Races against time- Chapter 2

Nearly 40 years ago, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and I was preparing to stand as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in a ‘safe’ conservative seat, I published 6 essays in a booklet entitled ‘Races Against Time’. The sad truth is that much of what I was warning about at that time, when ‘climate change’ wasn’t even a term, is still crying out for action.  I still stand by the words written in my thirties but am desperately disappointed that so little has changed in spite of the millions of good people, including my grand children, who have expressed the urgency to act. 

Let’s act now – or it really will be too late.

  1. The Power of Plutonium: Written 3 years before the Chernobyl disaster.
  2. Burning It Up: Addressing scandalous energy inequality and waste.
  3. Transport of Delight: Domination of the car and loss of our rail network.
  4. Economy & Equity: Conservation, population, food, and the Third World.
  5. Raping the Benefits: Global control of the commodity markets. 
  6. Breach of the Peace: Russia and the existential threat of nuclear war.


“If you are in a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” (Gandhi).

Liberals know what it is like to be in a minority, but we persist in the belief that one day, whether it be at the coming election or the next, we will succeed in breaking through those barriers that stand in our way. My overwhelming conviction is that governments have pulled and lured the population in the wrong direction for so long that their massive deceit has become institutionalised. The politicians have made the course and we are all supposed to run around it. We have a choice of pursuing the blinkered race or stopping to think where we are racing to and what for.

In this series of six essays, for they are no more than that, I try to give emphasis to some of the matters that concern me most. They are not the standard economic and social issues that dominate our politics, but they have a fundamental effect on our lives, on our welfare and work, and on our continued existence. I give priority to those areas that I see as a threat to our existence and hope to alert as many people as possible. I ask that these chapters are read with an open mind and that it is seen as a document of hope and not despair – hope that if we all do a little we can win these races against time.

“No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Those were Bristol M.P. Edmund Burke’s words 200 years ago and this pamphlet is my small contribution to that sentiment.

George Ferguson

Bristol 1st May 1983

Burning it up

If the pyramids had been giant solar collectors, that would have been a very different matter! We waste at least half the energy we generate and might as well be throwing fivers to the winds. The main fault lies with the system of accounting and the lack of national resolve to promote a comprehensive conservation programme and to take major steps towards harnessing renewable sources of energy.

The folly of blindly pursuing the nuclear course is emphasised by the fact that if the money planned to be spent on Sizewell were instead spent on energy conservation, this would save three or four times more energy than the PWR reactor could produce in its lifetime. Such a course has the added advantage of providing many more jobs for the money, from the unskilled to the highly sophisticated, and that quick implementation is possible so that the result can be almost immediate. All that is needed is a simple, quick, radical decision by Government to draw the curtains on their nuclear programme and to spend the planned investment of keeping the heat in rather than on.

The choice is between more billion pound power stations or substantial grants to encourage the thorough insulation of buildings and construction to higher standards. This act alone could provide a total saving on the United Kingdom energy bill of 15-20%, far in excess of the total contribution that could possibly be available from nuclear power by the end of the century. None of this is new, it is simple and so obvious and has been proposed by many thinkers on the subject, but we have a remarkably short term outlook and are easily lulled into believing that the crisis has passed and we can all carry on as before. We forget, or we do not know, that we are burning up our oil at something like a million times that rate at which it was produced. It is like spending our life savings in a single day with no chance of making more. It may be fun but it will leave us with a hell of a headache. It is almost certain that within a decade this country will be importing oil again, if anyone will sell it to us, but the World will not even have that option. We must be looking now for the other options and investing in them.

In 1973 we had a much-needed shock to the system with the realistic raising of oil prices by the producers. It seems the shock was not great enough. In the ten years that have passed there has been little fundamental change. We burn up oil in inefficient and dangerous cars, we reduce our commitment to public transport and we buy shoddy, throwaway goods. As individuals we use up to 100 times as much energy as those in North Africa and other parts of the Third World. This is a theft of the resources that belong to us all. It is one of the most glaring inequalities between rich and poor, between North and South and between the present and the future. What gives us the special right to use it all now in this short period of history?

