Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Let's Not Talk About Gun Control

The news reports have fallen away and the shock is now confined to the victims and those directly affected. Another mass murder is rapidly becoming history as the National Rifle Association and its supporters hope.  A search of Google will not show many news reports beyond the 7th of October.

It has been well-publicised that it is a technique of the gun lobby in the USA to say after every massacre “It is too soon to talk about gun control.”  I have therefore waited but frankly, I’m not going to talk about gun control at all. Nor am I going to split hairs about the Second Amendment holding firearms as part of a well-trained militia. There will be no mention that the Founding Fathers could not have imaged the effectiveness of modern assault weapons.  There will be no note that roughly the same number of Americans have died in wars than in shootings from 1968 to the present (

If Americans want to have guns, go right ahead.

It is interesting though to visit the NRA and read their statement on the Las Vegas mass-murder. They call for no legislation that will impede either the Second Amendment or the right of a US citizen to self defence  A Norwegian friend of mine made an equally interesting point on social media. According to him, there at thirty one guns per hundred people in Norway.  Those weapons are held for various purposes: hunting, military (as part of a civil militia) and target shooting. No guns are held for self-defence and it is unheard of for these weapons to be used as such.
Under the US concept of self defence ( and example of which is here, the use of deadly force can only be applied if faced with an assault using deadly force. In other words, guns are justified to be held for self-defence purposes because there are so many guns already in society. A critic might point out the circular logic here but let’s follow the NRA recommendation and leave that for another day, or perhaps never. Ah, one might reply, it is monstrous to suggest that any manufacturer intended for any misuse, criminal or otherwise, of their weapons. This is perfected true. The misuse of any firearm is an unintended outcome of their manufacture and sale.  It is also true that those who make and sell weapons and ammunition do not give any financial compensation to the victims of such incidents. 

What is lacking from the NRA statement is any sense of responsibility beyond that of the murderer: “Banning guns from law-abiding Americans based on the criminal act of a madman will do nothing to prevent future attacks.”  It certainly does not mention the activities of the weapons and ammunition manufacturers, whose business activities allow for such massacres to occur.

In economics, there is a term for this situation: it is called an externality. To quote a textbook, “an externality arises when a person engages in an activity that influences the well-being of a bystander (ie. a third party) who neither pays nor receives any compensation for that effect.”  So while the vast majority of American firearm holders are law-abiding, the economic activities of the manufacturers allow for shootings (on whatever scale, whether fatal or not) to occur. No compensation is offered to those affected and it is left to others in society to pick up the bill.

How big a bill are we talking? Nobody is sure.  A recent paper (*  that gives an indication of the costs involved at $2.8billion per year for the emergency healthcare involved.  The average cost of ED care is $5254.00, rising to $95,887.00 if the victim is admitted as an in-patient. The authors indicate that the total estimate is on the low side, as it does not take into account those who do not make it at all to emergency departments. Nor does it take any account of the police costs involved, nor loss of earnings for victims and dependents.  If these factors are accounted for, the total would be many billions of dollars more. They also note that research in the area is scant because since 1996, the US government department CDC (Centre of Disease and Preventable Illness) is prevented from investigating the cost of firearms injuries if the purpose to bolster the cause of gun control.

In many countries the determined cost would be calculated and a tax raised upon the industry, in exactly the same manner that a factory polluting a river might be levied for each tonne of waste it disposes of into the environment. With the current makeup of the federal congress, that is unlikely to happen.  If state representative houses carried out the research though, state levies could be introduced piecemeal across the USA. 

The suggestion of a levy on the arms industry does not challenge anybody’s right to bear arms. What it does do is address the inequality that currently exists, that the victims of shootings, from whatever cause, are effectively subsidising gun and ammunition producers who are not picking up the economic externalities of their business activities.  Ultimately the additional charge to each consumer who buys a gun or a box of ammo will be low, because it is so widely spread. The principle of polluter pays is well established elsewhere. For the gun industry to try and wriggle out or ignore the social costs of its activity is nothing more than special pleading. 

Meanwhile, like tens of thousands of individuals before them, the hundreds of victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting are having to either resort to charity or sort out the cost of their healthcare on their own. 

Faiz Gani, Joseph V. Sakran and Joseph K. Canner
Emergency Department Visits For Firearm-Related Injuries In The United States, 2006−14
Health Affairs 36, no.10 (2017):1729-1738

doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2017.0625

Friday, 16 June 2017

Jo Cox: One Year On.

It was at the start of the EU Edinburgh Rally - Leading not Leaving  on June 16th that Willie Rennie, the event’s chairperson, read out a statement that Jo Cox MP had been attacked in the street.  None of us knew at that time, 2:00pm, that Jo had already died of her wounds.  The pro-EU rally went on but it was not reported on.  I knew as soon as switched on a radio afterwards and they were still talking about her that Jo must be dead. 

It was a shocking attack.  As soon as reports came out that her attacker (who is not worthy of mentioning by name) was into organisations such as The National Alliance, I knew he was a neo-Nazi and that Jo’s murder was a political assassination.  I said so too, for I know The National Alliance.  I was told to shut up, that one should not speculate, that the person may have been mentally ill, but I knew.  He wasn’t ill, he was a Nazi.
How did I know? The leader of The National Alliance was one William Pierce. He used to write weekly news letters, extolling the superiority of the white race and besmirching others. His main target (since he was American) were black people, Mexicans and Latin Americans.  In the 1990s, I came across the online chat room while doing my first degree in Wales. Being blonde and blue-eyed, I took special objection to Pierce's loathsome views and argued vehemently with the racist bastard.
After Jo’s murderer was convicted and the facts were out, he was indeed proved to be acting upon ideology and not through any form of madness.  He is a terrorist who killed in order to advance the tenants of Nazism. 

This year, I went to a Jo Cox get-together for candidates in the general election.  Will such events help take the bitterness out of political campaigning?  I really hope so. I did not know Jo Cox personally but from what I hear she was a wonderful woman who stood up against injustice, although one must always be aware of the perils of hierography of the dead.  It may be enough though that the civic memory of Jo Cox lives on through such events.  It is a reminder that we have far more in common than whatever divides us and, no matter the disagreement, violence is never the answer.

