Windows on the world


The Hitchhikers' Glasses

Douglas Adams gave a new twist to the old phrase ‘turning a blind eye’ in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  He offered a pair of spectacles which, when faced with scenes too awful to contemplate, turned black, thus saving the wearer from unnecessary anxiety.  They are much used in real life by profit-makers, politicians and scientists.

The first time they appeared in public was when worn by VIP’s watching the atomic explosion of the 81 kiloton bomb Dog on Runit Island in the Pacific. (Pictured, on the patio of the Officers’ Beach Club.)  They may have seen the flash but the spectacles  blinded them to the side effects. 

Since then, of course, the glasses have been worn with increasing regularity.  Conglomorates and governments made a lot of money out of the tobacco industry, and they pay the scientists’ wages.  It took decades before they peeped out and saw the cancer link.  The drug thalidomide was allowed to cause much misery before it was withdrawn.  It is now suspected that HRT might increase the risk of heart disease.  It takes a lot of courage to take off the glasses.

Of course, it is easy looking through the spectacles called hindsight, but that is not the only factor at play. Sometimes theories are presented as fact, and the higher the source the more the reliance of the general public.  All too often, the short-term time-scales of those in power result in inadequate research and testing, whether in the field of economic, scientific or political theory.  Because the Euro is politically desirable for a unified Europe, economic theory is not put to serious test.  Decisions on interest rates and inflation can only be made on the average needs of all the member countries, rendering it almost impossible to tackle specific economic problems in individual countries.  The government tells us that science is confident that the triple vaccine MMR is safe and unconnected with the incidence of autism, and this despite science not yet understanding autism.  And the politicians tell us that Iraq had or still has Weapons of Mass Destruction.  This theory stemmed from rumour and never checked out against any hard evidence.

At least, now, the man in the street is wary of such pronouncements.  In all of these three examples the public has shown some resistance but ultimately, of course, those in power make the choices in pursuit of their own agenda.

Damage Potential
It would be encouraging to think that the greater the damage potential, the more rigorous will be the decision-making process, but that is not the case.  The atom bombs were dropped without any knowledge of the consequences.  Oppenheimer himself, watching the first test, said: ‘I am become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds’, quoting Shiva in the Bhagavad-Gita.  The cost of the nuclear industry, weapons and power, in terms of human death and suffering will never be known.

More recently, Bush and Blair went to war against the regime in Iraq without any plan for rebuilding the country.  The vague hope that Iraqi troops would simply switch sides and maintain law and order for Satan was naïve to the point of negligence.  The case for linking Iraq with September 11 had never been made, but the vacuum created in Iraq by the war has sucked in terrorists from all sides.  We are unlikely to know the final cost, yet already Bush is redirecting his own WMD to point at Iran and Korea.

Real Threats
Politics and economics can cause untold damage, but in themselves they do not threaten our very existence.  Collision with an asteroid might, and from time to time we are told of the statistical chances of impact from a particular asteroid.  Far more relevant is the threat posed by climate change, and our failure to take it seriously could result in the end of civilisation as we know it.  The chances of serious damage are now being recognised, and some countries have set targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases.  The world, however, is still addicted to power and predicted consumption growth rates outstrip the likely growth of energy produced from renewable sources.  Glibly, we ignore the likelihood of total disaster, and we show no signs of real desire to improve our chances.

To make matters worse, we are embarking on a course of action that could amplify the damage caused by climate change.  There is no doubt that genetically modified crops could increase the production of food, and when a large proportion of the world’s population does not have access to sufficient food this is a worthy objective by any standards.  There are many who are horrified by the concept, yet in essence it is not much different to grafting a juicy apple onto a crab.  But what is horrifying is the uncontrolled way in which GM crops are being introduced.

Genetically Modified Crops

Over the decades governments and profit-makers have demonstrated an inability to allow an adequate time scale for the measurement of side effects and outcomes before the scientists’ good ideas are turned into commercial and political reality. The basic rule of farming is: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Or more particularly, don’t become dependent on a single strain, whether livestock or crops, for a single strain has the potential to be wiped out.  GM crops should be tested in a controlled environment such as a small island for decades until we understand the effect on flora and fauna and to ensure there are no long-term side effects from human consumption.  Only those wearing Adams’ glasses would risk contaminating the rest of the world’s crops.

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario whereby extended drought causes severe water shortages for large areas of the earth.  Millions migrate to the temperate zones, where rising sea levels are already causing social disturbance.  Large scale immigration forces alien cultures together, giving terrorism a new dimension.  And then the unexpected side effect of GM crops manifests itself, but by then it is too late: the world has no crops that are not contaminated.  This is how the world might end; not with a nuclear bang but with many whimpers.

Wear the Glasses
We have options, of course.  We can start measuring politicians, scientists and profit-makers by different standards.  Or we can all avoid further anxiety by donning those spectacles and following the advice at the front of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.  Don’t Panic!

© Harvey Tordoff
September 2003