Deborah Orr: How many politicians does it take to change to an ethical lifestyle?

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The Independent Online

Ethical living has hit the lifestyle pages, with journalists falling over themselves to go organic for week, to spend a month buying only necessities, or to see how many of life's staples they can purchase under the fair trade banner. Each time a reporter undertakes such a mission, the story is the same. It is hard at first, but then it is rewarding. Hurrah! Except that it's not that simple.

I'm far from against individual expression of disgust at amoral and wasteful consumption of the world's resources. But there's a danger that even this is at the moment being commodified. Fair trade cotton T-shirts at Topshop are a good thing. But not if the buying and the wearing of them becomes a private comfort to citizens retreating from the fearful complexities of the global picture.

The fetishisation of home and garden, clothing and grooming, came in the 1980s and 1990s as part of the population's retreat from the public sphere and into the private sphere. By telling ourselves that we are contributing something positive because we are smoking organic fags - to take one example from the aforementioned lifestyle experiments - we may simply be colluding in yet another appropriation by the market of ideas originally developed as countercultural.

Why has David Cameron been at such pains to let us all know that he'll soon be having a wind turbine attached to his house? Why is Blair so keen to publicise Downing Street's recent conversion to energy-saving lightbulbs? It is because they want to sell themselves as being like us - powerless to effect change except in their daily consumer choices - because that's the easiest way of appealing to a light-green electorate while actually doing virtually nothing to effect change at any level.

Likewise both Blair and Cameron are keen to associate themselves with Bob Geldof, even though the freeman of Dublin started the ball rolling only because the politicians wouldn't. In a way, Geldof's continuing efforts have made it easier for the politicians to abdicate their responsibilities. He's there because they don't want to tackle global poverty, yet by standing near him, they can give the impression that there's nothing they want to tackle more. If we consumers aren't careful, our attempts at ethical living are going to become just another diversion, soothing individual consciences while collective responsibility is neglected.

The global warming debate is conducted at a stately pace, for example, as if we had all the time in the world to make our decisions. Blair is pro-nuclear, but he's so enmeshed in his ill-judged adventures with the oil king of America that his ability to take the argument further is deeply compromised. Yet it's a debate that top-level politicians desperately need to become involved in. Only this week the nation was reminded that 20 years on from Chernobyl, farmland in Britain was still contaminated. This was evidence that nuclear power was too risky. But it could be the opposite. We've lived for two decades with contaminated farmland and there have been no negative consequences to speak of.

I'm not saying I'm in favour of nuclear power. What I am saying is that we don't have much time to decide. Blair ought to be pushing his position rather than indicating that it takes a large number of ethical shoppers to change a lightbulb. Pathetic.

The nation's guinea pigs might have to find another job

The case of the six men felled by a single dose of an anti-inflammatory drug has chimed with our darkest fears about science and progress. It has also been a painful reminder of how illogical all that darkest fears stuff is.

Obviously, there will now be considerably more difficulty in finding human guinea pigs willing to take part in tests. Recruitment has always emphasised the ease with which lump sums can be earned, rather than the risk to the volunteers. Testing companies can now rest assured that the latter fact is covered and the former stance somewhat damaged.

Other than that, except for those directly involved in the catastrophe, it appears that it is business as usual.

Naturally, it was not long before thoughts turned to the anti-vivisection debate. Surely this development would inspire a rethink around these tricky ethical issues. Perhaps, if clarity could be brought to this fraught arena, the suffering of these young men would count for something. Alas, it is clear that this will not happen.

Pro-vivisectionists insist that there has not been enough animal testing, and while I have not as yet come across a suggestion that the drug should have been tested on chimps before humans, that may simply be out of fear of retribution. Anti-vivisectionists say it entirely vindicates them. Those against animal testing have long argued that animal testing is pointless because it only shows what effect the drug has on the animal in question, not what effect it has on human beings. What is needed, they say, is decent investment in complex computer models that would allow an extremely high standard of virtual testing.

In other words, this has merely served to prove everybody right. Entrenchment rules OK. One hopes that the long-term effects on these men are not extreme. Likewise, one hopes, the vivisection debate will be more sophisticated than the first salvos have proved.

* The Tories have been banging on for decades about how the left betrays the family. So it's been rather lovely, over the past few weeks, to have been reminded of just how family-oriented the political left of centre really is.

We've always had the Blairs as role models, of course, offering a lesson in respectful autonomy. One of them concentrates on defending even the most questionable of human rights, while the other is never happier than when plotting to wipe out even the most basic of them. It worked for Jack Sprat and his wife, and it works for them.

Likewise, the Clintons, who are keen on such slogans as "Stand by you Man", but only if no sequins or Stetsons are involved. Bill has been advising Dubai's ruling family on how to operate six US ports, while Hillary has been insisting that the said ports are "too important" to be run by "foreign governments".

But now we have new role models, in the Jowell-Mills and the Harman-Dromeys, above, who clearly never, ever talk to each other at all about money or work or any combination of the two. Only when Dromey, Labour Party treasurer, woke up to the fact that an awful lot of extra millions had been spent by the party during the last election campaign, unnoticed by him, did his wife wake up to the fact that perhaps she shouldn't be in charge of electoral administration, since that might mean breaking a cardinal rule and discussing money and work with her husband.

The fact that most of the money came from people with peerages alerted her this week to the fact that there might be grounds for her distancing herself from Lords reform as well. Which cannot be described as quick on the uptake.

Some cruel people might laugh at such antics. But I think it's commendable that all these people leave their work in the office. It's a shame that some of them leave their brains at home, of course, which leaves the platter rather less clean than the Food Standards Agency might desire. But as the married are often forced to concede: "Nobody's perfect!"