Europe Bike Trip – Part 7 – Langsur, Germany to Gravelines, France

Today’s ride took us straight over the border into Luxembourg, across that small Duchy (passing it on the left-hand side), and on into Belgium. I have always had an unfair view of Belgium as merely a through-road to other countries, and as we had decided to take the opportunity to visit Brugges as part of this trip (on other peoples’ recommendation), I was looking forward to changing my opinion. Brugges was indeed a nice city and looks like it is defintely worth a longer visit, but there’s something about Belgium that doesn’t really appeal. It has probably been the brunt of several unfair jokes, and the spoof 1989 Comic Relief Nosenight, which featured Lord Halesham repeating "The Belgians" as the answer to several questions, didn’t really help.

Having left Brugges, we headed back over the border into France and onto Dunkirk, where we had a disagreement about where we wanted to stay this evening. Chris wanted to go back into Belgium, and I wanted to stay in France, rather than go back on the route. I’m always happier (rightly or wrongly) to be able to speak the local language of somewhere I want to stay, and my Dutch is pretty limited, so we went our separate ways for the final evening of our trip. I found a nice place to stay in a town called Gravelines, right on the coast and on the river Aa (clearly named for the dictionary), looking out onto lots of yachts. The evening started quite nice but turned rainy, so I stayed indoors for the evening and read.

Distance: 298 miles
Route: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=http:%2F%2Fwww.johnchivers.com%2Fkml%2F2010-09-14.kml&sll=47.958701,4.693685&sspn=10.685695,19.753418&ie=UTF8&z=7

Europe Bike Trip – Part 6 – Haslach, Germany to Langsur, Germany

Fearing the worst this morning, we got up to find that there were plenty of clouds around, everything was wet, and the temperature had dropped, but at least it wasn’t raining. We packed everything away quickly and got straight on the Autobahn, heading up through Germany past Ulm, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Kaiserslautern, and finally into Trier, the oldest city in Germany.

We initially popped across the border into Luxembourg, planning to stay there, but then hopped back across the border into Germany and stayed at what was probably the first available place to stay across the border, the Moselstuben in Langsur on the bank of the river Mosel. Run by an Italian family, it was quite a friendly place, but I managed to bash my head on a window while rather stupidly running up some stairs.

A couple of drinks and a nice Italian meal later and the pain had gone a way a little. Once I’d headed up to my room and was reading, I was a bit taken aback by a couple of local ‘air-raid style’ sirens going off. As a child of the 1970s/1980s, this was rather eerie and unsettling, and the rush of emergency vehicles that followed was a little unsettling, but as there were no emergency warnings on television, we could only assume it was a local emergency services warning. I was just back in the 1980s again for a short time.

Distance: 361 miles
Route: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=http:%2F%2Fwww.johnchivers.com%2Fkml%2F2010-09-13.kml&sll=47.958701,4.693685&sspn=10.685695,19.753418&ie=UTF8&z=7

Europe Bike Trip – Part 5 – Flims, Switzerland to Haslach, Germany

A spectacular day’s riding today, in perfect weather and through some of the finest scenery. We had a nice hotel breakfast and then headed off eastwards across Graubünden, stopping initially to do a quick tour around Davos (the highest town in Europe), where I came to work the winter season at the Kongress Hotel in late 1989/early 1990. I hadn’t been back since, and although much of the town and shops remain as they were 20 years ago, there has been a definite growth in the town and the number of shops and buildings in general has increased. It’s a very pretty town as towns go, situated in the heart of the largest ski resort in Switzerland, and hosts the World Economic Forum every year.

Once out of Davos, we headed up to the Flüela pass, which is a mountain pass, connecting Davos to Susch. At 2383m in altitude, it’s high above the tree line and is clearly an attraction for bikers of the area and further afield. We absolutely loved the road and had time allowed, we’d have probably turned back and ridden the road a couple more times.

