31 December 2012

Our trains shouldn't have to take the strain

By Rupert Read

On Jan. 2nd during rush-hour, Norwich will be part of a nationwide action urging commuters to complain to the Chancellor about government’s failure to invest in our rail network.

Why is this happening? Because, as rail passengers go back to work in the New Year they’ll be faced with a new round of fare increases. It will be the tenth consecutive year that fares have risen above the cost of living. This is a strain that it is quite wrong for our rail system to be having to put up with.

To coincide with the introduction of the new fares, an alliance of campaigners for a better public transport system will be leafleting early morning commuters at traditionally significant rail hubs across Britain including Bristol, Derby, York and London St Pancras. I will be leading the “rush hour” demonstration outside Norwich station, starting at 07.45 on Wednesday January 2nd. (Join me there, if you can!)

Back in October the coalition government capped the latest rail fare rise at 4.2 percent in order to defuse anger at the 6 percent rise it had planned to allow. That was trumpeted by the likes of Transport Minister Norman Baker as a fair deal for passengers. But it’s nothing of the sort because even with that reduction, UK train travellers will still be paying some of the highest rail fares anywhere in Europe. Yet we are still very far from achieving the kind of efficient, truly integrated public transport system which would benefit us all.

I believe that one of the essential components of that would be a re-nationalised railway system. But this government is intent on cutting the contribution from taxpayers towards a rail system which everyone can afford to use, in favour of piling more of the cost onto the passengers themselves. Passengers in Norwich – and across the country – have had enough of this! The average 4.2 percent rise is formulated as RPI inflation (retail price index) plus one percent. The government has indicated that the rise in 2014 will also be one percent above whatever RPI inflation is at that time. It is government, not the train companies themselves, which controls the rise in the average price of “regulated fares”, which includes season tickets. Unregulated fares could rise by a greater margin.

The Norwich demonstration on the morning of the 2nd is led by ‘ACT’, Active Citizens Transform, a new umbrella organisation working to intervene in the politics of the UK at points where such intervention is badly needed. Other members of the alliance against the rail fare hikes include the TSSA (Transport Salaried Staffs Association) and Together for Transport, who have warned that the spiralling cost of commuting has become such a heavy financial burden that it will cost David Cameron commuters’ votes at the next election. They say that research found that only 29 per cent of commuters are satisfied they are getting value for money from their tickets. I think that the real-world birth of ACT, this New Year, will be an important moment for the future of activism in this country. I hope you will be there with me bright and early on the 2nd, to make the point in numbers! [For further info, cut and paste http://www.togetherfortransport.org/farefail/ into your browser]

15 December 2012

Fighting for a Frack-Free Future

by Sarah Woods
There’s a growing trend in the production of hydrocarbons. Having taken a lot of the ‘easy’ stuff out of the ground, we’re now moving on to ‘unconventional’ sources. There are massive potential reserves of unconventionals, but their extraction comes at a high risk to the environment.  

Shale gas is obtained by fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a process whereby large amounts of water, chemicals and sand are injected into underground rock formations to ‘fracture’ them, releasing gas. As with tar sands, previously inaccessible or unviable reserves of shale gas now look more attractive, thanks to new technology and rising fossil fuel prices. Add to this the UK’s importation of more than half its gas supplies this year, now the offshore reserves that made us self-sufficient have peaked, and the second dash for gas gathers momentum.  

Over the last 15 months, I’ve delivered events and community outreach for a ‘Frack Free Future’ as part of The Co-operative’s Clean Energy Revolution campaign, engaging with threatened communities across the UK, staging events where the issues can be discussed co-operatively.  
The Co-operative first started looking into shale gas in the summer of 2010, commissioning the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research to undertake an assessment of its environmental impacts. The findings of the Tyndall Centre report were published in January 2011 (and its update published in November 2011), exposing three main areas of concern and led The Co-operative to call for a moratorium on its extraction across the UK.  

