26 March 2005

Resurrecting Gaia

By Andrew Boswell

Spring and the annual rebirth of nature have arrived. In the sacred, Easter Saturday is a time before suffering is transformed to new life. Today in 2005, the Easter meaning must be the very suffering of the planet, its eco and life systems.

Our planet is sacred, and daily, we hear more about damage to it. Climate Change is no longer a distant threat. The truth is simple - we are crucifying the planet and it cannot take much more. Yet, really, we have no idea of what the path of Gaia's resurrection might be.

Under this threat, we need a synthesis of pragmatic policy, technology and behaviour change. We are not short of creative ideas, but we are short on political leadership, and real climate governance.

At the G8 summit in Scotland in July, it is crucial that global leaders move beyond words to immediate action. The build up has started already: think-tanks and policy gurus are hard at work, and last week, the first-ever meeting of G8 Environment and Development Ministers was held in Derbyshire. (They kept that quiet, didn't they?)

"Catalysing Commitment on Climate Change" is a report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), published to coincide with the Derbyshire meeting. It gives excellent pro-active policy suggestions for the G8 ministers on decarbonising the global economy, whilst contributing to poverty eradication too.

In the authors' words, to prevent dangerous climate change, a level playing field must be created for energy producers, so that clean, renewable energy technologies can thrive globally. The G8 should:
  • stop multi-billion dollar hand-outs given to the fossil fuel industry, and
  • support the growth of renewable energy and energy saving technologies in developing countries, particularly small-scale renewable projects which can alleviate poverty too.
They suggest a multilateral framework. I agree. Without a great many nations involved, little can be achieved. A climate leadership group should be formed from both industrialised and developing nations, which has annual summits. Further, they suggest a system of international accountability where:
  • companies should be made to disclose their emissions.
  • the industrialised countries should accept their current and historical responsibility for climate change in developing countries, and make compensation for disaster mitigation and relief.
All this addresses the current vacuum of leadership, policy and international agreement on climate change. It is a shame that the authors didn't go a step further and propose a global system of carbon budgets for individuals and countries. This would really give a fair and pragmatic basis to their proposed climate accountability, and generate wide international buy-in from poorer countries.

This means stabilising the planet's environment by contracting global carbon emissions under the "Contraction and Convergence" scheme that allocates a per capita carbon budget to each nation. Carbon trading allows heavy polluters to buy carbon budgets from the poor, less polluting countries forcing high carbon emitting industries to start to pay the real cost of their emissions. They are then driven, by the market, to reduce their emissions, whilst developing nations can continue to develop sustainably. Over time, there is a convergence of the carbon emissions between the north and south - a fair balance of industrialised and developing nations being reached sometime between 2025 and 2100.

As a high emitter, the UK should lead with strong national policies for contraction. Where are they? They barely exist yet as the media and government still do not address the real dangers of climate change, and the climate issue has been marginalised in the current election build up,

This is not to say the other issues, such as health, taxation, terrorism, education and crime, are not important - just that voters are owed a really informed environmental debate. Instead electoral fatigue has set in as the same policies and issues are rolled-out as in previous elections.

Green policies will make a real difference to our future, and deserve real debate and scrutiny. Whatever the election result, the UK should establish a national Department of Climate Sustainability, as sustainability is currently addressed between departments, and largely falls between them.

Such a ministry should have two senior ministers to reflect its urgency, one focusing nationally and the other internationally (cf Home Office, Foreign Office). They should roll out radical policy to start contracting our carbon usage: huge public transport investments, incentives for domestic and industrial energy efficiency, localized sustainable transport and development. Their mandate should be also to ensure participation and accountability for carbon usage of local authorities, industry and citizens.

Resurrecting Gaia, our planet, will take generations, but we will, at least, have made the first step.

19 March 2005

Let's talk giraffe

By Jacqui McCarney

There's a new language called Giraffe. Appealing as it sounds, this is not a way to communicate with our long-necked friends, but much more challenging, a way to communicate effectively with our fellow humans. As the land animal with the largest heart, the giraffe has come to represent a way of connecting directly and effectively with our real heartfelt needs and the authentic needs of others. Last year, I attended a workshop where Dr Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), presented this connection with humour, playfulness, pathos and puppets.

Rosenberg's work on conflict resolution takes him into fraught and dangerous situations - the most violent high schools in America, prisons, mental hospitals, tribal violence in Africa, Palestian refugee camps and - not least - marital conflict. NVC, which he also calls "a language of compassion." is useful, not just in these crisis situations, but also in everyday life.

This new language invites us to abandon habitual, culturally enforced ways of communicating, which Rosenberg calls "Jackal". This is a language based on judgments, competiveness, moral superiority, prejudice, aggression, control - "a need to win and a need to be right". Our language is so conditioned that we are often unconscious that we are thinking, and then speaking, like this. Schools and workplaces increasingly encourage competiveness, and sadly all too often negative mindsets of arrogance or inferiority, judging and aggression flow from this. The soaps, magazines and tabloid press, full of Jackal language, fuel this unhealthy tendency to compare and compete.