Jo Cox died on June 16th, 2016.  My fiftieth birthday. I think through Jo and the coincidence of the date, the memory of what she has come to stand for will never leave me.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

On the state of Scottish Nationalism and the SNP

I wrote this as a response to the large amount of negative comments I received on my Facebook campaigns page from SNP supporters during the 2017 Spring election campaign.

The problem with the SNP is their agenda is both popularist and regressive. How can this be? The popularise bit is easy: free tuition fees, free proscriptions, opposition to London. Regressive insofar the government is purposely not using available powers to change the Westminster (Conservative) agenda. Sure, the SNP will block the bedroom tax (good) and not hand on the tax cut to higher earners (okay) but will not actually make profound changes. Ah, one might say, Barnett does not allow for Scotland to earn more that the given share. That is true, but it is totally possible to re-jig the tax system, with powers available, in order to put less of the burden on poorer tax payers and a higher burden on those richer. This is not being done nor is it likely to be. It is as if the SNP leadership are eager to pass on hardships while not using powers to ease the pressure on the people of Scotland. A cynic might say this is because that it would not be in their party interest to improve matter. Instead, the situation have to decline further in order to convince more people to vote Yes in the next referendum for independence. Consider the ongoing cuts, confirmed by such bodies as Audit Scotland for education but denied by supporters. The usual technique is to narrow the window of examination and thus present statistics in a narrow window that lets through the best possible light. Oil production is another such field were the larger picture is never presented.
Liberal Democrats support federalism. That is using devolved powers in order to improve things as close as possible to local communities. The SNP do not trust people. If they did, they would allow a diverse Scotland to emerge. Instead, we see a centralisation of power to a handful of minister in Holyrood. The police and emergency services are an obviously case. I shared a hustings stage with Kenny MacAskill in 2011 when he was musing why shouldn’t education be centralised? The popularist freezing of the council tax made councils more and more reliant upon funding by central government. Democracy has been slowly suffocated by the SNP and, while bemoaning the powers that Westminster have, power in Scotland has been increasingly sucked into Edinburgh.
Yet the SNP is not a party which encourages scrutiny and debate. It is a party of faith. Faith that only independence will solve our problems. If only we were independent, then we would be free to address the monumental issues that we all face. Those issues are not really discussed either. In 2014, such issues would be “the will of the Scottish people” following independence.
The SNP are serious about independence and they are in a hurry. Therefore any method is acceptable in order to get people to tick the Yes box the next time around. It is a bit of a reverse of 1745. In that campaign, Bonny Prince Charlie had to win every battle. A single defeat and the war would be lost. Now, the SNP can lose every battle until they win just one. It is their haste, combined with their conservative political strategy, that will be their downfall.
I am not a natural unionist. As a half-Irish Catholic, unionism isn’t a concept I am fond of. My concern over the course of Scottish independence is the effect of sudden independence will have on people. I questioned the economic basis of independence in 2014 and, come, 2019, things are not likely to improve. The glimmer of hope is that of Brexit.
Brexit might, just might, provide the shortcut that the SNP are hoping for. If the Conservatives win on Friday and pursue a hard Brexit (that is making the UK an offshore free-trade zone and basically making us into an mini-me version of the United States), then there is a case of bailing out in a hurry, whatever the economic cost. Both parties though play identity politics. If one is not a supporter of independence, one has to be a unionist. This is a false logic, for in ceding one’s identity, one hands over one’s critical faculties to others. Such-and-such is necessary in order to achieve the ultimate goal. All will be sorted out after victory.
So what must be done? The answer is simple if naïve: work for the good of people. Change society from what it is now. The SNP follow Westminster’s line in the hope that line will ultimately snap and with it the Union. Instead, we have powers, available now, to make a difference for good. If those powers were used and a track record achieved, this would result in one of two things. Either the rest of the UK would look to Scotland as a leading member of the Union and demand that they follow our example, or, they would continue to go their own way. If the latter, the case for Scottish independence would be made.
Neither course will suit the SNP though because it takes time, for it is the path of evolution rather than revolution. They want power and in a hurry, regardless of the effect upon us all. Instead of working to improve the prospects for the entire UK, they have given up on ever making a positive change and, instead, claim to just care about Scotland. If they really did care about us, then they know that improving the whole of the UK is just as important because, through simple geographical fact, there is no separating the reality of the links: cultural, scientific, economic. England will remain our largest trading partner, forever. Whatever happens in Westminster will always affect us here. So do we work together to overthrow the cycle of the two-party state or go it alone? The SNP has already answered that question: go it alone, regardless of consequences.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Campaign Blog 2017. Positions on Brexit