At local level, shale gas extraction presents pollution risks, especially to groundwater. Arguments centre around whether risks can be adequately managed through regulation of well construction and maintenance. Looking at the US, where the industry is much more advanced, there are many concerning examples – see for example, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s report released in November 2011 into groundwater sampling at Pavilion, Wyoming, where numerous hydrocarbons and thermogenic methane have been identified[Footnote]. Assuming that this couldn’t happen in the UK appears naïve. Scaling up to the c.3,000 wells that would be required to produce 10% of the UK’s gas from shale over any sustained period, the risks become substantial: even if well design and site management were good enough to reduce failure rates to 1 in 1,000, this would give us a 95% chance of at least one failure. 

Nationally, there’s a real risk that the development of shale gas will compromise the UK’s ability to hit its emissions targets. If we extract and burn just 20% of the shale gas resources identified under Lancashire this year, it could result in CO2 emissions of over 2,000m tonnes, or nearly 15% of the UK’s emissions budget through to 2050 – dispelling  the myth that shale gas is a ‘low carbon fuel’.  Additionally, with up to £32bn of investments required to obtain 10% of our current gas use from shale sources and convert it to electricity, investment could be diverted from genuinely low carbon renewables, leaving us overly reliant on unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) and risking the economic losses from what could ultimately become stranded assets.  

At the global level, we hear that shale gas is good news, because it will displace much more polluting coal. Perhaps it would - if we had a legally binding global cap on emissions. Unfortunately, in our energy-hungry world, it’s likely that countries such as India and China will burn shale gas in addition to their coal reserves, as they quite fairly pursue economic development. This is mirrored by the situation in the US, where the massive expansion in shale gas is simply projected to meet the energy demands of a growing economy without a carbon cap and is failing to displace coal[Footnote]. Scenarios for relatively conservative exploitation of between 15% and 30% of the world’s identified shale gas resources are that it would increase global atmospheric CO2 by between five and sixteen parts per million by volume, taking up over a quarter of the CO2 emissions budget that we have left if we are to stand a good chance of avoiding more than 2ºC of warming.  
As governments met in Doha, Quatar, for the latest round of UN climate talks last Saturday, December 1st, anti-fracking campaigners across the UK joined the Global Day of Action on Climate Change. 
Activists from Frack Off erected a 20-foot drilling rig outside the home of the Chairman of Cuadrilla Resources, Lord John Browne. In Blackpool, members of Resident Action on Fylde Fracking marched and, together with members of Ribble Eastuary Against Fracking, held a rally in St Anne’s. Kirklees Campaign Against Climate Change toured Huddersfield, asking the public to sign postcards calling for a moratorium on fracking. Swansea Against Fracked Energy were out on the streets of Swansea, while Frack Free Somerset brought street theatre to Bath. About 300 environment campaigners held an anti-fracking protest in Parliament Square in London, where residents from Falkirk, Belfast, the Fylde, the Ribble Estuary and the Vale of Glamorgan delivered a letter to David Cameron, calling for a ban on shale gas and coal bed methane exploitation in the UK. 

This month, alongside his Autumn Statement, George Osborne unveiled the government’s new Gas Strategy, which sets out to "ensure we make the best use of lower cost gas power, including new sources of gas under the land", The Chancellor told the Commons. 

The Gas Generation Strategy confirmed that DECC will set up an Office for Unconventional Gas and Oil, joining up responsibilities across Government to provide a single point of contact for investors, to ensure a simplified and streamlined regulatory process. It also states that tax breaks for shale gas will be considered as “HM Treasury has opened discussions with industry on the appropriate structure of a fair tax regime for future shale gas production”,  

According to a recent Greenpeace report, more than 60 per cent of the British countryside could be exploited for shale gas. A decision on whether to lift the current moratorium on shale gas production, put in place after fracking caused two small earthquakes near Blackpool in 2011, is expected from the Secretary of State shortly. 
Community feeling against hydraulic fracturing is strong, combining a desire to keep fracking out of the UK with a passion to find energy solutions. Climate change issues are up close and personal for the first time in the UK, no longer disconnected from us by space or time. It seems to me that the campaign for a Frack Free Future is less of a fight against an industry we don’t want – and more of a call for the future we need.  