None of this leads to happiness and very quickly we fall into the game of blaming or guilt - partners, children, work colleagues become the scapegoats. Often we don't know how to get our needs met or to really hear the needs of others. Many suffer from years of low-level unhappiness, which may lead to mental health problems or explosive acts against society or people. Learning to speak and listen in Giraffe, rather than Jackal, offers a way to be happier.

Rosenberg's quantum leap is from the head to the heart, challenging us to stop playing mental games and begin to listen to the fundamental needs of ourselves and others. With his Giraffe and Jackal hand puppets, he explores these different ways of communicating, and shows how we can learn to hear our own and other's needs better. With a hint of irony, he admits that his hand puppets may be left at home in some of his more fraught conflict resolution, or taken out only after his audience has warmed up.

If we know how to express our needs, then we have more chance of getting them met. Human needs are universal and while cultural differences might affect how these needs are expressed, that does not affect the needs themselves. Rosenberg sings a folk song "See Me Beautiful" in his talks - about seeing ourselves and others in the beauty of our unique humanity - this is the core of his simple, profound philosophy.

Teenagers often have low levels of self-esteem, not seeing their own beauty. The Centre for Non-Violent Communication is working in a high school in California where two teenage girls committed suicide and one attempted suicide on a series of successive Tuesdays. One of the mothers turned her grief into a call for the school to reach out to other students before the loss was repeated.

Jackal language thrives when people undervalue themselves and others - when middle-aged women can be so fearful of losing their attractiveness that they go under the knife, old people are lonely and isolated, middle-aged men suffer the mid-life crisis, thirty-somethings are stressed and overworked, young children are obese or dieting, imprisoned in their own homes. So who is happy? I suspect it is those who naturally speak and hear Giraffe. They will be open and interested in people and not slaves to cultural images - they see the beauty in themselves and others.

NVC won't stop conflict, but it does offer a different approach to dealing with it, and allows us to change habitual and unhelpful patterns of communication.

I have only just touched on the philosophy of this approach, but NVC is a practical tool which can be learned by anybody and used in everyday life. It is a skill that we should encourage from an early age, it needs teaching and practise like other key skills. Rosenberg's methods are taught across the UK (http://www.nvc-resolutions.co.uk/), including at workshops in Norwich (contact nlscott@europe.com). We need NVC as part of the National Curriculum and as a prequisite for all politicians. Imagine Prime Minister's Question Time in Giraffe!

12 March 2005

Wake up and smell the fairtrade coffee!

By Marguerite Finn

When I arrived in Norwich in 1969 I did not expect to stay long. Norwich and North Norfolk however, worked their magic and now - 36 years later - I would find it hard to live anywhere else. So, what is different about Norwich?

For me, Norwich tries to live up to being a 'Fine City' in all aspects of the name. It has managed to strike a balance between an all-out drive for economic growth on the one hand and the pursuit of ethical policies on the other. As I reported in a recent column, the Lord Mayor of Norwich is a member of the World Mayors for Peace Initiative, launched in 1982 to promote the solidarity of cities worldwide working for the total abolition of nuclear weapons. By 2003, a total of 554 cities around the world had signed up to the project and Norwich is with them.

Another ethical milestone was reached on 25th February 2005 when Norwich was declared a 'Fairtrade City'. So, when I noticed the distinctive Fairtrade logo on some goods in a Supermarket recently, I wondered about all the other goods that were not so marked. Did that mean that they were 'unfairly' traded? In search of an answer I discovered 'Fairtrade in Norfolk' (FIN) and I learnt that the city's new status was achieved after four years of solid campaigning by them to persuade shops and cafes to stock Fairtrade goods. Their success was built on the efforts of those pioneers of the local Fairtrade movement, who for 20 years or more quietly worked through their Churches or through NEAD (Norfolk Education and Action for Development) to highlight the problems of unfair trading.

What difference can a Fairtrade City make to producers on the other side of the world?

Fairtrade organisations buy direct from farmers who are guaranteed a fair and stable price for their products. This provides a decent income for farmers and their workers, investment in local communities, greater respect for the environment, a stronger position in world markets and a closer link with consumers. The FAIRTRADE Mark is a guarantee of independent Fairtrade certification, ensuring that working conditions at the far end of the production chain are independently monitored.

The consumers benefit too. They can buy good products with a clear conscience, knowing that the producers are being helped to a better life because of their action. This is empowering because in an over-regulated world, it is one of the few things consumers can do, simply and cheaply, to improve the lot of fellow human beings less fortunate than themselves. So, get your copy of the 'Fairtrade Guide to Norwich' available from The World Shop, 38 Exchange Street, Norwich NR2 1AX or at http://www.fairtrade-in-norfolk.org.uk/ and wake up and smell the (Fairtrade!) coffee.

The Fairtrade Foundation has provided a working model of good trading practices and by so doing, proved that fair-trading can work. Consumers are increasingly prepared to pay a premium to ensure that producers in the developing world are protected against wildly fluctuating market prices - sometimes caused by British farmers dumping exports, which depress farm prices in Africa and drive small farmers there out of business.

