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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Perceptions of Risk - Biased?

In recent weeks we have had a number of wonderfully colourful ‘scare’ stories in the mass media, starting with ‘Ebola victim diagnosed in Canada’, and, at regular intervals, headlines declaring that this or that ‘flu virus is about to become the next Black Death. And then there is ‘nuclear’ - that beloved bogeyman that lurks in every nuclear power station, an H-bomb just waiting to detonate and obliterate the town/city/country its located in. Now we can add to that the dreaded “carbon” that is - according to the IPCC, Greenpeace and assorted politicians - the sole cause of ‘Global Warming/Climate Change”, but only, apparently, if it is generated by your car, the local power station, or the cattle, pigs and chickens you eat. Volcanos don’t count (even though, having forced everyone to ‘scrub’ Sulphur Dioxide out of our emissions, the same organisations are now claiming that volcanos injecting millions of tons of the stuff into the stratosphere during eruptions is ‘slowing Global Warming’) as their CO2 and SO2 is ‘natural’. 

Part of the trouble here is that our perceptions of risk are highly individual and generally biased by our levels of knowledge on a subject, by our training, our background and even our circumstances. Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy  of Need’ plays an important part in how we assess the risk against the need to achieve something. Two recent articles sent me by friends highlight both aspects. In the first, “Ebola, Organic Food, and Fukushima; three dope slaps about how we get risk wrong”  the author sets out the argument for how ‘fear’ of something we don’t understand, or feel we can’t control or protect ourselves from, slews our perception of the risk it presents. 

Take Ebola. It is a rather nasty virus, which causes perforation of the blood vessels. Victims bleed from every orifice and the virus is extremely contagious, but death isn’t a result of the bleeding, it comes as a result of damage to all the vital organs due to the redistribution of fluids and the inability of the blood to distribute nutrients efficiently. Right, so its a VERY nasty disease, but it is also confined to Central and West Africa, and it effects a few victims each year. In the last 40 years, several hundred people have been infected and died of it. On the other hand, millions have died in the same period, and thousands die each year of Tuberculosis, Hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and other less dramatic diseases. Which one should we be more concerned about? Especially in our crowded cities far from sources of Ebola (actually carried by certain primates many west and central African tribes consume as ‘Bush Meat’ and which some are now trying to bring to Britain) where, on a crowded bus, ’Tube’, train or U-Bahn journey you are far more likely to be exposed to TB being distributed by someone coughing or spitting?

Fukushima induced near global panic among the terminally anti-nuclear and we are still seeing regular Greenpeace incited headlines that ‘new’ radiation hotspots, contaminated water, or ‘airborne particles’ are about to ‘irradiate’ somewhere. Ironic that the UN’s own agencies (and I will admit to being a total sceptic with any UN agency) have been able to find not a single case of cancer or permanent damage among the workers exposed during their attempts to contain and control the problems there, nor among any of the people exposed in the surrounding areas. The much trumpeted ‘radio-active cloud’ that the US media hysterically declared was about to engulf the western US turned out to be almost undetectable against the normal background radiation for those areas. And, I’m sorry, but I don’t believe for a moment Greenpeace’s ‘scientists’ and ‘experts’ who claim to be able to detect ‘enhanced levels of radiation’ in the sea or anywhere else. 

So why does ‘nuclear’ induce such fear? I believe that it is partly due to the ‘ban the bomb’ campaigns of the 1960s and onward. The average ‘man-in-the-street’ has been taught that any and all nuclear reactors are dangerous bombs just waiting to detonate with the characteristic mushroom cloud, blinding flash of light and poisonous fallout. Many don’t have the faintest idea of how a nuclear pile is used in the generation of electricity, and all believe that all ionising radiation causes instant cancer, death, or ghastly mutations and monsters like the Simpsons five eyed fish. The fact is that the ‘detonations’ we saw at Fukushima were not ‘nuclear’ in that it was not the fissile fuel rods exploding, but Hydrogen gas which was generated by the breakdown of the coolant water into its component parts of Hydrogen and Oxygen. Yes, there certainly was radioactive material involved and there certainly was a lot of it thrown around, but, as at Chernobyl, it was not a ‘nuclear’ explosion and did not involve a ‘fission’ reaction to produce the bang. 

Yes, we can and should make use of a different fuel. Replacing the Uranium fuel rods with Thorium would produce less toxic waste for starters, but here again there is resistance from the public who have been fed the story that radioactive waste coolant water, spent fuel rods and so on amounts to millions of tons of highly radioactive waste leaking into our drinking water, percolating into our food, or leaking into our homes. The truth is that there is quite a lot of low level radioactive waste, most of it things like metal tools, overalls and scrap materials. It is ‘low level’ waste because it has very short half-life periods and the radiation it gives off is mainly Alpha and Beta radiation which is easily deflected as long as you don’t inhale or ingest it. This ‘low level’ waste is generally disposed of by packing it into steel containers, compressing it into a sort of ‘pill’ and then stacking these inside a larger container which is filled with boron or simply filled with concrete. It can then be stored underground for as long as necessary.

The high level waste is more problematic, since it takes around a hundred years to cool down enough to be put through the final process of disposal, but even that is manageable - in part because there isn’t as much of it as some believe. Again, the perception is well adrift and doesn’t align with reality, partly because the photos that circulate on the internet and surface every time anyone suggests building a new nuclear plant, are of the rather haphazard and careless storage uncovered when the Iron Curtain fell and we had access to how the Eastern Bloc had just dumped a lot of this material. All of those sites have now been cleaned up and the problems addressed, but in the minds of the anti-nuclear lobby, nothing has changed. Once again, the alignment of risk and the perception of it is coloured by the inculcated ‘beliefs’ founded on hype and misinformation. Sadly, here as with many other such areas, one also encounters the mindset that says ‘if the government/big business says it - it must be a lie’.

The third example given in the article I referred to above is an even more sensitive one. Food. Those who demand ‘bio-food’ only insist that this is because they want ‘healthier’ food devoid of insecticide or ‘artificial’ chemicals. There is usually a second agenda in that they refuse to eat anything ‘genetically modified’ and argue that this is ‘unsafe because we don’t know what the longterm effects are’. The sub-plot there is actually much simpler - they don’t like the fact that these foods have to be bought from the companies that created the seeds - because the modified plants can’t naturally reproduce. They hate the fact that someone might make a profit from the sale of the seeds or the creation of a food which is drought resistant, insect resistant or contains vitamins which may actually be healthier.

So they insist on eating food grown with ‘natural’ fertiliser, ignorant of the fact that they have a much better chance of contracting E-Coli from a tomato grown in pig or cow dung than one of Monsanto’s modified plants for growing in a greenhouse. ‘Golden Rice’ must be banned, because it is ‘genetically modified’ despite the fact it could cut malnutrition and eye disease in populations dependent on rice as their staple food. The fear of what the Media have labelled ‘Frankenfood’ and the hatred of anyone actually making any money from their research overrides everything else. Once again the perception of risk is coloured by factors having nothing to do with the actual risk perceived. Presumably the deficient diet, as perceived by western anti-commercial, anti-progress campaigners, is the lesser of the two evils and therefore must be tolerated for the ‘greater good’ of eradicating profit and progress. Unfortunately it is also likely to eradicate a large slice of humanity - but that is presumably also for the ‘greater good’. Whose, is a moot point.

A large part of the problem of risk perception is explained in a second article I have recently read, entitled “5 Cognitive Biases That Affect Our Work Performance.”  Put very simply, the way we see things or respond to things can be slewed by one or more natural biases we have built into our genes. The first is ‘Confirmation Bias’ which predisposes us to look only for the information that confirms an already held opinion or view. The second  is termed ‘The BandWagon Effect’ and is perhaps most simply explained as the desire to be ‘onside’ and to be part of the ‘team’. Dissenters are outsiders, often reviled, so we ‘go with the flow’ rather than try to form our own opinion. Third is ‘Negative Bias’.  If we are only exposed to negative stories about something we will, eventually, come to think of that as ‘truth’ and reject everything positive we hear. This is a problem we have with Mass Media - bad news sells, good news doesn’t so there is a built in bias in the reporting of events. If we add in a tendency to distrust certain sources - then the negativity is further reinforced. (OK, I’ll admit that if I am told the sun is shining by a politician, civil servant or Greenpeace and a few other advocacy organisations - I go and check for myself that it is).

Fourth comes what is termed ‘Functional Fixedness’, where we put on the blinders and stick to our preferred sources, or our preferred methods of doing things and refuse to acknowledge any others. This often leads to failure and a worse situation, but the experience frequently is rejected as ‘it worked the last time’ so it can’t be me that is wrong. The fifth is perhaps the most pernicious pitfall. Called ‘Projection Bias’ it leads us to think everyone else sees and thinks of things as we do. This is what leads us to think something must be so self-evident to everyone else present, we don’t need to explain it at all.

When we put all of this into the matrix as we wonder why some folk are scared witless at the mere mention of Ebola, or of a nuclear power plant, or even of GM crops, the picture that emerges is a complex one. Better communication is not the only answer, after all the internet is supposed to give everyone access to all the information on everything - isn’t it? 

Oh. Yes, back to point number one on the cognitive biases list - we only search and accept the information that confirms …

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A Crisis for Science?

I wonder how many see the irony in the various artists, internet bullies calling themselves atheists, secularists, and so on attacking the ‘fantasy’ of ‘religion’ while holding up ‘science’ as the model of rationalism and perfection? The fact that many don't understand either ‘science’ (except in the broadest sense of its supposed methodology) or religion (except in the 'Sunday School' simplicities) or the fact that science is seldom ‘settled’ on anything often makes me smile. The best example of this is the present dilemma in the field of Physics. For the last 45 years at least, physicists have searched for proof of the ‘Supersymmetry’ Hypothesis (It’s not a ‘Theory’ until all the evidence is found that confirms it), and hoped, with the Large Hadron Collider and the recent much trumpeted discovery of the ‘God Particle’, otherwise known as the Higgs Boson, to have it. 

What the LHC and Higgs Boson have produced so far is far more questions than answers. Some physicists are now privately saying that if the next run of the LHC doesn’t provide the proof they are looking for, the whole hypothesis may have to be binned. That will leave the entire science of Physics looking for a new explanation of a whole range of things, not least being why things have the Mass they do. This is one of the reasons I love science and the search for scientific understanding of the universe - though in this case they are looking at the sub-atomic universe of Quantum Physics. For a true scientist, each new ‘discovery’ is simply cresting the latest ridge and catching a glimpse of the next valley, the next range of mountains, or the next ridge. Sometimes, of course, it means acknowledging that the current route is impassable, that it is a dead-end leading to nothing but a void, and that it will be necessary to retrace one’s steps and find a new route.

An article in the latest edition of Scientific American to reach me, spells this out rather well. In “Supersymmetry and the Crisis in Physics” (page 24), the authors, both themselves physicists, explain that the supersymmetry hypothesis makes it possible to explain a number of things in quantum mechanics when we try to extend our understanding of it. Chief among these is the concept of ‘mass’ and what gives a particle the mass it has. Wrapped up in all of this is the concept of ‘dark matter’ - which we can’t see, and can’t find either. The hypothesis suggests that every particle has a hidden ‘superpartner’ which balances the equation. The hope was that the Large Hadron Collider would provide evidence of this ‘supersymmetry’ as well as proof of the existence of ‘Bosons’. It hasn’t.

At least, it hasn’t done so to date. It has, however, raised a whole crop of new and exciting questions, and provided plenty of new insights. Space, in quantum terms, is a very busy place. The next run is scheduled for 2015 and will be run at a higher power than the previous series, so there are high hopes it will deliver the goods. As the authors of the article put it - 
“If super partners are discovered in the next run of the LHC, the current angst of particle physicists will be replaced by enormous excitement over finally breaching the threshold of the super world. A wild intellectual adventure will begin. 
Yet if super partners are not found, we face a paradigm rupture in our basic grasp of quantum physics. Already this prospect is inspiring a radical rethinking of basic phenomena that underlie the fabric of the universe. A better understanding of the Higgs Boson will be central to building a new paradigm. Experimental signals of dark matter, that lonely but persistent outlier of particle physics, may ultimately be a beacon showing the way forward.”
In short, if one hypothesis fails, we will need another in order to understand what we currently think we understand. I find that exciting, and obviously so do a number of the people involved in this. One of the criticisms of the ‘supersymmetry’ model is that it is ‘too neat’ and that suggests, to some, that it may be wrong. It will be interesting to see how this develops. There are several other hypotheses on the table already, these include a ‘multiverse’, ‘Extra Dimensions’ having a warped geometry, and Dimensional Transmutation. 

All of which leaves me (a non-physicist) wondering about a whole range of scientific ‘proofs’ based on assumed values, and assumed behaviours. My favourite at the moment is the serious submission by a group of mathematicians, that the entire universe is, in effect, a hologram. They arrive at this conclusion through some very complex mathematics (way beyond my understanding of mathematics at any rate) which is based on what we know about the fact that everything, animate and inanimate, is made up of vast numbers of sub-atomic particles. In other words, if we ‘lost’ the ability for all the billions of atoms to hold themselves together in the patterns and groups they currently hold (think a Star Trek ‘Transporter’ beam) we would simply fly apart into our component atoms. The problem is that no matter how much we learn about the sub-atomic level of everything, we still need to understand why it takes the form and shape it does. Why does one combination of particles produce atoms that produce living things, and another combination produces rocks. As one scifi writer put it many years ago - All Flesh is Brass. 

So, I suppose the next BIG question for the Japanese team is, who is operating the program that operates the holographic projector that assembles everything into the form and shape it is? Oops, perhaps that’s now wandering back into ‘religion’ …

For me, science provides insights and explanations to many, many things, and that is good. It opens doors, and fuels the search for answers to many things, but the key scientific principle I have learned over the years to accept is a simple one. Nothing is ever ‘set in stone’. In science there is no ‘never’ - at least not when it is being done by real scientists. Those I know, argue and question everything regularly, they test hypotheses to destruction, then try again. They have taught me that nothing is ‘impossible’ and no one can ever say something will ‘never’ be achievable or happen. To them the failure of one system simply means they have to look in another direction - perhaps even admit they were wrong and try something they once rejected.

This is why I love science and don’t find in it any conflict with my faith. Science often provides answers to questions faith cannot answer, and at other times it makes me take a fresh look at things I had never before considered. I may have only the most basic grasp of quantum physics, but I can’t wait to see what the next run of the LHC produces. Whatever it is, it will be an exciting time for science and for each and every one of us whether we realise it or not.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter and the empty tomb ...

Today is Easter Day, the day the women visiting the tomb of Jesus to finish the burial preparations, in other words, the proper embalming of the body hastily wrapped and laid out in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea on the eve of the Sabbath or Passover. To their horror, the body was gone, so were the guards the Sanhedrin had posted to ensure no one took and hid the body in order to claim exactly what they feared - that Christ had indeed 'risen from the dead'. But the curious thing here is that the 'thieves' had apparently unwrapped the body - though they left them in a position which suggested it had simply been 'extracted' from the wrappings, leaving them empty. The single item not where it had originally been placed, was a 'napkin' (KJV translation) that had been used to cover the head and face.

That had been carefully folded and placed in a place apart. That is, in itself interesting, since it was, and is,  a signal given by the head of the household at a Jewish meal, that the food may be cleared - the meal is finished.

Why is this 'curious'? It suggests that, if it was the work of 'grave robbers' they were extremely well prepared, and had no fear of being disturbed. Since the Sanhedrin had taken the precaution of posting guards - veterans unlikely to be frightened off by a handful of grave robbers - something else must have occurred to do so. Interestingly there are independent accounts in existence that say the Sanhedrin later paid the guards to say they were attacked and the body stolen, a story picked up in recent years every time an ossary is found bearing the name 'Yeshua' and touted as 'possible' proof that the Sanhedrin story is true. Since 'Yeshua' (Jesus in Hellenised form) was a very common name at the time of the crucifixion, these 'discoveries' actually prove nothing.

It is often also claimed that the resurrection chapters of the gospel accounts were added two or more centuries later. That claim falls when the author style is examined for Matthew, Luke and John. Those books display the same 'author style' throughout, and all three were written in the form we have them today by 80AD. How do we know this? Quite simply because papyrus fragments exist which show that later copies were accurate. The exception is the Gospel of Mark - probably the earliest of the four, and probably based on the memories of Peter himself, and filled in by the observations of Mark, the 'youth who ran away naked' from the Garden of Gethsemane, in whose parents house the Last Supper took place. The final chapter of that is different, and was added later. Why? Largely because the scroll from which the present version was copied had been damaged, quite possibly in a fire, and the ending destroyed. Legend has it that the original was damaged in the fire at the time of Nero. It is that 'reconstruction' which has become, courtesy of the Internet, 'proof' that all the resurrection stories are false.

What do I believe? I believe that Jesus of Nazareth did leave the tomb. What remained were the grave clothes, the pain, the wounds and the blood. What came forth was a new being, the forerunner of what we are all to become. His friends didn't recognise him, and we are not able to judge why on the evidence available. Though the way the story is written we can draw the conclusion that there was no sign of his wounds or suffering (remember he'd been flogged and then crucified - the flogging alone would have left some serious wounds on his body, even without the wound inflicted by the soldiers spear, or the nails going through his hands and feet), and that something else about him had changed dramatically.  The fact he 'appeared' to several people who knew him well and wasn't recognised is strongly suggestive of this, but one thing had not - the way he 'broke the bread' he shared with them.

I believe, therefore, in the Resurrection. I believe that in Christ, we see what is to be. This is why I have no hesitation in saying with Christians everywhere - Christ is Risen. Hallelujah! He is risen indeed. Hallelujah.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Hackers ...

For the second time in just a few days, I have received notice from Google Mail that someone in France (Rennes to be precise) has tried to access my personal email account. Why anyone would be interested is unclear, especially to me. It is annoying, because each time it happens I have to change my passwords, and for safety reasons I do NOT use the same password for everything I do online. And again, for safety reasons, I change them all each time I get a notice to this effect.

That is probably the biggest nuisance, because not only am I having to think up new and ever more complex passwords, and then remember them, but I have to keep track of them as well. So, here is a message for any hacker reading this; I don't have loads of money, and my bank account isn't overflowing with it either. I'm not a member of the NSA, CIA, MI5, MI6 or any other 'interesting' organisation. I am not interested in being the recipient of those hidden zillions some unfortunate is unable to extract from Nigeria, the UAE or any other foreign state. I am not the CEO of some bank, oil company or major multi-national. I'm a private individual living on a pension. So would you mind taking your silly games somewhere else.

This does seem to be a major problem for everyone at the moment, and I am reliably informed that while some of this is down to criminal activity (as in organised crime) a great deal of it is opportunist and instigated by students of computer science for 'fun' - though they often pass on the passwords and data they do crack to crime gangs in exchange for payment. It is worrying for someone in my position since it could be extremely costly - something I could ill afford. What puzzles me at present is this; who in Rennes is targeting my email, and why? I have no connection with anything in Rennes, and only two friends in all of France. In short, this makes no logical sense.

Oh well, here we go again. A new batch of passwords to generate.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Safety of Life at Sea ...

