die. Of course, death would really come into its own as an evolutionary force once sexual reproduction had been invented. Death and sex: perhaps life really is the ultimate Gothic story.

Death and sex helped fuel the explosion of complex life on Earth.  Perhaps that is why they are both a part of life for all complex organisms on the planet today.

The Dawkins Delusion

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is, in many ways, an excellent book. At least, I think so & what greater acolade could anyone wish for? Unfortunately, my high praise is not without caveats. There are several passages or aspects of the book that just don’t ring true, which appear to my uneducated eye as having flaws. These I expand upon below, as Dawkins’ Five Delusions; I have included page numbers to give some indication of the passages I am talking about, although I realise that different editions will have different layouts.

Delusion 1, p.101: The book quotes the following cunning paradox about God: If God is omniscient, then He (or She) knows what will happen in the future, including the actions He will take. Since He knows what He will do, He cannot change that action. This therefore means He is not omnipotent, as His ability to do something different is gone.

Does this hold true? Is it possible that by being omnipotent He can be any place at any time, possibly even every place at every time?

His being outside of the rules that bind the rest of us is almost the definition of God – He made the rules up in the first place, so they don’t affect Him. Otherwise it would be a bit like someone making a chess set and afterwards having to move diagonally or only in straight lines. Time and place surely have little meaning to Him, so future, past & present are as one. There would be no instance of Him knowing ‘what He will do’ as much as knowing ‘what He did’ or even only ‘what He is doing’, even if for us it hasn’t happened yet.

There is therefore no problem about knowledge of future actions binding those actions or making the knowledge false, since there are no future actions – God is omnipotent and omnicognisant all at the same time (so to speak). To believe in an all-powerful God is to negate any paradox.

Delusion 2, p.147. 0.000000 0.000000

There is a problem with intelligent design, as it does not get around the thorny question of who created the Intelligent Designer in the first place. This would be trickier than creating the material universe, as the Designer would necessarily be more complex than the thing He created.

Unfortunately, physics has no more answers than religion on this question, as it cannot explain what is outside the universe or what existed before it or how it was created. Just postulating that there is nothing beyond the universe and that it has no beginning is rather trite. It is similar to the suggestion that God removed all evidence of his existence to allow belief to flourish, so the less proof we find the more we should be convinced He’s real.

Delusion 3, p.172. Dawkins says that there are 6 fundamental constants of the universe, such as the strong force. He states that the odds of their being a God to set these six values to be exactly right for us to exist is at least as improbable as them all being those values by random chance. But why? Surely the opposite is true: if God chose the values there would be no chance in it at all, so there would be a 100% probability of them being exactly what we need. To say that the existence of an intelligent force capable of setting the values of the 6 constants is less likely than the universe being as it is misses the point entirely: this would only be true if God was created by the system, not if He created the system. The intelligent design of God and the probabilities of chance are mutually exclusive systems. Imagine a man throws 100 dice. Are the odds of the man existing on earth to throw the dice greater than the odds of him getting the 100 numbers in the order in which he gets them?

String theory & the strong anthropic principle suggest that it is almost impossible for the fundamental constants of the universe NOT to exist in this universe. But then, what made sure strings exist in the first place?

Delusion 4, p.265. Dawkins stated that most people are not parasitic bullies, as this is not a viable option: if we were all bullies, there would be no one left to bully. Actually, most people would be parasitic bullies if they thought they could get away with it. If everyone acts as a bully, the problem is not that one has nobody to bully (one does: anyone weaker), but that one would be bullied by those more powerful. This is why bullying is prevalent in schools, where there is only a small pool of people and there is always a biggest bully (or several). In the wider society this is unlikely, so just about everyone could be bullied by someone. There is also the potential for average people to rise up and overthrow the despot. In the dark ages and pre-history the smaller communities tended to give rise to despots, but even then the strategy was dangerous. Bully too much and there could be a revolution, which would lead to the extermination of the despot’s genes.

Some morals may be hard wired into humans, but very few. There is almost nothing that is not acceptable to some society somewhere in the world.

Delusion 5. The entire book makes the unstated assumption that what we see is what we get: that the universe we can perceive and understand is the only truth and reality there is. This is basically an assumption that God does not exist, which makes the entire book nothing more than an enjoyable read. The message of the book should be posted on the front page as ‘In a universe without a god, God cannot exist’, which would go a long was to reducing the academic struggle for the reader over the next few hundred pages.

