Big Ears and Fluffy Tail: So Prove it’s Not A Penguin

I’ve been writing a lot of fiction this year and while I’m writing it I don’t read it much, as it might travel down my arm and into my fingers as I type. So it’s been a non fiction year (mostly – apart from the two TOTALLY AMAZING Hilary Mantels about Cromwell, deep, deep reading joy). One of the best non fictions of the year has been ‘The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography Of Cancer’,  by Siddhartha Mukhajee. It contains many beautifully told stories from the front line of medicine and medical research, but the most interesting for me was the story of the establishment of a causal link between lung cancer and smoking.

Just after the second world war when cigarette smoking had become a universal habit in Europe and America medical authorities noticed a lung cancer epidemic. You might have thought that the co-incidence of those two facts might have lead governments to encourage a little restraint in the smoking of cigarettes, but no, it took nearly two decades of research before any action was taken to discourage people from sucking carcinogens into their lungs.

Study after study showed that lung cancer followed smoking like a carriage after a horse and still the tobacco producers denied the link, blaming everything in ‘modern life’ but smoking for the precipitous and catastrophic rise in lung disease. The huge vested interest and advertising might of the tobacco industry was brought to bear in an entirely ruthless and cynical way to undermine the integrity of the scientists and the science that threatened their profits. The actions and claims of the tobacco industry would have been ludicrously funny if they hadn’t been costing millions of people their lives.

As I read the chapters covering this fight, I was struck again and again by the fact that you could replace the words ‘lung cancer’ with the words ‘climate change’, and the word ‘smoking’ with ‘carbon emissions’, and you’d be telling the story of climate scientists and climate skeptics. On one side scientists – cautious, circumspect, self questioning and on the other organisations with a huge amount of money to lose if the scientists are right.

I remembered this parallel again last week listening to a scientist in the employ of a large pesticide company, being interviewed on the Today programme. Did he think there was any truth in the research that linked the decline in bee populations with the long lived insecticide produced by his employers? Just guess what he said. You could hear the che-ching of the cash register behind his words, the whoosh of the wind blowing through the place where his soul was before he sold it.

And I remembered it again this morning with the fisheries minister giving reasons why we should start fishing cod in the North Sea again even before populations have made the most basic of recoveries. Back in the 70’s Newfy fishermen were behaving in a similar way – arguing for their right to fish, and blaming seals, whales and presumably the tooth fairy for falling catches. Never of course their massive nets, boats and fish locating sonar. And in case you don’t know, there isn’t a cod fishery Newfoundland any more because there aren’t any cod.

If it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny.

So, there will now be a delay, while science does the research that draws a big, black, indelible line to join up all the dots. Anybody with half a braincell and couple of functioning neurons can see the shape the dots make before any line is drawn but the people who stand to lose money from that obvious shape have to have it drawn out for them, and with all of us standing there and pointing to it, before anything changes. Meanwhile bees disappear and we don’t have anything to pollinate our crops, climate tips into boil-in-the-bag ghastliness and the tobacco industry moves its advertising to a new region whose populations don’t yet know that Malborough man died of lung cancer.

Like I said in my blog last week: if it looks like a threat, smells like a threat, pretty likely it is a threat. You can wait and see if you want to, making your comic denials and the Universe may cut you a little slack.  But most likely the threat whose existence you denied will squish you flat. You’re dead. That simple.

One campaigner I interviewed for my book about climate change said

“You wouldn’t get on a plane if it had a ten percent chance of crashing”

So why are we keeping systems of energy production, transport and agriculture that have a 99% chance of leaving us with a planet that doesn’t support human life? Like, DURR.



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