Scottish Tea Towel Square

Do we need a new tea towel to show our self-loathing?

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WELL, the COP26 jamboree in Glasgow has certainly opened my mind about the role we have played in creating the climate crisis around us. Does anyone else have that tea towel in their kitchen listing the many proud achievements by Scots? I have to say that I will never look at it in the same way again.

To start with, James Watt inventing the steam engine in 1776, allowing us to create energy from burning coal. His student and protege William Murdoch aka “The Maker of Light” created gas lighting in the 1790’s, which has evolved to become one of the most energy intensive functions we indulge ourselves with on the planet today. I have a light on writing this, much to my shame.

John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre in 1887, giving us the option of running cars on the tarmacadam roads previously developed by John Loudon McAdam in the early 1800’s. Some people argue that Dunlop actually re-invented the pneumatic tyre, with Robert William Thomson, born in Stonehaven, having first submitted the patent in 1845. His tyres were proven to reduce noise and improve passenger comfort on bicycles, and this has subsequently created all sorts of damaging possibilities on our roads. If we had no tyres or smooth runways, we could have no airplanes either, another key source of global warming. Thomson incidentally also improved his mother’s washing mangle, arguably contributing to the development and promotion of washing machines, driving demand for water and creating effluent which then has to be treated so that it can be made safe or re-used.

Even after he was dead, one of Thomson’s patents led to the development of elastic belts, thereby giving people greater flexibility in the clothes that they could wear, now another key source of global Co2 emissions and pollution more generally. He also introduced new machinery into sugar plantations, the poison of western societies today, increasing obesity and national health costs, sugar having previously been instrumental in fuelling the slave trade, encouraged by all of us through our consumption of it. Has one man ever created so many different types of problems, having self-educated himself in all these disciplines simply because he had a basic understanding of mathematics, taught to him in a Scottish school?

But it goes much further than that.  Much further. This is just the start of it. Indulge me for a moment.

The invention of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 has saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people and contributed hugely to population increases around the globe. David Hume encouraged a culture of self-improvement, and look where that has got us. Indeed, they were all at it back in Edinburgh in the late 1700’s.

John Logie Baird invented television in 1926 and allowed us to see the world beyond our own immediate environment, thereby helping to give us ideas above our station and encouraging consumerism. The earlier invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 has now promoted the extensive mining of toxic metals, often undertaken by child labour, and also promotes the coffee culture that generates the consumption of an arguably unnecessary consumer luxury throughout the western world, replacing otherwise important wildlife habitats and providing work for local labour in developing countries, thereby causing them too to increase their population further and also to seek a higher standard of living, causing greater strain on resources and increasing demand for more phones.

It is a vicious circle, all started by us. Bell knew very well what he had created, and would not have one in his office, it being such a distraction from meaningful work.

And that is not all. The refrigerator was invented by a Scot, William Cullen in 1748, enabling us to transport food around the planet, taking us away from local food supplies and encouraging destruction of far away habitats and cultures. The humble and innocuous Scottish neep, cultivated so proudly and extensively in Scotland allowed us to keep more livestock by allowing them to survive the winter, and just look at what has happened with that. Flatulent cattle are destroying the planet even as I type this, belching out of one end, doing something else out of the other.

Even when you are quietly looking out the window contemplating these things in the morning, just think of the heat being generated by that toaster, invented by Scot Alan MacMasters in 1893. If you think the bathroom is the only escape from all this, allowing you to sit quietly with your head in your hands, overwhelmed by all-consuming national guilt, even the humble S-bend was invented by a Scot Alexander Cumming in 1755, and think about the water usage promoted by that, in all our homes, every day, and throughout the world.

There is no doubt about it. We Scots have practically invented climate change, habitat destruction and resource exploitation through promotion of better health and diet and a full suite of devices which have helped us in our everyday lives. Surely no other nation has made a bigger contribution in creating the many problems we have in the world today. In the spirit of making a superficial and meaningless gesture of self-repentance, I think I might change that tea towel, although that too would result in unnecessary waste and subsequent landfill if everyone else started doing it as well. You cannot be too careful in your actions nowadays, for fear of looking bad.

Wha’s like them? It sounds like we’ll aye soon be deid.

If only we had a decent education system that produced people like this now, and allowed us to find the solutions. Sadly, the solutions will largely be found by others who have overtaken us in the ability to think outside the box, but if we could rediscover a culture of innovation and self-improvement instead of self-loathing, we could make a useful contribution again, and maybe the world might forgive us.

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