Thursday, December 15, 2011

wotalotta rubbish

Call me naïve or call me an ostrich; I’m a global warming sceptic. I do believe ocean levels are rising and ice caps are melting, but this is a belief in things that are happening, not a belief in the reasons they are happening.

Like many others who are not scientists, I can only rely on experts for advice about causes. Choosing which experts to believe is a little like choosing which self-appointed expert I should trust to tell me what god was thinking when he dictated the holy scriptures.

I’m rather sceptical about emissions trading schemes, whatever name or form they take; I’m certain they are neither a priority nor the great planet saver it is claimed they are.

Quite simply, carbon dioxide emissions are a form of pollution, but it is for the effects of all pollutants we must make ourselves accountable to current and future generations.

There are many forms of pollution we should be concerned about; carbon dioxide emissions are one, but the most toxic are the trade in arms and weapons, and the by-products of all Uranium mining. For this reason, the ‘carbon tax’ seems no great victory to me, and whatever its worth, this has been more than cancelled by the decision to extend uranium sales to India.

There is something either sick or surreal – perhaps both – about the arms industry. Who are these people, who devise bigger and better and more efficient ways of killing and maiming people while, hopefully, destroying as little infrastructure as possible?
As someone more original than I once pointed out, they are perfectly normal people who love their families, cherish freedom and go to church on Sundays.

It is one thing to defend ourselves, or to show that we can defend ourselves, but how is it self-defence to plant mines in third world countries where people live at subsistence level and depend on crops for survival?
Let’s not dwell on the detail of how grenades do their job, or the engineering genius behind this or that type of land-mine: How is it self-defence to decide we’ve won our battle, then walk off and leave this grisly pollution behind?

We have national laws designed to ensure we all get along with our neighbours, and that we take good care of ourselves. We need permits to cut down dangerous trees, we are forbidden to put “For Sale” signs on cars parked by the side of the road, we must register pets and prove they’ve been neutered, and alcohol and tobacco are heavily taxed to protect us from ourselves.
Yet it is seen as perfectly sane, sound business practice to manufacture arms in quantities above and beyond those required for our self defence. Weapons are traded to different factions involved in any number of civil wars around the globe – and let’s call these wars what they are in most instances; ethnic cleansing.
We sell guns to warlords and then need guns to defend ourselves when we try to send aid to the people who are starving because warlords have guns.

How about a weapons trading scheme as a useful tax priority?

A second form of pollution, with a different kind of toxicity but an equally serious one, is the mining of uranium.

Left in the ground and undisturbed, uranium is relatively harmless. Mining creates radioactive tailings and destroys water resources.
Uranium has some value in providing advanced medical equipment, but like arms for self-defence, the medical benefits of uranium cannot justify the quantities we trade.

The hypocrisy of continuing to mine and sell coal for electricity generation while we cry about carbon emissions is one thing. The stupidity of arguing that nuclear power is cleaner and safer is staggering.

Working on a health and safety project for a manufacturing firm, the question “What is the worst that could happen?” was asked. Of course, no one is expected to plan against the worst that could happen, because the probability of the worst that could happen is so low. If we had to allow for the worst possibilities all the time, we would have to stop breathing.
None the less, this question of “the worst” provides a benchmark for working backwards and deciding what we ought to worry about.

When asked what is the worst that could happen to our factory, I naturally said “A plane could fall out of the sky”. Perhaps I deserved the flak I got because I’m sometimes too flippant, but 3 weeks later the Twin Towers were hit.

Accidents happen:
Disasters are what happen when the thing that was least likely to happen happens.

After Three Mile Island we seemed to say to ourselves “Phew, that was close! Right, what lessons can be learned and how do we idiot-proof the process?” 
After an appropriate length of time we can distance ourselves from cover-ups like Maralinga or Windscale, and say “thank goodness that sort of thing wouldn’t happen now”. 
After Chernobyl we could say “oh well, it was inevitable but the Soviet Union has crumbled and the world is now safe from the inefficiencies of command economies”.

But what do we say after Fukushima?

