A Citizens’ Assembly on climate change is the coward’s way out

Interesting article by Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator on citizens’ assemblies. In response to the demands of Extinction Rebellion, letters inviting 30,000 households across the UK to join a citizens’ assembly on climate change were sent out last week by an alliance of six Commons select committees, chaired by Rachel Reeves. The author (an Irish Catholic) has some alarming claims to make regarding the citizens’ assembly on the repeal of the eighth constitutional amendment (on abortion). It’s a short and interesting piece, so I won’t bother to post extracts.

All the comments posted after the Spectator article are critical of the design of such deliberative assemblies which (IMO) run the danger of bringing the entire sortition movement into disrepute.

8 Responses

  1. Given that I agree with you that some good points are made in the article – tendentious though it is – I guess I can think of two ways to think about this.

    Both would strive to bring about a situation in which sortition is ‘fair’ – or unbiased – and seen to be so. The first would be to agree to some apex principles and then to insist on them – together with the development of appropriate credentialling mechanisms. The problem with this is its replication of what I call the ‘sovereignty’ model of governance according to which things gain legitimacy by virtue of their correspondence with the apex principle(s).

    The alternative would be a more ’embodied’ approach in which we seek to cultivate a culture within and around sortition institutions that is actively defensive of the principles of fairness. The way I’d do that would be to develop a cadre of those who have participated in a sortition process using some non competitive and non-self-assertive mechanism.

    There needs to be some ongoing institution(s) purporting to legitimate authority on such matters so that there’s a state of the art according to which sortition based citizens’ bodies can be chosen and run in some agreed way (the Belgian citizens’ assembly appears to aspire to something like this as, if I understand it correctly it can appoint other citizens’ juries). Building it from a cadre of those who’ve been involved in one and who have the confidence of others seems like a good way to do this.

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  2. Nick:> a cadre of those who’ve been involved in [a citizens’ assembly] and who have the confidence of others

    Given the normal associations of cadre (“a group of activists in a communist or other revolutionary organization”) that might not be the best choice of words! What you’re suggesting is the polar opposite of rotation. The “others” that need to be confident in the process are the disembodied — i.e. the vast majority of citizens who have no involvement at all in the process.

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  3. And your suggestion to address the same objective?

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  4. (Unfortunately, the comments for this article are behind a paywall. Can someone copy them and post them for us?)

    The article shared by Keith Sutherland raises many interesting challenges and opportunities in my mind, including the following:

    1. I see the article as a sign that randomly selected citizen councils are entering the mainstream ecosystem of power politics. Inevitably, the increasing use of such councils will evoke reactions from (a) existing power players who feel their dominance is being threatened and (b) any “losers” in the recommendations from any given deliberation (such as the “pro-life” side in the Ireland assembly critiqued by the article’s author). These forces will try to delegitimize, co-opt, manipulate, marginalize, or otherwise undermine such councils to reinforce status quo power relations and familiar procedures. Those efforts can easily succeed, due to public (and offiicialdom’s) unfamiliarity with and unsophistication thinking about sortition, deliberation, process, facilitation and a number of other dimensions of such innovations. But the attacks are themselves signs of progress. We’re emerging from the margins of political culture. We’re no longer “below the radar” and thus become inviting targets.

    2. Articles like this beg for responses, among which might be the following:
    (a) Competitive argumentation. For example, the author says, “all forums like this suffer from response bias. The people who are willing to give up six months of their lives are more likely to be activists than normal members of the public.” To this, we could respond that “republican forms of democracy suffer from a different and even more important bias. People who are willing to run for office are more likely to be rich, egotistical extroverts eager to get hold of power than normal members of the public. After all, there are no criteria they have to meet to ensure they are particularly qualified to make decisions on public affairs.” We could even nit-pick her claim that citizen deliberators are “giving up six months of their lives”, because that’s simply untrue.
    (b) Reasoned argumentation. For example, the author says “One of the first decisions you’d have to make would be whether [participants would] be chosen on the basis of age/sex/geography or whether your sample would include balance on Lib/Lab/Tory/nationalist views. These are two equally valid approaches but they do affect the outcome.” We could respond that in most cases all such ways of cutting the demographic pie are important and selection can ensure that as many variables as possible are included – or, in cases where they are not included, we agree with her that they should be.
    (c) Address legitimate concerns. For example, when people like her complain that it is unclear how the participants, leaders, experts and briefing materials are selected, we can and should respond that these are legitimate concerns about transparency and fairness, and that we will make – and are making – special efforts to ensure that future councils and assemblies make it clear and public how those decisions are being made.

