The modern misanthrope’s creed, as elucidated upon in his journal, is one of both bitter disappointment and resignation. Pushed beyond hatred, his is the ultimate melancholy; derived of the missed opportunity that is, and soon to be was, mankind.
Welcome to the end days, dear reader. Welcome to the world of the modern misanthrope. His is a world perpetuated by infuriating wastrals, naive sheep and myopic clones, apathetic pop culture junkies and the greedy corrupted horders of power and influence. All deserve nothing less than these salvos of vitriol and derision let loose upon them.
Come and be critical and criticising, constructive or saracstic, foaming at the mouth with vehemence or zen like in your placid wisdom. Come and comment about the nuclear issue / science / politics / environmentalism, or the madness and mystery of this strange modern world we have made for ourselves.
These are the greatest days of humanity for they are our last. These are our end days. Join me as I document them…
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.
“There could be the possibility that we have instituted the wrong kind of paradigm shift, that we are nurturing a culture of moral catharsis, where we dispose of our glass bottles whilst simultaneously ameliorating our oil stained guilty consciences.”
The green movement has always been a double edged sword. The concept has taken on a sort of lifestyle connotation, as if outward signs of ones virtue directly corresponded to ones green credentials, a sort of pseudo religious conversion born of a distinctly secular epiphany. Are many of these eco friendly lifestyles lacking an accompanying worldview, an active engagement and interest in the debates? Are they symptomatic of a distinctly western fad, a craving for personal absolution and a reaction to excessive consumerism embodied by a renouncement of the material world of carbon and capitalism? Is the need for so many to be green not all that dissimilar in its motivation than the need of so many citizens of the West to seek meaning and purpose in imported brands of spiritual enlightenment or holistic medicine, a purely self indulgent decision born of a casual adoption of the predominating middle class trend not self informed by a sense of immediacy, of survival?
But perhaps this initial assessment is a tad too cynical. A sense of responsibility towards the planet is an important and desirable attribute in every human being. But the proliferation of the ‘green’ ethos has not necessitated a mass movement for change, the birth of a collective green consciousness. We are recycling but we are not mobilising. This is not cynical, it is critical.
Are our green credentials as individuals really just serving as an excuse for our apathy, an indifference towards the complex and controversial challenges ahead of us? Do they help us avoid the unsettling truth that even if every one of us lived a green lifestyle it would not really make any difference; that the crucial changes have to be legislated?
The notion of everyone doing their bit has always had the propensity to de-intellectualise the issues, to attach undue moral weight to switching off the lights whilst allowing one to switch off from the debate. In many ways it could be seen as analogous to the government of Winston Churchill attempting to lift morale during the dark days of the early 1940′s when German bombers rained death and fire on British cities. The imperative to remain defiant was pertinent then as it implied a continuation of the orthodoxy, a bullish British spirit in the face of defeat. Today it is the bucking of orthodoxy that is needed, an adaptability and a willingness to face down difficult decisions and conduct difficult public debates. The momentum for a complete and contagious paradigm shift is sadly missing at the moment. What we need now is education, education, education, not green finger pointing.
People pro actively fostering a greener lifestyle, seeking to live more independently from the fossil fuelled National Grid are often portrayed as indicative of the self indulgent upper middle classes (picture the idyllic Surbiton suburbia of Tom and Barbara’s Good Life), wealthy enough to afford solar panels or a woodchip boiler, savvy enough to seek out household economies and educated enough to see the moral imperative of plundering less carbon. These are not bad traits to have in and of themselves, expediency of class not withstanding. Indeed many are vocal proponents of the green movement, educators and idealists, shining examples of our collective ability to adapt, to mitigate. But many more are not.
