“If we break through to the other side, if the voting public can see that the long term benefits massively outweigh the short term pain, then a tipping point may be passed and with it a wave of support resulting in a more robust mandate for change.”
Changing the Paradigm
The manufacture and use of automobiles contributes a staggering 20-25% of global CO2 emissions. Such a sizable percentage would suggest a marked shift in the automobile industry away from current trends is imperative to any global or national strategy to cut emissions. What’s more it is highly likely that by seriously effecting changes in these powerful industries many other CO2 producing industries will fall into line too, encouraged by the positive economies and improvements evolving from carbon neutral transport systems. Positive change begets positive change and that is key to getting the ball rolling in this area.
The production of electric cars is all very well but it’s of no use if those cars are charged every night by electricity derived from fossil fuels. We need now more than ever to introduce the initial economic conditions and catalysts that will lead to a serious and irreversible paradigm shift. Whilst this revolution won’t happen over night, it will, if implemented vigorously and courageously, gather speed as the years unfold, creating as it goes new avenues and new opportunities for development, slowly bringing the public on board as it reaps the benefits. Although there will be pain on the way, the benefits will be reaped in this generation’s lifetime. In the words of the author James Martin abandonment of fossil fuels won’t mean going back to nature but will predicate the rise of ‘eco affluence’, a society that is richer and better off than their predecessors, surrounded by incredible technologies but in a society that is carbon neutral.
Planning for the Future
There seems to be two main avenues for addressing the current predicament – through financial incentives and sanctions (taxing heavy road users, regular flyers, subsidising carbon neutral industries, penalising carbon heavy ones, etc), and through the building of less automobile-centric cities and transport infrastructures. Addressing automobile and aviation greenhouse gas emissions needs short, medium and long term plans, all of which must be developed in detail:
- Short term plans would focus on getting car usage down by using the tax system to penalise heavy road users whilst heavily incentivising and investing in public transport / cycle routes / walking. These kinds of changes can be implemented almost immediately. All that is needed is political will. They will be unpopular at first and to some may seem unfair but community support will follow given time for the medium and long term plans to play out.
- Medium term planning takes place over a decade or two and involve massive long term investment in alternative carbon neutral solutions and the accompanying infrastructures, culminating in more electric cars coming off the production line at affordable prices (amongst other things). There is still much R&D to be done in this field and technical problems to conquer (such as the problem with making effective batteries and tailoring the national grid to deal with the spikes in energy usage from owners charging them). This can partly be done through the tax system but also needs bold and radical adaptation of our cities and transport infrastructures. Industry support is crucial at this stage and the paradigm shift must really be under way for this to take place effectively.
- Long term plans should involve the redesigning and re engineering of entire cities and transport systems, based on an evolving blueprint for a carbon neutral country. This calls for the nurturing of bold and brilliant visionaries. By this point we should be seeing a complete cultural shift away from petrol cars towards a new generation of desirable electric vehicles at every end of the price spectrum. More rail, less roads, recharge points for electric cars and a national grid geared up to produce electricity for a generation of electric vehicles without burning CO2 will accompany this trend.
A Holistic Approach
At present the UK’s residual fuel mix is made up from 35.7% coal; 48.9% natural gas; 5.2% nuclear; 6.5% renewables and 3.7% other fuels. Of this coal is by far the biggest polluter producing 910 g/kWh, with natural gas at 400g/kWh and others in at 600 k/Wh. Nucelar and renewables of course produce zero. Whether we like it or not the former of these has to be featured in any short to medium term plan to drastically reduce carbon emissions. It is important to stress that it won’t necessarily be a permanent solution, as the development of infinitely abundant and clean energy sources such as nuclear fusion may well come to supersede everything else. But this is, for now, a specific arguement and we need to look at the bigger picture, we need a holistic approach.
As already mentioned the heart of the problem is in changing the dominant paradigm by making tough decisions. In the automobile industry many skilled jobs may become redundant but in the case of the automobile industry combustion engines will be replaced by new types of technology and therefore new skillsets will be required. There needs to therefore be a heavy investment in retraining and new training to keep the electorate onside. The dominance of accepted orthodoxies, a misinformed public and myopic politics are the greatest challenges we face in implementing change, but I refer again to James Martin’s premise of ‘eco affluence’; we needn’t be poorer off for this transition, indeed quite the opposite. The problem is in the hardships necessitated by any fundamental upheaval in an economy and the underlying society it supports.
