Thumbs Out

Yesterday (at time of writing) I went hitchhiking for the first time, for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that covering around 100 miles in the back seats of strangers’ cars was both a surprisingly fun and eye-opening experience, and one that has made me far more inclined to pick up a hitchhiker in future. And so, in recognition of this event and in solidarity of those with outstretched thumbs across the land, I thought I’d dedicate a post to this strangest and most inventive of transport solutions.

Hitchhiking is an American invention, and when one considers the the very nature of hitchhiking in a historical context it becomes easier to see why. For hundreds and thousands of years of human civilisation, the main method of transport (other than walking) was the horse, and since horses a) didn’t travel much faster than humans could walk most of the time and b) don’t usually have space for two, standing by the side of the road with one’s thumb out was unlikely to solicit a faster passage than using one’s own two feet. The only people capable of offering lifts would be merchants with carts, and although they doubtless would have offered lifts from time to time, it would be a rare and abnormally trusting merchant who would let an unknown stranger travel with them on what was usually a journey of several days, or at least hours at a minimum. Thus, hitchhiking in its current form could not develop until the development and widespread use of a mode of transport fast enough to allow a hitcher to travel large distances in a quite short space of time (much more than they could walk), too fast for them to approach by simply asking the driver as they trotted past, and with enough space that an empty seat was a regular occurrence. The car, in other words, and the first place where cars caught on in a big way was the USA.

America first fell in love with the car during the economic boom of the 1920s, during which cars such as the Model T Ford sold in their thousands and thousands- whilst cars were a rare luxury in Europe, in America they became a far more ubiquitous. However, this didn’t mean they were a car ‘for everyone’; ’20s America was a place of huge economic disparity*, with abject poverty being especially common amongst the black and (rapidly growing) immigrant community. This only got worse as the 1930s rolled around and America plunged into the Great Depression- huge sectors of the lower middle and upper working class collapsed into poverty and homelessness, far from any position in which they could afford a car of their own. And so, hitchhiking became increasingly common practice; America had the crucial ingredients of a society becoming increasingly built around the car yet a population not rich enough to universally own them, so the practice of essentially ‘borrowing’ transport from strangers made an awful lot of sense.

From its American origins, hitchhiking (along with widespread use of cars) spread to Europe and eventually across the whole world. However, its popularity has fluctuated heavily with both the passage of time and across continents. Hitchhiking in Britain blossomed during the post-war years among students: as the socialist reforms of the first labour government began to rejig the country’s social structure, the number of people from poorer backgrounds going to university grew. For many students, hitchhiking was the only practical mode of transport: few could afford their own car (Britain hadn’t taken social equality quite that far yet) and the train network was expensive, unreliable and impractical for many. However, from the mid-1970s onwards hitching began to slowly decline in Britain and America, although it remained common practice until the late 1980s: the introduction of the young person’s railcard made train travel a much more feasible option for many, and the increasing prosperity of the western world over these few decades made it increasingly feasible for students or their families to organise car travel on their own. Perhaps partly due to this reduction in the number of students in the hitchhiker population (and thus increasing the relative proportion of dodgy folk among their number), and definitely thanks to a couple of well-publicised murder cases around this time, public trust in hitchhikers began to steadily decline and the whole activity began to take on a decidedly shady appearance in the public eye: risky for both halves of the equation and advised against for safety reasons. As the population of students unable to afford/acquire their own transport home shrank still further, hitching almost died off completely, becoming almost solely the reserve of Eastern European migrant workers (who have a public image problem of their own that has done nothing to redress the shady public perception of hitchhiking). Elsewhere in Europe, however, the practice is more common, and it is currently beginning to enjoy a tentative renaissance (from ‘all but dead’ to merely ‘very uncommon’) in Britain as a) former hitchers have begun to bemoan the loss of such a once-beloved practice and b) students have started hitching as a charitable/competitive event.

Like so many other things, hitchhiking is by its nature along neither good nor bad- at its best it is just people helping each other out & getting some conversation in the bargain, and at its worst is plain dangerous for both parties. Whether it ends up being the former or the latter is, in the end, merely the luck of the draw regarding the practitioners on both sides of the exchange. Since so many hitchers have reported completely safe and uneventful trips, I guess, on balance, that shows we aren’t such an awful bunch after all.

*It’s worth noting that, although the poverty is infinitely less widespread, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the gap between rich and poor our society today is far more unequal than the 20s ever was.

