A POINT OF VIEW
By Clive James
As an influential report places the blame for climate change at the door of humans, Clive James, in his first Point of View column for the Magazine, says he has yet to be convinced. And persuading the developing world to curb emissions is not the answer.
Organic food for those who can afford it
In my household, I'm the last man standing against the belief that global warming is caused by human beings.
Three women with about a dozen university degrees between them have been treating me for years now as if I were personally responsible for the forthcoming death of the planet. They're probably right. They were right about the cod.
After it was impressed upon me by my daughters that the number of cod in the sea had declined to the point that there were 20 miles between any two cod, I stopped eating cod, and immediately the cod-stocks began to recover.
I couldn't help noticing, however, that there were no complaints about the declining number of haddock.
Since it was crumbed haddock fillets that I took to eating instead of crumbed cod, by rights there should have been a noticeable and worrying decline in the number of crumbed haddock being caught in the North Sea. There wasn't, but if there had been I would have listened to the evidence.
Hard, observable evidence should convince anybody sane. I know the sea is polluted because I can see plastic bottles on the beach. Whether the sea is indeed rising might be a matter for computer modelling, which is evidence only if it suits your prejudice, but you know what a couple of hundred plastic bottles are when they come in riding on a wave like a flock of dead seagulls.
Men can do the heavy labour of putting out the wheelie bins, employing the brute force for which they have been famous since the cave, when everything was biodegradable
Where I used to go on holiday in the Bay of Biscay in the days when I could still swim over-arm, the empty plastic bottles on the beach were only a few centimetres apart all the way from France into Spain.
I marvelled at the perversity of people on board ships who, after drinking the contents of the bottle, would carefully screw the cap back on so that the bottle would float forever, unbiodegradably carrying its unwritten message of human imbecility until the ending of the world.
Some countries litter more than others. Sometimes the same country litters less than it used to. Australia was a litterbug's paradise when I first left it in 1961. Fifteen years later, when I first went back, the littering had largely vanished, because a government campaign had actually worked.
At present, the same global coffee bar chain has cleaner forecourts in the US than it does in the UK because, in the UK, dropping trash is a yob's right. But wherever you are, in Birmingham or in Birmingham, Alabama, biodegradable packaging in general is clearly a necessary and welcome step, well worth paying for if you've got the money.
The fact that only a very small proportion of the total human race has got the money we can leave aside for now, because this is really about us, the people who can afford to do the right thing after we've either agreed what it is or been prevailed upon to do it by a government which has proved its competence in other areas, such as finding a use for the Millennium Dome.
This week, for a packet of organic tomatoes still gamely clinging to their own little vine, I gladly paid extra because the packaging was almost as enticing as the contents. By means of a printed sticker, the packaging promised to disintegrate at some time in the future.
It would have been a help if the exact time in the future had been specified - perhaps about the time when the last remnants of the human race left for the planet Tofu in the constellation of Organica - but at least the green promise had been made, and I would be able to put the empty tomato packet into our wheelie bin devoted to compostable matter.
In Cambridge we divide our garbage into two wheelie bins, marked compostable and non-compostable.
Wheelie bins, the scourge of local paper letter-writers
The two classifications don't apply to the wheelie bins, both of which are made of heavy-duty, non-compostable plastic, but do apply to their contents.
As the dolt of the household, a mere male and therefore little more than a brain-stem with a bank account, I myself am correctly regarded as too stupid to decide what goes into each bin. My job is to substitute one bin for another in the garden shed according to which week which bin is collected.
Only women are clever enough to plan this schedule but only men can do the heavy labour involved, employing the brute force for which they have been famous since the cave, when everything was biodegradable.
A world nearer to a bone-strewn cave is one to which some in the green movement would like us to return. I can say at this point that the eco-wiseacre who has just been elected Australian of the Year foresees an ideal population for Australia of less than a third of the number of people it has now, but he doesn't say whether he includes himself and his family among the total of those to be subtracted.
