29 May 2005

Earth - a common treasury for all

By Marguerite Finn

"The fault is great in man or woman
Who steals a goose from off a common;
But what can plead that man's excuse
Who steals a common from a goose?"

(The Tickler Magazine 1 February 1821)

When a friend shouldered his spade recently and went off to fill in a ditch that a landlord had dug around a Norfolk common to keep people off it, I thought of the age-old struggles against the enclosure of common land.

In 1649, when Gerrard Winstanley and his band of twenty Diggers peacefully occupied St George's Hill in Surrey and proceeded to cultivate it, the Law was definitely not on their side. The communal activities of the Diggers alarmed the Commonwealth government and roused the hostility of local landowners who were rival claimants to the common lands. But Winstanley saw the practice of extending private property rights to common land as fundamentally flawed. He believed passionately that the Earth was: "a common treasury for all, both rich and poor - not enclosing any part into any particular hand, but all as one man."

In the early 1980s, latter-day Diggers occupied the unfenced, disused airfield at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire when it was about to be given by our government to the Americans, to house their nuclear cruise missiles. These lorry-mounted weapons were supposed to "melt into the countryside" undetectable by the enemy, in order to be first to fire their genocidal pay-load. The Diggers bullock-ploughed the airfield, hand-sowed and hand-reaped it and sent wheat to help relieve famine in Ethiopia.

Readers may recall that Defence Minister Heseltine, resplendent in flak-jacket, led a sizeable military force to Molesworth to uproot the campers and fence in the land against further encroachments - an operation which earned him the nick-name 'Tarzan'! The missiles were duly installed. The up-rooted Diggers morphed into a 'Cruise Watch' team and thenceforth every cruise missile convoy in England was successfully followed and logged by them, and the only "melting into the countryside" occurred when the missiles were furtively recalled to the United States. There was little publicity about this at the time!

The ecologist Garrett Hardin identified a trend he called: The Tragedy of the Commons; Suppose that five commoners have rights to graze a certain number of sheep on a common - all rights carefully allocated to sustain the common's resources. If one of the commoners cheats by grazing one more animal than agreed - a fateful imbalance is set up which leads irreversibly to the destruction of the whole common. The detriment to each of the commoners is shared between them; each suffers from the extra grazing to the extent of one fifth of an animal. Yet the cheat profits by one whole animal, so the tendency to cheat is greater than the individual tendency to object. Even when the land becomes overgrazed, people will continue to put their animals on to the damaged common and may even add to their flock or herd.

So it is with the 'Global Commons' and the problems of globalisation and the accompanying environmental degradation. Individuals - or countries - see no point in making a sacrifice if others continue to use a common asset. Even if everyone is aware that selfishness, competitiveness and unregulated exploitation will eventually make the land unusable for all, once having acquired a disproportionate share of the world's common resources - there is a danger that countries may feel driven to "defend their vital interests" with disproportionate power - even to the point of threatening the global commons with nuclear annihilation.

Who in our One World, will defend the dwindling global commons?

In 2002, Indian scientist and activist Dr Vandana Shiva, identified two key areas requiring urgent defence; one to reclaim the 'water commons', the other to reclaim the 'genetic commons'.

Vandana Shiva sees privatisation, based on exclusive rights of corporations to vital resources like biodiversity and water, as an enclosure of the commons. She believes that reversal of this enclosure requires a combination of actions at local, national and global levels - putting water and biodiversity beyond monopoly, private ownership and 'commodification'.

This week we learned of the collapse of a "flagship" water privatisation scheme in Tanzania. The World Bank and the UK Government supported the scheme with £76.5 million but Tanzania claims that no new pipe-work had been installed and water quality had declined - not a good advertisement for the privatisation of a common resource.

Some 40% of the world's population now live in countries with water shortages; millions of children die of water-borne diseases that could be eliminated with improved sanitation. It is time to recover the commons.

23 May 2005

If I were wealthy…

By Rupert Read

Music, we are often told, was better in the 1960s. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, The Kinks - with artists like this I find it hard to disagree. Importantly, all of these artists sang about - and were part of - the wider social rebellion of the period. Who can forget songs like A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, The Times They Are A-Changin and Big Yellow Taxi? Or how about John Lennon's deeply-moving Imagine?

But what about today? It is striking that Bob Dylan - the man who more or less wrote the soundtrack to the 60s - long ago stopped referring to politics in his music. Most mainstream musicians today are the same as him.

A recent hit that seems to sum up what is wrong with current pop music had the catchy refrain If I were a rich girl… I'd have all the money in the world, If I were a wealthy girl." No politics - just money-grabbing. True, this is a reworking of the famous old song by Topol, from Fiddler on the roof, "If I were a rich man". But the song seems to have got much more unpleasant in the retelling. Topol only wanted enough money so that he "wouldn't have to work hard". This 'material girl' by contrast wants "all the money in the world".

