Local Empowerment and The Internet
It is less than two years since I posted on this site an essay ('More Boundaries, Please!') advocating a reversal of the trend towards centralisation of political and economic power on the grounds that centralisation is inimical both to personal liberty and to any prospect of peaceful globalisation.
Today, 28 February, 2001, my arguments in that essay have been reinforced by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the British Isles. Hundreds of thousands of sheep, cattle and pigs are being slaughtered and their carcases incinerated in an attempt to keep the disease from spreading far and wide. Some of the far-reaching implications will in due course be sensed by the general public and will undoubtedly embarrass politicians. So it gives me an incentive to review some of the practical reasons why the responsible local exercise of personal power is by far the most cost-effective means of combatting all forms of threat to the maintenance of human life on Planet Earth.
It is disappointing to find so many people still referring to 'globalisation' as something undesirable imposed by the machinations of multi-national corporations. It is in fact an inevitable consequence of technological advances in communications and transportation which are potentially capable of conferring significant benefits upon mankind. Of course, multinational corporations distort the picture by taking advantage of technology primarily to serve the selfish financial interests of their directors and share-holders; but we should not let that distract us from acting locally in our own interests as well as the known interests of our neighbours and our mutual local environment.
It should be obvious that if enough local people object to the local operations of any company, corporation, political party, or government department, they can stop them in their tracks by banding together in opposition. Mass slaughter of healthy sheep may be politically defensible: mass culls of a rebellious human population is not — at least not yet in the UK. All the people need is a means of effective communication to gather and disseminate intelligence, to agree courses of local action, and to co-ordinate their efforts. In such a context, the Internet empowers the individual to an extent hitherto unimagined by all but a few visionaries. So my advice to any reader who wishes to play a responsible personal part in the life of the local community or in service to the wider world is to get on the Internet as quickly as possible. The world needs you, now!
No blessing ever seems to be entirely unmixed. Globalisation implies rapid transportation, not only of information, but also of people and goods — and of the agents of disease. The closer globalisation forces us together, the more precautions we need to take against unwelcome consequences. There are some respects in which good fences make good neighbours, especially on the surface of an over-crowded planet.
Effective use of the Internet enables full and intimate exchange of information extremely rapidly across continents and oceans as well as from one side of the street to the other. It gives access quickly and cheaply to all sorts of useful information. It therefore greatly reduces the need for humans to travel; so it should soon begin to reduce the incentives to do so as people become more aware that travel can endanger the health without necessarily broadening the mind. When fully realised, communication via the Internet is often as good as, and sometimes better than, face-to-face conversation.
The Internet should soon begin to reduce the tourist craze as people become aware that while distance may lend enchantment to the view, it might be better for personal health and the domestic environment not to view it too closely.
There is plausible speculation that the immediate cause of the current outbreak of an Asiatic strain of FMD on a farm in Northumberland might have been the inadequately re-cooked remains of airline food included in the swill fed to pigs. So for the purposes of discussion, let's assume the speculation is correct and attempt to see what could be learned from it for risk reduction purposes.
The only place we can start is where the disease was first noticed. That may, or may not, have been a Northumberland farm. If it was, the farmer clearly failed to raise the alarm as quickly as he should have done; in which case, it might have been due to ignorance of the implications of any symptoms, and a regime of education and training for farmers would seem to be called for. The resources of the Internet, effectively harnessed, constitute an extremely cost-effective means for disseminating the necessary information. It could also be used to convey a list of precautions to be observed in the preparation of food for all kinds of livestock.
However, it could equally well be the case that the farmer sold his pigs in good faith before any of them had exhibited any obvious signs of disease. I don't know the details of the transaction in question, but I know that many livestock are bought and sold at a distance without the purchaser ever casting eyes on what is being bought. I understand that some supermarkets centralise their buying from one abattoir, even if it means transporting livestock from Cape Wrath to Land's End just to be slaughtered. This doesn't do the livestock any good and it greatly increases the probability of spreading any diseases they may be incubating. The same consideration applies when someone who has no interest in the animals themselves "makes a turn" on the exchange when the animals bought in one part of the country are marketed in another and sold on to a third. FMD is one of Nature's ways of emphasising the importance of a very old proverb that says: "Never buy a pig in a poke". Yet precisely this sort of "piggery-pokery" is aided and abetted by the Byzantine rules and regulations of the European Common Agricultural Policy, the World Trade Organisation, and central Government, who have between them regulated in such a way as to make small local slaughter-houses uneconomic and so led to the closure of hundreds of abattoirs in these islands.
The more animals there are on a farm, the less possible it is to keep a watchful eye on individuals and so the less likely it is that the first signs of disease will be spotted and identified. There may be a case for placing appropriate limits on the numbers of animals of various kinds that may be kept in any one place at any one time. Any such limits could sensibly be arrived at only by local determination and agreement in the light of the prevailing local circumstances.
The rapid and wide spread of any infectious or contageous disease (remember that FMD is only one among many!) is greatly facilitated by fast, long-range transportation. This also makes the spread far more difficult to control. So, as argued in More Boundaries, Please!, there is an obvious case for having lots of locally determined ad hoc 'boundaries' to aid control in all matters concerning the well-being of local people, as well as for the protection of their legitimate interests.
To aid in keeping track of food animals, there should be lots of small livestock markets and abattoirs, each attended by a local vet, scattered around the country to minimise the distance from farm to market and/or slaughter-house. Every local producer should be required to sell his animals through one of a small selection of local markets or direct to a local abattoir. Each market would sell on only to purchasers within a defined, limited area or specialist group. This would not only help to contain disease; it would also gladden the hearts of the local butchers and their customers, who would have some reassurance about where their meat was coming from and how it had been reared — an assurance that no government-appointed quango or supermarket quality assurance system can ever realistically afford. Reduction in the need for bureaucratic supervision and long-range transportation might even result in food being cheaper rather than dearer.