General observation on religion. I can’t help thinking that many religions are suspiciously paternal in flavour. Could it be that children are designed to think that their parents are omniscient and omnipotent, so that they will do just as they are told and therefore have a greater chance of surviving to reproductive age? When we grow up this may disappear, leaving doubt, responsibility and fear where before there was the comfort of being protected and guided. Perhaps this void is replaced with God the Father, directing and protecting us. Perhaps that is why we invented gods, which reflect the cultures from which they were spawned: violently fickle in Rome where parents could legally kill their children, rigorously patriarchal in the Catholic Europe.

Interestingly, more primitive cultures have a higher degree of shared parentage within small tribal groups, which dilutes the father figure. In these societies nature is the most potent force and is perceived as being more powerful than the wider parental group, so these societies tend to have more elemental and natural gods rather than paternal gods.

On the other hand, the ubiquitous nature of souls and the concept of an afterlife is a natural extension of humanity’s conceptual intelligence.  One has to know oneself to know the rest of world, to predict how the world around one will act and to manipulate it. To compete fully against an opposing tribe, one has to understand their thought process; one has to understand what it is to be a person and to think. A natural extension is to have self awareness, self conceptualisation and a horror of not existing any more. Souls continuing in an afterlife overcome this horror. This self conceptualisation is the darkness behind the eyes of Terry Pratchett or the lifts in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide building of Douglas Adams.

Post script. There is a tiny weeny problem with the critiques above: I am fairly stupid & Dawkins rather an egg-head. So, please feel free to enlighten me as to my errors & mistakes.

It seems to me that there are three main areas that we can change to reduce our consumption rates and halt the destruction of our planet. These are population, lifestyle and technology. The trident of climate action, if you like.

Population is fairly obvious – the more people there are, the more resources we will need to keep them fed & watered. Driving around in cars, heating homes and buying tonnes of junk a year just makes things a whole lot worse.

Every year more people aspire to the lifestyles we enjoy in the developed world, so a growing world population is only going to lead to trouble. Unfortunately, it will take a long while to halt the growth, even if everyone on the planet agreed today to have only 2 children. The best ways to achieve lower birth rates appear to be education and the empowerment of women, but neither or these is likely to happen particularly quickly over depressingly large areas of the globe.

Lifestyle is a more complex issue, but is largely about re-aligning priorities in the developed nations and helping the developing nations achieve sustainable growth. Lifestyle is more than just cycling to work or becoming vegetarian, it’s about your decisions in every aspect of your life: how you vote, where you invest spare cash, what work you do etc. It is often said that individuals have no power over government and corporations, that the small changes we can make are dwarfed by their excesses. This is true to some degree – the footprint of the Copenhagen COP15 summit was about that of a small UK city – but it misses the point. If even a few more people vote Green Party, for instance, the main parties will site up and listen. A small drop in revenue will make even the most avaricious multinationals take note. This will be news worthy, so the mainstream population will be exposed to new ideas. What is considered ‘normal’ alters, becomes a little greener and more people act responsibly. This creates more momentum in the swing to green, so normality gets greener a little faster.

Another claim is that to live a one-planet lifestyle you have to drop out. I have heard people say that they cannot live sustainable as they do not want to live in a yurt and do want their kids to go to school. This is complete nonsense. Sustainable lifestyle is about gaining things, not loosing them. It’s about thinking how you live, choosing quality of life over buying lots of stuff – focusing on living life, not climbing the property ladder. There is no reason why you could not be fabulous wealthy, send your kids to public school and still live sustainably, if that really is what’s right for you family. After all, Ghandi’s footprint was not huge & he was one of the most influential people the world has ever known.

Technology may also help us out of our worsening mess. Developing super-efficient transport, productive renewable energy systems and almost 100% recycling rates will make a huge difference. Carbon capture and storage could reverse climate change to some degree (probably) and geo-engineering may reduce its impact.

However, problems with engineering our way out of trouble include time, cost and feasibility. It will take a long time to get the fabulous technology up and running, with a lot of it only delaying the problems rather than solving them. It will cost a lot of money and require quite a shift in economic power, so there will be resistance to doing it effectively. It is also not certain that it is possible to achieve in practice, especially if people expect to carry on increasing consumption rates. Technology has often back-fired in the past, so relying on it could quite feasibly make things worse rather than better.