What would it be like, to have all the money in the world? It would mean that no-one could sell anything, except to you. Everyone in the world would be a slave to whatever wage you were willing to pay them.

This song begs the question, What is wealth? Are you wealthy if you have enough money to cajole other people to do your bidding? Or is true wealth something different? Are rich rock-stars necessarily wealthy? Or is someone who has meaning in their life, someone who is loved not because of the size of their wallet but because of the size of their heart, someone who is trying thoughtfully to do the right thing in the world, perhaps wealthier, at the end of the day?

Since the US/UK invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, a new wave of political protest music has emerged, driven by musical artists who, thankfully, don't seem to care if their principled stance denies them access to great financial wealth. They are perhaps more interested in this other kind of wealth. Take for instance country music rebel Steve Earle, who has written the uncompromising and soulful John Walker Blues, an attempt to understand the California-born Taliban fighter. For his pains, Earle was branded a traitor by sections of the US media.

After being an eyewitness to the events in New York on September 11th, the singer / songwriter Ani Di Franco wrote the pro-peace prose-poem Self Evident in response: "You can keep the Pentagon/ keep the propaganda/ keep each and every TV/ that's been trying to convince me/ to participate in some prep school punk's plan to perpetuate retribution." The US punk trio Sleater-Kinney also take a critical stance in their song Combat rock, singing "Where is the questioning? Where is the protest song?/ Since when is scepticism un-American?"

In Britain, Asian Dub Foundation released Enemy of the enemy in 2003, an album written in the shadow of September 11th. The song Blowback is described by the group in the album notes: "Blowback is the CIA term for the unintended consequences of secret operations. Or when the monsters you have created like Saddam no longer serve your interests and start to bite you. And September 11th was the biggest blowback of all."

And then there are musicians locally here in Norwich and Norfolk who are doing their bit. I would like to single out the wonderful local 'klezmer' band, KLUNK. Drawing on the traditions of Jewish folk music, KLUNK play songs of love and protest, of dance and joy and sadness - and they play these songs most frequently where they can support good causes by doing so. For instance, the major 'Start the Peace' Conference at UEA, as reported on by this newspaper, was graced by a long KLUNK performance that left delegates startled, and full of joy and hope.

Popular musicians are in a very privileged position. They have the ability and opportunity to comment very publicly on what is happening in the world. Steve Earle commented after the bombing of Afghanistan, "This is no time to sing about girls".

How does your favourite popular musician stand up to this judgement? Do the musicians you like to listen to play their part in 'speaking truth to power'? Or do they merely glorify hedonism - and money-grabbing?

Many thanks to Ian Sinclair for help with this column.

14 May 2005

We need to understand Romani history

By Jacqui McCarney

From the poignant diaries of Ann Frank, to 'Sophie's Choice', 'Schlinder's List', 'Life is Beautiful', to the seemingly endless TV documentaries and dramas we have all shared in the grieving and remembering of the Jewish deaths in Nazi concentration camps during the 2nd World War. No where had we seen such spine chilling evidence of 'Man's Inhumanity to Man'; by repeatedly reminding ourselves of this brutality, we perhaps, hope to guard against its repetition. We have become acutely sensitive to any charge of Anti-Semitism, and rightly so.

Another group targeted for complete extermination by the Nazis were Travellers particularly the Romani and Sinti tribes. Today the Romanies are the largest group of Travellers in the UK. They have a long history dating back to Northern India, 1000AD, and are not, as was assumed, Egyptians or gypsies.

They were murdered in proportions similar to the Jews, up to 80% of them were murdered in Nazi occupied areas, and in some areas even more. Only 1% survived in Croatia. It is thought that as many as 1.5 million were exterminated. They too, died in Auschwitz, in Mengel's medical experiments and where they were captured, sometimes a few at a time and sometimes by the hundreds. Their children, 250 of them were used as guinea - pigs to test the efficacy of the cyanide gas crystals later used in the gas chamber.

History had set the scene; hundreds of years of discriminatory laws and rampant racism made the Travelling community potential prey for the Nazi's, just as it had for the Jews. Like the Jews they were treated with hostility and suspicion. 'Gypsy Hunts' where they were hunted down as animals and murdered were a popular pastime. By the 19century scholars were writing about them and Jews as 'the excrement of humanity'. Ten days before the Nazi's came to power Government officials in Austria called for the withdrawal of all civil liberties.

A popular myth and one that protects the rest of us from responsibility is that Hitler, like Saddam, was uniquely evil. The reality is that they ruthlessly exploit the prejudices, greed and fears that they find. As Edmund Burke said "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing".

Unlike the Jewish people, the Romani post-war experience is unchanged by the lessons of the 2nd World War. While the main stream media regards any hint of Anti-Semitism as unacceptable, we are incited to 'Stamp out the Camps'; 'to stop the Gypsy invasion' and to tell us you're Gypsy stories. In 2003 we saw the torching of a caravan painted with a Gypsy family used as a Bonfire night effigy. This hatred is aimed at all nomadic groups including Irish Travellers and New Age Travellers. It is abhorrent enough in this context, but even more tragic when the target is the Romani people; the descendents of holocaust survivors.