Today marks the one hundred and second anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. The White Star liner was, in First Class, the epitome of luxury, but, like most of her contemporaries, designed to carry a much larger number of Third Class passengers. That was where the money really came from for the shipping lines.

We remember the Titanic because of the 'celebrity' names that went down with her, and, because she made the headlines, of the fact that she changed the 'Rules' applicable to such ships in future. She was not the 'greatest maritime' disaster, and, as we have recently been forcibly reminded, she certainly isn't the last either. With the centenary, we are once again seeing a resurgence in all manner of 'consipracy' type theories about why she sank. Everything ranging from blaming Winston Churchill for her 'lack' of lifeboats (she carried three times as many as the regulations required - enough capacity for around two thirds of her people), through an assertion that her builders used 'bad steel' and even that she was in fact the Olympic, and the owners were trying to claim the insurance.

A great deal is made, in recent years, of her watertight subdivision, which is acknowledged as inadequate. In fact both Olympic and Britannic (and all the big Cunard liners of the time) were immediately taken in hand quietly and modified to address the identified problems. The sinking did give rise to changes to the Board of Trade Rules for passenger ships, and, more importantly, brought about the earliest 'international' agreement on Safety of Life at Sea which has become known as the SOLAS Rules now promulgated by the International  Maritime Organisatioa The latest study actually concludes that there were no more icebergs adrift that year and at that time than usual - in fact it was an unusually quiet year for them.

Deficient though her compartmentation was, and we must remember she wasn't designed to stay afloat with more than four compartments flooded, she had six 'open to the sea' after the collision, and probably two more damaged. The fact she stayed afloat for four hours after the collision says a great deal for the design. The real tragedy is that so few obeyed the order to abandon ship.

In other words, it was sheer bad luck that she found the one that sank her.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The wheel turns slowly ...

As someone who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s I sometimes look back and wonder at the hubris that sprang from the 'triumph' over Nazism and Japanese expansionism, which coupled with the Doomsday angst of the Cold War, to produce the world we live in now. As the saying is; "We didn't see THAT coming!" Mine was probably the last to grow up with teachers and parents word being 'law', in a world where 'drugs' were used by losers and idiots and we recycled everything glass, and even tin cans. Compost was something you made yourself if you were a gardener, and you didn't go to the supermarket for your groceries, meat, spare tyres, car parts and everything else. Even dog and cat food was bought raw from a butcher, and cooked, then minced by hand and sealed into 'preserve jars' and stored in the refrigerator.

Fresh vegetables came in bulk from the local 'German' Market held every Saturday in the Municipal Market Halls, which often supplied a plump fresh chicken for our Sunday dinner. Chickens and eggs were all 'free range' in those days, and, yes, not cheap. I look back in amazement now that roast chicken was our 'luxury' once a week, and we ate stews, meat loaf, fish pie and many other dishes which 'stretched' whatever meat was available. My grandmother (who lived above us with my grandfather) baked biscuits, cakes and other treats, and made jam - her speciality was orange marmalade - and also pickled and preserved a lot of the vegetables. Peas came in the pods, in large string sacks, and my brother and I had the job of shelling them and storing them in large glass storage bottles. Beans also had to be cut and the 'string' removed so they could be stored and there was very little went to waste. It wasn't that we couldn't afford the odd bit, it was more a case of being very aware that by some standards, we were very well off, and waste was definitely something to be avoided.

Groceries were bought daily from the local greengrocer who also stocked a range of tinned and bottled goods, liquor came from an 'off-licence' and meat from a local butcher (who happened to be my uncle). Fish we bought fresh from the fishing boats, or at our local fishmonger, milk was delivered in a hand drawn cart and the empties collected, washed and refilled, as were almost all other bottles. We could make a bit of pocket money going round looking for 'lost' empty cold drink bottles and returning them to the shops who paid 1d (One whole Penny!) per bottle. But then, a Mars Bar about three times as big as the ones you get now, cost 6d and a slab of Cadbury's chocolate cost 2s 0d (Two shillings, or twenty-four pennies, for the post metrication generation!). Wages were, by todays standards, low - my father earned only Thirty-two Pounds, ten shillings (32/10s/0d) a month and my mother around Twenty Pounds. Out of that they paid the rent, fed and clothed my brother and I and ran a car. There were few 'luxuries' - but heck, we had plenty and appreciated what we had.

