Nuclear Country Music Festival

One of the quirkiest conversations I’ve ever had occurred on the way to my mates’ farm in Tamworth. We were headed up there from Sydney to see the Country Music Festival, something I’d never done before. On the Hunter Expressway the valley gave way to two plumes of smoke billowing from behind the horizon and as we drove on the source became apparent.

“Cloud makers” is what he said. “My mum always used to call them cloud makers when we drove past them. It’s fair enough, I was only a little kid, calling them that is way easier than explaining what a power plant is to a five-year-old.”

The cloud makers of my friend’s childhood were powered by coal and still are today. Tall plumes bubble from the chimneys courtesy of locally sourced Hunter Valley Coal. Many understand the hunter valley to be home to some of the world’s best wine, some of the world’s best Horses, and some of the world’s best cattle. It’s a lesser known fact that the Hunter is also the domain of international giants like Rio Tinto, Yancoal and Anglo American; and as these giants stride, they bore holes into some of the best farming soil in the world.

Approaching this issue is somewhat an exercise in flogging a dead horse, we know the problems with coal, we are aware we have an overdependence on it, and we know its producers will play dirty to ensure that their product is bought. We provide 30% of the world’s coal, and it accounts for 75% of our domestic energy production. In other words, the cloud makers aren’t going anywhere.

Criticism of this fact is Australia’s zeitgeist, and despite the fact that liberal party members bring coal into parliament for show and tell, the mineral is very unpopular. The call for an alternative fuel source is strong. We are in a great position to find an alternative source; we have ample space, we are resource rich and have some of the best academic facilities to study which options will serve us best.

Renewables aren’t perfect yet; some creases are yet to be ironed out. Energy storage is tricky, the sources themselves (the sun, wind, etc.) are inconsistent and co-ordinating multiple sources of power is an art that is yet to be perfected. The argument for nuclear energy isn’t perfect either, but I believe by adopting nuclear energy as a primary source of energy, Australia could establish itself as a world leader in curbing the effects of climate change.

Consider this: behind Kazakhstan and Canada, Australia has the third richest uranium deposit in the world. We also have high production rates already, which means fewer mines would have to open. Unlike coal, where mines exclusively fall within the borders of Queensland and New South Wales, uranium presents an opportunity for each state.

Regarding waste storage, Australia has vast areas of desert and spare land which could hold waste safely in facilities that are away not only from people but from the richer ecosystems we see develop closer to the coastline. A substantial amount of waste could be stored there from many countries without heavily impacting us, providing a source of income for the country and a solution for other nations wanting to go nuclear that lack the capacity to store waste. In effect, this would not only aid our efforts but empower other countries to reduce their carbon emissions.

The nature of nuclear is changing as well. Technology is allowing uranium to be harnessed in more efficient and safer ways. New reactors and new fuel sources are paving the way for this progress. Old reactors use water to maintain temperature; it’s inefficient, expensive and unsafe (this reactor type lies at the heart of the recent Fukushima disaster). Uranium rods are also an old form of fuel, which most reactors today still use; and because rods use a solid fuel source that burn and decay, conventional methods can only extract 4% of the potential energy stored in the rod.

Rather than a solid combustible rod, new approaches to harnessing uranium take a different form: liquid. Liquid uranium encased in ceramic spheres, known as fuel pebbles allow for heat to extract energy but don’t burn the fuel. This allows for greater efficiency and less wastage and also reduces fuel related risks. New research is being conducted on reusing old fuel rods in this liquid pebble form as well.

New reactors, designed for this new fuel source are revolutionising nuclear power. Pebble-bed reactors, as they are known, are being further tweaked to increase safety and fundamentally change our idea of what a nuclear plant means to us. Companies like Transatomic (a subsidiary of MIT) and NuScale are creating smaller reactors than the standard models today.

