Earth Hour – how to cause more pollution

From the Earth Hour website:
“On Saturday 27 March 2010 at 8.30pm, we want a billion people around the world to switch off their lights for one hour – WWF’s Earth Hour. Show you care about climate change.”

Yes, I care about climate change, but I fail to see how this exercise will help. It can only do more harm than good. In encouraging people to turn off their lights en masse for one hour between 20:30 and 21:30, the WWF is going to cause a massive drop in electricity demand at 20:30 (in itself a big problem for electricity suppliers) and then conversely (or perversely, given the context) a massive surge in demand at 21:30. The surge in demand at 21:30 will mean that generators will have to be put back on line and this will require a huge and sudden expenditure of energy (e.g. burning more coal or gas) to do so. Utility companies have to plan for advert breaks in sporting events, which is normally the time when thousands of people go into the kitchen and turn on their kettles and water companies have a sudden surge in demand as thousands of toilets are flushed.

This is akin to the strange logic of turning central heating off to save energy. The house cools down and then when it needs to be warmed up again has to start from the base point of a cold house and therefore use more energy to restore it to the required temperature than would have been used, had the central heating just been turned down a little bit to maintain a slightly lower temperature. As an aside, this large cooling and reheating of houses is not good for a house or its contents (particularly electrical appliances and acoustic instruments), let alone the waste of energy involved.

If the WWF is intent on conducting this Earth Hour exercise, a more sensible approach would have been to encourage people to switch off appliances for an hour at some time in a given week, or even a month, which would stagger the impact on the utility companies and not create the crazy surge in demand (and consequently the pollution!) which Earth ‘Switch Everything Back On’ Minute will cause.

If we are really serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions relatively quickly, we have a clean and reliable source of energy, which has been in use for decades around the world. It’s called nuclear power. The French have bought into it in a big way, and to compare modern nuclear power stations with Chernobyl is not a valid comparison. Regarding nuclear waste… it can be buried safely deep underground in disused mines, where it can slowly decay without threatening anyone.

I’m all in favour of alternative energy – harnessing what nature provides us is clearly where we need to be headed (and many people are already fed up of me ranting about the potential I see in solar roads), but these alternative energy sources have to be viable. They need to provide a massive proportion if not all of our electricity needs. Solar roads seemingly have the potential to supply the world’s electricity needs many times over if adopted on a substantial basis, but even I must concede that they are not yet ready. So, in the meantime, the obvious choice of clean electricity generation is nuclear power.

Trying to reduce our electricity consumption is not viable. The world’s demand for electricity is going to go one way – up, whether we like it or not. There appear to be large number of people with strange masochistic tendencies who appear to be hoping for a return to the dark ages so that they can feel smug. This reminds me of the comment Jasper Carrot once made that the most annoying aspect of a nuclear war would be all the CND supporters who would inevitably walk around saying “I told you so” after that particular brand of Armageddon.

Rather than embracing the concept of blackouts, no central heating and none of their favourite electronic gizmos, people who are passionate about cleaning up the environment need to look for or at least get behind technological solutions. Reducing electricity consumption is best done through use of more efficient technologies (e.g. better batteries, insulation, better use of resources, and more efficient motors) rather than by a perverse (and unworkable) desire to send us back to the dark ages.

Still, many celebrities are behind the Earth Hour campaign and they must be right because… they, and not scientists, are the experts.

European Union still sounds like a good idea?

Two recent events have made me grateful for the UK’s somewhat hesitant approach regarding closer European Union integration. The first is the economic situation in Greece. The second is current stand-off in relations between Switzerland (itself not a member of the EU, but a signatory of the Schengen Agreement) and Libya.

In the first instance, The wealthier countries in the Euro Zone (notably Germany) will be obliged to bail Greece out of its financial quagmire whilst still trying to bring their own economies back in line. That is going to hurt ordinary people in Germany at a time when it is still paying for reunification (levied through an additional tax of 5.5% of each taxpayer’s income – after income tax), twenty years after reunification.

The prospects for other countries in the Euro Zone, such as Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and particularly Latvia, do not look much better.

Here in the UK, our own finances are far from rosy, but at least we have far more power to regulate our own economy to suit our own requirements than the members of the Euro Zone do.

Regarding the second issue over the tensions between Switzerland and Libya, the escalation in the standoff between the two nations has resulted in all signatories of the Schengen Agreement being obliged to implement a Schengen area travel ban on senior Libyan officials (including former Boney M singer, Colonel Gaddafi). Italy is not particularly happy about this, as it is trying to retain good relations with Libya over energy supplies and to stem the flow of African immigrants into southern Italy through closer cooperation with Libya on this issue.

