Guns and mental illness again

I have to clarify this, because it’s a point that screams out for repeating.

Why do people’s minds get blown, or why do I get flat-out denial, when I point to studies showing that mental illness isn’t even correlated with violent criminal behaviour?

The only scary correlation here is that the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violent crime.

If you want good reasons for immediate, massive funding of public mental health programs, I can give you a half dozen off the top of my head.

Preventing violent crime isn’t one of them.

That’s why the motivation for thia sudden support for universal healthcare by Republican gun nuts annoys the living shit out of me.

Pointing to this fabricated correlation extrapolated from a handful of cases as a good reason to fund mental health is just wrong (and anti-scientific). It’s predictably fucked up when the far right do it, but it’s utterly perverse when the left follow along like sheep.

Stigmatisation comes from false stereotypes like this.

To push it is to hurt the mentally ill and to buy into the NRA agenda. It distracts from the real problem of gun culture and the need for the United States to properly regulate firearms.

Gun ownership is actually correlated with violent crime; and a causal relationship isn’t difficult to establish. If you’re serious about stopping violent crime, tackling gun ownership should be the focus.

A cry I’ve anticipated, but thankfully haven’t yet heard, from the left (who accept the evidence) is that any delusion that brings the far right to the table on universal healthcare is OK, as long as it gets the job done.

I don’t think it’s worth throwing the dignity of the mentally ill under a bus for a deal.

It’s hard enough seeing a psychiatrist for the first time without everyone else assuming that you’re a danger to society.

Look at the evidence and think things through, please.

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What the fuck is wrong with you people?

I’m sure you’ve all seen all the repugnant things religious leader fuckheads have said in the last few days. I’m not going to comment on that because it makes me feel ill.

This post has three sections.

Gun Control

Seriously, the sheer number of American pathological gun nuts I’ve dealt with online in the last two days is staggering.

I’m finding exactly the same problems I have with religion, especially when religion is driving good people to kill and giving bad people an excuse to kill (and an excuse to get good people to kill). It’s a faith-based claim that offers no rationale except for bullshit cliched arguments that have clearly not been critically examined by someone who cares about anything other than feeding on confirmation bias.

So my problem is faith. I just typically go after religion because it’s the largest and most prevalent manifestation of this defective way of thinking; and so it just happens to piss me off more often.

But now I find myself forced to go after the American gun cult.

Something about children being killed with legal weapons just makes me fucking mad, you know? There’s also something about the callous self-justifications from trigger-happy traditionalist idiots, while families are mourning, that just begs to be called out.

So here it is.

America’s gun laws fail so hard at preventing homicides, robberies, accidental shootings and suicides according to evidence from peer-reviewed literature (not reports from “think-tanks” and other bullshit sources); but that doesn’t matter. The solution is moar guns! It’s a Second Amendment right!

Yes, more guns is exactly what America needs.

Here, by the way, is the Second Amendment:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Hmm.

The Second Amendment argument is stupid, and clearly nobody has read it — if it were still relevant it’d imply that citizens should be allowed access to nuclear weapons. Besides, interpreting the Second Amendment on an individual protection level is problematic and unsophisticated.

Then times changed, democracy got better (fine, it’s actually a polyarchy, but whatever) — making revolution less meaningful. Also, civilisation is qualitatively different now than it was at any other point in history.

Violence, all over the world, is in decline (help speed it along!), and liberalisation is rising, despite some other depressing statistics (I’ll get to them). The revolution in the United States will not be televised, because it won’t happen; it’s little more than another American Dream.

Second, guns for personal protection? Bullshit.

I looked through a bunch of my university library’s research databases and all I came up with, from reputable psychological and medical journals, was strong evidence that legally owned guns for self-defence are rarely used for self-defence; they’re more likely (22 times!) to be used in homicides, accidental deaths, suicides and to intimidate family members. This general trend of this study has been corroborated by numerous others.

(In light of those studies, which, most charitably, paint private gun-packers as highly incompetent and dangerous people, rather than autonomous agents capable of defending themselves; would a militia comprised of these people really capable of overthrowing a hypothetical tyrannical government? That might be a little too much to expect…)

Here are two charts that should hit this crime rate point home:

Number of guns per 100 people, OECD

Interesting, because “Switzerland” I hear a lot. I guess nobody bothered to look up how that actually works.

Gun-related murder rates in the developed world.

That’s another bullshit claim I hear: “What about Mexico? That’s what gun restrictions on law-abiding citizens does to reduce crime!” Yes, what about Mexico? Where do Mexican cartels get their guns from?

A more in-depth analysis can be found here. I guess facts really do have a progressive bias.

The cost-benefit analysis, if you care about protecting people, just doesn’t justify guns for personal protection.

