Colin's Cornucopia

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A letter to George Monbiot

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8th March 2009
ref george monbiot.doc

Dear George,

I wrote to you some years ago about “The Captive State”. Since then I have been very ill and now recovered, spend my time putting the world to right. I have now reached my three score and tenth year but have no intention of setting down the torch.

I have just read “Heat” and a great deal of work you have put into it. I hope it has helped to keep you alive and thriving. The world certainly needs all the correctly aligned brainpower it can muster.

I have been a Chartered Engineer for more years than I care to admit and am constantly beset by magazine articles telling me of the latest developments in Flue Gas Scrubbers, Carbon Separation, Capture and burial, District Heating, CHP schemes, Electric vehicles, Power Cells and a plethora of hare brained schemes. I have to say that I am surprisingly often appalled at the lack of understanding betrayed by other professionals. So much so that I have to keep my mouth shut.

I have written some serious articles condemning most of this activity but am not ready to publish it yet. Partly because nobody wants to listen. I have a few very good, and reasonably competent, friends. When I try to discuss Green issues with them their eyes glaze over because they either do not understand or do not want to believe it. I joined FOE for a while but they are dedicated nutters and with few exceptions, understand even less.

I developed a technique years ago for handling large amounts of data. At first by accident and later by intent and later still reinforced by the experiences of others.
I absorb huge amounts of information and let my mind work on it for a very long time. Then I will sit down at midnight and write three thousand words before dawn.

I cannot remember the details but I once read a fascinating account of the development of the world’s first solid state computer. The first ones I worked on were driven by valves. There was just one member of this large team assigned to write the operating system for an early solid-state device – long before the term was common. He did absolutely nothing for over a year but talk to other members of the team. Then he wrote the world’s first operating system in a weekend. It was called Quick and Dirty Operating System - QDOS and was the forerunner of MSDos. That is how I operate.

I was delighted to find all the hard won data in your book but it did little but confirm my perceptions. It was, and is, a task that needs doing but is never-the-less ultimately futile. I think that was your conclusion also.

I was heartbroken to read of you typing your last chapter holding you baby daughter on your lap. This is the nub of the problem. A month ago I wrote an open letter to my thirteen-year-old granddaughter. She came home from school in tears and it turned out to be about boys. I left the relationship bit to her mother but explained that she was the product of around four billion years of the development of life where every single generation had to seek out a mate and reproduce. This had happened billion of times and every single one was successful.  This force of life is virtually inextinguishable and poor Lucy has to face up to this in her hormones and the contrary demands of our sophisticated society and now to the prospect of approaching doomsday.

You also have to face the fact that this superb expression of your love and your very life cuddled on your lap has just added another carbon producer to the population of this overburdened world. This is a conundrum we all face and I know almost nobody who is truly capable of acting logically in this regard. You cannot deny your heart.

You have ranted and raved about airplanes - and just done your bit to help add to it all. I am not criticising you. I am just noting that the demands of four billion years of development with the consequent demands upon our hearts - and the state of the planet are in fundamental conflict. This is the real problem.  Its simple name is overpopulation. We have outgrown the planet.

I went to the airport last night to pick up my daughter after her holiday in Sharm El Sheik. I stood and watched the multitude of people coming off that plane to most of whom I would not give the time of day and wondered how the magnificent technology that I spent much of my life developing could have been so debased as to allow these ignorant people to abuse the system by jetting off to Blackpool-Cum-Heat. I was quite ashamed and somewhat peeved that my otherwise sensible and lovely daughter is a dedicated jet-setter.

But they are just people. Maybe they need to get away from the stresses of their lives just as much as the mill girls of Blackburn, Bury and Bolton once needed to get away from their Dark Satanic Mills.

I have read Dawkins, Hawkins, Leaky, Einstein, Plank, Mendelev, Lovelock, Newton, Marx, Engels, Rand, and Bryson and Monbiot amongst a host of others. I know how the Big Bang went after the first femtosecond; I know how the Sun and other stars work; I know how to make an atomic bomb and even what material to use – and how to make a centrifuge to separate U235 from U238. I can write you the equations of combustion and tell you how to design a reciprocating engine or a gas turbine. I even have an idea how to build a Sterling engine. I have a pretty good idea how the National Grid works and how to write a computer program to control it and anything else you might define. I have learned how a,c,t,and g are constructed and how they make DNA and RNA. I know a little about the human cell and how sugar and starch are constructed. I know the equations of how we obtain our energy from food and the consequences of our insatiable appetite for enabling power.

