Two big and inter-related issues have attracted the attention of the media this month – race and migration. The media reported accusations of racial discrimination in Yorkshire County Cricket Club by an international player, and we have all been horrified by the continuing deaths of unfortunate migrants trying to cross the English Channel.
To anyone who like me has spent a childhood in Yorkshire, the account of discriminatory behaviour rang true; Yorkshire folk were famously blunt and suspicious of anyone who did not share their accent. I quickly learnt to shorten my vowels and drop my H's. In those days, you had to be born in the county to play cricket for them, and this attitude survived the waves of immigration from the Commonwealth in the 1950s and 1960s, despite such people often including very talented cricketers. It was no more a surprise when the cricketer who made the accusation apologised for having himself, a Muslim, earlier expressed antisemitic views. And anyone who has spent time in India will be aware also of the Hindu caste system.
This suspicion of others not quite like ourselves, which at a more trivial level someone from Edinburgh may encounter in Glasgow or the English generally in urban Scotland, seems to be universal. But if there is a genetic element to it, associated with evolution and survival, it is plainly largely influenced by one's environment and upbringing. In an individual it is deplorable but when it becomes systemic, part of the local culture, it is toxic and leads to discrimination, on grounds of skin colour, religion, accent or appearance. This brings me to migration.
Genetic researchers tell us that we are all descended from a very few Africans, who would undoubtedly have had dark skins. Our distant ancestors migrated wherever the geography and climate allowed, evolving to survive in conditions as extreme as the hot dry Australian outback, the jungles of South America and New Guinea, and the frozen wastes of the Arctic. Those who settled in the milder climates between extremes, less pressed by the daily struggle to survive, invented agriculture and civilisation, competed for territory, and engaged in warfare to build empires.
For almost 300 years we have prospered from a falsely optimistic model of the economy, conquered many previously fatal diseases, and our population has increased to the extent that, without realising what we were doing, we have abused the Earth's natural resources and inadvertently changed our climate. Only now do we know what is in store.
Despite the best efforts of empires, neither of the last two world wars genuinely threatened the whole world, only coming close with the invention, but fortunately, to date, limited use of nuclear weapons. But in avoiding nuclear apocalypse, we have walked blindly into an equally worrying threat to civilisation, the destruction of the environment to which all plants and animals are adapted, an apocalypse which could take us back to where we started, a world inhabited only by micro-organisms and some aquatic plants.
To put it bluntly, animals and plants have a temperature range beyond which survival is impossible. For the currently dominant species, 50⁰C is the top limit and, as temperatures approach this, crops cannot be grown, farmed animals die, and humans migrate or die in situ. And when they migrate, they come into dispute with those whose lands they enter. We have grown familiar with this in a limited way but now raised temperature and lack of rainfall are behind much of the refugee crisis. Like other animals, humans are migrating north. Understandably, as they migrate their arrival is resented by those who are already struggling to survive, especially if there is a clash of religion, and warfare and further migration ensues.
As temperatures rise further, and we now know they will, this is going to be the greatest consequence for those humans in still habitable lands. Moreover, mankind is not adapted to living underwater. The evaporating water from hot lands and seas is falling in storms on temperate lands, and the rising sea level is eroding our coastlines so, as happened in the USA's greatest diaspora after New Orleans was flooded, internal migrations occur. Politics fails, governments and civil order collapse, the law becomes the law of the jungle. We have witnessed the beginnings of this recently in the USA. The medical advances and the social support we have become used to are no longer available as the financial and business sectors fail. The question, 'Could this happen?' has become 'When will it happen?' for, barring dramatic intervention, it is a logical consequence of the damage we are doing to the climate.
COP26 achieved agreement on some important issues and has raised hopes that we shall reduce the use of fossil fuels, but it is virtually certain that temperatures will exceed the rise of 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial levels advised at COP25, even with drastic action on reduction. We must therefore also prepare for what is to come, both by increasing our own resilience as an island nation and by international agreement on management of the inevitable progressive surge in migration by displaced people. A huge part of this is for us on average to accept a much lower standard of living so that money can be diverted to the countries most threatened in order to protect themselves and hold onto their populations. A very simple question I would ask is this; can we expect nationalism, which requires an enemy, to be replaced by patriotism which is a feeling of pride in our country?
We in the UK and Scotland are undoubtedly proud of our extraordinary historic and modern achievements and I sense a growing pride at our accomplishments in reducing our use of the fossil fuels we have been so dependant on. We have the technologies to build on this and become a world-leader in clean energy, but this is insufficient without the power to build alliances and to collaborate with other rich nations in supporting the poorer world and accommodating the refugees. It is surprising that the UK Government, which includes at least eight ministers who have benefitted remarkably from their families' migration to the UK, is so hostile and aggressive in its dealing with our natural allies. Our future alliances must be across artificial boundaries of nation and political ideology, and politicians must start thinking in this way, forming coalitions on climate and alleviation of migration.
What can you and I do to help this cause? We must all learn to make our own contributions, in the many ways I have written about previously. If there is one thing that we all should do, it is to think constantly on the effect that whatever we are doing has on our carbon footprints and try to minimise it.
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