Getting Overheated

Housekeeping

How difficult, how exquisitely difficult it is to know where to begin. Anyone who has had the time or disposition to read the comments that readers have submitted to these pages over the last three weeks or so will be aware of a number of issues that need addressing.

Firstly and most crucially: how do Terry Pratchett readers eat soup?

We’ll answer that vital point momentarily, as they say here in the US. I do enjoy hearing American waiters using that word; as you enter a restaurant they might say, “I’ll be with you momentarily”. They are usually righter than they know: a fleeting vision that flickers before your eyes and then is gone. I suppose ‘in a moment’ takes too long to say in their busy lives and ‘presently’ is English English to the point of being more or less flagrantly homosexual, so ‘momentarily’ it is.

MomentARily of course rather than the English MOment’rily. Anyhoo … other things:

Do I know how to spell ‘Whoa’? Clearly not. Thanks for the spanky botty from one sensitive commentator, fully deserved.

Back to the boiling question of the moment – Pratchett fans and their soup-stylings.

Let me quote the ‘offending’ sentence from the first Guardian ‘Dork Talk’ article reproduced on this site: ‘Nor does it [being deeply dippy about all things digital] mean I read Terry Pratchett, breathe only through my mouth and bring my head slightly too close to the bowl when I eat soup.’

Now, in what possible world does that mean Terry Pratchett readers bring their heads slightly too close to the bowl when they eat soup? In what universe (whether supported by turtles, elephants or badminton rackets) does it follow from the above that I, Stephen Fry, do not like, reverence or appreciate Terry Pratchett and his works? By what black arts can it further be construed that I believe Pratchett’s books to be useless, his readers stupid and his whole world contemptible? My use of the conjunction ‘and’ rather than ‘or’ might just allow some to make that construction, but surely they can see they would be entirely wrong to do so?

I was addressing the whole issue of stereotyping here: being a device geek doesn’t make one a predictably anoraky nerd, I (thought I) was saying. You can’t make assumptions, that was the message. I could just have easily written: ‘Being deeply dippy about Terry Pratchett doesn’t mean I love digital devices, breathe only through my mouth and bring my head closer … etc’. Don’t you see that, you silly little Pratcheteers? C’mon now. Don’t be so insecure. Just be grateful I didn’t include the lines about halitosis, scurfy shoulders and bottle-end spectacles.As references to the public image of dorks, he hastens to add, not as observations on Pratchett fans. Phew! Talk about sensitive…

As for the books themselves. I suppose I ought to come clean. I’ve never read one. Not a one. I have a friend whose opinion I respect. He tells me they’re actually damned good, so I’ll probably get round to it. I’d like Captain Nimes, apparently. (I am suspicious though of character names I am unsure how to pronounce: Nimes rhymes with reams or rhymes with rhymes?) But why haven’t I read one, you wonder? What claim do I have to call myself a rounded human being (aside from pointing to my swelling tummy – thanks, American food – obliged to you, high fructose corn syrup) if I have not bothered to glance at so much as one of the works of this astoundingly popular author? Good point. I think it’s the fans really. So insecure. Such strange ways of tackling soup. And my dear the breath!

*ducks*

Another apology: I used the phrase “paint a scenario” which enraged one reader (or perhaps delighted that reader, because it afforded them the opportunity to give me a damned good ticking off in public) – I bow my head in meek submission.

Back to America. Aside from my enjoyment of the way waiters here say ‘I’ll be with you momentarily’, I’m also fond of a phrasal mannerism common amongst shop assistants, or clerks as I suppose they should be called. Suppose you go up to the till with no more than a stick of chewing gum. You hand over the money and he or she will invariably hand back your change and a till receipt with these words, “Okay, you’re all set.” As if they’ve just kitted you out for some perilous adventure up the Amazon or across the Himalayas. Inoculations, visas, anti-malarials, stout boots? Okay, you’re all set. I do love it. Hurrah for being all set. Hurrah for America.

L1020816.jpg At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Many readers have left comments containing recommendations as to what to do on my Great American Journey, which reminds me of the poster campaign Time Out ran when they launched a New York edition. “Time Out: The Perfect Magazine For New Yorkers: it Tells You Where to Go and What to Do With Yourself”.