One feature that new reactors sport is passive cooling. Whereas active cooling requires manually controlled fans and pumps, passive cooling uses automatic mechanisms to cool the fuel pebbles which can reach temperatures of up to 2000℃ in their core. Transatomic mixes salt into its fuel pebbles to cool its reactors, it has a much higher boiling point and is a better material to use than water. Salt cools rapidly, and if it gets too hot, it expands and solidifies, killing the reaction process and cooling down the reactor. According to an MIT Technology review “If you lose electricity, even if there are no operators on site to pull levers, it will coast to a stop.”

Pebble beds, with the fuel and coolant neatly encased in ceramic result in a power plant that vastly differs from the image we have in our head, there are no cooling towers, no vast, grey scapes of concrete. Architects would be able to design beautiful buildings to encase the reactors; nuclear wouldn’t seem so terrifying anymore.

There are disadvantages, and the largest of those is that the prospect of nuclear power is terrifying for many people. For the generations before us, the primal birth of nuclear potentiality occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it occurred in Chernobyl after that, and it returned many years later in Fukushima. An understandably haunting series of first impressions. Overcoming this fear could be the key to unlocking a prosperous and sustainable solution for the next stage in Australia’s life, and it’s imperative that we as a nation discuss the merits to change the public perception of nuclear power.

The cloud makers of my friend’s childhood will be remembered fondly, but as we grow older and begin to understand the world and it’s workings we know that the chimneys must be torn down. A nation of open minds will be the only thing able to do this, and from it, we can build something better.

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Who Are The Party Lines Drawn For?

“The party lines are drawn”, left and rig, conservative and progressive. Knowledge of the human world is categorised and filed, and there are sciences devoted to this; sociologists, philosophers, political scientists; each field constructing boxes for knowledge to fit into. In the end, however, all of this is left up to our individual interpretation. Do you identify as red or blue? Perhaps you do, or perhaps it matters not.

Endless literature has been written about a dystopian world in which we live in a state of pure cooperation (or at times coercion) together in pursuit of the same ideal: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We” describes a state in which people live according to an algorithm designed for maximum societal utility. “Brave New World” shows a caste system supported by technocracy allowing for a strange kind of consumerist freedom. Something seems off about these tales; society is too docile, as we read these stories we learn that our potentiality for resistance, for passion and our desire to forge a unique identity are part of our humanity. It is our individualism, our refusal to fit into these boxes; which so paradoxically coincides with our desire to understand human knowledge in tightly categorised boxes; that allows us to push the boundaries of understanding.

This paradox is worth exploring: we are products of our exposure to knowledge, yet we seek to exist outside of the confines of it. For us to live authentically, we need to construct an identity (which we can only do through the medium of pre-existing ideas), yet for this identity to feel real, we must contribute our very own original ideas over time. This sets the context for our contemporary political scene. Remember: the party lines are drawn.

Ideology rules supreme in 2017, as the fierce public battle between conservatives and progressives playing out. This war is one of information and ideas; it is a war of subjectivity and ideas. As of now, it is accepted (though rightly lamented) that empirical evidence can be subordinated to an opinion, the President of the United States of America and his followers are proof of this. Climate change and the effectiveness of vaccines are but two examples of a modern disavowal of the objective truth. Polemics now rule supreme as the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, the dedication to political rhetoric is a virtue under the modern polemic system. If we look at the genealogy of the word ‘polemic’, stemming from the Greek word Polemos: War. Party lines have dissolved, battle lines taking their place.

Michel Foucault rose to fame in the late 20th century, and very quickly was hailed as a candidate to succeed Jean-Paul Sartre as the most important modern French intellectual. The shift from Sartre: a product of the second world war, militant communist and political polemicist; to Foucault: political chimaera; gives us a glimpse into remedying contemporary politics.