For me, these issues highlight the importance of a country’s independence in matters of finance and diplomacy. Whilst it is true that multi-national companies and global financial markets are what truly determine the performance of countries’ economies, it remains within the capabilities of politicians to seek to regulate the terms under which these operate in order to protect the interests of the state and its citizens – in the UK at least. In the Eurozone, the hands of individual countries’ politicians are tied, and whilst politicians in the UK are not the most popular people at the moment, they are at least elected (well, the ones in the lower house are anyway).

Similarly, what would previously have been a bilateral issue for Switzerland and Libya to resolve between themselves has now dragged most of the Continent into a battle of wills, in a way which is reminiscent of the political folly of the old system of alliances which dragged us into World War One; not that the current spat between the Swiss and the Libyans is likely to go quite that far. Ironically, the UK, which hasn’t had the best of relationships with Libya in the past, not being a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, is outside this battle of wills.

I am a lapsed Federal Europhile. I bought into the whole European federalist ideal for good reasons. I concede that there are benefits to EU membership. I recognise that from a pan-European standpoint, EU membership has transformed the economies and living standards of southern European states, Ireland, and thanks to tax payers’ money from the wealthier nations, more recently it is doing the same in eastern Europe (we shalln’t dwell on the fact that British tax payers effectively funded the export of hundreds of skilled Peugot jobs from Ryton near Coventry to Slovakia to take advantage of the cheaper running and employment costs in Slovakia). The wealthier nations within the EU have invested in these countries’ economies, where labour has often been cheaper. I was delighted when we signed up to Maastricht Treaty and completely bought into a federal Europe of regions, based on the concept of subsidiarity.

Unfortunately, in the eighteen years since sweeping reforms of the EU were promised, little has changed and the principle of subsidiarity has all but been ignored. There have been token efforts to give the European Parliament more powers, thereby making the one constituent part of EU government which is directly elected by EU citizens slightly more useful. The Commission still retains far too much power and the fact that the appointed Commission can dictate to our government (derived from our parliament) tells you all you need to know.

The EU has also more than doubled in size from 12 to 27 member states, diluting the influence of constituent states and necessitating reforms in an attempt to introduce qualified majority voting on key decisions rather than the formerly required unanimity – all without any consultation of UK citizens, when such a decision, which has a huge effect on our influence within the EU clearly should have been subject to a referendum.

I now have particular issues with two aspects of the development of the European Union. The first is implied in its name and is explicit in the Maastricht Treaty, in which the signatories are “…RESOLVED to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity…”. In spite of that commitment to subsidiarity (all too absent in reality), whichever way you look at it, this is a dilution of democracy. We citizens have absolutely no powers to remove the European Commission, which is in practice responsible for most of the decisions emanating from the European Union bodies which affect us. And I’m not referring to the silly tabloid stories about straight bananas or crisp flavours, but important decisions which have legal precedence over our own country’s laws. We have no direct power over who can and can’t be members of the Commission and the unfortunate truth about many who have gone on to become commissioners is that they have, shall we say, questionable pasts in their own domestic political spheres.

After spending time living on the Continent, it’s easy to get swept away on the notion that closer European political integration will lead to a more continental style of life in the UK, where UK citizens appreciate café culture and philosophical discussions rather than chats about beer and football. But, increasing converging European integration will not lead to such a development. Instead, it will have exactly the opposite effect. It will mean that regardless of the country you visit within the United States of Europe, all the high streets will look exactly the same (many would say that they do already) and that really is a shame. Vive la différence!

Closer EU integration will not change the nature of the British psyche. You can’t change a nation’s world view through political integration. Peoples’ views change through exposure to those from other cultures and this happens, not through seeking to melt all the different cultures into one, but through experiencing other people and traditions in their own contexts, through travel and contact with other cultures.

The second major issue I have with the development of the European Union is the fact that the idea of a single, federal European Union has missed the boat by about 50 years. When Winston Churchill called for a United States of Europe (and he wasn’t including the UK in this proposed United States of Europe, by the way) the world was a very different place, and Europe had ravished by war and internal conflict for centuries. There was a desire on the part of many to foster closer European integration so that such horrific events could not be revisited on future generations. Many claim that this desire itself and the following acts towards closer political integration are what have maintained peace within Europe over the second half of the 20th century (putting the conflicts in Yugoslavia to one side). It would be foolish to dismiss this sincere desire for peace within Europe, but it is not the European project, but NATO and the threat from communism which really maintained the peace since the end of World War 2. The European project merely happened and was helped along against this backdrop.