Once down the other side of the Flüela pass, we headed towards the Austrian boarder, calling at Vulpera, where I worked the summer season of 1990 at the Schweizerhof hotel. We took the opportunity to grab a coffee and I had a long chat with the owner of the shop, whose own story was pretty incredible. He swam across the Danube in August, 1989 to escape the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), two months before the Wall came down. His father had been a Stasi officer and had informed on his own son for ‘crimes against the state’. He had been imprisoned there as an opponent of the regime. He was clearly happy to be able to talk to someone about the GDR and said that he had never returned since fleeing and settling down to start a family in Switzerland. It sounded like he didn’t really want to see how the place had changed since then and wanted to remember it for how it was – despite all that had happened to him. It struck me that despite all the negative experience that he had, he didn’t want to see the place he grew up transformed beyond his own recognition.

For the remainder of the day, we rode across the border into Austria, across Austria in Germany and then found a campsite in Haslach, Bavaria, where we spent a rainy night under canvas… well, nylon actually.

Distance: 193 miles
Route: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=http:%2F%2Fwww.johnchivers.com%2Fkml%2F2010-09-12.kml&sll=47.958701,4.693685&sspn=10.685695,19.753418&ie=UTF8&z=7

Europe Bike Trip – Part 4 – Vevey, Switzerland to Flims, Switzerland

Switzerland is a country I like very much. I like and admire the way it is run, from its political system, which is arguably the most democratic in Europe, to its beautiful landscape, its excellent transport network, and of course its people. I had the pleasure of working in Switzerland for three hotel seasons (just under a year) in the early 1990s and I was keen to get back and revisit the three places I had worked at the time (my initial reason for doing the trip) to see how they had changed.

We started today by heading west along the lake to Geneva, where we had a couple of coffees and I managed to acquire an accessory to attach the camera I have to my bike helmet (I had left my own at home and had to resort to gaffa tape to record some of our earlier journey). Following this excursion into Geneva, we headed back along lake Geneva and then took the motorway across Switzerland, around Fribourg, Bern, a short diversion through the centre of Luzern (or Lucerne), and then on to the canton of Graubünden (or Grisons, to give it its English name), which is where I was based during my three seasons working in hotels. Our first point of call was the Sunstar Hotel Surserlva in Flims-Dorf, which is where I worked in the summer season of 1992, between my second and third years at university.

The hotel is set in a beautiful location and is a four star hotel. I had called earlier in the day to book our rooms and told them I had worked there 18 years ago. Word got around the staff and by the time we arrived, I was constantly asked if I knew someone called Lenny. I’d never heard of Lenny, but everyone seemed to think that he’d been there since 1990. It became a bit of a running joke that members of staff would ask if I knew Lenny. I didn’t know any of the staff who work there now. The guy who was on reception when we arrived made me feel old by saying that he wasn’t even born when I had worked there. Great!

Chris’  leg has been playing up a bit – don’t know whether it’s cramp or what, but he suggested that we go the whole hog and have an evening meal at the hotel rather than go out to find somewhere cheaper to eat. We had a wonderful four course dinner, but didn’t feel bloated afterwards, as the portions were just right. Had a little altercation after the meal, based around meeting up to plan the ongoing route. Wasn’t pleasant at first, but these things are bound to happen, and we resolved it and went to the bar to sort out the route over a couple of drinks.

Distance: 332 miles
Route: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=http:%2F%2Fwww.johnchivers.com%2Fkml%2F2010-09-11.kml&sll=47.958701,4.693685&sspn=10.685695,19.753418&ie=UTF8&z=7

Europe Bike Trip – Part 3 – Les Adrets de l’Estérel l’Eglise, France to Vevey, Switzerland

It was Chris’ wish to visit Monaco as part of our bike trip, and so, having packed away our muddy tents this morning, we headed off along some nice twisty roads around the campsite we stayed at last night. After a few minutes we rejoined the A8 and continued down to Nice, where we stopped for a coffee, We then headed straight for Monaco, intending to go around the streets which comprise the Formula 1 race track. In the event, neither Chris nor I were familiar enough with the layout of the city to successfully do this, other than the famous tunnel part of the track, which we went through a couple of times.

My impression of Monaco remains as it was the last time I went. It’s a crowded but interesting place, a model of organised chaos, and quite simply a place where people go to look at rich people. Beyond that, I can’t say that it did much for me, and Chris had the same opinion. Having spent a good hour or so riding around the traffic chaos and puzzle that is Monte Carlo, we rejoined the A8 and continued into Italy, initially heading east along the coast on the A10 and then northwest/north on the A6, around Turin, and then further north on the A5 into the Alps.

