Show Hide image

In this week’s New Statesman | The Space Issue

Helen Lewis on a one-way trip to Mars, Rafael Behr on hereditary privilege and Rowan Williams on Wilfred Owen and the boy soldiers of the First World War.

21 - 27 February 2014

The Space Issue

Helen Lewis asks: Who would take a one-way trip to Mars?

Michael Brooks on the lunar land-grab

The planetary scientist Colin Pillinger considers what makes us human


Mark Leonard on the rise of the new Eurosceptics

Rowan Williams joins the NS as a lead book reviewer: Wilfred Owen and the boy soldiers of the First World War

Rafael Behr: why Westminster won’t tackle the problem of hereditary privilege

Will Self drifts upstream to Shepperton in the first column of his new psychogeography series, “on location”

Mehdi Hasan: forget Benefits Street – corporate welfare is the real scandal

The first Scandi drama: Ronald Hutton on the Vikings



This week’s NS explores the 21st-century space race, which has been reinvigorated ten years after the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle, a nadir in the US space programme. For the cover story, Helen Lewis reports on the “next big prize” in this race – the quest to colonise Mars:

“I want to die on Mars,” said Elon Musk last year. “Just not on impact.” The 42-year-old was not being flippant; he plans to use the $9bn he acquired through business ventures such as the online payment system PayPal to leave earth’s orbit for ever. He believes it is the only way for the human race to guard against the fragility of life on a single planet, at the mercy of a supervolcano, asteroid strike or nuclear war.

Musk’s enthusiasm has energised a new phase of the space race: the conquest of Mars . . . around the world, an unlikely alliance of tech billionaires, state agencies and private contractors is increasingly confident that, within 20 to 30 years, human beings will once again be striking out further than anyone has gone before.

Lewis meets some of the scientists tasked with making the mission to Mars possible, considers how it will be financed, and concludes that the race to the Red Planet is no longer the stuff of science fiction:

Whatever the challenges in getting to Mars, everyone I asked was confident that they were not insurmountable. “I’d say 2040 is a reasonable guess [for the first flight],” says [the astronaut Tom] Jones.

The pioneering spirit that took us to the top of Everest and the bottom of the sea, that drives people to spend the winter imprisoned on an Antarctic research base, will always win out. Despite the risks – perhaps because of the risks – there are people alive today who probably will die on another planet. They’ll look up at the pale blue dot in the sky and, unlike any generation before them, that planet won’t be their home.

Meanwhile the NS science columnist, Michael Brooks, reports on how the moon’s rich mineral resources and a series of legal loopholes around the “beyond-earth behaviour of nations and private companies” make a lunar land-grab inevitable:

The Chinese think the moon’s minerals might be worth extracting. “They are looking at feasibility for mining the moon, and they are likely to do it if there’s a strong business case,” says Richard Holdaway, director of the space division at the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which collaborates closely with China’s space programme.

There would be nothing illegal about such an operation because international laws covering the moon are “way, way behind”, as Holdaway puts it. In theory, anyone who could manage it (and afford it) could go to the moon tomorrow, dig out a huge chunk of lunar rock, bring it back to earth and sell it off to the highest bidder. The Chinese could take the moon apart and sell it bit by bit without breaking international law. The question we have to ask ourselves is simple: do we see a need to prevent that happening?

It’s not just the Chinese who have ambitions in this direction. Some private companies also have their eye on lunar rock as a source of riches. Most are based in the US, and they are actively working on lunar landers that will eventually be able to perform mineral extraction.

Colin Pillinger, a former planetary scientist at the Open University and principal investigator for the Beagle 2 Mars lander project, is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. For Pillinger, the answer lies in our pioneering spirit, our curiosity and our essential nosiness:

What makes us human? In my case, “us” means scientists. Scientists, like all human beings, are curious: but we are real nosy parkers. And like the lady in the corner house on the street where I was a kid, who hid behind her aspidistra to watch the comings and goings of everyone in the neighbourhood, we like to tell people what we’ve found out . . . any typically nosy human being can become a scientist and share the fun I’ve had.


For this week’s NS Essay, Mark Leonard, the founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the first pan-European think tank, explores how the UK Independence Party and its friends have succeeded in making Euroscepticism a popular cause:

The genius of the new Eurosceptics has been their ability to turn the arguments of pro-Europeans on their head, so that each triumph has become an argument against the EU. Old-fashioned sceptics such as John Redwood and Bill Cash used to accept that the EU was good for the British economy but baulked at the loss of sovereignty. The new Europhobes put things the other way round: in place of old arguments about European superstates destroying British sovereignty, Eurosceptics have a narrative about Britain “tethered to the corpse” of the eurozone (the evocative phrase of the fiercely independent Conservative MP Douglas Carswell).

