Books: A Point of View: Attack of the Wheelie Bins |
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Attack of the Wheelie Bins : on climate change

(S01E01, broadcast 2nd and 4th February 2007)

"Keeping Up with the Jameses"
— wheelie bin woes

In my household, I’m the last man standing against the belief that global warming is caused by human beings. Three women with about a dozen university degrees between them have been treating me for years now as if I were personally responsible for the forthcoming death of the planet. They’re probably right. They were right about the cod.

After it was impressed upon me by my daughters that the number of cod in the sea had declined to the point that there were twenty miles between any two cod, I stopped eating cod, and immediately the cod-stocks began to recover. I couldn’t help noticing, however, that there were no complaints about the declining number of haddock. Since it was crumbed haddock fillets that I took to eating instead of crumbed cod, by rights there should have been a noticeable and worrying decline in the number of crumbed haddock being caught in the North Sea. There wasn’t, but if there had been I would have listened to the evidence.

Hard, observable evidence should convince anybody sane. I know the sea is polluted because I can see plastic bottles on the beach. Whether the sea is indeed rising might be a matter for computer modelling, which is evidence only if it suits your prejudice, but you know what a couple of hundred plastic bottles are when they come in riding on a wave like a flock of dead seagulls. Where I used to go on holiday in the Bay of Biscay in the days when I could still swim over-arm, the empty plastic bottles on the beach were only a few centimetres apart all the way from France into Spain. I marvelled at the perversity of people on board ships who, after drinking the contents of the bottle, would carefully screw the cap back on so that the bottle would float for ever, unbiodegradably carrying its unwritten message of human imbecility until the ending of the world.

Some countries litter more than others. Sometimes the same country litters less than it used to. Australia was a litterbug’s paradise when I first left it in 1961. Fifteen years later, when I first went back, the littering had largely vanished, because a government campaign had actually worked. At present, the same global coffee-bar chain has cleaner forecourts in the US than it does in the UK because, in the UK, dropping trash is a yob’s right. But wherever you are, in Birmingham or in Birmingham, Alabama, biodegradable packaging in general is clearly a necessary and welcome step, well worth paying for if you’ve got the money.

The fact that only a very small proportion of the total human race has got the money we can leave aside for now, because this is really about us, the people who can afford to do the right thing after we’ve either agreed what it is or been prevailed upon to do it by a government which has proved its competence in other areas, such as finding a use for the Millennium Dome.

This week, for a packet of organic tomatoes still gamely clinging to their own little vine, I gladly paid extra because the packaging was almost as enticing as the contents. By means of a printed sticker, the packaging promised to disintegrate at some time in the future. It would have been a help if the exact time in the future had been specified — perhaps about the time when the last remnants of the human race left for the planet Tofu in the constellation of Organica — but at least the green promise had been made, and I would be able to put the empty tomato packet into our wheelie bin devoted to compostable matter.

In Cambridge we divide our garbage into two wheelie bins, marked compostable and non-compostable. The two classifications don’t apply to the wheelie bins, both of which are made of heavy-duty, non-compostable plastic, but do apply to their contents. As the dolt of the household, a mere male and therefore little more than a brain-stem with a bank account, I myself am correctly regarded as too stupid to decide what goes into each bin. My job is to substitute one bin for another in the garden shed according to which week which bin is collected. Only women are clever enough to plan this schedule but only men can do the heavy labour involved, employing the brute force for which they have been famous since the cave, when everything was biodegradable.

A world nearer to a bone-strewn cave is one to which some in the green movement would like us to return. I can say at this point that the eco-wiseacre who has just been elected Australian of the Year foresees an ideal population for Australia of less than a third of the number of people it has now, but he doesn’t say whether he includes himself and his family among the total of those to be subtracted.

Each time I change the bins I almost subtract myself from the present total of the inhabitants of East Anglia because for evolutionary reasons I am unable to lug one bin out and push the other bin in without impacting my forehead into the top frame of the shed door. After the first time I fell to the flagstones clutching my bisected skull, when I jokingly suggested to the three watching eco-Furies that if I croaked in mid-manoeuvre they could always recycle me, I was informed that this possibility was on the cards because just outside of town there is a cemetery where they will bury you in a cardboard box.

There is also a graveyard called All Souls which has two wheelie bins standing outside it, one marked ‘All Souls Compostable’ and the other marked ‘All Souls Non-compostable’. One of the permanent lodgers in that graveyard is the great philosopher Wittgenstein, whose key principle was that we shouldn’t be seduced by language. He wanted us to say things so clearly that our meaning couldn’t be mistaken. But he could only dream of that, because in fact we are seduced by language. The world couldn’t work if we didn’t spend most of our time being open to persuasion on subjects that we will never personally investigate because we lack either the time or the talent, and usually both.