We took the Gran St Bernardo tunnel across the border into Switzerland, stopping off to buy the ‘vignette’ required to drive on the Swiss motorway network, and then continued through Martigny and on up to Vevey, on Lake Geneva, arriving just as the sun set magnificently over the lake. I had suggested a campsite I stayed at back in 1993, when I had last come to Vevey – La Pichette, set right next to the lake. We ended up hanging around for an hour for the owner of the site to turn up. He did eventually, and we were able to set-up, albeit in the dark, and not right next to the lake, as I had remembered it.

Distance: 371 miles
Route: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=http:%2F%2Fwww.johnchivers.com%2Fkml%2F2010-09-10.kml&sll=47.958701,4.693685&sspn=10.685695,19.753418&ie=UTF8&z=7

Europe Bike Trip – Part 2 – Chaumont, France to Les Adrets de l’Estérel l’Eglise, France

After a hearty continental breakfast in a restaurant full of some kind of French senior citizens’ coach outing, we hit the road again at 08:20. The weather was much improved – cloudy but at least there was no rain, and we got back on route towards our destination, intended to be somewhere around Nice. Heading off, we passed through from the the Champagne area into the Rhone-Alps region and then into the South of France, marked by the transition in the types of trees growing and the style of buildings.

By mid afternoon, we were very much in the south and the weather was much improved. The French autoroutes system served us well and we were 32 miles outside Nice when the black clouds loomed again. I had checked the weather forecast in the morning and heavy thuderstorms were predicted for the Cote d’Azur, so we sought out the nearest campsite from our trusty Garmin Zumo 550 satnavs, and headed straight there – a campsite in the picturesque village of Les Adrets de l’Estérel l’Eglise. Unfortunately, we were just too late, and as we were just about to set up our tents, the heavens opened… big time. The camping area we had been shown was on a raised bank in the trees – quite a nice spot, but by the time the storm had passed, the ground was soaking wet, and the tents were soaked through and muddy. Fortunately, as the ground was so warm, it didn’t take too long for the ground to dry off fairly significantly, and, as I had literally held my tent above me off the ground to keep my bike clothing dry, I faired reasonably well, even if my tent didn’t.

Having set everything up, Chris headed down to the small campsite restaurant for a drink. I joined him a bit later, once the remaining bits of rain had passed, and we both had a pizza for our evening meal and a couple of beers.

Distance: 472 miles
Route: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=http:%2F%2Fwww.johnchivers.com%2Fkml%2F2010-09-09.kml&sll=47.958701,4.693685&sspn=10.685695,19.753418&ie=UTF8&z=7

Europe Bike Trip – Part 1 – Home to Chaumont, France

I set off at 05:21 on from home, meeting with Chris just off junction 3 of the M6, who told me that the police had already pulled him over (clearly out of boredom) on his way from Birmingham. When they asked where he was going and got the reply "Monaco", they were probably a little taken aback, but sent him on his way, and so we headed down to Dover, picking up a nice bit of heavy rain just as we got into Kent, which meant that our rain ‘resistent’ bike gear was already wet when we boarded the ferry at Dover.

A short hop over the channel and a cooked breakfast later and we were in Calais… and it was still raining… heavily. We continued heading southwards; our plan had been to get somewhere between Dijon and Lyon by the end of the today’s riding, and we took the autoroute (and toll) option to get as far south as quickly as possible, but we had constant driving rain all day and were completely wet through, so, at 17:39, we decided that we’d had enough and sought out a local hotel, Le Grand Val, in the nearby town of Chaumont and managed to get the last available twin room. Putting our bike gear next to the radiators to dry we went to the hotel’s Wild West themed restaurant for our dinner and a couple of drinks. After the day’s riding and weather, we were both pretty exhausted after dinner and so we turned in.

Distance: 521 miles
Route: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=http:%2F%2Fwww.johnchivers.com%2Fkml%2F2010-09-08.kml&sll=47.958701,4.693685&sspn=10.685695,19.753418&ie=UTF8&z=7

The Big Question

I’ve used the word God frequently as a proper noun in the context of this entry. It is merely an English convention. To deliberately write God with a lower case ‘g’ to make a point would be churlish.

