Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Yeah cigarettes kill but uranium's okay

Thank you for mining uraniumThank You for Smoking is an ingenious little movie that caught me by surprise with it's cleverness. It made me wonder if tobacco and uranium have any similarities. Of course smoking uranium may give you more than lung cancer, but perhaps there are some political similarities?

The movie itself is about a lobbyist for the company, Big Tobacco, who serves as the frontman for a 'research institute' funded by Big Tobacco. Fairly straightforward. We're familiar with this kind of story. Our lobbyist should be nasty and disappointing because he lobbies for Big Tobacco, but instead, we love him because he's clever, witty, confident (albeit a little shallow and vain) and connects with his son — but mostly because we don't get to see any really gritty pieces of unethical behaviour.

The movie works because Big Tobacco is so easily recognisable as the archetypal "evil multinational". But it made me think... What if the company was, say Big Petroleum (denying global warming)? Suddenly it doesn't fit the archetype so precisely. What about Big Softdrink (denying soft drinks are bad for kids)? The line is even more grey. Or what about Big Mobile (denying mobile phone radiation causes cancer)... or Big Water (denying recycled water is dangerous to drink)? Considering most people don't seriously believe mobile phone use leads directly to cancer and many (including me personally) believe recycled water can be completely safe to drink, we certainly couldn't accuse the lobbyists for Big Mobile and Big Water of being on the wrong side of the common ethics. Yet the lobbyists for Big Tobacco, Big Oil and Big Water all use precisely the same methods — a point subtly underscored by the movie.

How is it relevant to us Aussies right here right now? Currently there is a lot of discussion about whether it is appropriate, safe, sustainable, affordable and generally sensible for Australia to rely in a big way on nuclear energy. It's a tough question, but seems to me the gods are on the side of a nuclear powered Australia at this point.

In February we were told Sweden is set to be the world's first oil-free economy in a few years thanks to nuclear power. Then, this spring, the Branson-Murdoch-Gore climate change juggernaut[*] has been combining to increase political pressure for sound environmental policy (especially given the report, via ABC, yesterday that we're almost as hot as we were a million years ago). Traditional Aussie greenies are saying we should do it. The Roy Morgan poll shows Aussies are swiftly coming around to the idea. So who's opposing it, and is the opposition sensible?

Next month the Hawke Centre here in Adelaide is hosting a debate on the issue: essentially Mark Diesendorf (of Sustainability Centre Pty Ltd and UNSW) vs Ian Hore-Lacy (of Uranium Information Centre). The Sustainability Centre[1] is a for-profit consultancy (presumably self-funded), UNSW[2] as we know is a university, and the Uranium Information Centre is a foundation funded by "companies involved in uranium exploration, mining and export in Australia".[3]

So it seems Mr Hore-Lacy is the lobbyist for Big Uranium and can enjoy all the ethical shadowiness that role affords him. Given that the odds already seemed to be stacked towards a go-ahead for nuclear power stations in Australia, he should be able to trounce Diesendorf...

Let's see. I look forward to an interesting and hopefully informative debate.

* This article is only available to those with a Crikey subscription. I won't reprint the article. The essence is that three big players have combined to create immense political force for the general greens movement. The juggernaut is so named because 1) Richard Branson just pledged to invest $3 billion into renewable energy; 2) Rupert Murdoch has apparently started greening up the face of News Corp's newspapers and other media around the world; 3) As we know, Al Gore did An Inconvenient Truth and is centering his political campaign around it.

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Anonymous jair said...

Even I wouldn't smoke uranium!

Plus, I don't think it would be all that wonderful in the taste department - much like smoking talc...

September 27, 2006 10:31 am  
Blogger tahpot said...

Hi Lisa,

Great blog!

I'm trying to do some research about young australians, their interest in politics and technology. I see you aren't one of those interested in politics and social issues (which is great) and thought you may be able to assist me :)

Your thoughts on my blog post would be appreciated:

Cheers - and keep up the blogging.


October 03, 2006 10:07 pm  
Anonymous Espen said...

Thank you for letting me know about the Crikey mistake.

Love the film by the way.

October 04, 2006 4:46 pm  
Anonymous jair said...