    3. Beyond RESPONDING, we should be actively innovating, enhancing and transforming practices like sortition and citizen deliberation. Examples might include:
    (a) Organizing an independent public association to promote and oversee standards of sortition and citizen deliberation. Ideally this would be made up primarily of diverse previous participants in citizen councils and assemblies who are excited about seeing the potential of such exercises realized in political culture and governance. They could be advised and trained by diverse experts like ourselves, but care should be taken to ensure they are – and are SEEN to be – a fully independent “we the people” voice for quality citizen deliberations. I see no other type of organization that could claim the kind of legitimacy, neutrality and common-good perspective that would hold up under public scrutiny. And, as I noted above, we NEED a legitimate body to police these councils and assemblies because as they grow in power they will be attacked and manipulated with increasing intensity and sophistication. The general public is too ignorant to do the oversight job and public officials, experts and process practitioners are too easily manipulated or seen to be self-interested.
    (b) Doing research that provides evidentiary backing to our claims or that guides the evolution of the relevant fields. For example, who has researched the differences between people who agree to participate in such forums and those who don’t? And where have parallel citizen assemblies been organized independently (on the same subject, drawn from the same population) to demonstrate the similarity (and thus trustworthiness) of their findings and recommendations – or, if the outcomes are significantly different, where those differences came from and how we plan to address that in future forums to support the legitimacy of such outcomes?

    I’ve written proposals regarding both (a) and (b), but for the purpose of this response, I just want to point out the R&D dimension as something relevant to the issues raised by challenges presented by critics like Melanie McDonagh, the author of the article shared by Keith Sutherland. We’ll surely see many more like it in the near future, given the increasing use of such citizen deliberative forums.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Tom,

    I was proposing a simple shortcut towards the kind of thing you’re suggesting – with which I agree in spirit. Do you want to point to where you have written proposals for a) and b)?

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  6. Nick,

    My approach to fairness is dialectical — advocates exchanging insults under the guidance of a judge.

    Tom,

    Here are the comments:

    Katy Hibbert • 3 days ago
    Citizens’ Assemblies are just another way of achieving lefty-remoaner-econutter domination without a democratic vote. The lefty Remoaners’ pet Tory Rory Stewart was in favour of them. Nuff said.

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    Charloch • 3 days ago
    These are just Soviets by another name.

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    Della Cate Charloch • 3 days ago
    I was going to say the same!

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    lms2 • 3 days ago

    Tony Heller: The Big Switch

    The warnings of global cooling and a coming ice age that were prevalent before 1980, because there’d been a couple of decades of cooling, which suddenly changed to warnings of a runaway greenhouse effect almost overnight, because of a couple of years of warming.

    This is nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with control and destroying the Western standard of living, to make the world’s population equally poor.
    The UN and XR have admitted that this “climate emergency” story is nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with destroying capitalism.

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    Reborn lms2 • 2 days ago
    Exactly.
    In the strike ridden 1970s there wasn’t much TV around, but BBC Two devoted a whole evening to the
    threat of the upcoming Ice Age.
    A decade later it was Anthropic Global Warming.
    That didn’t emerge as planned so the theory/scam was rebranded as Climate Change.
    Meaningless in terms of what can be done to change it, but the promoters of this rubbish think
    the “cure” for warming and/or cooling is much the same.

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    wibbling • 3 days ago
    The entire point of the Left wing ‘citizen’s assembly’ is to ensure that 100 specifically chosen people who will all agree with one another to control the establishment for their own benefit.

    That’s the single, specific point. The green fanatics have absolutely no consideration that it would actually be representative – demographically or politically because such people would be bored rigid at the pointlessness of such a gathering and close it down. No, it’ll be chock full of troughers, wasters, the unwashed fanatics. Their problem is they think everyone is like them. The idea they’re not is anathema to their narrow minds.

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    Rousseau wibbling • a day ago • edited
    Also, even if you were not, can you imagine the “drip,drip” pressure brought to bear on you every time you disagreed with the shreikers in the crowd (no doubt egged on and allowed to voice their “concerns” at every possible occasion by the manipulator-in-chief at the front of the room). Forget six months of that, most people putting up objections to the eco-fascists line would be worn down from speaking out in a matter of weeks.

    It is a totalitarian idea in what is rapidly becoming a totalitarian country.

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    AtilaTheHen • 3 days ago
    Is this the end of democracy?

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    GKahnesq • 2 days ago
    Name one organisation which includes the words “citizens” or “peoples” that is not infested by lefties.

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    Fraser Nelson’s Underpants • 3 days ago
    I would have no problem with a citizen’s assembly if it were something akin to jury service: compulsory and random, bringing together a broadly representative sample of the population from all walks of life.

    If it were, we would end up with a reversal of vast swathes of establishment idiocy, including initiatives to “combat climate change,” which do nothing of the sort other than raise energy bills.

    The problem is that it would be another establishment stitch-up, and ensure that only certain sorts of people could sit on them and that they could only reach certain sorts of conclusions.

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    Benny Factor Fraser Nelson’s Underpants • 3 days ago • edited
    No, that’s not the only problem with them. Even a truly random selection of people can still be persuaded by a biased chair. And even if you tried to find one, you couldn’t find an unbiased chair. And they won’t try, of course.

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    Here be Bod Fraser Nelson’s Underpants • 3 days ago
    Indeed. The self-selecting aspect as the first filter is alone horrific. Only an authoritarian cretin (such as Rory Stewart) could possibly think this acceptable.

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    Ken Bishop Fraser Nelson’s Underpants • 2 days ago
    Jury service is not compulsory, it is extremely easy to duck out of it.

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    AtilaTheHen • 3 days ago
    what a load of old toffee. Who will decide who should be invited? What will be the criteria? Will this initiative be on a party’s manifesto?

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    Turning_Tide AtilaTheHen • 3 days ago
    It’s already happening. BBC is reporting letters have been sent out to 30,000 households. 110 people will be selected from those who respond.

    I do hope we get one of those letters, as Mr Turning Tide – who has degrees in physical/environmental science – has been saying climate change is bullocks for about 30 years now.

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    Bob of Bonsall Turning_Tide • 3 days ago
    And Jeremy’s brother, Piers, is very adamant the Climate Change Emergency Panic is a scam.

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    Zero Sugar Turning_Tide • 3 days ago
    Should she attend, she can be expected to be sidelined.

    There are plenty of consultants who are experts in managing such a forum to get the output the sponsor wants. The device is used in corporations all the time, to give employees the impression they have input to corporate policy.

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    mmac1968 • 2 days ago • edited
    Citizens assembly, the Peoples vote are all Lefty socialist terms which infact do the opposite of representing the citizens or the people. Lefties like them as it gives them powers they’d otherwise be denied by the electorate. Our present crowd of Westminster cowards like them, like they like Qangos, it allows them to pick those who will determine the outcome they already wanted.

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    Super_Slav • 3 days ago
    When they say “citizen’s” assembly, what they mean is “green lefty” assembly. The same way that “people’s” vote actually means “remainer’s” vote

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    Skaldmaer • 3 days ago • edited
    It’s utterly disgraceful. The argument over Climate Change is so one sided and is pushed in a single warming direction by the MSM, BBC, UN, global establishments.
    Yet there are other expert opinions out there and some posit we are not warming but entering a cooling period.
    As this is so complex a subject 100 people taking up the latest Greta Thunberg pronouncements won’t give us any serious solutions. – it is a recipe for chaos.
    P.S. I see a good chunk of the funding is coming from an EU environmental organisation. Why are they funding this when we’re leaving? Allegedly.

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    Pancho the Grey Skaldmaer • 2 days ago
    You have been told that the science is settled, so the substantial number of scientific papers (estimated 65-100 this year) that say in one way or another it is the clouds (or lack thereof) wot done it can’t really be anything to do with science.

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    Beatus Vir Skaldmaer • a day ago • edited
    Yeah – looking at the warming trend through the first half of the 20th century (“Glaciers melting!”, “Arctic ports ice free by 1940!”, “Record wildfires” “We’re doomed” etc.) followed by a period of 30 years or so of cooling (“New ice age”, “Crops failing”, “Arctic ports frozen up”, “We’re doomed”) followed more recently by a period of warming (repeat warnings)…

    … I reckon that by 2050, when we’re all freezing our nuts off again, we’ll be getting served up some new garbage to worry about.

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    No HS2…No EU Skaldmaer • 2 days ago
    We ain’t going anywhere, as long as the Lib/lab/Con run us.

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    plainsdrifter • 3 days ago
    Cowardice underpins the manipulations of politicians in modern democracies. They will reap as they sow.

    “The people who are willing to give up six months of their lives are more likely to be activists than normal members of the public.”

    Europe may yet become the mainspring for another global conflict. Alarmist? Go read a child’s history book.

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    Here be Bod • 3 days ago • edited
    It’s a terrible idea.

    Leaving aside the dreadful broad principle, any such selection approach would lead to a gathering dominated by wildly-unrepresentative nut-jobs.

    In other words, an ‘assembly’ very similar to today’s Parliament. So why bother?

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    The Masked Marvel • 3 days ago • edited
    The only time anyone since the ancient Greeks wants a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ is when they have a specific outcome in mind.

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    maresuke • 3 days ago
    For years the Home Office has been influenced by single issue pressure groups claiming both a representative status and a degree of specialised knowledge , and of course politicians will jump at opportunities to avoid accountability by passing responsibility for controversial decisions elsewhere, especially if they can still shape the result.
    That is the reason so many of them favour a second referendum or PV.

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    alw • 3 days ago • edited
    Indeed that is why NICE came into being courtesy of the Blair government….passing the buck. In Camden the Citizens Assembly wants to ban all cars on all roads for 3 months of the year every year.

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    Ken Bishop • 2 days ago
    We have already got a Citizens’ Assembly. It is called the House of Commons. We have got them at various other levels of governance too.

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    Rebecca • 2 days ago • edited
    I’d love to know precisely how thick “the establishment” think taxpayers are.
    But I’m guessing it’s pretty thick.
    If we are in essence to be ruled by banks and big business, could we please at least be spared this kind of nonsense, along with the flailing, wailing morons of the HoC, their salaries and the salaries of their vast retinues.

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    Zen Priest Rebecca • 2 days ago
    Extremely.

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    enoch arden • 3 days ago
    I wonder who of this entertaining crowd of activists would be able to comprehensibly explain the difference between weather and climate. The society we live in is steadily getting mad as the number of idle idiots increases. Tomorrow we can expect a demonstration of the same loonies requiring that the government should interfere with the changes in the solar activity.

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    Della Cate • 3 days ago
    So, letters go to 30, 000 households. How are they identified? Electoral register? Walking round the streets and deciding to send a letter to number 16? In all parts of the country or just certain areas? And who is deciding on all this?
    I expect that a large number of these letters will go in the bin. The only keen people will be those who already have an axe to grind. And who is choosing how the final 110 will be picked? Interview? Names in a hat?
    Or will it just be the good comrades who will sit on this Soviet?

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    nearhorburian Della Cate • 3 days ago
    If they are randomly selected from the adult population we would expect 43/44% to be heterosexual white males.

    I bet they won’t be.

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    Mark B nearhorburian • 20 hours ago
    And if they are expect the usual suspects to cry foul.

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    frank davidson • 3 days ago
    Oh dear, so we get a few people who are probably without knowledge on a highly technical issue and they are going to guess

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    Turning_Tide frank davidson • 3 days ago
    It’s even worse than guessing: they’ll just regurgitate all the alarmist (and inaccurate) headlines they can recall about melting ice, dying polar bears, increased flooding/droughts.

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    Here be Bod frank davidson • 3 days ago
    Like ‘economists’, then? :)

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    Squire Western • 3 days ago
    This gerrymandered nonsense will carry no weight at all. If politicians hope to evade scrutiny in this manner they will be disappointed.

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    keithjowitt • a day ago
    The writer misses the big issue here. Unlike on the issues of abortion and electoral reform, a citizen’s assembly on climate change is a very bad idea because its claims will always be unfalsifiable and its urgencies will never be satisfied. All sorts of bad things will be almost inevitable: very young people will demand to be on it, there will be clamour for it to reflect whatever diversity demands are fashionable that week, a bureaucracy and funding apparatus will be created around it, and it will be held up by media types (Guardian and BBC, anyone?) as an exemplar of virtuous decision-making. It will, through the media, have power without responsibility and it will become a tyrannical, bullying thing which businesses up and down the land will be encouraged to placate. And, because its urgencies will never be met it may never be disbanded, unless a politician one day has the courage to say no to its incessant bleating.