Some might be tempted to use this against me when I advocate full drug-legalisation. They’d be wrong. Drugs are an individual choice, and you can’t use drugs to kill lots of people, only yourself (if you’re so inclined, or if you’re an irresponsible user, or by accident — but then, mountain climbing can kill you in that way). Drugs should be illegal in situations where they can play some causal role in harming others: like when you’re driving. If you drug-and-drive, fuck you. You’re a criminal because you put others at risk.

(Incidentally, in some U.S. states, car licenses are more heavily regulated than gun ownership.)

So, being a rabid supporter of “the right to bear arms” is to buy into a bullshit faith-based enterprise, with its own mythology and various off-shoot sects. The fact that it’s about providing false-consolation and a false sense security and the fact that it’s totally contrary to the evidence makes it exactly like religion.

And, on exactness: this is exactly why I go after religion. Religion is based on faith, which is essentially pretending to know things you don’t know. Appeals to faith are used to justify tribalism, delusion and all manner of bullshit. When someone says “that’s what I believe” you’re supposed to avoid being disrespectful. Fuck that I say.

People can be wrong, and there’s nothing wrong with exercising your own free speech to hold them to account. And making light of the majority hard-headed among them in front of fence-sitters.

So fuck those idiots against gun control. There is blood on their hands.

Mental Health

This is important to me.

I have lived with bipolar disorder since my early teenage years and I’m now in recovery.

I’ve never shot anyone, but I’ve faced discrimination in personal, professional and schooling situations due to the stigma associated with mental illness.

I don’t care about it, personally, because I’ve been lucky; it hasn’t ever really gotten in my way. But discrimination affects others badly. Really fucking badly. And I totally understand why.

The mentally ill don’t need to be singled out based on the actions of criminals. It’s offensive to do so, and it doesn’t even make sense.

The amount of demonisation I’ve seen the mentally ill as a group subjected to — surreptitiously by the hard right (because it wasn’t guns!) and inadvertently hiding in articles in the PC left media (smacked down here) — since this recent mass murder in the United States is mind-boggling.

It’s quite simple: the United States has worse healthcare than some developing countries (Columbia!); but look at these fucking statistics. Now, what should the priority be following Friday’s Connecticut shooting? It’s pretty fucking obvious to me.

To start with: to demonise people with autism spectrum disorders is to demonstrate a profound ignorance of established facts about abnormal human psychology.

Second; what effect does mental illness have on crime? The first clear-cut example is psychopathy; but does psychopathy predict criminal behaviour? A bit of arithmetic carried out on Baylor College’s neurolaw-focused blog, using some estimates and some quantified statistics indicated that 15% of all psychopaths currently living in the United States are incarcerated for some crime or another. Would increased mental health funding, and more accessible high-quality treatment help these rates? No. Psychopathy is untreatable, and very difficult to diagnose.

What about the mentally ill population as a whole? That’s a point of contention too, and it shouldn’t be, because there are more of these things called facts — and they’re in. The mentally ill, as a population, are overwhelmingly more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Check this in the peer-reviewed literature for yourself, and look through other articles.

This is the crux of my argument: if the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators of violence, then taking measures to reduce violence also protects the mentally ill. Tackling gun violence is a step towards protecting the mentally ill, and a step towards protecting everyone else.

Better healthcare is an absolute imperative. There are some shocking stats associated with mental illness in the United States. The one I find scariest is that only one-third of adults and one-half of children with diagnosable mental illnesses actually get to talk to a professional in any meaningful capacity.

Clearly, mental health services in the United States need to be fixed, and they need to be fixed soon; but right now, a scourge that infects American culture as a whole must be fixed. This is gun culture.

This is a hard calculation to make with objectivity, but right now, America’s progressives and concerned conservatives should try to rewrite the gun laws.

Now is the time. This isn’t an either-or thing; it should be a both thing — but smart progressives should not lose sight of the myopia of their fellow countrymen.

Help everyone first: fix your fucking gun culture.

Ethics

Now, you could say that who am I, an Australian descended from undesirable colonisers (I’m not, but that’s what I was told) — to derive morals from facts (as Hume supposedly prohibited) and moreover, how dare I use my moral standards to judge another country’s laws and culture?

Because fuck you. If ethics aren’t about minimising suffering and maximising flourishing for all conscious creatures, then ethics is a waste of everyone’s time — and anyone who believes that has no grounds to support any moral cause, or to judge the behaviours of others. That’s why.

Why should we be interested in minimising suffering and maximising harm? Well, would you apply the same standard to medical research? How about physics? No. I didn’t fucking think so. So why do people hate it when you try to come up with a normative system of ethics? Out of respect for unjustified, unsubstantiated bullshit faith-based opinions.

