Sunday, 3 August 2008

"Unnatural", a new definition

It wasn't very long ago that everyone would snigger behind their newspaper when reading reports of an actor caught committing "unnatural" acts with a man in a public lavatory. Many careers were ruined, fortunately a few were saved such as that of John Gielgud who entertained us for decades after an unfortunate encounter in a public loo brought him before the magistrates. We all knew where we stood then, "unnatural" meant homosexual.

Times have changed and so have general attitudes. Those who like to dip their nib in the alternative inkwell are no longer considered perverted sinners by the law. Of course there are still many people with a genuine belief that homosexuality is unnatural and some of those believe the law should criminalise all or some homosexual activities. But the criminal law should not pander to minority opinions, it should reflect the standards of society in general (insofar as they can ever really be measured). Live and let live is a thoroughly unfashionable notion in these enlightened days of regulation, so-called equality and human rights; but it still prevails in much of the criminal law and long may that be the case. Do what you wish with your willy or labia, but only do it with a living creature if that creature freely consents.

One consequence of the relaxation of the laws relating to homosexual activity is that we have lost the previous meaning of "unnatural" acts. Indeed, were any newspaper today to describe George Michael's historical deeds in America as "unnatural" it would be inundated with letters and emails condemning its antediluvian attitude. Homosexuality is no longer "unnatural". Yet the word is still in the dictionary, it needs a new meaning.

As luck would have it, at almost the same time that George Michael's closet was opened, so was a new definition of "unnatural". Today it means "industrial". I will not linger on the question whether we need to find a new use for "industrial" because my concentration is all on "unnatural". And how convenient it is that I said concentration because that is the key to the new meaning of today's mot du jour. I mean, of course, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Being astute people, you might observe that no one has suggested CO2 to be anything other than a naturally occurring gas and you would be right. It is a very clever sleight of hand, you see, we can recognise CO2 as a natural product while implying that some CO2 is unnatural because of the way it is produced. Let me illustrate what I mean.

Whenever I breath out, from the shallow depth of lung remaining after a lifetime of smoking cigars and cigarettes, I produce a tiny little bit of CO2. It results from a process I cannot control. It is approved, ecologically sound, harmless, natural CO2. How do I know that it has all these qualities? Because St Al of Gore and the IPCC have not told me to stop the process. Whenever a peasant farmer in Eastern Europe burns logs to heat the family home in winter he produces a little bit of CO2. This is also approved and harmless because no embargo is planned by the great and good. The same applies to camp fires, vegetarian barbecues, flights by government ministers to international climate conferences and St Al's home. You see the way the process works, if it is not on the list of things we should not do it is natural.

We are told we must worry about the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. But we must not worry about any CO2 which is produced naturally, only about the unnatural bit. The oceans can pump it out by the giga-tonne but that's fine, carbonate rocks can deteriorate and release it but that's fine, animals and humans can exhale it but that's fine, humans can produce it in every manner known before the start of the industrial revolution but that's fine. They are all natural processes. What is left, and therefore what is unnatural, is human production of CO2 by industrial processes.

I find this a curious concept because I cannot understand how man's discovery of fire as something which benefits his existence is different in principle from his invention of the internal combustion engine. To my simple mind they are both the result of humans using their brains and their physical skills to make their lives more comfortable.

For all I know there was a time when all birds laid their eggs on the ground, as some still do, rather than building nests. Every living twig a bird takes to form its nest removes a little bit of CO2-absorbing material. That material can be replaced within a few weeks or months but in the meantime the bird has changed the CO2 balance. The great and good will tell us that that's fine because it is natural. But it wasn't natural in the days before it happened. I can picture the outrage of the crows at the sight of a cheeky little robin stealing twigs: "What on earth do you think you're doing? Lay your eggs on the ground like the rest of us, you are an unnatural pervert." Except that the crows would not have said that, they are far to sensible, they would have taken one look and said "thank you Mr Robin, what a terrific idea, we'll do that now."

We are told that CO2 from every source other than human industrial activity is natural whereas CO2 from such activity is "anthropogenic" or, in the tabloids, "man-made". To describe it as anthropogenic (or, indeed, man-made) is to state a truism because anthropogenic means man-made. It is the contrast with "natural" which catches my eye. Why call CO2 emitted by the oceans as "natural" rather than "emitted by the oceans"? The only reason can be to give it a quality to distinguish it from other sources of the gas and it follows that sources which are not described as "natural" must be "unnatural".

Since when has the seeking of physical comfort by human beings been unnatural?

Silly question.

Since the start of the industrial revolution. St Al tells us so.

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