Will I visit Galena, Illinois or Hoglick, Iowa or Sweetwater Creek, Oregon or any of the other tempting destinations American readers have been recommending I be sure to stop off at? Well, all suggestions welcome naturally, but it is very difficult on such a cursory tour to be able to visit every village, burg, town, city and county no matter how appealing they sound. For those of you who are not aware, I have been in the US since the middle of October filming a documentary for the BBC in which I visit every State in the Union. The purpose, as I wrote earlier, is twofold, to see the continental United States and to experience American life at local level. One of the most charming and endearing features of America is the intensely passionate civic and statal (if only there were such a word) pride exhibited by so many of its citizens. Mainers are extraordinarily proud to be from Maine. The people of Delaware really want you to understand and appreciate the character and qualities of the Delawarian (‘slow and low’ it would appear). West Virginians will always take time to tell you how much they love their state and how much they want you to love it too. Clearly this is less true of those from New York City (the huge expanse of beautiful countryside that is New York State is another matter) for their city is as a whole other territory to itself.

So far these are the states I have visited and filmed in:- Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, (Washington DC), Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. Still to come on this southern leg are South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

I have sailed, hunted, gone down a coal mine, followed a Presidential candidate for the day, talked to a witch, got drunk at a distillery, fished for lobster, chatted to the founder of Wikipedia, dealt blackjack, listened to the Vice President of the United States make a speech, bumped my head in a nuclear submarine, created my own Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream flavour and driven a London taxi some three thousand miles around the turnpikes, parkways, interstates and freeways of the Eastern United States.

Some of you may be wondering why I don’t blog, post to the blog, make a blog, embloggulate or whatever damned word I’m supposed to use (there’s been a debate on these pages about how the verb ‘to blog’ should properly be used) on this very subject: My American Travels.

Well, here I must confess I’m in something of a bind. Much as I’d like to share all the details of my journey with you, I am, as I travel, making a programme for the BBC and I wouldn’t want to spoil any of its surprises: it would be unfair on the network, the production company, the director and crew if too much was known a year before broadcast. In addition, I’m writing a book about it all and the publishers would have fifty thousand fits if I didn’t give them my more or less undivided attention.

While I’m happy then, to give those of you interested the broad outlines of my peregrinations, I’m afraid I won’t be plunging much deeper than that. Do hope you understand. I will however tell you a story that does say something about a difference between American and British approaches to debate. See below.

Another question that has been asked a fair amount boils down to this: “Now that you’re writing a Guardian article and sending it to this site, does that mean you shan’t also be contributing those longer and more individual pieces that rejoice in the name blessay?” Well, no it doesn’t, as see below again.

I’m sorry about the long intervals of time between these blessays, but I really am so very, very busy with the trip, with the weekly Dork Talk articles, with writing up notes for the book, with sundry other duties to be done that … well, a fully fledged blessay isn’t something I can come up with week in and week out. The word ‘occasional’ is beating its wings overhead … for the moment at least. Mind you, just wait till I decide the time is right to tell you about the other documentary I’m doing for the BBC, one that takes me all round the world … but that can wait for the moment. Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof.

In casting my mind around for a subject for a blessay I have come up with one that was forced to my attention the other night when I participated in a regrettable and unhappy verbal spat with an American gentleman. I shan’t give details about him, it wouldn’t be fair, so let’s call him Jim and leave his statehood, profession and other details unventilated. I will try and be as fair to him and as scrupulously honest about myself as I can be. It was an upsetting evening and I wish it hadn’t happened, but I suspect evenings like it are taking place everywhere around the planet.

Getting Overheated

We must begin with a few round truths about myself: when I get into a debate I can get very, very hot under the collar, very impassioned, and I dare say, very maddening, for once the light of battle is in my eye I find it almost impossible to let go and calm down. I like to think I’m never vituperative or too ad hominem but I do know that I fall on ideas as hungry wolves fall on strayed lambs and the result isn’t always pretty. This is especially dangerous in America. I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister and director of the comic masterpiece My Cousin Vinnie, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn’t understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed an statement he disagreed with and said something like “yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory.” To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle. Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let’s be honest the cultures are different, if they weren’t how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

Certainly my experience of the other night bears out Jonathan’s experience and I’ve been punching myself very hard on the inside ever since for committing the crime of allowing myself to get too heated. On the other hand the argument was an important one. For another difference we have to face between our cultures is that the average position on global warming in Britain seems to be: ‘It exists, we humans are causing it, we’d better do something about it’, whereas the average position in America might be interpreted as, ‘I’m not convinced and anyway America certainly shouldn’t sign up to do anything about it if China doesn’t.’

