30 October 2004

Two racehorses - one owner

By Ian Sinclair

George W Bush vs John F Kerry. Republican vs Democrat. Alleged draft dodger vs war hero. On Tuesday the American people will go to the polls to elect a new President. But what kind of choice do they really have?

Bush and Kerry were both born into wealth and privilege, attended the same elite university (Yale) and joined the same secret society (Skull & Bones). Forbes magazine estimate the Kerry family fortune to be an extraordinary $525 million, while Bush's assets are worth as much as $19 million. Both candidates rely heavily on corporate funding. Currently, Bush has raised $260,500,000 of private money for his campaign, while Kerry has received $248,000,000. More importantly, both are funded by largely the same corporate powers - with the two candidates sharing four of the same ten largest corporate donors to their campaigns.

Concerning foreign policy, differences between the two candidates are so small, that they are almost invisible. In August, Kerry said he still would have voted to authorise the war on Iraq even if he had known that weapons of mass destruction would not be found. Kerry does criticise the Bush Administration's foreign policy, but always within very narrow limits - referring to "bad predictions" and "errors of judgement". America's right to intervene around the world is taken for granted then, and will be preserved for another four years. History isn't on Kerry's side either. In the modern era, most of America's wars have been initiated by Democratic presidents - Truman in Korea, Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam and Carter in Afghanistan.

All this is not lost on the American people. On the eve of the 2000 Presidential election, surveys showed over 80% of respondents felt the government was "run for the benefit of the few and the special interests, not the people", while 53% of respondents answered "only a little " or "none" to the question: "How much influence do you think people like you have on what government does?" It shouldn't be a surprise then to find voter turnout in 2000 was just 51% of the population.

The situation is not much better here in the UK. All three of the main political parties offer no real alternative to the dominant corporate agenda, and voter turnout in 2001 was a post-war low of 59%.

Is this how democracy works? If the (self-professed) centre of the free world is like this, what hope is there for the rest of us? To answer, it is worth focusing briefly on the other big election story of the year in the Americas. In contrast to the US, the August 2004 Presidential recall vote in Venezuela was the largest poll in the country's history, with a voter turnout of 70%. Selma James, an international observer at the recall vote noted "participation in politics, especially at the grassroots has skyrocketed", mobilising the working-class into action, traditionally the least active voters.

The existing President Hugo Chavez managed to gain 59% of the vote, in spite of hostility from the US Government, international capital and the powerful Venezuelan elite, who control the mass media. Commentators put this down to Chavez implementing home grown development and using the nation's oil revenues for social programmes for the poor, such as adult literacy drives, land distribution and free healthcare.

An important victory for democracy in Venezuela then - but we shouldn't underestimate what is at stake on November 2. There are small differences between the US Presidential candidates, and in a governmental system as powerful as the United States, this can translate into important differences for the average person. On domestic issues, Kerry has a more moderate programme than the Republicans, who seem intent on destroying every progressive social advance of the twentieth century - cutting back on the already limited medical care system, social security, education and progressive income tax. For the 45 million Americans with no healthcare, women, ethnic minorities, gays, lesbians and transsexuals, there are real consequences from the outcome of this election.

Progressives in the United States and around the world will undoubtedly be hoping for a Kerry victory on Tuesday, but let's not be under any illusions about what that really means. Movement building - for peace, for fair trade, on environmental issues, against corporate-led globalisation - needs to continue whoever wins.

Rather than focusing solely on the personal qualities of two very similar candidates, perhaps it is time to critically examine the system that only lets rich, conservative, white males who are overwhelmingly funded by big business, run for President in the first place?

23 October 2004

The struggle of memory against forgetting

By Marguerite Finn

I started this column knowing little about black history. At the launch of Black History Month I embarked on a voyage of discovery and learnt about organisations and projects I never knew existed here in Norwich.

It was not just that I was ignorant of the contribution black people make to society in Britain and around the world, I also realised that the history I had learned had been distorted to prevent me from appreciating that contribution.

Empowered by my newfound knowledge, I asked 20 people, randomly chosen, what they knew about Philip Emeagwali. None had heard of him, which is astonishing because Dr Philip Emeagwali invented the 'super-computer' and is the father of the internet. Born in Nigeria, he survived as a boy soldier in Biafra and now works in America. President Clinton described him as "one of the great minds of the Information Age". He is the most researched scientist on the internet today - yet most of us have never heard of him. Why?

Ignorance of black history is not confined to white people. Young black people are often unaware of the achievements of black and ethnic minorities. This deprives them of meaningful role models. It is disenabling to live in ignorance of one's history.

