How South Australia Could Have Changed The World, And Might Still

It’s easy to see something as large as climate change as inevitable. Indeed it is hard to imagine how humans, being what we are, were ever going to build a high-tech society without messing with the planet’s thermostat to some extent. However, I believe small events can have big consequences, and some moments, apparently insignificant at the time, could have dramatically changed the scale of the threat we are facing. I think doesn’t just make for intriguing science-fiction scenarios; it can change the way we think about what we have to do now. And perhaps it makes it easier to see the challenges as beatable.

A week ago, when I wrote an article on the approval of the Port Augusta Solar Thermal plant I discovered something I had not known before: The first deployment of solar thermal technology for electricity production was more than a century ago, rather than in the 1970s as I’d have guessed.


My follow-up thought was this: If Sir John Monash, or someone of similar capacity, had been from Adelaide rather than Melbourne, there is a fair chance we would have Global Warming down to manageable proportions by now.

Find this hard to believe? (Particularly any overseas readers who don’t know who Monash was?) Let me take you through it.

The solar thermal technology was first deployed on a commercial scale in Egypt in 1912.  As you would expect, early versions weren’t a patch on the efficiency of today, but that wasn’t what killed it. World War I greatly interfered with the development of technologies without military applications, but there were bigger obstacles still.

The main thing was that, the technology wasn’t suited to the economy of the world at the time. Any form of solar power will work a lot better in Brisbane than Berlin, but solar thermal is considerably more susceptible to cloudy or humid weather than photovoltaics. For the UK, Germany or even France, this was no answer to their electricity needs. Even in the US, it couldn’t produce power were most of the people were. Arizona and Nevada between them had a smaller population than South Australia, and much smaller economies.

If you were looking for a wealthy sun-drenched city in need of an alternative source of electric power, Adelaide and Los Angeles were the era’s prime examples, of similar sizes.

Moreover, South Australia was not at the time a place rich in competition for electricity production, whereas Los Angeles was an oil mining town that could burn its product for power. SA has no black coal, even its brown coal deposits are more inconveniently placed than Victoria’s, and hydropower was never an option. Until the 1940s electricity production depended on black coal imported at great expense from New South Wales.

Sir John Monash, Australia’s premier general of the first World War, and some would argue the most talented leader of the entire conflict, established Victoria’s electricity system on his return. To do so he had to find a way to make the then-unusable brown coal deposits of the La Trobe Valley into a viable power source.

If some outstanding engineer, with a sufficiently wide-ranging mind to have become aware of the Egyptian trial (perhaps from being stationed there during the war, as Monash was) had come from South Australia and decided to give solar thermal a go, it would probably have flourished. No doubt there would have been many teething problems, and would certainly have been rather inefficient, but as demand grew each iteration would have been better than the last.

With the example there, it is likely other sunny parts of Australia, particularly those lacking local coal resources, would have followed suit. Eventually the vastly-improved technology would have attracted the attention of those seeking to power the now-rapidly growing south-west of the US, and subsequently other places with suitable climates.

By the time the oil-crisis struck, and people began to fear the running out of fossil-fuels (or the control by hostile powers of those that had to be imported), solar thermal would have been a well developed option at an affordable price. Although not as well suited to Italy or Spain as to Egypt or South Australia, it would have been a possibility at least worth investigating, and various refinements would have gradually expanded the area over which it could operate until much of the world was covered. Expanding grids would have meant now-cheap solar thermal power from the south-west of the US could have been brought from its source at least as far as Denver or Houston, allowing a substantial portion of even the developed world to operate this way.

The billions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses avoided would give us a slightly wider buffer to avoid catastrophic climate change, but the more important consequences would have been political. The existence of a large industry with enthusiasm to change that could act as a counter-weight to the fossil fuel lobby, along with the clear demonstration that a clean grid was possible, would have changed the political landscape.

Clinton’s proposal for a carbon tax would likely have sailed through on the votes of northern Democrats and sun-belt Republicans. Solar thermal will never be viable at high latitudes, but in this way it could have been a battering ram for other clean energy technologies.