My wife and I have three children. We have had all three children Christened. I have stood in front of a Church Of England congregation and promised to raise my children in a Christian upbringing. And yet, I am an atheist. How can I square the two things?

The short answer is that I can’t.

I have adopted the term ‘cultural Christian’ to describe myself, although credit for this term goes to Richard Dawkins and I believe that he in turn attributes it to someone before him. This means (in my case) that I have, by chance, grown up in a country which has a Christian tradition and in a Christian family. My father was a Church of England vicar, so as it was I had little choice in the matter.

I am not complaining about this. I had what would be considered by most inhabitants of this planet a wonderful upbringing. I had loving parents and a stable family life, along with my brothers. My younger brother and I attended church religiously (pun intended). My older brother inexplicably managed to get out of going to church – I still haven’t established how. I joined the Cub Scouts, Scouts, and then Venture Scouts – at the time, unashamedly linked to the Church of England. We lived in a beautiful village and we had good family friends, thanks entirely to the church congregation. In short, we had a strong community.

Being a standard Church of England congregation of the 1970s/1980s, the atmosphere was one of what I would call ‘subtle worship’. I have no doubt that the adult members of the congregation were sincere believers, but a big constituent part of church life was the social, or community aspect – certainly, there were no charismatics in the congregation, no speaking in tongues or writhing on the floor, and, so far as I’m aware, my father wasn’t involved in performing any exorcisms, so the real spiritual elements were pretty low key – typical C of E some would say.

When our first daughter was born, we had her baptised. Had you asked me at the time, I would have said without hesitation I was a believing, albeit non church-attending Christian. When our second daughter was born, my doubts about my indoctrination were growing, and my discussions with the vicar who baptised her were less than fruitful. He could not answer any basic questions I had to my satisfaction, replying with the vague answers you get from many believers who are unwilling to or fearful of questioning their faith. According to him, everything eventually came down to a matter of faith or couldn’t be judged by human standards.

Consequently, I was a little unhappy about standing in front of a congregation and affirming that I would raise my child as a Christian. In one sense, unsure of my faith, I didn’t want to be a hypocrite; on the other hand, I didn’t want to upset the real people in my life – my wider family, for whom a baptism was an important event in a child’s life. To deny her a baptism would merely have upset them, would have been selfish, and would have made the girls wonder why one had been treated differently from the other. In the end, I told the vicar that since modern ‘pick and choose’ Christianity has largely adopted the key tenets of the Enlightenment (ok, those weren’t my exact words), and that a modern Christian upbringing shared a common humanitarian view of treating others the way you would like to be treated, I was happy to commit to such an upbringing. When I say ‘pick and choose Christianity’, let’s face it, many Christians eat shellfish and many priests shave their beards, both biblically forbidden, unless of course you do as many Christians do and look slightly embarrassed when somebody mentions the Old Testament – "Oh that was for back then. God changed his mind when Jesus came along."

We were blessed, sorry, we welcomed a third child into our lives a couple of years ago – this time, a little boy. By this time, I had become an atheist. I had read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and finally, someone agreed with all the thoughts I had come to independently and pointed out other things I had missed, and I often muttered in agreement while reading the book.

The thorny issue of baptism came about again. This time, however, the chance for my two siblings to have their children baptised at the same time in the church we had attended as children, and with all our childhood family friends around, seemed like a nice thought. Our son would be the same as our girls, my wife’s family in particular would be happy, and I was quite happy to metaphorically cross my fingers (bad choice of expression given the context, I know), since I no longer felt like I might be upsetting the ‘man upstairs’ – this time it was a victimless crime.

None of this negates for me the cultural significance of the event. Culturally, I am a white, middle class, English, protestant. It’s what we do in England when kids are born, much to the frustration of the hardcore religionists. Nor does it detract from my gratitude towards the role of the Godparents in all this, some of whom I know are sincere believers.

