Monday, 26 July 2010

A climate of war

Today's press has been extraordinary for anyone thinking long-term about sustainability.

Let's start with The Guardian's 14 pages covering a massive leak of classified US information about the war in Afghanistan. A young US soldier, Bradley Manning, with access to classified information, said he had seen "incredible things, awful things . . . that belong in the public domain and not on some server in a dark room in Washington DC . . . almost criminal political backdealings . . . the non-PR version". He now faces a court martial and a long prison sentence - Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 calls him a hero. The huge quantity of damning documents reached the public domain via Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange, who is now wanted by the US authorities.

So now we know that this messy war is not as portrayed by the British or US governments, nor as portrayed by the 'embedded' journalists - so far so predictable. The role played by advanced technology is having uncontrollable effects. The appearance of all this information in the public domain relies on the technology behind Wikileaks, which enables people to send in their leaked information in the confidence that their email can't be traced; and the construction of the website - multi-hosted - which means that no single jurisdiction can take it down. And at the same time, mobile phone technology means that US troops are leaking sensitive information all the time. We all know that mobile networks aren't secure (don't do your telephone banking or give your credit card details to mail order companies over a mobile network); and we know that our mobile phones give away our location. So we shouldn't be surprised that mobile phone calls, whether made by top diplomats, commanding generals or frontline soldiers, were vulnerable to interception by Afghanis.

All wars are nasty, but what is particular about this kind of war (fought against a local 'insurgency') is that it shatters any remaining illusions - even among non-pacifists - that warfare can be planned, 'surgical', directed only at 'legitimate' targets (ie: not at non-combatants).  And the reason that I'm posting about this on a blog devoted to sustainability is that we should start to think seriously about the kinds of resource wars that will be precipitated by peak oil (and everything else), as well as by climate change.

Peak oil has received plenty of attention, and we know we need to start weaning ourselves off oil before the price goes through the roof, and supply falling below demand causes armed conflicts. We've heard less about peak water, peak soil, or peak phosphate - but they are all essential resources, and all could provoke wars. Mark Twain's joke, “buy land - they’re not making it anymore” ceases to be a joke as we hear of governments buying or leasing good farmland land in other countries in order to secure their future food supplies - at whatever cost to the security of the indigenous populations. Each of these situations could provoke armed conflict that is just as messy and  uncontrollable as the current war in Afghanistan.

Add to all that the fact that the US military is responsible for 80% of the US government's carbon emissions and we activists can feel secure in linking our anti-war and sustainability concerns.

But hold on . . . a few pages further on in today's Guardian is an interesting article about a new British design of mega-wind turbine, for offshore use, with blades turning on a vertical, rather than a horizontal axis.
Short engineering digression here: if you've seen the film The Age of Stupid you might remember the forest of vertical spinning wind generators on the roof of the last remaining building on earth. They're a bit like hi-tech versions of the old Castrol oil adverts that used to be seen spinning on garage forecourts (I tried to find a picture online, but failed!). The stress on the axle and the bearings in such a design is substantially less than in the traditional windmill shape. If you recall the early automatic washing machines, they were top-loaded so that the drum could spin on a vertical axis. But they were inconvenient, as they could not be fitted under a worktop, so now we have much less efficient front-loading drums, that spin on a horizontal axis.
Anyway, this looks like good news. However, when you look at the side text about another offshore energy project (wave-power), you discover that BAE Systems - Britains's biggest armaments manufacturer - is to be involved. Arms producers have experience of such large-scale engineering projects. And then you look back and notice that one of the firms involved in the new turbine project is Rolls-Royce, also a defence contractor, and others in the consortium include Shell and BP.

No-one gets to have clean hands . . . (and, just to add to it all, we discover that the next UK national Census, in 2011is to be contracted out to US armaments company Lockheed Martin!)

'Enough for one day!', I hear you cry. But there's more! It seems we have natural gas in Blackpool - 'shale gas' to be exact. It's in the Bowland Shale, and the strata extend from Pendle Hill to the coast near BlackpoolThese gas deposits require new drilling techniques, and there are technical problems with pollution to be solved, but engineers are hopeful that extracting such gas, from various locations round the world, will help to reduce oil-dependence. Burning gas creates lower carbon emissions than burning oil, but is still by no means 'zero carbon'. But the creation of new drilling techniques, and the discovery of a number of promising sites, has already caused a collapse of US gas prices, and a suggestion of major effects on geopolitics, as the Russian company Gazprom sees its power and leverage reduced.

After all this it was a little light relief to discover that miniature cattle can produce three times as much beef, on the same amount of land, with just a third of the feed, as can large breeds like Holsteins and Aberdeen Angus. Plus, the mini-cows produce less methane!
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