Firstly, a critique of Sartre, militant dedication to political fidelities and a closed mind. I want to posit these terms:
Referring to Georg W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger: in each of our temporal, subjective experiences of life (knowledge is categorised, yet ultimately, we each interpret it differently), two things unify our existence: they are reason and our capacity for logic, and our experience of the uncanny. Dialectically we can define these as knowledge and mystery, their synthesis: meaning and understanding.
Our capabilities for reasoning are what distinguish our ability to be free at this point in time. I rely heavily on Hegel’s interpretation of reason as the material which binds humanity to our freedom, of which much has been written. Each new understanding we gain of the world expands our potential to be free within it, each new linguistic term created represents a greater ability to articulate our freedom (or unfreedom). We are free insofar as our contextual circumstances allow that, and human reason is what generates a change in contextual circumstances.

A militant dedication to an ideological fidelity, the likes of which we see today exemplified by the extremes of both conservatives and progressives is a self-imposed limitation of our capacity to reason. The medium of knowledge and logic is subordinate to ideology under the polemic doctrine, and what arises is a dogmatic approach to praxis (our material attempts to affect change based on our understanding of the situation).

When political dogma is held to be more important than our logical reasoning, it is held to be more important than the pursuit of human freedom. Humanity can never gain a further understanding of the world when trapped in a gridlock of ideological polemics. This approach creates enemies, defines disagreement as heresy and dogmatically constructs an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. When Sartre stated “I swore to the bourgeoisie a hatred that would only die with me” he swore to a fidelity that would limit his ability to navigate the political problems he so passionately attempted to tackle. His pursuit of a political truth was sacrificed to party allegiances.

Fast forward to Foucault, who enigmatically rejected any form of categorisation, proudly flirting with a plethora of different political leanings: a little Marxist, a little progressive and at times even classically liberal. Rejecting the title of professor, rejecting the title of philosopher, Foucault presented himself as a nomad of thought, an ideological chimaera who saw things, not in isolation, but in relation to each other. It is this tendency to being aggressively open-minded that this article advocates, in resistance to the tightening of the polemic grip, our praxis must be grounded in individual reason, sceptical of categorisation and ideology. Our opinions must constantly be questioned and justified.

This in itself is not so radical a proposal, yet its consequences are the very foundation of radicality. To be outside the box and effectively so, as Foucault was, we must adapt to our contextual constraints by viciously questioning their justification. In Foucault’s praxis, each idea is systematically deconstructed, published works including critiques of critical human concepts: medical practice, sexuality, punishment, madness.

Foucault received criticism for basing his practice outside of socially constructed systems of thought, attempting to critique and understand each concept he tackled in a sort of isolation. By seeing each concept in a historical manner, rather than a contextual interpretation or effect on everyone, hypocrisy and fallibility were laid bare. Through revealing the inner workings of constructs like sexuality or language, outside of any contextual limitations, we now have a greater understanding of the mechanisms at play in our day to day life. As a consequence of that, our ability to navigate these conceptual realms without contextual influence (i.e., our freedom) is heightened.

Sartre, Foucault, and all those who follow are not in themselves momentous singularities outside of history, but rather stepping stones on the way to a better system of thought. In fact, this was Foucault’s view: his field of study was a history of systems of thought or ideas; his goal was to document the conditions for the possibility of human thought for any given time, he called this an archaeology of knowledge. Foucault is dead, and the conditions for our possibilities of thought are ever changing.

It is this very fluid nature of context that we must bear in mind when asserting our opinion, our context today differs from the conditions of possibility I would have experienced, say, before 9/11, or before the rise of the smartphone. It is because of this fluid nature that our reason must be exercised, for it exists free from the conditions of context based social construction; and it is the pre-condition for the furthering of our collective freedom.

The Reshuffle

Although this site believes that a fundamental restructuring of our economic systems is needed, it is an unavoidable fact that we are here at this point in history and that all change takes time. In spite of the fact that our neoliberal economy needs a drastic makeover, we are doing quite well in comparison to many other nations. But why stop at this? Australia deserves better, and this year’s federal budget fails to offer the majority of us a better life. If we must play by the rules of this system, then it’s only fair to point out that we are being played for fools.

