A Few Words of the Year
Second Tremor: Lawlessness and looting that followed Chile’s earthquake. | Showmance: A showbiz romance faked for PR purposes. | Shiny Floor Shows: Bold, brash light-entertainment TV. | Media Stacking: using several forms of media simultaneously (e.g., surfing the net while watching TV). | Top Hat, Top Kill, Junk Shot: Three mooted means of halting the Deepwater Horizon spill. | Vaping: Puffing on ‘e-cigarettes’. | Twillionaire: Twitterers with >1m followers. | Spot-fixing: Manipulating specific events in a sports match. | SOSO: Switch On to Switch Off: People who can only feel relaxed with their personal communication devices turned on. | Information Curtain: Hillary Clinton’s Churchillian term for the effects of internet censorship in China and elsewhere. | Single Service Sites: Websites which fulfil an extremely narrow purpose – such as IsItChristmas.com (the answer is ‘no’ 364 days a year). | Fakelaki, Rousfeti & 4-4-2 System · Terms associated with Greece’s culture of bribery, identified in the WSJ. Fakelaki is Greek for ‘little envelopes’ of payola; Rousfeti are expensive political favours; 4-4-2 system is a soccer allusion to tax: 40% to the corrupt official, 40% one keeps, 20% paid to the state. Also Greek Statistics: (EU)phemism for ‘creative accounting’. | The Tiger Recession: The economic consequence for golf of Woods’s withdrawal from the game. | Drip Pricing: Online pricing tactic where the total cost is revealed only at the end of a long process and after (compulsory) add-ons have been included. | Coffee Name: An alias given when ordering at a coffee shop to avoid the bother of spelling one’s real name. | Velcro Parents: who cling on.
Schott’s Annual Astrometer
Schematic of Notable World Events
Person of the Year
The person of 2010 is a political composite: the Mili·Cleg·Eron is a well-schooled, Oxbridge-educated, London-centric, white, married, heterosexual, 40-something male.
The Mili·Cleg·Eron has never depended on benefits, earned minimum wage, or lived in council housing.
The Mili·Cleg·Eron has never run a business, worked in a hospital, walked the beat, taught in a school, served in the military, or laboured in agriculture, manufacturing, or construction.
The Mili·Cleg·Eron has, however, toiled at the coalface of journalism, PR, and research before segueing into office. Confident, polished, dark-suited, managerial (not ideological), and urban (not urbane) – the Mili·Cleg·Eron is now running Britain, and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future.
The Mili·Cleg·Eron represents a range of individuals: David Cameron, Nick Clegg, much of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet, and 4 out of 5 of Labour’s leadership candidates – 2 of whom are Milibands. (The fifth candidate, Diane Abbot, her gender and ethnicity aside, still fits much of the bill.)
In 2010, the long-observed ‘disconnect’ between MPs and voters was stretched ever wider. A range of issues urgent to voters (not least immigration) is disdained by the political class – as Brown’s accidental ‘bigotgate’ candour showed – making promises of a ‘national conversation’ about the ‘big society’ even more tenuous. Fearful of this gulf, the Mili·Cleg·Eron repeats the empty phrase ‘what I hear on the doorstep’, and stages photo-shoots doing ‘normal’ things, like watching football on TV.
The Mili·Cleg·Eron’s rise has revivified Britain’s obsession with class. Labelling both Cameron and Clegg ‘posh’, commentators attempted to parse exactly how posh each was. (According to Ben Macintyre, Cameron is ‘Eton-Oxford-country-clubby-cutglass-shooting party sort of posh’ whereas Clegg is ‘Westminster-Cambridge-metropolitan-foreign-glottalstop-trustfund sort of posh’.)
Cameron’s description of himself as one of the ‘sharp-elbowed middle classes’ amused some, to whom being a millionaire Old Etonian married to an aristocrat hinted at certain upper-class credentials. To others, the ‘sharp-elbowed’ element rang true, reflecting a view that politicians are on the make – either by maximising their expenses, or by monetising their experiences (to the tune of millions in the case of Tony Blair).
As the Mili·Cleg·Eron took office, Labour’s old guard took to the airwaves to plug memoirs in which they came (almost) clean about the feuds they had spent years vehemently denying. Inside Westminster, such duplicity is part of the game; outside, it reinforces the belief that politicians just don’t ‘get it’.
One could argue that the Mili·Cleg·Eron’s ascendancy is temporary and that (like the Con-Lib coalition) it will falter if the economy struggles and the cuts bite. Or, it could be that Britain is coming to terms with a new political elite, described by Michael Woolf as ‘the post-class upper class’.
In 1973, Margaret Thatcher famously erred when she said, ‘I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime’. But for everything that has changed in Britain in the intervening 37 years, it is notable that the dominance of the Mili·Cleg·Eron means that a female, ethnic-minority, gay, or proudly working-class prime minister seems as unlikely now as then.
Object of the Year
Humans have sought shelter since they first crawled into caves, and a ‘roof over your head’ remains one of life’s essentials. Yet, events around the world this year highlighted the fragility of shelter, even in the wealthiest of societies.