Poverty Changes

£14,000 is quite a large amount of money. Enough for 70,000 Freddos, a decade’s worth of holidays, two new Nissan Pixo’s, several thousand potatoes or a gold standard racing pigeon. However, if you’re trying to live off just that amount in modern Britain, it quickly seems quite a lot smaller. Half of that could easily disappear on rent, whilst the average British family will spend a further £4,000 on food (significantly greater than the European average, for one reason or another). Then we must factor in tax, work-related expenses, various repair bills, a TV license, utility & heating bills, petrol money and other transport expenses, and it quickly becomes apparent that trying to live on this amount will require some careful budgeting. Still, not to worry too much though; it’s certainly possible to keep the body and soul of a medium sized family together on £14k a year, if not absolutely comfortably, and in any case 70% of British families have an annual income in excess of this amount. It might not be a vast amount to live on, but it should be about enough.

However, there’s a reason I quoted £14,000 specifically in the figure above, because I recently saw another statistic saying that if one’s income is above 14 grand a year, you are one of the top 4% richest people on planet Earth. Or, to put it another way, if you were on that income, and were then to select somebody totally at random from our species, then 24 times out of 25 you would be richer than them.

Now, this slightly shocking fact, as well as being a timely reminder as to the prevalence of poverty amongst fellow members of our species, to me raises an interesting question; if £14,000 is only just about enough to let one’s life operate properly in modern Britain, how on earth does the vast majority of the world manage to survive at all on significantly less than this? More than 70% of the Chinese population (in 2008, admittedly; the rate of Chinese poverty is decreasing at a staggering rate thanks to its booming economy) live on less than $5 a day, and 35 years ago more than 80% were considered to be in absolute poverty. How does this work? How does most of the rest of the world physically survive?

The obvious starting point is the one stating that much of it barely does. Despite the last few decades of massive improvement in the living standards and poverty levels in the world in general,  the World Bank estimates that some 20% of the world’s populace is living below the absolute poverty line of surviving on less than $1.50 per person per day, or £365 a year (down from around 45% in the early 1980s- Bob Geldof’s message has packed a powerful punch). This is the generally accepted marker for being less than what a person can physically keep body and soul together on, and having such a huge proportion of people living below this marker tends to drag down the global average. Poverty is something that the last quarter of the century has seen a definitive effort on the part of humanity to reduce, but it’s still a truly vast issue across the globe.

However, the main contributing factor to me behind how a seemingly meagre amount of money in the first world would be considered bountiful wealth in the third is simply down to how economics works. We in the west are currently enjoying the fruits of two centuries of free-market capitalism, which has fundamentally changed the way our civilisation functions. When we as a race first came up with the concept of civilisation, of pooling and exchanging skills and resources for the betterment of the collective, this was largely confined to the local community, or at least to the small-scale. Farmers provided for those living in the surrounding twenty miles or so, as did brewers, hunters, and all other such ‘small businessmen’, as they would be called today. The concept of a country provided security from invasion and legal support on a larger scale, but that was about it; any international trade was generally conducted between kings and noblemen, and was very much small scale.

However, since the days of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, business has got steadily bigger and bigger. It started out with international trade between the colonies, and the rich untapped resources the European imperial powers found there, moved on to the industrial scale manufacture of goods, and then the high-intensity sale of consumer products to the general population. Now we have vast multinational companies organising long, exhaustive chains of supply, manufacture and retail, and our society has become firmly rooted in this intense selling international economy. Without constantly selling vast quantities of stuff to one another, the western world as we know it simply would not exist.

This process causes many side effects, but one is of particular interest; everything becomes more expensive. To summarise very simply, the basic principle of capitalism involves workers putting in work and skill to increase the value of something; that something then gets sold, and the worker then gets some of the difference between cost of materials and cost of sale as a reward for their effort. For this to work, then one’s reward for putting in your effort must be enough to purchase the stuff needed to keep you alive; capitalism rests on the principle of our bodies being X% efficient at turning the food we eat into the energy we can use to work. If business is successful, then the workers of a company (here the term ‘workers’ covers everyone from factory floor to management) will gain money in the long term, enabling them to spend more money. This means that the market increases in size, and people can either sell more goods or start selling them for a higher price, so goods become worth more, so the people making those goods start getting more money, and so on.

The net result of this is that in an ‘expensive’ economy, everyone has a relatively high income and high expenditure, because all goods, taxes, land, utilities etc. cost quite a lot; but, for all practical purposes, this results in a remarkably similar situation to a ‘cheap’ economy, where the full force of western capitalism hasn’t quite taken hold yet- for, whilst the people residing there have less money, the stuff that is there costs less having not been through the corporation wringer. So, why would we find it tricky to live on less money than the top 4% of the world’s population? Blame the Industrial Revolution.