It is a difficult message to get across to a society that aspires more to the glamour and wealth of ‘Dallas’ with J.R.’s profligate lifestyle than to the ‘Good Life’ with its aim of self-sufficiency. The real choices do not have to be that extreme, but love in the grass is likely to last longer (snakes permitting) than love on a Hollywood stage set.

Conservation does not mean freezing in a hair shirt, though some thermal underwear might help, but planned well, with some small sacrifices now, it can enable us to live in some style and avoid the need for more drastic, enforced sacrifices or disaster later on. We can start making good quality goods again that last; have bottles and other containers that are reused; have a better public transport system to reduce the stress of motoring and improve the pleasure of cities. It need not be the end of a high standard of living, but the beginning of a better one providing more real work and some satisfaction in that work.

Manufacturers and consumers are so often not paying the real costs of what they are making or using and it is up to government to compensate for those distortions. It is often cheaper to waste valuable fossil fuels than to invest the capital in conserving fuel or use renewable sources such as sun, wind and waterpower in its various forms. These investments can vary from those that can be made by the individual, such as a solar convector on the roof, to those that must be undertaken by Government, of which the Severn Barrage would be the most ambitious. One might be forgiven for believing that these technologies are new and relatively untried, but they are simple, basic and logical technologies. Wind and waterpower are the oldest known to man.

Solar power was developed in the 1940s but abandoned because of the glut of oil and gas. Gerald Leach in ‘A Low Energy Strategy for the United Kingdom’ claims that even in these rain drenched isles, more than a third of our water heating could be by solar power by the year 2000. It will not happen on its own and it will not happen until there is a government that admits the real need for such measures. In Esso magazine’s latest UK Energy Outlook it says, “It is assumed that, in a market oriented regime, fuel pricing will be the main determinant of the level of energy conservation and of consumer choice of fuel”. Our failure in pricing policy is in not truly reflecting scarcity value. Our problem is how to do this without punishing those least able to cope and without fuelling inflation. Our answer lies in the use of less energy and the elimination of waste so that unit price inflation does not result in real inflation. In other words the aim is to achieve the same comfort and convenience for no more money. Government, both central and local, have an important role in making this possible. There is need for carrot and stick, but there has been precious little carrot. The E.E.C. scheme for energy saving projects is a small beginning.

Is there something significant in the fact that most of our decision makers are in their 50s and 60s and that our reserves are projected to run out in 20 years or so? Saudi Arabia is the only OPEC country to be producing oil at a higher rate than the U.K! This spendthrift attitude to our national ‘deposit account’ is in strange contrast to the Thatcher doctrine of good national housekeeping. If we are drawing these vast amounts out of our deposit account, should we not be reinvesting them in reliable alternative methods of producing and reducing energy needs for the future?

The fact is that the only really substantial expenditure is going to the nuclear programme and comparatively little effort is being made in other directions. The one exception is the EEC’s nuclear fusion programme JET which shows no probability of reaping positive results for 50 years. Whenever it comes, it will be big and central and certainly not appropriate to all situations. Thermo-nuclear fusion, although free from the problems of waste and radiation, still presents many of the dangers to individuals and society posed by the present generation of nuclear reactors. This is not to write off the potential of fusion power, of recreating the heat of the sun, but simply to warn that it will not be a panacea for all our energy problems. It is probably right that this research and development should continue, but it is certainly right that we should be doing much more research and into technology that is more appropriate to our needs.