Also, you didn’t read Hume properly. He used inference to the best explanation (induction) all the time, despite pointing out a “problem with induction” (that modern epistemology and philosophy of science has easily accommodated in the form of evidentialism; even verificationism), and he was an empiricist. He’d be fine with physics and medicine; and if he knew about consequentialism, he’d be fine with that too. (The problems in that BBC link have largely been resolved, it just covers naive consequentialism really, but you can find that shit out yourself. Go read some Peter Singer and even Sam Harris — neither of whom I totally agree with — and make up your own mind.)

My thoughts go out to all the families who lost loved ones last Friday. If children, a teacher and a psychologist being murdered in cold blood with legal weapons isn’t a wakeup call for America, there’s something wrong with the American leadership, and by extension, the people who elected those leaders.

Disagree?

Before you tell me, read what I wrote. Read it again. Check my sources. I don’t like repeating myself. I will approve your comments (I do that anyway), but only to enshrine you as a dunce.

Awesome is genetically modified

I’ve long promised friends to write up my views on genetic engineering. This is the CliffsNotes version. I’ll write something more detailed over summer.

I support the shit out of genetic engineering, and the consumption of genetically modified foods. I dabble in it and I love it where it’s going. I love that today, genetic engineering techniques are orders of magnitude more precise than accepted plant breeding and various mutagenesis techniques.

It’s obviously quite safe. Most food isn’t tested in clinical trials, but genetically modified organisms are tested extensively before being released into the market. Even industry testing is a huge leap from no testing at all. According to various respected independent scientific organisations: in 20 years of testing, by over 500 independent groups, not fucking once in well designed studies has genetically modified food currently on the market been associated with human illness.

I don’t love Monsanto. I don’t love the regulatory environment that ensures that only rich multinationals like Monsanto get to dominate the biotechnology sector. The draconian bureaucracy that chokes biotechnology, largely influenced by manufactured public opposition courtesy of scientifically illiterate moonbat cults like Greenpeace, sets a financially insurmountable hurdle that prevents small, low budget startups (like what I’d love to do to fund my neuroscience education), humanitarian efforts and open source-friendly independent researchers from competing with Big Biotech.

Another obvious problem is the broken patent system. I’m in two minds about it: first, there clearly needs to be restrictions on patenting open source genomes minimally altered with open access sequences available from websites like the Standard Registry of Biological Parts (henceforth just “Parts Registry”); and second, in the case of novel or sophisticated genomes, patenting is probably OK. But patenting should not restrict independent testing. Perhaps firms should be required to donate batches of seeds to registered labs for analysis.

That said, I’m not sure if I believe in compulsory large-scale testing. Very few “synthetic” foods not derived from GMOs are tested at all if they contain no known toxic or illegal compounds. I don’t see much difference between worrying about any unknown chemical reactions between various compounds and those of various sequences of genes. The mere existence of Parts Registry speaks to the precision offered by genetic engineering.

Even the gene gun, criticised for its relative inaccuracy, has been consigned to near-obsolescence due to various high-precision competing technologies (at least, in agricultural biotechnology, it’s still used in human gene therapy with great success).

Such precision for inserting sequences isn’t always necessary to achieve predictable outcomes: recombinant methods offered by viral vectors for gene therapy and even “cruder” methods such as electroporation get the job done.

What people often fail to realise when they go after Monsanto by parroting made up bullshit about genetically modified organisms is that a more open market (though, not totally “free”) conducive to open source and small companies is profoundly anti-corporate. Forget Monsanto, DIY biohacking even has the power to take on Big Pharma, and, by extension, Big Quacka.

It’s taken for granted that conventional agriculture isn’t going to feed 9 billion people. The organic vs. GMO debate, perpetuated by Big Quacka, is fucking stupid. Organic food, generally, offers lower yields for obscene land use. Economical land use is very important, because any land used by humans encroaches on fragile ecosystems. This is why it makes no sense to inadvertently expand farming and explicitly decry cities as taking us away from nature. We need to take up less space if we want to allow ecosystems to thrive.

Organic food may very well play a role in feeding the world, but the ever-advancing field of genetic engineering offers a much better shot. Crops can be tailored for climates, even to withstand levels of city pollution (though I expect that to drop dramatically, if we survive) and to thrive and usher in a revolution of indoor vertical farming. This will combat projected rising food prices (due to global warming and other factors) and make it possible to grow crops where it’s not feasible to do so using other methods. Such efforts are being spearheaded by not-for-profit organisations such as the Mexican International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.