It started amicably enough. We had been filming all day with Jim who had been kind and hospitable. He had suggested the restaurant and fine it was too. So there’s Jim, four Britons and one Bosnian in the crew plus our two American driver/fixers. And there’s me. Or I, if you prefer. For some reason the conversation came round to the environment and Jim started laying into Al Gore. He described him as “a piece of shit” and “a hypocrite”. Well, I have no particular reason to worship the man. He has won both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize, but that doesn’t necessarily prove him a saint, prophet or hero. Nonetheless, piece of shit and hypocrite struck me (and the rest of the table, but I was the one, as usual, who somehow became the mouthy mouthpiece) as a bit much. It turned out Al Gore should be regarded as a hypocrite on two counts. Firstly because much of his family fortune came from coal and secondly because ‘he goes from place to place in a jet’ which is apparently not consonant with his self-appointed duty of warning the world about the environment.

We can dismiss this attack on Al Gore fairly easily I should have thought. The fact that his family made money out of coal seems about as irrelevant to his own moral worth as you can get. Would Himmler’s grandson be a hypocrite for not wanting to wipe out the Jews? Preposterous. All of us who have European blood in us will have ancestors who made money from, or whose lives were made infinitely easier by, slavery. Does that mean we’d be hypocritical to disapprove of it? I am not saying coalmining is a moral equivalent, of course. It could just as easily be that one’s grandfather made his money out of meat-packing: would be it then be hypocritical to be a vegetarian?

Using the jet, though: this one hears more of. So far as I know Al Gore hasn’t gone around saying we should all stop using jets, it seemed to me from his film that his whole argument was that we don’t have to get all medieval and pre-industrial in order to halt the threat of global warming. I appreciate it would be terribly convenient to those who deny the problems he has drawn our attention to if he could be leapt upon for not recycling this, not saving that, for actually using electricity, for shamelessly driving a car etc etc. But even if Al Gore had said that no one should fly around in jets or use electricity, then does it actually mean the world isn’t getting warmer and that we shouldn’t do something about it? I mean it’s perfectly possible that he’s a hypocrite, but how does that alter the central facts? After all, I can say “always be kind, always be responsible, always treat others well” – if I then spent a day being unkind, irresponsible and unpleasant in my treatment of others if might make me something of a Tartuffe but it would not instantly render the ethical standards I had recommended worthless, it would simply mean that I hadn’t lived up to them. So even if Gore is the completest hypocrite, it has no bearing on his claims.

Jim now came to his central argument. “I’m not a scientist. I don’t have the technical knowledge to determine whether this global warming is a real, man made threat or not. Do you?” Well I suppose Jim was accustomed to this argument appearing to be quite a clincher. Obviously very few people he meets are likely to reply that they do have the technical knowledge. What is more Jim could spread his hands wide and claim not to be a ‘global warming denier’ (a phrase that made him very angry indeed. He denounced it as ‘that cliché’, which is not quite what it is, but we’ll let it pass). ‘I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I’m not saying it does. I’m just saying I don’t know.’

Others around the table interjected with the observation that the vast majority of scientists were united in their views. This he countered with, ‘there are plenty of scientists who say it’s all nonsense’. Well, it’s undignified to go into the game of listing the academic institutions whose leading professors are in the orthodox majority. Besides, in that sense, he is right. I can’t catalogue the scientists on each side of the debate and I am aware that leading deniers have adduced their apparent experts who parry the claims of the mainstream with counterclaims of their own. I don’t think anyone can deny that it is the majority of scientists who believe that global warming a) exists and b) is caused by man’s industrial activity, pollution and energy consumption, but that doesn’t mean they are right. The vast majority of scientists in the first half of the nineteenth century thought disease was spread by smell. They were wrong. So we concede that numbers mean nothing, a thing is true or it is not. And Jim is right. I will never know enough, nor will he, about climatology, oceanography, chemistry, biology, metereology and the dozen other ologies I would need to understand in order to arrive at a wholly confident technical, scientific decision. So can I just, as Jim appears to be able to do, sit back and believe myself logically and morally justified in acting as if global warming and its threat to us is not proven?

