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What we learn from history

Image: Aberfan cemetery - Stephen McKay
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Fifty four years ago today the sleepy South Wales village of Aberfan entered the history books for all the wrong reasons.  Early that morning – Friday 21 October 1966 – following weeks of heavy rain, workmen on number seven tip on the mountain above the village reported subsidence.  Nothing was done.  Consequently, as dawn broke the people of Aberfan arose to begin what was expected to be just another mundane working day.

A little after 9.15am, witnesses report hearing a sound akin to a roar of thunder or a low-flying jet aeroplane.  And then all hell broke loose.  A liquefied mass of some 110,000 cubic metres of spoil slurry broke away from tip number seven, engulfing the land beneath in a glutinous grey avalanche.  Farms on the side of the mountain were wiped away seconds later.  Then the wave, travelling at up to 21 mph, crossed the canal and engulfed parts of Aberfan village itself.  Most horrifically, the local school was directly in the path of the wave, and was engulfed to a depth of 30 feet.

When the avalanche finally ceased, 116 children and 28 adults were dead; including 109 children and five adults within Pantglas Junior School.  Many more were left traumatised by the event and by the various failures which followed (including the Labour government stealing the donations received from around the world intended for the bereaved and the survivors).

Understandably, attention has focused on the disaster and its aftermath.  But the story of Aberfan hides a phenomenon which turns out to be common to far too many disasters of all kinds.  In a report which I prepared for the Home Office twenty-five years ago, I referred to this as the “near miss.”  When I conducted research into the North Wales flood disaster in February 1990, I was referred to a series of flood events in 1976, 1979 and 1983.  Apparently, so seriously was flooding taken, that a major emergency planning exercise based upon major coastal flooding had been carried out just a fortnight before.

It is not just that local people had concerns about the threat from the spoil tips above Aberfan – in the same way that Towyn residents had raised the poor state of the sea defences.  People in Aberfan had direct experience of nearby tip collapses which provided practical proof of the threat.  Giving evidence to the Aberfan inquiry, Mr. W. R. King, the National Union of Mineworkers’ Lodge secretary referred to events just three years previously:

“What I noticed on the day that I had a look at the tip in November (1963) was as if somebody had scooped the middle of the tip out with a huge shovel and also that the base of the tip had run forward. There was a distinct hole in the centre of the tip, and the top plateau of the tip had sunk a little, and the other feature then was the fact that slurry had run down for a considerable distance… The hole extended up two-thirds of the tip itself . . . from the bottom. The width, as far as I could recall, (was) about 80 to 90 yards.”

The nearby tip number 4 had also slipped dangerously in October 1944.  As the Aberfan inquiry noted:

“It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this slide in 1944. To all who had eyes to see, it provided a constant and vivid reminder (if any were needed) that tips built on slopes can and do slip and, having once started, can and do travel long distances…”

By far the biggest near miss however, occurred on 5 December 1939 in a spoil heap at the Albion Colliery near to Abercynon; around five miles south of Aberfan:

“At 1:40 p.m. on 5th December, 1939, after a period of heavy rainfall, a large slide of a tip belonging to the Albion Colliery (owned by the Powell Duffryn Company) occurred at Cilfynydd Common, near Abercynon, some five miles from Aberfan. The tip, situated on the hillside adjoining the main Cardiff-Merthyr road, slid some 710 feet [215 metres] to the road, crossed it, and then progressed a further 720 feet [220 metres] to beyond the river bed. The width of the slide below the tip was 400 feet [120 metres], the main road was blocked for 585 feet [180 m] to a depth of 20-25 feet [6-8 metres], the Glamorgan Canal was filled for 540 feet [165 metres] and the railway for 500 feet [150 metres]. The River Taff was blocked to a depth of 15 feet [5 metres] for some 500 feet [150 metres] and substantially diverted. It was estimated that the total weight of the tip material in the slide was some 180,000 tons [163,000 tonnes]. Having regard to the heavy volume of traffic normally passing along this road, it is remarkable that there were no fatalities.”

By December 1939 the British people had more pressing matters to attend to.  However, there is no good reason why these tips were not removed immediately after the Second World War, and particularly after the coal mining industry was nationalised.  The fact that they persisted to the mid-1960s is evidence of our catastrophic inability to properly understand risk.