 Sarah Woods (Transition Bro Ddyfi) is a playwright and campaigner, working primarily in the fields of climate change and social justice. She is currently working on THE ROADLESS TRIP, a performance piece about systemic change and future narratives and just reached the end of a year leading the outreach arm of the Co-operative Group’s FRACK FREE FUTURE campaign, delivering events in communities affected by fracking. She currently teaches playwrighting and political theatre to undergraduates at Manchester University.

Article originally published on The Social Reporting Project
Further information on The Co-operative’s position on shale gas and the Tyndall Centre’s research can be found at:  www. co-operative.coop/fracking 

2 Energy Information Administration (2010), Supporting materials for the 2010 Annual Energy Outlook, Report # DOE/EIA-0554(2010).  
4 Fracking in the UK (update 2) 30th Nov 2012, Hannah Davey, Harry Kennard and Damian Kahya 
Images: photo by EnergyTomorrow (Flickr Creative Commons)

9 December 2012

There was a Jolly Miller Once - - - -

One of the pleasures of old age is the time one has to mull over things. Even if there is stupidity or concern in them, they often profit from a bit of mulling. So I hope the three I share today will be of interest, although the first stems from a deeply stupid situation and the second raises questions of profound and disturbing depth. I offer the third in the hope that it will seem cheerful enough to balance the other two.

A team were clearing fallen leaves from the pavements in Norwich’s Ipswich Road the other day by forking them into plastic bags and throwing the bags into the back of a lorry. When I asked whether the bags were biodegradable, they said it didn’t matter because it was all going to landfill, because of the danger to the team from syringe needles in the leaf litter.

Not only does it put a new complexion on the action of those who dispose of “sharps” on the pavement – that they are unwittingly causing the city council to design a major disruption of an important recycling process of nature’s materials that could otherwise provide abundant leaf mould for the city’s green spaces – but I walked on amazed that the city council cannot find a more harmonious way of dealing with this little problem.

From the ridiculous to the … disconcerting. A large study in France has confirmed that between 1989 and 2005 average sperm counts in men fell by a third. It is likely that the decline is continuing. This has been accompanied by a rise in testicular cancer and other male sexual disorders. The likely causes are a high-fat diet and environmental chemical exposures. The industrial chemicals used in making plastics, for instance, can mimic the female hormone oestrogen which counters male hormones necessary for healthy sperm.

As there are already too many of us for the world to cope with, I wonder whether this is another, but man-made, example of the sort of negative feed-back that we admire in so many of our natural processes. In the same way as our bodies are designed to switch off our appetite when we begin to have too much food, is nature beginning to do something to regulate our species’ overpopulation of the planet?  If so, what ought we to do about it – and about the specialists in human reproductive health who are working as hard as they can to find a way of combating this decrease in human sperm counts?

The food industry is working as hard as it can to invent for our obese population new more seductive foods to overcome the negative feedback in our digestive apparatus, the media continue to spew out more and more column centimetres on food and cooking it to help the industry, and the sugar beet lorries continue to trundle through our village to supply possibly the most insidious of all positive feedback drugs. Imagine what Mr. Cameron would say if we asked him to put a stop to any of those in order to allow our natural negative feedbacks on food to work as planned!

Of course more research needs to be done on the decline in sperm counts, before anyone begins to think of it as a way of regulating the population without coercion!  For one thing, we would need at the very least to be sure that the decline was across the board (if such a term may be used for such delicate creatures), and that the decline was indiscriminate. There’s already a worrying imbalance in the gender of children in some places, attributed by some to radiation. If the observed decline in sperm was more severe in, say X sperm, than in Y sperm, this would certainly adversely affect the gender balance.

Being my age, I’m occasionally nostalgic for the good old autumn smell of burning leaves, however green I think I am. Whimsically, I wonder whether the time may come when men are urged to lie back and … inhale the smell of plastics manufacture.

Lastly, a stream runs through our parish, dropping some 25 metres on its way towards the River Yare, but it fails to cope with the run-off of fresh water either from our built environment or the fields, so roads regularly flood as the drains have difficulty in dealing with the volumes of road-contaminated water. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all get together with the landowners to dig a series of lakes along the stream by damming it in several carefully chosen places – largely manually instead of wasting time and energy jogging and going to the gym – and routing as much of the water as possible via ditches into the lakes before it reaches the roads?