It’s a jolly thought. ‘Well, I’d like to able to believe you, but the case isn’t proven. There are plenty of scientists who have quibbles. I can’t pretend to know anything about it myself and the orthodox majority in science has been wrong in the past. So there we have it.’

When I tell you that Jim has a vested interest, a deeply vested interest, in this whole issue, you may think it weakens his argument. It doesn’t of course make any difference that he is a very senior figure in a company that … no, I want to protect his anonymity so I’ll just say that he is in the fossil fuels business. This may explain why he has taken up the argument he has, for the ‘green agenda’ is a potential threat to his livelihood, but again, that doesn’t make his argument logically wrong. In fact nothing makes his argument logically wrong, for he is not making an argument, he is stating a bare fact. He cannot know for himself. The meaning of his stance however is of course that he is, in a transparently faux naïf and disingenuous manner, siding himself with the nay-sayers, and manifestly not occupying some claimed neutral ground of raised-eyebrow abstention. We’ll come to that now.

What I tried to explain next to Jim was made difficult by the animosity that was building up as a result of the charged nature of this debate. I think Jim was not used to being contradicted, I think he found the European admiration for Al Gore disgusting, and the whole British liberal attitude to the environment little short of socialistic, anaemic, pansy and pretentious. All the usual problems red-blooded Americans of his stamp have with Britons, in fact. And I have no doubt my tone, my voice, my vocabulary, my whole demeanour, affect and style contributed to this feeling and compounded it. And I too was upset and angry at his dismissive, illogical, contemptuous tone.

I am not proud that I was unable to have a less strident and, ultimately, mutually intolerant discussion. But there. I am not here to abase myself before you, nor unfairly to trash an opponent as it were behind his back. The subject is too important for any of those considerations to weigh with us.

We’ll come back to Jim later. I feel a bit of a heel or dragging him into the blessay at all, which could stand alone as my feeble contribution to the global warming debate, but I think it’s worth framing it anecdotally as I have, partly because most of us have found ourselves in some similar kind of impassioned debate and partly because it speaks to a particular cultural difference between Britain and America, which, as I say, is a topic I’ve been asked to think about in my blogging.

So we’re down to this thought. One is free to make the entirely valid observation that one cannot know for certain whether the scientific doom-saying on the subject of the planet, its rising temperature and the dire climactic and other consequences is true. One is free to observe that in the past scientists have been wrong. One is free to observe inconsistencies, evasions, exaggerations and discrepancies in the supposed ‘one-voice’ clarion cry emanating from the scientific community, environmental journalists, the green movement, the carbon off-set industry and others. In other words one is free to do nothing.

Ye-es but … you see the one overwhelming fact about the great climate debate is what’s at stake. Not scientific reputation, not the fortunes and comforts of capitalists and their populations, not pride or reputation but our very civilization.

So let’s break it broadly down to three responses to such a cataclysmic prophecy of doom.

There is Response A. Type A believes the preponderance of established scientific evidence. Whether Type A believes it because they are equipped to do so, or whether they believe it because they are gullible, or whether they believe it because they are stupud, or whether they choose to/pretend to believe it because they are anti-progress, anti-capitalist, anti-global economy, communist, hippy or anarchist is neither here nor there. They believe or profess to believe that there is a pressing threat to the continuation of human life on this planet such as we have known it since the earliest civilizations began to build harbours and ports on the edges of the land. It’s a big deal.