Campaigning for the 2017 general election has been very different from previous years. This time the Liberal Democrats are on the offensive. I certainly am here in Edinburgh North and Leith. Since 2014, the local party membership has almost tripled and with more volunteers, more donations and more resources, more is being done. Liberal Democrats are growing once more.
This election has been called on Brexit and it is that I will be talking about in this blog. That is not to say that the Liberal Democrats have nothing else to say. Our flagship policy is to raise income tax by a penny in the pound, in order to pay for the publics services that have been eroded since the economic crash of 2008. This would be linked to tightening up on the loopholes used by corporations and the very rich to avoid paying their fair share of taxation. In England we would see the NHS benefit from the income tax rise, while in Scotland we advocate extra revenue going towards education, which has declined drastically under the tenure of the SNP government at Holyrood. The Liberal Democrat manifesto may be read here:
On Brexit, I am really proud of the Liberal Democrat insistence that any final deal is put before the people of Britain before being signed off. The post-referendum coup inside the Conservative party and their embracing of UKIP’s hardline policies shows that the extremists have taken over. The Conservative leadership now only stand for one thing: a corporate UK where big businesses can operate free of the restraints of taxation and free of responsibility: either to people or to the environment. While business success is vital for Britain, in a decent society, it should never be business before all else. It will be though under Theresa May’s vision for a hard Brexit. She knows this will be unpopular and has been doing her very best to avoid public scrutiny. May failed to turn up to the Leaders Debate and has skipped the Women’s Hour interview. Theresa MIA - missing in action. If you don’t turn up for the job interview, you shouldn’t get the job. May has also proved to be far from competent: her handling of the dementia tax and her inconsistency on almost every important topic shows a lack of depth, a lack of self-awareness, that has even surprised her strongest critics. May called the election, put her competence on the line and she has been found wanting. I feel sorry for moderate conservatives for whom all this extremism must be deeply concerning. If they never supported UKIP previously, isn’t that exactly what they are being asked to do now?
With the reconfirmation of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, that party too has fled the middle ground of politics. Corbyn is a socialist of the Bennite tradition. Tony Benn always opposed the UK joining the European Union, seeing it as a vast conspiracy of capital against the working class. Unlike May, at least Corbyn has the credit of sticking to his principles through thick and thin. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that led to the sight of Corbyn leading his party through the voting lobby with the Conservatives to deliver Article 50, triggering the nation’s divorce proceedings with the EU. It is Corbyn’s history of opposition to the European Union that explains his post-Article 50 tweet “Real fight starts now.” What he means is that the struggle for a socialist Britain starts with us leaving the European Union. Again, central-ground Labour supporters must not be in an happy place right now.
While on the topic, one should note the Scottish Greens are a deeply socialist party. I am not saying this: they are. During hustings events here in Edinburgh, candidates in both the 2015 and 2017 espoused their pride in being socialist, with reference to the metaphor of the watermelon (green on the outside, red under the skin) being embraced. Fair play to both and it does give socialist voters a genuine choice of candidate in this election for voting between Green and Labour. Non-socialist voters will want to bear in mind that the modern Greens are not all about the environment. Scottish Greens are also pro-independence, seeing this as the most likely path to achieve their desire of a socialist Scotland. 
No one can accuse the SNP of being socialist or even particularly green. They have followed Westminster in the change of emphasis from small-scale and community energy to supporting only the large scale suppliers. They are also very happy to see the Air Duty Tax rate being slashed in half, bowing to pressure from the directors at Edinburgh Airport. When it comes to Brexit, I do believe the sincerely of the SNP leadership to wish to stay in the EU. What they failed to do in Westminster however was to support the Liberal Democrat amendment that would have allowed the people of the United Kingdom a final say. This must be the only occasion in history that the SNP does not want a second referendum. The upshot of this choice is to make Brexit another lever for independence rather that it being about the EU. Like Ireland, Scotland’s largest trading partner will be the one closest to it. Whatever one’s views on independence, it makes no sense to have trade barriers between England and Scotland. It genuinely is in Scotland’s best interest to keep England and Wales in the EU. Yet again, the SNP works to its own narrow remit. 
It is too easy for people to be sucked into the symbolic logic that if I am not A, then I must be B. Parties who go down that line must be challenged because instead of policies and issues, everything is reduced to identity politics. 
On June the 8th, I am asking for your support to the Liberal Democrats so that you can have a say on the outcome of the EU negotiations. I am asking for your support to deliver a different Great Britain than what is offered by either May or Corbyn. I am asking for your support to help me deliver a better deal for Edinburgh and Leith.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

2017 Election Campaign: On Israel and Palestine

I have received letters from various correspondents for my views on Israel and Palestine.  Here is the Liberal Democrat view from our 2017 manifesto.

“[We] Remain committed to a negotiated peace settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which includes a two-state solution. We condemn disproportionate force used by all sides. We condemn Hamas’ rocket attacks and other targeting of Israeli civilians. We condemn Israel’s continued illegal policy of settlement expansion, which undermines the possibility of a two-state solution. We support recognition of the independent State of Palestine as and when it will help the prospect of a two-state solution.”

My personal view coincides with the party view insofar I condemn force used in all cases apart from self-defence. Disproportionate force is never right, nor is the targeting of civilians.  Any civilians.

As a liberal, I condemn the suppression of equal rights and any form of discrimination or threat, whether it occurs in Israel, occupied territories or anywhere across the world.

Where I potentially disagree with party policy is the pursuit of a two-state solution. Owing to Israel’s policy of settlement expansion (illegal under international law), there is now not enough land left to a potential Palestinian state to make it viable.  Pragmatically, all I want to see is a country where all citizens have equality under the rule of law and protection against discrimination.  The current situation is a long way from that.  For evidence of Israel’s attitude to a twin-state solution, I suggest the reader researches the siting of the proposed Palestinian airport.  Under a variety of proposals, not once has Israel offered Palestinian control of the airport.  This is not sovereignty on offer.

As for whether I back broad economic and cultural sanctions against Israel, the answer is that I do not.  While the Palestinian people are undoubted are under oppression, citizens of Israel are under compulsion.  Failure to undertake compulsory service in the military either results in a prison sentence or removal of rights following a diagnosis of mental incapacity.  Sanctions tend to hit the most vulnerable of the affected society and this in turn will, in my view, only increase the suffering of all people and reinforce nationalist opinion.  Besides, the material effect of sanctions would be debatable unless the USA were to undertake them and this is not going to happen.

In my view, the root cause of the continuing conflict is that of weapons.  Both from reading and my own experiences in Israel, the nation “benefits” from being lavishly supplied by weapons, not all of which are declared openly.  For an historic example, please refer to Robert Fisk’s book The Great War For Civilisation - The Conquest of the Middle East (search Hellfire missile) and my own experiences in country (see links below).  I do not support ongoing UK co-operation with the Israeli arms industry.

I feel desperately sorry for all people involved in this ongoing conflict.

Below I offer a selection of blog posts outlining my own experiences while in Israel.

Blog links:

Campaign Facebook page:

Saturday, 13 May 2017

General Election 2017: Reply to Concerns on Animal Welfare and Fox Hunting

Thank you for your recent email on animal welfare. 

