From the Province of the Cat #19: Waiting for the wave to come

Caithness windfarm in the Flow Country

Caithness windfarm in the Flow Country

Last week aftershocks from two earthquakes in the Irish Sea were felt for several days. The Irish National Seismic Network (INSN) said they were probably caused by stresses built up by the weight of glaciers during the Ice Age. The earthquakes measured 2.4 and then a stronger 3.3 on the Richter scale. INSN director Tom Blake said “Occasionally this post-glacial isostatic rebound – the phenomenon of the land surface gradually returning to its pre-glacial contours – results in earthquakes of this magnitude.”

This geological readjustment, due to a great weight being lifted, is both an ancient and on-going process. The Storegga Fault (Storegga being the Old Norse for Great Edge) lies off the western More coast of Norway. Approximately 10,000 years ago an area of seabed, the size of Iceland, slumped causing a massive twenty metre high tsunami in the North Atlantic Ocean. The wave swept over and devastated Faroe, Shetland, Orkney, Caithness and as far south as the Firth of Forth. Geologists have found that there was an even more significant subsea collapse around 20,000 years ago. There is a degree of expectation that we are due another slump, and the resultant tsunami, in the near future. If so, we are all waiting for the wave.

Last year a friend of mine went to work at the Fukishima nuclear pant in Japan which two years ago was struck by a similar tsunami as unleashed by the Storegga Fault. The devastation to the reactors and the continuing consequences of radio-active pollution and the widespread contamination of the environment was widely reported in the press. My friend tells me it is worse than he feared but at least the Japanese have learned some lessons, the first being that nuclear power is not a smart energy option. He admires the courage of the workforce at the Fukishima plant and that Japanese society is being kept informed about progress, or its lack, in the clean up. With Dounreay sitting eight miles from me and with the history of secrecy and denial which is the legacy of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority if a similar Storegga/Fukishima-type event happened on the north Caithness coast I doubt we would be told anything other than platitudes.

The Irish Sea earthquakes, The Storegga Fault and the Fukishima tsunami were three events which are linked by natural geological phenomenon. The first was harmless; the second was a bad day for Mesolithic man and the third is a full-on nuclear disaster. Now if I were to postulate that these three events indicated the folly of our current energy policy – especially nuclear – I could and probably would be accused of being a lunatic, of pedalling a conspiracy theory. I would also be told in no uncertain terms that these events were coincidences, that the vast passages of time involved render my concerns that of a paranoid delusionist. I would be told all of this by politicians, especially by conservative politicians and most especially by conservative politicians in power – of whatever party. So, “conspiracy theory” bad; “coincidence theory” good.

This inability to see patterns when they are presented to them, the dismissal of things because the time frame is not now are two of the main – but not the only – major failings of our contemporary political class. Waiting to see which way the wind will blow – e.g. Ed Miliband – is the favourite political game of a generation of professional politicians who have no experience of life outside of what the Americans call “the beltway”. This is, by its seniority in years (ironically), more of the case in London than it is Edinburgh but we in Scotland should not get overly complacent about that.

The manufacturing of professional politicians in Holyrood is, like everything else, only a matter of time. Government ministers who only have eyes for the next election will gaily set “targets” on such things as energy, transport and housing which are designed to improve their ratings in the next opinion poll as opposed to securing a realistic and sustainable energy, transport and housing provision for the long term.

These things whirled around in my mind as I sat listening to Alan Mackaskill deliver his talk at the end of the “Beatrice Works” art exhibition in Caithness Horizons last month. Alan was the engineer responsible for the installation of the two wind turbines in the Beatrice Oil Field which is approximately fifteen miles off the Caithness coast in the Moray Firth. These two turbines were prototypes and now that they have been successfully installed they will be followed by an initial wind farm development of over 100 machines followed by two more even larger developments making the Beatrice off-shore wind farm, by far, the biggest of its kind in the world. This will become what Alan Mackaskill called “one big machine.” Once this “big machine” is up and running it will be there in the Moray Firth for up to fifty years. It will be producing vast amounts of electricity for the national grid and profits for its operators and for the power utility companies such as SSE and those investors with big money. The “big machine” will benefit “big money”; the energy will flow south and we on the Grey Coast of Caithness can stare at the strange alienating beauty of the structures as long as we like but it will not bring down the price of our electricity one jot. We will remain what we always have been, whether it has been seen through the promise of hydro, nuclear, oil and now wind: a resource rich but energy poor people.