I hope it’s clear why I frequently call out so-called environmentalists who oppose genetic engineering. Not only do they slow progress in a field that offers novel, powerful solutions to climate change, land use, and so on, but they also work against humanitarian efforts aimed at ameliorating poverty. The most stark, recent example of this is the backlash against golden rice, a theoretically sound and repeatedly proven solution to rampant vitamin A deficiency in third world and developing countries. One can’t help but wonder how many children have died from malnutrition while golden rice, nutrient-enriched cassava and other publicly developed crops remain under lock and key, thanks again to elitist middle class Westerners who really have no excuse for such scientific illiteracy.

Those who have been taken in by denialist literature such as the non-peer-reviewed report/Gish Gallop by EarthOpenSource (Google it, you’ll find it) are invited to read this better document by the European Commission. People concerned with data from long-term animal feeding studies should read this paper (without shooting the messenger, which is too often a convenient excuse for intellectual laziness). And people who thought that Gilles-Eric Séralini found evidence that GMOs cause enormous tumours in rats should look at this (heavy lifting) and/or this. Spoiler alert: his study looks an awful lot like scientific fraud.

(Originally posted as “On genetically engineered food” on my tumblr blog Just Defiance.)

Nature doesn’t care about us

Excuse me while I flit about like a rabid humming bird with a penchant for empurpled ranting. I hope my oblique reasoning isn’t too alienating. (Or no more alienating than that pretentious shiny new site title I’ve emblazoned above.)

Nature owes you nothing. Conversely, you owe Nature absolutely everything. Out of respect, you should be doing everything you possibly can to get the fuck out of Nature’s way. Nature is impersonal and indifferent. It’s time to divorce our deluded romance with all things ‘natural’.

Nature is awesome, but Nature is deadly. It’s easy for us to feel as though we’re blessed by Nature. The Earth seems so amenable to our kind of life; so atavistically idyllic, especially when you visit a rainforest. But we’re not blessed. We could never have evolved in any other environment. As far as we can see, we’re basically alone in the cosmos. We can be certain that we’re a rarity, and we’re an ephemeral one in extremis. We’re not blessed, we’re stupifyingly lucky. The distinction between blessedness and luck is an important one.

I think it smacks of intrepid hubris to be against ‘artificial’ things because they’re ‘not natural’. This is tantamount to giddily expostulating “nature cares about us!” No it doesn’t. It never has. Never will. Doesn’t even know we’re here. Doesn’t give a shit about what we eat or how we generate power. Probably doesn’t even give a shit about the fact that oxygen exists. Definitely doesn’t give a shit whether or not we extinguish life on this planet. Such insipidly narcissistic presumptions are all too human.

Why would Nature care about us? We live on such an infinitesimal, insignificant speck somewhere in the visible matter pollution that makes up 1% of this big dead cosmos. Everywhere we know about in spacetime with the exception of the Earth will kill trespassing humans instantly.

We owe Nature our respect, but we shouldn’t for a moment think Nature respects us, our hopes and dreams or our children. Nature isn’t going to add nitrates to soils all over the planet of its own volition just so we can farm enough organic food to accommodate the needs of the 7 billion people who live here. There isn’t even enough space on the planet for enough organic agriculture to feed a fraction of the world’s population – even if you’re happy to clear a lot of land. That wouldn’t be good for biodiversity or the travel industry.

If you like organic food, eat organic. Go for it; it’s tasty stuff, and why waste food? Just don’t expect organic farming to feed anywhere near as many people as GMO technology already can, and should already be doing. (Thanks for that, by the way.)

And global warming? That’s Nature doing what Nature does on terrestrial planets when an ‘intelligent’ species (or an earthquake that releases trapped underground methane, whatever) unwittingly increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Things die. Big deal. Global warming isn’t some karmic cockpunch – we’re products of Nature, and there is no reward or punishment in Nature; there is just Nature. Death and entropy are perennial parts in the Nature deal.

So many parochial humans miss the fact that Nature will snuff out all life on Earth without batting a proverbial eyelash. It has almost happened here before. You can bet all the bottom dollars you want that it has happened on other planets. Shit, it probably just happened somewhere else in our neck of the galactic filaments while you read that last sentence. The conditions for any life at all in the cosmos will only exist for such a small percentage of its whole lifespan that I simply don’t have the space to post it here without screwing up the formatting of this entry. That figure works if you assume an infinite undifferentiated entropic expanse cooling down to absolute zero marks the end of the universe. Yeah, that’s why they call it heat death.

Forget fluke arrangements of amino acids like us and whatever lives under our fingernails, not even heavy elements like carbon are the stars of the show. (Stars almost totally consist of hydrogen and helium – and they make up, that’s right, a very small fraction of the current mass of the cosmos, so not even stars are the stars of the show.)