Those working with the Trade Justice Movement - who see what life is really like in the poorest parts of the world - bear witness to the brutalising impact of unfair trading, which constantly drives down prices to offer us 'bargains' in our shops. But as Margaret Hunter, Secretary of Fairtrade in Norfolk, said: "One person's bargain is another's raw deal".

Today there are more than 500 Fairtrade products to choose from - and the list is growing. The Fair Trade Foundation recently published figures showing that sales of approved products in the UK rose by 52% last year to £140million - compared to £92million in 2003. The Government, in recognition of this, has just announced a grant of £750,000, over three years to help bring more products to the market.

Fair trade helps an estimated 5 million farmers and their families. There's much more to do but Fairtrade alone cannot do it. Existing trade rules and practices must be changed and big businesses must be made more accountable. The Trade Justice Movement is 'on the case', trying to change expectations of what is economically and socially acceptable.

So, in answer to my earlier question; No, those goods without the Fairtrade label are not necessarily unfairly traded. Their producers might not have heard of the scheme. Ask your favourite shopkeeper to tell his supplier about it; then they won't have any excuse.

I am indebited to Margaret Hunter of Fairtrade in Norfolk for her contribution to this column.

5 March 2005

Is our NHS being killed?

By Rupert Read

Last week, I stood alongside 80 'support' workers (cleaners, porters etc.) protesting at the doors of the Norfolk and Norwich (N&N) Hospital. They were not asking for more money, nor for better conditions, for hospital workers. They were simply asking for those of them who work for a private company there (SERCO) to be allowed the same pay and conditions as those of them who work directly for the NHS. At present, SERCO workers in some cases do exactly the same job as others working for the NHS - and yet get paid less, and work longer hours. Is that fair?

This is the result of long-standing Westminster policies of 'contracting out' an increasing proportion of NHS work. In plain English: the NHS is gradually being privatised. It is gradually ceasing to exist as a state-run service for all - it is gradually being opened up to profiteers. That's why hundreds of workers at the N&N are now reluctantly contemplating strike action: to abolish the 'two-tier' workforce. To stop the otherwise relentless privatisation of our beloved National Health Service.

The government says that improvements in health care depend on the 'modernisation' of the NHS. Does 'modernisation' mean simply privatisation by stealth? 'Modernisation' means patients being given 'choice' in where they are treated for non-emergency conditions. According to my near-namesake, John Reid, the Health Secretary, we will be able to choose between up to 5 hospitals - of which at least one would be private. Those hospitals that get the thumbs-down from patients would be regarded as 'failing' and might well be closed.

According to this view, decisions to close hospitals would of course not be government decisions, but the result of 'consumer choice'…

Mr Reid assures us all that even if a local hospital were to be closed down, everyone would still have emergency and acute services within easy reach. But how? Effective accident and emergency (A&E) departments depend on other hospital departments to which patients can be referred, often very urgently.

We have already seen the loss of A&E departments within Norwich, since the opening of the N&N at Colney. And this newspaper has recently covered in depth the threatened closure of Wells Hospital. There is a pattern here. With fewer hospitals open, where are these hospitals going to be that we can 'choose' between? Will an ill person have to go to Cambridge, or London, in order to get the treatment they deserve?

Let me be frank: I don't want to choose which hospital I go to, when I am ill. All I want is for there to be a good, reliable NHS hospital fairly near to where I live, a hospital I can trust. Is that too much to ask?

Do we 'choose' as tax-payers to have private companies providing essential services at public expense? Come to that, did we ever choose to have private consortia paid enormous sums over decades in return for building new hospitals? The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) seems now to be the main way of funding investments in public services - but, as Mark Nicholls's reporting in this newspaper has clearly illustrated, it is highly questionable whether this appallingly complicated scheme is the most economical and effective way of funding the building of hospitals (or of anything else!). In the Norwich area, we had a graphic illustration of the perils of relying on PFI, when it was revealed that the consortium which built the N&N University Hospital had made up to £100 million from 'refinancing' the loan they raised for the purpose, at a much lower rate of interest. Public good - or private profit?

Meanwhile, PFI schemes across Norfolk have descended into chaos. Again, it is the EDP that has documented in dramatic detail the fiasco of the PFI funding of improvements to Norfolk's schools. Jarvis, the firm responsible for this disaster, is now in effect being bailed out by the County and the government: so it seems that PFI does not really spread financial risk to the private sector after all? Because when they get into real trouble, it is we who end up footing the bill. Private profit? - public loss.

If you care about the NHS, if you want to stop and reverse its privatisation, then do express your solidarity with the N&N's support workers. Brussels and Westminster are at present threatening the NHS with more privatisation than it has ever had to endure; this really is the last chance saloon for a National Health Service, that still stands as a beacon to the world.

My thanks to UNISON at the N&N and to Jean Davis for invaluable help researching this article.