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Matter of life or death - Asterod impact on the earth's surface, as seen from space
Last updated April 2015

A Matter of Life or Death

Dominic Fox, ACO chief Executive ponders some of the challenges facing us in 2015

With so much troubling news in the world, anyone pondering the year ahead before a feeble, smokeless coal fire this New Year, glass of Aldi Finest Malt in hand, would approach the subject with some trepidation. It is traditional for correspondents to offer their predictions. What is less common is to tell you that, even in the case of experienced experts, they get quite a lot of things completely wrong.

The recent World Economic Forum in Davos at least tried to identify the problem. “Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world again faces the risk of major conflict between states,” said Margareta Drzeniek-Hanouz, lead economist at WEF. “However, today the means to wage such conflict, whether through cyberattack, competition for resources or sanctions and other economic tools, is broader than ever. Addressing all these possible triggers and seeking to return the world to a path of partnership, rather than competition, should be a priority for leaders as we enter 2015.”

An Oxfam report released to coincide with the Forum says that global wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small wealthy elite and that this inequality is accelerating and untenable. As always there is dissent. Critics argue that global capitalism has eradicated poverty and generated prosperity in the developing world at an unprecedented rate. On current trends, it is said the richest 1% would own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016, a good number of whom helicoptered in to be told so.

The Queen famously caught out the economists who missed the 2008 financial crash, querying why no one saw the credit crunch coming on a visit to the London School of Economics. She received only a rather evasive answer from her host: “At every stage, someone was relying on somebody else and everyone thought they were doing the right thing.” She tried again four years later on a visit to the Bank of England. The answer somewhat unhelpfully likened the financial crisis to an earthquake, both being rare events that make them hard to predict.

With a UK general election looming, the country cries out for leadership. What we need is inspiring role models, not prepared to give up in the face of overwhelming odds, able to lead us through these difficult times and rouse us from our lethargy. The polls suggest the electorate have had a good hard look at the stalls on offer from our political masters and are signalling strongly their dislike and dissatisfaction with the major players.

We await the party manifestos with interest. Many important issues need addressing, not least the tension around decreasing resources, and increasing need, that the charity world is facing. Some examples in the news recently:

The Department for Work and Pensions has been urged by mental health and disability charities to publish its secret investigations into suicides that may have some link to benefit changes, following revelations that it has carried out internal reviews into 60 such cases. A peer review is triggered when suicide or alleged suicide is “associated with a DWP activity”, according to its internal guidance.

New research presented at a Commons select committee inquiry into welfare sanctions suggests that hundreds of thousands of claimants are leaving jobseeker’s allowance because of benefit sanctions without finding employment. Written by academics at the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the report raises questions about why so many of those losing their benefit then disappear from the welfare system – possibly to rely on food banks.

That “possibly” should be ringing alarm bells. We fear a similar exodus seeking assistance from sources of discretionary funding and voluntary relief if the local welfare system collapses after April 2015. It is not to stretch one’s imagination too far to see premature death may be the result of these crackdowns on the resources available to our most vulnerable citizens.
In some breaking good news NASA report that its robotic rover, Curiosity, has detected fluctuating wafts of methane on Mars, fuelling speculation that the gas may be coming from a form of life on the red planet. Not wanting to be left out, the British space programme announced over Christmas that its Beagle 2 space probe had not actually crashed into the surface of Mars in 2003, but made a perfect landing and then could not communicate the fact because its system failed to power up.

“There is every chance that the camera flipped up and began taking images after the landing. All we need is an astronaut and a USB stick to go and get them,” joked Andrew Coates, of Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London.

The bad news, and honestly dear reader this is not going to happen, is that we might not have time to get there. Brian May of rock group Queen, and a backing group of experts such as Richard Dawkins and Lord Rees, have issued a declaration calling for a hundred-fold speeding up of the search for dangerous asteroids and an Asteroid Awareness Day which may involve a Live Aid-style concert, coinciding with the anniversary of an asteroid strike in 1908 which flattened 2000 sq km of conifer forest in Tunguska in Siberia. The inbound space rock, some 80 metres across, exploded in the air with the force of a large hydrogen bomb.

Make a date in your diary; it’s on 30 June 2015. All being well there won’t be anyone around next year to say I was wrong.

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