Friday, March 31, 2017

Why it's so hard to think straight about how safe nuclear power is: Daniel A Vogel's arguments.

NUCLEAR  Questions:

This post is mainly a Review of  Dr Daniel A. Vogel’s essay “Nuclear Power and the Psychology of Evaluating Risk” in The Skeptical Inquirer, Nov-Dec 2016, pages 56 and following.

“Could it be that opponents of nuclear energy contribute to worsening global warming by failing to evaluate its risk rationally?”, the editors’ “teaser” modestly asks. 

Well yes, of course that might be so, and one hopes they think hard about that possibility.

It’s a well-worn line of course, but The Skeptical Inquirer is a reputable magazine, and Dr Vogel, a clinical psychologist, is something of a heavy hitter. Much of the pro-nuclear material one finds on line and even in print is self-interested pleading from the nuclear industry, sometimes recycled by enthusiastic engineers who can’t understand why there are so many restraints on this exciting technology.  Vogel is much more cautious. He concedes that nuclear accidents happen. 

But he calculates that the Chernobyl explosion in 1986 (the worst accident to date if Fukushima can be kept under control) killed just 28 workers outright, though he concedes that more than 100 others developed radiation injuries, and that many other cancers were probably radiation-related. 

Yet he pleads for recognition that all forms of energy production cost human lives, as do other essential activities. In the USA alone in 2014, he says, 181 persons died in mining, 874 in construction, and in 2013 some 4,735 died just “crossing the road”, while over 35,000 Americans died in car crashes in 2015. The likely fatalities from climate change, one way or another,  may be vastly more.  

So why not encourage rather than discourage  the use of nuclear power? After all, in general the amount of fossil fuel used up when we mine and process uranium and build and later close down nuclear power plants seems to be significantly  less than when we make power “directly” from fossil fuels.

So far, so well worn. But Vogel sets it out modestly, and cogently.

Next, assuming that he has now effectively dismissed the anti-nuclear argument, he asks: what produces such irrational resistance to this least-worst source of power?  He suggests the problem is  (a) group-thinking by most environmentalists, plus (b) a tendency to over-emphasize the few spectacular nuclear accidents, rather than “the benefits of all those times when nuclear energy plants worked well”.  He says that France gets 17% of its energy from nuclear, and claims that this has been without serious problems.

He modestly suggests that “humans would more closely approach the truth by allowing their judgements to be informed by statistics”—especially when balancing the dangers from nuclear power against those from other sources.  Just as dramatic plane-crashes blind us to the statistical truth that flying is safer than driving, so, he suggests, we mis-read the risks of nuclear energy.  

From there, it is a short step to suggesting that those who disagree with him have been blinded by ideology. On this, he produces the perfect quotation (from President Clinton): “The problem with any ideology is that it gives you the answer before you look at the evidence.” So far, so good.

Further, he implies, our handling of nuclear energy, as of railroad construction, is bound to improve. “Anti-nuclear activists are surely not planning to boycott trains because thousands of Irish and Chinese lost their lives laying down their tracks in the united States in the 1860s, far more than died in the Chernobyl disaster  . . .”—at which point, certain gaps become evident in Vogel’s argument. 

But he moves into his peroration. Whether driving cars or taking medicines with known side-effects, “There are risks millions of us take every day that vastly surpass that of operating Chernobyl and  Fukushima on their worst days.”

But that is precisely the hole in Vogel’s argument. We do not yet know what a worst day, a worst scenario, might be for a nuclear power plant. Even the worst disasters so far have been ones that, in the end, have proved just possible to (at least partially) control and manage.  We have not yet seen a full-scale melt down. We have not yet seen a nuclear power plant in the hands of suicidal terrorists, or a psychotic individual.

 We have also not yet seen an all-out war between evenly matched nations who target each other’s nuclear power stations with missiles. (Imagine if Europe had had nuclear power before World War II. Do you think Churchill or Hitler would have hesitated to bomb their opponent’s power stations?  Europe might now be uninhabitable for centuries. Whereas instead, Europe’s bombed out power stations were re-built within a couple of years of WWII ending, and Europe bloomed, and boomed, again.)

Vogel’s article is perfectly tailored to The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine that collects examples of human credulity. There is a real danger that his article may be a hit there, and spread the myth that to worry about nuclear dangers is a form of human irrationality. In fact he has demonstrated no such thing. His point about our tendency to attend to spectacular disasters rather than to average rates of death is of course well taken, though far from new.

And yes, it is true that, on a business as usual basis, the pursuit of non-nuclear energy brings more deaths per year than nuclear does—at least in an typical year. Those 181 persons who died in mines in the US in a single year, no doubt some of them in oil and coal mines, is an appalling cost. But it is not a number that might blow out one year to 1000 lives or 10,000 lives, or 100,000 lives, or a million lives. 

That is where nuclear is different. That is why it is an utter fallacy to think you can measure the dangerousness of the two technologies by comparing current annual death rates—a massive fallacy, which Vogel might have named the “statistical fallacy”, but which in fact he does not name or discuss.

The same applies, of course,  to the environmental costs. A hydro-electric dam that collapses, or a coal-fired power station that burns down or gets bombed is an environmental disaster for a couple of years; but a nuclear plant that gets bombed may make a country uninhabitable forever (at least as we humans count forever). The risks are not comparable. They  cannot be compared by counting current annual statistics.