Fukushima shook me the way no previous accident could. When the tsunami first hit the power plant, I was confident the Japanese would be able to deal with the problem better than any other people in the world.
The Japanese embraced quality-system-thinking 60 years before any other country in the world, and it helped Japan become the economic power it is today. They had the foresight to build a massive retaining wall to protect their nuclear plants from a worst case scenario – a tsunami. Unfortunately, their worst case scenario was not improbable enough, and two plate movements created the monster that very quickly killed thousands and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Fukushima is still spewing radioactive waste into the ocean which, ultimately, every country shares. A nation with very little arable land now has even less, and less chance to make a shift from being reliant on seafood to reliant on anything else.

Mining uranium and using nuclear power not only involve risk, they create waste. Who should take the waste? How can we bury it safely so that following generations will have a few hundred years to leisurely discover a better way to use it, or even store it?
“Not in my back yard!” 
Should those who buy uranium be responsible for its storage, or those who dig it up in the first place? One popular answer seems to be “let’s just bury it on Aboriginal land which, as we know, has no value and is wasted anyway”.

One of the biggest causes of carbon dioxide emissions - and pollution in general - is the west’s insatiable appetite for crap.

For years I was naïve enough to never use aluminium foil or plastic food wrap because I cared about the planet. Then I worked for a company which produced about 3 container loads of non-biodegradable waste a week. 
Most of this waste resulted from a combination of engineering incompetence, poor management, and ridiculous customer specifications.
The cost of dumping this waste was such that the manager seriously contemplated buying cheap farmland so he could just dig a bloody great hole in the ground and bury it himself.

Like many people, I use plastic food containers, and have plastic bowls and spatulas and measuring cups. At least these have a reasonable life span. But I have just bought some Christmas presents made of plastic [as if the world needs yet another Barbie doll]. Guilty as charged.

Many of the consumer goods we buy have a very short life and are made of non-biodegradable materials. Some plastic can be recycled, but in many cases this would simply be impractical – the waste is too small to bother with, and is in any case unusable because it is mixed with other materials.

Somewhere ‘out there’ pollution is being created to generate power to run injection moulding machines using plastics made of fossil fuels to create manufacturing and warehousing and transport and retail jobs by producing crap like this:

Drink Holder Cowboy Hat

which will, after we all have a good laugh for ten minutes, end up in landfill.

In India, there are communities where people make a living of sorts by salvaging materials from decommissioned nuclear powered vessels. The life expectancy of these people is [from memory] just over 30 years.

I remember a picture of an elderly Japanese man sifting through rubble near Fukushima, looking for food. He was not looting; he and his wife were starving. And when he was caught on camera he broke down, crying “I’m so ashamed, I’m so ashamed…”

Yes, ocean levels are rising and people living on small islands are threatened and species will die out. But this is all wrong, and I feel impotent in the face of it all.

I suspect, on balance, the Labor Party’s achievement in pulling off a ‘carbon tax’ and compromising on a mining tax have been pretty insignificant in the scheme of things.


  1. I am not against the carbon tax. We need to pay for our carbon output, but it does rather gloss over the bigger picture. There is no self satisfaction to be had there.

    It amazes me that Australia does not have an country wide electronic recyling scheme. It has been hard rubbish collection time in many areas, with tv and old computer monitors by the thousands put out, to go into landfill. Quite a few old printers too.

    I was an avid fan of Dr Helen Caldicott years ago. I still admire her, but I lost my faith. If the most technically sophisticated country in the world screws up so badly with nuclear power, no where is safe. In spite of that, we have now agreed to sell uranium to India, against the party policy. Lucky our uranium will be used for good purposes. Not so good that the uranium dedicated for good purposes can now be diverted to bad purposes. I despair. As for arms, you point northeast across the Pacific and I'll whistle. Mururoa here we come.

  2. Interesting about the hard rubbish, Andrew: The Other's nephew tells me that in Sydney no one is allowed to put out computer screens [or whatever it was] because more enterprising people smash them up to get at a valuable and recyclable component, leaving the mess behind.
    [which reminds me... I still haven't worked out what I did with my old word processing typewriter!]

  3. Fantastic post...but depressing. I guess that's reality for you.

    I guess small efforts don't do much in the scheme of things. But maybe small is better than nothing; as long as you don't fall for the delusion that one little step is going to save the world.

  4. Yes, I have been a bit doom and gloom here, haven't I? As for thinking globally and acting locally, sometimes I struggle to keep a sense of proportion.