Then there is Type B. Type Bs do not believe this. They think the evidence is wrong, misinterpreted, flawed, misrepresented, unconvincing, not to be acted upon. Type A will call Type Bs “deniers” which irritates them with that suggestion of holocaust denial, not to mention its accompaniment of that special whiff of sanctimonious self-righteous and political correctness that many Bs observe will always hang about your classic Type A. Type B believes the evidence is either manufactured, ignored or slanted. They believe that the whole eco industry and the thousands of academic departments which have sprung up have a vested interest in those alarm bells. They think it’s political correctness, a new orthodoxy, liberal, bossy and dishonest.

Finally there is Type C, the category into which Jim falls. Type C says: “I cannot possibly know. I hear this from one side and that from another. Both seem convinced, both seem to be marshalling impressive technical figures to their side. I cannot make a judgment.”

Obviously there are views that shade between the three categories but in essence you either believe, deny or sit on the fence.

The consequence of these responses runs something like this: A, the believer, will, or at least should, attempt to do something about the threat they believe in: I mean, look what’s at stake, how can they not? In his or her small way they should support green initiatives through the ballot box, attempt to leave less of a carbon footprint in their personal lives, make environmental restitution for jet travel and other apparently deleterious activities through carbon offset schemes and the like. All very baffling, bewildering, embarrassing, inadequate, shambling, liberal and possibly useless no doubt, but the planet’s in danger so surely, (wringing of hands) we should try? By planet, I mean planet-as-we-know-it, of course. It is obvious that the good old earth will carry on a-spinning whatever happens to its ozone layer and climate systems.

B meanwhile will carry on as if nothing is different, for as far as he is concerned, nothing is. Bs only wish they could survive long enough to see the smug self-righteous sorrowful smile wiped from A’s face when in a hundred years it is made plain that there never was any great threat to the climate, to the environment or the ecosystem and that at worst it was a conspiracy of anti-capitalists and at best a muddled, credulous screw up.

And C? The Jims of this world? Well they, of course, are functionally exactly the same as B. They do not know. Case isn’t proven, so why should they vote for massive changes to the way the world does business, massive alterations to the convenience and pleasures of our way of life, just on a 50/50 hunch?

Ah, but that’s the point. It’s what’s at stake that matters in a bet like this.

If B is wrong and there really is a threat of the kind A claims, then not doing anything about it will destroy human habitations, make extinct many species, and fundamentally alter our habitats around the planet.

But if A is wrong and actually there is no threat, then acting as if there was will have what consequences? It will have saved fuel bills all over the world, reduced noxious emissions which, even if one doesn’t believe in global warming, are unpleasant pollutants in anyone’s reckoning, and slowed down the day when we find that the fossil fuels have run out. Action would have given us more time to find alternatives. To be fair, it will also have slowed down world growth and inconvenienced all of us in our personal lives and if A Types do turn to have been wrong they may well owe the world an apology and it’ll be red faces (and a brake in the inexorable rise in world economic growth and fuel mineral use) all round.

But surely that’s a small price to pay for backing a losing horse when the stakes are the planet itself?

Doing nothing risks everything and gains comparatively little, doing something risks comparatively little and gains the whole world. Surely you’d have to be an idiot not to back the believers in this instance.

I’ll restate it once more just to be clear.

For the eco-believer it’s no-lose situation: we all survive if they’re right and we’ve acted on their belief, we survive if they’re wrong and we’ve acted on their belief. Whereas for the eco-denier we survive if they’re right and we’ve done nothing but we perish if they’re wrong and we’ve done nothing.

Some of you may be thinking this is just a reiteration of Pascal’s Wager. Better to back the existence of God, the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher argued, because if you’re wrong it wouldn’t matter, for after death there’d be oblivion, while if you were right there would be a great reward. Being atheist on the other hand risks eternal damnation. The smart money’s on taking a chance on God. You can’t lose, it’s either oblivion or paradise. For the atheist, it’s either oblivion or lakes of fire in perpetuity.

So is my suggestion, no more than a restatement of that frankly silly ‘reason’ for believing in God?

