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One thing jumps out of “Emu Field”, Elizabeth Tynan’s fine account of one location for the UK’s nuclear weapon tests in Australia, is the fact that the utterly brilliant scientists who ran the show were crippled by a restricted field of vision.

They had one interest, to make the bombs work. Anything else was outside of that box and irrelevant, including the effects on those working on or near the site and the indigenous population. Hence disaster. That’s the kind of box thinking that allows social and environmental effects to be left out of economic calculations, or described as mere “externalities” – such as when rural schools are closed on the basis of the relatively high per-capita costs of education there, without any consideration being given to the effects of the loss of the school to the whole life of that community.

For ordinary intellects like you and me the surprising thing is how intellectual brilliance beyond the imagining can go along with rank social stupidity. Is it a fault in our education? Is it simply an inherent flaw in human nature? Is it the price we think we have to pay for that intense focus on a problem that “gets things done”? Whatever the cause the cure must lie somewhere around our need to be more connected to the social realities, to know that we are a part of an interdependent fabric, to grow in our wisdom outside these attractive but deadly little boxes.


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