The Review Column: Sonic Booms
Let no one deceive themselves that the sonic booms over various parts of the country last July were inflicted as part of a test of people’s reactions.
Firstly, it soon became clear that Wedgewood Benn’s Ministry of Technology had not bothered to set up any machinery to gauge reactions to the booms, secondly the booms were nothing like what can be expected if supersonic airliners are allowed to fly overland.
If the development of other types of aircraft is any guide, the operators of the supersonic planes will want to fly them all day and all night, everyday and every night. The prospect which this conjures up is nothing like the single isolated crack of a small jet fighter in the middle of a summer afternoon, described by Wedgewood Benn as “. . . at an intensity well below that of supersonic airliners”.
Of course the booms provoked a lot of protest, but Wedgewood Benn, under fire in the Commons, had the answer to them all: ‘Substantial sums are being put by this country into advanced aircraft, the financial success of which will in part depend on whether the aircraft fly from other people’s territory.’
The Concord, then, is no more than a typical product of capitalism. A lot of money invested in it; side effects unpleasant, probably dangerous; competition the driving force behind its production; no profit incentive to solve the problem of its effects.
In this situation, the comfort and safety of people on the ground are only a secondary consideration. There is reason to believe that the booms last July were not tests of our reactions, but the first step in getting us accustomed to the idea of them, in preparation for the days when they are banging off in earnest.
And this, let us remember, is what capitalism calls progress.
The Aberfan Tribunal promised that there would be no whitewashing. They produced a report full of memorable phrases (“bungling ineptitude”; “subterfuge and arrogance by the National Coal Board”; “eight years of folly and neglect”) and they laid the blame for the disaster, on the National Coal Board, its headquarters, its divisional board, and four of its officials.
In this, the tribunal followed the accepted pattern of all enquiries into disasters. Somewhere, somebody—a railway signalman, an airline pilot, a ship’s captain—makes a mistake or breaks a rule. It is all too easy, afterwards, to point the finger.
Very few people care to wonder about the context in which the ‘mistakes’ are made, the rules ‘broken’.
Only in passing, for example, did the Aberfan tribunal deal with the basic cause of the disaster, which was the very existence of the slag heaps, up on the mountain above the doomed village.
Tipping waste from coal mines is, after all, the simplest and cheapest way of disposing of it. In South Wales, the valleys cannot be used for the tips because that is where the pit heads and the houses must be built. So that the stuff is dumped onto the mountains, where it is a continual eyesore and menace.
Of course they could stop tipping but, as the tribunal said on this very point “. . . the reflection that to stop tipping could bring about the closure of the Merthyr Vale Colliery may well have led to the quick suppression of those doubts . . .”
Of course they could deposit the stuff underground but this, said the tribunal, was neither “technically feasible now nor economically practicable” (The Times estimated the cost of removing tip complex alone at £3 million).
The breeding of millions of half-caste children would merely produce a generation of misfits and create increased tensions.