Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

We've been to the Moon, now lets save the Earth



On 20 July 1969 several events took place that were to change the world.

In New York the organisers of a music festival, banned from their chosen venue of Middletown, Orange County, had a meeting with a farmer called Max Yasgar to discuss renting his 600 acre farm at Woodstock.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate was stepping off the Queen Elizabeth having returned from Britain.

In Northern Ireland they were clearing up after the previous week's riots whilst the family of Samuel Devenny were mourning his death three days earlier from injuries caused by a police truncheon.

And a quarter of a million miles away from all this two all American boys called Neil and Buzz were about to stroll briefly on a barren and airless Moon.

What strikes me about these events is how they were all in their own way endings. Woodstock was the pinnacle of the hippy ideal of peace and love. The death of Sharon Tate at the hands of Charles Manson's cult a week earlier had already fatally injured this dream. In Northern Ireland the upcoming Battle of the Bogside would spell the end of the squalid little Loyalist police state of Northern Ireland and mark the beginning of a conflict that would involve the rest of the United Kingdom for nearly 30 years.

The moon landing meanwhile marked not the beginning of humanity's voyage to the stars, but the end of the Space Race. Once Armstrong and Aldrin were back on earth the public lost interest in space unless there was an accident. NASA had shown them the moon, the fey and inconstant companion of poets, lovers and Wiccans, and revealed her to be a boring and monotonous lump of rock of interest only to geeky scientists.

It marked the end of a period when, in defiance of logic and good taste, clothes were fastened with Velcro, TV dinners seemed like the future and cars spouted more wings than a jet fighter. A period when an ex-Nazi who'd used slave labour to make weapons of mass destruction could become an American hero on account of his knowledge of rocketry and in which devout boys from the mid West found God, but little else, being blasted into orbit as ballast in tin cans.

It was also the end of the idea that science and technology could solve any problem. The seventies were going to be very different.

Instead of Woodstock we had Altmont, instead of hippies we had punks, instead of British soldiers fighting for the remains of the Empire we had them patrolling the streets of the UK and instead of the Space Race we had the Oil Shock.

This was the background to the rise of the environment movement, a movement that would reject the technocracy that had been behind the moon landings. The environmentalists imagined a very different future from the technocrats and to be honest neither were right. There was no mass mobilisation of talent and resources to travel to the planets, but neither has there been one to save the earth. The future was defined neither by the rocket scientists nor the hippies, but by the neoliberal economists.

NASAs vision may have been flawed, but that doesn't mean a better world isn't possible. My favourite story of watching the moon landings was by a chap who watched the TV whilst working in a nursing home in the mid west. The people he was caring for had arrived in that part of America in covered wagons and here they were watching one of their own walk on the moon.

What sort of world will I be watching on TV when they cart me off to the care home for terminally cynical eco-warriors? Will I be watching the Amazon burn and Africa starve, or will at be marvelling at the driver-less electric cars and superfast trains? The seeds of both futures are being sown right now. We shall see which one wins out.

Monday, 6 July 2009

RIP: Robert MacNamara



Another sixties icon has passed on, although one that perhaps not many flower children will want to mourn.

Robert MacNamara was the architect of the 'bodycount' in Vietnam, the Defense Secretary who applied the scientific management of the motor company to the US military machine. The war, he thought, boiled down to a simple balance sheet of bombs dropped against communists killed. In his defence he appears to have admitted in later years that he was wrong (or rather he admitted that other people were wrong and he went along with them out of loyalty) but I guess if I was a Vietnamese villager whose family were napalmed I'd still be a little cross with him.

Another legacy of his is still very apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan today: the guided bomb. When they were first invented the Navy and the Air Force were sceptical. They could buy ten ordinary bombs for the cost of one of the new fangled bombs, and as the new bombs weren't ten times better they considered them a waste of money.

MacNamara's systems analysis disagreed. The cost of a bomb, he thought, should include the cost of the plane that carries it, the cost of the pilot that flies it and the cost of the airfield that the plane flies from. Hence the addition of a guidance system doesn't just make a $10,000 bomb twice as effective, it makes a $2 billion aircraft carrier twice as effective.

So as America continues to try to bomb its opponents into submission, secure in the belief that all it needs to triumph is more and better bombs, let us remember for a moment the man who led the way.

p.s. seeing as the guy has just died I will say one good thing about him: he desegregated the US army. Not an insignificant move given the climate of the times.