One day Theo asked his mother, "What if there were no black people in the world"? Mum thought for a moment and said, "Follow me around today and let's just see what life would be like if there had never been any black people in the world". Theo got dressed but his shoes weren't there because Jan Matzelinger, a black man, had invented the shoe last. His clothes were wrinkled but Mum couldn't iron them because Sarah Boone, a black woman, invented the ironing board. "Oh, well," said Mum, "comb your hair, at least". But the comb wasn't there because Walter Sammons, a black man, invented the comb. Mum couldn't brush her hair either because Lydia O'Newman, a black woman, invented the brush! To help his Mum with the chores before going out, Theo swept the floor. When he looked for the dustpan it wasn't there because Lloyd P Ray, a black man, invented the dustpan.

Mum wanted to put the washing in the dryer but it wasn't there. George T Samon, a black man, invented the clothes dryer. Mum decided to go shopping; she reached for her fountain pen to write out her list but William Purvis, a black man, invented that. In the garden, Theo noticed that the uncut grass - John Burr, a black man, invented the lawn mower! The car wouldn't work without the automatic gearshift invented by Richard Spikes, a black man, and traffic clogged up the roads because there were no traffic signals. Garret Morgan, a black man, invented the traffic light. When they returned home with the groceries, Theo went to put the milk in the fridge but it wasn't there - John Stannard, a black man, invented the refrigerator. The evening grew chilly. Theo went to switch on the heating. Nothing happened - Alice Parker, a black woman, invented the heating furnace.

Theo's Dad was late home from work. There was no bus - the electric trolley was invented by a black man, Elbert R Robinson. He'd had to walk down from his office on the 20th floor because Alexander Miles, a black man, invented the elevator. When he got home Theo and Mum were sitting in the dark - Lewis Latimer, a black man, invented the filament in the light bulb. Dad then told Theo about Dr Daniel Hale Williams, a black doctor who performed the first open-heart surgery and Dr Charles Drew, the black scientist who found a way to preserve and store blood, leading to the first blood bank.

Inventions are one way of contributing to society; developing solidarity within local communities and gaining respect throughout a region, is another. Everjoice Makuve and Dr Eshetu Wondimagegne are two such black people, the first in her work with Norfolk Minority Ethnic Support Forum and African Worship ASOW, and the second with his work with the Norfolk African Community Association (NACA). It is through the work of these imaginative individuals that such groups become woven into the fabric of our society and enrich it - like the glorious quilt in black author Alice Walker's The Colour Purple.

In Western society, white arrogance often struts when it should pause for thought. As cultures from different sources pour into evolving societies, there are inevitably struggles, which Milan Kundera called "the struggle of memory against forgetting".

Remembering our common history is the best antidote to exclusivity.

16 October 2004

What if Britain were Iraq?

By Rupert Read

What would Britain look like if it were in Iraq's current situation? Well, the population of Britain is two and a half times that of Iraq. Violence killed about 1000 Iraqis over the last month, the equivalent of 2,500 Britons. What if 2,500 Britons had died in aerial bombardments, machine-gun spray, and rocket attacks, over the last month? That's nearly as many as died in the 30 years of Northern Ireland's 'Troubles'.

What if 'the Westminster village' were constantly taking mortar fire? And what if almost everyone in Westminster or Whitehall considered it suicidally dangerous to go over to the South Bank or to Camden?

What if reporters for all the major non-English-speaking media were in effect trapped inside 5-star hotels in London and Birmingham, wholly dependent on native 'stringers' to know what was happening in the West Country or in Norfolk? What if the only time they ventured into the Home Counties was if they could be 'embedded' in army patrols?

There are about 30,000 guerrillas in Iraq engaged in concerted acts of violence. What if there were private armies totalling 75,000 men, armed with machine guns and mortar launchers, hiding out in urban areas all over Britain? What if they completely controlled Hartlepool, Winchester, Leicester, Manchester, Sheffield, and Peterborough, such that troops and local police could not enter those cities?

What if, during the past year, the Attorney General, the Foreign Secretary, and the Queen herself had all been assassinated?

What if all the cities of Britain were wracked by a crime wave, with hundreds or thousands of murders and kidnappings in each major city every year?

What if the US Air Force routinely (I mean daily or weekly) bombed Camden, Soho, Moss Side, and Mile Cross, purporting to target 'safe houses' of 'criminal gangs', but inevitably killing a lot of children and little old ladies? What if from time to time the US Army besieged Camden and Mile Cross and the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral, killing hundreds of armed members of the 'Christian Soldiers'? What if entire platoons of the Christian militia were holed up in Highgate Cemetery, and were bombarded by US Air Force warplanes daily, this bombing destroying hundreds of famous graves? What if the Archbishop of Canterbury had to call for a popular march of tens of thousands of Christian believers to converge at Canterbury Cathedral to stop the US from damaging it further, through its bombing raids?