Some of the year’s most harrowing images were of houses swept away by floods (Cumbria, Pakistan) or pulverised by earthquakes (Haiti, Chile, China). The numbers left homeless by these disasters (c.1·5m in China, c.2m in Haiti, c.5m in Pakistan) are almost incomprehensible. After the Haiti quake, >1m endured the rainy season in hastily constructed tarp-roofed shacks. Port-au-Prince alone had >500 camps, where residents without doors or locks fought against theft and rape, as well as exposure and disease. Relief agencies constructed ‘T-shelters’ from bamboo and steel – though, despite their name (T=temporary), these structures are built to last, recognition that many Haitians will not enjoy secure housing for years.
Many of those spared nature’s wrath were nonetheless forced to confront the fragility of their shelter. As housing markets slumped across the West, some warned that the ‘iron law’ of house price growth was cracked, so that home ownership was no longer a nest egg guaranteed to appreciate. In August, the Chartered Institute of Housing declared that Britain’s ‘golden age of home ownership’ was over, and called for an end to the ‘right-to-buy, wrong-to-rent’ mentality.
Although many mortgagers have, thus far, been cushioned by sustained, historically low interest rates, RealtyTrac estimated that >1m US homes would be foreclosed on in 2010, and Britain’s National Housing Federation predicted that those who bought at the boom’s height in 2007 may not escape negative equity until 2014. (It is darkly ironic, in light of this year’s floods, that those in negative equity are said to be ‘under water’.)
Disturbingly, the fragility of shelter in the West is not necessarily linked to supply. Europe’s house building boom (in Spain construction grew by >187% between 1996–2006) created such a glut, that unfinished ‘ghost estates’ scar many a landscape (Ireland has c.300,000 vacant properties). In April, the Guardian estimated that the UK’s c.450,000 empty homes could house 25% of those on council waiting lists.
While declining birth rates in E Europe have led to ‘perforated cities’ – abandoned conurbations crumbling into ‘feral wastelands’ – booming populations elsewhere are straining the supply of housing. China alone needs c.40bn m2 of new commercial and residential floor space by 2030. Also, the UN estimates that the number of slum-dwellers worldwide will rise from 827m today, to 889m in 2020.
Faced with the need for quick and cheap shelter, a range of innovative solutions have emerged. Some are ingenious, such as the re-purposing of shipping containers to house students (France), refugees (Gaza), prisoners (New Zealand), soldiers (Afghanistan), schools (Jamaica), or entire villages (Haiti). Others are more elemental, such as the emergence across the US of small, informal ‘tent cities’, where the newly homeless band together.
It is curious that shelter became one of the year’s defining issues because of disasters both natural and man-made (though the US housing collapse has been described as a tsunami). It seems likely that in the years to come, the most basic human requirement – a roof over one’s head – will be taken less and less for granted.
Substance of the Year
In James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi blockbuster Avatar, ‘Unobtainium’ is a precious mineral mined on the moon ‘Pandora’.
Unfortunately for Pandora’s natives, deposits of Unobtianium (valued at $20,000,000/kg) lie just under their most sacred site. While some giggled at the term ‘Unobtainium’ (long-used by aerospace engineers to describe hard-to-procure materials), others drew uncomfortable parallels between the fictional dilemmas of Pandora and real-life issues concerning increasingly vital ‘rare earth elements’ (REEs).
REEs are 17 metallic elements, usually found together in the same mineral deposits, which share similar properties – for example, high electrical conductivity. Once thought to be rare, REEs have now been found across the Earth’s crust – although locating exploitable concentrations is problematic, and separating rees from the minerals in which they occur is complex and costly. In recent decades, REEs have proved crucial to the burgeoning high-tech, defence, and green energy sectors.
Neodymium is used in the magnets inside hard drives, cell phones, wind turbines, and hybrid cars. Lanthanum is a prime component in the battery of the Toyota Prius. (Each Prius is said to contain some 25lbs of REEs.) Terbium is critical for low-energy light bulbs; Samarium for precision-guided weaponry; Dysprosium for lasers, nuclear reactors, compact discs, and hard drives; and Erbium for fibre optics. Every new vehicle uses Yttrium for fuel efficiency, and all new TVs rely on Europium to produce the colour red.
More than 90% of the world’s REE supply is mined in China – a dominance that results from Beijing’s controversial efforts in the 1980s and ’90s to flood the market with cheap REEs, forcing out competition. In 2009 China mooted an export ban on some REEs because of growing domestic demand. Beijing later backed down, but has since imposed tight regulations and export quotas. Fearing that China’s own REE supply may be dwindling, several countries (e.g., Japan and S Korea) are stockpiling REEs, and interest has spiked in Canadian, Australian, and S African mines – though these will take some years to develop.
The lesson of rees seems to be that, as with nuclear power and oil, the world is again becoming reliant on hazardous-to-source materials found, often, in unstable places. In Africa, Tantalum (used in missiles, surgical implants, &c.) is financing the blood-soaked Second Congo War – alongside other ‘conflict minerals’ such as tin, tungsten, and gold.
As the gap widens between our shiny high-tech toys and the grind of their production, we may be forced to scrutinise the ‘ingredients’ of our electronics, in the same way that we increasingly scrutinise the ingredients of our food.