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
There are cuckoos in the most unlikely places.
© Harvey Tordoff