It’s a fact that everyone that voted Liberal last election has condemned Australia to another term of poor economic management, lower standards of living, and a further restricted capacity for innovation. You are forgiven, it’s entirely possible that Labor could have enacted poor policy if they had it their way, and furthermore, it’s worth noting that voters are being deceived. Not only is there the ridiculous notion that our conservative party is considerably better at managing money, but in providing assistance to business over people, the government is crippling our economy.

Firstly let’s talk economics: everyone is a consumer. Consumption is the backbone of the economy, James McIntyre, the Australian head of economic research for Macquarie Bank stated: “with growth from the upswing in housing construction having peaked, and ongoing headwinds across business investment, the consumer, has been left as a lonely driver of private demand within the economy.” This was late last year, well ahead of the budget’s release.

Not all consumers are made equal though; the more you earn, the smaller the proportion of your income is spent, and a higher proportion is saved which is practically useless for our economy (this is known as the marginal propensity to spend, and the marginal propensity to save, respectfully). This is our starting point; recognising that the majority of consumers fall into the lower income brackets helps in understanding that our consumer spending depends on this portion of the population.

On the other hand, a concentration of Australia’s resources in the bank accounts of the highest earners (which is the case in Australia, with the top 20% of us controlling 62.1% of the wealth and 40.8% of income according to the ABS) results in a far greater amount saved in private bank accounts providing almost no use for the economy. A concentration of wealth directly reduces the purchasing power of the economy. Which is why it is hard to justify the current proposal for a tax cut exclusively for the rich, one that is estimated to cost our government $65.4 billion dollars over the next decade (that figure courtesy of Scott Morrison himself).

On the other side of the equation, the rest of us aren’t so fortunate. Wages are currently in their fourth consecutive year of stagnation (ABS figures show that the quarterly wage growth rate has not exceeded 0.9% since 2012 and private employees only saw a 1.89% figure over the entirety of 2016). What’s more, both the Australia Institute for Future Work and the Per Capita Institute claim that this budget, nor any other policy from this Liberal Government suggests that action will be taken to increase wages.

One unexpected move was the levy on banks, which will help redistribute the wealth. However, in the face of this banks often raise their fees to compensate for the loss, effectively taxing the majority of Australians. In being as optimistic as possible one could potentially see this as the first step in ensuring companies start to pay tax.

In regards to innovation, we must dispel another myth: that the majority of innovation is sourced from private industries. Universities have two main purposes, being to educate and research. The recent funding cut and reshuffling of fundings to universities under this Liberal government focus on trimming the fat off of funding for students pursuing undergraduate degrees. But less funding means less postgraduate research, the primary source of new technologies and developments.

Australian universities are excellent and capable of magnificent feats of ingenuity; we invented the black box and the disposable syringe in cooperation with university laboratories. We currently are investigating nanotechnology, nuclear technology; and CSIRO (which partners with multiple different Australian universities) has made our farming more efficient than ever, and has been working with Boeing, the most valuable aeronautical company in history for near on 29 years. To cut university funding is to snap the innovative spine of any economy, our current government is more than willing to do this.

The system is currently imperfect, yet our government’s latest budget intends to deepen these imperfections by ensuring that the top percentage of Australian earners gain even more, regardless of its future implications. If you drank the kool-aid and supported these measures, then you are forgiven, but even if you believe that this neoliberal system is the best on offer, this current budget shows that this game is rigged against you.

Nihilo Ex Machina

Earlier this year I received a message from my mum asking me if I would be okay. This was in the wake of the news that the penalty rates for Australian workers in the hospitality and retail sectors had been cut. Amidst the announcement that Australian university funds would be slashed and the debt repayment process accelerated, I am now expecting another.