The world couldn't work if we didn't spend most of our time being open to persuasion on subjects that we will never personally investigate
Each time I change the bins I almost subtract myself from the present total of the inhabitants of East Anglia because for evolutionary reasons I am unable to lug one bin out and push the other bin in without impacting my forehead into the top frame of the shed door.
After the first time I fell to the flagstones clutching my bisected skull, when I jokingly suggested to the three watching eco-furies that if I croaked in mid-manoeuvre they could always recycle me, I was informed that this possibility was on the cards because just outside of town there is a cemetery where they will bury you in a cardboard box.
There is also a graveyard called All Souls which has two wheelie bins standing outside it, one marked "All Souls compostable" and the other marked "All Souls non-compostable".
One of the permanent lodgers in that graveyard is the great philosopher Wittgenstein, whose key principle was that we shouldn't be seduced by language. He wanted us to say things so clearly that our meaning couldn't be mistaken. But he could only dream of that, because in fact we are seduced by language.
The world couldn't work if we didn't spend most of our time being open to persuasion on subjects that we will never personally investigate because we lack either the time or the talent, and usually both.
Everybody knows there are too many plastic shopping bags. You can see millions of them decorating the hedgerows. Everybody knows that it's a good sign when a supermarket puts a sign on the side of its plastic bags saying that its plastic bags are recycled from other plastic bags.
But where most of our recycled non-compostable garbage gets sorted out, hardly anybody knows. I was recently told that most of it goes to China, but I can't believe that their economic boom depends on reprocessing our tin cans, and that they won't produce rubbish of their own, and lots more of it.
Most bins do not offer recycling
There are good reasons for cleaning up the mess we make, but finally it's what we make that makes us an advanced culture, and only a highly developed industry knows how to keep itself clean.
At Bhopal in India a chemical plant once killed at least 3,800 people, but that was because it was badly regulated.
Loose supervision made it lethal. Very few nuclear reactors even in the old Soviet Union have ever gone as wrong as the one at Chernobyl, or even the one at Three Mile Island in the US, but that's because they have regulations to meet, and the regulations themselves are the product of an industrial society.
There was a time that Japan's burgeoning post-war industry was poisoning its own people with mercury. The industry that did the poisoning found the solution, because it was forced to. But a law to suppress that industry would have helped to produce a society less able to control its own pollution, not more.
Finally we'll do what Leonardo di Caprio does
As far I can tell with the time I've got to study the flood of information, which is less time than I would like, the green movement can do an advanced industrial society the world of good by persuading its industries to spread less poison.
Whether or not carbon emissions really do melt the polar bears and kill the baby seals in the rain forest, the pressure on industry and even on government is already helping to persuade Hollywood stars that they should drive hybrid cars, and finally we'll do what Leonardo di Caprio does, because we'll be seduced by language, not because we know very much about how carbon dioxide keeps in the planet's heat.
The other day I met a carbon dioxide expert who said that his favourite gas has already reached the density where it can't keep in any more heat, but I did notice that he was sweating.
It was probably when Sir David Attenborough noticed that the bottle-nosed dolphins were sweating that he finally gave his illustrious name to the campaign against global warming. That would be enough for me even if Prince Charles hadn't joined in as well, having already placed his order for a horse-drawn Aston Martin.
Freud on wheelies
But I don't really know they're right. I'm just guessing. The only thing I do know is what won't work, because it shouldn't.
We shouldn't expect the less fortunate nations to cut themselves off from industrial progress in the name of a green planet.
It wouldn't be fair even if it was likely, and anyway, we aren't civilized by the extent to which we return to nature, only by the extent that we overcome it. I wish I'd said that. It was Sigmund Freud, actually, when they showed him the blueprints of the very first wheelie bin.
When push comes to shove, he wrote in German, this thing could still save male pride even if it can't save the planet.
Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.