History is not inevitable. The Port Augusta plant may be almost a century late, but who knows how much it can change the future.

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Only In Silence

Near the end of primary school I sat an exam for a scholarship. One part involved selections from a set of young adult books, all involving dragons, followed by comprehension questions. I did well enough on the exam to win an offer (which I very wisely rejected) and I felt I’d aced it, and excitedly told my mother and sister in great detail about the experience. The thing that stuck out to me, out of everything on the long test, was the encounter between Sparrowhawk and the dragon of Pendor.

I thought this must be the highlight of the book, being so powerful, but my sister told me it was just a small part of “A Wizard of Earthsea”, and lent me her copy. It’s hard to overstate the influence Ursula Le Guin has had over my life ever since.

I first read the Earthsea books like one would read Harry Potter, without the jokes. A marvelous fantasy world filled with beautifully described magic and a gripping plot. They were not my favourite books as a child, but they were close. Rereading them as an adult, I found a layer of depth I had entirely missed, something I never found in most of the other books I loved at the dsmr shr. The introduction to Daoist philosophy, a common theme in Le Guin’s books, was a revelation. Years later, at one of the lowest points in my life, I read them again, and found other layers still, a tale of working one’s way through depression, and also an environmental message not about saving some specific forest or reef, but about respecting the balance of the ecosystem and understanding the potential for disruption one cannot predict.

Last year, one of the first presents I gave Michaela was a copy of the Earthsea Books.

Yet for all this, Earthsea is not my favourite of Le Guin’s work, or the one that has meant the most to me, except in so far as without them I might never have discovered her others.

The “Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed”, particularly the latter, wend through my life in ways I don’t currently think I can explain, and may never be able to. I am literally wiping away my tears using my birthday present, a handkerchief Michaela embroidered with the first line of the Dispossesed; “There was a wall. It didn’t seem very important.” (And my God, the extra resonances that has today). I think it’s the best birthday present I have received since my first telescope.

I’d like to be making this piece more about why Le Guin’s work is so magnificent and important, and less about me, and maybe I’ll find the words to edit in later. Right now I’m a bit of a mess.

But in the meantime, if you’re not familiar with her work I urge you to go and read it the first time you have a chance to fit some fiction into your busy life. Or preferably sooner. It might change you as much as it changed me.

(image by Liam Davis cc 3.0, a reworking of Le Guin’s original Earthsea map)Map_of_Earthsea

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Why No Voters Aren’t Like No Campaigners


When marriage equality first appeared in public debate I supported it because:

equality is important

it would make a few people happy

I could not for the life of me make sense of any of the claims about the supposed harms

However, it wasn’t exactly top of my agenda of important issues.

As its prominence grew, some people argued the recognition that love is love might send a message to non-heterosexual people struggling with stigma and self-loathing, potentially even making an impact on the horrendously high rates of suicide among queer-identified young people.

I wasn’t sure if this was true, and indeed doubted any effect would be large enough to measure scientifically, but figured that the simple possibility was a good reason to up my engagement with the issue. I can’t claim to have been a major campaigner on the topic, but I’ve been to perhaps a dozen rallies, signed petitions etc. Still, I could understand why people treated the idea with skepticism.

Then a study came out, admirably covered by my colleague Josh Davis here. It shows a striking correlation between the implementation of equal marriage laws in America by state and a fall in youth suicide attempts – 7% among young people as a whole, 14% among queer-identified youth. No such fall was seen in states that did not legalize prior to the supreme court decision, and attempts only dropped in each state when the law changed.

This study tells you everything you need to know about those actively pushing the campaign against equal marriage, and the use of a postal survey to assess it.

I have no doubt that there are millions of Australians who are planning to vote no who are basically decent people. They don’t hate people who are gay, although alternative sexualities may make them feel a little uncomfortable. They see the idea of people of the same sex (sex/gender distinctions often not being on their radar) marrying as part of a process of the world changing too fast for them. They don’t feel any great ill-will to those who want to marry someone they are currently not able to, but would just prefer the issue to not occur.

If confronted with this evidence, some of these people – many of them skeptical about science in general – would be unconvinced, but it would concern them, and possibly even change their vote.

