Races Against Time – Chapter 4

Nearly 40 years ago, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and I was preparing to stand as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in a ‘safe’ conservative seat, I published 6 essays in a booklet entitled ‘Races Against Time’. The sad truth is that much of what I was warning about at that time, when ‘climate change’ wasn’t even a term, is still crying out for action.  I still stand by the words written in my thirties but am desperately disappointed that so little has changed in spite of the millions of good people, including my grand children, who have expressed the urgency to act.  

Let’s act now – or it really will be too late.

  1. The Power of Plutonium: Written 3 years before the Chernobyl disaster.
  2. Burning It Up: Addressing scandalous energy inequality and waste.
  3. Transport of Delight: Domination of the car and loss of our rail network.
  4. Economy & Equity: Conservation, population, food, and the Third World.
  5. Raping the Benefits: Global control of the commodity markets. 
  6. Breach of the Peace: Russia and the existential threat of nuclear war.


“If you are in a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” (Gandhi).

Liberals know what it is like to be in a minority, but we persist in the belief that one day, whether it be at the coming election or the next, we will succeed in breaking through those barriers that stand in our way. My overwhelming conviction is that governments have pulled and lured the population in the wrong direction for so long that their massive deceit has become institutionalised. The politicians have made the course and we are all supposed to run around it. We have a choice of pursuing the blinkered race or stopping to think where we are racing to and what for.

In this series of six essays, for they are no more than that, I try to give emphasis to some of the matters that concern me most. They are not the standard economic and social issues that dominate our politics, but they have a fundamental effect on our lives, on our welfare and work, and on our continued existence. I give priority to those areas that I see as a threat to our existence and hope to alert as many people as possible. I ask that these chapters are read with an open mind and that it is seen as a document of hope and not despair – hope that if we all do a little we can win these races against time.

“No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Those were Bristol M.P. Edmund Burke’s words 200 years ago and this pamphlet is my small contribution to that sentiment.

George Ferguson

Bristol 1st May 1983

Economy and Equity

Eco-nomy means the art of useful management of the concerns and resources of the community. One would be forgiven for thinking that Chancellors of the Exchequer had another definition. The “Economy” has over the past 100 years been the cause of the destruction of many resources and much that we value in the community. It has become more and more a question of money accounting, for its own sake, reaching its climax in the so-called monetarist policies of Thatcher and Reagan. Left wing governments have also had the same basic attachment to “bottom line” accounting.

The political agenda has been written by the people in power and it has suited them to see the world in terms of growth, productivity and inflation. The more fundamental questions of our continued existence have been ruled out of order and the media have continued to play the politicians’ game.

So often those who have been interested in the wider issues of the environment than a narrower definition of the economy have been labelled cranks and denied a serious place in British politics. The Ecology Party, launched in 1972, following the publication of the Ecologist magazine’s Blueprint for Survival, has rightly said that it is no use the main political parties simply tacking ecological issues onto their manifestos, but that these issues should form the basis of all policy. Maybe the problems have simply become too big. President Carter looked for a passing moment as if he was going to tackle them, but became submerged in the conventional paraphernalia of domestic politics and international intrigue. The attitude seems to be that it is impossible to pot all the snooker balls at once, so why even try starting? It has been left to pressure groups, to “Nader’s Raiders”, to Friends of the Earth and other campaigning groups to push governments into action at all and at least to pot the first red ball.

We could do well by starting to redefine the meanings of efficiency and productivity. We have been led to believe that the bigger the farm, the bigger the fields, the smaller the manpower the more efficient the production. We leave one essential element out of the equation and that is the input of fuel. When efficiency is measured as a ratio of energy out for energy in, then primitive farming becomes 20 times as efficient as the heavily mechanised business which government encourages our farmers to strive for. Improvement grants for the clearing of hedgerows and woods, the ploughing up of downland and the use of fertilisers leads to the destruction of wildlife and the poisoning of our rivers and groundwater. We are polluting the natural reservoirs which form 90% of the world’s fresh water supply.

The trend has been to take nutrients out and put chemicals in and to reach for the pesticide spray as soon as an insect gets in the way. But the pests return stronger than ever to take bigger doses in greater concentrations. “Some of these chemicals have got into our food and water and in some parts of the world into mothers’ milk, to a level higher than we would be allowed to market from cows. Why don’t we get at least as concerned as when the local football team loses?” Ralph Nader, Green Rally, Bristol 1983.

