Letters: Perspectives on nuclear disaster

Thursday 31 March 2011 00:00 BST

Locked into a perilous embrace

It has been said that the Japanese economy is likely to shrink by 10 per cent. The Japanese are not just facing a triple calamity (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown) but now have a fourth blow: their economy will shrink, so, in order to keep "things rolling", they will be forced to keep the dozens of other nuclear power plants running. These plants will provide power to build the cars, the appliances and the components that the world buys from Japan.

Here in Germany there is lively discussion about a possible abolition of nuclear power. But the Japanese don't have that option. They have no coal or oil deposits so the basis for their whole economy involves a "pact with nuclear" which means that while they watch a large portion of their homeland becoming contaminated (maybe for centuries to come), they do not have the option to "switch off" other plants. They are locked into a tragic embrace with the technology which has "bitten" them very severely.

This is of course a parable for the whole world economy: We have developed technologies which ravage the planet, and have insisted on boxing ourselves into a corner where we are progressively less able to survive without these structures.

Our leaders continue to propose measures for "growth" rather than fundamental changes to our economic and social structures. This will sooner or later take us along the same cul de sac as the Japanese now find themselves in.

Alan Mitcham, Cologne, Germany

Maybe Malthus was right after all

For weeks the news headlines have been dominated by cuts, food prices, Arab rebellions, nuclear disaster. These all have their source in the same fundamental problem: too many people chasing too few resources.

Why are food prices going up? Because fuel prices are going up. Why are fuel prices going up? Because fossil fuels are beginning to run out.

Why are there cuts in government expenditure? Because in the light of cost increases we can no longer go on offering ourselves the generous public services that we came to expect as a right during the good times.

The rebellions in the Arab countries are thought by analysts (including at the World Bank) to have come about now because of food shortages. And famine is increasing, not decreasing, in Africa.

And nuclear disaster? The earthquake and the tsunami were geological phenomena. But if Japan had not been one of the most densely populated countries of the world, it might have been able to locate its (fewer) nuclear reactors more judiciously.

Perhaps Malthus was right after all. Perhaps we should indeed be doing all we can to ensure that our global population "only"' increases by one more billion to 8 billion in 2050, the minimum currently forecast by the UN, rather than the maximum it forecasts, 11 billion, a staggering 60 per cent increase over present-day figures.

Otherwise the only reason that such topics will disappear from the news headlines is that they will have become banal.

Venetia Caine, St-Benoît, France

Don't be deceived: under AV all votes count the same

In your report about the launch of the campaign for the Alternative Vote (AV) you repeat the spurious claim that AV gives some people more than one vote (30 March). It's a myth spread by those who wish to keep our broken first-past-the-post voting system.

If I go down to the corner shop for The Independent, and they only stock The Guardian, I've switched to my second preference, but still only bought one paper. In the same way, if my first preference doesn't win under AV but my second preference does, I've only had one vote.

The real system under which some votes count more than others – and under which barely 1 per cent of the electorate decide who forms the Government – is our old and creaky First-Past-The-Post system. If we really want One Person One Vote, we should back a switch to AV so that all votes count in all constituencies – not just in marginals.

Elliot Folan, London N20

In your front-page leader, you criticise John Reid for saying that, under AV, supporters of minority parties have more of a say over the result than supporters of mainstream parties.

It is not correct that only those whose votes are redistributed under AV get a second (or third, and so on) vote. Everybody gets multiple votes under AV. The only difference is that at any stage of the process some are changed to different candidates while the others remain as originally cast.

The perceived advantage of voters for minority parties under AV is one of the strongest selling points of the No campaign. It is also completely false.

Simon Humphries, London SW18

The First-Past-The-Post system tends to reduce the contenders to a two-party dichotomy. It makes the emergence of a plurality of political parties in response to changing circumstances extremely difficult – witness the protracted progress of the Green movement.

The two dominant parties tend to become defined by emotive posturing rather than well-argued political thought and the nation's resources wasted in endless undoing of what was previously put in place. We need a system less bound up in party rivalry and more open to mature debate.

The proposed replacement system is not good, but we may be sure that if we are foolish enough to reject change its opponents will insist we are happy with we have got. The existing system will stay in place for a very long time, corrupting the outlook of both politicians and electorate.