The Scottish Liberal Democrats are strong supporters of animal welfare and will continue to protect wildlife, pets and farm animals in the next parliament.

Up to 2015, Liberal Democrats at Westminster were able to make significant progress on improving animal welfare. Many of these achievements affect the whole of the UK, including the ending of housing hens in battery cages and tackling the smuggling and illegal trade of wildlife through the Border Force.  Previously, I have visited livestock farms in the Pentland Hills and seen best practice at work.  I know that animals can be both treated well and see farmers with a fair deal.

Wildlife crime remains a significant problem and I am pleased that, as part of the Coalition government, Liberal Democrats made the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) one of its wildlife crime priorities. However, further action is needed to ensure that penalties are properly applied and prosecutions, where necessary, are carried out. 

On your particular point on fox hunting, this is a retrograde step by Thesesa May’s Conservatives. I would have no problem supporting the views on the constituents of Edinburgh North and Leith in blocking the reintroduction of fox hunting from Westminster.  As an MP however and owing to the nature of devolution, I would have little power over Scottish legislation and therefore I suggest a direct approach to current SNP minister responsible, Roseanna Cunningham, at Holyrood.

In general though, I am willing to work across party lines to deliver improved conditions for all animals in the United Kingdom, whether they are domesticated or wild.

Kind regards,

Martin Veart
Edinburgh North and Leith
Scottish Liberal Democrats

Campaign Facebook page: 

Friday, 12 May 2017

2017 Election Campaign: Refugees and the UK Arms Trade

[Original Post from]

Today Tim Farron announces LibDems plans to accept 50,000 Syrian refugees.

I have no problem with the UK taking more refugees. The problem I have is the UK's role in creating refugees. We should not be supporting any side in the wars in the Middle East. I have worked and travelled in the region (and beyond) over the decades. My fear is, which have been confirmed by Michael Fallon on the Today Programme this morning, is that we are selling weapons purely for profit and, in doing so, enable the continuation of the wars. Saudi Arabia hasn't been threatened by Yemen but Fallon claimed this in order to justify the continued bombing of Yemeni cities using UK-made weapons.
The Second Gulf War started in 2003. There has been no peace in the region since then, despite being flooded by weapons from the USA and Europe, including the UK. After 14 years of continuous conflict, no one is speaking of peace. The language of politics is becoming increased more belligerent. 
Now the UK is the second largest arms manufacturer after the USA, but our armed forces continually complain of lacking equipment. So where is all these weapons going? If the wars stop, what will happen to our industries? What will happen to the US economy?
Continuous warfare is no basis for a long term economic strategy. It is a recipe for a long term refugee problem.

Campaign Facebook page: 

Thursday, 11 May 2017

2017 Election. Campaign Blog 10 May 2017.

[Original post from]
My papers are in and, in the eyes of the law, I am now your Liberal Democrat candidate for Edinburgh North and Leith for the general election to be held on the 8th of June, 2017.
While campaigning over the past few years, and living in Edinburgh from 2008, I have come to know and appreciate this city and the people. Perhaps it is naïve of me, but we are often told that the public, us, demand a new type of politics. I’m ready for that. I’m listening.
I know that the constituency has many concerns. In West Pilton and Muirhouse, there simply isn’t enough of anything: shops, recreational facilities, doctors’ surgeries. In Leith we have some of the most tightly packed residential housing in Europe. In New Town, property prices are so high that the diversity of the area is under threat as the young are simply being priced out of the market. Everywhere, old housing stock is expensive to heat and our heritage status means that it is even more challenging to upgrade the energy efficiency of our housing stock. Around where I live at Western Harbour, I have had to call the police several times in the past year as I have witnessed attempted break-ins. 
Being part of this community means listening to everybody who lives and works here. So what I will do is keep this page open, even beyond the election. If there is an issue you want to bring to my attention, or if you want my view upon a particular topic, just get in contact. I won’t pretend to have the answers to everything. Some of you will disagree with some of my views. But I am here to help, as best I can and, if elected, I will seek to represent you

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Casanova, Northern Ballet (Festival Theatre: 23 – 25 March ’17)

[Below is the text of my review which first appears on the review website]

Casanova, a brand new ballet on it’s world premier tour, choreographed by Kenneth Tindall in his first major work. This could have gone either way  but be reassured: this is a really exciting piece.

The story itself is based upon the life of Giacomo Casanova, taken from Ian Kelly’s biography of Casanova. It starts with Casanova (Giuliano Contadini), a trainee priest, intent upon following his vocation when he meets musicians the Savorgnan Sisters, Nanetta & Marta (Abigail Prudames and Minju Kang). Together the sisters seduce the young priest and take his virginity. Upon discovery, Casanova is cast out of the seminary with only his violin and a book: a forbidden text given to him by Father Balbi (Jeremy Curnier), a renegade priest who, being hunted by Inquisition, offloads the book on to the young man.

What follows is a story of the rise and fall of Casanova, first in his native Venice and afterwards again in Paris after being forced to flee by the Inquisition. Casanova takes himself seriously: he is an intellectual, a mathematician and a social climber. Ultimately though it is a story of talent wasted through dissipation and through that, he loses the women who loved him and whom he loves in turn: Henriette (Hannah Bateman) and Manon Balletti (Ayami Miyata). 

In the central role of Casanova, Contadini (almost literally) carries the entire production. This is an incredibly demanding performance, having to show a wide range of emotions, the intellectual acuity, the boredom of unending lust and upmost despair to the brink of self destruction. Contadini is a good choice: the proportions of his Italian frame adds a level of authenticity to the production. The role itself is incredibly physical, one of the toughest I have seen for a male dancer, so it is with little wonder that was the slightest sign of fatigue by the end. As Henriette, Bateman’s performance is very moving and, as the nun M.M., Ailen Ramos Betancourt is extremely seductive. The cast delivered their roles wonderfully in a fabulous ensemble performance. Casanova should be sexy and frankly this lot are sex-on-a-stick. Christopher Oram (Costume and Set design) really delivers on this point: creating dance costumes that invoked the 18th. Century while being as revealing as a Berlin cabaret. His set is extremely versatile, which along with the change in lighting (Alastair West) allows the action to be set in the grandeur of Venice, the glitter of Paris and the dungeons of the Inquisition. 

The whole production is driven, almost relentlessly, by the score written by Kerry Muzzey. Again the music is modern while being true to the roots of the period.  For this writer it brought back memories of the film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.  The music certainly is cinematic in quality, which is reasonable given this is Muzzey’s background. One audience member was heard to say afterwards “You could have watched that blind. The music!”  Kenneth Tindall is reported as saying that he approached Muzzey to create the music because neither of them have had the experience of creating a major production for ballet before. It shows, but not in a bad way. If one is used more to the Russian style, the choreography perhaps lacks the ostentation and even some of the elegance in comparison. Instead the audience is offered something a lot more visceral and therefore more approachable. During the interval I met a friend in the audience who had never seen a ballet before. Her eyes were glowing as she said “It is sooo awesome!”

In Casanove, Tindall has created a new ballet which is quickly going to be accepted as a modern classic. 

Friday, 17 February 2017

Global Population and Energy

I had not heard of Hans Rosling before I saw his 2013 programme Don’t Worry: The Truth about Population which the BBC re-aired after Rosling’s death this month at the age of 68.  It was really impressive: a great communicator and a first-class mind has left us.  My condolences to Rosling’s family and colleagues.

What Rosling has to say though about population growth is vital for all of us to understand if we care about humanity’s future.  The planet will be fine: over geological time it has seen many mass extinctions.  After a few million years there is always a flurry of evolution as descendants of surviving species exploit the available ecological niches and, in their turn, evolve into new species.  If this happens, then the chances are that humanity will not be around to see it.  No, it is what Rosling said about the population growth by 2100 that must concern us.

Before watching his lecture, I was led to believe that global human population would be capped by available resources at nine billion.  Apparently it is not so, as Rosling is predicting a population of eleven billion by 2100 and probably continuing to rise, albeit more slowly, thereafter. Currently the world is at seven billion - an increase of three billion during my own lifetime. Population levels have already stabilised in the northern nations: Europe, North America and Russia.  Latin America and Africa will see a doubling of their populations but Asia will see the bulk of new people.  This growth is not led by large families either.  Rosling points out that even in 2013, the average family in Bangladesh only has 2.5 children.  No, it is through most of us living longer that the the numbers of humanity will continue to growth.  Failing some drastic cataclysm, the momentum is now unstoppable.

Today we are in a world where the first stresses of this population rise are being felt.  The northern nations are the first to be living longer and having fewer children so our populations are stable, if not falling slightly as the old start to outnumber the young.  On the whole, people are defensive when it comes to foreigners and it is that that is leading to the rise of nationalism in all parts of the north: Putin, Trump, May and Le Pen.  This will only be a phase though as the momentum of humanity will ultimately be too great for such barriers to withstand.  The more serious struggle will be that of resources.

In my own field, that of energy, part of the social-conservative backlash has been directed against the new technologies of renewable energy.  I recently put up a comment on Twitter pointing out that while there is nothing wrong with the government investing in a new centre to maximise the exploration of North Sea oil and gas, they have severely cut investment in renewable energy at the same time.  Responses I got back were “Good: anything that requires a subsidy is a waste of time” and, more succinctly, “Green crap.”  Both responses come from the same source: social conservatism.  Or as a Tea Party member once told me: “All we want is simple.  Leave us the hell alone.”  That is not going to happen but it is nothing to do with political ideas.  It would be through weight of numbers.

There is also resistance from developing nations too.  Many see that the North has built wealth on the back of fossil fuels but now a section of us are saying that renewable energy is the only viable future.  The suspicion is that this is just a cover for the North to keep the fossil energy for themselves and slow down the economic development of people in the South.  “Why cannot we use oil and coal to generate wealth has you have done?” they ask.

Although the demise of fossils fuels have been predicted for some time, they will eventually run out.  If Rosling is correct and the population will rise even further than the often-cited nine billion, this will inevitably happen sooner rather than later.  That is an obvious problem for us all.  For instance, there is not one scenario being offered to the UK government that does not involve fossil fuels.  That is including from Friends of the Earth.  Even they cannot see a society model that, by 2050, we have cut our dependency on fossil fuels by more than fifty percent from current levels of consumption.  What happens to human civilisation when we are literally burning up our last scraps of coal?  I do not know but considering out current state, there cannot be a good outcome.

How much do we have left?  According to my current lectures at Heriot Watt University, the planet has about 40 years of oil, 50 years of gas and 90 years of coal left to use.  This is based upon rising demands for energy up to 2035.

Perhaps at this point I should address the basic issue about finite fuels.  After all, we always seem to be able to find more of the stuff.
Coal, oil and gas comes from the buried fertility of life on the planet.  Soon after the first plants were able to leave the seas and colonise land, there was an explosion of life. (Remember what I said about ecological niches being occupied?).  The first forests formed about 360 million years ago, during the geological period known as the Carboniferous.  Although there are coal reserves from younger periods (such as the lignites of Poland), it is mostly the remains of these ancient first forests we are burning.  Dry gas is associated with these coal beds.  That is the source of the gas fields of the Netherlands and the Southern North Sea.

In contrast, oil comes the biological productivity of ancient oceans.  The Northern North Sea oil comes from the Kimmeridge Clay, a carbon (fossil) rich layer of mud laid down only over a few million years about 155 million years ago.  Different areas of the world will have different sources but roughly similar mechanics.  The source rocks for the Gulf area (Saudi Arabia, UEA, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran) were laid down over a protracted length of time (about 80 million years!) during the formation and destruction of the an ancient ocean called the Tethys.  That is why about half the world’s oil reserves are to be found in this region.  As these muds, rich in the remains of marine plants and microscopic animals, are buried and heated, the chemical reactions start, over millions of years, to produce crude oil.  If that oil is heated further, wet gas is produced.  Heat it too much though and all the hydrogen is driven off, leaving only inert carbon.