Our Sun, a middle-aged G2V spectral-type yellow dwarf star, will, upon its inevitable demise, consume our planet, utterly erasing all traces of life that might remain. That’s total annihilation at the molecular level.

That’s Nature: sunlight; gravitation; thermal radiation; the arrow of time; mass extinction; thermodynamics; the laws of chemistry. We’re freaks of Nature, not pinnacles. We aren’t the Platonic apples of Nature’s multifarious eyes. And neither, for that matter, are the whales, or the shrews. Or the fucking lions. We care about that stuff, Nature doesn’t. If Nature cares about anything, Nature cares about Dark Flow – which could be a different Nature cutting in on our Nature’s action. But Nature doesn’t care because Nature just is. And so apparently is Dark Flow.

Respecting Nature simply means not gearing the laws of Nature up to kill us. That’s pretty easy to do, because the laws of Nature that apply to life on this planet are reasonably well understood. Nature isn’t an entity, or an intelligence – it’s just a set of laws that work on space and matter. You can’t reason with it. You certainly can’t appeal to its ‘humanity’. You need to shut up and pay attention; because if you don’t, you’ll die – and if there’s no one left to remember you, it will be as if you never existed. Nature will not remember you, or any of us.

Nature doesn’t care if we want to genetically modify foods to feed starving children in Africa. Volcanoes will erupt when they’re good and ready regardless of what gene sequences we put where. Gene sequences are not sacred – we think they are because we happen to be gene sequences. Nowhere in Nature will you find the Vitruvian genome.

Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “What’s going on between our legs? It’s like an entertainment complex in the middle of a sewage system! No engineer would ever design that, ever.”

There plainly is no design in Nature; just ask anyone who has suffered appendicitis. Or just wait until medical genome sequencing becomes cheap and mainstream; then you can ask your doctor how long you’ve got to live with yearly bouts of hay fever before malignant tumours have you pissing blood while they ravage your reproductive system, requiring major surgery and weekly intravenous doses of emetic etiolating poisons to keep the rogue cells at bay before they inexorably attack your brain through your spinal cord to finally, painfully kill you. Top design, that.

Again, what Nature consists of is coincidences. Not design.

Being against advances in agricultural biotechnology seems to be logically analogous to harbouring genocidal tendancies. Logically, it’s pretentious, elitist and heartless. The whole notion grounded in the baseless delusion that natural selection does a better job at dictating our diets than we do. It misses the point that practically everything we eat has been the product of ten thousand years of artificial selection by us humans. But the people who are against it are well-intentioned and illogical, so you can’t impute elitism and heartlessness onto them – but you can call a lot of them out on wilful ignorance and dogmatism.

Nature doesn’t even care if we give baby gorillas yellowcake uranium dust to finger paint with – we do. And we should. We should care more about feeding children than regressing to pre-germ theory pagan superstitions, and we should know better than poisoning gorillas for artwork to sell on eBay. Nature doesn’t know or care. Nature made yellowcake uranium radioactive, evolved most humans stupid and rendered Africa mostly arid.

This natural organic bullshit is just dualism for the cosmopolitan generation. We are not separate from anything. Nature isn’t some sky daddy, it’s what makes up reality by definition. This ‘return to nature’ crap is a delusion, and a delusion perhaps as dangerous for us as a species than any fairy tale propagated by any holy book. We should not be ’embracing’ Nature; again, we should be learning how to get the fuck out of its way. We should never ascribe anything to Nature borne of our misguided human hubris.

I’ve discussed Chernobyl here before – in America especially, how egregiously that incident was distorted reflected the hippy movement’s anxiety with anything big with a logo and shareholders. It had nothing to do with the environment. That myth was born of human selfishness and stupidity.

I actually wish hell existed just for the disgusting arseholes who singled out those Ukrainian children who suffered birth deformities (not because of the Chernobyl accident, just because birth deformities happen) to exploit for the anti-nuclear agenda. The real victims of Chernobyl were the locals who were marked by the media as ‘exposed’ and left in far too many cases irreparably psychologically scarred.

Nature was responsible for evolving pattern-seeking, tool-using primates on this little blue oblate spheroid. Nature has no agency, obviously, but we did evolve to proliferate on this planet in a certain way. Not the right way, just a certain way. Unfortunately we also evolved to be superstitious, guilt-ridden conservative idiots.

This has little to do with politics – the superstitious, guilt-ridden conservative idiots on the right blush when you say a naughty word, but the ones on the left yell and scream when you put on a lab coat. (Well, the ones on the right do too when there’s no way to convert the lab results into capital, but I think my point is obvious.)

Nature gave us measles, mumps and rubella; science gave us a vaccine – then Nature hit back with Jenny McCarthy (another person I’d hope to see in hell).