What if there were virtually no non-military air or rail travel within Britain? What if many roads were highly dangerous, especially the M1 from the North Circular to Watford Gap, and the M6 from Birmingham to Manchester? If you used those motorways, you were gambling with your life, at risk of carjacking, or 'collateral damage' from American troops' guns.

What if no-one outside Westminster had electricity for more than 12 hours a day? What if electricity went off at unpredictable times, causing factories to grind to a halt, and air conditioning to fail in the middle of intense summer heatwaves? What if the North Sea oil rigs were bombed and disabled at least monthly? What if unemployment hovered around 40%, and in inner city areas was nearer to 80%?

What if veterans of the Ulster Freedom Fighters and ex-police officers who had been sacked for their 'shoot to kill' policy against Irish Catholics were brought in by the Americans to run the government and the army, on the theory that we need tough men in charge at times of crisis?

What if only 2% of the electorate supported the (American-appointed) Prime Minister? What if the British people consistently said in opinion polls that they wanted elections now, that they were more scared of the Americans than of the guerrillas, and that they simply wanted the occupying 'coalition' forces to leave now - and yet the 'coalition' leaders kept insisting that the people welcomed them, and that anyway they were only staying at the invitation of the new 'sovereign' British government

What if the PM was promising elections, next year, but was saying openly that maybe voting would 'regrettably' just not be able to take place in most of the 'middle England triangle', stretching from Camden to Oxford to Peterborough, because it was just too dangerous there?

What if the American and Italian leaders maintained that nevertheless freedom, democracy and peace, US-style, are just around the corner?

With thanks for inspiration to Juan Cole, Michigan University, USA. Join him, me and tens of thousands more, at the mass demonstration against the occupation of Iraq at the close of the European Social Forum, tomorrow, in Trafalgar Square.

9 October 2004

Fox hunting - a colourful distraction

By Jacqui McCarney

The passion and blood-letting that accompanied the pro-hunt demonstrators left the majority feeling bemused. Especially, if like me, you attended some of the regular peaceful demonstrations against the Iraq war where such incidents just didn't occur even when numbers touched 2 million as on February 15th 2003. It perhaps did not occur to those whose aims are peace to incite war, just as it may not occur to those who perpetuate violence to act peacefully.

Hunting conventions - tail coats, red waist coats, high leather boots, tally-hoing and horn blowing is a might too celebratory for the cruelty that lays ahead. A local farmer told me that a group of young people he knew had found it 'Fun' as if that was justification enough.

Fox hunting is a 'tradition', which people do not want to lose and of course war is another tradition that we are extremely reluctant to let go of. We continue to argue with what seems equal passion for both.

While fox hunting may be an anachronistic and cruel 'sport', the current furore distracts from the real countryside violence of which we are all part. While we cling to our image as a Nation of animal lovers, this can have little real substance when we also accept horrific levels of cruelty in the production of much of our food.

Eating out, TV dinners and supermarket shopping has accelerated in recent years, but few inquire about the origin of their food - most likely factory farmed and the end product of shocking levels of cruelty. Juliet Gallantly's and Tony Wardle's classic account, The Silent Ark chillingly describes dingy windowless sheds, crammed with tier upon tier of tiny cages housing 5 very distressed chickens. Suffering from brittle, often broken bones, or osteoporosis from unnatural levels of laying - they are covered in excrement from the droppings of the birds above resulting in ulcers, burns and disease.

Most would find this level of cruelty abhorrent, but stand by the egg shelves in any supermarket and watch as customers still go for the cheapest factory eggs. Is this a moment of forgetting or meanness or just plain ignorance.

Those increasing numbers who wish to shop without cruelty need constant diligence in our modern supermarkets where cheapness is of the essence and poor quality is disguised. A friend of mine, a practising Buddhist with a wish to live ethically, would often turn up with a supermarket quiche and seemed unable to see the cruelty she was endorsing.

And this is before you let a piece of meat pass your lips. Witness the meat marketeer's imagination - chicken tikka masala, satay, nugget, and kievs - an endless list. Follow the smell of cooking meat and you will find chickens roasting on spits, chicken in barbecue sauce - an infinite supply, and they are dirt cheap. No mention of the appalling conditions in which they were reared - crowded, filthy, diseased, and fooled into eating non-stop because of constant artificial daylight, and soon unable to stand.

If we want to live without violence we must challenge it at all levels of our society. That is challenging not just fox hunting, but also the whole way in which the countryside and our food production are managed.

The people and taxpayers of this country keep highly subsidised farmers in profit. People are prepared to pay for sustainable, caring stewardship, but are fed up with excessive exploitation for purely monetary gain.

Intensive agribusiness costs £1.5bn a year in damage to soil, air and water pollution in the UK alone, and factory farming methods contributed to the BSE and Foot and Mouth epidemics. Landowners would gain greater respect if they made less noise about outmoded 'sports' and came up with humane and respectful ways of managing the wild and farmed animals in their care.