All three areas are vital to securing the future of our planet, but the central prong of the trident is lifestyle. It can be the most powerful and is the only one we can all influence directly as individuals. Companies are run by people, governments voted in by people and all wealth created by people spending or investing their money. We are those people and it is our choices that can change the world.

One of the opening speeches of the coalition government said something along the lines of:

“blah blah blah blah rhubarb blah of course we want a fair society wiffle ping zip.”

I still do not know what made me worry about those few simple words. Their truth sounded so unquestionably simple and self-evident. It is only in the passing of the days that I have realised that they gloss over a vast and tangled subject. Because ‘fair’ is a tricksey word, full of traps and chimeras.

The first problem is working out what being fair actually means. For instance, is it fair that key workers such as teachers should be helped to buy houses? If so, is it not also fair that the highly-qualified engineers who design schools but earn less than teachers should also be helped? Who else? Is it fair that the taxes of the school dinner lady should pay for all this largess, while she benefits from none of it?

To carry on the schooling theme, is it fair that private schools exist? Should the best teachers and pupils be forced into the state system so that everyone has fair opportunity? Or is it only fair to let the successful spend their hard-earned (and hard-taxed) money on their children? If not, surely to be fair we must extend that ban to all aspects of life that could give recipient children an advantage: sports, diet, housing, holidays and on ad infinitum.

Which brings us to another question: is ‘fair’ and same as ‘equal’? This may sound like a flippant question, but it is not. These two terms have been consistently confused and interchanged in our political system throughout the last 15 years or so. Equality has been touted as fair, but is it?

Think of an extreme: should the innocent child of violent, illiterate parents have an equal chance at success as a child from high-achieving parents? This at first seems to be unarguably ‘Yes’, but let’s explore it a little further. The ‘achiever’ child will have an intrinsically better chance at success due to her social status and parental assistance: money, knowledge, attitude, contacts and environment. The ‘illiterate’ child will be disadvantaged before she learns to speak; which, incidentally, in our enlightened society will also disadvantage her due to class assumptions over accent. To have an equal chance at success she will have to be given far more assistance from the state than the achiever child, being given every opportunity that the state can offer whilst the achiever child is overlooked.

Now, how far should the state discriminate between the children if they share the same mindset and conduct as their parents? If the illiterate child actually harms the achiever child? What if the children come from similar backgrounds, other than the attitude of their parents? What if they come from identical backgrounds, but one excels and the other is disruptive? How far should it be taken before equality is unfair?

Resources are finite, so is it fair to give the least productive in society more than those who are instrumental in making society viable? Perhaps it is only fair to us all if we do, as otherwise we might foment an underclass that will disrupt the whole of society. But even if it is fair, is it really wise? Will supporting the lower achievers over the higher achievers tend to make us all more equal? Will the former achieve more while the latter achieve less? In other words, will it tend to make us all mediocre and is that something on which our society can thrive?

In evolutionary terms the answer is emphatically ‘No’. Natural selection rewards the achievers and takes away from the losers. Eventually the genetic material of the losers is lost and the species moves on. On the global scale the same may happen within societies, where those that reward achievement become the overlords of those that promote equality.

We have seen through the communist experiment that equal and fair societies are not possible, an observation reinforced by our recent Labour government. They spent a lot of money and effort trying to equalise society, but ended up with a greater divide at the end than they started with at the beginning. But does this matter? I would suggest not. Worrying about comparative equality is just a form of jealousy. What does it matter if there are trillionaires in the world if you have enough for a comfortable life? As a society we should try to ensure that nobody goes without food, shelter, health and education; we should not try to make those at the bottom of the pile feel parity with those in Hello! magazine. Poverty should not be defined in terms of average wages or percentage of population, it should be defined by hunger.

We should also celebrate the differences in society, understand that society needs structure and value everyone within that structure as essential. Trying to make everyone equal is to suggest that the outer reaches of society are wrong. There is an inherent, unspoken assumption that the middle of society is the right place to be, that the working classes need to be elevated and the upper classes subdued. This is reprehensible snobbery; going to university and becoming a good, solid professional is not the ultimate achievement in life.

What society needs is balance. Liberating the able from the social mire must be balanced by assisting those that are already achieving. The only way to do this is at grass-roots level, letting those involved with individual communities decide where resources are best placed. This will undoubtedly lead to some patches of poor delivery, the unfair ‘postcode lottery’ of services, but the alternative is homogeneity through central government dictate. This may result in a more equal system, but to ensure a few do not miss-out the majority would be made to suffer less efficient and less suitable provision. There is also a problem with risk: if central government gets the dictate wrong, everyone suffers; if local providers get it wrong, only a few suffer.

