Monday, June 23, 2008

Morgan Tsvangirai and Jesse Owens

Listening to the news this morning I was reminded of a story my dad told me. (I don’t know how much of the story as I remember it is fact, but if not, think of it as a parable.) The story was about Jesse Owens in the long jump at the 1936 Olympics. The Olympics were held in Germany during the Nazi regime and were intended as a showcase of Hitler’s “master race” – blond haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned Aryans. It was therefore somewhat inconvenient when a black American called Jesse Owens won gold medals in both the 100m and 200m.

Later in the games Owens was competing for a third medal in the long jump, an event for which he held the world record. In qualifying, he had three jumps to reach the final. His first jump was ruled a foul – unfairly, Owens felt. The second jump was also ruled a foul. Owens scented a conspiracy. One more foul and he was out. So what did he do?

He took his third jump and took off from two feet behind the line. Everyone in the stadium could see that it was a fair jump, and there was no way he could be disqualified. He reached the final and won a third gold medal. Later he added a fourth in the relay.

It was his decision in that third jump that was the point of the story. In danger of being cheated, Owens didn’t cry foul or argue the case. He simply accepted that in order to compete alongside everyone else and beat the cheats, he was going to have to jump two feet further than anyone else. That’s why my dad told me the story: to inspire me that I too could overcome an unequal situation by working harder and being that much better.

That’s what I was reminded of when I heard on the news this morning that Morgan Tsvangirai had pulled out of the election in Zimbabwe. The decision means that he and the people of Zimbabwe will not be able to conjure up a Jesse Owens moment and vote Robert Mugabe out of office, despite intimidation and harassment, despite the election begin rigged and unconstitutional.

Now I know it’s not a fair comparison. I have no idea what things are really like in Zimbabwe, and I have to believe that Morgan Tsvangirai has made the best decision he could under the circumstances. But when it's possible, isn't the Jesse Owens way better?

Monday, June 16, 2008

The End of the World

The world ended last Sunday. You may not have noticed it, but my little boy definitely did. We were at the Leamington Peace Festival, and I had just got Alex a balloon. I looked away for a moment, and then it happened.

“My balloon,” he said. I looked around, but it was already too late. I looked up, and there it was – drifting upwards into the sky. I turned back to him. You could see it in his face – he couldn’t speak, it was quite simply the end of the world. I can still see it now, his poor face dissolving into tears as he realizes that even his wonderful dad is not going to be able to get his balloon back.

Of course, life goes on. I gave him a big hug, and the lovely woman at the stall gave him another balloon. And then everything was ok. But at the time, from his reaction, it really was the end of the world. I’ve never seen him looking so upset.

It must be really hard being so sensitive. It’s certainly really hard being around someone who’s so sensitive! But then, after all of that, what did it take to make things ok – nothing more than a balloon, which this time his dad tied to his wrist. If only I’d done that in the first place …

I could draw out a lesson here about being childlike, and how great it is when everything’s that simple. But things aren’t that simple. I was lying in bed the other night fretting about one or two problems in my life, and then I thought about food prices and what that means to someone who is really poor – poorer than I’ve ever been. I’m not going to pretend my son’s childlike attitude has anything to bring to people who are unable even to buy food to eat.

But it did strike me that really, my life isn’t so bad – not compared to lots of other people. That doesn’t make my problems any smaller. But sometimes by getting them out of proportion, I do make them bigger.

Fuel and the Price of Beans

As of this morning, the cheapest petrol price I saw on the way to work was £1.18 a litre (that’s $8.80 per Gallon US, although bear in mind that our basic grade is 95 octane). Spanish lorry drivers are going on strike, Spanish fishing boats area already on strike.

Am I the only one who thinks this is a good thing? Fewer boats at sea in the long run ought to help overfishing, and about time too; and while some haulage firms might go out of business, companies still need stuff moved and will have to pay what it costs. Yes, we’ll pay more for everything, and that means we’ll have to buy less stuff, which again isn’t such a bad thing. I’d like to see the EU increasing fuel duty. Let’s face it: oil is running out, we’re already fighting wars about it, and in the long run I can’t see it ever getting much cheaper. Let’s not complain about it; let’s learn to live with it.

I’m far more worried about global food prices. We can buy less stuff and drive / fly less, but we still need to eat; and as everyone knows, high food prices hit the poorest people hardest. I guess more can be done to increase the amount of food in the world. Giving land to people who are likely to farm it effectively, for example (I could point to Zimbabwe here, but instead I’ll point to my nice suburban garden); not using edible crops to make biofuel; finding ways of producing more food per acre (which have to be viable long-term, not just short-term). But like the oil thing, there are limits.

In the long run the problem is that there are just too many of us on the planet, and still more every day. Sadly I’m contributing to this problem too, since I have two children. Easy for me to say this now, I suppose, but we need to move away from a mindset that worries about falling birth rates and who’s going to support the aging population, and try to reinvent our economy in a way which copes with falling and aging populations. Maybe allowing more immigration would help.