You see, Vogel has oddly failed to notice a much more important (and very relevant)  form of human irrationality: stasis bias. That is, the failure to imagine that the world can change fundamentally: a failure to understand that if you go on running a small annual risk, but a real and increasing one, of utter catastrophe, that risk  builds up over time to near certainty. 

Sure the risk of any individual nuclear power station having a major melt-down this year is small; but over the years and with the ever-increasing number of stations Vogel would advocate, it approaches certainty.

It is not as if we haven’t been warned.  If you read the Wikipedia page on Fukushima and follow up the obvious references  you will discover how very dangerous that melt-down was (and in part still is).  It seems the Japanese government was advised that they should evacuate Tokyo, but never gave the order for it, because there is  no existing plan, and in fact no practical method,  to evacuate that vast, vast city.  

Worse, there was in the early days a small but very real chance of an explosion whose wind-blown fallout would make not just all Japan but much or most of the Northern hemisphere uninhabitable. No need to spell out what that might have done to our world! (Including Southern-hemisphere countries, and their environments, faced with a tsunami of refugees.)

Dr Vogel’s remarks about environmentalists  are patronising, and undeserved. So far from deserving blame for  their inability to understand environmental dangers, they are almost the only people who do properly  understand that incremental changes, such as global warming, population increase, or proliferation of nuclear stations, eventually produce seemingly sudden... melt-downs. 

We environmentalists spend much of our time trying to get through to complacent numbskulls that what they think are  minor problems, such as the steady increase of human numbers or the steady disappearance of the natural world, or the steady loss of soil,  will eventually produce sudden famines, droughts, and other disasters. 

For a long time an ice-floe (with or without an iconic polar bear on top) simply thins in the warming waters, while pundits opine that this will go on forever, or can’t be wrong because it is good for the economy, or is “cyclical”; then  comes the day when it flips. But try telling that to someone whose stasis bias is built on the fact that they are making a nice financial “killing” out of destroying the natural world!

Sad indeed that Dr Vogel didn’t think to talk about stasis bias as a (or the)  major fallacy that the nuclear debate illustrates! 

Once one has noticed that huge omission in his thinking, it becomes easy to note the other signs of bias in his essay.  He has clearly been taking his facts too much from one side of the debate. For instance he claims French nuclear plants have run smoothly. He was not to know, at time of publication,  that there would be a massive explosion at the Flamanville nuclear plant in February 2017, but he should have been aware of previous French incidents. (Wikipedia lists 12.) 

He assures us that there is clear scientific evidence that “nuclear power is, on average, extremely safe, environmentally clean, and plays virtually no role in heating up our planet.” Vogel justifies this claim by citing an optimistic 2003 article in Scientific American “How Nuclear Power can stop Global Warming” by David Biello, but fails to note the detailed replies that have since been published, such as this 2015 one by Jim Green in Nuclear Monitor, which begins:
1. Nuclear Power is Not a Silver Bullet : Nuclear power could at most make a modest contribution to climate change abatement. The main limitation is that it is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which accounts for less than 25% of global greenhouse emissions. Even tripling nuclear power generation would reduce emissions by less than 10% − and then only if the assumption is that it displaces coal.  . . .
Vogel does not consider the close links between civil and military use of nuclear facilities. He also does not stop to consider that, in the words of the former leader of the Australian Democrats Party, John Coulter:
In the real world nuclear power is being run by private companies whose motive is profit, not safety. An examination of Fukushima shows that right from its planning to its operation and to its clean-up efforts corners have been cut which have helped precipitate the accident, hindered its resolution and blocked essential elements in the so-called clean-up.

Vogel also recycles uncritical claims about “the integral fast reactor” which is supposed to be free of the problems of other types of reactors, but which has not lived up to its hype and which the USA has cancelled. There has been much other bad news about reactors that he ignores. 

To cite just one at random, on 21 December 2106, BBC News covered the story Japan cancels failed $9bn Monju nuclear reactor, remarking “Japan is scrapping an experimental reactor which has worked for just 250 days of its 22-year lifespan and cost $9bn.”  Yet Vogel wraps himself in a cloak of science, claiming that “the Left/liberal wing tends to deny the very science of atomic energy, as it tends at times to do in other areas such as vaccines .”

And he ends with a claim that “Psychological science can assist such hard sciences” by providing analyses like his.  His own analysis does seem to me intelligent, sincere, and genuinely thoughtful,  yet , alas, in the end not scientific, nor even particularly logical —being too much influenced by our common human tendency, which Clinton described, to assume an answer before examining all the evidence.

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Glimpse of Manning Clark in 1990

Manning Clark's public celebrity, as opposed to his reputation as a historian, was partly based on the fact that he was such an unusual historian. Most of the time he seemed more interested in literature, religion and sexuality than in history.  He was more likely to talk to you about Dostoyevsky than about Australian history.

As a public speaker he understood the power of unpredictability, and his speeches often seemed to be running off the rails into some inappropriate theme, before he would find a Manning-esque way to loop back to the subject in hand.