This is utterly different from the people who are running the no campaign, and the Liberal and National MPs responsible for the survey being run.

Many of these people are aware of the research. It was hardly obscure, or likely to slip under the radar with those obsessed with the issue. Josh’s article got 145,000 shares on Facebook, which is huge even for the social media phenomenon I am privileged to write for. We were hardly the only people to cover it.

Yet none of these people, not a sodding one of them, said; “Woo hang on here, we might have a problem. We could actually be causing the deaths of innocent people. How about we slow down, at least get a statistician to check this…”

There’s a reason for this. For all their protestations, none of the people involved in the no campaign care if the cost of their success is measured in higher suicide attempts, some of which will inevitably succeed. For some, that’s just road kill on the way to undermining Turnbull or some other wider goal. For others, it’s a feature, not a bug. If you doubt me, look at what George Christiansen or Michael McCormack said on the topic before they realized it could harm their careers. Or consider what they have done to other programs designed to reduce youth suicide.

In the course of this campaign we need to be careful of demonizing people leaning towards voting no. But we shouldn’t have the slightest doubt about the people promoting the case.

Update: If we assume that suicide attempts induced by homophobia result in death at the same rate as other attempts, it looks like we are talking about the passage of equal marriage legislation preventing 25-30 deaths a year in Australia.

However, I would add two extra points. The first is that the deaths are only the tip of the iceberg of suffering induced by what Hannah Gadsby calls “soaking in shame”, which would affect tens of thousands of young people to varying degrees. Even unsuccessful suicide attempts can leave a lot of damage.

Secondly, the inevitable viciousness of this campaign itself, even if we win, will probably leave a mark that may well be large enough to be measured.

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The Trump Victory And Two Sorts Of Racism

“Northern and southern racism are different. Southern racists don’t care how close blacks get, as long as they don’t get too high. Northern racists don’t care how high they get, as long as they don’t get too close.”

Sadly, I can’t remember where I read those words or who wrote them, but I have found them very useful for understanding American society for many years since. I now think you can’t understand the transition from Obama to Trump without them.




So to back up a bit. Since the election plenty of people have been having their say on what could cause America to elect such an obviously unsuitable, and deeply unpopular, candidate to the presidency. Most of the debate has been framed as bigotry versus economics. Crikey has presentedof both sides, with Bernard Keane pushing the former and Guy Rundle and Helen Razer the latter (ok Razer basically asserting the latter and denouncing anyone who disagrees with her, without providing, you know, evidence)

I’m always deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to be able to explain something as complex as an election before the results have finished being counted, particularly if they didn’t predict the outcome. So I’ve held off for a while. But I tam not convinced that, like the blind men around the Republican elephant, both sides have got hold of part of the truth without representing the full picture. And I think the quote at the top helps bring things together.

The race/gender advocates not only have the problem that almost none of them picked the outcome, they also have to explain how it is that a country, and five states, that elected Barak Hussein Obama twice would be racist enough to elect Trump.

Now consider that quote. Of course it oversimplifies things – some people are racist both ways, some in neither. And no doubt the distinction between the two groups doesn’t neatly follow the Mason-Dixon line. Nevertheless, there is a fair amount of truth to it. Rich southern whites invited black maids and nannyies into their houses and poorer ones accepted them as neighbours as long as their low status was maintained. Northern whites were happy to have a black College Dean or mayor, but moved out the minute blacks started entering their neighbourhood.

Obama’s results fit this pattern very well. Obama actually did worse than Kerry or Gore through Appalachia, where traditionally Democrat voters couldn’t stomach a black man in the White House. But he did very well in the midwest, leading people to conclude that racism there was over.

Why then would people turn to Trump? It’s not just that his strongest supporters were also the most racist. Those who argue for economics as the reason blame the poor economic conditions and a desperate hope for return to the good jobs of the post-New Deal era. Yet Trump’s greatest success was not with those at the bottom of the economic pile, but those earning at least $50,000 a year, and often much more. Some have argued that his supporters were those who feared losing out – they had seen those around them lose their jobs and worried they were next.