In the 1990s when I was carrying out research into disaster management, I came across example after example of these near misses.  Crowd crushes at football matches had occurred many times prior to the Hillsborough disaster in April 1989.  The Kings Cross fire was preceded by fires at underground stations at Oxford Circus and Holborn.  The engine fault which brought down British Midland Flight 92 at Kegworth, had downed two planes (without loss of life) previously.  The Herald of Free Enterprise was merely the last in a line of cross Channel ferries to set sail without closing its bow doors.  Nevertheless, the broader lessons concerning the threat from water entering the vehicle decks of a ro-ro ferry was not learned; with the result that the passengers of the Estonia suffered an even worse fate on 28 September 1994.  Pleasure boats in a growing tourist industry regularly dodged freight ships in the tidal reaches of the River Thames in the years prior to the Bowbelle running over the Marchioness in the early hours of 20 August 1989, killing 51 of the passengers.

In each case, we appear to have suffered the corporate version of the good driver fallacy aka “illusory superiority.”  In survey after survey anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of drivers believe themselves to be above average.  Thus, large numbers regularly overestimate their abilities.  It is also worth noting that roads – at least in developed countries – are a relatively benign environment (there are vastly more accidents and near misses than there are serious injuries and deaths).  As a consequence, when drivers escape a near miss they are far more likely to believe that this was a result of their superior driving abilities than to acknowledge that now would be a good time to get an eye test, to take a driving refresher course or (in the case of my aged Uncle Ron) to hand in the car keys for good.

Prior to the arrival of SARS-CoV-2, a large part of the population of developed states in Europe and North America convinced ourselves that we were more than prepared to deal with a global pandemic.  One reason for this is that previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS infected very few people, while the 2009 influenza pandemic proved far less fatal than was feared.  Like a poor driver who lacks introspection, our authorities simply concluded that their models and plans needed no revisions; and that we were fully prepared for the next disease outbreak… except, of course, we weren’t.  Appalling failures to provide adequate protective equipment to frontline healthcare workers was unforgivable, given that we have long known that these are among the most at-risk people in a pandemic.  In effect, we allowed the people we were going to need in the long-term to die in the short-term for lack of equipment.  In the same way, the decision to decant people from rapidly-filling hospital beds into unprotected care homes added thousands to the death toll.  Even now, nine months into the pandemic, we are disintegrating what remains of the real economy (even as the financial economy continues to plunder us) without even beginning to define the end state.  And SARS-CoV-2 is small beer compared to the environmental shocks awaiting us in the remainder of the 2020s.

For a full 300 years we have been able to convince ourselves that we are on an upward arc of progress which leads to the stars.  All of the political ideologies that govern our lives are rooted in this belief.  Conservatives believe in progress, they just don’t like it very much; arguing instead for the preservation of institutions and traditions that served us well in the past.  Liberals in contrast, believe in progress as something to be embraced; a means to clear out the dead hand of tradition which always seeks to defend existing privilege and to block improvements for everyone else.  Revolutionary Marxists believe in evolutionary waves of progress in which the same liberals who unleash progress at the beginning of a wave stand in the way of further progress at the end.  Only through revolution, they argue, can further progress be made.

But suppose progress is an illusion.  Suppose, instead, that what we call progress is merely the unleashing of suites of technologies based upon the energy sources and the quantity of energy available to us.  In the course of the past three centuries we have “evolved” from green energy sources – wind, water and wood – to the far more energy-dense coal and the even more energy-dense and (mostly) liquid at room temperature oil.  At each stage our engineers have developed technologies to optimise the amount of the energy in these fuels which can be converted into economically-useful work.  Since the 1970s though, the energy cost of obtaining these fuels has been growing remorselessly.  At the same time, many of the resources required for the manufacture and maintenance of the technologies have been depleted or – as with the fuels – require a growing amount of our available energy to obtain.  And then there is the biosphere.  300 years ago we were able to treat Planet Earth as a sewer.  And 300 years ago there were few enough of us doing few enough things that Planet Earth could process our pollution.  But with nearly 8 billion of us actively seeking to emulate the living standards of the average Californian, there is not enough left of Planet Earth to maintain the human habitat for more than a few more years.

Our response is precisely the same as a driver who just avoided a nasty accident or a colliery manager whose tip slide didn’t engulf any houses.  “Technology,” we tell ourselves, “will save the day.”  There is no need to change course because we can simply swap fossil fuel-powered technologies with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting ones (i.e. they need fossil fuels in their manufacture, deployment and maintenance).  Instead of understanding and acting to mitigate the apocalypse which awaits us, we cling to humanity’s illusory superiority to convince ourselves that we are bound to survive because that is what has happened up until today.

As the old saying has it: “If we learn anything from history it is that we learn nothing from history.”

As you made it to the end…

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