There could be the possibility that we have instituted the wrong kind of paradigm shift, that we are nurturing a culture of moral catharsis, where we dispose of our glass bottles whilst simultaneously ameliorating our oil stained guilty consciences. It is a false trade off. These weekly rituals of totemic sacrifices towards the carbon gods are now becoming interwoven into our moral code. There is the danger that it could be belittling the problem, greenwashing the bigger and more fundamental need for collective awakening and created a series of distractions. Leaving the lights on is considered by many people nowadays to be at best a careless act, at worst, a secular sin that contributes in some tiny incremental way towards the heating of our climate, but only a small fraction of these same people would also grasp the important distinction that it is how we are producing the energy to power our lights that is morally questionable, not the act of leaving the lights on itself. Consumption of energy needn’t be a sin. We are bathed in enough sunlight everyday to power our modern world many times over. Having your plasma TV on standby all night needn’t be heresy. I think the green ideologues sometimes fails to get across this point.
There is of course the issue of time as well. Without the awakening of massive popular support and a critical understanding of the key issues surrounding climate change we will never come up with a plan of attack, a remedy with which to break this addiction to oil and coal. Corporate hegemonies, government intransigence, deadlocked climate talks and complex geo strategic shifts in economic power are all factors that have to be understood and digested if we are to raise the tempo of debate and get real public pressure put on governments to enact meaningful policies, to penalise carbon production and produce a robust worldwide carbon trading mechanism, to promote and subsidise investment in renewables, to sanction a safer generation of nuclear reactors that run on Thorium and not Uranium, whilst investing heavily in R&D in long term solutions like nuclear fusion. What is required here is the birth of a social consciousness not dissimilar to the type Marx envisaged in the working classes, a kind of green revolution as era defining in its ambitions as the red revolution of the Bolsheviks.
Being green is all well and good but until we understand everything that’s at stake, everything it really entails, it may as well just be just another colour.
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…
Bit geeky but hey, what are blogs for if not to be ranty or geeky (or both).
I have recently discovered the ‘cloud’, that oracular and slightly worrying philosophical concept of storing our data on the internet and not on our actual physical computing machines, whirring on our laps or below our desks. As if the concept of ‘data’ hadn’t already confused and blurred and veritably graffitied all over the lines that divide what is real and tangible and what is… well, not. If we are to apply a reductionist lens, a scientific eye, then, ‘data’, when we break it down, is just 1′s and 0′s. Binary. Everything you see and write and listen to and watch and comment on and scribe and become annoyed about these days (including sodding Angrybirds) is essentially just a really really really large collection of 1′s and 0′s… oh and some very clever processing.
Now what we (or they – depending on your outlook on life) are taking all those intangible 1′s and 0′s that make up our individual lives and pastimes and passions and careers and giving them to the ‘cloud’, as if they were a sacrificial offering. The little 1′s and 0′s are slowly emigrating to the inexplicable and fuzzy pseudo universe of the internet, as if it were a thing that we put them in, like a safe or a cupboard. It’s not a thing, despite Moss and Roy’s hilarious attempt to convince Jen in the IT crowd that it is. It is, as mentioned, an inexplicable and fuzzy and pseudo universe. My mother always told me to beware of pseudo universes!
Now, I know I always come across as paranoid in these blogs but I’m just pointing these things out. Because I have no idea how secure it is or who can potentially access it. How many of us really do? I mean sure, people tell us these things are safe and generally these are the kind of people or organisations I would believe. Why would they lie? I’m not a conspiracy theorist, nor a paranoid schizophrenic but I DO NOT HAVE A CLUE what constitutes as safe on the internet or not (apart from the belief that websites starting http aren’t secure and those that start https are). And yet off the little 1′s and 0′s go. There they go. Wave goodbye…
Ok so I’m probably being paranoid, but seriously, what if someone just guessed your password? What if someone just managed to pick the digital lock of your online safe… More the point, what if some malevolent and underhanded government or bleak and brutalised administration of the future wanted to do some digging a few decades down the line. Is there any going back then? We’re all on facebook. Now we’re about to empty our suitcases and cd wallets out into the endless filing cabinets of cyberspace.
….My god, I think may have actually got carried away.
That’s not like me
“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.