Whilst not everybody would choose a meat-free diet, most health advice is for a drastic reduction in meat consumption. When we do eat meat we have a right to expect meat that is humanely produced from healthy animals that are not full of anti-biotics.

Country people have the stewardship of the land, animals and plants of our beautiful and fertile earth. Simon Hart, chief executive of the 'Countryside Alliance' (CA), describing the demonstration with hounds outside the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, said "the idea was to demonstrate the relationship between man and beast in the country". Sadly, the carcasses of a horse staked through the heart with a CA banner and the two young calves are tragic reminders of that relationship today.

2 October 2004

Don't worry, it may never happen

By Andrew Boswell

Tara Greaves' brilliant EDP article on the day of Tony Blair's Climate Change speech called for "action to achieve a more sustainable way of life". Indeed, to encourage Green innovation, isn't it time that a Nobel Prize was created for sustainability?

Ironically, another article that day praised the business opportunities as "Demand soars for flights to Dublin" from Norwich - there should also a dummy's prize for reckless business.

These extremes reflect the predicament of our fragile world. It's seriously endangered, yet we continue to use cheap flights and buzz everywhere in cars - our mantra "Don't worry, it may never happen".

We hope a wonderful, new technology will be discovered to keep us all driving and flying for another century.

Some American corporations have grasped biofuels as an extremely lucrative market, especially in the expanding, Asian countries, where the Indians and Chinese, 2.5-billion people, are set to dwarf economic growth within the United States itself. Just last month, the Pure Energy Corporation (PEC) and American Biofuels (ABF) announced exports of biodiesel to these countries.

Given the huge energy demand of the US - a major reason for the disasterous Iraq War - wouldn't you think the Americans would want to keep their biofuels to help make their own country more sustainable?

Greenwash, now a dictionary word, describes misleading disinformation used to project an environmentally responsible corporate image. Are biofuels being spun in greenwash by interests more interested in making money than sustainable transport?

Norfolk biofuels industry lobbyists, such as Georgina Roberts in this paper recently, bandy about figures of 70%, or even greater, for carbon emission savings. However, even if correct, these large, convincing sounding, figures are based on the pure, unblended fuel before many times dilution with conventional diesel at the pump.

The actual government figures, from research, for unblended biodiesel savings are 40% - 56%. If a market were to be developed on a quick-growth, highly intensive, agribusiness model, the UK whole-market savings could be 0.8 - 3.2% by 2010. It's worth noting, that taking an average of 2.0%, then the same result would be achieved by the typical 10,000 miles a year driver reducing their driving by 200 miles a year.

True sustainability requires introducing a technology with care, so as not to introduce more environmental problems along the way. With biofuels, this means protecting local sources of food production, ensuring land use is not expanded at the expense of biodiversity, restricting practices that lead to soil depletion, eliminating chemical fertilizer regimes to prevent emissions of the dangerous greenhouse gas (GHG) nitrous oxide, and passing legislation to prevent the use of any GM technology in the biofuels cycle.

The Large Scale Biofuels Concern Group is advocating that the public are presented with the real facts - ungreenwashed, and that the socially and environmentally sound applications of this technology are then promoted and funded. Sustainable development requires an accreditation system to ensure all suppliers meet high carbon saving targets, and producers can demonstrate sustainability of their supply-chains. It also means much greater emphasis on small-scale production units, eg on farm, which minimize GHGs from transport costs, and really benefit the local communities. EEDA should be funding more research into such smaller projects.

Localised, small scale, biofuels, are being developed elsewhere in the UK. For example, Pembrokeshire Bio Energy, a farmers' co-operative which supplies biomass for automated heating of buildings such as hotels, swimming pools and homes. Let's see similar, exemplar, small scale schemes in Norfolk, instead of the exploitation of our heritage by big business.

The 'Green Fuels' greenwash is distracting motorists from addressing the real issue that we need to be cutting world wide emissions by tens rather than units of percentages. We should demand that the Government urgently introduce a radical sustainability policy, including truly sustainable biofuels. A slower and more sustainable introduction of biofuels would inevitably yield less, short-term - perhaps less than 1% UK GHG savings by 2010.

But a wider sustainability policy would also reduce use of private cars, short haul air flights, make huge investments in public transport, develop electric and hydrogen transport, and introduce incentives for energy efficiency including domestic solar panels and small-scale wind systems.

Alas. no politician is yet prepared to say it - we need to cut private car mileage not by hundreds of miles, but by thousands of mile each year. One of those Sustainability Nobel prizes should go to the Transport ministers in the country, which first implements an integrated sustainability policy; otherwise, it may take an environmental 'September 11th' to compel Governments to take real action.