But in fact, the areas that swung most strongly to Trump were not those that had been hit hardest. In many cases it was the opposite. Counties experiencing a mini-economic boom swung to Trump by often huge margins. As this article notes, the areas that really went for Trump were the ones where the creation of new, albeit low-paying, jobs saw the arrival of immigrants  through the Obama years. Latinos, not blacks, were getting too close. They hadn’t arrived in sufficient numbers to make a difference with their votes – and many of them aren’t citizens anyway – but they scared the pants off the inhabitants of what had previously been all-white counties. Trump’s biggest swings correlate very well indeed  with these newly heterogeneous counties. It won him the decisive states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and possibly Iowa and Ohio to boot.

If you don’t believe the claim that the arrival of ethnic minorities in previously homogenous communities can shake people, take a look at the study presented here.

But that doesn’t mean those arguing for bigotry have the whole elephant. Falling economic conditions for middle and working class Americans were decisive. But any shifts to voting for Trump from this source were small. Instead the effect is seen in who stayed home. We know much less about what influenced non-voters than what drove the votes of those who did go to the polls, but what we do know  suggests that millions of normally solid Democrats didn’t vote, in large part out of frustration at the failure of their party to address their economic concerns.

The combination of whites sufficiently appalled by the brown faces turning up at the local supermarket, and people of all shades feeling Clinton didn’t offer enough to make it worth standing in line for hours, was a double punch that put a buffoon into office.

These, of course, are only the two biggest factors. The blatant lack of democracy of the electoral college was obviously decisive as well. Voter suppression laws, fake news sites, email hacking and FBI interference may each have been big enough to swing things on their own, and certainly were collectively.

But for those trying to learn lessons for next time, or apply them to the rest of the world, I think the place to start is with white identity politics as the driver for right-wing votes, and the failure to address economic insecurity as the reason turnout was low enough that this could win.

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A few last minute thoughts on tomorrow’s election:

No time to edit, just throwing this up there:

I think the most likely outcome is that Clinton will win by somewhat more than the polls predict. This is followed by a narrow Clinton win.

Nevertheless, I also think the polls could be wrong in the other direction, and the chance of Trump winning is at least 10%. Add in the possibility of a win for Clinton so close that refusal to accept the result extends beyond a small core of Trump supporters, and this is seriously scary stuff.

During the primaries I hoped the Republicans would nominate Trump, primarily because I thought he was the most beatable candidate. But I also thought he might do less damage than most of the other Republican candidates. On this, I now think I was very, very wrong.

I thought that his erratic positions and lack of attention would stop him driving much of an agenda, and what he had would cut across that of Congressional Republicans enough that much would be blocked anyway.

As a number of people have noted before me, the supine reaction of most Republicans up to this point suggests we shouldn’t be counting on any opposition from there. Moreover, while Trump might struggle to stay on message, that doesn’t apply to the people he would surround himself. Trump has pretty much hired the alt-right to run his campaign, and while there are differences in the details of their goals, they also have a hit list of things they agree on and have been plotting for a long time. When you look at what gamergate did, the consequences of putting these people in charge of America’s guns is genuinely terrifying. And who is going to stop them – the FBI?

Most crucially though, there is the point that Jonathan Chait has made, which most of us missed. Throughout all of Trumps changes over 30 years two things remain consistent. One is his narcissism, but the other is his belief that the violent crushing of dissent is not just legitimate, but desirable. How will a man who congratulated the Chinese government on slaughtering protesters in Tiannamin Square, not out of a desire to suck up to them, but through genuine endorsement, respond to the next DAPL protests.

Previously I thought that a Trump presidency would be four years of hell, but would at least have the reward of destroying the Republican Party. Now I seriously question whether, if Trump wins, there will ever be another election in the US that seriously deserves that name.

I’ve been wanting to write a longer piece about the debate about building an alternative to the two party system. I doubt I will get it done. Having once been very prone to hyperbole, I’ve tried to put it behind me. But I seriously would question whether, if Trump wins, there is any meaning to such an idea. I think it is highly probable that a President Trump would be giving orders that any serious opposition to his administration be exterminated, be that in the form of Congressional Democrats or prominent activists, and I’m not at all sure those orders wouldn’t be carried out.