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    morebeerplease • 2 days ago
    Groan.

    Having spent 30 years in the corporate IT world, I know a buck-passing exercise when I see one.

    ‘Management Consultants’ charge huge fees to produce ‘reports’ under the instruction of the board.

    The board then implement the stupid ideas in the report, and when it all goes belly-up, can point the finger of blame at the report’s recommendations.

    Here, the Government are simply doing the same. They haven’t a clue, (PPE and Law grads almost to a man/woman) and would like someone else to work out the details.

    As others here have already pointed out, we have a representative assembly of a sort in Parliament.

    The lefty/anarchist lot want to by-pass the hard graft of getting their schemes adopted through the agreed mechanisms.
    As regards the ‘climate change’ issue I have the advantage through an earlier academic career of being trained in geochemistry, and that is a stout antidote to the claims of the alarmists that we’re all going to fry if we don’t stop using coal etc..

    The whole XR thing is ignorant misguided ideologically motivated authoritarianism.

    No ‘conservative’ government should have anything to do with their schemes.

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    Benny Factor • 3 days ago
    Everyone should google for Andrew Neil’s demolition of Stella Creasy’s plan for a citizens’ assembly to determine Brexit. It was on in February on the much lamented This Week.

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    Turning_Tide • 3 days ago
    If a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change served the purpose of making the Extinction Rebellion nutters think they’d achieved something while the government just got on with governing, it would probably be money well spent. The problems would come if/when a government attempted to implement the inevitably bonkers and impractical “solutions” coming from such a body.

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    Mark B • 20 hours ago
    The Citizens’ Assembly was a way to get people to do what parliament didn’t want to be seen to do.
    It is ironic that, they are happy to allow 110 people to make a decision, providing it is the right one, yet, are not happy to listen to, and abide by, the decision of 17.4 million people.

    As the article alludes to, it allows politicians to implement that which they want, but do not have the political guts to make and take ownership of the decision themselves. Which begs the question. Why do we need politicians at all ?

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    toneekay • 2 days ago
    Genuine citizen’s assemblies would grow from the citizenry itself as challenges to the legitimacy of prevailing political structures, not from a lottery organised by a committee within those structures. They would be hostile to having their agendas and powers dictated by outside forces.

    The irony is that the politicians advocating such assemblies are driven by concern that growing numbers of citizens view their authority as illegitimate. It’s more akin to the window-dressing schemes that authoritarian regimes sometimes set up in an effort to lend dictatorial power the appearance of being responsive to popular sentiment.

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    Pancho the Grey • 2 days ago
    The terms of reference of the assembly are apparently to look at what members of the public can do to reduce CO2. So it is an attempt to find which of the CO2 saving impositions on the public will cause least grief to the politicians.

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    jeremy Morfey • 3 days ago • edited
    What does a citizens’ assembly do that Parliament with its Select Committees isn’t supposed to be doing?

    I have this to say to the Climate Change sceptics (and I am glad to hear dissident voices whenever there is a near-consensus) – could this be a cover for a far more serious problem with overpopulation and deforestation? Any normal changes in weather patterns, or even abnormal ones, would not be catastrophic were a lot fewer people were less mobile and less rapacious than they are today. Now, if there is a dustbowl in Oklahoma, where do they move to? California? Nice and toasty there right now.

    Does anyone remember Paul McCartney (world human population at birth about 2.3 billion), in 1971 (world human population 3.8 billion), releasing a song ‘Too Many People’? I (world human population at birth 2.8 billion) remember at the time being disappointed that instead of being a polemic about overpopulation (when it was about half what it is now, which is 7.7 billion), it was a trite little ditty that offended John Lennon.

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    DourPresbyterian • a day ago
    This is a dismal and depressing development. I agree with the article entirely: it recreates nationally the same mechanism and dynamic that buck-passing politicians found so useful in the EU: outsourcing unpopular decisions.

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  7. Thanks Keith, but I was trying to be serious.

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  8. so am I !

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