Monday, January 17, 2011

 Scared to Death  - Book review
by John Brignell

In every generation there have to be some fools
 who will speak the truth as they see it.
- Boris Pasternak

First, a declaration of interest: this reviewer has in recent years published two books, one of which contains a chapter on “scares” and the other has “scares” in the subtitle. Even worse: he holds these two authors in high regard as heroes of the resistance, who cheerfully accept the obloquy that accompanies that role.
Their latest production is a typically detailed examination of the phenomenon that characterises our age more than any other, and one that returns us to the primitive state of our superstitious ancestors with their witch hunts, the global scare.

Authors such as your reviewer and James Le Fanu have contended that there was a sea change in western society that occurred in about 1982 and, sure enough, that is where this account begins. That was the year that the acronym AIDS was adopted and, by one of those ironic quirks of coincidence, on the very month that this book was issued the UN has finally admitted what the sceptics always knew, that it had grossly exaggerated the scale and nature of the epidemic.

From that time on all hell broke loose, with an unending sequence of “disasters” - killer eggs, listeria hysteria, mad cows and human CJD, E. coli, The Millennium Bug, Satanic abuse, speed kills,  lead, passive smoking, asbestos and finally the big one - Global Warming. This account spells out the progression, a lengthy tragicomedy of irony, incompetence and sheer perfidy. Each scare is analysed in terms of the pushers and the blockers through various stages.

There were so many factors that were common to these outbreaks, not least in the consequences. There was draconian legislation, the mass closure of viable productive businesses, multiplication of officials supported by the taxpayer, the enrichment of lawyers, stepwise erosion of human liberty etc., all based on little or no evidence. There were mysterious multipliers, in which one case became millions, as with the early scare of salmonella in eggs (in fact, subsequent extensive surveys failed to produce any cases at all).

Beneath it all, like the insistent beat of the ground bass of a poignant passacaglia, is the matter of cost. A billion here, seven billion there, and they are only the direct costs; even more significant is the continual shift of labour and resources from the economically productive sector to the parasitic elements of the regulatory system and the compensation culture. Have no doubt about it: scares have robbed this generation of the age of prosperity and freedom that was their birthright, for which their forefathers fought and died.
As an aside, what are the ingredients of this witches’ brew? Presiding are the international organisations, such as the UN and EU, riddled with fraud and corruption, unanswerable to democratic control or even the simple constraint of audited accounts, yet able to foist their policies on a world population who have no means of resistance.

National parliaments are populated by a new generation of professional politicians, most of whom have never done a real job in their lives, hyperactively feathering their own nests, while indolently yielding to the most vocal pressure groups. Journalists, too lazy to gather information for themselves, reproducing without question and virtually unedited the press releases of activists (look at your newspaper and ask yourself: how does, say, the environmental editor justify his pay for a week’s work?).

The most dramatic account is the great asbestos scam. The entire and insubstantial basis of this was the fact that two unrelated groups of compounds happen to share a common name in everyday parlance. One with extremely valuable refractory properties turned out to be deadly on prolonged exposure by inhalation. The other (talc) is a material of widespread use that seems to be relatively harmless, though it can be contaminated with the more dangerous forms (amphiboles). The asbestos scare gave rise to the greatest scam in human history.

The beneficiaries were first and foremost the lawyers, mainly in America, cowboy asbestos removal specialists and many thousands of people who had no disease symptoms at all. The victims were thousands of productive companies that were forced into bankruptcy and everyone who pays insurance premiums. Lloyds of London was brought to its knees and many of its “names” were driven into bankruptcy and suicide. Many substances are deadly when inhaled - water for example, and very much quicker. The panic actually liberated tons of the deadly stuff into the atmosphere, when it was quite safe where it was, in solid form.

The slogan was typical - “One fibre can kill!” Absolute nonsense! Every adult has thousands of such fibres in their lungs. Even if asbestos had never been used in manufacture they would still be there, as this is a prolific and naturally occurring substance. Incidentally, should you think that your reviewer’s approach to this is frivolous, many years ago he lost a dear friend and colleague to this cause, who knew he was under the sentence of death, but also knew that it was as a result of excessive exposure to airborne fibres as an apprentice in the Dublin docks. 

Not only was most of the “dangerous” asbestos safe where it was, in solid form, the innocent variety was in buildings including ordinary homes, where the popular decorative textures such as “Artex” were drawn into the scam. By the time they were withdrawn as targets of the legislation, under the pressure of actual research results, many householders had been impoverished and local authorities faced crippling charges by cowboy “licensed” operators. Most portentous of all, perhaps, was the intervention by the BBC, once the epitome of impartiality, which in a grotesquely partial edition of its programme You and Yours, mounted an unashamedly mendacious attack on those who were trying to restore some semblance of order to the situation. The BBC, backed by enormous sums of money extracted from a poll tax on all households with television sets, was virtually immune to legal redress. It had the resources to bankrupt any opponent in litigation (except, of course, the Government, where it came a cropper, though ironically in the right), which brings us to the mother of all scares, in which it was to be a leading propaganda machine.

Many of us who were involved in the early days of environmentalism, because of the disgusting and dangerous state of our post-war air and rivers, and had good reason to be satisfied with the progress that had been made, became distressed when the movement was suddenly hijacked by a new force. It seemed to be motivated by a hatred of industry and economic progress. Instead of relying on actual measurements of pollution, it began to extrapolate by means of theories and models.

It developed the threat of the New Ice Age. Industrial pollution would block out the sun and plunge the world into an appalling frozen future. In Britain it was irrelevantly defeated by the searing summer of 1976, an isolate statistic that could have no bearing on climate and, though it caused ridicule, was nevertheless a portent of things to come. We innocently assumed that they would withdraw, but they simply did an about turn. Almost without pausing for breath, they converted the threat of an ice age to one of catastrophic global warming. Digging up old papers by the likes of Arrhenius and Callendar, and without a trace of embarrassment, they switched from accusing industry from freezing us to death to claiming that it would roast us. At the time most of us in science treated it all as a joke that no one could possibly take seriously. How wrong we were! We simply could not see that profound changes were taking place in society, that even science and its methods would come under a devastating threat.

This is a book that should be compulsory reading for every politician and journalist, but of course it won’t be. People are comfortable with their own acquired prejudices. Those in public life find it easier to go with the flow. They see those who step out of line vilified and ostracised.

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