Monday, January 30, 2006

Experts, Energy and the Environment

The disaster in Poland in which the roof of a trade hall collapsed* set me pondering about how much we rely on experts. I've often sat in theatreas, catherderals, meeting halls and the like wondering how the buildings stay up but glad that they do. I've been to some boring plays, concerts and business meetings.

We take for granted the role of experts in our everyday lives. Not just the ones who ensure that buildings rarely collapse but ones who ensure planes don't fall from the sky, cars stop when you brake, power stations don't explode, a constant stream of entertainment reaches our homes, bridges don't collapse and thousands of other everyday encounters with potential danger pass unoticed.

Even so we're suspicious of experts and always questioning their motives. Many journalists like nothing better than to find a maverick prepared to go against the grain of current wisdom. They impute the reputations of the majority of experts but rarely question those of the dissenter. And of course they can always point to examples of where the consensus of experts has been proved wrong, they have to keep quiet about the overwhelming number of times when it's been correct.

There are all sorts of self-appointed alleged experts around at present pontificating about the environment. I supose Sir James Lovelock started as one of these but he's grown into a well-respected authority. He was on Radio Four's Start the Week this morning. (If you want to hear him but miss out on Borris Johnson explaining his curious theory about, inter alia, why we need to re-introduce Roman games if we want to unite Europe skip, forward about 15 minutes).

I admire Professor Lovelock (perhaps because he reinforces my prejudices). He's particularly sound about the futility of much of what we're currently doing in Britain under the environmental banner. He thinks installing solar panels or building wind farms is worse than useless because it diverts attention from what we should really be doing. Given that much of the rest of what he terms this 'imperfect world' will go on producing greenhouse gases regardless of what we do, he wants our government to prepare for the probable affects of climate change. This requires some drastic action, for example to be ready to evacuate low lying areas if (when?) they flood. Much of London is built on low lying land.

A report issued today, called "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change", seems to confirm what he is saying about the inevitability of dramatic climate change.

Professor Lovelock wants Britain to reduce its dependency on imported fuel and sees nuclear electricity as the least-worse way of filling the gap before other sources of electricity (which is essential for our civilisation) can be developed. He gently countered the objections voiced by another contributor that we don't know what to do with the waste. He's been to Sellafield where all our high-level waste is stored along with some from Japan. He measured radiation levels and found them to be generally lower than those naturally occuring in Cornwall. Outside the building with the really active stuff he found they were only a little higher than those in St Ives.

* there seems very little to unite the leader or comment sections of the UK press today which probably means there's nothing much to fret about. The story from Poland at least gets a mention in most papers although rather less than it would have done had it happened in Nuneaton.


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