Clive James has written an entertaining piece that brings up valid questions but manages also to make me smile. More please.
While enjoying Clive James's article, I would take issue with his assertion that 'it's what we make that makes us an advanced culture'. Wouldn't an advanced culture decline to manufacture those things (or quantities of things) that cause unacceptable destruction to the eco-sphere? Yes, having the knowledge that makes such manufacture possible is a step towards being an advanced culture, but keeping the impact of such manufacturing within eco-sustainable limits is perhaps a truer Litmus test of an advanced culture - one that is not 'advancing' towards destruction.
Frank Venn, Rugby, Warwickshire
We live in Bexley, king of the recyclers. I really don't mind paying the poll tax (community charge). We have bins for rubbish, plastic, food and garden waste, glass, tins and paper. When we needed a bigger paper bin, it was delivered asap. They are regularly emptied, and it has really opened my eyes (at the age of 40!) to how much used to throw away that can be recycled. My children are growing up with recycling as much a part of life as brushing their teeth. I hope they'll carry on the habit as adults. The biggest surprise for me was the amount of food we were throwing away. Using paper bags bought from the council for 5p each, we almost fill a brown bin (as in your picture) every fortnight. Making progress on that. Thanks Bexley!
Nick Southwood, if you average out the population, each member of either China or India pollutes and create far much less than you do. Don't use them as a scapegoat for your privileged lifestyle. Most of the rural people in China and India have only just been given reliable electricity and are starting to experience the most basic benefits of society here in the west, and yet you would prevent this so that "we" can live on a clean planet. If we consider the Carbon footprint, ours is a size 18 Doc Martin, and while there are alot of them they have child size 1 flip-flops.
Jan Chan, London
Whenever I hear the debate about recycling I cannot help but wonder what happened to the lowly brown paper bag we used to get fruit and veg in? Do you think our obsession with packaging is getting the better of us?
Well done Clive. Where I live there was 5km of ice 1000 years ago. Then we had serious global warming.
David Hardcastle, Ilkley England
In Tunbridge Wells our brown wheelie-bins have an intriguing decibel symbol on them - perhaps to remind us to keep our voices down once we have hit our heads on the shed doorframe.
Giles, Tunbridge Wells
Here's a request for the multi-degreed women in Mr. James' household: Could you please ask any of the scientists who have developed component variables for a computer model predicting global warming to predict with the same precision the weather in Cambridge a month from today? Actually, don't waste your time. It can't be done -- which fact should lead a reasonable person to ask a few more questions in the global-warming debate.
Mark, Cleveland, USA
Well said, Mike Malone. Just one small example of unnecessary packaging. I was happy with an own brand moisturiser from a famous UK chemist. For 20 years, 100mg + nice glass jar. Suddenly, 50mg, higher price, plastic jar, promotional enclosure AND cardboard box. Apart from more profit for packaging manufacturers, WHY?
Moira O'Driscoll, Birmingham UK
In the part of London I live in, there is no compulsory division of rubbish into compostable/recyclable/POR (plain old rubbish) - and nor do I want there to be. Just as we pay the council to come and collect our rubbish, rather than us traipsing off the dump ourselves, so I would like to pay the council to collect it, sort it, and dispose of it. Making us do the work, and then only collecting certain types of rubbish on alternate weeks seems a retrograde step to me.
Stephen Richards, London SW10
Many points well made by Clive - but I can anyone explain why chips and fish taste better out of recycled newspaper than they ever do out of one of those plastic trays... wrapped in a brand new sheet of paper (and horror of horrors in a plastic bag too) ?
Adrian McDermott, Manchester
I can certainly sympathise with Clive on the weekly bin juggle. We have four containers; two bins of different colours for compostable and landfill, a black box for tins, plastic and glass and a blue bag for paper and card. Can I book a visit from his University educated eco warriors to assist in calculating the permutations of colour and container type that will please the bin men?