We are losing 100,000 acres of farmland every year to building, roads and forestry. Millions of pounds have been spent building on prime agricultural land outside our cities while we allow the dereliction to continue with all its consequent social problems in the city centres. We now recognise the value of keeping our old buildings and historic areas but we allow a total mess of derelict sites, roads and inappropriate shoddy buildings to predominate. Citizens should take over and claim their cities back for their own enjoyment, instead of electing local politicians who see their councils as an arm of the big parties and central government. These representatives are still more seduced by the prestige projects than those designed to meet local needs. 

Conservation has to be at one and the same time parochial and global. When the astronauts first looked back at our world from space it suddenly looked so small and vulnerable. We have all heard how we are increasing the output of carbon dioxide by the burning of fossil fuels, destroying the great forests which have had an essential job of converting the carbon dioxide into oxygen and risking a rise in the world temperature, the melting of the polar ice-caps and the changing of our weather patterns. The optimists say that we will find ways of compensating for these problems when they arise. Prevention now would cost a fraction of the compensating cures, which would themselves be likely to cause further imbalance.

Individual countries cannot contain their own pollution and our addiction to consuming more and more has lead to the unwitting export of acid rain to Scandinavia, bringing death to some of their lakes and vegetation. We economise on the means of controlling the emissions of fumes for short term economic advantage, leaving others to pay the ultimate price. The essential pleasures of life are being irrevocably destroyed by our greed for growth. One quarter of the world’s population is producing three quarters of its pollution.

We can begin to make amends now. “There is nothing simpler than to fell in five minutes a tree which took 50 years to grow, but no way except by planting now to have trees for the 21st Century”. (Nan Fairbrother). Trees form more than three quarters of the world’s living matter, but we are felling 50 acres of tropical forest every minute! At that rate there will be none left within 50 years. When replanting is carried out, it is usually with ‘instant’ temperate trees producing only one tenth of the oxygen produced by the old forests.

All these pressures come from the quantity of people that our world has to support. As our resources dwindle, the world population mushrooms and it is expected to increase from nearly 4,500 million to over 6,000 million in the next 20 years. This is in spite of the fact that we allow 40,000 children to die every day. “Progressing towards preserving the lives of those children is now actually slowing down, and for many the quality of life has begun to fall”. (The state of the world’s children 1982/3 UNICEF). As a result of the UNICEF report, we now know that we could be saving the lives of at least half those children within a decade. It is simple, inexpensive and requires priority. Are our governments prepared to give this mater priority, or will they let present trends continue towards an increase of some 150 million undernourished children by the year 2,000? Safe water, sanitation, simple oral rehydration and immunisation against epidemic diseases can save 90% of all our child deaths. (World Health Organisation).

Any fear that improved child health and fewer child deaths would increase the population is not borne out in practice and is, in any case, morally irrelevant. Those countries that have increased life expectancy, have increased education and literacy and employment opportunities, are the countries that have reduced their rates of population growth. A reasonable standard of living reduces the desire for ‘spare’ children and extra pairs of hands. At present each child born in the developed world consumes at least 20 times as much as one born in the developing world.

The Third World has much to teach us about our values. Families live together and work together, children have the freedom of the outdoors, and help to look after the animals and their younger brothers and sisters. Those that are able, play, learn and work and belong to a community in which other adults care. Our minimum task should be to enable the maintenance of these values without the threat of malnutrition, disease, pollution and exploitation. Life expectancy of an Ethiopian even before the present devastating famine is half that of a European. The risk of dying before reaching adolescence is 10 times as great for an African as for a European. But in finding the cures we must not lose sight of the simple values which we have largely lost.

The need to tackle the population problem is emphasised in the conclusion of the Global 2,000 Report commissioned by President Carter. ‘At present and projected growth rates, the world’s population would reach 10 billion by 2030 and would, approach 300 billion by the end of the 21st Century… Hunger and disease will claim more babies and young children, and more of those surviving will be mentally and physically handicapped by childhood malnutrition… indeed, the problems of preserving the carrying capacity of the earth and sustaining the possibility of a decent life for the human beings that inhabit it are enormous and close upon us. The only solutions to the problems are inextricably linked to some of the most perplexing and persistent problems in the world – poverty, injustice, social conflict. New and imaginative ideas – and a willingness to act on them are essential’.

If the decisions are delayed until the problems become worse, options for effective action will be severely reduced.

This is the Report that was set aside by Reagan, a president whose vocabulary apparently does not include the word ‘equity’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s