Yes, we can save the world . . . if we want to

Chris Luebkeman asks whether we are ready to change everything

We can now do just about anything when it comes to the design and construction of the built environment. We know how to make buildings of all sizes that cover their own energy consumption; we know how to make wonderful spaces and places for people to thrive in; we can make materials that essentially last for ever, as well as materials which decompose on demand; we can fly faster than sound and trap molecules in optical "tweezers". Yet, how often do we pause to ask: "Should we do this differently?"

For many, this question is simply too hard. Yet rapid urbanisation demands that we ask it. It is expected that by 2030, 60 per cent of the world's population will be urban dwellers.

This poses a considerable infrastructure problem. What kind of growth could it be? Is it possible to make an urban centre not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-positive? Can new cities be planet-friendly? Our future is very tied in to how we resolve and manage growth of our cities. Their health has to be top of the global political agenda.

The traditional city is a great consumer of energy. City life requires electricity. Urban dwellers use cars. There is no way of tackling the problems created by climate change without looking at the rapid increase in cities.

This is why Arup, the civil engineering company responsible for the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre and Tate Modern, is creating Dongtan, the world's first eco-city, on an island off Shanghai.

Dongtan represents the response of some of the world's best brains to the problem of climate change. It will be a city for hundreds of thousands and as close to carbon-neutral as is possible today. All housing will be within seven minutes' walk of public transport. Most citizens will work within the city, which will produce sufficient electricity and heat for its own use, entirely from renewable sources. There will be no emissions from vehicles. Food will be produced on the island. Buildings (of local materials) will use traditional and new construction technologies.

And yet it is not good enough. We know that it is the best achievable based on contemporary knowledge, but we also know that we have to do better. Dongtan is a holistic, systemic view of a city - something unfortunately rare. It is easier to hide behind departmental boundaries and targets than to deal with uncomfortable issues. But holistic, systemic thinking is now vital.

Someone calculated that if every Chinese citizen drove a car, the world's known oil supply would be consumed in six months. One need only visit any major city to grasp the cruel reality and sheer enormity of this truth. Traffic jams are a ubiquitous urban experience. At some point, the clogging of these arteries, the deep blockages, will reach a critical point. The question is not if, but how soon?

IMF data reveals that as an economy moves from the agrarian stage through industrialisation to full consumption, there is an equal rise in energy consumption. There are three crucial things to note about this. First, that there is a one-to-one relationship between the availability of energy and the viability of an economy. Second, that the nation which has been the greatest consumer of energy per person, the United States, has also used up most of its internal energy sources. Third, that the two most populated nations in the world, China and India, currently low users of energy, are intent on moving up the ladder.

China is on the way to becoming the most polluted country in the world. Simultaneously, it is the most aggressive in setting more eco-friendly design standards. In this ambivalent role, it represents many of us.

Population shifts, increasing scarcity and the wanton consumption of arable land and natural resources (renewable and non-renewable) are pushing us ever closer to global disaster.

This is a crucial and sobering point in history. Despite setbacks and mistakes, progressive national and local governments are taking the initiative. There is still time for corrective action.

Our future is very much ours to decide. It will not ultimately depend on technology or the economy. What we leave to those that come after us will be determined by us, and whether or not we rise to the challenge we now face.

Chris Luebkeman is a director and leader of Arup's global Foresight and Innovation initiative

Read more from this climate change special report

No time to lose by Tony McDermott
The world must urgently face up to the global violence and conflict that would result from rapid climate change, warns Tony McDermott, adviser to Al Gore

A matter of security by Josh Arnold-Forster
Why is the MoD so seriously concerned about global warming? Josh Arnold-Forster on the social collapse we are not prepared for

The green rush by James Harding
Businesses are vying to save the planet, and getting rich. But does it matter, so long as they deliver the goods? By James Harding

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

Getty
Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change