Friday, August 10, 2007

Mine Your Own Business

I've just finished watching the documentary film "Mine Your Own Business". It is made by the former Financial Times correspondent to Romania and Bulgaria and examines environmentalist campaigns against mining projects.

It restates a common complaint against environmentalists: that those who claim to be defending local interests have a deep arrogance in telling those locals what their interests are. However, it also illustrates how innacurate the picture presented to the world by the green campaigners often is.

He shows how the inhabitants of a Romanian village that is going to have a mining project built do not prefer horse and cart to cars and were not forced from their homes but gratefully sold; how the village is not a pristine environment risking destruction at the hands of greedy foreigners but an already damaged environment that needs investment to avoid becoming a wasteland and that claims that the villagers can do equally well out of tourism or farming are deeply spurious. It shows how the best friends of environmentalists fighting a mining project in Latin America are landowners worried that the new project will offer their workers an escape from poverty wages. In short, it shows that the claims of foreign environmentalists are often entirely disconnected from reality.

It is highly credible to me thanks to my own experience of this kind of thing in a different setting. When I was a fair bit younger, 17 I think, I went to Lake Baikal in Siberia on a programme with an organisation called Earthwatch. Essentially, it attached me as a helper to an expedition monitoring pollutants in the lake, one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world.

While we were out there they showed us a Greenpeace film. It upset the woman who hosted us. It showed the lake dying, poisoned. However, the man leading our expedition, an amazing sixty year old who had smoked for decades but still outpaced a group of us many of whom were half his age, gave a different account. He had spent decades studying the lake and told us in a matter of fact tone that what was presented on the film was entirely untrue. While Lake Baikal is a lake one would expect to become polluted as most of Mongolia's industry discharges into a river that feeds it things have not turned out that way; it is incredibly clean. It is much purer than even bottled water in the West and I quickly got used to filling my water bottle straight from the lake. Some kind of natural filter operates to keep the lake so clean.

Our scientist was attempting to work out how that filter operated, and whether it would continue to function. Greenpeace were ignoring reality and communicating a fiction to the outside world. That other environmental activists will do the same in other situations seems entirely credible to me. Mine Your Own Business shows the consequences: communities needlessly denied the chance of a more comfortable and hopeful life.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Hidden Costs of the Olympics: £4 billion in construction inflation

I have a new TaxPayers' Alliance report out today looking at the implications of the Olympics for construction inflation. As I said:

“Increasing the cost of construction in London and the South East is not only hazardous to the health of the British economy but also imperils the objective of getting enough new homes built to make things easier for first-time buyers. The bigger the bill for the Olympics becomes, the more damaging this knock-on hidden cost will be.”

This has led to my first front-page quote, in today's Metro. Good times.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Giuliani talking to Charlie Rose

This interview is superb. Very impressive showing by Giuliani.

It also shows how the long, non-confrontational interview style that 18DoughtyStreet (which I was on again yesterday evening, the episode of Vox Politix on council tax) is going for can work and become far more informative than the combative Paxman style, although Paxman's approach clearly has its uses. What both methods of interview require is a superbly informed and prepared interviewer. Charlie Rose is clearly a master of the art.

Monday, August 06, 2007

William Dalrymple's suspect economic history

William Dalrymple's article for the Telegraph is full of historical detail which makes it a pleasure to read. However, his analysis of the big picture appears weak to me.

A few criticisms:

  1. His main example of abuse under the Raj is sensational evidence given by the prosecution of a man later found innocent. A rather suspect source to say the least. The acquital suggests the evidence might well not have been accurate and even if the events did occur there is no way we can really get to the bottom of whether they can be generalised from.
  2. He talks of "the destruction of Indian political, cultural and artistic self-confidence". The question has to be, whose? The Mughal dynasty certainly took a heavy blow but they were foreign conquerors like the British. Imperialist dominance of India did not begin with the Raj. Did the broad mass of Indians suffer such a blow to their confidence?
  3. The shift in the share of global GDP produced in India and Britain is ascribed to Indian economic failure rather than, as would be more realistic, to the colossal relative success of Britain as the first industrial nation.
  4. India's relative decline is understood entirely in political terms of imperialism or exploitation. However, a classic paper by Parthasarathi showed how Britain was unable to compete with Indian cotton production before the Industrial Revolution. Industrialisation transformed Britain's competitive position in a vital industry. India's decline can therefore be seen, at least partially, as a matter of changes in economic conditions rather than as some kind of political crime.

All that makes this a dissapointing piece. Dalrymple does attest to the force of the debate over Britain's impact on India and clearly has a lot of knowledge but is not prepared to do that debate justice.

Why not walk it?

Over the last few weeks I've been enjoying these posters from Transport for London, displayed on bus stops around London:

They just beg for someone to answer the "Why not walk it?" tagline with "You might as well given the state of the Tube."

The whole campaign sounds like an admission of defeat given that they're the ones who are supposed to be providing public transport in our fine city. The campaign has also been revealed, this Saturday in the Times, to be hilariously wrong in the impression it gives of the 'green' benefits of walking. Apparently walking uses more CO2 than driving thanks to the amount of carbon dioxide and, crucially, methane emitted during food production.

Suffer and Survive - Gas Attacks, Miners' Canaries, Spacesuits and the Bends: The Extreme Life of Dr J. S. Haldane by Martin Goodman

Cross-posted from Westminster Wisdom

This book is hitting the shops now but, courtesy of being the author's nephew, I've been reading an advanced copy over the last couple of weeks.

It is a very enjoyable read. Martin's writing is assured and unpretentious but very vivid when necessary. He has researched thoroughly enough that he has the detail to really bring the characters to life.

The era, late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain, is a fascinating one and not written about enough. Suffer and Survive, like George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England, gives us a glimpse of the world before the First World War. A world making the transition, in fits and starts, from that of the Industrial Revolution to one we might more easily recognise today.

Haldane's story is well worth telling. He was born to one of the oldest Scottish aristocratic families. The Haldanes already had quite a history of public service - the book's title is inspired by their motto "Suffer". J.S. Haldane extended that tradition. His exploration of how the human body interacts with its environment advanced science and also saved thousands upon thousands of lives.

Just taking his more famous creations Haldane was responsible for canaries in mines, gas masks and diving tables. However, he paid quite the price for incredible discoveries, subjecting his own body to poison gas and extreme conditions including alarmingly regular carbon monoxide poisoning in order to understand the effects of environmental conditions on the human body. Indeed, at times this book can get a little lost in descriptions of the physical peril faced by Haldane and his various research partners before being snapped back to its narrative.

Like many great popular science books this gives an idea of how incredible the scientific process itself has been. It provides a remarkable case-study of the lengths to which people have gone to increase the sum of human knowledge. Hopefully it might cause us all to be a little more appreciative of the legacy suffering survivors down the ages have left us.