Sunday, March 9, 2014

Pathfinders: Under the Ground and Over the Moon (2014)

The Pathfinders Column from the March 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

One way for the capitalist class to prevent any future repetition of miners’ strikes, in any country, is the thrilling idea of not digging coal out of the ground but setting fire to it in situ and sucking the choking but exploitable gasses out through frackstyle L-shaped tubes (New Scientist, 15 February). Anti-frackers will probably be aghast at the idea of lighting the fires of hell under our collective feet, and there are all sorts of predictable questions about 1100 degrees of heat fracturing erstwhile impermeable layers and subsequent leaching of benzene and toluene into water boreholes, as happened at one UGC site in Queensland, Australia. But it’s worse than that. While fracking does at least offer one built-in environmental brownie-point in having only around 50 percent of coal’s carbon footprint, underground coal gasification (UCG) offers no such saving, and instead relies on the pious promise by extractive industries to invest in money-losing carbon capture and storage schemes (CCS). Enthusiastic capitalists on fire to cash in on a process offering a potential 1000 years of global energy say the giant subterranean ashtrays created by UGC are the perfect spot to stuff all that unwanted CO2, while the fabulous profits will easily pay for the required CCS pumping hardware. Conversely it won’t only be socialists who, understanding why industrial pollution exists in the first place, will easily foresee that the mining will happen because there’s money in it, but the CCS won’t because there isn’t. Humanity may have set its sights on a zero-carbon energy future, but as ever when capitalism gets a whiff of the filthy lucre, industry dashes off in the opposite direction.

With renewable energy as always in a sinkhole of unprofitability, what is the current state of play in nuclear fusion, that ultra-powerful and ultra-clean energy source that stubbornly refuses to exist in reality? Well, some good news there, as the National Ignition Facility in California has just announced a breakthrough with the first ever ‘fuel gain’ test, where 10 kilojoules of energy were put in and 15 kilojoules came out. But hold the champagne, because to run this test in the first place required an overall expenditure of 2 megajoules, meaning that overall net fuel gain is still orders of magnitude away. Part of the problem is the fact that fusion technology is currently based on heavy hydrogen. Hydrogen has just one charged proton, but its isotope deuterium carries an extra uncharged neutron, while tritium lugs about an extra two like an overloaded tourist.

Fuse the tourists together at sun temperatures and a barrage of uncontrollable neutron baggage fires off in all directions, destroying and irradiating everything in its path including the reactor walls. This means that a) fusion is not clean at all but creates highly radioactive building waste and b) most of this neutron heat hurricane is wasted in the conversion of water to steam to drive a turbine, just like a fission reactor.

For a long time fusion freaks have been talking about using a light isotope of helium instead. Helium-3 or 3He is heavy on spare protons rather than neutrons, so protons get fired off instead. Because protons carry a positive charge you can channel and direct them with magnets, like a flock of excitable sheep, but they also convert directly to electricity without the need to boil water for a turbine. The result is that a) they don’t burn your house down and b) they give an enormous increase in efficiency.

And the point of all this? The point is that there is hardly any 3He on Earth because being lighter than air it tends to float off into space, but there’s tons of it on the Moon, where there isn’t any air so it isn’t lighter than anything and therefore stays put. Like UGC, the estimated potential for global energy usage for lunar 3He is around 1000 years. Which is precisely why China has got a Jade Rabbit up there. It plans to strip mine the Moon.

On the face of it not much has changed since the last time the Standard covered the Great Moon Rush (see Material World, December 2008). China may have set, if not foot, then robotic wheel on the surface, but this feat is dismissed by carping critics who point out that this only places China 50 years behind the US and the Russians, and that the Chinese tech is all old Russian knock-off anyway. Still less impressive that after two weeks in the freezing lunar dark the poor Rabbit emerged into the solar glare to stand transfixed with barely a pulse flickering.

But there is a key difference today, because water-ice has been found at the poles, buried in deep and permanently dark craters. A human requires around 2 litres of water a day, and with the cost of lifting water from Earth at around $25,000 a litre, even with intensive recycling of every last sweat globule a manned moonbase looked out of the question. Not anymore. With that discovery, strip-mining of the Earth’s ‘seventh continent’ is finally becoming feasible. Being pragmatic about such things as all capitalists are, China wouldn’t pay too much for labour, but would send Tibetans, or convicts, so don’t be surprised if future miners’ strikes take place on the Moon.

Still, it’s early days. The Moon Rush is at present more of a stroll. Budget-strapped NASA is in cahoots with private firms to get back in on the act, but private capitalists have to date shown less than cosmic  achievement. The $20m Google Lunar XPrize for the first privately-funded rover on the Moon, which blasted off in 2007 with much media fanfare, has so far not paid out so much as a bus fare, even though the deadline has been repeatedly extended. There is some debate about revising the terms of the various Space Treaties, according to which common ownership somehow exists in space, in order to allow private ownership to intrude into this absurd and uncapitalist anomaly. But the debate is civilised at the moment because nobody is in a position to stake much of a claim, and besides everyone knows that these treaties are mostly unsigned anyway and worth about as much as the Kyoto Agreement. The main legacy of Jade Rabbit thus far has been, rather like with the US Apollo missions and the Soviets, that China is winning its regional pissing contest with Japan. But the Japanese aren’t taking this lying down, and plan with an appropriate sense of bushido to have their own rover on the Moon by 2017.

