What a bunch. I went to bed last night profoundly depressed by the whole sordid circus of politics. There’s the seedy lot on the podium at Manchester, the even seedier media probing every political cough and spit but worst of all are the 30 idiots dragged in or dredged up by Newsnight to form the focus group who could make or break Gordon Brown.
The problem with democracy is that it depends on the attitudes and reactions of human beings and we are a very strange species. I have extremely mixed feelings about Gordon Brown myself. As a daughter of the manse (well, rectory to be exact) I have some sympathy with the man who feels burdened with a mission to serve (or save) the mortal public. (We children of the cloth can find it hard to shake off the conviction that we have been put on this planet for a purpose). But I do not thrill to hear him speak because whatever his real views on Iraq, he was undeniably part of the Cabinet that backed Tony’s devastatingly tragic decision to go to war – and why on earth is he promising to invest money in Trident which could be much better spent on a real public transport revolution connecting all those parts of the UK that the London economy doesn’t reach!
But Gordon’s got to be better than John Reid or Alan Johnson. And Labour, for all it’s many warts, offers a more wholesome package of social justice than the Tories ever will. So what’s the real agenda for the pollster guru, Frank Luntz, who arguably helped to create David Cameron during the Tory party’s leadership campaign?
I am sceptical about focus groups (and I am not the only one, check the comments on this website, politcalbetting.com). I have taken part in one or two myself and I believe that members of the group can sometimes unknowingly collude in reaching pre-ordained conclusions. Especially when they are being filmed for television. The herd instinct is strong and it takes a brave soul to stand up against the crowd however mad it might be (hats off to that one woman who declared for Gordon while the others were chasing the paper trail set up by Luntz). This is not to say that Newsnight actually want John Reid to become the next prime minster or even that they are deliberately trying to wreck Gordon Brown’s chances. But all of them – guru Luntz, Paxman and the focus group stooges – are there to produce something interesting. It simply won’t do to behave rationally. How else could four of them vote for someone they said they had never seen or heard of before (John ‘WHO?’ McDonnell)? What sense does it make to reject Brown because he is too old and too Scottish and then roll over for their tummies to be tickled by the even older and more aggressively Scottish Reid? There are plenty of other reasons for rejecting both of them.
And I don’t know why this nonsense bothers me so much except that it reminds me how fickle public opinion can be. Most of us can be manipulated to do what we are expected to do. Half way through the night I woke with the crazy thought that if Luntz had presented images of David Cameron to that lot in the focus group – supposedly Labour supporters and Labour ‘leaders’ – they would have chosen him as the next leader of the Labour Party. Or maybe that wasn’t such a crazy thought at all.
September 26th, 2006
Looking at the sky it’s hard to believe gardeners must start to plan for a scorched earth. Rain is blurring the view from my study window, frogs are hopping by the back door and the cats are settling for a long snooze on the sofa.
A Government minister has just suggested I must start preparing for a more Mediterranean view from the kitchen window, adjusting to seasonal temperatures which simply won’t suit traditional cottage garden plants. He was, of course, really talking to gardeners in the south east which has withered and browned during the hottest summer on record. Scotland is still greener and cooler and today we are soaking wet. Part of me can’t help thinking if this is the worst climate change can do, life north of the border will be positively benign. Then the other part kicks in.
must the view from my kitchen window change?
Yet, for once, I found myself more in sympathy with the Government approach than the knee jerk reaction from environmentalists who were quick to retort that the Minister should be saving his energy. Instead of telling people how to live with the consequences of climate change, they said, the Government should be taking action to stop us all pumping more and more CO2 into the atmosphere. Or words to that effect.
But we need to do both: face the reality that climate change is already changing the way we live – and then do all we can to prevent the change becoming much more destructive. Perhaps Scotland can take a few degrees more heat in summer; Spain, Africa and even China can’t.
So I am wondering if – for once – the Government is playing a strangely clever game. With an estimated 7 million gardeners, contributing to a horticultural industry worth £2.5 billion in the UK, the advice could be very good psychology. This threat to smooth green lawns surrounded by lush herbaceous plants may bring home the fact that climate change is happening – here and now – more effectively than dramatic images of glaciers melting in the distance. Getting people to change habits like driving and flying is difficult because climate change is so often placed in the future. Telling gardeners to start thinking about changing to geraniums and begonias may touch a surprisingly tender spot – the next growing season is not far away.
Of course the Government needs to do much more. But environmental organisations should also work harder at winning hearts and minds of the unconverted and, while they are at it, recognise the social, cultural and environmental value of this mass hobby. Gardening is not just a booming industry, it is probably the best shot we make at creating an environment fit for wildlife. There’s not much room for frogs in the agricultural desert we call the countryside.
September 14th, 2006
“Ours is the last generation with the opportunity to tackle our over dependency on fossil fuels if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” Professor Stephen Blackmore…
A fresh lemon was a source of wonder to the space crew. When the shuttle brought new food supplies from earth, US astronauts on the 1997 Mir space mission looked first for the fruit. But they did not eat it straight away. For quite a long time, according to one crew member, they passed a lemon from one to another simply holding it, enjoying the way it felt in their hands and breathing in the familiar smell. “The smell of earth.”
A television documentary about our quest to conquer the heavens raised occasional glimpses of hell. Separated from the grounding force of earth’s gravity, the weightless human body begins to wither. Muscles shrink, bones crumble and something similar seems to happen to the soul.
So began a feature article I wrote five years ago about wildlife in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I was searching for a powerful metaphor to bring home why we need plants and gardens instead of covering the surface of the UK with so much concrete: many of us never need to set foot on the natural earth on our way from home to work to shop – to drop. In those days, as contributing editor to the Botanics magazine, my journalistic language tended to be punchier than the more measured sentences of the botanists.
Not any more.
I recently returned to the Botanics to help write the new guidebook to the Edinburgh garden. This time my colleague, editor Anna Levin, and I did not need to punch up the story. In meeting after meeting with heads of department in horticulture, science and education we faced the same facts. Planet Earth is in trouble and not just from climate change. Within 50 years we stand to lose up to a third of all plants which is seriously bad news for all wildlife including the human kind.
What exactly does that mean and why does it matter? After all, quite a few of us will be dead by then anyway. But unless we start to change what we are doing to the planet, our children and grandchildren will certainly discover what it means when climate change combines with a mass extinction of species hardwired into the human DNA.
In our meetings, Anna and I listened to respected and respectable scientists (the kind that used to begin every sentence with cautious phrases like ‘the evidence suggests’) outlining worst-case scenarios with no prevarication.
What happens when rising sea levels flood Fife? What will life in Scotland be like when temperatures rise by 5 degrees? Already, the Botanics has started to move plants which are no longer happy in the changing climate of Edinburgh – the Garden is lucky to have other sites across Scotland better suited to rhododendrons. So far birds and butterflies have similar options to move further north or higher up the mountain.
But in other places climate change is already destroying the ability of species to reproduce themselves. “It is no longer enough simply to stop cutting down the rainforest,” we were told, “In certain places seeds are no longer germinating because of climate change.” The forests of the future may not grow at all unless we take action to slow the pace and cut the impact of climate change.
This is not easy stuff to include in a guide designed to welcome people to a place of tranquillity. We can’t simply say, “enjoy your view from the Garden bench, it won’t last long” but we have tried to get across the message that gardens and plants matter much more than many of us realise.
There are good physical reasons for keeping our environment alive.
As Steve Blackmore, Regius Keeper of RBGE, puts it in one of the latest issues of the Botanics magazine: “Ours is the last generation with the opportunity to tackle our over dependency on fossil fuels…if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”
But there may be a more fundamental reason why we need plants and gardens. Ian Edwards, the head of RBGE’s public programme, believes that our fundamental need for contact with natural elements is not fully recognised. We need to be among ‘plants, rocks, water, sunshine, shade… the rustling of leaves, the fluttering of birds’. To Ian it is one of the reasons humans have always sought to create gardens.
In other words, we all need to rediscover the smell of the earth.
I will tell you when the new guide book is out!
September 5th, 2006