I am entirely happy for my children to learn about Christianity in particular where it relates historically to their heritage, which it does of course in the context of English, British, and European history. I may be less happy that they are forced to spend valuable learning time studying other belief systems, in a veiled, or rather increasingly open attempt to thrust multiculturalism on children. We do not have to believe or respect the beliefs of others; tolerance is all that is required. I am happy for anyone to tell my children the Bible stories. I would just hope and expect my children to ask some pretty pertinent questions, having heard the stories, and not to accept answers along the lines of "that’s just the way it is".

As for the tenets of the modern strand of Christianity called Anglicanism, so long as it increasingly evolves (oops!) to keep pace with modern society and the basic humanitarian principles of morality (yes, atheists can have a moral code), I have no problems with its followers. However, they may like to consider whether they are adhering fully to their holy book, or just creating a pick’n’mix version of those aspects they like or are socially acceptable in a modern, liberal democracy.

As outlined above, I happen to have been born in a country in Christian western Europe. It is an accident of birth that I was born here and consequently raised in a predominantly Christian society. Had I been born in India, I may have been brought up to worship Ganesh; in large parts of the Middle East, I would probably be a Muslim, in China I may have worshipped my ancestors. People in each of these places have an absolutely firm conviction in their own faiths, just as strong, if not more strong than the beliefs of many Christians. One need only consider the large number of Muslim martyrs who have been prepared to die for their faith in recent times. This alone would suggest that the Muslim martyrs are pretty convinced that they are the followers of the true faith.

Religions all around the world have their own tales of supernatural events, many religions have glossolalia (speaking in tongues), the concept of the virgin birth exists in religions which predate Christianity, as does resurrection. The god Mithras is said to have lived a life remarkably similar to that of Jesus. In short, there are worshippers of all religions who have faiths at least as strong as those of most Christians. And yet Christ clearly states that the only way to God is through him. So what of all the other believers of other religions? Are they all condemned? Even the nice ones, who are genuinely concerned for the welfare of others? As a true Christian, the only answer is yes (and most hardcore Christians I have spoken too – arguably the real Christians – believe that to be the case). Other Christians (the liberal Christians) will say that all religions worship the same God, but they are clearly not reading their own holy book properly if that’s what they believe. Yes, I have read the New Testament – three times in fact – twice in English and once in German* (it was a way of killing time when I was working in Switzerland).

If there were a God (and I think I’ve made it pretty clear now that I don’t believe that there is), then he must be either cruel or not omnipotent. If he is prepared to condemn someone because of an accident of where they were born, he is pretty twisted.

In all this, I am of course judging this deity by human values, but that is all I have by which to judge him – and yes, I know that Christians say that you can’t judge God by human values, but I’m sorry – that is all I have to go on. Values of tolerance, fairness, and love of one’s neighbour are values which are present in most religions anyway (and humanism, of course). If God isn’t working on the same set of values, then we can all, believers and non-believers alike, forget everything right now, because on that basis he is likely to be as temperamental as the flawed ancient Greek gods were, and subject to the same tantrums, in which case "we’re doomed"!

The human brain is an complex organ. We are capable of amazing things through our own thoughts and we can be fooled easily by NLP and environmental factors. Science has already proven that visions and paranormal experiences can be induced under laboratory conditions. Subsonic sound in Coventry’s medieval cellars has caused many people to see apparitions there. Coventry University’s Vic Tandy did extensive research into such phenomena. I have my own personal experience of paranormal phenomena, but just because such things can’t be easily explained, doesn’t mean that they are of the spiritual world. Hearing voices from God is no guarantee that God is talking to you. Indeed, many people who have ‘heard voices’ have gone on to perpetrate some of the worst crimes in history. In my opinion, any paranormal phenomena is likely to be (in order of likelihood, based on our current knowledge)…

1. Caused by natural phenomena, but ‘misread’ as being supernatural.
2. Imagined by ourselves, e.g. in the way our brain will always try to see faces in random patterns where they are to be seen.
3. Where people see visions, there are theories about the Earth’s magnetic field acting like a recording device, and then being able to replay historic events at future times. Given the fact that recording of video onto magnetic tape would have seemed like sorcery a couple of hundred years ago, there may be something in this.
4. Triggered unwittingly by our own brains (we’re in the realms of paranormal now, but why not consider the power of our own minds to act on the physical world before we jump to spiritual conclusions?)
5. Spiritual.