I doubt that the parliamentarians in Canberra had my Mum in mind when they decided that amidst all of the difficulties of starting a life outside from home, that protections such as penalty rates and (debatably) affordable tertiary education were not as valuable as we had all previously thought. What had proved more valuable to them lied in the economy, what every average Australian Dad wants for his country: more jobs, fewer taxes, a healthy economy.

Our parents ought to be happy, Australia has one of the healthiest economies in the world. In comparison to the rest, we sailed with ease through the storm of the Global Financial Crisis, we maintained an AAA credit rating, and our natural resources secured us safety for years to come.

Despite the economy’s health, we continue to face disappointment on the ground. Wages stagnate (or drop if you work in hospitality or retail), the cost of living continues to rise. To quote my local state MP Jo Haylen: “There is no suburb in Sydney where a single woman earning the average wage ($973) can afford to rent a one-bedroom property on her own”. These are but symptomatic of the problem, it is a problem Australia needs to grow out of; and the problem is basing our vote on the needs of the free market, for it is nothing more that a soulless fiction.

The free market dominates our perception of reality; we often aren’t aware of this, our ideologies distorting our field of vision, in the same way, water refracts light. Our parents and our teachers pass down the mantras they grew up with, evading any scepticism they form the practice of how things are done here in Australia, and for many Australian minds, it is how things will always be done. What Ludwig Wittgenstein called “forms of life”, the practices of the everyday life we grow up with exist neutrally, they offer no virtue nor any iniquity, and they most certainly are not infallible.

Despite their persistence, the forms of life the generation before us grew up with, and now ram down the throat of Canberra lack any human quality. The kernel of the Neoliberal stance (what we see in the deregulation of the market, in the free reign form of capitalism that has been in effect since Thatcher and Reagan pushed for it in the 80’s) is the free market, but we must be sceptical of its dominance over human affairs.

The free market has no moral or social imperative, and its gears turn with or without the happiness of its constituents; George Monbiot describes it as “a neutral, natural force… like Darwin’s theory of evolution”. Casting a vote based on the whims of something that very clearly cares not for the well-being of human lives, particularly its most important stakeholders: the working class that keep the gears turning, is nothing short of a donkey vote.

Of course, practical complaints towards this claim are justified, jobs are a source of well-being, and an absolute necessity in any country wanting the Government to deliver more jobs is in no way an evil demand. Neither is the general want for a healthy economy a terrible thing, we were born into these conditions, and so we must make do with what we have until we can effect change. However, the tragedy of Australian democracy lies in the supremacy of these demands over structural improvements which could not only yield a material benefit, as well as an ideological affirmation of an Australia that cares for its people.

Australia’s public is wasting its passion and goodwill in supporting measures that promote the agenda of the free market, rather than of its people, current and future. We should seek to emancipate ourselves from its political restrictions as we can see other nations doing; our Scandinavian friends are a great example. For every vote that goes toward the blind support of the economy, is a vote that could’ve been used to show solidarity with our fellow countrymen, to take responsibility for the problems our nation faces and to ultimately increase the freedom of opportunity for each and every Australian.

An issue which has received recent outrage (and justly so) is the proposal for a federal loan to Adani, an Indian mining giant. For this to proceed would be a failure, ecologically (Adani are infamous for their failure to contain pollution), ideologically (the selling off of land and stubbornness against a continually improving renewables sector) and morally (a blatant disregard for the will of the majority of Australians). The tragedy of it would lie not in the corruption of individual politicians, rather the finger of blame points to a system which has steered our democratic society away from the values that define our humanity.

The free market is not a source of love or compassion, it is indifferent to Australia and all of its people, whether we thrive or die and in the long run, it will offer us no joy or fulfilment. There is no god in the machine of Neoliberalism, just a void; there is no love promised for us. I feel my Mum knows this, or will in time as she finds herself surrounded by reasons to ask if I will be okay the next time parliamentarians subordinate the lives of their constituents to the demands of the free market.