I have learned the history of our planet from its inception and the likely ways in which life formed. I have read with utter fascination the amazing stories of uncovering this ancient history – of magnetic reversals and tectonic plates and volcanoes and asteroids and chemicals and life and interactions and clouds and seas and plankton and a host of ‘ites that make up most of this world’s life forms. I wonder at the millions of years it took to deposit life forms to grow thousands of feet of sandstone and limestone - and then have it cut to pieces by more millions of years of erosion.

One other key matter. About fifty years ago I had an interview at Harwell and was shown a stainless steel sphere surrounded by an array of imposing technology. My host told me they expected to sustain a fusion reaction in there within a few months for 2 microseconds. My cursory check on the internet of the current state of the technology shows they have nearly reached a few seconds sustained reaction.  As you say, this technology is years away from use. Professor Lovelock has described success in this endeavour as his worst nightmare. Freed from the restraints of worldly energy, mankind would breed at unprecedented rates. You can’t win.

I know and partially understand these things and a host more – and I still do not have the faintest idea what to do about Global Warming. It is perfectly plain that the earth and life is highly likely to go merrily on its way for another billion years. The thing that will change is that we probably will not.

I have five propositions. The first is that this earth cannot sustain a human population above around eight or nine billion peasants. I use this terminology deliberately. The carbon demands on the planet of peasants are quite low and probably just about sustainable – although it is notable that huge areas of forest were cleared several thousand years ago when human population was measured in thousands. Life only survives by constant expansion – although most suffers regular crashes. Peasants would certainly suffer regular population crashes

The second is that we have believed for the last two hundred years that technology would enable man to expand his presence on earth without limit. We can clearly see now that this is not true. Indeed, the converse is probably true. Technological man is totally dependent upon energy and could probably survive on this planet if his numbers were limited to less than one billion or thereabouts. But such is just a pipe dream.

The third is that our technological system is based upon the financial system described as Keyensian Economics. This depends for its success on a constant expansion of around three percent. Less than this we consider a crash and more that this causes rampant inflation. Three percent seems to work fine but is in fact an exponential increase in industrial activity. As a very rough guide this increases overall activity by twenty in 100 years or five hundred in 200 years. I submit that energy use is proportionate to this economic activity and that that relationship will not be seriously changed. Despite Professor Lovelock’s assertions to the contrary, this growth behaviour in an adult correctly describes cancer. Our society has definitely reached its adult years.

The fourth is that the “Third World” is determined to catch up with the “First World” and now has the means to do so.  Even if world human population could be self limited – which it cannot – the increase due to spreading industrialisation will increase energy output – and carbon – by a factor of three within twenty years assuming a five percent expansion. The third world is certainly starting from a much lower base but their population also outnumbers the West by a factor of around ten. The world is already at serious risk from the industrial activities of only around five percent of its inhabitants. It will not take long to double the problem. My guess is about ten years. I cannot be bothered to work it out – I know the answer will be disastrous.

My last proposition is that the damage is already done. For much of my working life I studied and worked in Control Systems. I understand systems very well. The ecosystem has suffered a significant step input and continues to receive a significant ramp input. The system will respond. It is impossible that it will not do so. Exactly what that response will be I defy any man on this planet to say. We have a very finely balanced complex chemical experiment called Earth and we do not have the faintest idea how it works. We mess with it at our peril. This is the first time I have been pleased not to be a young man.

Like you, I am appalled at the prospect in front of us. I don’t know what to do and do not think that there is anything to be done. Personally I’m thinking of buying a hillside in Northern Scotland and preparing to set up a Tea Plantation.

On a slightly more serious note. When the arguments first raged about the Nuclear Deterrent the controversies were finally closed – more or less - by a letter in the Guardian. I quote from memory.

Dear Sir,

Everyone should dig a large hole in the garden and place a neat pile of brushwood beside it. When the four minute warning comes you should get in and pull the brushwood on top of you. This will provide no protection against nuclear fallout but at least we will leave the place as tidy as we found it.


Finally, have you read “The High Frontier”? I am sure it is on the web.

Keep up the good work, and good luck to you.

Yours sincerely
Colin Walker.

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