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Foot-and-Mouth or Foot In Mouth?

Welcome to the UK, in the spring of 2001. If all you've seen of us is the TV news, then you might be wondering whether we're still here. No, the British countryside isn't ablaze with fiery pyres; we're not all donning white boiler suits and gas masks. The country isn't under martial law (despite the fact that it must feel like that if you live in Cumbria or Devon).

Here in Wales, where I'm writing, spring has finally begun to break, at the end of the wettest winter in a century. We are beset by a series of modern-day plagues. There's an underlying feeling of tension nibbling at our self-satisfied, First-World-cozy lives. However, the lights still come on, which is more than can be said for California.

What's really beginning to creak here in Britain is our infrastructure. First there's financial insecurity, due to the foot-and-mouth virus and its damage to agriculture and tourism. Then there's our rail network. The trains are bedeviled by lack of appropriate funding, corporate mismanagement, and distance from real user needs. We're no longer sure about our traditional national industries. When is a British car a "British car"? When it's bought here? When it's built here? Or when the manufacturer's board of directors lives here?

Then there's the way we Britons feed ourselves. Suddenly we find ourselves dealing with the long-term consequences of our desire for more and cheaper food. There's the BSE scandal?Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, a truly insidious illness. There's foot and mouth virus. There's big, bad weather devastating the farms.

The effects of overcomplexity are eating into our national psyche. We've been nannied for so long that we've forgotten how to do anything for ourselves. It's hard to get from A to B without relying on someone else to pay for it. In a system this elaborate and off-balance, no one wants to take responsibility anymore?literally or metaphorically.

This nexus of problems has suddenly come into focus for me. Maybe it's because I've dropped out, or downshifted (as some would say). I moved from mainstream publishing in central London to publishing for The Centre for Alternative Technology in rural Wales. I see the world through a wider-angle lens now. I'm no longer zooming in on the centres of two or three international cities. I'm looking laterally. The knowledge learned here at CAT over twenty-five years can be applied to the big wide world, far beyond our own confines in an ecologically regenerated slate quarry.

All of this new green stuff I was learning in Wales seemed fine and dandy?until the beginning of summer last year. Before last summer, hopping back to London was simple: I could drive there or take a train. Suddenly neither choice worked any more. I could get on a train and just sit it out until I got to my destination, which could take four hours, or nine, or nineteen. There was no guarantee that my rail connections would actually connect. Or I could drive, along with the thousands of others who had abandoned the public transport system for the motorways. That meant that I might sit for nine-and-a-half hours, travelling at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. I once found myself stuck behind a Danish bacon lorry for hours, without food, while one of my famished passengers hallucinated pork pies and bacon sandwiches.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that car travel was also dependent on being able to get petrol. For most of one month, fuel too was no certainty. Battles between the OPEC nations, the tax man, and the man on the street meant that our oil refineries were barricaded in. There was rationing at the petrol pumps. One broken rail means dead passengers. The rail system is in chaos, and the latest estimate for complete rehabilitation of the railways is still months away.

Oh, and don't forget the weather. Flooding makes motorways impassable. Thanks to a record eighty-three days of rain over September, October, and November of 2000, there were several days when I simply couldn't get beyond a mile or two from my front door.

From now on, doing something about global warming won't mean putting a few coins in a collecting tin for Mozambicans giving birth in trees as the floods climb beneath their feet. Maybe now I'll actually get round to changing to a company that supplies renewably generated electricity. Some-how this seems more urgent when I can't get to the shops to buy food to eat. Climate change is here, it's now and it's happening. Not just in Britain, but where you live too.

Since last summer, things have gone from bad to worse. I can't even trust the food on my plate. BSE was bad enough. I've almost managed to stop worrying about the number of burgers I ate when I was at college twenty years ago; no more fretting that my brain is gently turning into Gorgonzola. What's done is done. But I'm sure as hell not going to let something like that happen again. Whoever thought it was a good idea to let herbivores dine on mechanically recovered meat? "Mechanically recovered meat"? What is that supposed to mean to us?

I'm no Luddite. I edited science fiction novels for ten years, and have loved them for a lifetime. But some things just don't add up. The phenomenon behind both BSE and those satanic pyres on TV is the industrialization of agriculture. We are losing tens of billions of pounds in trade from tourism alone. No one has stopped to count the indirect losses elsewhere. All this to save an offshore market in exported British meat that is worth only three billion pounds. We're already importing more meat than we export, so why can't we just eat our own meat? Let's import less, and forget about shipping our stressed-out sheep across the English Channel. Am I missing something here? You tell me.

It's not just the sheep that aren't welcome abroad. My sister caught a plane from the southeast of England to Glasgow in Scotland. She was disinfected on arrival. She'd come from a British city with no cases of foot-and-mouth to another British city, well north of most reported Scottish cases. Still, she wasn't considered "safe."

This paranoia isn't confined to the UK. Two friends of mine had flights booked to stay with friends in Bavaria, the week before Easter. But word got out in the German village that visitors from Wales were due. The atmosphere turned decidedly frosty. The would-be hosts were taken to task and warned that, should they have the temerity to allow their intended British guests to stay, their children would be banned from school for fear of spreading contagion to their farming neighbours.

Apparently, there are international tour operators phoning the UK asking whether or not there's enough food to eat. It just goes to show that there's nothing like a globalized media for sensationalism. In reality, there's no long-term harm done to the animals who get foot and mouth virus. They get ill, and they get better. The disease isn't transferable to humans. The animals are still edible after they've recovered. Or so we're told by our authorities, but it's hard to retain your sense of perspective after years of misinformation. We're just making sure we can sell our produce to countries that could grow their own if they reorganized a bit.

These are not theoretical worries any more: they are personal. I might not have a job if this media-slash-political-slash-business circus runs for much longer. Visitor numbers at the Centre for Alternative Technology are down. The tourists stay at home for fear that the countryside is closed. If they don't come to Wales, they don't come to CAT. If they don't come to CAT, they don't buy our books, and if they don't buy our books, I don't have a job. That does keep me awake at night.

Okay, so we're not at war in Britain?not like they are in Israel or Macedonia?but the town versus countryside debate gets a lot of press over here at the moment. What is the countryside for? For growing food to feed the nation? Or is it time we British concentrated on what we do well? Theme-park Great Britain? Cumbria for the Lakes and Wordsworth's daffodils, Cornwall for Poldark's cliffs and coastline, Scotland for golf courses and Macbeth's castle, the Midlands for Shakespeare....History and landscape, that's what we're good at.

Only time will tell, but for my money, it's got to be a bit of both. Without the means to feed ourselves locally, we're not going to be sustainable in the long term. If we keep buying from the cheapest sources, we're going to run out of resources sooner rather than later?both at home and abroad. Cheaper and easier is neither, not in the long run. And we live in a whole Earth, not in a vacuum.

OK, so this is a small snapshot from a small country, but the patterns are the same pretty much world over. Let's hope I'm not the only one who's beginning to see the bigger picture.

If you'd like to see a bit more of that picture, visit our website at www.cat.org.uk?take a look at what we're doing, at the books I publish. It might help us all to stick around longer.