Apathy

Over on UK Political Info they have a rather expressive chart of voter turnout at general elections over the past half-century. The chart shows the percentage of registered voters who actually voted. Note that eligible but unregistered voters were not counted, nor were spoiled ballots. The percentage stays roughly stable between about 72% and 84% until New Labour get into power in 1997. The turnout for the 1997 election was the lowest so far, but even it was huge compared to the two elections since. Less than 60% voted in 2001 and barely 61% in 2005. If we take into account eligible but unregistered voters it looks like less than half of the population voted in the last two general elections, meaning that Labour held onto power in 2005 thanks to the votes of about one sixth of the population.

It’s not just New Labour and Britain though. Voter turnout dropped dramatically in Japan in the mid-nineties as well. Two island nations, isolated but once the hub of empires, proud, xenophobic, eccentric. I’ve often thought that there are many similarities between Japan and Britain. If only we had reacted to the latter half of the twentieth century as they did. I wonder, would we be better off today if we had fought on the losing side of the last world war?

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Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 4:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Eleven

Published in: on November 11, 2008 at 11:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Fiat

Money is weird. I can understand the shift from pure barter to the use of money. It is very useful to have a medium of exchange. Precious metals are the obvious choice. Gold and silver make sense. But these days money has no value in itself at all. Money is just what the government says is money. A pound used to be a real pound of silver. Now a pound is just whatever the government says is a pound. It’s all a bit abstract.

It’s not clear that this is a good thing either. Apart from being aesthetically unpleasant, at least to me, it isn’t obvious that fiat money is any better than money backed by physical goods. In fact, it may be much worse. Or it may be better. What the hell do I know about economics?

Published in: on November 8, 2008 at 9:29 pm  Comments (3)  

Lifecycle

Manufacturers and designers often talk about the “lifecycle” of a product. They make an analogy with the lifecycle of a living organism. It is born (it is manufactured), it lives (it is used), and then it dies (it is thrown away). However, the analogy is a bad one.

Natural organisms, in general, are not “thrown away” when they die. They do not become “waste” in the way that manufactured products become waste, rubbish or garbage. When an organism dies, it is consumed by other organisms. It is a nutrient in a cycle of reuse. Manufactured items do not participate in any such cycle.

We attempt to ameliorate this to some degree by recycling. However, ‘recycling’ is a misnomer. Products are not really recycled, they are merely downgraded and partially reused. No car will be built from steel salvaged from a scrap heap. When a scrapped car is melted down, its metal is mixed with all the other materials that make up the car – particularly paints and plastics – and the steel is contaminated and weakened. Similarly, recycled paper is far inferior to paper from fresh wood pulp. Not only that but also the energy required to recycle paper is far greater than the energy required to manufacture new paper. The chlorine used to bleach recycled paper is worse for the environment than the chemicals used to make new paper. Finally, new paper is made from managed soft-wood forests: when you buy new paper, you are paying for more trees to be planted.

Recycling is bad for the environment and a waste of money. Aluminium is the only resource that can be recycled effectively and efficiently for a lower cost (in both financial and environmental terms) than its original manufacture. Electrolysis of bauxite is very energy intensive. For everything else, recycling is a bad idea.

The whole idea of recycling is a symptom of flawed thinking. People are gradually coming around to the idea that the modern industrial process, which we might call “cradle to grave”, is unstable and dangerous. I hesitate to say that it is unsustainable, which is a claim I have heard many environmentalists make but for which I have never seen any real evidence, but I do think it is unstable. Its sustainability depends solely on continuing human ingenuity and favourable social and economic conditions. It lacks the inherent self-regulating stability of an ecosystem, of something composed of organisms with genuine lifecycles.

But even those people who realise this do not change their mindset. They do not change their “cradle to grave” paradigm, they just try to be slightly less harmful. They still design goods with a limited lifespan and no real possibility of genuine reuse, but then instead of throwing them in landfills they use them to make (possibly toxic) clothing or some other junk. They still design industrial processes that produce dangerous waste products, but instead of just pumping it all straight into a river they filter it a bit first. Rather than trying to be good, they just try to be slightly less bad.