Traditional drilling and oil exploration focuses upon finding the accumulations of this oil and gas as the fluids migrated and are trapped in rocks.  Fracking is only different insofar that the hydrocarbons still trapped in the original source rocks are freed up by mechanically breaking up the mudstones.   The point is about fracking is that after the source rocks have been exploited, there is nowhere else to go.  Fracking is a symptom that the sponge is starting to be squeezed in order to extract the final drops.

What of nuclear though?  Current power stations are based upon the fission of uranium.  This technology is problematic because of the weaponisation of byproducts.  Nuclear weapon technology is jealously guarded, even if that particular genie is out of the bottle.  However, this particular blog is about energy and not nuclear weapons.  Although there is plenty of uranium left in the planet, most of it is beyond the reach of human extraction. Only small quantities are trapped in the Earth’s crust and therefore mineable.  Current reserves are thought to be good for another seventy years.  Thorium is a far more plentiful element but there has been little investment in extracting the power contained within it.  Probably because its byproducts has far more difficult to weaponise.

In short, the world is not expected to have a single finite source of fossil energy expected to last beyond this century.

I haven’t even started to talk about what burning all these ancient reserves are doing to the climate.  The big question is:
Is mad-made climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, real?

Quick answer is yes.  Yes, it is real.

Climate-change deniers use the figure that “only” ninety seven percent of scientists claim that climate change is man-made and that they speak for the brave three percent.  Even this is a lie.

Have a look at this graph from  Climate change deniers have had zero impact on the scientific debate on the evidence.  This means that there is either a global conspiracy involving millions of scientists or, more likely, the evidence for man-made global warming is effectively unanimously accepted by those who consider the evidence.

Climate change deniers also point to natural climate change variation during geological time.  This indeed happens.  The next graph, from the University of Berne, shows the natural carbon dioxide level (CO2) over the past 60,000 years in terms of parts per million (ppm).  The ramp up from 20,000 to 12,000 years ago covers the period of glacier melting at the end of the last Ice Age.  The spike, right at the end, covers the last two hundred years up to 2004 - the period of the industrial revolution.  In 2016 CO2 have now past the 400 ppm.  As explained previously, the majority of fossil fuel energy which as been locked up in the planet’s crust is now being liberated into the atmosphere.  

CO2 is a vital atmospheric component for preserving solar radiation and keeping the planet warm and habitable.  Never in the course of geological history however has there been such a rapid and concentrated injection of CO2 into the planet’s atmosphere and all scientists expect the result to be rapid increases in global temperatures.  These changes in temperature will not be evenly spread but will see higher rises at the poles and more modest increases over the equator.  The effect upon habitats and ecosystems are also expected to be drastic as most species cannot react quickly enough to such rapid change.  Sea levels will also rise, mostly due to thermal expansion of ocean waters.

These are the challenges.  What is to be done?

If we do not do anything, human society is in for a very rough time that will effect us all, even social conservatives.  It is possible to do nothing to address the energy situation but then one is into a series of short-term military interventions, killing millions without any permanent solutions.  It is possible that in the face of huge population growth, usable energy will give out almost completely, leading to catastrophic problems in food production and supply. 

I tend not to be a doom-monger though.  Even without wilful negligence of current conservative thinking, solutions often still arise.  Again though, these tend to be short term and limited in scope, especially in democratic systems.  Authoritarian systems such as China do have an advantage when performing long-term planning.  The Chinese are indeed one of the highest investors in renewable energy technology.  This is perfectly understandable because their own history shows the negative results that social upheaval can have.  People tend to remember only the Second World War and the Communist revolution but they also remember events like the Taiping Revolution: one of the bloodiest civil wars in global history.  The challenge for Western nations is achieving desirable long-term outcomes without having to resort to dictatorship and the crushing of individual human rights.

Therefore I call upon all governments, but especially nationalist governments in the west, to first of all accept the scientific evidence and give no heed to climate change deniers.  The same can also to be asked of the mass media organisations.  Giving equal weight to the deniers is not upholding their right to free speech, it is simply propagation of a lie.  I am not going to stop people to state there is no such thing as global warming: it is just that they are simply wrong and are continuing to say so in the light of all available evidence.

Secondly, once the evidence is accepted as real, act upon it.  This does not mean leaving it to the market place.  Wise government is able to foresee trouble ahead and act in good time to minimalise the worst outcomes.  If this means having to subsidise prices from renewable energy resources and invest in energy storage research, then do it.

Thirdly, this appeal is to both governments and green activists.  We will need all the resources available to us over the next century.  This includes fossil fuels and nuclear.  Do not arbitrarily block  the exploitation of these reserves.  They will be needed.  Instead we need a long term policy approach to manage these resources, having them last as long as possible while taking measures to minimalise the effects of CO2 release: either through carbon capture or keeping the carbon in situ while releasing the hydrogen for energy usage.  We cannot have a position where hydrocarbons are bad: renewables good.  Yes, we need to maximise our investment and research in renewables but we will also still have to use fossil fuels.

By nature, I am not a pessimist.  These are huge challenges but, if we are smart, we as a species and civilisation, may be able to get through this next century.  We all need to wake up, look to the future and not harken either back to the past or some green nirvana that can never be.  We all need to accept and act upon the evidence.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Preserving Oilfield History

Last week I gave a lecture to a small audience of post-graduate students at Heriot-Watt’s Institute of Petroleum Engineering.  The topic was on an obscure branch of geophysics (known as borehole seismic) and the life of a oilfield service hand.  It is not my intent to write upon the topic here, you will be glad to learn.

While researching what is effectively personal history, I really found the limits of both my own records and that of the Internet.  The workhorse of Western Atlas for borehole seismic work was a tool system called an MRL - Multi-Level Receivers.  It simply does not exist online.  At least Google cannot find it.  As employees and contractors, we were never encouraged to photograph our work places.  Partly a safety issue - unrated electrical items can potentially cause a spark of radio transmissions trigger an explosive, but in the main oil companies simply do to encourage photography of their installations and business practices.  It is only when I was trawling through my old files and albums do I realise how diligent I have been in obeying such corporate edicts.

