25 December 2004

Give them the Earth this Christmas

By Jacqui McCarney

Mulling over another EDP report on Climate Change, whilst I walked towards the city, beside grid-locked Christmas shopping traffic, I couldn't help notice an isolated and bored, unhappy looking young child strapped in the back of a 4by4 as it pumped out fumes.

By contrast, my return journey, by bus, was greatly cheered by meeting 3 year old Tom and his mother. Tom chatted endlessly about all he saw and on leaving bus called politely "Thank you Mr Bus driver" and all the women including me, especially me, coo-ed and ahh-ed.

"Christmas is a time for children" - these contrasting pictures of childhood reflect the opposite scenarios for the future security of the young generation. Tom's life was rich and full of adventure with opportunities to develop social skills and a sense of community. In deliberately using public transport, his mother is enriching Tom's outings now, and making a strong statement about her hopes for his future and the future of Tom's generation.

Giving our children a stable and secure future can no longer be regarded as a purely private matter as road transport produces a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change - our life-style choices now will have an impact on a whole generation, as Sir David King the government's chief scientist has said "global warming is greater challenge than global terrorism".

The UK has witnessed the catastrophic effects of climate change - unprecedented rainfall; widespread flooding memorably in Boscastle; overflow of sewers pouring out raw effluent; monsoon conditions in Scotland causing mudslides and trapping dozens of vehicles; severe storms and rising sea levels claiming low lying land experienced dramatically here in Norfolk.

We can expect more extreme droughts and heat waves, like in 2003, that lead to thousands dying in France; increases in skin cancer; and of course, wars over increasingly scarce energy resources, such as with Iraq. Despite, his mother's best intentions, the future for Tom and his generation looks grim.

The third world's picture is much worse - climate change will cause disease, flooding and loss of land on a huge scale.

Ordinary people are right to be concerned for the future of their children. According to a BBC poll most of us accept that human activity is responsible for changing the world's climate and 85% are willing to make changes to help the environment. Margaret Beckett writing in Renewal said "There is a growing public appetite for leadership on the environment". Where is it? With 3 million members of environmental groups in Britain, and the Green party holding five seats and the balance of power in Norwich, Mrs Beckett's instincts are well founded, despite her Government's lack of decisive policy and action.

Tony Blair's speeches endorse the need to reduce carbon emissions; yet, he has, given the go ahead for a huge expansion of airports, and has a £30billion budget for road building.

Air travel is the fastest growing source of CO2 - we have a choice of over 400 package holidays from our local airport whilst little thought is given to the real cost to the future generations.

This lack of consistent leadership permeates down to institutions. UEA has an international reputation on climate change studies, and CRed brings some of their expertise into the community, aiming to reduce local carbon emissions by 60% by 2025. However, living near the university one might doubt the renowned environmental department's existence as one witnesses a small city on the move every day at 5 'o clock with subsequent congestion and pollution.

Getting the 58% of car using students onto bikes and buses with generously subsidised bus passes would improve car travel for members of staff who travel in long distances … encouraging staff to use electric cars now only £5,000 with no petrol or tax costs … providing an efficient, reliable and comprehensive bus service - would all help the whole city and clear the route for emergency services to the hospital. Working with the council and bus company, the university would still have a huge amount of change from the £12million, planned for a new multi-storey car park.

Whilst wishing all the children of Norfolk a happy and joy filled Christmas, we need more to wish them a happy future, and to build it. Leadership from politicians may come too late. A recent paper in Science identified reducing car use by 50%, and increasing car efficiency by 100%, as key strategies to stabilize climate change by 2050. Let's allow our children the pleasure of walking, cycling and bus rides, and ensure their rightful inheritance; the earth.

18 December 2004

Norwich: A segregated city?

By Ian Sinclair

Recently I attempted to catch the direct bus from the Norfolk and Norwich hospital to the train station. Frustrated by the lack of a no. 25, I boarded another bus bound at least for the city centre. As the bus (no 22) travelled through Bowthorpe into West Earlham, looking out the window, it became increasingly clear to me there was defacto segregation right here in Norwich. That it was possible for two communities (say Eaton and Mile Cross) to live within a few miles of each other, but to live completely separate lives - working, shopping, playing and holidaying in two different worlds.

Of course I am talking about social class - which has become a dirty word under New Labour. However, social class is still a central concept in understanding society today, with numerous studies showing how the class a person is born into influences many aspects of their lives, and directly affects a person's life chances. But what does it mean to be on the wrong side of this class divide?

