Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The rot goes deep in coastal cities

THERE’S something rotten in the state of New York. And it isn’t just Wall Street.
The insidious way the culture of high finance rots society from within is one thing, of course.
It’s why the world is in an economic mess that threatens to get a lot messier (at least it’s one of the more obvious reasons). It’s why we have an Occupy movement – even if the battle between high finance and Occupy is even more one-sided than the one between Israel and Hamas.
But the rot I’m really talking about is both more literal and more hidden than that.
And it could, potentially, be at least as grave a threat to humanity on a global scale.
It’s not often spoken about, and almost never seen, because it’s an underground movement. Literally.
The obvious effects of the recent Superstorm Sandy were, of course, greatly exaggerated. Anything that affects New York is always played for its fullest dramatic effect.
Death and destruction on a major scale in, say, central Africa is worth a few paragraphs written 1,000 miles away. Wet streets in New York City – major news everywhere.
But it was more than wet streets. And the real story didn’t make dramatic pictures or headlines.
According to Masoud Ghandehari, a New York University engineer quoted in New Scientist magazine, the city is “degrading from underneath”.
Just as what you see above ground is only the upper part of a tree, so tall buildings require deep foundations. Then there is the vast and complex network of sewers, waterpipes, cables and subways that constitutes much of the living organism of a modern city.
A lot of it, in New York as elsewhere, is made of steel. And steel, as we all know, goes rusty when it gets wet.
Most of the time, the buried steel is kept dry by concrete and earth. But if those protective layers get saturated with salt water, corrosion becomes inevitable.
If you’ve ever left your car for long at the seaside – at Felixstowe, for example – you’ll be familiar with the effect.
If your windowframes go rotten or your walls crack above ground, you can see it and get something done about it. If your skyscraper’s foundations rust away, you may not realise it until it’s too late.
As Gandehari puts it: “The ultimate risk is that we do not see what’s happening, so we cannot take action at the right place at the right time.”
The danger is not just the after-effects of Superstorm Sandy. In fact, that was probably a very minor event in this story – except perhaps in helping draw attention to the matter.
The real problem is rising sea-level. And again it is the unseen effect as the coastal water-table rises and salty damp seeps into the land.
This, even more than Sandy and the other superstorms to come, is the real impact that global warming may already be having on New York.
And – along with the very real increased risk of catastrophic flooding – on every high-rise city on any coastline in the world.

Phone-hacking can't get any more illegal

A YEAR after the Leveson Inquiry began probing the ethics (or otherwise) of the British press, it’s a fair bet the public at large are less agog than those in the trade to hear the long-awaited report on Thursday.
There are good reasons, though, why anyone who cares about our society, and our democracy, should care about what happens next.
The inquiry went much deeper than phone-hacking (which was illegal anyway) and there are predictable calls for press freedoms to be hacked back by new laws.
Press freedom, though, is already a fiction. Supposed free speech is already curtailed by the laws of libel, contempt of court and official secrets, not to mention the growing impact of injunctions.
Most of these restraints exist to protect the establishment and the rich from the prying eyes of the plebs.
The ideal would be less restraint, not more – though of course there is a responsibility on the press to act responsibly. As the local and regional press nearly always does.
Some elements of the national press have been a national disgrace for many years but the answer to that doesn’t lie in legislation.
The experience of certain other countries – Soviet Russia, China, Egypt and Iran are only among the more obvious examples – shows that there is one thing worse than an unfettered press.
And that’s a press fettered by government.

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