Another strange week

Donald Trump invokes in me a heady cocktail of emotions. On the positive side he creates a strong sense of amusement; I find it hilarious that so many people in the US take this orange faced clown so seriously; I find it hilarious that he takes himself so seriously! Saying this also makes me sad. In all seriousness, this man has mental health issues for which he does not appear to be getting any support. A year or so ago I listened to a programme on Radio 4 in which a panel of psychologists analysed his behaviour. Their verdict? Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you look up the symptoms you will see that they fit him to a tee. Knowing this really helps to explain his behaviour, not least because he really does believe what he says: He must have won the election because he knows that most of the electorate admire him so much that they just would not have voted for Biden, so any result that appears to show the opposite must be fraudulent.

However, this sadness quickly gives way to anger when I realise just how much harm can occur when such a dangerous person is allowed to be in a position of so much power. I only hope than he leaves the White House quietly and that all his equally mad conspiracy believing, gun loving supporters do not try to interfere with the transition of power. If they do things could get really nasty. I have a growing fear that they will, and I really do not want to imagine what would happen if they did.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, things are not going too well for our ‘clown-in-charge’. We quickly seem to be entering that all too common state of British politics when the incumbent Prime Minister is just incapable of doing anything right; when everything they decide or announce falls apart as rapidly as changes in the weather. The decision to place 97% of England into either tier 2 or 3 has invoked the anger of some 70 Conservative MPs to such an extent that he may be forced to modify his proposals in order to get them approved by Parliament. And this was hot on the heels of him deciding to support the Home Secretary despite the widespread accusations of her bullying and the resignation of the top civil servant in charge of monitoring the ministers code of practice.

The problem that I have commenting on any of the government’s Covid decisions is that I am not an epidemiologist. In all honesty I am unable to say what I think the correct course of action should be, I simply do not know. But whatever the PM’s thinking is, he seems to be totally incapable of selling it, or even explaining it, to the vast majority of us. Put simply, he seems incapable of displaying leadership. This may seem to many like a bit of an old fashioned character trait, but I think the art of leadership is much undervalued. There will always be, there should always be, a multitude of opinions on any given situation, but in order for there to be effective action someone, the ‘person in charge’, needs to be able to evaluate them all, decide on a course of action, and then explain that course of action to everyone such that even if they disagree they are prepared to go along with it. However much the PM may aspire to be a second Churchill, he simply does not have these skills.

Having said all that, I warmly welcomed one element of the PM’s announcement on the new tier structure – that gyms and leisure centres would reopen, even in tier 3 areas. I would like to think that this was in part due to my lobbying of our MP the previous week, but I somehow doubt it. Nonetheless, I am pleased. I am pleased on behalf of Bridport Leisure Centre, a much needed community resource that we just can not afford to lose. I am pleased on behalf of all those people across the country that rely on gyms and leisure centres for their exercise. But, to be honest, I am most pleased for myself. I simply get so much out of my daily trips to the gym that daily life is just not the same without them.

Another highlight of the last week was the monthly (virtual) meeting the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group. This months topic, ‘Faith outside of religion’, attracted a good ‘turnout’ for a virtual meeting, but it’s really no substitute for the real thing. I am so looking forward to us being able to meet in person again, and in an actual pub! I know that I’ve said this many times before, but I really do value the ability of ordinary members of the community to meet up and discuss a serious subject in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and in a spirit of genuine enquiry. It’s an ability that I think many politicians could do with acquiring, and I think it a skill that should be taught in our schools.

The need for political leadership

The last week has again been dominated by the consultation on Dorset Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Strategy and Action Plan. One of the recurring themes at the many online events that I’ve attended has been the need for as many residents as possible to be consulted, and, as a corollary, the need for there to be a bottom-up approach. This includes doing outreach, for example visiting residents in pubs and community centres, to canvas their views. Whilst such actions may achieve a great deal and be well worth doing in a very general sense, in regards to the CEE I’m not convinced – and for a number of reasons.

I fear that there may exist something similar to the 20/60/20 distribution phenomenon that I have heard used to describe, for many types of job, the ease at which people can convert to working from home. Basically 20% can do it easily, 60% can do it with some effort and adaptation, and 20% find it next to impossible. In terms of our CEE, I suspect that something like 20% of the population are fully onboard with the science together with the necessary social and economic changes, 60% accept the science (without fully understanding it) but feel very uncomfortable about the necessary changes, whilst 20% will find a reason for not accepting either the science or the necessary changes. It’s this 60% group that we need to engage with and get onboard. There are, though, a couple of phenomena described by the sociologist Anthony Giddens that make their engagement a challenge.

One is the following paradox: That if the “dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day to day life” most people will do nothing concrete to prevent those dangers becoming tangible, immediate, or visible. However, waiting until they are will be too late. This is related to an inherent human trait – future discounting. In evolutionary terms, we have only ever had need to deal with ‘in your face’ dangers, and the less immediate they are the less important they feel. The other, related phenomenon, is what Giddens terms ‘ontological security’; the “confidence or trust that the natural and social worlds are as they appear to be, including the basic parameters of self and social identity.” What this means is that people quite naturally resist making changes to their social world, however necessary these changes may seem rationally, if they in anyway require changes their sense of self – of who they are and what they do. This just feels too uncomfortable. On the other hand, some people (many of those in the first 20%) actually acquire a positive sense of self identity through the adoption of the necessary life style changes.

Another reason why I am not convinced by a comprehensive public consultation on our CEE is that I really do not think that people are as rational as we would like to believe they are. For a really good explanation of this I recommend the reading of the first part of Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Just going out and talking to people will neither reveal a previously unexpressed support for the actions necessary to halt runaway climate and ecological disaster, nor will it be an opportunity to persuade people about these actions. The vast majority of us, if not all of us, are primarily moved by our emotions. These emotions drive us towards certain interests, areas of study, or campaigns that we want to be associated with. We then support our positions using reason and rational arguments. But these reasons are post hoc. To get others onboard we need to find ways of engaging them emotionally – as the advertising industry has been doing for years.

No, we just do not have the time for a bottom-up approach to our CEE. We need a top-down strategy. We need political leadership. In much the same way that national government introduced the compulsory wearing of car seat belts and a ban on smoking in public, we need the necessary legislation to radically cut our national carbon footprint and for the government to then ‘sell’ it to population…even if these actions make the government grossly unpopular in the short term. In the longer term people will be thankful and will wonder what all the fuss was about, they will wonder how we could ever have contemplated risking our future existence by not acting the way we did.

Not the best of weeks

It’s been a weird week. I was going to say it’s been a funny week, but apart from comments from some fanatic Trump supporters there’s not been much to laugh at. Our dog has become quite seriously ill, necessitating at one point an emergency appointment at a specialist vet neurology centre. I won’t go into details, but at the moment we still don’t know to what extent he will recover. But what has really struck me is the extent to which humans can become attached to dogs. He’s not my dog, he’s my partner’s, but I’ve grown really fond of him. And it’s heart breaking to see him ill – a shadow of his former playful self. I’m also fully aware that for some on the environmental wing of politics keeping dogs is not an approved practice. I understand all the arguments here, but…well, he’s a dog!

On the political field, preparing a response from the Green Group of councillors on Dorset Council to the Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy and Action Plan public consultation has been my dominant occupation. And being as honest as I can, I found this far from easy. As I’ve said before, I find a constant tension between being an activist and campaigner, pushing for the outcomes I think necessary and being as critical as I can of anything that falls short, and being a pragmatic politician who recognises that in order to get anything done compromises will need to be made. So after re-reading all the paperwork and discussing the issues at an online meeting we have decided to be broadly supportive of the strategy and action plan. And in all honesty, we are full of praise for the work council officers have done to produce them. But we also feel that there needs to be greater emphasis in a number of key areas.

One of these areas is the need to not only engage the community, but to actively promote their participation in the delivery of the action plan. And, perhaps of even greater importance, to explain the benefits of the strategy – how it will improve their lives, health and wellbeing. This will involve councillors engaging with the communities they represent, the communities in which they are known and have some influence. But here’s the rub. I’m not convinced that all the councillors in Dorset are onboard. I already knew that there are one or two out and out ‘climate change deniers’ within the Tory ranks, but my fear is that there are also a significant number who, whilst accepting that man-made climate change is an issue, also think it’s by no means the most important issue. This was really brought home to me on Thursday afternoon at a councillors’ webinar on the consultation. The number of councillors attending these (roughly) weekly events varies, and I understand that a number have work commitments, but the number at this event was noticeably lower than usual. If a significant number of councillors are not ‘on board’, how are we going to fully engage the community?

I don’t usually comment on casework, mostly out of respect for the resident who has brought an issue to my attention, but this week will be an exception. A sign has appeared on at least one footpath entering the West Cliff estate, West Bay informing walkers that it’s a private estate and only residents have access. This sign appear at the point a signed public right of way enters the estate. Not surprisingly, this has angered a number of local walkers who regularly use the path, some who have done so for 20 years. Checking on a Council ‘rights of way’ map, however, has not made the situation clear. Whilst a bridleway enters and leaves the estate there appears to be a gap between the two sections, and indeed the path is shown to end in a cul-de-sac, and not connect to the bridleway. Further enquiries suggest that this situation results from a situation that occurred when the estate was built but which has never been resolved. My point in saying all this is that even if the management committee of this private estate has some degree of justification for their actions, why? Why stop walkers who have used the path for years? Why stop people enjoying healthy outdoor exercise? What is so precious about this estate that only residents can enter? It’s bad enough that land is owned privately in the first place, and whilst I’m not advocating people walking through other people’s gardens, why do some people want to not only own the roads but prevent other people from walking on them?