In checking out some of the news this morning, I noticed the following as one of the ABC’s main headlines:

Petrol rise to limit emissions unsustainable: economist

Before I go on, I think it’s worth explaining how I interpret this headline, and why. The noun phrase petrol rise need not refer to a policy decision to raise petrol; it may simply be a matter-of-fact observation that the price of petrol is increasing. But the embedded verb phrase to limit emissions makes the volitional interpretation clear; the price of petrol is being raised for a purpose; to limit emissions.

Moreover, the predicate unsustainable confirms this, as sustainability is a characteristic usually attributed to something over which someone, at least somewhere, has some control. You can talk about (un)sustainable economic growth, (un)sustainable agriculture, but you can’t really talk about (un)sustainable reptilian skin shedding. The reason for this, I’d contend, is that sustain is an ergative1 verb; it requires a volitional agent as much as murder does.

Okay, that said, I can talk about the more interesting pragmatic aspects of this headline. As far as I’m aware, there is no policy to raise the price of petrol in order to limit carbon emissions. In fact both government and opposition plan to lower the price of petrol instead of doing anything proactive to mitigate justifiably high fuel costs.

So why the headline? It seems to me to imply that there is currently a policy, to raise petrol prices, that would be unsustainable.

I think the ABC are violating one of the key Gricean maxims of conversational implicature. The ABC has not been as informative with this headline as required by the context. Further on in the article however, we find more information:

[The economist advising the Federal Government, Ross Garnaut] has rejected any notion that petrol should be exempt from a future carbon emissions trading scheme and suggested higher petrol prices could help mitigate carbon emissions.

But Professor Garnaut says in the long term, hiking petrol prices to control emissions is unsustainable.

So the fact that Garnaut warned about prolonged petrol price rises is in fact meant to be taken in the context of his suggestion to raise them in the first place. This, I believe, is a violation of the maxim of quantity; the reader is not given enough information in the headline to know the context in which Garnaut is warning us about prolonged petrol price rises. Also, since we’re told about the warning without the context behind it, this is also arguably an example of the converse of this maxim; we’re told too much information than is required by the circumstances.

A much more conversationally optimal headline, in my humble opinion, would have been something along the lines of Raise petrol prices to limit emissions: economist.

  1. For want of a better term. I don’t want to use traditional terms like ‘active verb’, but I think you get the idea. []

Last night on The Cutting Edge, a documentary entitled The Nuclear Comeback investigated the nuclear power option with respect to its costs, its benefits in terms of lowered carbon emissions, its safety, especially with terrorists attacks – infrequent as they are – at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and long-term effects such as waste storage. It was immensely interesting and I hope SBS publishes transcripts, videos possibly, and other information about it.

I wasn’t studiously taking notes unfortunately, but some of the facts and figures in the documentary, most of which came from the nuclear industry itself, are too amazing to forget. Here is a sample:

  • Australia currently derives 80% of its energy from coal, rendering Australians the highest per-capita emitters of carbon.

  • A minimum of 6, but a possibility of 14 nuclear power stations are planned for Australia.

  • 14 such stations together would produce only a projected 20% of Australia’s energy demands (presumably those demand are measured against our current consumption).

  • A power station in the UK (I can’t recall which, nor exactly where) employs more people in decommissioning than it ever did during its active life.

  • This power station produced energy for 47 years, yet it will take an estimated 120 years to decommission, which will cost an estimated one billion pounds.

  • Currently no high-level waste repositories, those needed for storage of spent fuel, exist in the world.

  • Several facilities exist that store low-to-medium-level waste, including workers’ clothing, instruments and tools (Incidentally, this is the sort of facility that seemed as though it was being forced upon the Yapa Yapa people of Muckaty Station).

  • Spent fuel takes 75 odd years to become exhausted of its residual heat energy. It must become exhausted of this heat energy before it can be stored in a high-level waste repository.

  • The fuel then takes an estimated 100,000 years before it’s deemed ‘low-to-medium-level’ and is able to be stored safely, that is, kilometres underground.

We want to build behemoth facilities that produce energy for a mere few decades but require over a hundred thousand years of management after that? How forsightful are we?

Apart from all this, the program looked at Chernobyl, and yes, while it was a tragic accident that was probably the indirect result of poor Soviet management and is now ‘entirely avoidable, it still provides a didactic demonstration of the monumental long-term effects when something does go wrong. Besides, there’s no guarantee that something else might go wrong. In 2006 in fact, the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden came perilously close to meltdown, as backup deisel generators failed to run as expected. According to some, mere luck alone prevented a meltdown.

There remains an exclusion zone with a radius of 30 kilometres that surrounds Chernobyl, within which no one is allowed to live. Reactor 4, the one that exploded, is still producing radioactive material and is housed in a gigantic concrete sarcophagus, built mostly by remote controlled robots, to contain this material. Despite interminable repairs to the sarcophagus, it continues to deteriorate. If this sarcophagus happens to collapse, it may cause another cloud of radioactive dust to be released into the atmosphere. The last such cloud spread over much of the European continent, and most fell on Belarus.

The Chernobyl nuclear power station now produces no power and instead consumes huge amounts in maintenance and repairs, and several teams are employed to supervise the entire plant around the clock. This maintenance will necessarily continue for hundreds of thousands of years until the radiation decays to acceptable levels.

Honestly, nuclear power is insanity.