Monday, 9 June 2008

Sustainable world?

Besides the sessions on photography and population, mentioned in preceding posts, we attended a number of other Cheltenham Science Festival events - and my back has yet to recover from those agonizing chairs. By the time Stephen Pinker and Anthony Grayling embarked on a discussion of what language reveals about ourselves, I had had enough. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in June, there were better things to be doing than sitting in a tent in the dark with the air conditioning whirring.

My concentration had begun to stray earlier yesterday during a survey of the technological fixes available to counter the effect of climate change. (The distinguished panel of three wise men was unanimous in giving this approach the thumbs down.)

However, two talks by the recently-appointed and the recently-retired Chief Scientific Advisors to the Government, David King and John Beddington, impressed hugely in their rather different ways. David King side-stepped the nuclear issue, on which he is famously bullish: John Beddington, speaking with tempered optimism in spite of recent food price rises, advocated smart interventions on the supply side (in the words of Jonathon Porritt's summing up). "You are a conucopian!" "Well, I'm certainly not a Utopian," John Beddington responded.

At another point during the Festival, Jonathon observed that we still need our “Pearl Harbour” moment on climate change. After the Japanese attack on the US base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, in December 1941, President Roosevelt talked about there now being “only one reality, namely winning this war.” The result? Within nine months, 80% of the US’s industrial capacity was being used for weapons manufacture.

Just as impressive as any of these events was a fringe talk given by botanist Ghillean Prance at the University of Gloucestershire. He urged his predominantly Christian audience - the meeting was convened by the Rector of Cheltenham, Andrew Dow - to wake up to the environment. Christians tended to see their duty as converting others and involving themselves in social issues, but not caring for God's creation. The speaker's unaffected modesty and his patient and direct handling of a wide variety of questions impressed everyone. What a pity space could not be found for a lecture as good as this in the main Science Festival programme!

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