The manliness of fracking, bad intelligence, and English Test cricket’s selection problem

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Do you care that David Miranda, the partner of an investigative journalist, was held and questioned for nearly nine hours at Heathrow? Enough to take to the streets about it? Or contact your MP? Miranda lives with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who revealed the extent of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance, thanks to the whistleblower Edward Snowden. You are not an investigative journalist, nor do you live with one. Even if you did, you probably wouldn’t be ferrying materials, as Miranda was, between your partner and a film-maker. Do you, come to that, really care that some geeks in a windowless room in Maryland can read your emails? After all, they contain nothing of the smallest interest to the security authorities.
 
As ministers repeat ad nauseam, you need fear nothing if you aren’t doing anything wrong. On the other hand, you have much to fear from terrorist attacks, though I am not aware of any calculations of the respective risks of being detained as a suspect and of being around when a bomb goes off. Even if you unluckily suffer the former, you probably won’t be killed or maimed – though if you are Brazilian, like Miranda and Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead on the London Underground in 2005, it seems you risk particularly rough treatment.
 
So, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Support the authorities in their exhaustive attempts to keep you safe, even if they sometimes go too far. Remember, however, what the chairman of a long-forgotten inquiry into intelligence agency abuses, Senator Frank Church (quoted in the current New York Review of Books), said in 1975 when the agencies’ powers were a fraction of what they are now: “If a dictator ever took charge . . . there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know . . . That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
 
One of the boys
 
I try to get my head around the pros and cons of fracking. Like many current issues, it strikes me as highly technical, requiring PhDs in physics, chemistry, geology and economics to get a full grasp of the subject. It certainly sounds nasty, because it involves drilling, splitting rocks and injecting water (which I had understood to be in short supply) underground.
 
I don’t want to be a knee-jerk lefty and, now that the Guardian’s George Monbiot has explained that support for fracking marks you out as “one of the boys”, I shall keep my counsel for fear of being thought effeminate. Yet one thing puzzles me. Why are the people outraged by protesters who oppose fracking because it (allegedly) ruins the countryside also outraged by the spread of wind turbines because they (allegedly) ruin the countryside? As Adam Smith nearly said, there’s a lot of ruin in the countryside.
 
Citizens’ advice
 
Browsing the internet, I stumbled across the website of Democracy 2015, a movement set up last year by Andreas Whittam Smith, one of the founders of the Independent. Launched with fanfare in that paper, it invited “likeminded citizens” from “demanding careers” to contest every constituency at the next election in the expectation of forming a one-term government to set the country to rights. Now Whittam Smith reports: “Our first public meetings were not as successful as we expected . . . A period of careful reflection is necessary.” In the Corby by-election last November, Democracy 2015 received 35 votes, 64 fewer than the Church of the Militant Elvis.
 
Whittam Smith may be better advised to find people who have pursued undemanding careers in the constituencies they seek to represent. They would be MPs for just one term, with no ambitions except to serve their constituents, scrutinise government actions, vote for legislation only if convinced of its merits and decline freebies or consultancies. Such a group could get 50 seats and transform parliament.
 
Full Monty
 
The spin bowler Monty Panesar has been left out of England’s latest Test squad because he pissed on nightclub bouncers. Perhaps, as recommended by Sir Michael Parkinson, he was testing himself for prostate cancer. How the incident affects his ability to spin a cricket ball isn’t explained. Nor is the failure of Panesar and other talented non-white cricketers – Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel, Adil Rashid, Ajmal Shahzad – to establish themselves in the England team, often for reasons only partly to do with on-field performance.
 
I do not accuse selectors and coaches of racism but some inquiry into this persistent underachievement is surely necessary.
 
In vino veritas
 
Each day, I take five tablets: three in the morning, two at night. I have no idea what they’re for. It’s just that, from time to time, my doctor summons me for “tests”, says I have “failed” and prescribes more tablets. Now, some Danish scientists say that all this screening and medication of senior folk may do more harm than good.
 
It’s probably best to hedge your bets. The latest tests, which involve answering an interminable government questionnaire about “lifestyle”, rule that, being “moderately inactive”, I must drink less wine and take more vigorous exercise.
 
I think I’ll give that a miss. 
Lawyer Gwendolen Morgan, acting for David Miranda, emerges from the Royal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.