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One Term Government? Saved By the Swan?

Not long after the last election I wrote why I thought it more likely than not that the Abbott government would not be re-elected, at least with a majority in its own right. It’s been one of the few posts that keeps on getting a steady trickle of views. Looking back, I think most of what I had to say holds up well. My problem was that I underestimated just how unpopular Abbott would be.

I thought, rightly, that the government would have to be a long way behind in the polls for a long time before they would dump Abbott for someone else. I didn’t expect just how far behind they would actually be, and for how long. Moreover, I didn’t anticipate Campbell Newman losing the Queensland election, and the psychological effect this would have on Liberal Mps.

I am quite confident that if Abbott was still PM this election would be a walkover for Labor. The shine has come off Turnbull, but he is still what is keeping the Liberals in the race. I didn’t predict this particular black swan, but I think I did allow for the possibility of a black swan saving them.

1280px-Black_swan_jan09 Taken byfir0002 | 20D + Canon 400mm f/5.6 L – Own work, GFDL 1.2, wikimedia commons

why I thought it more likely than not that the Abbott government would not be re-elected, at least with a majority in its own right. It’s been one of the few posts that keeps on getting a steady trickle of views. Looking back, I think most of what I had to say holds up well. My problem was that I underestimated just how unpopular Abbott would be.

I thought, rightly, that the government would have to be a long way behind in the polls for a long time before they would dump Abbott for someone else. I didn’t expect just how far behind they would actually be, and for how long. Moreover, I didn’t anticipate Campbell Newman losing the Queensland election, and the psychological effect this would have on Liberal Mps.

I am quite confident that if Abbott was still PM this election would be a walkover for Labor. The shine has come off Turnbull, but he is still what is keeping the Liberals in the race. I didn’t predict this particular black swan, but I think I did allow for the possibility of a black swan saving them.

The fact that Labor is still in with a chance – at least of creating a deliberative (far better word than hung) parliament – is a testament to how unpopular the coalition’s policies have been. If they were also fighting against of a hated Newman government in its second term, not even Turnbull’s popularity could save them.

So where now. I think the most likely thing is either a narrow Liberal majority, or a delibarative parliament with the Coalition having more seats than Labor, and probably being put into government by the Independents and Xenophon Mps on that basis.

But whichever happens, their unpopularity will grow, and next time they are going to need not just one black swan moment, but a flock of them, if they are to win again.
By Sergio Valle Duarte – Own work, CC BY 3.0,
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What’s Really On The Line In the Brexit Vote

Obama raised eyebrows with his intervention into the debate about whether the UK should leave the European Union. The thing that struck me the most about this, however, was that he touched on, if only slightly, the thing that has been almost entirely ignored in almost everything else I have read on the debate, even from those who should know better. This strikes me as strange because, as important as issues of immigration, sovereignty and economics may be, there is something far more important: The EU’s role in maintaining peace.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike the EU, but if you really think bad monetary policy and the over-subsidization of agriculture, or even forced austerity, are the worst things in the world, I suggest you have a chat with a refugee from Syria, Iraq or the DRC. Alternatively, go and stand in one of the apparently endless fields of crosses marking the war dead from the First World War. Or an unrepaired bombsite from the second. Or Aushwitz. It was a repetition of these things the EU was intended to prevent.


So forgotten is the EU’s purpose that I have had conversations with highly educated Australians who were amazed to discover that peace was even an objective of its founders. Yet how could it not have been? The groundwork was laid in the late 1940s and 1950s by people who had, almost without exception, lost loved ones or limbs in one of the two horrific conflicts that devastated Europe in the first half of the 20th Century. In that era, little was done in diplomatic circles without the awareness of the need to prevent a repetition.

Others acknowledge this was a reason for the EU’s predecessors to come into existence, but see it as an overreaction to a couple of aberrant atrocities in an otherwise largely peaceful history.

