Pie-in-the-sky planning

The Financial Times reported on Wednesday on the progress of two projects - Sigma Scan and Delta Scan - commissioned by the Horizon Scanning Centre within the Foresight Programme of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). You may not have realised that the POST (if you knew it existed) had a Foresight Programme, nor that that programme included a Horizon Scanning Centre, and probably not that that centre had commissioned Strategic Horizon Scans from The Institute for the Future in California on the future of science and technology (Delta Scan) and from Outsights (a management consultancy, surprise, surprise) and Ipsos Mori (the pollsters) on future social, political, economic and environmental issues (Sigma Scan). But rest assured, those civil servants are busy beavering away, working out how we'll all be living our lives in 50 years' time. How else would we know what to plan for and what to throw our taxes at?

Now that it is not enough simply to promote current losers, amongst the future losers that the Government is advised to plan for are:

  • Solar energy (currently by far the least economic form of renewable energy, but by government logic, therefore the best thing for them to throw their money at)
  • Manned spaceflight (not by us though - the Chinese and Americans will lead the way apparently, which was an insight well worth paying management consultants to provide)
  • Better understanding of the human brain (but if that includes bureaucrats, will they find anything when they get there?)
  • Ubiquitous broadband networks (gee, you don't say - how about the things, such as social, environmental, energy, resource and health aspects, that might lead to the rather more radical scenario of a reversal of the extension of this facility, rather than the unchallenging conclusion that we're going to have more of the same)
  • Robo-rights (yes, really - well, if you will employ bureaucrats to play Dr Who, what can you expect?)
  • Intentional biology (didn't this used to go under the rather less glamorous titles of genetic engineering or even eugenics?)
  • Collapse and rebirth of currency mechanisms (trade imbalances lead to large revaluations and currency blocs - yes, it's back to the twentieth century future)
  • Shrinking armies because of recruitment difficulties (because defence isn't worth paying for, but bureaucrats and management consultants always will be)

That was the FT's list (presumably the "good" ones). I will add just one more choice of my own for now, but this promises to be another (like the recently announced Simplification Plans that are really Complication Plans) almost bottomless pit of idiocy to which I hope to return regularly. My starter for ten is Issue 145 of the Sigma Scan, entitled "Talking rubbish: The struggle to conquer the growing waste mountain". The Impact of these projections warrants, apparently 3 out of 4 stars, 3 out of 3 for Likelihood, and 2 out of 3 for Controversy. The impacts will be felt Globally, they will be felt in Years (sic), and they will occur over the next 3-10 years.

And of what do these significant, certain, controversial, global, short-term projected impacts consist? Almost entirely a description of historic and current trends. In case the dullards who produced these "projections" should attempt, in a delayed fit of shame, to edit them, I have reproduced the Summary/Key Driver/Abstract below:

"ABSTRACT: **The highest proportion of waste comes from industrial activity. Almost all manufactured products are destined to become waste, so the volume of waste produced is roughly equal to the volume of industrial resources consumed. This is increasing. Policy now is to minimise landfill, creating pressures on other waste options in the UK. There is increasing trade in specific waste materials (e.g. plastics), increasing waste policy complexity, and therefore creating demand for better analysis of waste materials life cycles.**

The highest proportion of human waste comes from industrial activity. Almost all manufactured products are destined to become waste at some time, therefore the volume of waste produced is roughly equal to the volume of industrial resources consumed. Waste production is increasing by 3% per year in the UK [1].

There are many different types of waste, which can cause many problems when not managed properly, such as pollution of land, water and air, release of toxic chemicals and radioactivity from radioactive waste [3,4]. In the UK at the end of the 1990s, 80% of municipal waste was buried in landfill sites.

UK policy is now to minimise landfill, which will create pressures on other waste options. There is also an increasing global trade in specific waste materials (e.g. plastics and metals), increasing the complexity of waste policy, and the analysis of optimal life cycles of waste materials.

While the proportion of all waste in the UK that is put into landfill has decreased to 43% between 1998/99 and 2003 the actual tonnage has not changed significantly [9] due to rising industrial activity and domestic consumption.

This data however belies notable successes in increasing the proportion of recycled waste in the UK. The proportion of waste being recycled or reused in the UK increased to 42 per cent in 2002/3, with actual tonnage increasing by 46 per cent between 2002/3 and 1998/9 [9]. Figures from 2004/05 indicate that English households now recycle more than a fifth of their waste [10].

However there is clearly a long way to go to get ahead of rising waste output. In 2003 around three quarters of the UK’s municipal waste was put into landfill, which is a high percentage compared with other EU-15 countries [8].

To meet the UK’s binding obligations under the EU Landfill Directive the country will by 2010 have to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste diverted to landfill to 75 per cent of that produced in 1995; by 2013 this must be reduced to 50 per cent and by 2020 to 35 per cent [7]."

The Implications of this "projection" are manifold:

"As resources continue to be used and converted to waste, the risk of pollution of almost all ecosystems is likely to continue and to spread further afield. There is a risk that in future it could increasingly affect food and water supplies and lead to widespread death and illness. As capacity limits of landfill sites and dumping grounds are reached, waste is being transported to more remote regions.

There are economic rewards for countries to take other's waste, and some kind of 'waste nations' could be created, where the main or only industry is waste management for their part of the world. This could create a situation of directed pollution compensation, where rich countries compensate poorer ones for taking their waste and polluted products.

Waste could even become a political and economic tool against rivals of regimes or ethnic groups. The exporting countries population might have an 'out of sight, out of mind attitude', and continue to create increasing amounts of waste. This could help solve economic problems for less developed countries, but lead to increased environmental and health problems.

There could be more redevelopments or uses created for landfill sites [6, 5]. Accidents involving this or toxic waste could have devastating consequences [3, 6]. There could be an increasing risk that air and water next to landfill sites could become unsafe to consume and this may lead to the use of protective clothing or expensive cleanup processes.

More optimistically, there are huge opportunities for eco- entrepreneurialism, innovation and wealth creation in new forms of green business activity. This is a field in which the UK is well placed to be a market leader."

Shocking - the implications of the current waste disposal status quo are that there may be international markets in waste disposal, that there are opportunities and threats from our waste disposal legacy, and that there are potential profits for businesses in these situations. With such prescience, I wonder why the authors went into bureaucracy and consultancy rather than setting up in business and making their fortunes? Oops, I forgot, the best way to make your fortune now is to go into bureaucracy or consultancy, because the profits of business and labour are being drained by taxes to pay for this sort of shit.