I once saw him interviewed by ABC TV News about the political situation after Malcolm Fraser had been elected prime minister. He deplored the deep antagonism between the two main parties and compared their behavior to that of two bulls in a field that have locked horns and lost interest in all else. This (potentially salacious) rural analogy seemed to be going on for some time, when Manning abruptly concluded: "And the way this ends -- I understand -- in a field -- is with the cows realising they’ll have to look elsewhere."

Manning launched most of my poetry books in the 1970s and 1980s. His speeches were always memorable and Manningish, but only this last one in 1990 happened to be preserved, by Bill Tully who recorded it for a Canberra radio station and later gave me a copy. It starts with a few seconds of off-mike mumbling, but then Manning's voice comes through clearly.

Here it is, as text, and soon, if  only I can work out how to attach it (!), as an audio-file. (The link at the bottom this page may not be working.)

It contains a characteristic detour from poetry into AFL football, when he refers to "that great half-back line of  Lucas, Kingston and Tuck" --which I think had last played together 31 years earlier in 1959, and not for his own AFL team.


AT THE CO-OP BOOKSHOP, Australian National University,  26 September 1990.

I apologise I'm going to read what I have to say but my memory is getting so dreadful that sometimes I've stood up in public and couldn't remember the word "the".   I apologise I'm reading.

 Now every book is in a sense  a child of the heart, and I believe, Mark, that you have every reason to be proud with this child of your heart, which I understand are the poems you wrote between 1972 and 1990.   I say this because I think of you first of all Mark, as a traveller.   It's clear from these poems you've travelled all over Australia, over England and Italy and as they say in some books, and see stop comma, and see stop comma and see stop. [=?  and c., and see c.,  . . . ]   Or, as Barry Humphries says, you name it and you've been there.   You're a traveller who in this work it is quite clear has been transfigured into a pilgrim.

The other reason why I liked it, and I hope people who read it will share this view, is that you obviously know a very great deal.   You are a very close observer of nature - that's quite plain, its a simple point.   You are in that as it were one of those chaps whom Hardy used to admire, a person who notices such things.   You notice small things such as the way the various species of birds handle the breeze to find the air currents.   One could quote many other examples of this.   

The third reason I think why I particularly liked it was that if you follow the advice which I think we all must follow, we must become exiles.   I don't mean exiles from one's own country.   But you, I understand, left your native Ararat, but unlike some very distinguished people in Australia, you were able to return to a native place without sneering at it, or mocking at the locals.   I'm thinking particularly of the poem you wrote about going back into the church there.

It was a point that Michelangelo made - I'm sorry - that Freud made about the statue of Moses by Michelangelo - that there are moments in life which are testing moments where it's tempting to be angry, to be savage, to be severe, but you have the wisdom I think to see it all not as green[?] with the eye of pity and with love.   The other reason why I liked it is that you obviously have a lively and a witty imagination, for example in the poem "The Beginning" which I take it, being a clergyman's son, I noticed is based on the Book of Genesis. You have God donning a snorkel and you have God as it were feeling/finning* his way over the coral.   I believe that one that I saw "was very good indeed".    

For me there was only one thing lacking Mark, in this collection.  The one great absentee in these poems was the members of Collingwood football team.  I know that you have great passion for the Collingwood football team.   There's some wonderful human characters in your collection, but I'm sorry that there's no eulogy in it for that great half-back line of Lucas, Kingston and Tuck and I'm also deeply sorry that you made no attempt to compare them with a much superior line of Brown, Deakin and Clarke for Carlton.   I was hoping that there would be a sketch in this of Mick McGuane.   

I was hoping to meet James Manson in your words and not  just on the television screen and I hope one day quite seriously that some of these Godlings. will catch your eye and you will confer on them the same immortality as you have conferred on the fish of the Barrier Reef and your old parish church in Ararat.

But seriously, what I found most pleasing in this book is the voice of the poet himself.   It is not, thank God, the voice of a smart alec - and my God there's a lot of those around - it's not a showoff.   It's not the voice of a man who is making any special claims of the role of the poet.   That can be very nauseating.   It's not the voice of a man who believes that the poet is special things to special people, or any picture where he claims that the poet, unlike other human beings, is someone who is beyond good and evil.   

It is the voice of a man who can create people and create them in memorable words.   It's a very serene voice, and that I think is very important.   It's the voice of a man whose eye is single.   Happily it's the voice of a man who is an enlarger of life and not a straightener and not a frowner.   It is the voice of a man whose voice obviously has already gone further than college walls, and that is most important.   

The voice must go further than college walls.   In that way you've joined that band in Australia of people like Les Murray, Bruce Dawe, Judith Wright, Alec Hope - and of course the others that you could mention.   I must apologise for making a minimal selection.   

But above all it is the voice of a man who is singing to those who have ears to hear, a hymn of praise to life.   It is not the voice of a mocker or a sneerer.   So let me conclude by thanking you Mark for sharing this vision with us and giving us the hope to go on.  It is with great pleasure that I launch this volume.

 Manning Clark Talk

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sir Walter Scott and Sir John Malcolm




This is a guest-posting to this blog. It is not by myself (Mark O’Connor) but by John Malcolm. The piece below is a spin-off from his 2014 biography of his early c.19th kinsman (and namesake) Sir John Malcolm.  It is a classic example of information that ought to be on the Internet, where the search engines can work on it,  rather than in a scholarly book, because it is full of wonderful pieces of diverse information – from a dog story told by the actor Garrick’s wife, to info. on Walter Scott’s meeting with the Duke of Wellington.

