Monday, 25 February 2008

The spill's on us

It was a sombre end to the FOE evening when there was a showing of a programme about events at Bhopal on 3rd December 1984. The programme, narrated by talented British actress Indira Varma, was no rabble rousing call for action but an attempt to assemble the facts. A more passionate account is to be found on More alarming than anything in the film has to be the responsibility for that incident. At Bhopal, India, poisonous methyl isocyanate was released by a chemical plant.

Globalisation claims to bring down barriers and to bring people out of poverty. The international trade that the WTO lobbies for adds air freighted Kenyan beans to the cookbook of smugness, but also requires cheap food and cheap production. Cheap food was, it appears, much of the motivation for Union Carbide to export its technology from the USA to build the Bhopal plant and thus ensure that the right pesticides were on hand. Trouble was, the pesticides had to be super cheap. To cut costs, hardly anyone worked nights and the chemical plant, once in trouble, could not be controlled because the equipment was faulty and the expertise was lacking.
From the leaking poison, those who suffered terrible premature death were consequences of our food chain. Those same people are our neighbours on this wonderful planet. The trouble is, we do not seem to realise how good we have it and we continue to throw away food as though there were no tomorrow. If we did not waste so much, would we need so much pesticide ? Did we even need that chemical plant ? It would be good if Bhopal had taught us something at least about caution in dealing with industrial processes. All sorts of systems fail – just remember the Buncefield fuel depot sent its black smoke over Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire only a few months ago.

We are going to have industrial processes even to maintain what we have now and to fuel the demand for (quickly obsolete) computers and the like. But don’t despair as we are not in a hopeless situation. There is no need to standby wringing our hands. To reduce the frequency of disasters we can tighten up the controls but we can also reduce the number of the chemical plants by consuming less and wasting less. Even though dropping consumption does not fit the economic model, isn’t it unacceptable to poison people and planet ?

John Hall

Friday, 22 February 2008

Paperless banking...

About a year ago I went paperless with my HSBC bank account, instead using internet banking. It suits me this way, as I download all my transactions from the website and its great as I am saving a few trees by not getting the bank statement and all the other leaflets they insist on sending you. This makes my filing a lot less and for about a year has caused me no problems.

However, I applied for a loan the other week from Abbey National and I got it- hurrah! I Then was asked for ID and proof of my current account. On it, it said they only accepted printed statements that are 3 months and not those printed from the internet. So when, frantically searching through my statements realised that I had cancelled paper copies from 2006. So that definitely does not fall in the 3 month period!!

So then tried phone banking, and after being put on hold twice and a 16 minute wait was very apologetically told that she was unable to order statements from her system. They would only be able to send me an email copy? I find this strange that they can’t order a paper copy when required. So she suggested that I go to the local branch.

So off I went to the various banks, luckily only a few doors between each other on Sutton High Street- which as you can see was very fortunate. First of all I went into HSBC and they said unfortunately that they cannot give a paper copy from the branch and that they can order me one but that will take me 3 days to come through. At the branch they can only give an internet copy and that they don’t think it will be accepted for loan applications as they need proof of address, but just in case I took a copy.

So off I went to Abbey National and asked if they would accept an internet statement, if I had a paper copy with my address from 2006. So after phoning the loans department they said that if I got it branch stamped then yes, they would accept it, so off I toddle up the street to HSBC to then get it stamped. So they dutifully stamped my documents and so now my loan agreement is on its merry little way by snail mail!!!

So now I am wondering when will this be a truly paperless world. How many offices do you know that were supposedly going paperless and then were told to keep paper copies? I know many people who print out emails “just in case”. So when is the mysterious paperless world going to happen.

And don’t even get me started on a paperless world without books…. The techno geeks have said for years that they were going to be replaced by ebooks but I see that a long way off. And as the bookworm that I am – I will be sad to say goodbye to my books and the joy of the smell of a brand new book.

The moral to all this being persistent counts and a paperless world is a long way off!!

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

A new energy system in 40 years?

It seems very radical to many people to say we must de-carbonise our energy supply by 2050, to save the atmosphere. However, it may be useful to look back at how much things have changed over the last 50 years.

I used to go to my granny’s house in the 1950s, on a steam train, powered by lumps of coal. Her lighting and cooking were by town gas, made from coal, as was the electricity that powered the trams and trolley buses.

There were real winters then, that will never be seen again - with one that allowed us to enjoy snowballing from Boxing day through into March. Fogs were normal for half the year, until a lot of people died of bronchitis and they passed the Clean Air Act, making smoky fuel illegal in towns, with a dramatic effect on air quality (and visibility).

Someone then called at every house to convert our appliances to North Sea gas (no individual choice). Central heating replaced open fires. Britain became an oil-rich state, and we soon forgot the 1973 oil price shock from the Arabs. Trams and half the train network were closed. Car ownership soared and bicycles were forced off the roads.

But North Sea oil and gas have peaked in 30 years, so these fuels are now increasingly imported from distant countries. The coal mines closed. No new nuclear stations have been built for decades and the oldest are closing (before we have worked out what to do with their wastes.)

While we ran through all these energy sources, we ignored insulation and efficiency, so the scope to use less must now be huge. Microelectronic chips have been developed that can control all appliances. The North Atlantic brings these islands more wind, wave, tidal and hydro power than we can use. Windmill Hills and Mill Streams across the land wait to be re-discovered.

So, can we completely change our energy system in 40 years ? I say that we have in the past, we can again, and really have no alternative. “Unsustainable” means exactly what it says.

John Newson