Deconstructing Economic Orthodoxies and Dismantling Fossil Fuel Hegemonies
The state of the global economy and national deficit imply a barrier to change but they actually offer an opportunity. Fiscal conservatism isn’t the answer, although markets should and do play a role. If Britain can strike out alone in heavily investing in science and R&D, taxing carbon production heavily in industry to avoid unnecessary burdens placed on the taxpayer then it is likely we will be emulated. Competition is a driver of international markets. If the perception is that we are etching out a place as market leaders is what will become a trillion dollar industry, this will stimulate competition abroad. Long termism must trump short term obsessions about the defecit and the markets. We need to separate the economic problems from the imperative of long term investment. We must gear our economies not around deficit reduction but a restructuring and reorganisation of principles. A green industry needs to be at the heart of our economic planning. We need to break free of the bloated financial sector that has made us vulnerable and is the cause of so much public dissent.
Heavy investment in the electric car industry and all the necessary infrastructure to roll it out on a large scale will undoubtedly face stiff opposition from the motoring industry as well as the oil industry. These corporate hegemonies hold incredible political as well as financial power but they don’t directly control government policy (yet). But at their hearts all corporations are guided by the singular principle of making money for their shareholders and not some archaic religiosity towards an oil based transport industry. If they think there is money to be made in an electric car industry they will increase investment and production. If we break through to the other side, if the voting public can see that the long term benefits massively outweigh the short term pain, then the tipping point may be passed and with it a wave of support resulting in a more robust mandate for change. As benefits begin to emerge so this support will swell. New tech will result, creating new industries and exciting new opportunities for wealth creation producing economic feedbacks and ushering in the new paradigm.
Emerging Technologies and the Dangers of Biofuel Dependency
Already there are emerging technologies which seek to bridge the gap between the actual deployment of electric cars and the long term problem of adapting electricity grids to deal with the massive spikes in electricity use when people get home around 6pm to charge their cars. The technology giant Intel is already working with SAP and ESB on producing a smart tablet that will link into your calendar and charge your car according to your suspected journey time the next day. What’s more is that it will link to the grid and know when is the best time to charge your battery. The technology is out there and with huge developments in the efficiency of batteries we can expect to have the tools not only to replace the combustion engines with its electric equivalent but to actually produce a vehicle of comparable performance that is cheaper to run and less prone to breakdown.
There is a danger that we can neglect the electric car and go down the path of adopting biofuels like ethanol. Whilst cutting carbon dioxide emissions putting all our eggs in the ethanol / methanol biofuel basket has huge long term risks. Huge swathes of land are cut down to grow the corn, causing more deforestation and negatively impacting on food stocks in a time of globally burgeoning populations and worldwide economic stagnation. Whilst the development of genetically engineered crops will help to ease this fuel / food crop competition for space, the rising frequency and scale of droughts may well counter it out. Electric cars require additional electricity from the grid but we at least have the option of where we source this electricity. With biofuels we do not. The risks are too great. We must look at holistic approaches and not short term fixes.
The Electric Car Revolution
Short term compromises will be needed to bridge the difficult transition to clean energies which will come. If we can reduce CO2 by adopting a new generation of nuclear thorium reactors combined with more wind / solar / hydro power generation then we can seriously look at cutting fossil fuels out of the picture entirely, paving the way for a truly smart grid powered exclusively by abundant and carbon neutral energy sources. The electric car is only one part of this grand picture but its large scale deployment will be a powerful driver not only of economic models of change but of cultural / societal shifts in attitude. The paradigm shift needs its symbolism, its iconography of change. The electric car may just be it.
I’m not a Times reader but their Eureka supplement is excellent. Very cogent and convincing editorial in yesterdays edition. Mark Henderson is spot on. Science funding and our economic future are inextricably intertwined. Unfortunately in these times of defect fetishism and quantitative easing the view is decidedly myopic. We need to ring fence the science budget, maybe even increase it in real terms, or risk an irreversible brain drain and forever becoming a nation of financiers and hedge fund managers.
If you ever feel small or insignificant then click on this link and zoom in and out of the entire universe. Try for just a moment to get your head around just how tiny we really are… or how truly infinitesimal the particles, atoms and quarks that make up ‘us’ are. You will ultimately fail. These kinds of scale are way beyond our perception. But they never fail to ignite in me a sense of awe and wonder.
