Nuclear fallout

The government’s commitment to nuclear power will undermine national and environmental security for

After a lengthy period of dithering over the best way to satisfy Britain’s energy needs, the government has finally taken the path most expected and many had dreaded.

The UK is now, it seems, committed to an indefinite future of nuclear power; a policy decision which represents a dangerous, highly irresponsible and costly distraction from the real challenge of tackling climate change.

At a time when energy companies are warning homeowners to expect a hike in prices, and the price of oil has rocketed to an unprecedented $100 a barrel, the government has launched a PR offensive in favour of nuclear energy. But in choosing nuclear as the way forward, the Labour government is guilty of a staggering failure of political vision.

Rather than looking at the real solutions to demonstrate that there are safer, more effective and more sustainable answers to the energy crisis, and inspiring a new direction on housing insulation, improved efficiency and renewables, Gordon Brown has attempted to intimidate people into blindly accepting nuclear as the only option.

Opposition to the move has been widespread. In my South East constituency alone, many residents have expressed disgust at plans to build new nuclear facilities at Dungeness in Kent. Those living near to such sites earmarked for development will now suffer the direct consequences of the government’s new nuclear push. For example, a number of epidemiological studies have discovered unusually high incidences of childhood leukemia in areas close to nuclear sites.

The fact is that it simply isn't true to call nuclear power the ‘answer’ to the so-called energy gap we face over the next 10 years, and it cannot be the answer to climate change. The earliest that a new nuclear power station could come on stream is around 2017 – too late to fill the energy gap and seven years after the deadline for the UK’s 20% emissions reduction target. Even if Britain built ten new reactors, it's been estimated that nuclear power can only deliver a 4 per cent cut in carbon emissions some time after 2025.

Many nuclear supporters like to highlight the benefits of nuclear power for climate change. But while it is true that enriched uranium releases zero CO2, this does not make it carbon-free. Throughout the lifespan of a nuclear facility – from the construction of the plant and mining for uranium ore, to fuel processing, decommissioning and disposing of the nuclear waste – a significant amount of energy is consumed.

Furthermore, nuclear power is not cheap. No nuclear plant has ever been built without money from the public coffers, yet we are supposed to believe that this government will ensure private energy firms will foot the bill for the lot - from construction to clean-up. According to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the total costs of cleaning up the existing nuclear waste are likely to reach an astronomical £70bn. On top of this, the costs of building a new waste dump could be as high as £21bn. This will inevitably lead to the taxpayer footing the bill.

Public concerns over the safety and ethics of nuclear have never gone away. As well as being a ripe target for terrorist attacks, civil nuclear programmes are inevitably linked to military capabilities. Furthermore, if Britain chooses to go down the nuclear route, it robs us of any moral authority to lecture other countries on their nuclear aspirations, and highlights the enormous hypocrisy of the Government’s position on Iran.

Ultimately, nuclear power is not just unsafe and unsustainable – it's entirely unnecessary. A combination of renewables, energy efficiency, decentralised energy and demand reduction could deliver emissions cuts and energy security much more safely and effectively.

The UK has some of the best renewable energy sources in the world, yet we lag behind other nations whose governments have developed more forward-thinking energy policies. For example, the reason that Germany has 300 times as much solar power and 10 times as much wind power than the UK is simply because German politicians, led by the Greens, have had the political will to lead the way.

On energy efficiency, the government's own figures show there is the potential to save over 30% of all energy used in the UK solely through efficiency measures that would also save money. Moreover, large centralised power stations, whether nuclear or gas, currently waste two thirds of the energy used in electricity generation before it even reaches our homes.

This waste alone accounts for a full 20% of UK CO2 emissions. Nuclear would lock us into a centralised distribution system for the next 50 years at exactly the time when opportunities for micro generation and local distribution networks are stronger than ever.

Radical reforms are urgently needed to the way renewable energy technology development is supported in the UK. Government grants are derisory and the private sector currently invests just £250m a year in renewable energy technology when to significantly boost this industry we need to see more like £2.5 billion going into new projects.

The UK has a real opportunity to lead the way in the development of alternative sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, yet this Government has shown that it prefers to hold on to its ambition of introducing more dirty, dangerous and expensive nuclear power.

The Sustainable Development Commission defines sustainable development as improving the quality of life for people today without damaging the prospects of those living in tomorrow. If the government continues to ignore the calls for safer, greener and more sustainable energy alternatives, future generations will end up paying a high price for our nuclear legacy.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood