Windows on the world


The Borrowdale Cuckoo

I used to live in a secluded valley in the Lake District, famous for being the wettest place in England.  They told a story about Borrowdale.  Many years ago, in a less sophisticated age than now, the residents believed they were blessed to live in such a beautiful, green valley, surrounded by towering crags and mountains.  They attributed their good fortune to the cuckoo, whose call always seemed to herald the arrival of summer.  Over time, they became anxious that the bird might fly away, taking their good fortune with it, and so they built a wall from the mountain on one side of the valley right across to the mountain on the other side.  Now the valley dwellers could relax, until one day the cuckoo flew up, ever higher, and over the wall and away.  The residents looked at each other in consternation.  “The cuckoo only just cleared the wall,” said one.  “If only we had built it a little higher.”

The story pokes fun at these simple souls from a bygone age, with a restricted view of the world, but sadly this kind of thinking can still be found today.  We pour more and more troops into Afghanistan, and still the Taliban defy us.  “If only we could send a few thousand more,” say our generals and politicians, ignoring the lessons of history, the failures of other military missions in Afghanistan.

We pump more and more gas and oil out of the earth, and still there is not enough energy for our greedy world.  “If only we can desecrate a few more square miles of wilderness,” say the oilmen and politicians, as if that would satisfy our greed.

We erect bigger and better sea defences thinking we can fortify our lands against rising sea levels, all the while burning fossil fuels as though there is no tomorrow.  No doubt, as we watch the sea flood over our walls, someone will say “if only we had built them a little higher.”

When faced with a growing problem our knee-jerk reaction is to deal with it in the same old way, but more so.  As our knowledge of the universe expands, and our scientific discoveries grow apace, it seems that our strategies for everyday living have become fossilised, frozen in time.  We are capable of inventiveness and ingenuity but lack the will to act.  Teaching Al Qaeda a lesson might have been a justified reaction to the tragedy of 9/11, but retaliation against terrorists has somehow turned into a war against the ruling party and a mission to democratise Afghanistan. This, in turn, has fuelled the anger of militant Islamic extremists and provided propaganda for their recruitment campaign.  Let’s walk away from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Israelis; leave the Middle East to its tribal disputes; and cease meddling in the affairs of foreign states.

To walk away from the Middle East, of course, the West needs to wean itself from its dependency on oil.  Renewable energy could provide self-sufficiency and security of supply.  We could turn our weapons not into ploughshares but into wind turbines. And if oil ceases to be the world’s scarce resource then the Middle East loses its strategic position in the global economy.  

We have harnessed the power of the wind and the sun to create non-polluting energy, but then fail to utilise this technology because of perceived short-term costs.  The long-term costs of this choice are incalculable.  Let’s draw a line under the age of fossil fuels.  No more mines, no more wells, and a rising tax on extractions from existing mines and wells.  It has been estimated that over 100 million people live within a few metres of current sea-levels.  Their forced relocation over the next generation or two will come at an enormous economic and social cost, and yet we cannot protect them if at the same time we continue to burn our fossil fuels.

Above all, we over-produce and over-consume, leading to massive waste.  The carbon cost of this waste is immeasurable, taking into account the production process, distribution to the consumer, and transport to the land-fill site.  Even if some of the waste is recycled, that still involves a doubling up of transport and production costs.  Over-consumption might be defensible if it led to happiness, but as our lives become ever-more complex and we strive for things we don’t need, our stress levels rise and happiness becomes more elusive.  The recent financial crisis, caused by greed, provided an opportunity to take stock.  Perhaps a society that managed on less would be a better society.  Let production shrink; let earnings fall; we can have full employment by working shorter weeks, spending less, and having quality time with our families.  We might even be happier.  But the politicians came up with the same old answer: stimulate growth.  We got into this mess by spending too much money, we can get out of it by spending even more.  And if we don’t have enough money the central banks can make more available, as the Germans did in the 1920’s.  If this fails, no doubt someone will say “if only we had printed a little bit more.”

There are cuckoos in the most unlikely places.



© Harvey Tordoff
Nov 2009