Bob Bailey, Hythe, Kent
I loved this! Yes global warming is a huge issue but rather than trying to keep us lying awake at night worrying about it, Clive James has chosen to inject a bit of humour into the subject. He does have an advantage too- he remembers from week to week which bin goes out (or maybe the women help him)I'm five foot two so have to stand on tiptoe and peer into a rancid mess trying to guess which bin looks more full....
Mary Delargy, Derry, Northern Ireland
Whilst reading Clive's article I completely lost track of the time and thus failed to put my wheelie bin out for collection. It is now overflowing with rubbish, the seagulls and local cats are spreading its contents everywhere. I trust Clive feels a small twinge of guilt for writing such an interesting article on " dustbin " day!!
Andy Costello, Weymouth, England
What a rambling piece of drivel that was Mr James. The only insight I got from it was how little you seem to understand of scientific method.
I just don't get the debate. Yes, we must all ensure we produce as little waste as possible and do as much as possible to use any produced in the best way possible. Yes it's unfair to expect the 'emerging' economies to do without what we have had. Yes we have worked out how to make cleaner powerstations. Yes there are many new ones springing up in the emerging economies. So why have I not heard of us wealthy nations 'aiding' emerging economies by paying for the installation of our nice 'clean' technology??? Would that not be the best pound for pound solution whilst keeping everybody 'poor' happier and our own consciences an iota clearer as well?
Bill Tucker, Portsmouth
Will I agree with Clive James, or six years work by 2500 climate change scientists from 130 countries that say that most of the observed increase in temperatures since the mid 20th century is very likely down to man's influence. No contest. Clive, make some time and read the IPCC report or the key findings summarised on the BBC website. You might believe your recycling efforts are worth it after all, or at least that you can't take the chance.
Our pseudo-efficient North Wilts District Council introduced the Wheelie Bin menace last year. Now instead of a few black bags on our streets for a couple of hours in the early morning once a week, we have large green plastic daleks left by the roadside for two days, all day, every week. It's also a wonderful semi permanent indicator to potential burglars of which houses have occupants away.
J F Squire, Malmesbury
Two bins will not be a problem for Mr. James if he saw the solution I saw whilst living in Tokyo: we had three bins, organic waste (i.e. food remains), burnable (i.e. waste papers), non-burnable (plastic bottles or tins), and all it took me to understand the system was the fine I received for placing non-burnables in the organic bin. Want to have the population adopt recycling measures? Throw in a system of fining them heavily for not recycling, and you'll be amazed how quickly people will step into line. It has been said that the prospect of being hung in the morning concentrates a mind wonderfully; the prospect of your dustmen hanging you out financially does much the same. Of course, I now live in a city in which post-Katrina conditions means that we have but once-weekly curb-side trash pickup, and no recycling whatsoever. The city's grime, hurricane-induced devastation aside, is quite spectacular.
Tito, New Orleans, LA
I think that some people have forgotten Clive's style of journalism. As a scientist and a man I can see his sense of wit and sarcasm. He is teasing whilst making a serious point - remember "Yasmin Arafat"? While Freud might be light reading even as a great fan of Popper I think that suggesting people need to read him to understand science is a bridge too far. I just prefer that people read any science.
Our household has also been consumed by the recycling bug, I find my self fretting about which box, bin or bag to put items in and what colour week it is to put them out. However, problems are occurring, part of my kitchen permanently looks like a pre-school art project and I fear that I have become conditioned as I ate a banana in central London and carried the skin around for half a day trying to find the right sort of bin. I need a holiday.
Kate, Oxford, UK
This article typifies the western response to global issues and shows that we are indeed worlds apart from developing nations. Its funny how it is easy to complain about colours of bins when people in China or Africa are dealing with the externalities of our apathy....
