29 August 2009

What price for our back yards?

By Marguerite Finn

The surveyor, naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau held that the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.

The price of the land must have figured in the minds of those proposing the 'Norfolk Hub Development', (appropriately dubbed 'Disney World for the Broads', EDP 27 July), of four square kilometres of farmland between my village of Little Plumstead and the gateway to the Broads at Wroxham. The proposal for a massive conference and tourism complex includes eleven hotels, a sports centre, outdoor stage, golf course, lorry parks…

What sort of 'life' would the developers exchange for this? Doubtless they took into account the increased traffic, road accidents, building-site mishaps, late-night violence and gang warfare that concreting over prime agricultural land would inevitably cost. Maybe they exchanged those in their minds for the new human life inhabiting the built environment? Did they think of the genocide of invertebrate life, from earthworms to ladybirds, and of plants from algae to dandelions, in every cubic metre of soil they would replace with tarmac and bricks? Does their balance sheet mention the sea-floor life extinguished by the dredging of building aggregate for concrete? The dictionary definition of "concrete" is "formed into one mass" – spot-on for the true objective of this development: to produce a concrescence stretching from Norwich to Wroxham, engulfing discrete Broadland villages and their communities all along the way. The Broads Authority has objected to Broadland District Council's (BDC) proposals and to the notion of "closing up the gaps" between the distinct communities of Norwich and Wroxham.

Where will the rainwater go, denied the 'sponge' effect of the soil? The run-off will cascade into the River Bure causing it to flood. Or, has the government magically taken care of that by proposing to replace the existing Internal Drainage Boards, thereby consigning a tried and tested system of drainage and flood prevention to the dustbin?

Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn said recently that Britain must produce more of its own food to help prevent the rising world population from going hungry. So the developers plan to grow conferences on good land here while our entrepreneurs grab Ukrainian land to grow wheat on! That’s a joke worthy of Micky Mouse.

And what about those who presently enjoy the peace of 'messing about in boats' in this unique part of the world? Who needs expensive leisure centres in such a naturally unspoilt and beautiful place?

If that makes NIMBYs (Not In My back Yard) of all the plants, animals and humans who would suffer from the Norfolk Hub, then so be it. Such an irrevocable transformation in our landscape involves all of us and our back yards. No matter when – or if – we climb out of this economic recession, the world has changed and we must change too in order to survive climate change, resource wars and a population explosion. One way of coping is to re-connect with Nature. Environmentalist Satish Kumar, writing in Resurgence, says: "The cause of these multiple crises is our disconnection from the place where we belong. Wherever we live we need to be rooted in our place." Spreading urbanisation mitigates against a sense of place and produces a sense of alienation.

Thoreau's back yard was a pond in Massachusetts. The former Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva's back yard is the rainforest. She resigned from the country's ruling party, berating the country's leaders for pursuing material wealth at the expense of the natural world, and may stand for president. Would that they could join Broadland District Council – and the latest outfit, the Broadland Growth Project - bringing practical common sense to offset the current virulent outbreak of Developer's delirium.

Since they can't, we must deal with it ourselves; BDC's consultation ends on 4th September.

22 August 2009

Identity and Afghanistan

By Lee Marsden

The other day I came across a book on the construction of Japanese identity, which seeks to explain changes in Japan's international role before and after the Second World War. As I considered the changes from a militaristic to a largely pacific nation I was reminded of an old Geography textbook passed down to me as a child. Written in 1913 it described the Germans as a 'hardworking and industrious people', during the Great War someone had scrawled across this description 'naturally warlike and vicious'. In both cases a connection between national identity and worldview is presented but one in which perceptions and identities change over time, resulting in changes in how countries engage with the rest of the world. Although identities are contested, dominant discourses emerge that impact on the foreign policies pursued by countries. Ruling elites present their foreign policy to appeal to these constructed identities.

Why then is it that countries like Japan and Germany are reluctant today to engage in warfare, despite having militaristic pasts, while Britain and the United States enthusiastically embrace war as a means of resolving disputes? Even now is there an Afghan child scribbling in a text book that the British are 'naturally warlike and vicious'? Of course not, you cry, because part of British identity is fair play, support for the underdog, a sense of duty and responsibility to others. When Britain goes to war, unlike other countries, it is always in a noble cause. Indeed, we have been well trained.

Our government appeals to a British identity that eschews naked self-interest to legitimate policies carried out in our name. In order to justify sending British troops to kill people in Afghanistan, for example, citizens need to be prepared and kept on side. The 'enemy' must be demonised and presented as the personification of evil, an existential threat that, unless we act, imperils our own security and way of life. We must be seen to act on behalf of the ordinary people, especially women, and provide them with freedom, democracy and human rights. Our troops must be presented as the best in the world bravely fighting an enemy that simply doesn't fight fair. The sacrifice, in terms of lost lives and limbs, is worthwhile because of the higher goals of bringing peace, stability and freedom to the Afghan people and reducing the terrorist threat to Britain.