Now—over to John Malcolm to tell the story of a fascinating literary friendship between Sir Walter Scott and a fellow Scot, Sir John Malcolm, whom Scott once described as “The Persian envoy, the Delhi Resident, the poet, the warrior, the politician and the borderer....”.


Sorry! Change of plan.  This correspondence has now moved to a more appropriate web-page at




Friday, March 28, 2014

Huge Harvest of Pawpaw/Papaya in cold climate

Huge harvest of pawpaw/papaya-like fruit in a cool climate.

As of Nov. 2013 my wife and I had four adult Babaco “trees” (Carica pentagona, a kind of cold-tolerant pawpaw or papaya)  growing inside an unheated plastic greenhouse that leans against our sun-facing back wall.  It is about 2.5 metres wide by 4 metres long.  Say ten square metres. The babacos’ leaves occupy most of the top of the greenhouse, but there is also a small avocado, a fruiting Ficus coronata, pepino bushes, a tamarillo, and passionfruit.


 Inside the greenhouse the trees are growing in just 6 inches (15 cm) of rich soil, over an old concrete patio.

 The babacos mature a few fruits during the winter, when they are fairly stationary. Then as the Spring weather warmed up from the start of September 2013 we had one or more fruits, weighing about 0.7 kilos (that’s about a pound and a half for those still using the old imperial units), maturing each week. 

 The babaco is a theoretically perfect fruit, like strawberry, in that there is no skin or seeds to remove. One eats the whole fruit.

 I particularly like to eat one uncooked, simply cut into quarters, dabbed with apple juice and stored in the fridge.  My wife Jan prefers them baked for 30 minutes at 180 Celsius, with a little brown sugar.  A Bhutanese friend chops them up with cheese.

 This rate of fruit production from the 4 plants accelerated in October until by late November 2013 we had consumed or given away over a dozen large fruits, each around 700 gm. We also had a table covered with  a further 10 large ripe fruits, plus 8 that had to be picked green when a branch broke. (These were used as vegetables, e.g. in curries, rather than as fruit.) There were a further 14 advanced fruits maturing on the “trees” to ripen over summer.   Thereafter there was a hiatus in the fruiting till some of the smaller fruits came on, and till three smaller trees become adult.  (With better management it should be possible to have babacos  fruiting continuously.)

 When I weighed these 18 fruits that we currently had in the house, they totalled over 10 kilos. Luckily the fruits store for a month or more at room temperature, provided you pick them before they are uniformly yellow.


 Cultivation: How we grow babacos in a cold climate.
 Australia’s proverbially chilly capital, Canberra, might seem an unlikely place to be reaping large harvests of a close relative of the tropical papaya or pawpaw, Carica papaya.  Yet we have found it surprisingly easy to do. Here’s how.

The flowers require no pollination, and the fruits, which set automatically, contain no seeds. All parts of the fruit are edible.

Canberra, at 600 metres altitude, in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, gets about 100 frosts a year and is not reliably frost-free until mid-November (the last month of Spring). Frosts commonly return in May. The lowest recorded temperature is minus 10 Celsius.

Such a climate rules out growing the true pawpaw/papaya outdoors. However its equally bountiful sub-tropical relative the babaco, Carica pentagona, is much more tolerant of persistently cool weather. The problem is that while babacos tolerate sub-zero temperatures, perhaps even down to minus 6 Celsius, they dislike frost on their leaves.   (Hence the greenhouse!)

 As best I understand it, the problem with frost is that if a dry breeze moves over a frosted leaf at dawn the frost can “sublime”, as chemists say. This means that it evaporates directly from the solid to the gaseous state. In the process it may drop the temperature of the leaf it encases to temperatures well below the ambient air temperature.  An alternative explanation, favoured by the Wikipedia article on Frost, is that "In the absence of a site nucleating the formation of ice crystals, leaves remain in a supercooled liquid state, safely reaching temperatures of −4 to −12 °C (25 to 10 °F). However, once frost forms, the leaf cells may be damaged by sharp ice crystals."

 The obvious solution is to grow babacos under the eaves of a house , and perhaps protected by a simple sheet of plastic hanging down from the eaves. That way dew is less likely to get in, and frost unlikely to form on the leaves.  I have found this worked well with strawberry guavas, but less well with babacos. For babacos, it seemed, some kind of minimal greenhouse was needed.  

The door, here shown open, is simply a door-shaped sheet of transparent vinyl held taut by the weight of a thin plank stapled to its lower end. One rolls it up, with the plank, much like a blind. Black Velcro patches help hold it in place when closed.

I also had to solve the problem of drainage. Babacos need better drainage than our local clayey soil provides.  Growing them in very large pots was one solution, and this also made it possible to lug the plants inside and treat them as (rather attractive) ornamental pot-plants during the coldest part of winter. However by the time they are 3 metres high, babacos need very big pots. Also, potting-mix breaks down within two years. It compacts, and ceases to drain reliably. So the replacement of potting-mix for such large plants became a chore.