Since then, I have put out an appeal to colleagues to share their old pictures, especially those of older technology.  It is not that I have any strong sentiment attached to these tools: most are heavy and inferior to today’s offerings and I spent far too much of my life dragging the damn things around in tropical heat, North Sea gales and winter ice.  As a record of industrial history though, the records are already starting to fade.  They are already hardly known and will be lost completely if people like me do not organising and compiling their files.

Some of my friends have already been in contact and are willing to share their records, which is great.  I hope more of you get in contact.  This blog post has a wider appeal though.  If you work with specialised equipment, if might be worth while having a think now about the memory of the tools and the work practices are preserved for posterity.

Add caption
Photo credit: Alex Rennie.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

UK Politics, 2016.

A lot of people will be glad to see the end of 2016 and in the political sphere, it was indeed a bad year to be a liberal.  I am going to take this opportunity to get a lot off my chest so buckle up dear reader.

Where to start?  Brexit seems a “good” place.  There is a lot of lessons for the political establishment here.  For many, dislike of immigration was the main factor.  Listening to those who voted to leave however, I do not think that the central message was one of hatred.  It was a cry of desperation: the feeling that politicians do not listen to them and that the issues that matter most are not being addressed.  Instead of addressing these issues though, the blame was shifted on to the EU - the “unelected bureaucrats” who allegedly dictate our lives.  The lie was cynically sold to those people who are least informed of the issues.  The state of UK democracy is not the fault of the EU but rather of ourselves.  Westminster has a rotten voting system and local democracy in the form of town and county councils have been hollowed out systematically since the 1970s.  Leaving the European Union will not address any of this.  It comes down to decision-making on the local level and having the resources necessary so that local needs can be answered.  Leaving the EU will only worsen our economy for the foreseeable future.  One possible explanation put forward is based upon economic psychology.  It is claimed that is better for some to see everybody poorer rather than to see some better off.  Personally, I hope this is not the case as for my own personal politics is to encourage people to positive action, while understanding we all have negative passions too.  

What is the game plan of those who led the Brexit campaign?  It varies, depending upon which end of the political extreme one is on.  We currently have a very right wing government in office, led by Theresa May.  Make no mistake: these people are both social and economic extremists.  Even Farage himself mused upon the possibility of rejoining the Conservative Party, as they now occupy UKIP ground.  In order to appear more central, there has been an accommodation in the press of the Far Right.  This is evidenced not only by the continued presence of Farage, but Marine Le Pen of the Front National has been making several appearances on the BBC.  My antenna first twitched when on the World at One (BBC Radio 4) Le Pen was introduced as a “right wing” politician.  Note, not extreme right as in previous years.  Later on she and her nationalist right party featured on Newsnight (BBC 2) and The Marr Show (BBC1).  We have to import fascists for it is impossible to go further right than UKIP and the current government without stepping into Britain First, one of whose members murdered Labour’s Jo Cox MP on June 16th, 2016.

The far economic right agenda is starting to surface.  It had to start with the repeal of a lot of the previous legislation laid down by Liberal Democrats while part of the Coalition.  During the summer recess of 2015, the Cameron government cut the majority of support to the renewable industries and weakened the framework set up to strictly regulate fracking in (onshore) England.  Previously no exploitation would have been allowed under national parks and similarly protected areas - such as Sherwood Forest.  Now it is just about the location of well sites.  Deviated and horizontal well technology is now allowed to drill under areas previously off limits.  Since the Brexit vote, a lot of effort is going into deregulation.  Large corporations are looking at London in the hope of benefitting from an extreme low-tax regime, without having to go to all the fuss of setting up shell companies in far-flung tax havens.  Working rights, already weakened in negotiations with UK governments, will be further attacked.  Farmers who supported Brexit will be looking to grow GM crops and import US-style animal husbandry practices in order to boost profits.  Basically, the whole of the UK is to become a giant deregulated Free-Trade Zone, even more extreme than what exists currently in the USA.  The Right will be looking keenly at the moves taken by President Elect (at the time of writing) Trump, along with the Republican Congress and Senate. 

Enough of the Right, what of the Left?  Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (remember him?) has been mute on holding this government to account on Brexit.  In fact, a lot of Labour spokespeople have been making very supportive noises on limiting future immigration.  Some say that this is Labour running scared of their own electorate and pandering to the prejudice on display.  I cannot help but wonder if there is a deeper motive in play.  It is pretty clear that Corbyn is no fan of the EU and in this he follows in the Bennite tradition.  The idea being is that the EU is primarily a regulated trading zone with large corporations being the major beneficiaries.  Since a sincere and dedicated socialist is against capitalism, one must also be against the EU.  There is more.  Corbyn and his Momentum acolytes must know the Conservative plans for the economy.  Why are they not vocally opposing them now?  One wonders if the reason is because they have read their Marx, and that in order for true socialism to come about, capitalism must be allowed to go to the worst possible extremes.  Only then will us proletariat rise up and overthrow our masters.  Overall, the EU has been quite successful in curbing the worst excesses and allowing many citizens to have reasonable lives.  It is a stumbling block on the way to the Marxist paradise.  The Conservatives on the other hand are offering the path to corporate excess and thus to the inevitable people’s revolution. Only speculation one understands, but otherwise there is no accounting for the silence of Labour leadership.

What of UKIP?  The whole point of the referendum was for the Conservative party to address the schism within their own ranks: UKIP is a renegade party created by former Conservatives after all.  This they have done, even at the cost of pulling the UK out of Europe (Brexit means Brexit) and dividing the nation pretty well down the middle. Seldom British history has a prime minister laid down the future of an entire nation for the sake of his own party, but this is what the Conservatives under David Cameron has done. Since the vote went the way of Leave, there is little point in UKIP existing any more. Sure, they might have a revival if the Conservatives do not deliver but at the time of writing, UKIP has won and the membership might as well return to the mothership that is the Conservative Party. 
As UKIP is reabsorbed however, one may find that some choose to go their own way.  Look out for “independent” candidates, using the language of the US ALT Right; offering to “Drain the Swamp” near you.  In previous years they would have wondered off and joined the National Front or the BNP.  They are still the same old fascists and racists, just using a new label.