The final concept in traditional religion with which I have a problem is the act of worship. Look, if you believe in an omnipotent deity, then you must accept that he already knows how good he is and how merciful (given that the world still exists). You don’t need to tell him! Monty Python made this point very pointedly and brilliantly in their Meaning Of Life film during the scene in the school chapel (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e47huylg4Uo). In fact, if I were God and people spent their time in a building telling me how great I was rather than helping the needy, I’d be pretty peeved!

"I’ve put you on this planet to make a difference, and what do you do? Come and tell me how great I am! Bleedin’ time-wasters!"

People have their own reasons for believing in God. Some take comfort in belief; others fear what might happen if they don’t believe; some don’t want to believe that they are just born, they live, and they die, and that there is no afterlife.

To many believers, they feel nothing but sorrow for atheists. Others are more violent about those who don’t comply (witness those who die for apostasy in parts of the world).

To those who would feel sorry (or even wish to pray for me), please don’t. I kind of figured out what happens when I die, and based on my past experience, I reckon it’s pretty similar to pre-birth – an experience which, as far as I can recall, was not so bad. This belief, which is based on what we know of the world, merely makes me appreciate this life all the more, and care about my fellow members of the human race (of all races and creeds). I will not be looking forward to an afterlife at the expense of appreciating the true scientific miracle of my existence in this life. Because I value this life, I won’t be longing to drag me and my fellow humans into the next life. This is our one shot, so we’d better give it our best!

Finally, Richard Dawkins recommended that the recent atheist bus campaign use the slogan "THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE." The words were chosen carefully, Some atheists objected to the word ‘probably’, and some religionists laughed at the uncertainty of it, but as Dawkins pointed out, to rule out the possibility of the existence of a god is as irresponsible and invalid taking the position that there definitely is a god. We can’t disprove the existence of God – it’s all a matter of probability.

*My father actually went to the trouble of learning ancient Greek in order to read the bible in a more authentic version, and even he was able to find mistranslations or cultural differences in the meaning of some words.

The General Election – More than a three horse race

I am absolutely disgusted with how opposition to the increasing undemocratic European Union institutions is treated. As a former pro-EU person, I longed for reform (i.e. democratisation) of the European Union when it comprised 12 members. Reform was promised over 20 years ago. It never came to pass, and with the blatant ignoring of the Irish, Dutch, and French referenda, it never will.

All three major political parties in the current General Election campaign have a pro-EU stance. There is no mainstream opposition.

What particularly worries me is that the Liberal Democrats look like they have achieved momentum through the recent leaders’ debates. But on what basis? Because they aren’t either of the main two parties and because that nice Nick Clegg bloke seems like a decent chap. They are a committed pro EU party and yet I really can’t see how that can square their stance with the undemocratic nature of the EU. The one consolation is that they have opined that if they held power, they would seek a referendum to resolve the question of EU membership once and for all – an ‘in or out’ referendum. However, as the most blatantly pro-EU party, I could imagine that they would forget this pretty quickly, or, if they were to hold it and the ‘out’ vote prevailed, they would sweep it under the carpet as the referenda on the Lisbon Treaty in France, The Netherlands and Ireland were.

We hear nothing from parties which oppose the European Union as a political institution, because they have been largely ignored by the media, and yet UKIP came second in the 2009 European elections (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8088343.stm). There are several parties which oppose the now derailed and outdated European Union project of all political persuasions (left and right wing), but don’t be fooled into thinking that they are all lunatic fringe parties.

If you really want to know which policies parties have then please, please, please read their policy documents or manifestos. Don’t complain that you don’t know what they stand for – find out! This page is a good start: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8515961.stm#subject=key&col1=green&col2=ukip&col3=englishdemocrats

Please don’t vote solely on the basis of the television debates, or because your local candidate looks ‘a bit of alright’. This is not X Factor – it’s democracy and it matters.

My own fear (as someone who is interested in politics) is that the EU is and has been marching towards a benign (at the moment) dictatorship for some time – under the European Commission, it effectively already is. The class of politicians working for the EU would like to see the end of national governments within Europe and forge ahead with a European super state – that isn’t just anti-EU rhetoric – our national governments are all signed up to it and constantly ignore the popular votes when these have been held.