The localised approach is both pragmatic and wise. Many systems that were designed to make society fair ended up causing some of the worst suffering in history. Communism is a great example and, surprisingly, so was Apartheid. There are no absolutes of good and evil, it is all down to cultural norms. After all, the Romans believed that parents had complete power over their children, even unto death.

Something as simple as being fair needs to be questioned: it is not a universal paradigm.  We have to be very careful that our cultural norms do not slip into dangerous, damaging waters without us even noticing it. We need to realise that every policy has winners and losers, so we should choose with open eyes where we draw the boundary between them. We should actively decide whether we want a Fair and Equal society, not unwittingly end up with one due to our political Circus.

Climate Change & Sex

No, not that sort of sex you perv – sex as in being male or female (etc). A survey has found that women are less sceptical about climate change than men http://www.springerlink.com/content/llq15510m374583q/fulltext.html.

This concurs with my own experience, which also suggests that men are more vehemently sceptical.  A number of studies into climate denial suggest that it is linked to belief systems, whereby acceptance of an intangible concept creates a requirement to radically change lifestyle or make one ‘traitorous’ to that concept. For instance, if one truly accepts that God exists, how can one carry on a sinful lifestyle and not feel troubled?

The traditional role of man as head of the family, provider of wealth etc still resonates in society today, no matter how out dated this has become in practice. Now, please don’t think I am saying that men are the main movers and shakers in life & women shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about it! Nothing could be further from the truth – I am talking here about perception. However unfortunate, there are still many echos in society relating to the days when men went to work & women kept home. This is entirely anachronous, but there are still a lot of men who feel that it is their duty to protect their family. In the same way that many chaps would consider it their job to confront burglars at night, so many consider it their ultimate responsibility to ensure their family lives well. Perhaps not true, but it is how many men feel.

So, there is psychological pressure on some men to maintain the high quality of life enjoyed by their family, which for many is far easier to do if they continue their consumption patterns and mode of living. After all, many subscribe to the erroneous idea that living sustainable means returning to medieval poverty and eschewing all mod cons. Now, to justify their continued consumptive lifestyle they have to believe that climate change is not happening, as otherwise they would have to face the fact that they are leading their family not into luxury but into turmoil. So they have to be vehement in their denial, to convince both themselves and as many others as possible that they are doing the right thing. There is, after all, safety in numbers; psychological safety, at least.

Personally, I think it goes further than this in the USA, where there are more climate sceptics than anywhere else. This has to do with the American Dream. The USA more or less founded the current consumer capitalist economic system; it is the home of consumerism & has created a global economy of unparalleled success on the back of it. To say that this is no longer a viable system is bound to rub more people up the wrong way in America than anywhere else. To some, their American identity is intrinsically linked to this consumerism, so saying that it is wrong and is causing the destruction of the planet is to attack their belief in themselves and their country. It is heresy.

This is why climate change & religion have so much in common: the most important drivers are not facts & practicalities, but belief and cultural references.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124008307 is a good article on how people accept or reject scientific information, depending on their belief systems or world views.

In this post I showed (amongst many other spectacularly clever things, of course) that ‘infinity’ and ‘endless’ are not the same. It is possible for something to go on for ever, but if it started it is not infinite: reverse the direction of travel and the start becomes a finish. For something to be infinite, it must be endless in all directions. Or, to put it another way, it must be endless in all dimensions.

Now, my physics is not great, but I gather that it is likely that the universe is composed of more than the four basic dimensions in which we humans work. Now, all our concepts of reality and more or less all of our maths concerns four dimensions: three directions and time. Sometimes things are simplified to deal with only 3, 2 or even 1 dimension at a time, but they are always set within our concept of reality that holds 4 dimensions. All concepts of infinity involve four or fewer dimensions; usually fewer as most people leave time out of discussions on infinity.

So, whenever we talk about something being infinite, we are actually talking about something being endless within a limited number of dimensions. Unless we can show that something is endless IN EVERY DIRECTION, it is not infinite. Or rather, it may be infinite, but we cannot show that it is.

Within the realms of the universe we can perceive and understand, everything in finite.

Well, that it how it appears to me, anyway. If you have any views or better knowledge on this, please let me know as I would appreciate some help here.