26 April 2008

We told you so

By Rupert Read

If something bad happens, people who had warned that it was likely often say, "I don't like to say it, but, I told you so!"

Why is it that one is supposed not to like to say it?

Is it perhaps that we don't like to admit it when we were wrong, especially when we were warned that we were wrong? Are people who make us realise that we made a predictable - almost wilful - mistake unwelcomed because of that fact?

The honest truth is that we ought to listen to those who told us so. They saw it coming – they will be better at heading it off, next time.

22 years ago today, April 26 1986, Nuclear Reactor Four at Chernobyl exploded, releasing more than a hundred times the radiation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. A scientific report commissioned by Greenpeace estimates that over 100,000 human beings will die of Chernobyl-related cancer.

I recently watched a brilliant and chilling film called Surviving disaster, a drama-documentary on Chernobyl: on those who warned of impending disaster, and of their warnings being ignored.

The government tells us that its new nuclear programme will involve power stations that are much safer than Chernobyl was: that Sizewell C would be much better than Sizewell B or A. Funnily enough, that is exactly what the Soviet government said a generation ago about Reactor Four at Chernobyl – that it was much safer than Reactors Three, Two or One…

Before Chernobyl, those who warned that a catastrophic nuclear disaster could quite easily befall a civil nuclear power plant were mostly ignored or scoffed at. Afterward, they were quite entitled to say, "We told you so." For a generation, people seemed to listen, and very few nuclear power plants were built.

But memories are short, and our economy's desire for energy apparently insatiable. We seem now to be forgetting that, to truly learn from something bad happening, we need to take long-term notice of those who warned it was coming.

And now for something completely different – but, actually, not so different: biofuels. When large scale biofuels first appeared on the scene about five years ago, they were welcomed by most as a 'green' solution to the long oil-depletion crisis that we are undergoing, in that they supposedly had low net carbon emissions. Those of us who spoke out from an early stage against these 'agrofuels' were at first ignored – it was very hard for us to get a hearing in the broadcast media, and the editorial line of this august newspaper too didn’t seem to pay attention to our warnings.

Now, we are finally being heard loud and clear, as it becomes obvious that large-scale biofuels are devastating the world's rainforests abroad, pushing many of the world’s poor to the edge of starvation, and, as food prices go through the roof worldwide, depriving us of food-security at home. Do we grow crops to feed ourselves – or to feed our cars?

Large-scale biofuels are killing the world's poor right now. One day their consequences might even kill you and me.

What conclusion should we draw from all this? Large-scale biofuels and domestic nuclear power, diverse as they might seem, have in common that they are attempts at a 'techno-fix', a purely technological way of meeting our desire for energy. They impose huge risks upon us and upon our descendants – those risks are supposedly justified by our craving for more energy, now.

Examples could be multiplied: 'clean' coal is another such mythical techno-fix, the fire of which we are seemingly about to leap into, from out of the frying pan of biofuels…

New technology has of course a vital role to play in steering us through the vast environmental crisis that we currently face – but only appropriate technology. Only low-risk-technology that will actually make things better, such as solar hot-water heating and combined heat and power systems. And there is also a critically-important role for us changing our behaviour. For example, wasting less energy, so that there is less of a need for new fuels in the first place.

We would do well to listen to the critics of techno-fixes. Those of us who got it right, who are entitled to say, "We told you so". Nuclear power and agrofuels are and were always disasters in the making. Before it is too late, let us learn from those who were ahead of the curve in criticising them.

The best way in which we can honour the victims of Chernobyl is to vow never to repeat the mistake of depending upon any deadly-dangerous source, to power our society.