Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan

Tonight my children and I (Hilary was playing in the pit for an opera) went to hear a talk by Robert Swan, the first man in history (as he puts it) stupid enough to walk to both the South and North poles. While most of his talk described his various expeditions and exploits, the focus of his career has very much been on protecting the environment. I suppose it's not surprising that he would be excited by the need to protect Antarctica: when walking to the South Pole he suffered some facial damage and eye damage (his irises changed colour, for heaven's sake) from the intensity of UV, which was worse than had been anticipated because of the not then well-known hole in the ozone layer. Still, as he pointed out, the ozone hole is a very good example of what can be achieved when governments and industry decide to take an environmental problem seriously: it has now stabilised and is expected to repair itself over the next 20 years or so. But, he asked, did we know about that? Mostly not: because it's a good news story about the environment, and it's doom and gloom that sells papers.

In general - as that remark might suggest - he seems to take a very sensible line on environmental matters. For example, while he praised Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, he did say that not everything in it was correct. And one of his remarks echoed one that I make so often that my kids make bo-ring faces at it: a lot of people talk about "saving the planet" when the planet will look after itself just fine - it's continued human involvement in it that's under threat. But he definitely walks the walk (no pun intended) as well as talking the talk, and next year he will be living in Antarctica for a few weeks, kept alive solely by renewable (solar and wind) power - the first time anyone has attempted such a feat.

A remarkable man, and I'm glad I got to see him. Incidentally, the name of his web site refers to the fact that in 2041 the current legal protections on Antarctica expire and if governments haven't been persuaded of the need to keep Antarctica as a jointly owned nature reserve, it could be opened up for mining. He said that the craziest thing he knew of in his lifetime was the frenzy by the USA, Russia, Canada and Denmark to establish ownership of the area around the North Pole. The reason for the struggle is that because of global warming it's now accessible, and the motivation is the rights to sub-Arctic mineral wealth, especially oil....use of which is a major contributor to that same warming that has made it accessible. Aaargh. (Or as Richard Wagner put it, "Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn!")

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