Then the farmers and gardeners could benefit from the fresh water, and we could install water-driven electricity generators at the outfall from each lake, ie watermills, which would make each lake a millpond. How romantic it would be, yet how much better than nuclear or fracking as a source of electricity!

Not enough water to be worthwhile, you say?  How about a small wind pump downstream of each watermill to pump the water back up into the millpond? Not one of these monstrous wind turbines that generate such carefully orchestrated political opposition, but ones about the height of those that still linger about the Broads, where they used to do exactly the same thing – pump up water a couple of metres – so effectively for so long.

In effect, the mill ponds would be the “batteries” to store the energy for when the wind wasn’t blowing. If we were really keen to do our community thing about electricity, the number of generators-plus-wind-pumps in the parish would only be limited by the number the stream could fit in efficiently. I’m grateful to the artist Ben Quail who suggested this to me at the Norwich Green Party’s Christmas Fair.

2 December 2012

Why Markets Aren’t Working

The free market, paragon of virtue, answer to all our problems, worshipped by all the major political parties and lauded endlessly by the press and economic commentators. How can we have got into the economic mess we are in right now when free markets have been given such unfettered control of our lives over the last thirty years?

Whisper it quietly – perhaps they don’t always work. Though it might be fairer to say they don’t necessarily work in the interests of the majority of people. There are those of course for whom free markets have worked wondrously well throughout this time and continue to do so even now.

A week ago I went to a discussion at the UEA where two economics professors discussed rational choice theory. This lies at the heart of conventional economic theory, simply stated it is the proposition that people will make choices in a rational manner favouring those goods which give them greater utility over those which give less. From this basis it follows that the decisions people make over what to buy indicate what provides the greatest benefit to them and collectively to society. So allowing a free choice of goods and services will maximise utility. (This is very simplistic, but I don’t want to bore you with too much theory). 

The trouble is that the world doesn’t actually work like that. Studies in the psychology field and on decision making, have shown that people are highly susceptible to framing – where something is put in a context that changes the way they think about it. The decisions they make often run counter to what rational choice/utility theory would suggest and are important to a newer branch of economics called behavioural economics. This recognises that social, cognitive and emotional factors all play their part in the way in which people act. For an in depth analysis of how people’s minds work I cannot recommend too highly a book called “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

What seems to me really significant here is that companies, PR agencies, Marketing organisations, the press and governments are all aware of this work and in one way or another seek to use it to their advantage. Our government (along with the Obama administration) for example has a “nudge unit” – or behavioural insight team, which is tasked with altering our behaviour in a positive manner. 

In the corporate sphere though the application of decision making theory represents a dramatic challenge to the idea that free markets reflect the will and interests of consumers. The reality is that advertising, brand placement, association, the press, magazines and a whole host of other intermediaries, to say nothing of peer pressure, drive our purchasing nowadays. 

Supermarkets spend millions monitoring the way people walk through their shops, analysing spending patterns, detailing the flows of people and traffic in and out of a city to determine where to position their convenience stores. They pump the smell of freshly baked bread into the shop and always have fresh produce at the entrance as it gives a positive impression. Products are carefully positioned at eye level if they want to push them, or near the floor if not. Own-brand packaging invariably closely (but not too closely to invite legal action) resembles the brand it is positioned against to trigger positive associations.

Manufacturers play the same mind games to create artificial wants and needs, driving our apparently insatiable desire for the latest gadgets and versions of things we already own. Sometimes we see the spin, but much of the time it will just subliminally enter our consciousness and lie there ready to subvert our judgement the next time we have to make a decision on something about which it is relevant. 

As such our free markets have mutated from being a bottom-up reflection of the wishes of consumers, into a top-down system where manufacturers and retailers manipulate us into buying what they want to sell to us. Which just coincidentally will be those things on which they make the greatest profit. So a modern free market serves to maximise the utility of the corporate interest rather than that of the individual.

Change may be slow in coming, but come it surely must as people increasingly realise that our current economic system and its adherence to free-market principles is working not for us but against us. But realising this is only the first step, now we need to change it.