Leonard identifies “technological utopianism” as an important Eurosceptic trend:

Douglas Carswell looks more like a cartoon villain than a romantic idealist, yet he is behind the most dramatic shift in Euroscepticism: its appeal to Britain’s younger pioneers. A libertarian, self-styled radical and advocate of localism, he first came to prominence when he pleaded with Westminster to clean up following the expenses scandal. Since then, however, he has brought a technological utopian bent to Europhobia, making it seem more modern in the process, and so potentially appealing to younger people who are not natural Tories . . . it is the Europhobic pioneers who have potentially the most disruptive arguments. By claiming that Europe is a bureaucratic monolith in an age of global networks, they have the greatest ability to transcend the older, more conservative ghetto of traditional Euroscepticism and create a wider coalition.


In the Politics Column this week, the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, argues that although Westminster should be tackling the current upsurge in hereditary privilege, it is woefully ill-qualified to debate how wealth and power are stitched up in Britain.

There is a shortage of qualified agitators. The alarm is raised by people on the left who are mostly squeamish about their own privileges and are liable to be called hypocrites by those on the right who want to believe that skill, not luck, delivered them into lofty positions . . .

There is no guarantee that fair distribution of opportunity will even be a factor in the election. Ed Miliband will try to force it on to the agenda. The Conservatives will reject it as camouflage for the old class envy. Then the jury of generously remunerated opinion-mongers, cloistered in characterful London period properties, will ponder whether it is truly the case that all the advantages flow to the already advantaged, and declare, in tones most dispassionate, that it is not.


In his Lines of Dissent column this week, Mehdi Hasan, exposes the real Benefits Street scandal – the corporate scroungers who are lapping up public subsidies and government contracts:

From The Big Benefits Row to Benefits Street, everyone in the media seems to want to talk about welfare these days. Or, more accurately, social security.

In an age of austerity, I won’t pretend to be surprised by the obsession with welfare and so-called “welfare dependency”, but there is a point worth making here: why do we obsess over handouts for the poor, rather than handouts for the rich? Why isn’t the scandal of corporate welfare the subject of fly-on-the-wall documentaries, too? When will my former colleagues at Channel 4 air a series called Bankers’ Street?

Ignore the media misinformation: spending on out-of-work benefits isn’t out of control, nor is the welfare state responsible for growing poverty . . . So let us turn instead to the real scandal, the issue that dare not speak its name: corporate welfare. Where is the ministerial or media anger over the activities of G4S and Serco, which are accused of ripping off the taxpayer but which make millions from lavish government contracts? Where are the howls of outrage over taxpayer-funded payouts to the fossil-fuel industry? The Met Office’s chief scientist may believe “there is a link” between the recent floods and climate change but the government continues to subsidise the coal, oil and gas industries to the tune of £2.6bn a year. Why are the rail company bosses not household names in the same way as White Dee or Smoggy from Benefits Street?


In this week’s Critics section, the historian Ronald Hutton reviews the British Museum’s exhibition “Vikings: Life and Legend” and concludes that these early-medieval Scandinavians were pioneers of globalisation, with many of the same preoccupations as we have:

The exhibition implicitly proclaims the importance of globalisation, the value of technology (in this case ships) in bringing peoples together, the power of fashion in forming identities and self-expression, the ability of consumer goods to unite people regardless of language or ethnicity, the benefits of keeping good relations with the new Russia and the need to respect Islam. It is a snapshot of the preoccupations of the intellectual British psyche in 2014.


Rachel Cooke reviews Jonathan Meades’s BBC4 paean to concrete

The Man Booker Prize judge Erica Wagner on Gary Shteyngart’s new memoir

George Eaton asks what will become of Westminster’s Scottish MPs if Scotland votes Yes

Caroline Crampton meets Steve Nallon, aka Margaret Thatcher in Spitting Image

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire shares the latest Westminster gossip

Thomas Calvocoressi on Richard Hamilton at Tate Modern

Ed Smith: children of “pully” not pushy parents become great athletes

Lez Miserable: the NS’s Sapphic cynic Eleanor Margolis recommends the odd bout of aloneness

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496