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Busy doing nothing

14 October 2016


AS I write this, the news is all about internet trolls and new legal powers to curb derogatory hash­tags. It has all the hallmarks of “Something must be done” legislation: recent stories of online bully­ing have provoked a media furore, and somebody in Government has decided that this is a great opportunity to act decisively. This is not to say that the issue of cyber-bullying is to be taken lightly: only that it may not be something that the law is good at dealing with.

This, at least, might be the view taken by Professor Stephen Barber, who presented us with a provocat­ive alternative: The Case for Doing Nothing (Radio 4, Saturday). He began his argument at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the classic case-study in knee-jerk legisla­tion: the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, passed in the wake of incid­ents in which children had been mauled by pit-bulls.

Arguably the poll tax, and our interventions in Iraq and Libya, are the result of a similar mentality among politicians who need to justify their existence.

Professor Barber had eminent people prepared to support his thesis, Margaret Hodge and Peter Lilley among them. The latter even gave his name to a form of decision-making in government, whereby the consequences of doing nothing were weighed along­­side all proactive options.

It is all very well for them to take the laissez-faire approach, how­ever; they don’t have to face John Humphrys at silly o’clock in the morning. And, what’s more, if you are minded to regard the entire governmental system as in need of overhaul, then the case for doing nothing is the perfect expression of Establishment complacency. You don’t go into politics to do noth­ing; that is why politicians want to look busy. But, by the same token, if you don’t think that anything needs to be done, you shouldn’t go into politics.

The question whether govern­ments should or should not do things is one on which the Green movement will be reflecting as its flagship journal Resurgence reaches its 50th birthday. The occasion was marked by Costing the Earth (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), but the presenter, Tom Heap, promised to be the sceptical party-pooper at the magazine’s birthday celebration.

The magazine’s editor, Satish Kumar, de­­clared the core prin­ciples of the publication: that small is beautiful; and that his ambition for Resur­gence was to promote peace with nature, with people, and with oneself.

It is generally held by the Green movement, however, that peace with nature is achieved only through a government big enough to curb global corporations and our own excesses. The politics of environmentalism, many on this programme admitted, are too nar­row and doctrinaire; and when they are wedded to a form of spirituality that sanctifies nature, ideology takes over.

A former director of Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper, argued here that Resurgence was a philo­sophical, not an ideological, hub. By contrast, a regular contributor, Vandana Shiva, declared that if the soil is sacred, then treating it with pesticides is a sin. But what if the soil is not sacred — are we allowed to do what we like?

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