Poverty is seriously damaging to your health. Studies overwhelmingly show that for most health conditions, those with lower incomes have it much worse than those who are rich. Respiratory diseases, coronary heart disease, lung cancer, strokes, tooth decay and suicide are all more prevalent among the poor. Fat is also a class issue. Recent figures from the Department of Health show that the rate of obesity for girls in the most well-off quintile was 4.5 per cent, doubling to 8.8 per cent in the most deprived quintile. One of the reasons for this disparity might be nutritional. The Child Poverty Action Group note "the poorer you are the worse your diet", with surveys consistently showing poorer families tend to consume less fruit and vegetables, and more fats and sugars.

With all these odds stacked against them it shouldn't be a surprise to find out a man in social class V is likely to live seven years less than a man in social class I, while a child born into social class V is twice as likely to die before the age of 15 as a child born into social class I.

Children from poorer families tend to do less well at school than those who are richer, with less staying on after GCSEs. Those that do make it to university can expect more debt than other students, and by taking part-time jobs to ward off this debt, tend to depress their final degree mark.

To all this, the privileged reply: "Yes life is unfair, but if you work hard, you can make it". This meritocratic myth is a convenient justification for gross social inequality. However, as well as being an insult to the millions of people who work tremendously hard, just to survive, this argument is becoming increasingly dated. Over the past twenty years, social mobility has ground to a halt, with the gap between rich and poor actually widening. Today, a middle-class child is 15 times more likely to stay middle-class than a working-class child is likely to move up into the middle-class.

The system works by exploiting the many to create wealth for the few, not by rewarding hard work in and for itself. Interestingly, it is the countries with the least amount of social mobility (the US and UK) that have the strongest myths about working your way to the top (the 'American Dream' and Michael Howard's 'British Dream'). A coincidence? I think not. However, there are nations that do have a far greater amount of movement between the classes (and importantly, far less poverty) than Britain - Sweden for example.

So how do we get from here to there? In theory it's simple. As the majority, the working class simply need to vote for a party that will redistribute wealth in society (New Labour certainly isn't the answer, as it has become the acceptable wing of the Conservative Party). However, as the rich largely own and control the mass media, the corporate message of unfettered individualism rules all. This has led to two strange political phenomena. Firstly, since 1945 the Conservatives have been in power for 34 years. This means some working people are actually voting against their own interest. Voting, in essence, to keep themselves poor. Secondly, those living in poverty, who would benefit the most from a radical change in policy, are actually the least likely to exercise their right to vote.

So, ironically, I agree here with the Conservatives: The solution to this damaging class divide lies within each individual - who need to take collective action for radical change.

11 December 2004

The creation of new desires

By Ian Sinclair

The late American comedian Bill Hicks often used to pause during his stand-up routines, to urge those who worked in advertising or marketing to kill themselves, arguing "there's no rationalisation for what you do… you are Satan's little helpers… filling the world with bile and garbage." Now, of course, I am not advocating that those people who work in advertising and marketing kill themselves (this is, after all, a column that tries to promote peace!), but I do think it is important to look critically at the position of advertising in society.

Modern advertising emerged in tandem with the violent birth of capitalism. For working people, the movement from pre-industrial, agricultural life to an urban-based, factory system was a huge social and psychological shock, met with resistance and protest. It was quickly understood by the political and industrial masters of the time that they could only make people work long, regular hours if they were trapped into wanting commodities.

Advertising is the engine of capitalist, consumer society, envisaging a world in which happiness is equated with the accumulation of products. The author V.L Leymore argues this is done "first by posing essential dilemmas of the human condition and second, by offering a solution to them." Leymore notes "advertising simultaneously provokes anxiety and resolves it." In a consumer society individuals need to be constantly dissatisfied with what they have. Advertising then, doesn't help to fulfill desires, but attempts to create a permanent state of unhappiness.

However, the effects of advertising are far larger than simply encouraging a consumer orientated society. Advertising is generally an overwhelming conservative social force, powerful in preserving the status quo.

Take the relationship between advertising and the media. The national and regional press in this country are almost totally dependent on advertising for their survival - with approximately 70% of their revenue coming from this source. This reliance tends to create a politically conservative media who are afraid to offend the very corporations that fund them. However, it also results in a preference for entertainment over controversy, documentaries and political debate. What advertiser in their right mind would want to advertise their product during a John Pilger documentary that exposes UK involvement in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children? Hardly the ideal environment to promote a "buying mood".

The problem lies in the way adverts are beamed into every home irrespective of the occupant's ability to access what is on offer. This excess of expectations over opportunities, is often the underlying cause of many crimes. Contrary to the media's sensational portrayal of the issue, the majority of crime is non-violent property crime.

Take the following recent news stories: The obesity epidemic sweeping the western world. The calls for a complete ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants. The recent revelation that 90% of Bliss readers are unsatisfied with their bodies. In each case, the interests of advertisers and the corporations they front, are in direct conflict with the public good.

