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8 January 2020

First Thoughts: Blame for the flames, a cabinet of drivel, and the altruism analgesic

We are as guilty as the Chinese over emissions.

By Peter Wilby

The apocalyptic scenes from Australia – fires out of control, smoke turning day into night, homes destroyed, thousands fleeing to the beaches – ought to mark a historic turning point where humanity finally wakes up to the reality of global heating. Yet leaving aside that irresistible picture of a kangaroo hopping through a wall of fire, the story struggled to make the front pages of most British newspapers.

The Mail on Sunday exemplified the order of press priorities. First, make it a story about animals. The bushfires have killed 500 million of them, the Mail reported, and New South Wales has lost almost a third of its koalas – though how such figures are calculated is anyone’s guess. Second, bring on the criminals. A woman who escaped the fires on horseback – “I had so much faith in Charmer [the horse],” she said – returned to her home safely to find it had been “targeted by looters”. Third, find someone to blame, but not anybody British. Step up Tobias Ellwood, a former Tory minister, to explain that the Chinese burn so much coal that “our personal and national efforts” to slow global heating “will be meaningless”.

So that’s all right, then. Though, as Ellwood didn’t mention, our limited success in reducing carbon emissions is largely attributable to outsourcing much of our manufacturing to south-east Asia. If, as the Mail claims, the koala bear, the Australasian bittern and the hip pocket frog are endangered, we are as guilty as the Chinese.

Cummings’s military precision

In his call for “weirdos and misfits” to work in Downing Street, Dominic Cummings says he wants “great project managers”. His models for success are the 1940s Manhattan Project to produce an atomic bomb, the 1950s development of ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles) and the 1960s Apollo Project to land an American on the Moon. These were all, including Apollo after 1963, run by the US military. What does Cummings have in mind for Britain? Surely something more than the only future project he mentions: a dual carriageway on the A1 north of Newcastle.

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Humanities rule

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Cummings says he also wants more scientists and mathematicians, and fewer humanities graduates talking “drivel”. But will anybody be able to tell if the recruits also talk drivel? Cummings has a history degree. Of 33 ministers in Boris Johnson’s cabinet (including those attending meetings but not full members), 17 have humanities degrees, including three who took Oxford’s PPE (philosophy, politics and economics). Most of the rest studied social sciences. There is one physicist, one chemist and no mathematicians. Now Liam Fox is gone, the cabinet doesn’t even have a doctor.

Take to the skies

The star at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition on the evolution of cars, where I spent New Year’s Day, is the prototype of “Pop. Up Next”. Developed by Audi and Airbus, it’s the car everyone dreamed of: in a traffic jam, it lifts off and takes you by air. As the exhibition shows, people anticipated flying cars from the earliest days of motorised transport. “Mark my word,” Henry Ford said in 1940, “a combination airplane and motorcar is coming.” But our skies remain empty of such things.

Flying cars, however, can now use battery power and, instead of human drivers, AI software, cutting the noise, pollution and collision risks that have so far prevented their development. But could the makers guarantee that the vehicles would never drop from the sky, crushing earthbound motorists, pedestrians and cyclists? Perhaps a Cummings-appointed weirdo could sort it out.

Painless chores

Here’s some cutting-edge research from Beijing, reported in the Times, that may give a worrying glimpse of what the future holds. Doing good deeds, it says, makes you less susceptible to pain. “Doctors should consider prescribing altruism for its analgesic properties,” the Times suggests. Moreover, patients who cook and clean for others on their wards find the work twice as effective as painkillers. Imagine what Boris Johnson’s cash-strapped government could do with these findings.

This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran