Things I write about #3: the complicated


I sometimes have this feeling in airports — normally big ones — where I suddenly don’t know where I am going. I look up for signs and they only spray you in directions you don’t want to go: prayer rooms, baggage carousels, slow, toy-like transit systems heading out into wastelands of tarmac and marsh. The process of travelling by air has been steadily infused with panic in recent decades so I’m often on edge for no reason even before this happens but I try and console myself with this thought: sure, this place is complicated; planes are so heavy they shouldn’t by rights be taking off anyway; but you can figure it out. The airport was designed for humans. You are a human. You can do this. This feeling recurs when I find myself reporting and writing about something very complicated as well. I have always been attracted by subjects that are, by any reasonable definition, too knotty and intricate to write easily about. Maybe I mistake their complexity for significance. Just because something is hard to figure out doesn’t make it interesting. But when that complicated thing is somehow public — and often I have found myself writing about arcane international institutions — then that airport reflex kicks in. A little panicked, a little sick, but the same instinct: this is for humans, humans should get this. One of the first magazine stories I ever wrote arose almost solely from this thought. It was about the International Standardization Organisation, the guys who used to regulate the sizes of screws and who now determine everything from environmental standards to software formats and do it without anybody understanding that the hell they are up to. Humanity’s response to climate change has been another fertile district for befuddlement, nowhere more than the negotiating halls of the UNFCCC itself, saving the world in a language, a ritual culture, almost, all of their own. Last year I got my fair share in what is complicated by returning to climate change and writing about REDD+, a fantastical UN scheme to try and halt deforestation around the world with a mixture of satellites and financial incentives, and the happy-go-lucky world of public sector outsourcing, in which I spent far too much time inside Serco, one of the UK’s more notorious, and less understood, companies.

The stories:

Everyone Needs Standards,” Prospect, 28/3/2008
Inside the International Standardisation Organisation

Eleven Days in December,” Prospect, 21/10/2009
Meet the climate change negotiators trying to save the world

The Incredible Plan to Make Money Grow on Trees,” The Guardian, 24/11/2015
On the elegance, and impossibility, of a UN scheme to stop deforestation

Can Winston Churchill’s grandson save Serco? And is it worth saving?“, The Guardian, 2/7/2015
Inside the UK’s most notorious outsourcing company



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