In sorting out the clutter in the two rooms I call my studies, in preparation for the arrival of some Ukrainian refugees, I came across an aged photograph of my grandfather and his brother as six/seven-year-olds, both wearing the kilt. It must have been taken in the 1880s – it set off a train of thoughts.
I don't know about you, but increasingly I get the feeling that everything seems to be going wrong with the world. On second thoughts, maybe I do know a bit about you since you are taking the trouble to read this. By now, you have probably formed some opinion of what you are likely to get from me, so you must in general be tolerant, kindly, and possessed of rather old-fashioned views yourselves.
Indeed, I suspect you are the sort of people (I assume, optimistically, that there are more than one of you) who do not get your information from Facebook or Fox News and that some of you prefer The Scotsman
, The Herald
, and The Guardian
. Nice people, slow to become enraged and disinclined to write abusive letters to the editor.
If I am right, then many of you will share my suspicion that the world is going down the tubes. The only thing that whispers to me that it may not be is that my father used to say the same thing to me and his father to him, and they both endured world wars, economic crashes and pandemics, to see better times between. Perhaps this is only a cyclical phenomenon, as we are periodically flushed down the toilet only to emerge somewhat soiled into a glistening sea, before getting washed up on a sunny island, then… but I could pursue the metaphor too far if I start thinking of silly television programmes. Everyone knows what a cyclical phenomenon is, and unfortunately there is one part of what is happening that is certainly not cyclical.
In my line of work, we learnt to make a diagnosis, to try to understand the causes of disease, and to try to put things right. There was also an implication that our understanding of the causes of ill-health should lead us to be able to prevent the conditions in others. These logical steps apply well beyond medicine, most particularly in politics – identify the problem, seek out the causes, and apply the remedy, both curative and preventative.
In medicine, we have increasingly moved from folklore and superstition, through trial and error, to a combination of science with experience – don't be fooled into thinking that all of medicine is scientific, as we remain on a path to the ideal. But in politics we are still in the era of the mediaeval alchemists and necromancers, rather as medicine adhered to the ideas of Galen, conceived from animal dissections around 200CE up to and beyond the time of William Harvey in the 17th century.
The alchemists had ideas from which, sometimes, something good arose, but blood-letting, blistering and dosing with poisons like mercury did far more harm than good. Today's alchemists seem to me to be the similarly well-intentioned economists, to whose potions politicians are attracted. The necromancers are those more self-interested politicians who adhere to their fanciful ideology, ignoring the other one that predicts the opposite. And the dead whose bowels they consult – Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes, Hayek and their successors – look down and wonder what went wrong when everything they said concealed a grain of truth, but nothing covered the whole complexity of a planet overfull of competing tribes.
For this is where we are and this is why the four horsemen are riding towards us – inequity
and climate change
– the fundamental causes of the collapse of civilisation and the reason for the world refugee crisis.
This is what confronts our politicians, in Westminster and Holyrood, as in every capital city in the world. They see the symptoms – begging on the streets, rising prices, poor housing, early mortality at one extreme, and gross overindulgence, accelerating bonuses and salaries, yachts and tax-avoidance at the other – but shrink from admitting the causes. As Belloc put it: 'The hoary social curse gets hoarier and hoarier, and stinks a trifle worse than in the days of Queen Victoria…'. So now I'm back to my great grandfather's time, when his first serious job was to treat the poor cholera victims in the iron works in Kilwinning; things do indeed begin to look cyclical. Let's look quickly at the causes of this decay, which I think is what Belloc had in mind by using the word hoary
breeds envy and can lead to rioting and revolution, as the Russians know. But more insidious is the effect on the poorest as the profligate habits of the richest push up the prices that everyone has to pay. Think of housing. This system is built into politics and industry so long as pay rises are established in percentages. Two percent of £10,000 per annum may be a big help if inflation is low: two percent of £100,000 is an unnecessary extravagance for a company.
How much better to divide the total pay rise for the organisation by the number of employees and give everyone an equal slice of the cake? The same with bonuses: why not decide, when a company is profitable, that everyone who contributed to this gets an equal share? Levelling up requires more than fine words and trips to factories and hospitals pretending to be compassionate. And, of course, inequity between nations leads to migration and conflict.
is the ultimate consequence of dispute between nations, over land, resources or indeed the rather arbitrary concept of nationality. We've had a bit of that in Scotland over the centuries and it seems we are heading in the same direction again – what fun! Just look how happy Brexit has made us all, how many intractable problems it has solved.
War is both provoked and prevented by politicians, and diplomats are necessary to resolve disputes. Sometimes an extreme and ruthless psychopath is permitted or encouraged to take control. Those such as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Putin can only be defeated by force or their own mortality. Their own people suffer and die, and so do those whom they would conquer. As many as possible flee, to join the migrating diaspora.
, or what we now call epidemic or pandemic disease, is simply another example of Darwinian conflict between one species and another. It is caused by spread between people as we move and congregate, and pandemics are spread by migration – by mass movement, be it benign as the wealthy move to ski in winter or to sunbathe in summer, or malign, as people flee from fire, flood, drought or warfare.
We are currently facing no fewer than three epidemics: Covid-19, monkeypox, and among another species, bird influenza. The last of these has not yet infected many people but has the ability to do so and to hybridise with human influenza to cause another pandemic, so if you see dead birds lying on the beach, don't handle them.
is now familiar to all of us, with accounts of heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, crop failures, floods and coastal erosion. We know why it is happening and we know that it will get worse, even if we achieve net zero. We know how to slow it down and eventually stop it, but many are reluctant to take the necessary steps, so the consequences are either death or migration for increasing numbers of people. Climate-related migration causes increasing inequity, warfare and spread of disease – the four horsemen are here, and they always gallop together.
I have been banging on about this for the best part of 20 years, hoping that people would listen to what the science was telling us. The Ukrainian war has brought the fragility of our system of existence into sharp focus. We Europeans are not only interdependent but also dependent on the rest of the world, for food and for energy, for disposal of our waste and manufacture of our cheaper commodities. As an especially fortunate area so far in climate terms, we northern Europeans will increasingly be a favoured place for migrants. This is what politicians must grasp: to deal with migration and food and energy security, we need close collaboration with our near neighbours, not separation from them. The alternative is tribalism and tribal warfare.
I'm afraid climate change is not cyclical – it looks to becoming exponential in its effects. It is not yet too late to halt it, but we need an inspirational government and a leader who grasps the urgency and is not afraid to tell those who do not understand these matters that life on Earth is changing, and we need to adapt to that change. The refugees whom we are waiting to accommodate are a tiny symptom of a massive problem, but every individual must play a part in combatting climate change if our society is to survive.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own