The world is abundant in natural energy sources and Britain is in a particularly good position to take advantage of many of them, especially tidal, wave and wind power. But apart from the odd windmill and the mountain of reports on the potential of the Severn Barrage, stretching back to the scheme of 1849 by the County Surveyor of Gloucester, there is very little to show for all this. The Severn Barrage is undoubtedly one of the world’s best sites for tidal power and the preferred scheme, not the most ambitious scheme, would at the cost of some £5000 million supply well over 5% of the UK’s present electricity demand. The total output of barrages in seven of our estuaries would be about a quarter of the UK electricity consumption. The first Severn Barrage Committee Report by the Economic Advisory Council was in 1933. Since then the tide has ebbed and flowed 36,000 times. We could almost build a barrage from the published material, now known in the Department of Energy as the Severn Bore. Before such a momentous decision is made it is right that we should look deeply into the effect on the bird population and migratory fish. The minimising of environmental impacts must be the priority of any design and the comparison of these impacts with those of the alternative methods of generating this quantity of electricity must be the basis of the decision whether to build or not.

The conclusion of the detailed study of the 550 pages of the Bondi Report must be that we should proceed further. This should include the construction of a prototype turbine and working model at a cost of some £50 million, which would enable the possibility of construction to start in 5 years with full generation by the end of the century. But to quote Bondi, “The decision to build or not must always be an act of faith”. Faith to invest £5-6 billion of our oil revenue on a continuous source of energy. It may be a big and centralised source, but it is benign and self-sufficient.

Conventional wisdom in all forms of investment is that it is safer to diversify, this must be particularly relevant to the question of energy investment. And we should intensify research and development into land based and offshore wind generators, into harnessing the wave power of our Atlantic Coast, and tapping the resources of geothermal rocks. Until the Department of Energy gives a substantial boost in these areas the CEGB will have every reason to continue to base our future on conventional coal fired stations and the development of nuclear power.

One of the biggest potential improvements, only recently grasped by Parliament lies in the use of waste heat from power stations. Of the two-thirds of heat that is wasted one sixth goes up the chimney and the rest passes into the condenser cooling water. Coal-fired combined heat and power stations have been virtually ignored in this country because of the narrow role given to the CEGB of simply providing electricity. The fact that they have been burning up 60 million tons of coal every year to no avail has received little attention. Using this ‘low grade heat’ as described by the CEGB, for warmth to agriculture, commerce and our homes could increase the energy efficiency of power stations from under 35% to over 75%! Other European countries have seen the light, (and felt the warmth), but the UK is some 50 years behind Denmark in this field. Apart from the obvious economic advantages and a reduction in the ‘need’ for nuclear power, a recent Friends of the Earth paper points to the advantages of job creation and the relief of hypothermia amongst its many advantages. We should start a scheme now, the research and development has been done, there are thousands of examples to draw from Europe, all that is needed is a decision. It seems that we are quick enough to make the bad decisions but the good decisions take forever. Schumacher said, “We need a breakthrough a day to keep a crisis away”. Maybe it is that we need a crisis a day to make a breakthrough.

The moral of North Sea oil is that every silver lining has a cloud. If we had not found the stuff, the government could not have afforded even the short-term luxury of drifting blindfold into the future. The oil has given us a breathing space which we are squandering. To sell our oil at a discount is an act of supreme madness, calculated to reap short-term political advantage.

Long term planning in the energy field is hindered by our democratic system which leads governments to hand out sweets without explaining about tooth decay. It is nice while it lasts.

It would be wrong to end this chapter on a note of gloom and doom. Benign sources of energy are abundant. A desire for communities and individuals to become more self-sufficient, together with an increasing fear and distrust of the brave new world, will put this matter high on the political agenda. It may be that many would feel that the chances of Reagan or Thatcher leading the way are as high as ET winning the Miss Universe competition. It would greatly help to have governments that heeded to warnings and saw themselves as the guardians of the future.

The result of this particular race against time will depend on whether these changes are made willingly, or at the last minute by a kicking and screaming administration pursued by the Green Movement. At the moment we are fiddling while the fuel burns.

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