If you are unsure of how the EU works, please make the effort to find out. It has a massive effect on your life now, whether you like it or not.

The next few years are particularly important. Rest assured, as a Modern Languages graduate and someone who admires the diversity of European cultures, I am no xenophobe. If the EU showed any signs of true democratisation and actually implementing its policy of ‘subsidiarity’, I would have no problem supporting it. Unfortunately, it has shown itself to be arrogant, undemocratic, and quite sinister in the way it handles opposition.

Free trade is all well and good and multilateral cooperation on many things is also a great thing. Supra-national government with no democratic checks and balances is not. Please consider carefully for whom you vote. And remember – there is no such thing as a wasted vote. The more votes a party gets (even if it doesn’t win your constituency this election), the more it can be considered as a contender for future elections.

Earth Hour – how to cause more pollution

From the Earth Hour website:
“On Saturday 27 March 2010 at 8.30pm, we want a billion people around the world to switch off their lights for one hour – WWF’s Earth Hour. Show you care about climate change.”

Yes, I care about climate change, but I fail to see how this exercise will help. It can only do more harm than good. In encouraging people to turn off their lights en masse for one hour between 20:30 and 21:30, the WWF is going to cause a massive drop in electricity demand at 20:30 (in itself a big problem for electricity suppliers) and then conversely (or perversely, given the context) a massive surge in demand at 21:30. The surge in demand at 21:30 will mean that generators will have to be put back on line and this will require a huge and sudden expenditure of energy (e.g. burning more coal or gas) to do so. Utility companies have to plan for advert breaks in sporting events, which is normally the time when thousands of people go into the kitchen and turn on their kettles and water companies have a sudden surge in demand as thousands of toilets are flushed.

This is akin to the strange logic of turning central heating off to save energy. The house cools down and then when it needs to be warmed up again has to start from the base point of a cold house and therefore use more energy to restore it to the required temperature than would have been used, had the central heating just been turned down a little bit to maintain a slightly lower temperature. As an aside, this large cooling and reheating of houses is not good for a house or its contents (particularly electrical appliances and acoustic instruments), let alone the waste of energy involved.

If the WWF is intent on conducting this Earth Hour exercise, a more sensible approach would have been to encourage people to switch off appliances for an hour at some time in a given week, or even a month, which would stagger the impact on the utility companies and not create the crazy surge in demand (and consequently the pollution!) which Earth ‘Switch Everything Back On’ Minute will cause.

If we are really serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions relatively quickly, we have a clean and reliable source of energy, which has been in use for decades around the world. It’s called nuclear power. The French have bought into it in a big way, and to compare modern nuclear power stations with Chernobyl is not a valid comparison. Regarding nuclear waste… it can be buried safely deep underground in disused mines, where it can slowly decay without threatening anyone.

I’m all in favour of alternative energy – harnessing what nature provides us is clearly where we need to be headed (and many people are already fed up of me ranting about the potential I see in solar roads), but these alternative energy sources have to be viable. They need to provide a massive proportion if not all of our electricity needs. Solar roads seemingly have the potential to supply the world’s electricity needs many times over if adopted on a substantial basis, but even I must concede that they are not yet ready. So, in the meantime, the obvious choice of clean electricity generation is nuclear power.

Trying to reduce our electricity consumption is not viable. The world’s demand for electricity is going to go one way – up, whether we like it or not. There appear to be large number of people with strange masochistic tendencies who appear to be hoping for a return to the dark ages so that they can feel smug. This reminds me of the comment Jasper Carrot once made that the most annoying aspect of a nuclear war would be all the CND supporters who would inevitably walk around saying “I told you so” after that particular brand of Armageddon.

Rather than embracing the concept of blackouts, no central heating and none of their favourite electronic gizmos, people who are passionate about cleaning up the environment need to look for or at least get behind technological solutions. Reducing electricity consumption is best done through use of more efficient technologies (e.g. better batteries, insulation, better use of resources, and more efficient motors) rather than by a perverse (and unworkable) desire to send us back to the dark ages.

Still, many celebrities are behind the Earth Hour campaign and they must be right because… they, and not scientists, are the experts.