“Nuclear power and in particular nuclear power produced from thorium needs as much green PR and marketing as wind and solar now.”
My recent blog post on the nuclear question seems to have sparked the interest in a couple of my friends, some of whom are for and some against. I have recently been reading a lot around the idea of using Thorium as a fuel in nuclear reactors, as Professor Al-Khalili briefly touched upon in his documentary. First proposed and designed by the late Alvin Weinberg, the idea for Thorium reactors have been around since the 50′s but were abandoned when it became strategically more desirable to build reactors fuelled by uranium-238, which produces the by product plutonium-239, the primary fissile material used in nuclear weapons. The expediencies of the Cold War won the argument then but they are completely irrelevant in today’s post cold war environment. The new expediency is climate change and in this capacity thorium can and should be allowed to bridge the gap between carbon free energy and the often negative public perception of nuclear power. Below is a quote from the Guardian:
“The idea is to create a new generation of nuclear reactors based on the element thorium, as opposed to the uranium used to produce nuclear power today. Thorium, its advocates claim, is beneficial not only because it’s far more abundant and widely distributed in the Earth’s crust than uranium; in addition, liquid-fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) could theoretically be much smaller, much cheaper and much safer than conventional nuclear reactors. The waste they produce would remain dangerous for a far shorter period and, crucially, couldn’t be used to create nuclear weapons. As a bonus, these fourth-generation nuclear plants could even burn up the dangerous plutonium stored in existing nuclear waste stockpiles, using it as a fuel. The Weinberg team is already talking to Sellafield about this idea.”
Having briefly trudged through some of the literature and the nascent website of the Weinberg Foundation, which was formally inaugurated by parliament on 8th Sept 2011, I can see there is a lot to consider and a lot more reading to be done. The project’s green credentials do seem on a good footing though, notably after Friends of the Earth Policy and Campaigns Director, Craig Bennett, wished the Weinberg foundation the best of luck.
There seem to be a whole host of potential sources for carbon free energy sources available to us, ranging from the theoretical to the currently operational. Renewables such as wind and solar and tidal have obvious green appeal and are already in action. But without huge and unprecedented investment and subsidies they will fail to meet demand and shift fossil fuels from their dominant position in the market. Arguably they never will be able to meet the demands of a growing global population. Whilst theoretical, undeveloped or currently uneconomical technologies (such as nuclear fusion or artificial photosynthesis) could prove decisive in producing abundant sources of cheap clean energy to satisfy global demand, they require huge investments in R&D and a lot of patience on behalf of the taxpayers and businesses funding them. Typically this is an unattractive prospect for hard up governments looking for ever more tangible guarantees on their investments.
Enter the liquid fluroide thorium reactor. A different kind of nuclear fuel and one with a whole rack of advantages over its uranium cousins which rely on pressurised light water reactors that are more expensive and more dangerous to run. I will simply link to the Thorium MSR website which explains - albeit onesidedly the pros (and not the cons).
What is needed most of all though is a distinct paradigm shift in our attitude to nuclear (even though recent polls conducted after Fukishima suggest that nuclear remains popular in this country worldwide public support remain on the decline with Germany one of several European nations looking to abandon Nuclear altogether). Nuclear power and in particular nuclear power produced from thorium needs as much green PR and marketing as wind and solar now. Radioactive waste aside, these are carbon free fuels and with the threat of runaway climate change moving away from dirty fuels must surely remain the imperative, even we need to move to an interim source. With time of the essence and a new generation of efficient thorium reactors desperately needed, we surely have to hedge our bets. Intransigence is not an option.
These Big Think series of clips with big thinkers are well worth a listen to, with minds and characters as brilliant and bold as Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry.