I wish I could borrow your females for a week to show the 2 that live here what to do with rubbish. My daughter's room is a permanent landfill and the other half regards the kitchen as a suitable place for the compost to reside. Neither have the slightest notion that bins might need emptying, preferring to maintain a solid belief in the bin fairy that comes to empty them whenever needed. Let's swap for a week and you will have an undying appreciation for the ladies in your life.
Rob Colton, Reading UK
Hurrah! Clive is back.His humour has given me a short respite from my rage that the green lobby is still campaigning against nuclear power which is one of the few industries dealing with its own waste much of which is vitrified put in stainless steel containers and surrounded in concrete where it does no harm to anyone.
Dennis Pleace, Talybont on usk, Powys
I await with excitement the day it is proven that smoking cannabis or consuming brewed drinks - especially wine - is the cause of Ozone Holes etc and not the poor motorist and lack of recycling. Its always somebody else's pleasure that is so wrong.
Clive Ramsey, London
"We shouldn't expect the less fortunate nations to cut themselves off from industrial progress in the name of a green planet." Are "less fortunate nations" not going to suffer from global warming? "...we aren't civilized by the extent to which we return to nature, only by the extent that we overcome it." Arguable, but assume it is true, does destroying the ecosystems that keep you alive indicate "civilisation" or "stupidity".
J DAvies, Inverness
Wasn't Clive James once witty and funny? It's sad when people turn into grumpy old men (or women), rambling on about the evils of the world and the opposite sex. The same happened to the diary correspondent on the Glasgow Herald - from brilliant humour he descended into bitter mutterings. Clive, time to retire, I think.
Regarding Mike Malone's comment - yes, no packaging great idea. Now bring me a cow's udder, I fancy some milk....
Liam Joyce, Leeds, UK
I have some sympathy with Clive James. As a Briton living in Germany I still have problems remembering which of the four bins is for which rubbish and on which day they each must be put out to be collected. It does work though, as now I avoid buying anything that I do not really need, thus avoiding the worrying about how to dispose of it.
On the subject of packaging I recently found out that legally you can leave your packaging in the supermarket you buy your shopping from. However I can't guaranteed that the supermarket will depose of it in an environmentally fashion but all shoppers should be aware of this and perhaps supermarkets might get the hint once their aisles are clogged with their own packaging!!!!
I am amazed at the continuous moaning relating to wheelie bins - we have 3 bins and they are emptied on a very simple to understand rota system. Everyday rubbish is collected once a week, glass and paper once a month. The council even provides stickers for the bins with the schedule on!! It's really very simple.
I once participated in a competition to think of the best 11th commandment. After a great deal of thought, during a long rail journey, I decided that to ┐honour the planet, so that it would support our children┐s children┐ was my best advice to future generations. My thinking being that a few thousand years ago mankind could not do that much harm to the planet; now that we can, we need stopping! Sadly the winner was ┐thou shall not worship false pop idles┐ I think the planet is a bit more important, but it shows what one is up against when trying to save our environment.
Yes Nick - we have five bins! One for waste, one for composting, one for plastics (as our council refuses to take them with the kerbside recycling), one for cardboard/paper and one for tins/cans/bottles. It certainly reduces the space available in our kitchen, but we are happy to do it as we feel that any small action like this helps. What is infuriating though is the attitude of the council - they won't collect plastics in the kerbside collection, and despite what their recycling website says, the bin men also refuse to take stuff unless it is completely sorted. One stray baked bean can in the wrong place and they leave everything behind, which means a lot of residents can't be bothered in the first place and just chuck it in the waste bin.
Helen Dorritt, Bristol
We have various bins and we pay by weight of garbage! Result, after shopping my wife and I diligently remove all useless packaging (toothpaste tubes in cardboard boxes, everything in blister plastic unless it's meat, excluding only egg boxes.) We then put it all in the supermarket's bins. If everyone did this, the message would get back via the supermarkets to the industry that WE DON'T WANT THIS RUBBISH. Much of the plastic packaging is made from oil, for which much money and blood is expended.
graham chambers, Luxembourg
I am quite concerned by the number of people who don't recycle. I know this is not always possible, how can it be when, so many of the country's population are just not aware that, waste unproperly disposed of, is harming our planet.