Looking back I can now see the gradual change that came over our world, starting in the late 1950s, probably around 1958/9. First came the supermarket. Instead of carry a basket up to Henry's Shop as it was known locally, we all ended up going to the supermarket on Saturday after the German Market. Then we had to carry the shopping out to the car in the large paper bags. It wasn't long and 'Henry's Store' was downsizing, then closed. Our trips to the Market became less frequent - usually only now for the occasional fresh chicken. After all, we could get everything we needed at the supermarket - and it was cheaper.

Somewhere along this road, cold drinks stopped coming in glass bottles. First they went into tins - actually aluminium, and later into plastic 'bottles' which you threw away. Convenient, yes, but now we had a rubbish problem. Being a 'free-range' kid, something else I noticed was the way in which suburbs and townships were expanding. By the time I left school, a lot of the places I'd hiked through as a Scout were now covered in houses, laid out as townships and simply no longer 'wild space'. That accelerated from around 1965 and by the time I married whole tracts of land I'd camped on, or visited or known as farmland was covered in houses. And that brought with it the first 'ecological crisis' - rubbish.

Between 1945 and 1965 we'd somehow managed to shift from a society that minimised waste, recycled as much as possible (even clothing was 'passed down', collars and cuffs 'turned', shoes resoled and so on) to one which threw everything away at the first sign of wear, or the first sign of an 'improved' version, and the 'consumer' society took off. Great for the profits of the companies feeding this, not so good for the animals now being 'factory' farmed as things to be bred, fed, slaughtered and packed for the supermarket without compassion. Some say we turned the African Slave Trade into an 'industrial' process - you should see how we treat animals in our 'consumer' desire for cheap excess.

The first indication that something was going very wrong was the streamers of discarded plastic shopping bags adorning every fence around our cities (I grew up in Africa in case readers don't know) and the waste dumps began to overflow. It got worse, waste simply couldn't be cleared fast enough in some areas, and most of it was ecologically non-degradable. I hadn't been in the fire service lonbg when the first recycling businesses started to spring up, someone having realised there was more to the old Yorkshire saying of "where there's muck, there's brass" than just a quaint expression. At first though, they could only handle paper and clothing, but gradually that extended into other things.

For some of us, it was funny to watch as the wheel turned slowly back to doing things we remembered as kids as being 'normal'. This is why, now resident some six thousand miles north of where I was until 1987, I sometimes find it annoying to be lectured by soime snotty nosed 'Green' clutching his/her iPad/iPhone/Android/(Insert Name of Latest Gizmo Here) and dressed in designer jeans, teeshirt and synthetic jacket and expensive trainers, about the need to 'save' the planet by cutting down my 'consumerist' lifestyle. I should laugh, after all, my wife is constantly nagging me about wearing shirts I bought almost twenty years ago, or my extreme reluctance to give up perfectly serviceable furniture to the Crunchy-Munchy truck when I'm damned sure someone, somewhere out there would love to have it and use it.

Yes, it is convenient to be able to go to the supermarket and buy cheap produce. It is convenient to be able to discard my drinks carton/can/bottle, but there is a hidden cost to all this 'consumerism' and it is one we all end up paying. Yesterday I raised the issue of energy, and here again, I must point out that back in the 1950s, our power was locally generated by a small coal burning power plant (as Josephus pointed out, the coal creates steam, which turns the turbines, which ...) and our home had only one power socket per room, one central light fitting and in the kitchen we had a grand total of two power sockets, the light and an electric stove! Luxury. Power was expensive, and we didn't 'waste' it. If you left a room, you turned the light off. Nor did you waste water. the supply was metered and my father was always quick to 'have a go' if the monthly bill was higher than usual.