This is deeply wrong. When the first stirrings of what became the EEC, and eventually the EU, were founded, the original six members would have struggled to name a period of any length where all of them had been at peace at once. The longest continuous period without war for the six was 43 years, starting in 1871. It didn’t end well. Before that, they were lucky to get a decade in which no armies marched across the plains of one state or another. The history of Eastern Europe was no better. This is the case not just for centuries, but millennia. We now know largescale warfare in Germany goes back more than 3000 years.

The contrast since then is remarkable. For the founding six, it is now 71 years without war on their home soil. Certainly other conflicts have sometimes brought terrorism to their doors, but in terms of homegrown conflicts the worst, even among later arrivals, have been the Northern Ireland troubles and the struggle for Basque independence. Both have brought a terrible toll, but combined have killed fewer people than a single hour on the Somme or during the bombing of Dresden.

Moreover, the EU may be a big part of the reason these smaller conflicts are fast disappearing in our rear view mirror. When a substantial portion of your governance comes from Brussels, people feel less inclined to kill others over whether the remaining portion will be from London or Dublin.

It’s possible of course, that this is coincidence. That the arrival of a completely unprecedented period without war and the creation of an institution carefully crafted to bring peace just happened to occur together. Maybe. But it’s not very likely. Plenty of explanations for Western Europe’s modern peace have been offered. Most are things that are enhanced by the existence of the EU – democracy, trade, economic growth. Others are looking increasingly improbable as explanations – fear of the soviets, nuclear weapons – now that the wall has been down for nearly three decades and France and Germany show no signs of getting back to slaughtering each other.

Amazingly, I’ve even seen people argue the EU doesn’t stop wars because of the dreadful violence in Bosnia, Chechnya and the Ukraine. Umm… that’s what happens when you’re not part of the club. It would be great if the EU could create peace across the entire continent, or maybe keep its members from invading Africa and Asia. But stopping war at home was the primary intent, and success on that alone justifies its existence. It’s not as though all those other wars would have been avoided if the EU hadn’t been there.

Another argument is that we needed the EEC to prevent war, but it did its job, and around the time it became the EU it could have been wound up instead, and eternal peace would still reign. I can’t prove this wrong, but you’d want to be pretty convinced of this dubious theory before you decided to scrap an institution that’s probably the reason no one has dropped a bomb on your bedroom.

The final argument is that it may be terribly important that the French, German and Benelux stay together, and possibly the more recent members, but the UK doesn’t need to be in. True, it is unlikely that Brexit, should it occur, will lead to a revival of the war within the boundaries of Great Britain – Culloden is indeed long ago. An exit might stir renewed violence in Northern Ireland, but some might consider that a few dozen deaths a year a price worth paying.

While this argument is stronger than the rest, that’s a low bar. A UK exit will weaken the EU, placing it in more danger of collapse, and certainly make it harder for it to absorb new members.

Moreover, a UK exit could go two ways: It could lead to the economic catastrophe some have predicted, driving up unemployment and poverty, with all their associated evils. Terrible as that would be for the UK, it’s actually the good outcome for everyone else. Because the alternative is that leaving the EU is seen as a viable option, something every authoritarian leader stymied in his plans to oppress ethnic or religious minorities by the EU can wave in the face of nervous citizens.

Already Hungary is ruled by monsters whose firm desire to commit genocide on vulnerable minorities is stymied only by EU membership. The new government if Poland is possibly worse. EU membership is keeping people alive. How long after a successful Bexit, should it occur, will these countries stay in.

Even if you are entirely indifferent to the survival of Hungary’s Romany, or its few remaining Jews, consider this: If a UK exit sets off a chain reaction, how immune will Britain be from the wars that follow? Even if there is no repeat of the military engagement, no bombs raining on Leicester and Coventry, I doubt things will go well for Britain in such circumstances. If you think the small proportion of Syrian refugees making it across the Channel are a problem, wait until it is millions of French and Belgians, or even Czeck and Slovaks, desperate for somewhere to go.

Maybe such scenarios are unlikely – although the entire weight of history argues otherwise – but if there is even a chance they will occur, what could possibly drive one to want to take the risk?

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