October 05, 2006 8:43 am  
Blogger Some Guy said...

I saw Thank You For Smoking a couple weeks ago too. Your comments regarding Big Softdrink, Big mobile, etc. make me think of the end of the movie where they mention that their MOD (Merchants of Death) squad is expanding to encompass a fast food rep. (maccas was it?) and a mobile rep.

Their denial that something is bad for us is proof enough for me that it is bad. In fact, I often see pollies denying something on the news before I've heard about it elsewhere. The fact that they have to draw my attention to it in order to deny it only makes me feel that they're lying to my face.

It goes further than this. When a pollie starts denying something offtopic that we'd never even consider as a possibility (e.g. "we'd wouldn't support nuclear energy"), then its obvious, to me at least, that this just their way of introducing the idea to us and its damn well going to be their policy in the future.

October 06, 2006 3:08 pm  
Blogger geoff said...

It made me wonder if tobacco and uranium have any similarities. Of course smoking uranium may give you more than lung cancer, but perhaps there are some political similarities?

Here's one link between smoking and uranium:

The risk of contracting a fatal cancer from a uniform exposure to the whole body of 1 mSv is about 5 in 100,000. This is the same as the risk of contracting lung cancer from smoking a few hundred cigarettes. The risk of being killed in a car accident in Australia in any year is two times greater or about 1 in 10,000. The risk of dying in an industrial or farming accident is about 1 in 1,000.

These of course are statistics well known to Mr Hore-Lacy and he'll use them to further his cause (digging up and selling more uranium).

They are part of the story. But only part. What about the waste, for instance? Are we comfortable, are we informed, what agendas are the politicians pushing?

What if the company was, say Big Petroleum (denying global warming)?

Aah Global Warming. Is nuclear power a panacea? Only if you know for absolute certain that Global Warming is being caused by human activity. Ninety something percent of 'people in the street' believe they know this for certain. It's hotter this season than in the past, and we're clearly choofing out much more carbon dioxide and other nasties. And yet, the actual data are very ambivalent.

We know surprisingly little about the environment and the factors that affect it. Very humbling. The actual data can be used to support cases either way (whether human activity is the cause of Global Warming or not).

What the data show is that we are in the midst of a natural warming trend that began about 1850, following a 400-year cold spell. If this is a perfectly natural phenomenon, building nuclear power stations won't affect the summer temperatures at all.

October 25, 2006 9:10 am  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks for that proof of the smoking-uranium link Geoff :) I'd be interested to know what you think of Australia going nuclear-powered?

And, I ask myself, why go for fission when fusion is fast proving to be the cleaner, greener and more efficient option?! Well that won't sell any Uranium for us will it...

By the way Geoff, you surprised me with that "science can't prove it so it can't be too much of a problem" skepticism on global warming. I appreciate that "we know surprisingly little about the environment and the factors that affect it", but it's pretty clear it is happening.

It may or may not have been caused by humans but it affects us regardless. Perhaps our burning fossil fuels can't be scientifically proven to be causing global warming byt burning fossil fuels is clearly an unsustainable practice! That can be empirically proven. Time to pull our heads out perhaps?

October 25, 2006 11:23 am  
Blogger geoff said...

you surprised me with that "science can't prove it so it can't be too much of a problem" skepticism on global warming.

no, i'm not saying it's not too much of a problem. It's a big problem here right now, we're running out of water fast and it's too damn hot.

What I'm saying is, if there's no empirical proof, no "evidence", then it becomes an article of "faith" that global warming is largely or solely due to human activity.

It's a very useful political and social lever - your 'Branson-Murdoch-Gore climate change juggernaut' is proof of that. I'd be suspicious of that lot!

There are lots of good reasons to move away from fossil fuels. Society has a habit of changing and adapting, as life moves on. It's the "righteous crusaders" and their agendas I'm wary of!

(what if they get us to all change our ways, in the manner they want and suits them, and global warming continues apace because it's part of a bigger natural cycle than anything mankind can significantly alter? Are we being frightened down a path towards totalitarianism that's actually wasteful of resources, while preserving the economic advantages of certain countries and power-groups?)

October 25, 2006 12:36 pm  

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