This is a soundbite from Ray Kurzweil, one of the minds behind the concept of the Singularity (see my previous post and scroll to post humanism for more details). This may sound like sci fi to many of you but we must keep repeating Arthur C Clarke’s mantra which states that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’
Really this is just taking Moore’s law to it’s natural conclusion. There’s no great leap in believability or plausibility here. But what happens when we reach that inevitable situation when we cannot shrink any more transistors onto microprocessors… well the world of molecular and quantum computers beckons. Just listen to physicist clever cloggs Michio Kaku. The Singularity beckons…
“It seems to me that if people understood exactly what went wrong at Fukishima and the potential benefits of nuclear power, then we could finally have a more objective and sensible debate on the issue. ”
Above is the Horizon documentary presented by Prof. Jim Al-Khalili (a nuclear physicist / TV presenter who wasn’t in a rubbish 90′s band and doesn’t have a silly haircut). It is split into four parts but I highly recommend you watch it. Unfortuntaly the BBC in their infinite wisdom have now taken the series down off the iPlayer.
The documentary sees the prof travel to Fukishima to see for himself the devastation left in the wake of Japan’s Tsunami as he visits the 25km exclusion zone around the devastated nuclear reactors. We are given amazing insight into this mysterious ghost town by one of the Japanese clean up volunteers travelling into the zone. What is perhaps most interesting apart from the sciencey bit about how nuclear power and controlled chain reactions actually work and produce actual electricity (very much like a massive kettle apparently – who’d have thought it) is the section explaining the actual design of the Fukishima power station. The plant itself is over 40 years old and it seems is now outdated when compared to most modern or updated nuclear power stations around the world. The problem lay in the build up of steam due to the cooling systems becoming overwhelmed by flood water and an eventual explosion which blew the lid off the reactor and let loose radioactive particles. These build ups of excess steam are siphoned off into something called a condensation chamber but it seems Fukishima’s condensation chamber was too small and so couldn’t prevent the explosion. Modern reactors now have much larger condensation chambers.
Prof Al-Khalili then travels to Chernobyl, site of the worst nuclear accident in history. The ghost town he finds there is even more chilling, and to one former resident of nearby Pripyat, overwhelming to return to. Here he talks to a Russian oncologist and we start to uncover a truth about nuclear power that is incredibly revealing and misrepresented. The Chernobyl nuclear accident, which took place in a very old reactor, is thought to have killed hundreds, if not thousands of people through their exposure to radioactive particles resulting, presumably in terminal cancers and tumours. But the reality is somewhat different. Of the 47 workers who died as a result of acute radiation syndrome after the meltdown the statistics are highly controversial. The excesses in Thyroid cancers amongst the population (mainly children due to the rapid cell division in the Thyroid’s of the young) are indisputable but of the two and a half thousand cases in the wide area of study in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, that have been radio induced cancers only fifteen of these proved fatal. That’s 15 confirmed deaths in a population of over 6 million.
What’s more there is a good chance that most of these cases could have been prevented by iodine tablets which the body takes up instead of the radioactive iodine. Unlike the precautions implemented after Fukishima in 2011, iodine tablets were not immediately made available in the then Soviet Union in 1986. Indeed, the report discussed in this film has featured in many reputable scientific journals including nature as well as being taken up by the W.H.O. This isn’t a former soviet bloc white wash. This is real and diligent science.
Of course the long term effects of radiation and the increases in cancers in the wider environment are almost impossible to measure and clarify with any degree of accuracy. But if we’re going to put these numbers into context then we only need look at the numbers of deaths resulting from the extraction and burning of coal, oil and gas (including the recent tragic death of 4 welsh miners in the Swansea valley).
There have been no confirmed deaths from Fukishima and yet we react as if it is the end of the line for nuclear power. Was there any serious movement to abandon drilling for oil in offshore rigs after the Deepwater Horizon disaster? The anti nuclear movement is reflective enough of public opinion on these matters now that is seems to be cajoling governments into rethinking their energy policies, as it continues to scaremonger and play on our collective dread of radiation (something which the prof explains occurs all the time within our bodies and in the world all around us). It seems to me that if people understood exactly what went wrong at Fukishima and the potential benefits of nuclear power, then we could finally have a more objective and sensible debate about on the issue.
It’s a debate we need to have soon because there is no doubt now in any sane thinking person’s mind that we need to break this addiction to fossil fuels. Nuclear is one option amongst many but it has proved itself to be a reliable and non intermittent source of power. Maybe we should look at all the facts before we condemn it on a wave of whipped up fear and opposition.
Wednesday’s episode of Horizon on BBC2 reveals a shocking truth concerning the nature of corporate culture and the types of individuals it nurtures.