The thing I’d like to point out about the deaths caused by withholding vaccines from children is that not all victims were themselves victims of their parents’ credulousness. Many of them were victims of the credulousness of other parents. Those victims contracted these terrible diseases before they were booked in to be vaccinated. Vaccines only eradicate diseases when everybody plays along. Withholding vaccines now sounds an awful lot like biological terrorism, without actually being biological terrorism; it’s really just a tragic manifestation of ignorance.

Nature gave Africa inarable land; agricultural biotechnologists gave us drought-resistant crops – and Nature gave us hordes of superstitious conservative idiots, legally incorporated as Greenpeace. “Greens” worry about Gaia, progressive people worry about Nature. We humans transpose genetic information for a purpose, Nature does it blindly. Nature will eventually kill every single organism that will ever exist anyway. The important thing to notice is that transposing genetic material only works if you play by Nature’s rules. If you don’t, the new genome will be unstable. If it isn’t natural, it won’t work. Nature didn’t design anything for us. But by some stroke of fortune, we’ve been able to develop the skills to design things for ourselves – provided we accept that Nature has the final word.

Science is what Nature blindly evolved us to do for our own survival. We ignore that at our peril. It’s amazing how many people against nuclear anything will gladly accept chemotherapy for carcinomas. Guess what? Chemo drugs don’t grow ready to inject safely in the Amazon. We synthesize that shit in a lab.

Thanks to breeder reactor technology, nuclear power is now safe, affordable and it basically cleans itself up. Do you know what it means when Malcolm Turnbull says Australia needs nuclear power, while Bob Brown calls modern nuclear power technology evil? It means the conservatives think more progressively on some very dire issues than the progressives do. There’s nothing progressive about stultifying progress. I suppose I naïvely assumed ‘progressive’ wasn’t a synonym for that particularly insidious manifestation of misanthropy.

Bob Brown strikes me as someone who wrote off nuclear power decades ago and hasn’t bothered to look at it since. He’s a religious person, really. If he cared more about mitigating global warming than ‘sticking to his environmentalist principles’, he’d be campaigning for a breeder reactor program in Australia and promoting the technology to the rest of the world. Until then, or until something else comes along, Bob Brown is simply another well-intentioned part of the problem. Thanks for helping to facilitate Australia’s continued fossil fuel dependency, Bob.

And guess what? Atoms, nuclear reactions and energy are natural. The demarcation between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial is an erroneous one, dreamt up by scared hairless apes. Hairless apes that evolved naturally. Getting the fuck out of Nature’s way means using our faculties to work in harmony with what Nature actually is, not what we think it should be. If we don’t want Nature to kill us, we should play by Nature’s rules.

It’s our business if we want to protect all the organisms we like and depend on. Nature won’t do that. We are close to engineering meat in a lab, which will do away with the need for livestock. We should not reject this because labs scare and confuse us. We’ve been engineering food for millennia through artificial selection. There’s nothing wrong with progress, especially if it reduces the suffering we inflict on our animal cousins. Real sustainable sources of nutrition should have as little to do with the biosphere as possible. For land use alone, a lab is far better than a paddock or a crop field. If we think biodiversity is important, we should use science to learn how to stop interfering with it.

(An aside: that’s not to say that we shouldn’t use geoengineering if we need to – we know that geoengineering will cool the planet because volcanoes have done all the experiments for us. That isn’t controlling Nature, that’s playing by Nature’s rules – rules uncovered by science.)

I’d like to close by saying that I’m not against idealism in principle. I’m against pinning hope on some psychadelic ignis fatuus that reflects nothing more than the fevered collective human ego.

Fukushima’s global fallout

Yoshihiko Noda last week replaced Naoto Kan as Japan’s prime minister due to a widespread backlash against what the public perceived as Kan’s mismanagement of the nation’s recovery following the devastation of the Tohoku quake. Noda is the country’s sixth prime minister in five years. He has barely been on the job for a week and he’s already pledged to do something ill-considered with dangerous international ramifications.

On March 11 this year, the Japanese people suffered what is locally known as the Great East Japan Earthquake. Despite this relatively simple fact ‘Fukushima’, the name of a prefecture within the affected Tohoku region, is the proper noun practically everybody associates with the disaster. Maybe I’m weird, but I think a catastrophic natural disaster that killed thousands of people and left countless more injured is just a mite more important than a comparatively benign peripheral industrial accident. Reports fuelling widespread nuclear phobia have eclipsed coverage of the real tragedy, and this is rapidly generating a series of much larger problems.

Last Friday Noda promised to continue with the previous administration’s plan to slowly phase out the nation’s dependence on nuclear energy. Wait a second, the power plants didn’t cause the earthquake, so what’s going on here? This is where those other problems creep in; the largest being the global issue of anthropogenic climate change and the growing threat of a runaway greenhouse effect, which could potentially kill billions and displace any survivors.