The Hidden Benefits

Corporations are having a rather rough time of it at the minute in the PR department. This is only to be expected given the current economic climate, and given the fact that almost exactly the same feelings of annoyance and distrust were expressed during the other two major economic downturns of the last 100 years. Big business has always been the all-pervasive face of ‘the man’, and when said man has let us down (either during a downturn or at any point in history when somebody is holding a guitar), they tend to be (often justifiably) the main victims of hatred. In essence, they are ‘the bad guys’.

However, no matter how cynical you are, there are a couple of glaring inconsistencies in this concept- things that can either (depending on your perspective) make the bad guys seem nice, make nice things seem secretly evil, or just make you go “WTF?”. Here we can find the proverbial shades of grey.

Let us consider, for instance, tourism. Nobody who lives anywhere even remotely pretty or interesting likes tourists, and some of the local nicknames for them, especially in coastal areas for some reason, are simultaneously interesting, hilarious and bizarre. They are an annoying bunch of people, seeming always to be asking dumb questions and trailing around places like flocks of lost sheep, and with roughly the same mental agility- although since the rest of us all act exactly the same when we are on holiday, then it’s probably better to tolerate them a little. Then there is the damage they can do to a local area, ranging from footpath erosion and littering to the case o the planet Bethselamin, “which is now so worried about the cumulative erosion of 10 billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave- so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt” (Douglas Adams again). The tourism industry is often accused of stifling local economies in places like Yorkshire or the Lake District, where entire towns can consist of nothing but second homes (sending the local housing market haywire), tea shops and B&B’s, with seemingly no way out of a spiral of dependence upon it.

However, what if I was to tell you that tourism is possibly the single most powerful force acting towards the preservation of biodiversity and the combating of climate change? You might think me mad, but consider this- why is there still Amazonian rainforest left? Why are there vast tracks of national path all over southern Africa? We might (and in fact should) be able to think of dozens of very good reasons for preserving these habitats, not least the benefits to making sure that all of our great planet’s inhabitants are allowed to survive without being crushed under the proverbial bulldozer that is civilisation, and the value to the environment of the carbon sink of the rainforests. But, unfortunately, when viewed from a purely clinical standpoint these arguments do not stand up. Consider the rainforest- depending on your perspective this is either a natural resource that is useful for all sorts of namby-pamby reasons like ensuring the planet doesn’t suffocate, or a source of a potentially huge amount of money. Timber is valuable stuff, especially given the types (such as mahogany) and sizes of trees one gets in the Amazon delta. Factor in that gain with the fact that many of the countries who own such rainforest are desperately poor and badly need the cash, and suddenly the plight of the Lesser Purple-Crested Cockroach seems less important.

And here tourists come to the rescue, for they are the sole financial justification for the preservation  of the rainforests. The idea of keeping all this natural biodiversity for people to have is all well and good, but this idea backed up by the prospect of people paying large sums of money to come and see it becomes doubly attractive, interesting governments in potential long-term financial gain rather than the quick buck that is to be gained from just using up their various natural resources from a purely industrial point of view.

Tourism is not the only industry that props up an entire section of life that we all know and love. Let me throw some names at you: Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Twitter. What do all of those (and many other besides) have in common? Firstly, that all are based on the internet, and secondly that the services offered by all three are entirely free. Contrast that against similarity three, that all are multi-billion dollar companies. How does this work? Answer, similarity 4: all gain their income from the advertising industry.

Advertising and marketing is another sect of modern business that we all hate, as adverts are always annoying by their presence, and can be downright offensively horrible in some cases. Aggressive marketing is basically the reason we can’t have nice things generally, and there is something particularly soulless about an industry whose sole purpose is to sell you things based on what they say, rather than what’s good about whatever they’re selling. They are perhaps the personification of the evils of big business, and yet without it, huge tracts of the internet, the home of the rebellion against modern consumer culture, would simply not be able to exist. Without advertising, the information Facebook has on its hundreds of millions of users would be financially useless, let alone the users themselves, and thus it would not be able to exist as a company or, probably, an entity at all, let alone one that has just completed one of the highest-value stock market flotations in commercial history. Google would exist perhaps merely as a neat idea, something a geek might have thought of in college and never been able to turn into a huge business that deals with a gigantic stake in web traffic as well as running its own social network, email service and even the web browser I am typing this on.

This doesn’t make advertisers and tourism companies suddenly all angels in the light of the world, and they are probably just as deserving of all the cynicism they get (equally deserving, probably, are Facebook and Google, but this would ruin my argument). But it’s worth thinking that, no matter how pushy or annoying they start to get, it may be a small price to pay for the benefits their very existence lends to us.