BBC2′s Horizon documentary on Wednesday was an eye opener to say the least. Entitled ‘are you good or evil’ it sets about explaining recent developments in neuroscience and how scientists are beginning to recognise the kind of brain patterns and genes that characterise a psychopathic personality. The kinds of advances we are witnessing in these fields never fail to amaze me. They are allowing us to peer deeper into the human psyche than we ever have before and what we are finding is often quite disturbing and unsettling. It’s a fascinating and highly philosophical field which is helping us get to grips with what it actually is to be human and why we are the way we are.
The programme featured Prof Jim Fallon, who’s was given a number of brain scans by a colleague and asked to sort them into distinctive groups. He had no prior knowledge concerning the recipients of these brain scans but found a distinct difference in some of them and so grouped these seperately. It turned out that every one of the brain scans in this distinctly different group belonged to a convicted murderer or psychopath. Further studies into genes reveals how the MAOA gene (also referred to as the ‘warrior gene’) is another important precursor in an individual propensity to psychopathy. It seemed that scientific research was beginning to reveal a distinct neural and genetic template for a psychopath. But this was only half the story. It is the combination of these two factors along with the social trigger of an abusive or troubled childhood that sees to cause psychoapthy to fully develop.
This is all very fascinating, but what really made me think was the announcement of a simple statistic whose implications seemed to stretch far beyond the remit of the programme. Far beyond the remit of science infact. The issues thrown up by Horizon are at once ethical, social and political in their implications. Perhaps even economic. It seems that psychopathic personalities are much more common than we would perhaps realise and that these personalities can operate within society quite normally. Indeed, in some scenarios they can positively thrive. It turns out that psychopathic personalities have been found to exist in far greater concentrations in the boardrooms of big businesses and corporations. Infact there are four times more psychopaths these groups of people than there are in a normal cross section of society.
Now lets just take that statistic in shall we. Four times as many psychopaths in the gleaming towers and citadels of London’s square mile than walk the streets far below. Four times greater a concentration of unempathetic, manipulative, charming and potentially viscous people betting billions of pounds of savers money on risky financial investments, playing the stockmarkets, earning the big bucks until… well until the whole house of cards came crashing down in 2008. It seems there are times when the results of rigorous scientific research reveals what people quite often observe anecdotally within a given system or society. This is one of those occasions.
Lets look at wikipedias definition of a psychopath.
“The prototypical psychopath has deficits or deviance in several areas: interpersonal relationships, emotion, and behavior. Psychopaths gain satisfaction through antisocial behavior, and do not experience shame, guilt, or remorse for their actions. Psychopaths lack a sense of guilt or remorse for any harm they may have caused others, instead rationalizing the behavior, blaming someone else, or denying it outright. Psychopaths also lack empathy towards others in general, resulting in tactlessness, insensitivity, and contemptuousness. Psychopaths can have a superficial charm about them, enabled by a willingness to say anything to anyone without concern for accuracy or truth. Shallow affect also describes the psychopath’s tendency for genuine emotion to be short-lived, glib and egocentric, with an overall cold demeanor. They tend to be impulsive and irresponsible, often failing to keep a job or defaulting on debts.“
We can now accurately and detachedly observe that some of the most fundamental institutions of our nation’s financial wealth and the pillars of our economy, have much higher concentrations of psychopaths making decisions at the top levels than in normal cross sections of society. It is no wonder then, that this tendency fostered such a consequence free environment; an environment that became so engrained into corporate culture that it became systemic throughout the entire free market economies of the world. It has always been self evident that very few men at the top of these organisations saw the dangers lurking around the corner. But maybe many did and they just didn’t really care about the consequences. Greed has always been prescribed as the driving force of this collective corporate myopia, but could we add psychopathy as a factor as well?
This kind of clinical description not only seems to describe individuals but systems and practices in general. In many ways it offers up explanations for a lot of the post banking crisis behaviour we have seen from banks and financial institutions and the individuals that run them. These institutions, many of which in the UK are now majority tax payer owned, seem to have absolved themselves of all blame, perhaps occasionally feigning guilt when public relations requires them to do so. They are antisocial, in that they have no concern for the damage they have caused and their egocentricity is surely self evident.
I don’t know about you, but if the consequences of curbing obscene bankers bonuses means a move towards a less finance sector dependent economy in the long term, and less psychopathic bankers at the helm of the British economy in the short term, then I’ll help chip in for their plane tickets myself.