According to Japan’s National Police Agency, the Tohoku quake killed 15,760 people, injured 5,927 and left 4,282 missing. You can find this with references on Wikipedia. The Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns caused by the quake left two workers dead from blood loss. Another 45 people died while or after being evacuated from Futaba hospital in the Fukushima prefecture, many of them from dehydration.

Comparisons were quickly made to that other nuclear accident, the 1986 one in Ukraine, which killed significantly more people but nonetheless scored the same on the IAEA’s international nuclear and radiological event scale. Naturally, politicians around the world promptly reacted by pledging aid for Japan and shitting bricks over the ‘dangers’ of nuclear power. That was when a well-managed industrial accident became a global disaster. It was exasperating to hear not only Australia’s own odd couple Bob Brown and Julia Gillard brainlessly bleating, but also of Germany’s plan to cripple its nuclear energy facilities; a move which analysts predict will cause eight million tonnes of carbon to be released into the atmosphere within three months due to the re-commissioning of coal-fired power plants.

This has happened before on a much larger scale, and it wasn’t pretty: the cancellation of dozens of planned nuclear plants from 1979 onwards in response to pressure from the anti-nuclear movement, in the wake of the Three Mile Island partial meltdown, led to the construction of numerous coal-fired plants through the 1980s. These new plants dumped tens of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Now, in the 21st century, we really should know better. Environmentalist author Mark Lynas wrote in his recent book The God Species that “[anyone] who marches against nuclear today, as many thousands of people did in Germany following the Fukushima accident, is in my view just as bad for the climate as textbook eco-villains like the big oil companies.”

News outlets played a huge part in catastrophizing public fears. The appearance of the ‘mutant’ bunnies of Fukushima on international television raised the media’s scare campaign to the scale of the Kuwaiti propaganda that arguably lead to the United Nations Security Council intervention in the first Gulf War. Their unspoken aim appears to be to inculcate the public with a blatantly false impression of the risks of nuclear power. By relishing this, the ‘environmental’ factions of the anti-nuclear movement are unwittingly playing right into the hands of their powerful big oil and big coal comrades. For Australia’s union-run Labor Party, this embrace of pollution over facts seems inevitable; but for the Australian Greens, who love to claim the ‘scientific’ high-ground, this is just insane.

Nuclear power is far less dangerous than other forms of power generation. Nuclear fission reactor technology efficiently and reliably meets national requirements for baseload power in ways that current renewable energy technologies cannot. It emits no greenhouse gases and when correctly deployed is otherwise safe for the environment. I would have thought those misanthropic scienticians at Greenpeace would have been quite taken with learning that the ecologies of human-purged nuclear accident sites recover rapidly. Moreover, nuclear waste is less radioactive than coal ash and unlike coal ash, nuclear waste can be consumed using existing technologies to generate more clean electricity. Nuclear power could be better, but I will discuss possible meltdown-proof and waste-consuming reactor technologies in another post. The fact is that the so-called ‘green’ arguments against nuclear energy are unscientific, reactionary and facile.

Which brings me back to Chernobyl. Yes, as I said, it is true that the Fukushima Daiichi incident was ranked by the IAEA as disastrous a nuclear event as Chernobyl. But how bad really was the Chernobyl accident? According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation report, the corroborated death toll from the accident stands at around 50. Over the long term, about 4,000 children suffered cases of thyroid cancer due to exposure to radioactive iodine following the accident (which could have been prevented had the Soviets handed out iodine pills to evacuees), but thankfully only 17 of these cases proved fatal. The claim that leukaemia rates were elevated amongst evacuees and their children has all but been been refuted scientifically (the exception is a doubling of leukaemia risk amongst Chernobyl liquidators), and there is no scientific evidence to support claims of an increased incidences of deformities or illnesses in children as a result of radiation exposure. To quote the World Health Organization report: “reviews by the WHO Expert Group revealed no evidence of increased cancer risks, apart from thyroid cancer, that can clearly be attributed to radiation from Chernobyl.”

Try weighing this against the hazards of coal power. Last year alone, for example, coal mining accidents killed 2,433 people in China. This point bears repeating: for every one person who dies per terawatt of electricity generated by nuclear power facilities, pollution and accidents associated with the operation of coal-fired plants kills 4,000 times that number of people for the same amount of electricity.