 Fate provided a single solution to both problems. To explain it, let me describe our back garden. It slopes downhill North-Eastward, into the rising sun.  This is the perfect facing for a Southern-hemisphere garden, since the slope also makes the morning sun’s rays hit the garden more directly. The plants warm up quickly in the morning, and reach their ‘operating temperature’ hours earlier than would happen on South-Westerly slope. At the same time, the excessively strong afternoon sun is mitigated because the rays are by then striking the garden somewhat obliquely. As a further blessing, the bulk of the house (plus a slight hill behind it) blocks out the cold winds from the South and West.
 The warmest and most sheltered part of the back garden was therefore right against the back wall of the house, where the North-East-facing house-wall reflected the morning sun’s heat back into the garden. (There is of course a similar warm spot in most home gardens, against a sun-facing wall.)
 And within this wall there was a sheltered rectangular area, framed on one side by a bedroom that juts outs, and on the other by a flight of brick steps going down from the back door.  This should have been the choicest area for planting into—except that the previous owners had concreted it, turning it into a patio.

The greenhouse in situ. The brick steps are just out of view in the foreground, with a double safety-rail at the top of them.
I had long felt that this concrete patio at our back door was a wasted area. Unable to plant into it, I used the patio as a space to put a few favoured pot plants—until one day I had a brainwave.

 I laid a single row of bricks on their side about 2 metres out from the wall, then bought ten bags of potting-mix (on special at the supermarket) and filled in the rectangular area between the wall and the bricks with potting-mix. Obviously the depth of soil over the cement was only a few centimeters—the height of a brick on its side. Yet I planted out this area as if it was a garden bed. (I had read that Parisian market-gardeners used to boast that they could grow perfect vegetables upon cement. All they needed was a few centimeters of well-rotted horse-dung over the concrete.)

 The plant growth that followed was magical, perhaps because the slight slope in the concrete patio underneath guaranteed good drainage. (Patios are normally built with a slight slope so that they drain). As well, the shallow soil guaranteed aeration. Also, although the soil was on the acid side, plants could still get access to lime and more alkaline conditions from the concrete below. 

 Despite the shallowness of the soil, this patch did not seem to need much more watering than any other bed—though it’s true that I do water it at least every 2 days  in summer. (There is a hole cut in the side of the roof’s spouting that drops water directly into it; so there is no need to water it in weeks when there has been rain.)

 Later I got this whole area covered with a plastic roof, albeit with a fair bit of ventilation, and with transparent plastic side-walls.  It was a very cheap lean-to greenhouse, with slits in the plastic roof so that rain-water fell through. The existing house walls provided two sides of the rectangle, and bamboo poles, grown in our garden, held up the other two sides and the roof. The transparent plastic was free. It had been wrapped around a new lounge suite. (It worked beautifully for one summer. Then, since it was not UV stabilised, it fell apart and had to be replaced.)

A new and much better structure replaced it, with poly-piping rather than bamboo supports. My friend Bernard Davis built it, and designed several innovative features that are shown in the photos. These include a roof that can be partly rolled up in summer, since Canberra gets the occasional day of 40 degrees Celsius, which would otherwise cook the plants. The total cost, including labor, was about $900.  The roof is standard translucent greenhouse plastic (polyweave). This has the advantage of distributing the sun's rays more evenly below. (In the photos it looks solid white, but most of the sunlight passes through it.) However a greenhouse made entirely of this material would look like a white barn, and the plants inside it would be invisible from outside—destroying the magic of the enclosed space.

I found it surprisingly difficult to buy transparent greenhouse plastic for the walls. Suppliers shook their heads, or assured me there was no such thing. Eventually I bought what Bunnings call “table-top vinyl” from their Flooring Section. This was available in four thicknesses. The thinnest was not UV-stabilised, so I used the second and third-thinnest varieties. So far, after nearly a year in place, the material shows no sign of ageing, tearing, or discolouring.

 The vinyl of the outside wall comes down to within about a centimetre of the ground. The gap provides ventilation, which a greenhouse needs. (Some visitors worry that the greenhouse encloses the bathroom window, and fear there will be “no fresh air” for the window. I explain that a greenhouse is a windbreak but not an airlock. In fact the air inside it is always fresh.)

To foil the ubiquitous Australian brushtail possum (a cat-sized leaf-eating marsupial, only distantly related to the carnivorous American opossums)  fruit-protection netting is stretched tautly a centimetre or two above the roof. It does not lie flat on the roof. If it did, the possums would soon learn to run over the netting without tangling their claws, and their sharp claws might cut holes in the roof.

Bernard Davis’s poly-piping and vinyl greenhouse uses the existing house walls for support. Note the white bird-netting stretched above the greenhouse roof (and over part of the house-eaves from which possums might otherwise access the greenhouse roof). Note also the small soft-drink bottle, whose orange top is visible. This is filled with water and suspended from the netting as a weight to hold it taut. Not classy perhaps, but effective.

I have learnt it is possible, in this minimal unheated greenhouse, to grow plants like babaco and pepino (Solanum muricatum)  and passionfruit, which tolerate cold winters but resent frost on their leaves. (The heat coming through the house wall has so far been enough to keep off Canberra’s mild frosts. Minus 6 Celsius was the coldest night last winter, 2013. ) 

 In winter the greenhouse begins to warm up from the very first rays of dawn, which penetrate directly into it through the transparent side walls. By noon the heat-trapping greenhouse  effect is strong. Even in midwinter, when maximum temperatures outside are often only about 10 degrees, babacos continue to ripen and drop fruits (though the main formation and growth of fruits needs to take place during the warmer months.) By the way, Canberra’s inland climate is very sunny, with mean daily sunshine of 7.6 hours/day. It probably gets more sunlight than the coastal warm-temperate city of Sydney to its North, where frost is rare.