The key to peace after World War 2 was the very real threat of Mutually Assured Destruction between the NATO countries on the one side and the countries under the Soviet influence on the other. When the Berlin Airlift was organised in 1948, the citizens of West Berlin (and consequently the states in the soon to be German Federal Republic) were left in no doubt as to who their allies were. Once the lines were drawn and the Iron Curtain established, the spheres of influence were set and it was the potential Soviet threat which bound the countries of the West together – not the European Union.

Communication and technology have made the world a much smaller place than it was fifty years ago and we should not be looking to forge a political union with our neighbours, but we should be looking further afield, to the emerging economies of India, China, and also those of the Commonwealth, and seeking to establish further trade links with these countries, as well as returning to developing our own domestic industries in all sectors once again, especially manufacturing, so that we can source products and services locally wherever possible.

The minimum wage may have sounded like a great idea in theory, but in practice it simply prices makes the UK too expensive as a manufacturing base. Our workforce will always be more expensive than workers overseas, and whilst this is true, the jobs will go overseas. You can deal with this in three ways:

1. Isolationism and protectionism. Make imports massively expensive (we can’t do that as part of the EU).
2. Eliminate the minimum wage.
3. Develop core specialities – things our citizens can do better than any other country, and really sell those skills to the world – not just within the EU.

We have a model democracy in the UK. It is one which has been copied throughout the world. It is not without its faults, but it has been consistent for centuries, whereas many of our neighbours have changed regimes incessantly, running between republics, empires, dictatorships, monarchies – some (like France) within decades. We have a system enshrined around long-standing and well-tested principles. We have a fundamentally different view on issues of law which suit our culture. Any attempt to depose this with some kind of Napleonic code of law would not suit our own culture, nor that of many of our neighbours. Our strength is in variety.

In an international context, a single European voice may carry more weight than the voice of the UK on its own, but what if the single European voice is diametrically opposed to the views of the UK? Are we really better off?

My academic background is in Modern Languages (based around politics and current affairs), which I studied at university. I have lived and worked for a reasonable amount of time on the Continent. I like our fellow Europeans, but I like them for the variety in culture, traditions, and world outlooks. It would be a sad day if that were lost in the name of creating a European super state, which most people in the UK do not want. I am angry that a generation of voters who voted for a free market in the early 1970s were deceived by successive governments who have moved (without public consent) towards political union – and you only have to speak to those who voted in favour to hear how angry they are now. I am even more angry that subsequent generations have had absolutely no say on the matter.

At a time where technology and disillusionment with our current political leaders is leading to a decentralisation of politics, and would appear to be heading towards people power, it makes no sense to continue to forge ahead with a European super state, supported by few of the citizens of Europe.

A few months ago I particularly enjoyed a throwaway comment by a member of the panel on Question Time. Her comment was “We need to be inside the European Union. We don’t want to be a country like Switzerland or Norway”. If she had wanted to argue the point against continuing membership of the EU, she couldn’t have done it better. You don’t pick two countries which are consistently ranked in the top ten highest standards of living in the whole world!

Both Switzerland and Norway enjoy the benefits of EU membership through bilateral agreements with the EU, without ceding political power to unelected bodies in foreign countries. If they’re an example of how it shouldn’t be done, then I’m all in favour!

Teaching kids about the real world

Our youngest daughter, Philippa, told me this morning that she had received five merits for the Viking longboat she made over half-term. She had spent quite a bit of time and effort on making the boat, and had been helped along the way by various grown-ups, but we in no way built it for her – just helped her get started and at various points along the way. In the end, she went for a papier maché on cardboard design, which she then painted and decorated, with shields, a mast, a figurehead, and oars. The finished item was pretty good, but unmistakably home-made.

My mother-in-law and step father-in-law were down for end of half-term weekend and took her to school on the following Monday, where they saw some of the other boats, which ranged in quality from the suspiciously too good (too much help from grown-ups?) to too bad (grown-ups who clearly don’t care?).

Imagine my surprise this morning when Philippa told me that all the pupils’ efforts had been rewarded with five merits.

I’m not sure what kind of message the teacher thought she was sending out, but it was most definitely not a good one. A key part of schooling is that children should be prepared for the realities of life. In real life, good efforts are rewarded and poor efforts are not. Philippa herself happily accepts that there were better boats and worse boats. One child had brought in a pirate ship, resplendent with treasure chest. Very Viking!