 With all this madness going on, the SNP up here in Scotland must think that things are going rather well.  In May they won their third term in government, albeit as an minority this time around.  The problem is with the SNP is that they are a pressure group for independence rather than a political party with thought-through and costed policies.  Yet again in 2016, we had the farce of the delayed publication of the party manifestos.  In 2011, the other parties realised that for their own manifesto, the SNP shamelessly cut-and-paste policies into their own manifesto and simply increases the pledges.  For example, after an in-depth report from a party committee, in their manifesto the Liberal Democrats might pledge to build 40,000 houses in Scotland over the five years of a parliamentary term.  The SNP leadership think “Oh, that’s shiny, we’ll have that” and ups their pledge to 50,000 for good measure.  It is not just the Liberal Democrat manifesto that is pillaged in this way: the SNP does it to all the other parties.  This time around Labour held out and were last to publish with only days left before the vote.  This could not have helped with postal voting and may have contributed towards their third place.  By representing themselves as Unionists rather than Tories, the Conservatives came second.  On the street and doorstep, one could not even make out any sign of Conservative logos or name tags: the print used was so small.  During the election Ruth Davidson successfully de-branded themselves as Conservatives and even now distances herself from her Westminster colleagues by this week restating her EU-Remainer sympathies.

None of this really matters to the SNP.  The only policy they have is independence and the only method of government they do is the centralisation of power to Holyrood.  This year’s bill on forestry will not devolve power to local communities but instead takes power from the Forestry Commission and gives it to government ministers.  The SNP will continue to concentrate all policing in the hands of government by absorbing Scottish-based British Transport Police into the already discredited Police Scotland.  They shamelessly use the language of the progressive left while practicing economic right-wing policies.  Look out for the predicted cut in air transport duty, due to be delivered in 2018.  This isn’t based upon any progressive or green policies but rather at the demand of Gordon Dewar, the chief executive of Edinburgh Airport.  The SNP has not altered the burden of income tax so it weighs heavier on the better off.  All they have done in not pass on the Conservative tax cut to higher earners made by the Westminster government.  When it comes to renewable energy, the Scottish government has passed on the Westminster cuts to small-scale generators and now their emphasis is on large-scale projects, just as it in the south.  Our hospitals and care services continues to be cut, as does our education services.  Right now that they are claiming in an online meme that the NHS is thriving outside England, at a time when both hospital and care services continue to be cut here in Edinburgh and Dundee has problem filling vacant positions.  This is a new definition of thriving.  What really gets me is not just that the problems exist, it is the constant denial that there are any problems at all.  Things will inevitably worsen while the Executive continues to deny that there is problems in public and the main thing they demand of their membership (and even MPs and MSPs) is unquestioning faith rather than intelligent criticism.  As a society we cannot continue to hang time while the party in charge waits for its opportunity to hold a second referendum.  Problems we all face need addressing now, otherwise the nation’s future prospects will worsen, whatever capital city is ultimately in charge.

What of my own beloved party, the Liberal Democrats?  As Paddy Ashdown graphically put it (after dining upon his own hat following the 2015 election), politically we were “roadkill”.  Slowly though we are less roadkill and more on the road to recovery.  Safe to say the party did not enjoy power.  Better being in power though - after all we were able to deliver seventy percent of our manifesto commitments and beat down the excesses we warned you all about with the Conservatives and are now all-too-evident.  Freed from the shackles of Westminster coalition (which incidentally I did highlight in a pre-election blog post in 2010), a weight has been lifted off our shoulders and the old campaigning mojo is back.  This is evident by performances in the 2016 Scottish elections, winning two seats (thanks to teams led by Willie Rennie and Alex Cole-Halmilton) directly from the SNP and avoiding the predicted wipeout.  Further evidence is the net gain of 28 council seats in by-elections across the UK.  The cherry on the (still admittedly small but growing) pie is the victory at Richmond Park, with Sarah Olney overthrowing a massive Conservative majority.  Yes, Goldsmith was standing as an independent and yes, the Greens showed true generosity in standing aside in the fight.  Goldsmith was supported by the Conservatives and UKIP also stood aside to give him a better chance.  A win is a win and it shows that liberalism is not forgotten.  Indeed, liberalism is proving to be the only effective antidote against extremism and popularism.  I have faith in people, but only when they also have the facts.  That is one reason why power is best delivered locally and not centralised in either Edinburgh or London.  Democracy is also too valuable to be bought by corporations following what is effectively a constitutional coup by the economic far right.

I remain both a liberal and a Remainer.  Brexit has given us Liberal Democrats not only a further reason to exist but have provided us with a mission that the public can easily understand.  I don’t respect the outcome of the referendum.  When we had our debate over Scottish independence, the time taken allowed everybody a rounded view before the vote.  Two years felt long: it was long but it proved necessary.  Three months is nothing.  In fact it was just six weeks up here in Scotland, owing to the Scottish Parliament elections being held in May.  When I wrote my blog giving the reasons I was voting No, I made the commitment that whatever the outcome, I would honour it.  We never had that kind of debate over Brexit, it was rushed and frankly was only ever held to settle the schism in the Conservative Party.  Internal party reasons to hold the referendum of such huge consequence are is the worst possible motive and we need a second referendum.  Not so the correct result can be achieved - although obviously I do hope for a different outcome - it is so that a public decision can be reached with all the options and facts being explored.  A rushed, railroaded decision is worse than no decision at all.  The alternative to another referendum would be a general election.  On that, I would be very happy to see the Liberal Democrats stand as the party dedicated to remain within the European Union.  As part of a genuinely progressive coalition, it might even be possible to overturn Brexit and thwart the extreme right.