If we take the “lifecycle” analogy seriously, we should consider products as potential nutrients. We should design cars such that when they are no longer wanted they can be stripped down and separated into their original component materials. Then their steel can retain its strength and purity and be reused for a similar purpose. Instead of being “downcycled” it can be genuinely recycled. It becomes an industrial nutrient.

We should design all our products so that they are either biological nutrients or industrial nutrients. There is no waste in nature. One organism’s waste is always a nutrient for another organism. Our products should either be biodegradable, in which case they should be able to safely enter the natural ecosystem, or they should be genuinely recyclable, in which case it should be possible to reuse their constituent materials and chemicals without loss of quality.

We should not stick to the “cradle to grave” mentality of the Industrial Revolution. We should move to an ecologically inspired “cradle to cradle” mentality. Recycled products should be the same as new products, not environmentally dangerous inferior versions.

The nice thing about this idea is that it isn’t as far-fetched and impractical as it seems. It is not my idea, I got it from a chemist and an architect who co-authored Cradle to Cradle. I was surprised, given my usual cynicism and distrust of environmentalism, at how inspiring I found that book. For the first time, I read something rational, sensible and scientifically sound that offered not only a reasonable criticism of modern design practices but also a practical solution to the problems that it identified. “Cradle to cradle” may sound utopian but every suggestion in the book is presented along with an example of how it has already been put into practice. The authors are not anti-industry, they work with industry to improve their practices and, at the same time, their profits. Even my pessimism and cynicism couldn’t hold up against stories of companies that had simultaneously improved their profits and benefitted the environment.

I just hope they don’t encourage the hippies. Nasty, dirty people.

Published in: on November 8, 2008 at 8:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Career

I was reminded recently that I began my career – I chose my university course, studied for years and then sought employment in the industry – with an ulterior motive in mind. The whole point, as I originally planned it, was to do something lucrative and yet not so far outside my interests as to be soul destroying. The purpose of my employment was to save up enough money to do what I really wanted to do. My current career was only ever meant to be a means to an end.

A number of times over the past few years I have forgotten this. Every so often, someone or something reminds me and I am shocked to realise that I had forgotten. Whenever I think about it, I don’t think that I have forgotten. I always have my plan ready to justify my most recent decision. But then I look back at my actions and realise that I have, again and again, acted contrary to my plan. I keep making decisions that make it harder and harder for me to ever achieve my goal and I don’t notice what I’ve done until much later.

It’s almost as if part of me doesn’t want me to succeed.

When I first started walking to work, I used to take the most direct route possible. After nearly being run down by cars and buses on numerous occasions, I decided to walk twenty yards further down the road to the pedestrian crossing instead. Every morning, after crossing the road, I had to fight a little internal battle to convince myself to walk twenty yards back up the road to the turning that I needed to take to get to work. Part of me hated turning back the way I had come. I wanted to keep going down the road. I lost the battle once and ended up taking a half-hour detour on my way to work. Even though I knew it was faster and easier to walk back the way I had come for a few yards, I really hated doing it. I’m beginning to suspect that this trait may have more significance than I thought.

Thanks to the wonders of Google, I’ve managed to find Jason’s blog. He gave me the URL before he left for Japan but I lost it. I’ve just spent a very pleasant hour or so catching up. Pleasant, that is, until my gallbladder exploded with envy. I’ll just sit in the corner and drip bile now.

Published in: on November 8, 2008 at 5:06 pm  Comments (2)  

Treason

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!
I see no reason why gunpowder and treason
should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
to blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below,
poor old England to overthrow:
By God’s providence he was catch’d
with a dark lantern and burning match.

A penny loaf to feed the Pope.
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip hoorah!

Published in: on November 5, 2008 at 11:10 pm  Leave a Comment