Well. Pascal’s Wager is silly because, arch rationalist as he was, he is not giving a reason for belief in God, he is giving a reason for behaving as if God exists, a motive for believing in God, if you like. Which is all very well, but if God is all that he is cracked up to be he would see through such slippery self-interest and condemn you to those lakes of fire anyway. God is not asking, or certainly wasn’t in Pascal’s day, for man to follow an ethical code, no religion I know has ever suggested such a thing (although they might argue ethical codes follow upon religious obervance – but that’s a whole other can of worms for another day) God was asking for obedience, belief praise, thanks and observance. He has never offered in Christianity, Judaism or Islam, so far as I can tell, to reward those who merely punt on the side of his existence. For that reason, aside from its greasy moral turpitude, Pascal’s Wager sucks.

Does my wager fall at the same fence? Well I don’t think so, for a motive to behave as if the global warming prognostications were true does not offend some God of Global Warming who will only make the earth safer if full and proper belief is proffered. Not does it skip round some holy motive for behaving greenly. No environmentalist will care whether someone does their best because they are a true believer or because they are hedging their bets. The wager here is fair and good.

So, I suppose I am saying this.

Those who believe, the A types, should take action on global warming. B types, who don’t believe, are free not to though they wouldn’t lose out by taking action, except in small ways which, placed in the scales against the potential losses … well, I’ve made that point. But C types. Types like Jim who sit on the fence and claim not to know enough, they surely are the ones for whom the wager makes the most sense. “I don’t know the science, but I do know that the smart money is on taking action.” That’s all they have to realize. So, far from justifying inaction, not being sure overwhelmingly justifies action.

Or so it seems to me, and so I tried to express the other night around a table. I might as well have saved my breath. It got all very unpleasant. “Are you calling me a liar?” was the response to my suggestion that claiming neutrality was a dishonest argument because it automatically sided Jim with the deniers. “I mean the argument is dishonest!” “You’re calling me a liar!” When I proffered self-deception over dishonesty it hardly helped.

Two things we must agree on. One is the feeble stupidity of searching gleefully for signs of hypocrisy in those who believe the world is getting warmer. You’d be as well to search for it in Christians, those worried about poverty or anyone else who professes to an ideal. The other, from the believers themselves, is the foolishness of building a climate of inquisition in which the purity of everyone’s environmental credentials is tested and exposed. If you create an atmosphere in which driving a car, going on holiday, leaving a light turned on or failing to recycle a bottle is accounted a crime, a failing, a weakness, something to be loudly condemned, then you will lose the earth, for no self-respecting human being is going to be recruited to a cause whose spokesmen are as self-righteous religious zealots, making impossible demands all at once on fallible human beings.

L1020906.jpg Experiencing global warming first hand. On way to Tennessee North Carolina border in the Gt Smoky Mountains National Park

I suppose I must claim self-interest here. I do think it sensible for us all to respond to the theory of man made global warming and its potentially disastrous impact on the planet as if it were true. But I am also a useless bag of shit, or human being. I will therefore be seen from time to time in a car which isn’t an economical planet-pleaser. I will leave lights on. I will forget to recycle. I will travel. I have paid money to carbon trusts who promise to offset the damage my carbon footprint causes, but apparently (according to some at least) this isn’t the way forward. It’s all very hard and I’m not even sure that I can claim that I do my best. But I am doing my best to do my best. If that sounds weaselly and flabby and cowardly, that’s because it is. But I suspect that’s how most of us who believe in the threat of global warming are: will we have the courage to vote for a political dispensation that will force through what needs to be forced through and enact what needs to be enacted? I don’t know. But I do know that we need more heated arguments around dinner tables and less self-delusion and evasion. Act for the worst and hope for the best. In some ways I am sorry I seemed to make an enemy, on the other I am glad to have had the fierce evening with him. Fierce overheated evenings are needed at evening meals all over the world.

This blessay turns out to have been complicated, repetitive and rather laboriously expressed. I’m sorry for that, and if I had more time I’d go back and smooth it out. Heigh ho.

© Stephen Fry 2007

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This blog was posted in Blessays

207 comments on “Getting Overheated”

  1. Uli says:

    I was very happy to see you talking about the “American” way of discussion, because it’s something I’ve scratched my head at for a while. Without wanting to express or provoke any anti-American sentiments, I too have a very great problem with people who skirt around any productive discussion by saying “let’s agree to disagree” (in the best possible scenario, of course, the worst being the kind of personal offence-taking you describe above). As I myself wrote in a blant [I like these awful neologisms] a while ago, I don’t really understand the concept of creating respect by using phrases that seem artificial and counter-productive.