No doubt the hauliers would regret the reduction in business: but unmixed blessings are rare; and hauliers don't actually supply food.
Perhaps the most significant action taken by central government in response to the current foot-and-mouth epidemic is to "give local authorities the power" to close local footpaths in order to minimise the risk of ramblers inadvertently spreading the disease.
This is cause for some wry amusement at government's expense. One can't help but wonder why the power in question was ever taken away from local authorities or why they so meekly submitted to having it taken away. It will be interesting to see if government has second thoughts about the absurd "Right to Roam" legislation which gives ignorant townies with their pet doggies and other less obvious parasites the right to wander over agricultural land throughout England and Wales without regard to the possible consequences for the food producers or for their own safety. Country people don't clamour for any rights to roam into urban factories and commercial premises: it is difficult to discern any logic in encouraging townies to get in the way of rural industries or pursuits. This is one aspect of legislation that cries out for the exercise of local discretion and control. Let us hope that the expedient introduced in this emergency will be as long-lasting as the income tax introduced in another emergency so long ago that people now mistakenly accept it as an inevitable condition of having any government at all.
A telling, if ironic, comment on the essentially urban outlook of the current British Government is that, while the country was aflame with the funeral pyres of thousands of animals reared for food, the House of Commons was last night debating a Bill proposing to ban hunting with dogs throughout England and Wales without any local discretion or derogation. Many Members of Parliament are obviously so ignorant about where their food comes from that they no longer recognise "cute" foxes as competitors in the food chain and have sentimentally sided with the enemy. Is it too much to hope that, when the consequences of farmer-bashing eventually become apparent in supermarket and delicatessen, just a few of them may see matters in a different light?
Life comes with no "rights" or guarantees. The train crash at Selby early this morning is a timely reminder that no matter how carefully any activity is engineered and managed, unforeseeable accidents will happen. In this case, the immediate cause of the crash was a motor vehicle which somehow ran off a motorway on to a railway line, partially de-railing a high-speed passenger train which was then struck by a goods train coming in the opposite direction.
Every accident is the outcome of two or more intersecting chains of events [see, e.g., From Accident to School — Ed.], and no insurance policy is ever going to fully compensate the individual for loss of life, limb, or health. Recent events show that even the insurance companies themselves are not always able to live up to the legitimate financial expectations of their policy-holders. It is becoming increasingly obvious that "mutual" and "trust" are words that can reasonably be applied only with respect to people one knows as persons: corporations, governments and bureaucracies don't qualify. So it must be right for every human adult to accept personal responsibility for all voluntary choices and actions and to resist being coerced, whether by government or other agency, into doing things which go against the personal grain.
Although the subsequent enquiry may throw more light on all the factors contributing to the Selby crash, it already seems clear that it could not have happened had the roadside barrier been extended far enough back from where it crosses the railway line to take full account of the local topography. There are times when reliance on centrally prescribed standards may be insufficient — as well as being wasteful where they are unnecessary. Many such matters require local judgment — which in turn requires delegation of authority to responsible people on the spot.
Standing back from the scene of the crash, is it not faintly surprising that so many people find it worth their while to commute regularly between places so far apart as Newcastle and London? Such people are almost certainly employed for their intellectual prowess rather than as street-sweepers or lathe operators. So why do they need to transport their entire bodies at unsocial hours when the fruits of their labours could more often than not be communicated quickly and cheaply by the Internet? I wonder why teleworking is taking so long to get going in this country. It could have prevented serious loss of life and limb this morning.
It must be the individual's personal responsibility to learn whatever is conducive to satisfaction in his or her particular circumstances. Reliance on ordinary 'schooling' is not enough. Many of us feel that we have been educated as much in spite of our schooling as because of it. As long as compulsory education remains a political football, we must wonder whether it is intended only to make it easier for the politicians to kick us around.
Our common self-learned curriculum should place much greater emphasis on domestic science. As the name implies, the best place to learn domestic science is not in school, but in the home. We might then appreciate that home cooking can be both more appetising and far less costly than junk food, take-aways, or restaurant meals. Every one of us should be able to recognise good, wholesome, food and know how to cook and serve it up hygienically in palatable nourishing meals. We should know where food comes from and how it is grown and processed. We should learn which local merchants can be trusted to supply fresh (preferably locally grown) produce of good quality at a price that does justice to all concerned in its production and delivery. The practical benefits could include not only better nutrition but improved social life through the transfer of hospitality from the pub or restaurant to the home.
Never in history has there been so much dissemination of "news" via press, radio and television, with the same snappy sound bytes being repeated ad nauseam. Yet never in my lifetime has there been so little informed independent comment or so little understanding of the implications of any news item for the individual reader, listener or viewer. It seems that schools and colleges no longer attempt to educate students or encourage them to think for themselves, but rather indulge in vain attempts at vocational training for which they are ill equipped. Fortunately for those of us who are able to read, selective use of the Internet can furnish us with information about virtually anything in which we are interested, and help us to see through the mouthings of the political spin doctors.
Once individuals have learned to speak, read, write, and do simple arithmetic, (i.e. to communicate with one another) much of their further education could be conducted cheaply and efficiently in the home through the medium of the internet allied to radio and television. Expenditure on educational bureaucracies and real estate could fall dramatically whilst permitting much greater diversity in the interests and mental accomplishments of the population at large.
The Internet has immense potential for improving the conditions of human life by compensating for the short-comings of our education system and enabling us not only to take an intelligent interest in what "they" are trying to do to us, but in resisting it when it is unwelcome.
The following are some of the areas in which use of the Internet can help us.