Let's not follow hysterical environmentalists off the planet

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The Independent Online

At THE Independent in the late 1980s we wanted to run a campaign to get eight cycle-ways across London – four lateral and four vertical. Naturally we thought the environmental pressure groups might like to endorse the idea but we fell foul of one of the big ones, I honestly can't remember which.

At THE Independent in the late 1980s we wanted to run a campaign to get eight cycle-ways across London – four lateral and four vertical. Naturally we thought the environmental pressure groups might like to endorse the idea but we fell foul of one of the big ones, I honestly can't remember which.

Greenpeace, perhaps; Friends of the Earth. The young woman in charge of these things listened to our proposal and went off like a firecracker: "That's a terrible idea. That's an awful idea! That's ghettoising the cyclist. That's saying to the cyclist you have no right to be on the roads.

"That's like saying – and her voice jumped in pitch and volume – that's like saying to a woman that's been raped: 'It's your fault!'"

It's stupid to generalise, but one can't be clever all the time. So let me say that environmentalists very often have this same hysterical undertow to their worldview. Passion, moral superiority and carefully selected statistics make them mad.

A report coinciding with the latest conference tells us that we'll need to colonise other planets by 2050 as the world will have run out of resources.

This is insane by any standards. One of the many resources that planets lack (leaving aside plastics recycling centres and sustainable drainage) is the sort of air that people like to breathe. Our local atmosphere may be polluted, but acid rain on Jupiter would dissolve the Empire State building.

Everything we need is here already. All the minerals, all the fossil fuels, all the food necessary to feed us, clothe us and get us to work in the morning, now and forever more.

The Limits to Growth was the thing that made this panic popular a generation ago. "If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years."

Gold was predicted to run out in 1981, silver and mercury in 1985 and zinc in 1990, oil in 1992. When in 1992 we hadn't run out of oil, Beyond the Limits told us we'd run out in 2030.

We've always worried about running out of resources. In 1865, Stanley Jevons was doomsaying about Britain's inevitable collapse when we inevitably ran out of coal.

The point is that when resources get scarce, their price goes up. The only inevitable thing that happens is that prospectors find it worthwhile to go looking for more of the scarce commodity. Julian Simon, an economist, realised this and bet the Limits to Growth pessimists $10,000 that the price of any raw material – to be picked by his opponents – would drop. They picked chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. In 10 years' time, the total basket of mineral prices had fallen and so had each individual one, by between 5 and 74 per cent.

Michael Meacher, our Environment Minister, says we need two planets to live on. He says our 6 billion lives are all untenable. Whatever truth there is in these preposterous remarks is impossible to find out.

A generation lost with Amis as our guide

Since Martin Amis's novels became unreadable – about half way through Money, for me – no one could be relied on as the literary voice of my generation. How we miss him. Where's he gone? What was it? Did he get used up?

At any rate, the lack of – what? Experience? – is coming through ever more obviously. The finest comic novelist of his generation was lured out of his depth and is lost to us.

In Einstein's Monsters, a 1980s collection of short stories, he considered what to do in the event of a nuclear war. He was going to look for his wife and children, and when he found them, kill them.

The silliness got greater as he got older.

His book about the Holocaust was written in reverse; as if we were watching a film spooled backwards. A technical achievement on a par with writing about six million deaths without using the letter "e".

The attack on the twin towers was construed as an opportunity to show off his prose style. The second plane came "sharking" in like the car in the first paragraph of his last comic novel. Its "glint was the worldflash of a coming future". We can overlook the error of judgment but the error of taste is unforgivable.

Experience, his autobiographical memoir, was a masterclass in avoiding experience. Especially in the matter of women. It might have been subtitled It Wasn't My Fault. In fact, his women hardly appear at all, and when they do the glittering prose takes on the quality of advertorial.

Maybe it is this habit of evasion that makes his reactions to large events so discordant.

These thoughts are brought about by his new book, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (ferociously embargoed here by his publisher's lawyers until October, but freely available on Amazon).

Martin uses (and that's not a very nice word now I look at it) the early death of his sister to meditate on the Stalinist axiom about one death being a tragedy while a million is a statistic. He gives us a distillation, with comic asides, of Stalin's genocidal activities.

"There has never been a regime quite like it. To have its subjects simultaneously quaking with terror, with hunger, with hypothermia – and with laughter." Quaking with laughter? Is that what the war on the cliche has come to?

"Stalin, then, had two reasons for assaulting the Ukrainian peasants: they were peasants and they were Ukrainian." Why does that sound like Morecambe and Wise?

"An additional 10 IQ points in Kerensky might have saved Russia from Lenin." That's silly.

But not as silly as this episode about his baby daughter's crying fit: "The sounds she was making," I said unsmilingly to my wife on her return, "would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror. That's why I cracked and called [the nanny]."

The man can't face his baby daughter crying; is he really the reliable guide to take us through 20 million deaths?

Probably not, for he he concludes: "There's something in Bolshevism that is painfully, unshirkably comic." And as we know, that's simply not true.

Stick that on your numberplate and coin it in

A lady who runs an excellent taxi service round Oxford was buzzed by an out-of-uniform traffic cop last year. He drew up behind her in an unmarked car on the motorway. Angie only found out who he was when she got his warning that the letters on her customised numberplate were a quarter of an inch too far apart.

She complained to the desk sergeant about this waste of police time and was told no police time was being wasted. The officer concerned was doing this in his spare time.

After the shock that this news generated, an idea came to mind that could generate billions for the Treasury.

The first step is to allow drivers to order whatever they like in the way of numberplate legends, using any letters they choose.

There are four great advantages in this scheme, it seems to me. One: the coyness of assembled words such as 5H1T will be gone at a stroke.

Two: it will be far easier to remember people's numberplates. How much easier will a glimpse of FOOL impress itself on the mind than 718114 GCF?

Three: A market will spring up in plates that will generate phenomenal sums in revenues. DVLA will sell off plates at the same rate, even obviously popular items like FATSO and VIP and AAA. At £250 a pop the income will be substantial. But the agency will also insist on a droit de suite, of 10 per cent of any subsequent sale. So that when BOSS sells for £250,000, a cut goes back to the issuer. After a year, sell DVLA to the highest bidder for £5bn.

Four: idiots like that policeman will have to find better things to do with his time than harrass law-abiding motorists about their numberplates.

Stand-up and be counted, if you dare

Well, thank heaven I'm not at the Edinburgh Fringe doing stand-up. I did stand-up once, but only once. In front of a glittering audience. Alexei Sayle was there, I remember; Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson, the Dangerous Brothers as they were. Jennifer Saunders was in the back row (she was nothing then, nothing!).

It was in Soho, Raymond's Revue Bar. God, they were brilliant. "I'm an alternative comedian," Alexei Sayle said. "I'm not funny." Then he told us about Liverpool. All the children in his neighbourhood were named after A-level texts, he said. "Lot of Godots round our way." We'd never heard jokes like it. Were you there? You had to have been there.On Wednesdays you could audition to join this, the Comic Strip. I went up and shouted a song I'd written about Prince Charles. My microphone technique was built on a defective idea: the closer to the mike you were, the funnier you'd be.

At the end, shaking with humiliation, Peter Richardson took me aside and talked me down for a full ten minutes.

What a nice man he must have been. Extraordinary thing, for a comedian.

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