It will come as no surprise to my readers to hear that an elderly man, long past his working life, must find himself almost every day filling in time idly, watching this or that on TV, reading this or that on his computer, in short, just passing the time of day.
I’ve just completed three or four hours of such idleness, and it has occurred to me you might be interested in what has just passed by me as I have watched. Three programmes, my window on the world:
Fishing off Sierra Leone: I stumbled upon an AlJazeera programme about trawler fishing that is denuding the oceans off the coast of Sierra Leone, a small, poverty-stricken nation in West Africa that is powerless to stop illegal fishing in its waters. The particular object of attention were some trawlers, rusty old crates from China, that stayed close together so that they could operate a huge net held between them, a net that not only catches the tuna they are looking for, but every other sea creature as well, leaving them with a haul of between 60 and 100 tonnes of fish a day that are dead on arrival, and simply thrown back into the seas every day. This two-trawler fishing is illegal, but the tiny country does not have the infrastructure, the trained personnel or the muscle to effectively oppose this disastrous mining of the sea floor.
I know the same sort of thing is happening in the Pacific: s young man of my acquaintance, a Croatian who has passed his master’s certificates and who periodically flies off to Ecuador, where he takes charge of a trawler that, to find fish that once were available along the South American coastline, now has to sally out 1,000 miles into the broad Pacific before they can start trawling the ocean floor with any hope of obtaining the catch they seek. His trawler has a quota they have to fulfil: as soon as they have their fill, they return to port, but, like their counterparts in the Atlantic, they too throw away tonnes and tonnes of creatures that have died in the course of their fishing operation. This young sea captain frankly admits that, so long as his company and others like them continue to fish as they are doing, no fish will be left in the sea within ten years.
To watch this programme, to observe the unequal power between the governing authority, so perilously operating out of Sierra Leone, and the all-powerful ships sailing beyond the reach of the regulators, is to understand the huge change needed in public opinion unless we are to succeed in what seems to be our human objective at the moment: to denude the oceans of all life.
Rendition revisited: As a result of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the precipitate declaration by George W. Bush of a “war on terror” has given rise to events that have immesurably increased the use of terror as a political weapon, and immensely decreased the sense of security of the average citizen everywhere. One programme I pre-recorded in advance, and that I watched this morning, was called “rendition revisited,” and it was, like the Sierra Leone fishing programme, of such gravity and terror as to make one almost despair of the human condition.
One man, introduced at an early stage, was arrested wrongfully, mistaken for someone else they were really looking for. He was bustled into a car, blindfolded, and flown to some unknown destination where he was locked in a room and brutally tortured, the assumption being that he had information that would be of value in helping the United States fight the threat of terror around the world.
This man was entirely innocent of any crime: he spoke of how at an early stage of the investigation he gave up all hope. Even now, years after these events, he is still suffering such severe trauma that he cannot describe his experiences, but has allowed his wife to speak for him. It eventually became clear that they had the wrong man, but it took them four months to release him, which they finally did by driving him to Albania, where they released him on a forest road, gave him his clothes, and told him to keep walking. Since then, the man has apparently received an apology from the nation of Macedonia for their part in his detention, but he has never received an apology from the United States.
The film was made by Sarah Spiller, Callum Macrae and Mark Williams. They outlined how a group of citizens in the small North Carolina town of Smithfield discovered their airfield was being used for all sorts of mysterious purposes. They eventually compiled an exhaustive report about the community’s complicity in the crime of torture, and their film shows a revealing attempt by the filmmakers to get the board of county commissioners to comment on the local involvement. Their efforts brought no response whatsoever: they tried to talk to a man who had been listed as part of the management of Aero Contractors, the local company used in these rendition flights around the world of people picked up and subject to torture. But all that happened is that they called the police to warn the film-makers off. Apparently a huge 6,000-word report has been compiled, redacted, and held in secret ever since by the relevant department of the United States government.
These are not facts that fill me with hope for the future of mankind. The third film I want to mention holds out some more --- but not very much --- hope for the future.
Our planet: the first two of an eight-part series by the BBC’s remarkable old (92 years) naturalist, David Attenborough, about the exact nature of our planet, and the perilous shape it is in because of the immense changes brought about in the span of one human life, namely, our most recent half-century or so. I have long been an admirer of the BBC’s Unit stationed in Bristol, which takes care of that corporation’s nature photography. And this film is chockerblock full of magnificent photography, revealing species diversity in all its wonder.
The series, frankly designed to alarm, to delight and amaze as many people as possible in an effort to somehow call a halt to the destruction under way of our planet and its glories, opens with a shot that one can only call mind-blowing of millions of sea-birds, gathered on the coast of Peru where they have arrived from all over the world with the intention of breeding. The shot extends as far as the camera lens can see, and one is simply staggered to discover just from this one shot how vibrant is this aspect of life, carrying itself on without human interference, help or hindrance.
Next, the birds rise from the ground and sally forth across the coastal waters, where they begin dive-bombing into the sea because, Attenborough says, they are looking for -----“anchovies!” While the birds feed gloriously from the surface, thousands of porpoises, also gathered at this precise time of year to take advantage of the huge schools of tiny sea creatures which lie at the bottom of the food chain, swoop and dive claiming their own part of the feast on offer.
Next, not all the earth is so productive, Attenborough says, showing the dry wastes of the deserts, wastes very occasionally enlivened by huge thunderstorms bringing torrents of rain that flood huge areas of land into which --- responding to signals that are unknown to man, flamingos fly from hundreds of kilometres, into the flooded desert, where their intention is to breed. By the time their eggs are hatched, the waters have disappeared, and the tiny hatchlings, shepherded by their adult birds, set out on a perilous march across the pitiless heat of the desert in search of water. One little fellow falls behind, his legs encrusted with thick deposits of salt that eventually brings his march to a pitiful end…
On Mr Attenborough’s camera marches, introducing us to the cold Arctic and Antarctic wastes, habitually covered in snow and ice, giving rise to effects of climate that reach into every corner of the globe. A shot of Greenland, an area a fifth the size of the United States, always covered in ice; and then of the Antarctic, apparently dead during the coldest months, that, as some warmth creeps back into the atmosphere with the changing seasons, suddenly comes to life, all life depending on the tiny krill that have been brought up from the ocean bottom by the warmth and the huge ocean storms that buffet the seas immediately north of the Antarctic land mass. These are the world’s most stormy seas, remasrks Attenborough, as I know freom having been raised fairly close by. Suddenly the newly exposed continent is swarming with thousands of penguins, the ocean is full of giant whales --- almost every humpback whale visits the cold Antarctic waters at this time --- and walrus, in trouble because of the constant reduction in the sea ice they depend upon, become desperate to scale the cliffs as they search for their customary but disappearing calving grounds: remarkable shots of these huge, lumbering creatures, losing their grip on the cliffs and tumbling head over heels to their death below.
And so, back north to the caribou herds, constantly diminishing in size because of our human interference in their habitat. The constant search for the caribou by the packs of wolves, nature once again finding its balance upset by human interference.
Along with the glories of nature, a relentless catalogue of our effects: 40 per cent of sea ice less in the Arctic; 60 per cent of species already extinct; we have 20 years to change course.
Enough of this, at least for now: I am sure I will return to this subject in coming days , as I go deeper into the Attenborough series, which is of a quality as makes one think every child on earth should see it.