R W Chaplin, Norwich

For some of us who have always campaigned for a fair voting system the decision on how to vote in the AV referendum is much more about strategy than about principle.

AV is the bastard child of real proportional representation, only supported through clenched teeth by all but the most cynical of electoral reformers. Why, when one has a far better system working perfectly well in Scotland and Wales, is that system, AV-plus, not deemed suitable for the whole United Kingdom? Why was Caroline Lucas's eminently sensible proposal to give voters a choice of new systems given virtually no support in Parliament? Because, I would suggest, the Labour Party is deeply ambivalent about reform and the Lib Dems dared not rock the Coalition boat.

Hence a dilemma: does one vote Yes and hope that if AV is passed enough people and politicians will, after the next election press for real PR, or will people say "We've done electoral reform", leaving us saddled with a flawed system for the foreseeable future? And if one votes No and AV is rejected, is that the end of electoral reform for decades?

It would be helpful if those who keynoted the launch of the pro-AV campaign on Tuesday made it clear whether this is their last word on electoral reform or the first step on a more radical road.

Cllr Simon Sedgwick-Jell (Green), Cambridge

The "Yes" campaign were being too charitable if they really used the word "flawed" to describe the claim that it would cost £250m to change to AV ("Tensions mount in Coalition over 'gutter politics' of anti-AV Tories", 28 March). I suggest that the correct word would be "fabricated".

Voters in New South Wales have just elected a new Legislative Assembly using exactly the same AV system we would have here, and it was ballot-paper and pencil followed by a manual count, without a voting machine in sight. As the Australians manage to conduct all their AV counts manually, why should it be supposed that we would have to resort to machines? There would be no need for counting machines, deleting £120m from the £250m claim.

As for the rest – what sense does it make to include the cost of the referendum itself as part of the cost of changing to AV? And why would it be necessary to spend an extra £20m educating electors on how to cast their votes if the next general election is held under AV, when that is perfectly clearly explained in the booklets which the Electoral Commission is now sending out to every household?

Dr D R Cooper, Maidenhead, Berkshire

"It is assumed that AV would boost the parliamentary representation of the Liberal Democrats," according to your leading article of 30 March. But would it?

To do well under AV a party must be popular enough both to win plenty of first or second places in the initial tally and to secure the second and later preferences of supporters of lower-placed candidates. A party which fails in either respect is likely to do badly.

How many of the votes currently cast for each party are tactical and would therefore go elsewhere under AV? It is likely that all parties benefit from tactical voting, but the general assumption seems to be that the biggest beneficiaries are the Lib Dems. So if the loss of tactical support under AV pushes them down into third place or worse in the initial tally they will lose seats; and if general unpopularity means they can't secure the second and later preferences of supporters of lower-placed candidates they will lose even more.

Far from benefiting the Lib Dems, AV could deal them a knockout blow.

Jonathan Phillips, Norwich

In your leader on the AV referendum, you claim that MPs would only be returned with "the support of a majority of their constituents". Ignoring the issue of turnout, this is still not entirely true; AV only guarantees a majority of the remaining valid votes.

Unless the system makes it mandatory to rank every candidate, or we are given a "none of the above" option, then some ballots will be exhausted as candidates are eliminated. With sufficient exhausted ballots, the eventual "majority" winner can still lack an absolute majority of all votes cast.

AV has benefits, but the elimination of victorious candidates backed by a minority is not one of them.

David Lamb, Glasgow

On balance I am in favour of AV, but not of referendums (stinkers like Napoleon III). What should I do?

Robert Davies, London SE3

The real outrage: tax avoidance

OK, so a few anarchists had a bit of fun damaging a few shops in London's West End on Saturday. Boo-hoo. Once all the overheated "outrage" has died down, should we not look a bit more closely at what lies behind the protest?

Tucked away on page 32 in Tuesday's business section is mention of a report from the New Economics Foundation citing Britain's tolerance of "financial tricksters" as a major obstacle to global banking and financial-sector reform. As a law-abiding taxpayer I am sick of the convention that says it's OK for rich individuals and corporations to welch out of paying taxes because smart and expensive lawyers and accountants can cook up schemes to help them. Permitted by law these may be, but what's to stop the Government closing all the loopholes overnight?