Against this there are inconvenient truths which must not be acknowledged and dissident voices which must be silenced. When a government minister says that the campaign in Afghanistan makes absolutely no difference to Britain's internal security, or an incoming army chief warns that Britain's involvement would last for decades, they must be made to recant. Democracy must be seen to be working despite rigged elections, deals made with Taliban warlords, the influence of tribal elders, and the sale of votes. Women’s rights must be seen to be advanced despite only one in six girls in education and laws restricting women’s freedom of movement, attire, and marital rights. We must be seen to be making a difference and defeating the Taliban despite little improvement to the country's infrastructure, and de facto Taliban control of almost half the country. We must not acknowledge that our troops are unable to defeat a poorly equipped but resilient and resourceful enemy. We should not acknowledge that the real bravery and heroism comes from the Afghan people forced to live in a battle zone. Finally, we should not acknowledge that Britain's involvement has everything to do with standing alongside the US in order to enhance our international importance.

Such acknowledgements might after all appeal to a British identity that seeks peaceful solutions, would prefer a foreign policy that serves British rather than US interests, and rejects any more troops dying to prop up the Karzai government.

15 August 2009


By Rupert Read

The media has been a hugely powerful set of institutions for several generations, and especially in this last generation or so. It has achieved a level of influence and even dominance in contemporary culture that would have surprised most citizens of the Victorian age.

But is it time to write the media's obituary? It seems the media may be in decline, perhaps terminal. Its mediation of the messages we receive is under threat. A process that we might term dismediation is seemingly underway.

What is happening is that the ostensible products of the media are being increasingly made available free via the internet, and are simultaneously being broken down into bite-size chunks. (When one looks for a podcast, one needn't look for the rest of the programme / of the series / of the paper.)

The process of dismediation, that might spell the end of the media, is fairly widely (though by no means universally) seen as inevitable. Those who think it is inevitable typically worry about some of its consequences (such as the end of newspapers, unless they can find an alternative funding stream, such as philanthropy), but typically welcome its vehicle: consumer-choice. It's widely seen as a good thing that media-consumers can bypass media to go directly to the stories / information / infotainments etc they desire.

I wish to challenge that assumption. While there is clearly something superbly democratic and levelling about the process of dismediation, I wish to suggest here a powerful reason why the end of media would be a bad thing:

There is good reason to think that such maximisation of consumer-choice is not good. Excessive choice leads to extra unnecessary time trying to make such choices; it involves usually a net loss of information; it leaves us less able to negotiate our world.

There is a good reason then why many people regret and warn against the threats to media. The loss of the Guardian or the BBC would be a genuine loss. These 'mediators' have a style; they hang together in a particular way; they help us know our way around. They embody a wisdom. They help us 'navigate' the world. In simple terms: they make us feel at home, for a reason.

Printed newspapers and public-service broadcasters bring together all that they've decided is worth looking at in one place, and force me to be aware (at least briefly) of a lot of stuff I wouldn't have gone searching for on the web. They make me step outside my information comfort zone (a little).

The welcomers of dismediation ignore this truth: that the collective 'social mind' of communities is very frequently superior to the individual mind that consumerism as an ideology elevates for highest praise. The 'social mind' of something like the Guardian or the BBC or the EDP may be flawed; but it also contains much wisdom. And obviously, alternative media can sometimes contain still more: look at something like Z magazine, and Znet.

But isn't my argument one-sided; won't it be an unalloyed benefit to lose Fox, or the Daily Mail? No; because even these help us know the world. They provide a lens, a gathering system. We come to know our way around them, and to understand something of their biases. Without media, there will only be the individual pitted against an incalculably vast array of sources of information and entertainment.

Mediation is not then prima facie a bad thing, insofar as it helps us to navigate our way about, to a greater extent than we could ever do as isolated individuals. The media must not and will not end, for that reason. Because actually we are wise enough to know that we are not as individuals wise enough to know all we need to know about…

8 August 2009

Nuclear double standards

By Nicola Pratt

August 6 was the 64th anniversary of the explosion of the first nuclear bomb by the United States over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This was followed by another nuclear explosion over Nagasaki on 9 August. These are the only nuclear attacks ever conducted in history and the scale of destruction wrought is almost too terrifying to comprehend. In Hiroshima, the bomb laid waste to two thirds of the city and killed up to 180,000 people (out of a population of 350,000). In Nagasaki, almost one quarter of the city was destroyed and up to 100,000 people died. Approximately half of those killed, the vast majority of whom were civilians, perished on the days of the bombings - from the effects of the intense heat and fires, from flash burns, trauma, radiation burns and radiation sickness. Since 1945, hundreds have died from cancers attributed to exposure to nuclear radiation. Norwich CND, like many other peace groups around the world, marks the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings annually by calling for global nuclear disarmament to prevent another nuclear tragedy.