    If you as a Briton have a problem with it, just imagine how hard it must be for us Germans, who cause consternation whenever we open our mouths in a foreign country…

  2. Steve Howard says:

    Great stuff – I need to go back and read all the comment, but wanted to add mine while it’s fresh.

    On Global Warming, I have a slightly different perspective.

    First – We absolutely should take steps to ensure we ruduce and if at all possible, ultimately stop polluting this planet. Even without any discussion of global warming, we can see with ease the environmental damage we have been doing since the Industrial Revolution. Common sense says stop doing that.

    Furthermore, I don’t believe that cleaning up our act necessarily strangles economic vibrancy or industrial/technological progress. We are smart enough to address environmental isssues without introducing technological stagnation or regression!!

    Second – I remain completely unconvinced by the arguments that Global Warming is a phenomenon brought on entirely by our pollution of the planet. I firmly believe that the Earth has natural climate cycles that we have no comprehension of (can you say “ice age” boys and girls?). Any attempt to interfere with that natural cycle is likely to be futile, and certainly expensive. My biggest fear is that we spend the next 100 years and more trying to force the climate to mimic some false “average climate” based arbitrarily on temperature and rainfall averages as measured in 1800, 1950 or whatever.

    Oh – and as a Scot now resident in Mississippi, don’t *start* me on cultural differences!!!

  3. Steve Howard says:

    donquixote Said:

    “One more thing, though. Pascal’s Wager, as silly as it is, is not quite as silly as you say it is. Obviously, God would, as you say, see through a purely pragmatic “belief” in Him. However, belief in God, be it the Judaeo-Christian God, or the Islamic God, or any other kind of God you care to mention, goes hand to hand with a religious and therefore moral framework. If you believe in the Christian God, surely then it’s only logical to love thy neighbour and follow the 10 commandments?”

    Ah – American Christian. Probably from the Bible belt? One of my favourite bullshitisms from this country. The implication, of course, is that if you do not believe in a God you must be immoral.

    What a pile of tripe. Morality does not equate to religion, and religion does not equate to morality – American prisons are full of people who ‘found god’ before, during or after their immoral acts. Morality simply means you understand that hurting others (through theft or the tittilation of your neighbour’s wife, etc.) and/or breaking the law of the land are really not good things to do.

  4. Stephen R says:

    Stephen –

    I’m an American from a family of debaters — argument and debate over the dinner table (or drinks) is practically the air I breathe. This causes no end of consternation to my wife, who, (as you generalize Americans), inevitably feels she is being attacked.

    In short: I highly respect your ability to step back and regard an opposing outlook dispassionately (at least in writing) and logically. You have an ability to break things down into digestible chunks that is unusual, and greatly welcomed when I do find it.

    That being said: I disagree with the bulk of your conclusions in this post RE global warming, but would absolutely _love_ to raise some hell about it with you. :-) I’ve always felt that reasoned debate with one’s opponents is the _only_ way to truly hone one’s own arguments, and you are exactly the type of personality that I get along with even when I disagree.

    I’m not A, B, or C. I am, it seems, part of group “D”. Yes the planet’s climate is changing; and no, it has little, if anything, to do with man; and the attempts to avoid something that we cannot influence would be actively harmful.

    As a guy who lives right next to a giant lake that was carved by a glacier (Lake Michigan), in an area that sees 90 degree (Fahrenheit) days in the summer, I can say _absolutely_ that the Earth’s climate changes, and has been doing so since long before the rise of human Industry. One needs only look at the agricultural villages buried under the ice of Greenland (let me say that again… The _ice_ covering _Green Land_) to know that the planet undergoes large swings in long term climate.

    The flipside of that is that dumping massive regulation on people in efforts to avoid such change will do more damage to human freedom than doing nothing. That is, the futile efforts to prevent something that has as much to do with the output of our sun as the output of volcanoes is going to hurt many, and help nothing.