The story of Curveball

2012 has been the first year for almost as long as public conciousness seems able to remember that the world has not lived under the shadow of one of the most controversial and tumultuous events of the 21st century- the Iraq war. From 2003 to December 2011, the presence and deaths of western soldiers in Iraq was an ever-present and constantly touchy issue, and it will be many years before Iraq recovers from the war’s devastating effects.

Everybody knows the story of why the war was started in the first place- the US government convinced the rest of the world that Iraq’s notoriously brutal and tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein (who had famously gassed vast swathes of Iraq’s Kurdish population prior to his invasion of Kuwait and the triggering of the First Gulf War) was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. The main reason for the US government’s fears was, according to the news of the time, the fact that Hussein had refused UN weapons inspectors to enter and search the country. Lots of people know, or at least knew, this story. But much fewer know the other story- the story of how one man was able to, almost single-handedly, turn political posturing into a full-scale war.

This man’s name is Rafid Ahmed Alwan, but he was known to the world’s intelligence services simply as ‘Curveball’. Alwan is an Iraqi-born chemical engineer, who in 1999 fled to Germany, having embezzled government money. He then claimed that he had worked on an Iraqi project to design and produce mobile labs to produce biological weapons. Between late 1999 and 2001, German intelligence services interrogated him, granted him political asylum, and listened to his descriptions of the process. They were even able to create 3-D models of the facilities being designed, to a level of detail that CIA scientists were later able to identify major technical flaws in them. Despite the identification of such inconsistencies, when Curveball’s assertions that Iraq was indeed trying to produce biological WMD’s got into the hands of US intelligence, they went straight to the top. US Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to Curveball’s evidence in a 2003 speech to the UN on the subject of Iraq’s weapons situation, and his evidence, despite its flaws, pretty much sealed the deal for the USA. And where the US goes, the rest of the world tends to follow.

Since then, Curveball has, naturally, come under a lot of criticism. Accused of being an alcoholic, a ‘congenital liar’ and a ‘con artist’, he is quite possibly the world record holder for the most damaging ‘rogue source’ in intelligence history. Since he first made his claims, the amount of evidence showing how completely and utterly false they were has only stacked up- a facility he attested was a docking station was found to have an immovable brick wall in front of it, his designs were completely technically unsound, and his claims that he had finished top of his class at Baghdad University and had been drafted straight into the weapons program were replaced by the fact that he had finished bottom of his class and had, as he admitted in 2011, made the whole story up.

But, of course, by far the biggest source of hatred towards Curveball has been what his lies snowballed into- the justification of one of the western world’s least proud and most controversial events- the Second Iraq War. The cost of the war has been estimated to be in the region of two trillion dollars, and partly as a result of disruption to Iraqi oil production the price of oil has nearly quadrupled since the war began. The US and its allies have come under a hail of criticism for their poor planning of the invasion, the number of troops required and the clean up process, which was quite possibly entirely to blame for the subsequent 7 years of insurgent warfare after the actual invasion- quite apart from  some rather large questions surrounding the invasion’s legality in the first place. America has also taken a battering to its already rather weathered global public image, losing support from some of its traditional allies, and the country of Iraq has, despite having had an undoubtedly oppressive dictatorship removed, become (rather like Afghanistan) a far more corrupt, poverty-stricken, damaged and dangerous society than it was even under Hussein- it will take many years for it to recover. Not only that, but there is also evidence to suggest that the anger caused by the Western invasion has been played for its PR value by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, actually increasing the terrorism threat. But worse than all of that has been the human cost- estimates of the death toll range from 87,000 to over a million, the majority of whom have been civilian casualties from bomb attacks (courtesy of both sides). All parties have also been accused of sanctioning torture and of various counts of murder of civilians.

But I am not here to point fingers or play the blame game- suffice it to say that the main loser in the war has been humanity. The point is that, whilst Curveball cannot be said to be the cause of the war, or even the main one, the paper trail can be traced right back to him as one of the primary trigger causes. Just one man, and just a few little lies.

Curveball has since said that he was (justifiably) shocked that his words were used as justification for the war, but, crucially, that he was proud that what he had said had toppled Hussein’s government. When asked in an interview about all the death and pain the war he had sparked had caused, he was unable to give an answer.

This, for me, was a both shocking and deeply interesting moral dilemma. Hussein was without a doubt a black mark on the face of humanity, and in the long run I doubt that Iraq will be worse off as a democracy than it was under his rule. But that will not be for many years, and right now Iraq is a shadow of a country.

Put yourself in Curveball’s position- somebody who thought his words could bring down a dictator, a hate figure, and who then could only watch as the world tore itself apart because of them. Could you live with that thought? Were your words worth their terrible price? Could your conscience ever sleep easy?