Of course the advertising industry doesn't take this kind of criticism lying down. They would argue they do no more than provide necessary information for rational individuals. However, this defence (directed at the general public) is irreconcilable with the boasts advertisers make to their clients about their ability to secure a greater market share than competitors through the creation of new desires and by manipulating consumers. For example, a detailed submission by the advertising agency Leo Burnett to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising for an "effectiveness award" in 2002, explains how its campaign for Kellogg's Real Fruit Winders "entered the world of kids in a way never done before" and managed to "not let Mum in on the act."

So what is to be done? As with many areas of social policy, Sweden seems to be pointed in the right direction. Since 1991 Stockholm has prohibited all TV advertising aimed at children under the age of 12. So far, the British Government has bowed to pressure from industry and simply asked for voluntary compliance to regulations. Self regulation is obviously favoured by the advertising industry - and for that reason alone we should be suspicious of it. Also, we should move towards a ban on advertising in all public spaces.

However, ultimately the solution lies within each of us. The economist Clive Hamilton believes the greatest danger to consumer capitalism - and therefore advertising - "is the possibility that people in wealthy countries will decide that they have everything they need. For each individual this is a small realisation but it has momentous social implications."

4 December 2004

Our troops deserve our support

By Andrew Boswell

All war is terrible, but urban insurgency fighting, as in Fallujah, defies description. Whether in Iraq, Palestine, Vietnam, or Algeria, it produces war crimes, as soldiers' basic humanity is tested.

Veteran war correspondent, Chris Hedges, has said "You have an elusive enemy … in an environment where you are almost universally despised. Everyone becomes the enemy. And after your unit suffers-after, for instance, somebody in your unit is killed by a sniper … it becomes easy to carry out acts of revenge against people who are essentially innocent, but who you view as culpable in some way for the death of your comrades."

Shocking TV footage recently showed two separate incidents in which American soldiers apparently executed wounded captured Iraqis in Fallujah in what were surely war crimes. This raises the terrifying question: how many civilians and fighters have been killed in war crimes not caught by camera?

Such killings are atrocious, whether done in revenge, or in fear, or even as "standard operating procedure" as ex Falkland's soldier, Quentin Wright, has chillingly suggested. However, soldiers are dehumanised by their military life and training, reduced to "killing machines" and it will be quite wrong if this soldier is singled out to be punished as a "bad apple", in the Abu Ghraib fashion, whilst the military command chain is not held accountable.

We must become aware of the long-term spiritual and psychological damage that, being in this sort of warfare, does to those who find themselves caught up in it.

Stories of many Vietnam veterans reveal the suffering. Claude Thomas, was a 'star' gunner on assault helicopters at 17: the gunners bet each day on who would make the most kills, and Claude knows that he was directly responsible for the deaths of several hundred Vietnamese men, women and children. Upon return to 'normal' life, he hit rock bottom - "unable to function". Like many "vets", he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness.

Not just devastated psychologically by the trauma, he carried deep moral scarring - "at night the memories came - being shot down, the cries of the wounded, screams of people I'd killed". How can such a young person contain the guilt of killing entire villages? These intense flashbacks led him to regularly think of suicide.

Yet Vietnam veterans were helped little by their own society. For Claude, the turning point came when he attended a meditation retreat for veterans offered by, his previous 'enemy', Vietnamese Buddhists. In this immensely supportive community, he experienced forgiveness, and for the first time, he could see Vietnamese people as 'not enemy' - "the only experience I had with the Vietnamese was, they were my enemy. Every one of them: shopkeepers, farmers, women, children, babies." Now he is Zen Buddhist monk himself and travels widely to end violence (read his book At Hell's Gate).

Claude, and others who recovered, took decades to do so - their stories offer the hope of a deep transformation of the scars - but they are unusual: many simply do not recover and continue to live in suffering, or hold the pain in forever, or until it is unbearable. 58,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, but, according to a former director of the Veterans Administration, over 100,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide in the years since.

In the UK, 264 Falklands veterans have now killed themselves, more than those killed in combat. 20,000 British ex-servicemen are estimated to be sleeping rough, in hostels or squats.

This is a conveniently 'hidden' problem in our society, and the government prefers it that way. Honour the dead, yes, but if the people knew the extent of the living suffering of our servicemen, then they would oppose any future wars in even greater numbers. No surprise that the MoD do little to help veterans, except provide some support to charities such as Combat Stress and Crisis.

The Iraq war will leave many shattered service men - we can expect over the coming years to see hundreds of suicides, thousands suffering with PTSD, thousands homeless from our Iraq veterans.

The media and politicians often say things like "Our Troops deserve Our Support" - they actually mean "Our Government deserves Our Support". What government deserves anything but contempt when it sends soldiers to the Gates of Hell, having misled Parliament and the people to do so, and provides little, if any, help afterwards?

Charities shouldn't have to pick up the pieces- we should demand the Government act now to properly fund care for UK veterans.