In summer the siting is not so ideal. Partly because deciduous trees in the garden are then in leaf, it is not till around 9 a.m. summertime (8 a.m. real time) that the sun’s rays hit the translucent roof and begin to refract sunlight upon the plants below. By 10 a.m. summertime the first direct rays come through the transparent side walls, and from 11 a.m. to 2 pm the greenhouse is hot (and needs to have at least its window and its roll-up door open, if the outside temperature is approaching 30 Celsius). However by 3 pm the sun is starting to leave the greenhouse, and by 4 pm (summertime) the heat-stress has passed, with only the roof and a bit of the Western side wall still getting direct sunlight. 

Here the roof, of translucent polyweave, has been partly rolled up to allow heat to escape during a heatwave in February 2014. Three days of 40 degrees Celsius did not harm the babacos. The side wall of transparent vinyl is almost invisible in the photo.

 It seems that babacos love these protected conditions. By contrast, when grown outside they don’t like hot facings; and in my experience they fail to set fruit if grown in dry and windy places.

 Inside the lean-to greenhouse, our babacos’ trunks tend to slope outwards away from the house-wall and towards the sun.  This, plus the shallow soil and the sheer weight of the fruits (with up to 8 kilos of fruit at a time on each trunk) meant that they needed some support or restraint. So I simply tied them back to an attachment-board on the wall, using old stockings. 

 How high can a Babaco go?
Babacos, once they are a metre high and growing strongly, form a new fruit with each new leaf. Hence there is soon a staggering amount of fruit on a single trunk, with large nearly-ripe fruits lower down and smaller and greener fruits higher up.  Yet this process cannot go on forever. Although Louis Glowinski in his fruit book refers to “the squat babaco” (by contrast with the leaner pawpaw) the trees do eventually get 3-4 metres high. At this height they tend, if grown in the open, to topple over in strong winds. (They are of course best grown in a sheltered valley.)  So the usual practice is to cut down each trunk after it has borne perhaps 20 fruits (sacrificing the many small unfinished fruits at the top) and allow a single lower shoot to replace the lost trunk. (Babacos make side-shoots more readily than pawpaw/papayas do, so there are always shoots in waiting.)  The plant is then out of production for several months until the new trunk is large enough to begin forming fruits.

 Meanwhile the removed top of the trunk is divided into metre or half-metre lengths that are used as giant cuttings.  My practice is to remove all the fruits and the larger leaves from such a cutting, enclose the remaining smaller leaves near the tip in a plastic bag with a few drops of water, and lay the plant on its side in the shade. However I leave the base of the trunk outside the bag and exposed to dry air for at least three or four days till it has begun to callus over. Then I plant it in a large pot (with ordinary potting mix, and use a few empty smaller plastic pots, jammed in beside the trunk, to hold it upright until the roots grow). The cutting stays in a greenhouse or other shaded place, and with the plastic bag over the top for a month or so. Then the bag is removed; and the plant is hardened off for a further month, before it can be moved outside.  Of course in a very humid climate fewer precautions need be taken against the cuttings drying out.

 My original babaco plant has now multiplied into over a dozen, of which about 5 small and 3 large ones are growing in the greenhouse.   (I also have a few for sale.)  While in theory babacos might be allowed to grow to their maximum height inside a sheltered greenhouse, our greenhouse is not quite tall enough to make this possible. So once their leaves start pushing up against the roof, it is time for me to remove the main trunk, and let a side shoot start to replace it.  The aim is to have about half of the plants at any one time in maximum production phase. This means that they currently have a well grown trunk, with ripe and ripening fruits on it. The trunk should have emerged into good light and not yet be too near the roof. 

 I hope others will try this system for cultivating babaco.

Finally, you may be wanting to ask”

“What are babaco fruits like?  Are they similar to papaw/papaya fruits?”

They are similar in size, but their ridged-torpedo shape is distinctive, and their taste is quite different.

As fruits, Babacos are superior to pawpaw/papaya in the following ways:

·        There is no seed-mass to throw away. In fact no seeds at all. Babacos are a seedless hybrid between two Carica species.  They set fruit automatically without pollination. (Since there are no seeds, humans have perpetuated this chance mutation, which may have occurred just once, for many hundreds of years by striking cuttings.)

·        There is no rind to dispose of. The entire fruit is edible, including the skin. It is thus a theoretically perfect fruit like the strawberry, or the Large Oval feijoa.

·        It has a kind of effervescent taste—hence the marketing name “champagne fruit”.

·        Unlike pawpaw/papaya, babacos have a strong and (to me) delicious scent that is an important part of the taste. When mixed into a fruit salad they are one of the most pungent and enriching ingredients.

·        They are also an interesting replacement for figs in fichi e prosciutto

·        The fruit goes on ripening after picking, but quite slowly.

·        It is remarkably tough. If one part is bruised when it falls off the tree, the bruise tends not to spread. Babaco fruits can be transported with less protection than pawpaw.

·        Fruits are edible even when green. The green fruits are sub-acid, and so may be used, cooked, in any recipe where you would use tomato or pimiento.