    Ironically, it is the vast wealth of industrialized nations that has lead to many of the technological innovations that are causing the USA to become _more_ environmentally sound even as we produce more wealth. I myself have invested in a company (Cree) that is working on making LEDs bright enough to use as lighting in businesses and homes. When they do figure it out, it will be an advance that leaves mercury-filled, flickering, heat-producing flourescents in the dust — 20-year bulbs that produce clean light and run for pennies a year.

    Who is creating this? China? No. Russia? No. Germany, perhaps? Nope. The most industrially free society on the planet is inventing most of the technology that will enable _everyone_ to be more environmentally sound in the future, and ironically, the socialistic “environmental” regulations that folks such as you are trying to rationalize with calls of “what could be the harm?” would stifle exactly that innovation.

    You’ve got my email. En garde!

  5. sooshi says:

    I have the debate bug myself, and often have to remind people of the difference between a debate and a row :) Perhaps I’m too aggresive at times, I suspect so, though i don’t mean to be.

    As for the environment, there’s all sorts of evidence, from the hokey to the downright scary – I admit, I’m still on the fence. I find it difficult to fully believe that us human rabble can have such a profound effect on the planet.

    Global warming as they call it may be the result of our hobnail boot stamping all over the place or on the other hand simply a result of the planet’s constant state of flux.

    This planet will keep turning, disinterested in the little human drama we all take so seriously. Coastlines will change, landmasses, types of species, I wager it will go on long before we have moved on or away.

    That said, I try, to keep my carbon foot print down as much as I can. I’m not the best eco warrior out there by a long shot, but I’m not the cavalier litter dropper I might sound like.
    Whether we are responsible for the changes in climate, or not, I think it’s downright shameful how we treat the planet, and to top it off, almost suicidal.

    Stick almost any other animal in an enviroment of some sort, and they’ll pick a corner in which to poo, and keep the rest clean and disease free as best the can. Not us, no. From litter to landfill, we’re destructive, and dangerous, (we’re many other things too mind you, wonderful, sweet and kind, don’t get me wrong).

    Why do we need the environmental sword of damacles to spur us into action? Isn’t it enough we live here in the first place?

  6. Jim says:

    Yes, believe it or not this is the real “Jim” that Stephen mentions in his blog….Can’t believe I stumbled onto this. At least I made some sort of impression on the man (even if it was a very negative one it appears)…….My account of the day’s events and the dinner in particular differ slightly from Stephen’s…..More later if anyone expresses a desire to hear my side of the story….

    “Jim”

  7. Jim says:

    “Jim” again. First off, my real name is Bob (although Jim works just as well). Stephen asserts that he uses the alias to protect my anonymity. Thanks, Stephen…very kind of you. Early in his “blessay” he mentioned that he had visited the following states: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, DC, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. In the very next paragraph he mentions that he “has gone down a coal mine.” Of the aforementioned states only VA, WV, PA, KY, TN, & MD are currently coal producing states…the latter two with somewhat limited production by comparison. One could deduce from this that the visit to the coal mine was probably located in any of the previously mentioned four states: VA, WV, PA or KY. In the same paragraph he mentions that he “got drunk @ a distillery” (hopefully those blessed souls had more luck w/ an intoxicated Fry than I did!!!)….more than likely that would be in either KY or TN for those of you familiar w/ the US bourbon business…again process of elimination rules one of those out as well…further narrowing the state or commonwealth. With WV being the largest coal producing state in the Eastern US, one could well make the case that the logical deduction would be that Stephen’s visit to a coal mine was in fact a WV coal mine….. West “By God” Virginia…and indeed that would be a correct deduction. Voila!! The coal mine segment was filmed in the great Mountain State!!!

    Later in his “blessay” he mentions that “Jim” has a, “vested interest, a deeply vested interest, in this whole issue.” Furthermore he quotes, “It doesn’t of course make any difference that he is a very senior figure in a company that…..no, I want to protect his anonymity so I’ll just say that he is in the fossil fuels business.” Hell, Helen Keller could see that good ole JimBob was in the coal business in WV!!!

    So much for that. I’m not concerned with anonymity…..everyone in my business knows I’m the only one dumb/naive enough in our industry to allow a visit such as Stephen’s to occur in the first place. I’ll touch on that and the details leading up to his visit in my next post…..

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