Ready for the crunch

Those who value freedom enter 2009 with some trepidation. The over-regulation of society shows no sign of abating; the lack of trust in professionals and the proliferation of bureaucratic targets continues to harm both those who are targeted and those they try – against the odds – to care for; the unthinking acceptance of unproved theories and refusal to listen to alternatives frustrates individuals and puts a spanner in the economy; simplistic materialism takes the spirit out of the people.

The continued wackiness of the health and safety industry is a gift to many comedians, but the absurdity of demanding that milk chocolate should bear a label warning that it contains milk is simply a symptom of a deeper rottenness in the state, typified by the blame culture and the rush to litigation. In America we are told that a man trapped in a lift for 40 hours found his life irreversibly altered not by the trauma of the experience, but by his decision to sue the company afterwards.

In Florida thousands of people are apparently being healed in a Christian revival that has spread in some measure to this country; our main contribution is advertisements on buses suggesting that God “probably” doesn’t exist.

In an atmosphere where it is hard to distinguish reality from myth, we are prey to those with agendas based sometimes on lying, sometimes on cherry-picking the facts. When Al Gore was interviewed by Richard Madeley, the interviewer found him to be ghastly, boorish and wrong-headed: “He would brook no discussion about climate change and kept on saying, ‘The debate is over.'” Yet the Church Commissioners have just decided to invest £150 million in Mr Gore’s “environmentally minded investment firm”. It is not so much Mr Gore’s viewpoint that is objectionable: it is his refusal to even consider that he may be wrong. Perhaps the Church Commissioners identify with that.

The Scientific Alliance suggests that this is the crunch year for environmental policies, adding: “The climate change lobby desperately needs 2009 to break records for high average temperatures and extreme weather. Summer ice melt in the Arctic in 2008 was hyped, but the winter growth seems to be more rapid than usual. The year as a whole gave miserable summer weather to many, and there has been no upward trend of temperatures since the highs of 1998, despite steadily rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.” I feel torn: I like warm weather, but I would also like the cool breeze of reality to make itself felt.

So far, business as usual: green activists just ignore what is happening in the real world, and the fact that a Green Party councillor was given prime letters spot in my local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, to promote his fantasy low carbon solution to the economic crisis suggests that the media are also on another planet. His outburst prompted someone with rather more expertise to comment: “I suggest an urgent programme of building proper power stations instead of ‘white elephants surrounded by dead birds and bats’ known as wind farms … and use more of the £50 billion raised from motorists each year in order to construct more motorways / roads in order to bring the UK’s inadequate road network up to EU standards.”

My twopennyworth would be to urge parties who profess an interest in green issues to do something about our current environment and employ people to rid the country of unsightly litter. Living in a rubbish tip hardly promotes a healthy view of life.

At the end of this month a workshop is being held for Norfolk councillors before the launch of the county’s new Climate Change Strategy. It would be nice to think that they might get an evenhanded briefing on the views of different scientists, but this hardly seems likely. There will be discussion on how local councils are going to meet targets for reducing carbon dioxide, but none, apparently, on whether this is necessary, or would have any effect. Councillors, of course, have no special expertise. They rely on what people tell them, and who yells loudest. Depressing.

Private transport is another area where reality and fantasy mingle, often with a helpful stir from climate activists. When I suggested on this site that the number of accidents caused by speeding was much less than government figures suggested, I was taken to task by road safety expert Keith Peat, who maintains that no accidents at all are caused by speeding. Could this be true?

“No accident can be caused simply by exceeding a number on a pole,” he says. “It is against the laws of physics.”

True enough, I hear you whisper amid the howls of outrage. But surely driving too fast is dangerous? The operative word, of course is “too”. Fast is fine; too fast is, well, too fast and therefore dangerous. How do we work out what is too fast?

Hey, let’s not bother. Let’s impose irrationally low limits and use cameras to penalise people who exceed them. Better still, let’s use the latest technology to introduce speed adaptors in cars. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

No, of course it doesn’t. People will simply assume that they can drive as fast as the adaptor will let them, regardless of the road conditions. And when a brief burst of acceleration would avoid danger, they won’t be able to do it. Yet again, those who exercise a skill are being targeted by those with no skill at all. And those with no expertise are not above giving a deliberately false picture to back up their feeble case.

They claim that injury accidents could be reduced by 29% by fitting cars with the adaptors. But this is a figure spun from two entirely different “contributory factors” for fatal accidents derived from what is already subjective police “box ticking”: 12% for “exceeding the speed limit”, and 17% for “excessive speed for the conditions, under the posted limit”. As the much-maligned Association of British Drivers points out: “Clearly ISA (intelligent speed adaptation) cannot control inappropriate speed under the posted limit, and the 29% claim is therefore demonstrably bogus.”

But does it matter, if it slows people down? It depends on what kind of country you want to live in, whether the truth really matters and whether slow = good. There is no reason it should, after all. Mr Peat asks: “What do we know of the economic casualties caused by curtailing, slowing, hampering and limiting a major part of our infrastructure? The road safety industry has every reason to ignore this matter, but the question must be, have we already gone too far? Should we be looking at raising limits? Thousands of prosecutions tend to prove that the limits are too low, do they not? Certainly before limiters are even considered we should  ensure that the limits are economical and appropriate.”

He points out: “There is no instrument that better than the human brain at assessing every aspect in a constantly changing scenario, and this is not confined to assessing speed limits only.”

But apparently the human brain can no longer be trusted. Thinking is frowned upon, if it does not confirm received wisdom – wisdom that coincidentally allows certain people to make a great deal of money, and others to ensure that they climb the political ladder, with expenses to match.