This is a cancer on our society far more worthy of outrage than the antics of a few opportunistic anarchists. UK Uncut and other groups are making serious points about serious fiscal injustices which this financial-sector-funded governing party will do all it can to ignore.

I was in Oxford Street on Saturday protesting peacefully; the anger directed at the likes of Philip Green, whose tax-avoiding behaviour is blithely glossed over by Dominic Lawson (Opinion 28 March), represents a growing national movement which you should be supporting.

Antony Randle, London NW10

Cave artists' 'sketch-book'

Tom Sutcliffe's Week in Culture article (25 March) suggests that some stone-age cave paintings should be seen as preliminary sketches.

As a painter, at my only visit to the (facsimile) caves at Lascaux I noted two things among many: that the moments of "truth" captured in the paintings of the animals (such as the asymmetric appearance of horns from a side view) were undeniable and captivating; and that a side wall covered in small scratched "drawings" of horses in various positions looked to me like the "sketch pad" where they worked things out like how an animal's leg looks or the shape of a rump or a gallop.

Just as I am so frequently telling my own students to "negotiate" an image, it seems that is exactly what the Lascaux artists were doing. Visiting the caves was like shaking hands with my direct forebears.

Clare Shepherd, Blandford, Dorset

Our search for engineers

Mary Dejevsky's comments are puzzling (Notebook, 30 March). As Britain wrestles to rebalance its economy, our ideas need to be developed here, and then exported. But the graduate pool for intellectual property generation is shrinking; while Britain has 37,000 engineering vacancies, it produces just 22,000 engineering graduates each year. Measures to keep them here – whether British or not – would help reshape the economy. Why train brilliant minds simply to send them home again?

Dyson is British. We have the same model as Apple: research, development and intellectual property here; final assembly elsewhere. We just happen to be in the Cotswolds rather than California. Moving final assembly to Malaysia back in 2002 was a difficult but necessary decision. Business evolves, and now we sell our machines in over 50 countries and the Dyson team in the UK is bigger than ever. And our search for engineers in all disciplines – including graduates – continues.

James Dyson, London SW3

Too busy for a street party

Concern has been expressed that very few street parties have been arranged for the royal wedding. This is little wonder when both partners nowadays have to go to work to earn a half-decent living and in a lot of cases one partner has to travel a considerable distance to and from work, meaning early starts and late back home. There was a time when one breadwinner could earn enough to pay a mortgage. Nowadays two struggle sometimes even to pay rent.

Furthermore, if ordinary people haven't got the time or possibly the community spirit to organise a street party, how on earth are they going to find the time and inclination to get involved with the Big Society?

Duncan Anderson, East Halton, Lincolnshire

Not simple to beat depression

I enjoy Jeremy Laurance's articles but must take issue with him over his column "Sometimes we really can think our way out of depression" (29 March). After many years' experience of this disorder I criticise him on two counts. He asks, "Would Yardy's depression have come on if he had hit a string of centuries?" Of course not – but one of the most distressing features of depression is a sudden illogical loss of confidence, leaving one feeling one cannot even bake a cake, let alone hit a century.

Laurance rightly promotes the benefits of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) but the highly trained therapists needed for this treatment are very rare compared with the many patients who need them. CBT can indeed help people to "think their way out of depression" – but they cannot do so on their own.

Joan Allen, Stockport, Greater Manchester

Tick-box teaching

As a teacher, I was saddened to hear that Paul Hides resigned from teaching two years ago because schools have become exam factories (letter, 26 March). He was more interested in educating the whole child, rather than pushing them through exams. But his resignation is not uncommon, because today's schools are managed by measurable targets, rather than holistic educational values. Good teachers will continue to leave and young people will suffer.

Kartar Uppal, West Bromwich, West Midlands

Age of speed

The correspondence following Roger Chapman's suggestion that the motorway speed limit should be increased has reminded me of a neighbour's advice. When driving on a motorway he would get into the outside lane and, once he had reached 80mph, he would stay there. He was 85 at the time.

Mike Stroud, Swansea

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