Philippa is not stupid, and I’m sure the same applies to all her classmates. They know in their own minds which were the good ships and the bad ships, so the teacher has merely enforced the idea that all efforts are equally rewarded in life, regardless of the effort – absolutely the worst thing she can do. I had to make sure that that Philippa appreciated that this does not apply in reality and that effort is required to progress at anything in life and to reap the benefits.

This whole scenario tied neatly in with an interesting BBC TV programme I saw last week, called “The Day The Immigrants Left”, which concerned a hypothetical situation where the UK suddenly lost our migrant working population and we had to revert entirely to an indigenous workforce. The programme put several native unemployed people into jobs which have more recently been filled by foreign workers. The outcome was predictable.

Generally, in case we didn’t already know it, many of our country’s citizens have the concept that certain types of jobs are ‘beneath them’, whereas many foreign workers are conscientious and hard-working and will still carry out pretty much any sort of work with pride and a sense of purpose.

An asparagus farmer noted that around ten years ago the number of native British workers tailed off and he was forced to look elsewhere for his workforce. Since then he has pretty much employed solely foreign labour. His own experience was that the foreign workers worked hard. As they are paid according to how much they pick, many such workers make good money (one made over £150 per day). In the case of the three new ‘native’ workers he took on, their combined efforts left him £50 out of pocket, as he had to make up their pay to minimum wage rates.

Three things struck me:
1. Several (perhaps 40%) either didn’t turn up at all on the first day or called in to say they were sick on the second day.
2. Some of them did not like being told what to do by anyone. Their default position was to question any authority in the strongest terms, one even threatening to punch his Polish supervisor.
3. I was trying to comprehend the significance of ten years ago, when, by the farmer’s reckoning, many of my compatriots all became too aspirational and too good to do certain jobs. Did this tie in with the onset of reality TV and the widely reported desire of children now not to become train drivers or nurses, but pop stars or reality TV stars?

When you constantly and unconditionally tell kids that they are great, they believe it. When you reward them regardless of their effort, they come to expect it. When the kids who make more effort see that they can achieve the same praise and rewards through less exertion, they cease to push themselves. When they are raised to always question and never to fear authority, that’s what they take into their post-school lives.

When these children leave school they enter a competitive world. If they are not raised in the ways of the world, then schools are not doing their jobs in terms of helping them to prepare for life in the outside world.

Fifteen years ago I finished a PGCE (a Post Graduate Certificate in Education, which, for those who don’t know, is a year’s course entitling graduates to teach). Perhaps two thirds of the way through the course I had decided that I was not cut out to be a teacher. This was partly down to my own issues with the method used to teach languages at the time (which argued that real-life language acquisition processes apply in the classroom – they demonstrably don’t), but mainly due to a cultural difference in the classroom.

From my earliest observations of other teachers, what struck me was a complete lack of respect for teachers on the part of the pupils. I witnessed pupils swearing at teachers, arguing with them in front of the class, disrupting lessons. When punishments were meted out (detentions being the final recourse), children didn’t bother to turn up, and you could forget the support of many parents. It had been a matter of just five years since I had left 6th form at a standard comprehensive school and the cultural difference was palpable to me. The only occasion I remember a pupil swearing at one of our teachers when I was at school resulted in her being excluded from school for two weeks: and our headmaster at the time was widely considered to be a ‘loony lefty’.

I was part of the academic year which was the last to do O Levels (1987). Even when I did A Level German, we were using books which had previously been used by O Level pupils (I refuse to call school pupils ‘students’ – what’s that all about? Make them feel more mature? Does that give real students the status of student* – as in A*, not student followed by footnote). One of my German lecturers left after a couple of years, citing the poor standards in the GCSE pupils and the fact that she in turn was now having to teach them things that children used to learn in the third or fourth years (years 9 and 10 in today’s terms).

Employers and lecturers are bemoaning the falling standards in school leavers’ skills and yet each outgoing school year achieves better and better results than the last! At the same time, the government is trying to push ever more school leavers into higher education rather than encourage vocational paths for the majority. At a time when the country has moved more or less completely away from manufacturing over to service industries or finance, this does not bode well for the nation’s future.

In bemoaning falling standards, I am all too aware that I am becoming a grumpy old git, but unless someone can debate the points reasonably intelligently with me (all too absent nowadays) without recourse to calling me such, it doesn’t make my viewpoint any less valid. I have the views of lecturers and employers on my side. I would say that they count for something.

Teach children that bad things happen in life – and often to nice people; teach them that they can not excel in all they do; tell them when they are bad at something; be prepared to see them cry occasionally; teach them that there are accepted boundaries in society and that transgressions are met with punishments. If only teachers and parents would do all of these of these things, we would have a much more robust class of child going into the real world.