Given the horrors of nuclear warfare, why do some countries still possess nuclear weapons? Our own government has committed to replace the Trident nuclear arsenals, estimated to cost £76 billion. Other countries possessing nuclear weapons are the United States, Russia, China and France - all of whom are signatories to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This means that these countries are committed to negotiating in good faith to achieve complete nuclear disarmament. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the treaty was signed in 1970 and the Cold War ended in 1989, there is only limited progress towards this goal - notwithstanding last month's agreement between Washington and Moscow to reduce their nuclear weaponry by as much as a third. Until now, the Treaty has failed to halt proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond the 'big five'.

Contravening the NPT, the US has transferred between 150 and 240 nuclear weapons to Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. Meanwhile, Israel, India and Pakistan have not signed the Treaty, yet possess nuclear weapons. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and has tested nuclear weapons on several occasions (the last time being less than three months ago). Iran, a signatory to the NPT, was deemed by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be failing to comply with the treaty in its development of nuclear energy for civilian use. Although the agency did not find any evidence that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, there remained "uncertainties with regard to both the scope and the nature of Iran's nuclear programme", according to Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director.

The debate over nuclear non-proliferation reveals the hypocrisies that exist in world affairs. Those who have led the imposition of sanctions on Iran, for its alleged potential to develop nuclear weapons, include the US - the only country to have actually used nuclear weapons - as well as Britain, who is trying to renew its nuclear capability, rather than reduce it in line with its NPT commitments. The anti-Iran chorus also includes Israel - a country that has not only failed to sign the NPT but has also refused to admit to possessing nuclear weapons, and which kidnapped and imprisoned for 18 years a former nuclear technical assistant (Mordechai Vanunu) for revealing the existence of a nuclear programme to the press. My aim is not to defend the Iranian government as a shining beacon of peace. Rather, I highlight the current double standards because they undermine possibilities for an agreement on global nuclear disarmament and provide new incentives for a nuclear arms race in the most volatile regions of the world.

Next May (2010), there will be a review of the NPT. To pressure our government to make serious steps towards nuclear disarmament, sign the petition at ipetitions.com.

1 August 2009

Two faces of the nuclear industry

By Marguerite Finn

Is nuclear power Janus faced? The two faces were juxtaposed on the same platform of a special meeting of the Sizewell Stakeholder Group (SSG) about the worrying leak at Sizewell-A in 2007. Briefings were given by current and past Site Directors of the station, and also by the joint authors of the only report on the accident from Nuclear Installation Inspectorate (NII) that anyone has been able to acquire.

It is beyond question that the then Site Director, Bob Kury, Chief Engineer Paul Wilkinson and their staff dealt with the emergency immediately and competently, minimising the risk to the public. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

But the NII Report revealed a shambolic system of Control and Instrumentation (C&I), which had gone unchecked by NII Inspectors and previous site operators. C&I has been described as the "cerebral cortex" of a nuclear power station. It governs systems that monitor and control the station's performance – including computerised safety systems. It was evident that in January 2007, some C&I at Sizewell-A had been allowed to break down.

Most readers will know that the radioactive leak was only discovered when a contractor made an unscheduled visit to the laundry room to wash some clothes and just happened to notice water from the cooling pond leaking on to the laundry room floor. As much as 40,000 gallons of radioactive water had spilled out of a 15ft long split in a pipe – a pipe which the original contractor incorrectly installed with thinner than specified walls made from PVC instead of ABS. There was no record of this plumbing ever being inspected by the NII.

The Report confirmed that radionuclides CS-137 and Tritium were discharged into the sea through the storm drain. It also revealed that a drain in the laundry toilet floor had discharged some radioactive water into the local sewage works. The Central Processing Unit failed and a new pond alarm system, which had been in place for months, had not been connected properly and did not work.

I was not re-assured by the pin-stripped casuistry of the representatives of the NII – and by extension that of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) – or their approach to safety in the highly dangerous nuclear industry. They spent a lot of time defending their decision not to prosecute Magnox South (the owners of the station), glossing over many of the dangers listed in the Report and trying to exonerate the NII for failing to detect past safety lapses prior to the event.

Turning to new nuclear build in general, the government has asked the NII to do a Generic Design Assessment (GDA) on two types of new reactor against a pressing time line. They have found the C&I on safety of one reactor design to be far from satisfactory; but rather than missing the government deadline, they propose to allow the safety problems to be addressed later - ticking boxes on time being more important to them than public safety.

Finnish regulators have already raised concerns about the very similar Olkiluoto reactor's C&I systems and France's own attempt at Flamanville to build the same type of reactor as is planned for the UK is also beset by some C&I problems troubling the French nuclear regulators. In fact, both reactors are so behind schedule and over budget that Areva (building the Finnish reactor) is unwilling to predict when they will be finished and working.

We are unlikely to see new nuclear reactors in the UK any time soon – for which we should be glad, given the manifest safety problems at nuclear installations. As the Rev John Pomfret (1667-1702) said: "And who would run, that’s moderately wise, A certain danger for a doubtful prize?"