It’s a curious fact that the glassy regolith dust on the Moon’s surface smells like gunpowder, and there may come a time when Earth goes to war over this rock, perhaps for the platinum group metals expected in concentrations in the dark ‘sea’ areas you can easily see with the naked eye. An even more distant possibility is that mining won’t stop at the Moon, but that it becomes a fuelling station on the way to the other planets and the moons of the gas giants.

One thing is beyond reasonable doubt. Were it not for the fact that the stars are permanently out of reach by any conceivable technology, the capitalists’ eyes would be fixed greedily on the entire cosmos. For many people, forced to the realisation that there is literally nothing in heaven or earth that capitalism would not rob and rape and destroy, a space-age future without socialist sharing and collective resource management will be a prospect as chilling as the lunar night.

Letter: Red Wedge (1986)

Letter to the Editors from the July 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

With reference to your article Rock Bottom (March) I should like to make the following comments. I attended two Red Wedge concerts and was also present at a "Day of Action" in which Billy Bragg and the "Wedgies" were questioned about their motives for the tour and I feel that your article gives the wrong impression.

The tour was not thought up or arranged by the Labour Party but by Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and other left-wing artists; in fact, your first line is incorrect as Red Wedge is not just a campaign by rock musicians but also by comedians, cabaret artists, actors and writers who have been or will be on the road with their own tours.

Propaganda did not come from the stage but MPs—and a certain (ex) GLC leader—were in the foyer to be approached only if so desired. The theme of the tour was to make young people aware that politics is something that affects everyone, and also to get young people to register to vote—whatever party they may vote for, as many young votes had been lost in the 1979 election due to "punk" apathy.

In all, socialism was more the issue than the Labour Party, and at one concert Joolz stated that "no mighty thing" called the Labour Party would change anything—only the people can do that.

Amongst the leaflets on chairs were ones on behalf of CND and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Socialist Worker and Militant papers were for sale (where was the Socialist Standard?) and even the slogan on the official T-shirts, like the songs of the artists involved, advocated socialism, and I don't think that is a thing to be knocked.
Yours faithfully,
Philippa Britton

It was an omission on our part to refer to Red Wedge as including only musicians; it does also include comedians and actors. It is, however, definitely a pro-Labour movement, even though it is officially independent of the Labour Party. During 1985, Billy Bragg performed some fifty concerts as part of the "Jobs For Youth" campaign in conjunction with the Labour Party. That tour led directly to the founding of Red Wedge which declared itself, from the start, "committed to a Labour victory at the next election". Needless to say, the "Jobs For Youth" campaign had not made great play of the fact that Labour policies have proved as hopeless as those of the Tories in trying to control capitalism: every Labour government since the 'thirties has left office with unemployment higher than when they were elected.

It may be true that Labour Party propaganda has not been featured on stage, but the performers would not have to tolerate the politicians "in the wings" if they did not wish to. It would be rather surprising if, come the next election, Red Wedge performers such as Robbie Coltrane, Paul Weller and Billy Bragg were to withhold their votes from the nationalist and fundamentally pro-capitalist Labour Party, and, of course, they make no secret of this. Indeed, Billy Bragg tried to defend his active canvassing for Kinnock in a Sunday Times article of 26 January 1986. "Anybody who cares about politics has their part to play, and that's best done as a local party member". He went on to say of earlier protest singers, "All that generation came to nought. They thought if they joined hands and sang Imagine the world would change". Of course, it is essential for people to think critically and to organise politically; but when John Lennon asked people to "imagine . . . no possessions", was that not more challenging than Bragg's sad badge of slavery in Between The Wars: "I'll give my consent, To any government, That does not deny a man, A living wage"?

Meanwhile, the political hacks were gloating. In the Sunday Times article referred to above, Andy McSmith, co-ordinator of the Labour Party's Jobs and Industry campaign, was quoted as saying "Billy is worth his weight in gold to us", and Eric Heffer comments: "It is a good thing that an ordinary working-class lad like Billy should identify himself with the Labour movement".

It is fair to conclude that Red Wedge does not exist purely to encourage young people to vote and to think in any way they might feel like, but to vote and think Labour. The T-shirts might refer to "socialism", but this would not be the first time this term has been used for its popular appeal. Perhaps some performers are being "used" by the politicians to some extent, and any comments they might make about young people thinking for themselves can only be supported by socialists. But it is contemptible for artistic popularity to be prostituted to the sale of stale and second-hand ideas for an alternative brand of "people's capitalism".

The Socialist Party did produce a leaflet which has been distributed at Red Wedge events, which we quote from here:
Enjoy the music, but do your own thinking. Beware of the smooth talking leaders who are waiting in the wings to sell you their sterile ideas. Workers are capable of building a future which might now seem like a dream. That future has nothing to do with swapping the inhabitants of Ten Downing Street. It is about establishing a society of common ownership, democratic control and production for use—a genuine socialist society. You owe it to yourselves to consider the case not for the Labour Party but for socialism.