·        Babacos, like pawpaws, contain the meat-tenderizer papain.  This makes them particularly good as a vegetable to use in curries or with meaty stews. Hence when the trees are producing heavily, babacos can be used both as a fruit and (while still green) as a cooked vegetable.

 Babacos are inferior to papayas/papaws in the following ways:

·        They are not nearly so sweet. This may be a serious problem for people in Western countries who expect even tomato sauce to be full of  sugar. 

·        Whereas almost everyone likes pawpaw/papaya on first tasting it, some people don’t like babaco, or only care for it with lashings of sugar. (One solution is to combine it with ice-cream, for which it has an affinity.)

·        Many people don’t know any recipes for cooking it. Also some, being unfamiliar with babaco, remove the thick edible skin—and then complain that the soft inside part lacks texture.

·        Though there are all kinds of tropical flavours in babaco, the dominant taste is a bit like an effervescent lemon-scented watermelon, which some people find un-exciting.

·        Unlike pawpaw, it is not much improved by adding lime or lemon, since it is already sub-acid. Apple-juice or apple-concentrate is a better idea.

·        Babacos are somewhat watery, especially when over-ripe. Some people, unfamiliar with the fruit, over-ripen it to the point where it has little texture and too much fluid.

·        To counter this, fruit should picked before it is uniformly yellow. If left on the tree till yellow it also tends to drop, and bruise. 

·        Once over-soft it is not suitable for cooking, though it may still make a great smoothy. (When green it is quite firm and chewy, even after being cooked in a stew or curry.)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Did Julia Gillard lie about her, and Kevin Rudd's, "Big Australia'?

On 22 October 2009 Kevin Rudd made his famous admission that he was a “big Australia” man, and Labor’s focus groups, in the words of the Australian’s editorial, “went ballistic”.

Rudd's former speech-writer James Button reveals in his 2012 book Speechless: A Year In My Father's Business ( text available online on Google Books) how desperate both Rudd and Gillard became to throw off the big Australia tag. Gillard’s first promise after displacing Rudd was to get us off the big Australia path. (Button records she even used paid advertising to publicise the promise.) It probably helped her win the election. 
In Button's words:

To  defuse the bomb, Rudd created a population minister, Tony Burke, to examine the issue. But its stubborn explosiveness can be seen in Julia Rudd’s explicit rejection of Rudd’s language the moment she became Prime Minister. ‘I believe in a sustainable Australia, not a big Australia,’ she said in paid advertising. She saw Australia ‘hurtling down a track’ to a big population, and said, ‘If you spoke to the people of Western Sydney, for example,  about a “Big Australia” they would laugh at you and ask you a very simple question, “Where will these forty million people go?”’

During the 2010 election Gillard promised to slow down Australia’s rate of 
population growth. She said she didn’t want to see us “hurtling down the 
track towards a big population”. She said “It is not only undesirable, it is 
irresponsible”. (J. Gillard, 'Speech: Address To The Western Sydney Regional 
Organisation Of Councils National Population Summit - Casula',  accessed 21/7/2010,)

 See also the 7.30 Report’s 28 June report Gillard discards big Australia   Australian Broadcasting Corporation Broadcast: 28/06/2010   Reporter: Matt Peacock.

New prime minister Julia Gillard has signalled that she is moving away from Rudd’s idea of a ‘big Australia’. Matt Peacock looks at the issues surrounding the population debate.

Transcript  . . .

MATT PEACOCK: But that's growth, it seems, that's political poison, and it wasn't too long before Mr Rudd was expressing far less enthusiasm, with his replacement Julia Gillard now completing the U-turn.

JULIA GILLARD, PRIME MINISTER: I don't believe in a big Australia. I don't believe in simply hurtling down a track to a 36 million or 40 million population, and I think if you talked to the people of Western Sydney or Western Melbourne or the Gold Coast growth corridor in Queensland, people would look at you and say, "Where will these people go?" . . .

2 months later, the ABC again reported:   Gillard shuts door on 'big Australia'  Thu Aug 12, 2010.

But thereafter ABC TV news programs including  The 7.30 Report fell silent, or indeed put the telescope to their blind eye. I’m not aware that any interviewer ever asked Gillard about this broken promise to the electorate. Yet a much less important broken promise on carbon policy, which had been forced upon her by the Greens as the price of government, was endlessly probed. 

Newspapers reported the same, though sometimes with cynicism, e.g. Peter Hartcher on 22 July 2010:

Julia Gillard says she wants a population policy, but it's sounding more like a population placebo.

Her opening position is that she does not want a ''big Australia''. She tells us that ''hurtling towards a big Australia is not only undesirable. It is irresponsible.

''If you elect me on August 21, our country will take the path to a sustainable population. I will focus on preserving the quality of life of our Australian sanctuary.”

See also this News Corp story: Julia Gillard's first act - dumping 'Big Australia' by: By Simon Kearney

Gillard ditches Rudd population plan

She reaches out to disenchanted voters

Labor introduces two-speed immigration

 JULIA Gillard has used her first major announcement to reassure
disenchanted voters that she does not believe in a "big Australia" with a population target of 36 million.

The policy is clearly at odds with former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who announced the "big Australia" targeting 36 million people by 2050 just as a new wave of asylum-seekers arrived off our shores.

