Flawed logic

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Do you ever watch a friend or family member pursuing a goal while you sit back and think, ‘but it won’t make them happy.’ Whether that is chasing an unsuitable partner or having cosmetic surgery, you hope it will have the desired outcome for them, but more often than not, you know it won’t.

We’ve all done it though, because flawed logic can be persuasive. Our culture likes to tell us half-truths, such as ‘thinner = happier’ and it gives us something to focus on. However, it is one thing for individuals to base their life choices on flawed logic, but quite another for our politicians to make the same mistake.

This error is particularly evident in the way we think about our economy. Government is fixated on growth above all else. Economic growth of course indicates positive movement out of recession, but so often it is pursued for its own sake.

What counts isn’t growth, but quality of life across society. As Robert F. Kennedy once said, gross domestic product (GDP) measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. The environment is something that suffers with this approach.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that this will be “the greenest government ever” is still oft quoted by jaded environmentalists, who have long given up hope of this being the case. It seems to be accepted that difficult financial times have made it necessary for the environment to fall off the priority list.

Yet this is like pursuing thinness rather than health; skinny hips instead of strong bones, or starving for a miniscule waist rather than exercising for a supple back. It may look pretty in photos (or sound impressive in a headline) but it is not the whole picture and it should not be mistaken for genuine strength and health.

Economic growth without a healthy environment behind it is weak and flawed. It will not support us and the next generation into the future. GDP completely fails to consider social and environmental costs and inequalities.

In focusing on GDP, we have made the assumption that our environment is a luxury product – something to worry about only when times are good, like a sports car or yacht. If pennies get tight, simply flog it to the highest bidder.

This approach may improve the cash flow, and thus GDP in the short term, but it doesn’t actually change the real balance sheet. We have simply cashed in on our environmental assets, probably for less than they are truly worth to us. And unlike sports cars or yachts, once they are gone, they are very hard to get back.

We need to be cleverer than to use old-fashioned GDP to value our society and measure the success of our economy. An alternative approach is called GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator). This takes into consideration annual income, net savings and also environmental costs (for example, pollution or the loss of wetlands) as well as counting the value of leisure time and volunteer work.

No system of measuring progress will ever be perfect, but one that focuses on GDP alone risks us forgetting to care about the things that really matter. 

 

First published in the EDP and EADT

I feed my children chemicals

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I feed my children chemicals. I do it every single day. They enjoy them and it doesn’t seem to cause them any harm. As a matter of fact, there is not a child, or adult, out there who doesn’t tuck in to a tasty bowlful of chemicals several times a day.

Is this going to be an alarmist, toxin phobic column? Will it make you feel nervous about the accumulating poisons in your body? No way. In fact, I’d like us to embrace chemicals. Steady on there, all you organic living types, I’m not suggesting that we all swig bleach with dinner. Instead, we need to work out what chemicals actually are.

Firstly, there is no such thing as ‘chemical free’ (whatever your shampoo or eco-cleaner says on the label). Practically everything contains molecules that are made through chemical reactions.

Many of these chemicals are natural and healthy parts of our diet.  For example, tomatoes and avocados are high in salicylates (also used in household cleaners). Items such as cheese, wine and most fruit and veg will contain nitrogen based amines, which are also used in drugs such as antihistamines or sedatives.

Lots of foods in the grocery section will contain levels of pesticides – no not those sprayed on by farmers. Instead, many plants have evolved to create their own natural pesticides to enable them to survive.

The furore over all chemicals distracts us from distinguishing from ‘good’ and ‘bad’ properties. Separating these into ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ doesn’t help either. Would you prefer the extract of organically grown belladonna or a dose of manufactured sodium hydrogen carbonate? I’d choose the latter (baking soda) rather than the natural, but deadly, plant.

The internet, packed full of information, doesn’t assist us in working out what is healthy for us or the environment. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ science can be found alongside each other, with far more space dedicated to scaremongering. Just type ‘chemicals in food’ into a search engine to see what I mean – there is little balance.

The take-up of studying chemistry at school and further education isn’t quite as low as physics, but it could be better. As a result, a significant proportion of the population, particularly girls, lacks the basic knowledge to unpick manufacturers’ claims.

Our lack of science savvy also means we can turn a blind eye to actions which are not acceptable. Here’s an example. Have you ever put batteries in the black bin? Batteries (however tiny) contain harmful mercury, cadmium or lead which leach into the soil surrounding landfill sites. Even many people who carefully recycle their glass and paper fail to take batteries to the many in-store drop-off points (for example at supermarkets) for recycling.

We can’t escape chemicals, so we need to make the effort to understand more about them. Trusting manufacturers to tell us the whole truth will not suffice. Chemicals can kill and chemicals can harm the environment, but let’s not forget, they also make your body function, your foods grow, and they make you fall in love. 

Abstract thoughts

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You may think I’m insane for wasting column inches on the scarcity of water while most of the country lies under inches of it. Surely it’s like a drowning person wasting their last gasp by calling out for a drink.

The surface is indeed saturated and our feet are soggy, but it is what’s going on underground that deserves a moment’s thought. Right now, vast quantities of water are being removed from the natural aquifers beneath us.

This process is called abstraction and involves pumping out underground water known as groundwater. It is one of those invisible activities that we don’t often stop to consider.

The latest figures published by DEFRA for England and Wales show that on average 14 billion cubic metres of water were abstracted from underground sources every year for the period 2000-2012. This equates to over 15,000 Olympic swimming pools of H20 every single day.

Our groundwater is purified by rock and is perfect for consumption with very little treatment. It provides a third of our drinking water, and is mixed with water from rivers which is less pure. The electricity supply also massively relies on abstraction as most power plants (nuclear or fossil fuel) require large quantities of water in order to operate. It is also utilised by agriculture and industry, although to a lesser extent.

So what’s the problem? There’s plenty of rain at the moment so surely there’s loads of available water. If only it was so simple. The issue is that if abstraction rates aren’t right, it only takes a few months of drought to seriously affect the levels. This has implications for our water supply and for industry, but more immediately nature (as always) takes the hit.

All rivers and wetlands are partly fed by groundwater and some depend on it completely.

Over-abstraction literally sucks the life out of these unique and delicate ecosystems. Fish populations collapse, rare mammals such as water voles struggle to survive and butterflies such as the iconic swallowtail are threatened.

Many places, such as Catfield Fen in the Norfolk Broads, are showing the stresses of over-abstraction. With climate change, population growth and lifestyle changes, the challenges for managing water sustainably look likely to grow.

The Government admits that the current system, whereby landowners obtain a licence to abstract, is outdated and has failed to respond to over-abstraction. The Environment Agency is currently consulting on a new system which would enable the trading of licences and also aims to reduce the impact on important sites for nature.

We need abstraction, but done badly all of us will suffer. The new system will have to be fleet of foot and far more sensitive to the impacts on our region’s special, natural places. It’s our water, a collective asset, so we ignore what is going on under the ground at our peril.