I think we have reached a turning point as a society. The straightforward 'consume-'til-you-bust' model is broken. The model most 'Green' organisations promote is unworkable and unsustainable with our populations at present levels. Somewhere between the two we need to find a balance, consume less, recycle more efficiently (I've just watched a perfectly good lounge suite be destroyed by the Crunchy-Munchy truck - one which, if there was a decent furniture recycling system in place would have been cleaned, any defects restored, and passed to someone who needed it) and relearn the art of living, rather than existing in a constant rush.

Yes, the 1950s were probably the apogee of the western dream lifestyle for many, but the naked consumerism that began in the 1960s is not an ideal model either. As Fagan says in Oliver Twist, "I t'ink I better t'ink it out again". Perhaps not me, but perhaps some of those very clever people in the corridors of power - assuming they can stop gourging long enough to do so ...

Mr Cameron? Mr Milliband? Mr Clegg? Frau Merkel? Anyone?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The High Cost of Green

Germany was very quick to shut down their ageing nuclear generating plants in the wake of Fukushima, driven to a large extent by the hysteria whipped up by Greenpeace and the Green Party here, both of which have long anti-nuclear credentials. The problem was, of course, how to replace them. All the 'renewable' technology is expensive, ecologically extremely damaging in the places where the necessary minerals have to come from, and needs to be supported by more 'conventional' technology. Plus, of course, the distribution 'grid' was not designed for rapid switching from one source to another, or to distribute power across very long distances.

Anyone familiar with electricity distribution and generation knows that ideally one has the generating station and the user as close as practicable to one another as possible to maximise efficiency. The greater the separation, the greater the power drop across the 'net' and the less efficient the whole thing becomes. Less efficiency also means more cost. And that is what is currently exercising the German government, industry and commerce - and the ordinary people more than anything else.

In the last sixteen years 'energy' prices have gone up exponentially for the ordinary householder. The rise starting in 1998 is due mainly to the drive to switch from coal and oil to wind and solar, but is now further complicated by the rushed closure of the nuclear plants in 2011. For the ordinary householder electricity has risen from €0.17,11c per kW/hr to €0.28,73c per kW/hr (3.5% per year). The main reason for this is that the biggest users - heavy industry - are being subsidised in order to protect jobs. To hold their costs low (and protect the employment of the individuals who pay for household use) the cost of the 'Greening' of energy is being passed to the private individual.

The problem for the 'Greens', most of whom are middle to upper income earners or students and others on 'supported incomes' is that the larger population has noticed, and are starting to complain bitterly. Their complaint is, as the Chancellor, Frau Merkel acknowledges, justified. But now everyone is between a rock and a hard place. Efforts to reduce energy use have failed, and failed spectacularly. Resistance to building more windmills is stiffening, with increasingly angry exchanges between rural communities and city dwelling Greens and energy chiefs who want to cover every landscape with towering windmills and, of course, the power lines for distribution.

The government here is acutely aware of these concerns and is trying to find alternatives. They are also very aware of the fact that a large slice of the gas used in generating and heating of homes comes from Russia - a particularly tricky source at the moment - while we are actually sitting on vast quantities of a material that sends the Greens into a frenzy - brown coal. Ironically most Green campaigners have failed to realise that diesel and gas turbine generators are being installed to 'support' their beloved 'renewables' while they furiously oppose the building of new clean technology conventional power plants. And don't even mention anything nuclear ...

So the costs continue to rise while the politicians struggle to balance the need to ensure a stable and secure power supply, the Greens continue to dream of 'restoring' the climate to a non-existent idyllic past 'norm' and the rest of us pay. The greatest irony is that the poorest members of society are, in effect, paying proportionately more for this than those who so passionately enforce their vision of a 'better world' on the rest of us. As they say, there is the view from the Ivory Tower, and then there is reality.