Mr Rudd's unpopular stand became a flashpoint on talkback radio and reflected poorly for Labor in the polls.

Ms Gillard announced Labor would produce what is in effect a two-speed immigration policy to match Australia's two-speed economy, but admitted it was "a very difficult problem".

"Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population," she said.

As the new Prime Minister got down to the serious work ahead, she yesterday reached out to the people of western Sydney, whose number-one concern is asylum-seekers, according to internal Labor Party polling.

The polling found Labor was in serious trouble in western Sydney, with its primary vote dropping as low as 30 per cent and the asylum-seeker issue overriding all others.

"If you spoke to the people of western Sydney, for example, about a 'big Australia' they would laugh at you and ask you a very simple question: where will these 40 million people go?" Ms Gillard said. . . .

She consequently renamed Tony Burke's portfolio the Ministry of "Sustainable" Population, and announced he will produce a comprehensive policy in answer to the population problem later this year.

Labor insiders believe an election could come at any time, given the new leader's bounce in early polling.

"But I also don't want areas of Australia with 25 per cent youth unemployment because there are no jobs."  . . .  (The Sunday Telegraph June 27, 2010)

Without this promise, she might not have been re-elected.

But Julia Gillard lied --and by 14 May 2011 the pro-growth Australian was smirking:

'The irony is that Labor is quietly entrenching net overseas immigration
at least as high as the annual 180,000 Treasury projection that leads to
the forbidden 36 million level by 2050.'

Alexander Downer made similar points, writing:
"Our Prime Minister has repeatedly talked about a "sustainable Australia", which is code for being opposed to high immigration.

Remember poor old Kevin Rudd talking about a population of 35 million by 2050. There was uproar and he quickly backed down.Now, if our population continued to grow at its current rate it would reach 40 million by 2050." (Downer,  Playing both hands”, The Advertiser, 01 April 2013).  


Ross Gittins believed Julia was being duplicitous, but thought public opinion had finally caught up with the pro-immigration forces:

Something significant has happened in this hollow, populist election campaign: the long-standing bipartisan support for strong population growth - Big Australia - has collapsed. Though both sides imagine they're merely conning the punters, it's hard to see how they'll put Humpty Dumpty together again. Which will be no bad thing.

Mark O’Connor noted in a letter in The Canberra Times:

Gillard's first promise after displacing Rudd was to get the country off the big Australia path. It helped her win the election. But was she sincere? Australia is now headed for a higher projected population than when she took power. Her supposed minister for sustainable population never so much as met with with the main community organisation in this area, Sustainable Population Australia, and he eventually announced his own (instantly forgotten) ''solutions'' on a Friday in budget week!

To their own shame the Greens, who had claimed to be the party of environment, and whose votes she needed, made no attempt to hold Gillard to her promise.

Polls showed voters disillusioned with both parties; and the combined effect sank Labor to lethal levels.

Now, oddly, it is Rudd who is better positioned to claim he has abandoned big Australia for sustainable Australia. But has he?

In breaking this promise Gillard defied not just the wishes of the public (mere “populism” in News Corp speak) but probably the public interest. See  Gittins’s  Stop beating about the bush and talk about Big Australia .e.g.  “Business people like high immigration because it gives them an ever-growing market to sell to and profit from. But what's convenient for business is not necessarily good for the economy.”

 She also defied expert opinion from her own Department. Freedom of Information material obtained by the West Australian shows that the Prime Minister’s own department warned her that “Demographic pressures will negatively affect living standards, particularly in cities, as housing prices rise, congestion increases and it becomes more difficult to access services." Also that voter anger was rising, based on “the perception that the quality of city life is declining [which] is supported by declining measures of liveability (including from greater congestion and longer commuting times) … and  a lack of affordable housing”. (See City life in decline, PM warned”, by Shane Wright, Economics editor, The West Australian December 20, 2010). 

In the jargon of public service mandarins, that is plain speaking.

Gillard’s own sincerity may be indicated by the fact that, once elected, she discarded the title Minister for Sustainable Population, and left the population issue in the hands of Tony Burke, whom Rudd had originally appointed as Minister for Population (i.e. Minister for killing off the population debate before it killed off Rudd). As one letter-writer summed it up in The Age:

After ''Big Kev'' was dumped in 2010 and replaced by ''Sustainable Julia'', net immigration actually increased from one extra Townsville per year to one extra Geelong (''Birth boom leads to surge in Victoria's population'', 21/6).

Broken Promises
By early 2013 Gillard had all but dropped the pretence: (See B. Packham, 
''Sizeable' immigration key to economic growth, says Gillard', The Australian, 
April 4 2013). As demographer Katherine Betts put it:
As we all know, during the 2010 election she promised to slow down 
Australia’s rate of population growth.  Today we still don’t have a 
population policy  . . . The permanent immigration program is not only 
"sizeable", at 204,000 it's the biggest ever. This is one broken promise 
that the Murdoch press is not holding her to account for.

Gillard enjoyed complicit silence from the Greens leaders, whose votes she needed, and who never publically (nor, it is said, privately) objected to this broken promise on what should have been a core issue for an environmental party. She also enjoyed the complicity of much of the media. As a result, Julia and co. were able to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
And I suspect we are all, apart from a few vested interests, the poorer . . .