From the North political power flows in the same direction as the electricity: South. The more we vote, our geographical distances and administrative districts being so vast, the more we send our political responsibilities and accountability further from us so that active, participatory democracy becomes less habitual and more unusual. Within a national framework we do not have the necessary numbers to make much of a difference and if the structure of representation – never mind the quality – is not there to serve our needs then what can that breed within the people other than apathy? Political apathy in the many allows unscrupulous economic opportunity for a few.

Landowners do deals with power providers to erect wind turbines on their land, despite any local concern or policy directed benefit, because they can. Councillors, because they do not think politically, are easy game for wide boys of the power cartels and in granting planning permission are naively blind to the pound signs in the eyes of farmers and estate owners. This mess benefits neither citizen nor consumer.

One of the unspoken reasons why many people object to wind turbines is that they are concerned that it will have an adverse effect on the price of their house. In the coalition UK property is king. George Osborne’s latest house buying ponzy scheme is just the latest ill-thought out initiative to kick start the housing sector – and rising house prices are the economic DNA of modern Tories – and it already is having an effect in the south-east of England. There is an artificial bubble of economic activity and an increase in debt. Having learned nothing from the financial collapse 2008 the Westminster government are bullish about doing the same thing all over again but this time when it fails and goes bust there will be no possibility of a bail out because they will have quantitively eased the economy into a death spiral. The elite who have pocketed the wealth made available to them by their friends in government will be long gone by that time. It is easy to think that this has little impact – other than austerity – on the majority of people but our political liberties and the freedoms we enjoy (and their future) go hand in hand with this appropriation of wealth.

What we are witnessing is a war on financial resources and the very idea of wealth itself by a few corporations and individuals in cahoots with their class interest within government. If this war is not won by the majority, if power is not returned to the demos, then we will have no political liberty or freedom. The huge increase in cyber-surveillance is testament to this. No so-called “war on terror” can justify the current techno-paranoia displayed by the UK and the US. The question is: just who are they afraid of? The answer is: all of us.  Why? Well, you never know: the people may rise up and take back what has been stolen from them.

It’s an idea and ideas are what we need at this time – oh for a republic of ideas! – and historically Scotland has always been good at ideas. With the economic fetishism which is house prices, the 60% rise in fuel and energy costs over the past two years and the concurrent reduction in earnings and rising unemployment, the stigmatisation of paying tax in general but especially by multi-national corporations and the failure of government to do anything about it except punish the poor into further personal debt it doesn’t take a Kropotkin to point out that the paradigm is broken. What we suffer from is the acceptance of the myth codified by government and broadcast as fact by the media that this is how it is, that the financial collapse was inevitable and – yes –“that we are all in this together”.

In a world where money is now practically meaningless and where we have the rise of the Bitcoin, which makes global payments instant, can we not begin to look at how we restructure ourselves in relation to commodities and services, of how we realign our society? Why can a house not be more like a tree? Why can our buildings not generate the energy they need from the ground, from the air and from the Sun? Why do we, especially in the North Highlands, continue to be expected to pay more for energy which is created all around us, shipped south and then sold back to us? The vast empty acres of poverty which are Highland sporting estates could be filled with many new communities who at an individual level, if we resourced the necessary research and development into micro-technologies, would be free of the economic feudalism enacted upon them by the power utilities and landlords as our current social design allows. If we were in control of our economic destiny and freed from the exploitation and monopolistic extortion of power companies then the political energy that would generate would be considerable. In order to embrace change we must first facilitate change. The making of ideas, like the making of songs, is not dead in this nation yet.

Like the land ground down by the weight of the glaciers of the Ice Age we as population with our ideas of freedom and representation must rise up and find our “pre-glacial contours”. There may be earthquakes and tidal waves as a result but so be it: anything is better than being under the great weight of injustice. If we are brave, smart, resourceful and organised we will not be washed away in the coming financial tsunami which, like the next great wave generated by the Storegga Fault, is only a matter of time.

© George Gunn 2013

Comments (6)

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  1. Thank you George, great piece!

  2. Can I timidly suggest that George Gunn can’t have it both ways? He can’t, surely,complain about the recent 60 per cent rise in energy costs and simultaneously criticise an energy source whose principal component – wind – will be free for ever. And I think he will find that councillors are extremely adept at finding reasons, not often rational ones, for rejecting windfarm proposals.

  3. caadfael says:

    Good analogy!
    Speaking of the “one big machine” I trust the planners have thought ahead to having “red lanes and white lanes”, wherein the red lanes contain the connectors and can accommodate wave/tidal flow generators and are strictly “no-fish” areas, whereas the white lanes can be used as static gear fisheries, eg prawn creels and/or fish traps with appropriate closed seasons to allow for spawning.
    Thus the entire field becomes, de facto, a Marine Conservation Area!

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