Everybody knows there are too many plastic shopping bags. You can see millions of them decorating the hedgerows. Everybody knows that it’s a good sign when a supermarket puts a sign on the side of its plastic bags saying that its plastic bags are recycled from other plastic bags. But where most of our recycled non-compostable garbage gets sorted out, hardly anybody knows. I was recently told that most of it goes to China, but I can’t believe that their economic boom depends on reprocessing our tin cans, and that they won’t produce rubbish of their own, and lots more of it.

There are good reasons for cleaning up the mess we make, but finally it’s what we make that makes us an advanced culture, and only a highly developed industry knows how to keep itself clean. At Bhopal in India a chemical plant once killed at least 3,800 people, but that was because it was badly regulated. Loose supervision made it lethal. Very few nuclear reactors even in the old Soviet Union have ever gone as wrong as the one at Chernobyl, or even the one at Three Mile Island in the US, but that’s because they have regulations to meet, and the regulations themselves are the product of an industrial society. There was a time that Japan’s burgeoning post-war industry was poisoning its own people with mercury. The industry that did the poisoning found the solution, because it was forced to. But a law to suppress that industry would have helped to produce a society less able to control its own pollution, not more.

As far I can tell with the time I’ve got to study the flood of information, which is less time than I would like, the green movement can do an advanced industrial society the world of good by persuading its industries to spread less poison. Whether or not carbon emissions really do melt the polar bears and kill the baby seals in the rain forest, the pressure on industry and even on government is already helping to persuade Hollywood stars that they should drive hybrid cars, and finally we’ll do what Leonardo DiCaprio does, because we’ll be seduced by language, not because we know very much about how carbon dioxide keeps in the planet’s heat.

The other day I met a carbon-dioxide expert who said that his favourite gas has already reached the density where it can’t keep in any more heat, but I did notice that he was sweating. It was probably when Sir David Attenborough noticed that the bottle-nosed dolphins were sweating that he finally gave his illustrious name to the campaign against global warming. That would be enough for me even if Prince Charles hadn’t joined in as well, having already placed his order for a horse-drawn Aston Martin.

But I don’t really know they’re right. I’m just guessing. The only thing I do know is what won’t work, because it shouldn’t. We shouldn’t expect the less fortunate nations to cut themselves off from industrial progress in the name of a green planet. It wouldn’t be fair even if it was likely, and anyway, we aren’t civilized by the extent to which we return to nature, only by the extent that we overcome it. I wish I’d said that. It was Sigmund Freud, actually, when they showed him the blueprints of the very first wheelie bin. When push comes to shove, he wrote in German, this thing could still save male pride, even if it can’t save the planet.


Disguised in a cloak of lightness, I took on, from the beginning, what seemed to me weighty themes. Pollution was the first of them, and I still take it to be a far more important theme than putatively catastrophic man-made global warming, which is only a conjecture, whereas pollution is a tangible fact. It also seemed clear to me — but worth making clear to the audience because in the current context it was a counterintuitive proposition — that it would take advanced technology to combat pollution’s effects, and that the idea of unwinding Western industrial society was wrong-headed on that account alone.

Still working out my protocol and too keen to avoid the deadening effect of unknown proper names, I should have specified the name of the ‘eco-warrior’ who had been appointed to the position of Australian of the Year. It was Professor Tim Flannery. Though his concern for the future of what he always called ‘the Planet’ was no doubt genuine, he had the wherewithal to be a natural comic turn, because of his habit, fatal in a futurologist, of saying that dire things would happen tomorrow, rather than the day after tomorrow when they would be harder to check up on. Thus he would predict that Sydney would run out of water in two years, and then, two years later, he would be filmed in Sydney with heavy rain falling on his head. Even then, he would predict that Perth would run out of water a year later. A year later the weathermen of the Perth television stations would be wearing raincoats, but by then he would be in Adelaide, threatening the whole of the south coast of Australia with a thirty-foot rise in sea level by next Tuesday. In 2009 he kept announcing that the Copenhagen summit would be our ‘last chance as a species’ to save the Planet, as if there might be another species — the giraffes, perhaps — ready to take up the challenge. There was a certain charm to him, as there often is in the person you can rely on to be wrong. He was a constant reminder that Cassandra, had the technology permitted, would have been born holding a microphone.