Another fine example of this are, those who discard litter at will. It makes one wonder " Just in what state do these people live"!
Returning to the topic in question... The solution is simple. Use less packaging & recyle more.
Wayne, London, UK
What made the ice-age disappear? Global warming - but there were no humans then
I think most of these people are taking you too seriously. Clearly they never read your Observer television crits all those years ago.
David Whitley, Rainhill, Merseyside.
I do sympathise with Clive's lot being the token eco-ignorant male in a dominant female eco-aware household. The sad fact is we have ignored this issue for way too long and this society has become too lazy and uncaring to do what needs to be done. I wonder how many hands would go up if we were asked to give up our cars and holidays abroad, playstations, mobiles all the other creature comforts to help the planet - i for one will not hold my breath waiting for the count...
Oh to have a wheelie bin. What a delight that would be. Whilst our local council are happy to give us a purple recycling box for paper and a green recycling box for tins and bottles, they won't supply us with wheelie bins due to the cost. Consequently each local household has to place their waste in environmentally unfriendly black plastic sacks each week. Rubbish!
Fiona, Ash, Surrey
A wonderfully witty and serious article - just what we expect from Clive James. I also live in Cambridge, and putting the right rubbish in the right bin can certainly take a lot of effort. Besides black bin, green bin, black box and blue box, we also have our own compost heap - our guinea pigs generate a lot of compost-able waste. If we weren't sentimental, privileged members of the developed world, I suppose we'd just eat the guinea pigs and have done with it.
I don't know exactly what happens to the recycled cans either, but I do know that some of the plastic milk containers have been turned into the boardwalk at Wicken Fen nature reserve. So we can all enjoy nature from an eco-friendly platform.
Debbie, Cambridge UK
I'm a male and have no problem dividing compost-able from non-compost-able. This article strikes me of the typical British/Aussie view that it is a born right to throw rubbish into land fill. People like this soon complain when a land fill site is located near their village. Don't buy packaging from supermarkets, buy local produce from local sellers, recycle, and compost waste if you have a garden - I don't see why people find this so difficult - lazy British society I guess.
Darth Davies, Warwick
Clive James is yet another journalist suffering from a misunderstanding of the function and application of scientific practice so typical of the media. May I recommend he reads a little more Karl Popper, who specialised in the philosophy of science, rather than Freud, famed for psychology, when interpreting the incriminations of science?
Just two bins? We have three to contend with; each with its own day and rotation. There's a certain irony in struggling with these bins in turn while yet another solid-fuel power plant is opened in China during my recycling bi-weekly bin rota. Yes, it is unfair to demand developing countries curb their industrial development seeing as we've had a good crack at it ourselves. Do they have three bins in China? Does anyone have more?
Nick Southwood, London
Clive, it's not that women think men aren't capable of planning things such as a schedule for putting out the rubbish bin, it's that, left to your own devices, men don't bother to do things like this.
It's a throw back to the days when wives and daughters were nothing more than servants and "all" men did was bring home money.
Here's a thought! Prove them wrong. Instead of sitting about complaining.
Kate, London, UK
I must empathise with you, I am married to a Belgian. When she first moved here she was shocked at how little we recycled. It's got so bad now, when we go to Belgium we fill the car up with things we can't recycle in our area! But like you say, it's my job to put it in the car not decide what is to be put in.
Mike Jarrey, London
And while we diligently recycle, still we accept that the endless packaging we're recycling needs to be sold to us in the first place. Why can we not acknowledge the simple principle that if it's on the supermarket shelves it's already too late? It's already in the environment. If we really want to change that, we must have the strength and determination to face the only real alternative; no packaging at all.
Mike Malone, Aberdeen