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Sunday 13th May 2012
Population pressure (and beware the 'lovelocks')
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

Visiting Uganda recently - a country where everything that has been achieved is in danger of being destroyed by people upon people upon people - I was struck how sensitive an issue population growth is.    When I suggested to some very enlightened and decent Europeans there that all that a lot of good works in Uganda are being set to naught to by the country’s population growth rate, my audience almost looked away.   “We are just kicking the can down the road” I said, if the population doubles in 40 years.

Interestingly, several well-informed Ugandans had no trouble with owning up to the problem.  Three cited population growth as the country’s biggest challenge. 

It’s of course understandable why Europeans visiting Uganda might be reticent its population growth.  For one thing, there’s a smack of imperialism about white folks saying that black folks have just got to learn to have smaller families, fast.  For another, European children are much more of a drain on the planet’s resources than African ones.

But perhaps now the issue of population growth is going to receive its proper and urgent attention.   The Royal Society has come up with a brilliant report People and The Planet.  It’s available free as a PDF download (www.royalsociety.org/people-planet/report).    The report has the great virtue of looking square in the face the damage that runaway population growth is causing in countries such as Niger - or indeed Uganda.  At the same time, it recognises that further development is needed in these poor countries if their growth rates are to be brought under control, and that there’s a large unmet need from people for fertility controls.  

The Society’s report also has the concomitant virtue of addressing the strain that developed nations are placing upon the world, and how unchecked consumption must be brought under control.   In this way, it achieves a very good balance. 

The report achieved the accolade of all such clear thinking: an attack up on it from the Adam Smith Institute, in this case by Tim Worstall.     Anything that suggests there are limits to our growth and consumption drives such Smithites completely nuts.  Fun to watch.

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While I am on the subject of over-reaction, two days ago I was a victim myself of this response.    I was lying in early bath, listening to James Lovelock being interviewed on Radio 4.   As ever, he said some insightful things.  But it’s plain that whenever his brain registers the word `nuclear’, it comes under extreme electrical agitation.   He said, I kid you not; “There’s this incredible fuss… about this Fukushima incident.  What would happen to the fields of wind turbines in Europe if we had a Richter 9 type earthquake?  The whole lot would topple over and quite a few people would be killed where their houses would be hit.”   I was so stunned by the bizarre nature of this comparison that once I had surfaced from under the bath water, I checked Lovelock’s utterance on Radio4 Listen Again.

It’s hard to know quite where to start in dealing with this comparison.    One way would to be read the current issue of The London Review of Books where Rebecca Solnit writes of the after-effects of the Japanese tsunami.   It’s harrowing stuff, revealing among other things that early on the Japanese Prime Minister had looked at the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, a city of 35 million.   I think one can safely say that wind turbines could never threaten cities of 35 million people.

Perhaps one way of marking James Lovelock’s enthusiasm for things nuclear (the safest form of energy ever invented, he says), would be to re-name units of radiation as `lovelocks’.     James Lovelock could then be remembered not just for his Gaia theory, but also every time a nuclear reactor got into serious trouble.  (“High levels of lovelocks were detected near the Hinckley reactors, as the population of Bristol was evacuated to the Welsh mountains… the lack of skinny soya lattes causing serious distress to the evacuees.”)

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James Lovelock, with both his great wisdoms and his eccentricity, can be heard soon at this year’s Hay Festival.   The programme can be viewed online at www.hayfestival.com.    There is an interesting  programme  running at the Hay on Earth stage, including Steven Vaughan on nano-technology and David MacKay and others on how to decarbonise by 2050., and a session on the successor to MacKay’s book “Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air”  --- Julian Allwood and Jonathan Cullen’s book “Sustainable Energy – With Both Eyes Open.” 

 

I shall be writing a blog at www.getresilient.com/blog regularly from the Festival’s green events.

Tuesday 1st May 2012
Richard Heinberg and Stephanie Mills discuss the forthcoming energy transition
Contributor: Will Bugler

Stephanie Mills, well known author and teacher is joined by the Post Carbon Institute's, Richard Heinberg. Richard is internationally recognised as one of the foremost authors and lecturers on the subject of Peak Oil. Speaking to Investigating Community Resilience (formerly Outside In) the pair discuss our impending energy transition, starting with the question "Where are we on the time-line of history in this era of energy transition?"

Thursday 26th April 2012
Seeing through the nuclear Prism
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

In the midst of a joyful party the other day, I had a surprise: two good and sensible friends suddenly rounded on me. I was a green Luddite, they said, and the reason is that I had made some muted doubts about a plan, much boosted in the Guardian of all unlikely places, for a new kind of nuclear reactor. You environmentalists, said one of these good friends, you always oppose. You are always negative.