Even so, radiation exposure can lead to horrible consequences, and we need not look further than the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings or the more recent victims of poisoning from ‘depleted uranium’ weaponry. But looking at the data, the biggest impact of the Chernobyl accident appears to be the psychological harm suffered by the survivors which has lead to higher rates of depression, somatoform disorders, alcohol abuse and suicide. There was even higher rates of abortion among the population of Eastern European women who believed they had been exposed. Mark Lynas writes in The God Species: “The unfortunate truth is that the general post-Chernobyl anti-nuclear hysteria, reinforced by exaggerated death tolls and impacts published over subsequent years by environmental groups, has probably worsened the victim status trauma suffered by the people who lived in the area.”

Perhaps the real humanitarian disaster of the Fukushima Daiichi accident is that this toxic scaremongering is happening all over again, despite the fact that the Japanese government handed out iodine pills to affected children. The situation in Japan is worse in some respects than Chernobyl. Due to caesium-137 contamination, there is likely to be an increased risk of cancer for those whose homes were located in the most contaminated regions of the disaster exclusion zone; and that area may need to remain evacuated for about 30 years, which obviously makes permanent relocation a real possibility for a number of people. Even so, these statistics indicate that the potential mortality rate from the increased risk of cancer pales in comparison to the almost 16,000 deaths that occurred directly because of the Tohoku quake. These nuances have been largely overlooked by the media, which seems quite content to contribute to the psychological suffering of those marked as victims. Of course, this won’t be helped by those aforementioned bricks shat and still being shitted by our world leaders.

Following the Tohoku disaster, Julia Gillard has again expostulated that we simply don’t need nuclear energy. This is despite our nation’s horrendous pollution profile, and the well-known fact that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions on a per-person basis are the highest in the world. Not one to be left behind, what with this being his shtick and all, Greens senator Bob Brown entered the fray with the ridiculous claim that nuclear energy generation is outside “the limits of human safeguards.” Yeah, not cool. Also, totally false. In fact, only the Coalition’s scientifically literate (how’s that for an oxymoron) former leader Malcolm Turnbull has offered meaningful commentary on the issue by sticking to his assertion that Australia needs nuclear power to cut our carbon emissions. Yeah, I’m still (grudgingly) voting Green, but I must admit, Turnbull gives me pause here.

Since the tasteless hysteria surrounding Japan’s nuclear accident began, Australia’s ‘Greenhouse Mafia‘ must have found themselves cackling on the inside with the current government’s reactionary regression into anti-nuclear sheepdom. In the past, Australia has succumbed to economic enticements and misinformation from the carbon lobbies to resist going nuclear. But now, what do we have to lose? The carbon tax? What about nationalized nuclear energy instead of carbon taxes? With more sensible and socially responsible taxation measures and initiative, it could be done. Australia hosts some of the world’s richest uranium deposits and therefore we have a very strong uranium mining industry. Our four mines supply 20% of the total uranium consumed by the world’s nuclear plants. Our uranium exports reduce global greenhouse emissions by about 400 million tonnes each year. (This is now likely to be reduced if more countries follow the anti-nuclear fad.) That’s a pretty commendable carbon emissions offset effort, and it’s something we should be proud of. Why not go that way locally?

If Julia Gillard and Bob Brown want to take home a lesson on the risks posed by earthquakes and tidal waves on electricity generation, why not focus on the 1,800 homes that were washed away when a Fukushima district dam used for hydroelectric power generation collapsed during the disaster? Perhaps the dreaded invocation ‘Fukushima’ more appropriately refers to the risks posed by dams built in earthquake-prone regions.

I am not the first Green to embrace nuclear energy. I’ve referenced the recent work of Mark Lynas extensively here. Soon after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, environmentally-inclined Guardian columnist George Monbiot made the switch. Even James Lovelock, de facto Pope of religious Greenism and originator of the batshit crazy Gaia hypothesis, has said “I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.” Honestly, the switch doesn’t hurt, and it gets better.

On the upside, the decision of the current Japanese administration could give rise to better renewable energy technologies for the rest of the world. The most high-tech nation on the planet may very well end up pioneering solar energy collection satellites and refining geothermal power generation to the point where it could be deployed globally (or maybe not, because the Japanese islands are much more volcanically active than most other countries). But that doesn’t justify Yoshihiko Noda’s reactionary nuclear power policies; and it certainly doesn’t justify the collective puling of the world’s politicians. Thankfully China, home of the world’s second largest and fastest growing economy, has remained grown-up and unfazed by the anti-nuclear panic.

Too many people miss the fact that all life on earth is fuelled by the really big nuclear reactor at the centre of the solar system. We in the Green movement love to play Socrates and ask our opponents to back up their claims with solid proof. This is a really good thing, but we also need to learn to accept the proof we’re given. We shouldn’t cling to beliefs that are no longer supported by the best available evidence. We have a serious climate change problem on our hands, and one of the most important tools we have to address it is nuclear power.