My friends had bought the February 3rd issue of The Guardian, which ran several pieces for the reactor design Prism, backed by General Electric and Hitachi. The Prism, these pieces said, could give us centuries of energy while reducing our stockpile of energy waste. George Monbiot no less was on hand to praise it, an event which not very long ago would have been as unthinkable as the Archbishop of Canterbury espousing the Secular Society. My good friends were impressed, as I suspect many Guardian readers were.

But it took only a day for the Guardian’s specialist readership to come up with buckets of cold water.  The Prism, they said, is nothing but a fast reactor in new clothing.  “No one has built a fast reactor on a commercial basis” said Tom Burke of E3G, Paul Dorfman of the Nuclear Consulting Group and John Sauven, of Greenpeace.  “You can make paper designs for anything but that is a long way from sorting out the real-world engineering and economic issues that will actually deliver affordable and low carbon energy.”  Walt Patterson of Chatham House was perhaps most eloquent of all in his opening words.  “Oh please…”  which aurally would have been expressed: “Oh purleese….”

As Patterson explained, the problem is not the reactor… “the boilers have thousands of thin metal tubes with water on one side and molten sodium on the other… Every plant of this kind ever built has had boiler leaks with potential hydrogen explosions that make the plant impossible on an electricity system.”

It emerged then that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has had a close look at Prism and didn’t like what it saw. Jean McSorley, a Cumbria based nuclear critic, obtained internal NDA emails.   The Prism technology “was still to be demonstrated commercially” said an NDA email and “the technology maturity for the fuel, the reactor and the recycling plant are all considered to be low.”

The NDA pointed out that the Prism would use plutonium metal rather than the oxide form in which UK plutonium is currently stored.   Plutonium metal is easier to make into nuclear bombs “This would introduce more security/proliferation risk”   From a resilience perspective, a Prism then would appear to be as undesirable a reactor type as there could possibly be.

And there, for a short time, it seemed to rest.   George Monbiot, convinced that nuclear is the only form of energy that can replace fossil fuels in the time space we have to avoid irreversible climate change, seemed to have become a good man who had fallen among fast neutrons  - and emerged rather the worse for wear.

But then, another surprise.   The Independent reported that the UK Government, after all, has agreed to fund a four month feasibility study into the Prism.   The key factor in the change seems to have been the advocacy of David Mackay, Chief Scientist at DECC.   Now David MacKay is indeed a name to conjure with.   He wrote, as any fule kno, that brilliant book Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air  - which used sheer hard data to sort energy solutions from energy fantasies ( for instance, that on-shore wind can power Britain.)  If MacKay has got time for a Prism study, perhaps there is something there.

I am intrigued. I am agog, waiting for the answer.   I remain also profoundly sceptical. We may learn a little more when David MacKay appears at the Hay Festival on June 9th.   I will report back.  Watch this space.

Monday 23rd April 2012
New book on local resilience and sustainable societies
Contributor: Will Bugler

Philip Monaghan investigates the role of local communities in strengthening resilience in his new book ‘How local resilience creates sustainable societies’. The book makes the case for bottom-up approaches to local sustainability touching on examples from across the world.

Monaghan explores local policies in the context of the wider political context in the UK. His principal point is that resilience gives agency to sustainability at the local level, empowering communities to take responsibility for their own futures. The book illustrates how communities are strengthening resilience in a policy vacuum left by the failings of traditional organisations. 

Monday 16th April 2012
100 years since Titanic, ships still sink
Contributor: Will Bugler

Yesterday at 11:40pm, the boom of a ship’s horn rang out in the mid-Atlantic. Passengers on MS Balmoral and the Azamara Journey, stood on deck in silent vigil, remembering the moment when the Titanic struck the iceberg 100 years ago.

Titanic’s sinking was a tragedy that showed that even the most technologically advanced operations are ultimately still vulnerable. Since the Titanic disaster technology on cruise ships has continued to become more and more sophisticated; radar, GPS and automatic route planning have all been introduced to improve safety. But ships still sink.

A recent documentary [link to 4oD – only available for UK viewers] explored the reasons why naval disasters still happen despite advances in technology. The reasons for ships sinking were multifarious; they ranged from vital part failures, to accidental fires to human error. They always came as a complete surprise to the designers and the operators of the ships.

The film concluded that despite technological advances, problems will occur. The biggest concern voiced by safety experts in the film is the lack of regulation on ship size. RMS Titanic was 882 feet 9 inches long (269.06 m) and weighed 46,328 tons, she carried 3,327 people. The largest cruise ship today (see the photo below), the Allure of the Seas, measures 1,181 feet (360 m) in length and weighs over 240,000 tons. The capacity of the Allure is a staggering 8,684 passengers and crew.

It is not a mark of progress that a serious accident on a cruise ship today would endanger so many lives.

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