This racism is so implicit that major political figures attempted to exploit this in the recent election campaign. Michael Howard wanted to repeal and amend the "so-called Human Rights" act in connection to Travellers. As Home Secretary in John Major's Government he got rid of the rules requiring local authorities to provide legal campsites for these groups. He now wants to preclude Travellers from challenging refusals of planning permission to set up on their own land. It is a frightening position of refusing to provide sites, and refusing to allow them to provide their own sites; it amounts to a refusal to their existence. This has lead to accusations such as that from, Labour MP Kevin Mc Namara who said the policies have about them "the whiff of the gas chamber".

Unlike the Jews there are no blockbuster films, books, documentaries and no public acknowledgement or shared grieving for the injustices suffered by the Romani people. Nobody was called to testify on behalf of these victims at the Nuremberg Trials and war crimes reparation has never been paid.

The trauma of the Holocaust is captured in their language; 'O Barro Porrajmos' means 'great devouring' and 'rape' as well as 'gaping'. Their suffering is forced inwards by a society that barely tolerates their very existence.

To deny the Romani people their place in the history of the Holocaust is in effect to try to deny their existence. They deserve to be given the same status as the Jews - who were given a home in Israel, They ask only for the right to travel and the right to safe permanent sites and not just the cheapest land next to motorways and public dumps.

7 May 2005

Science sheds little light on radiation

By Marguerite Finn

The nuclear power debate will break out afresh soon, because we must decide whether nuclear power is the way to combat global climate change - or not.

The lack of consensus about how dangerous radiation is worries me, because the nuclear question cannot be solved until we know. One expert will say that the danger is X. Another will say it is 100 times X, and yet a third will say it is one hundredth of X. There is no agreement, particularly about the type of radiation that gets inside our bodies - whether through the skin or by inhalation.

Standards of risk assessment are based upon evidence from the atomic bomb attacks on Japan. The problems with those ancient data is they involved massive levels of radiation. To extrapolate for the lower doses that might occur from functioning nuclear reactors, scientists had to guess what would happen much lower down on their graphs. So they drew smooth curves from those huge values down to zero. No real evidence, but it looked pretty.

When clusters of radiation-type sickness have occurred near power stations, and the radiation levels measured are only slightly raised, experts have denied the sickness could be attributed to radiation, because the curves on their graphs showed that it couldn't be. Yet the lower parts of those graphs were largely guesswork!

Among those unhappy about this was the former Environment Minister, Michael Meacher. In 2001, he appointed an expert Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (CERRIE). Its remit was "to explain the disagreements in accessible language and to propose research which might resolve them".

When CERRIE reported last year, however, Meacher was no longer a Minister and, to quote him again: "Unfortunately it seems that the procedures which prevailed in the Committee - have produced a Final Report which does not accommodate a full and fair representation of all views."

That is putting it mildly.

The Chair of CERRIE refused to accommodate the views of a minority of the Committee in its Final Report, so the minority obtained a grant and published their views in a minority report themselves. There is still no agreement.

You may wonder whether the widely ranging casualties of the Chernobyl disaster could not provide enough firm evidence of damage at all levels of radiation, to complete the graph beyond all doubt. Many Ukrainian and Russian scientists who attempted to publish details now languish in jail. However, the CERRIE minority succeeded in obtaining nearly a hundred reports from Russian scientists prepared to risk disfavour, and submitted them to CERRIE. Astonishingly, these reports were ignored and excluded from the Majority Report, although they offered boundless opportunities for exactly the sort of research Meacher was proposing.

However bad the Chernobyl disaster was, it could have been a lot worse.

A fortnight after the explosion in April 1986 that tore the heart out of Chernobyl's reactor No. 4, spreading a plume of radioactive smoke around the world, a far worse explosion was brewing out of control amongst the still hot debris. Professor Vasily Nesterenko of the Belarussian Academy of Scientists describes it thus:

"An explosion of this magnitude would cause massive radiation burns in the population within a radius of 300-320km - resulting in the whole of Europe being exposed to an enormous radioactive contamination, making life impossible. - For this reason - tens of thousands of coal-miners were urgently dispatched - to Chernobyl to dig a tunnel under the reactor and install a cooling coil to cool the concrete base of the reactor and remove all possibility of cracks appearing in the slab".

According to the Chernobyl Union Association, more than 20,000 men who took part in the operation, died".

This was only revealed on 15 January 2005. Despite courageous attempts by Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich in her book, "Voices from Chernobyl" to tell us more, attempts to play down the true scale of that disaster have been too successful.

8.4 million people were exposed to radiation. An area half the size of Italy was contaminated. Agricultural land was ruined. Without the Russian coal-miners, Europe might have been wiped out.

Do those 20,000 men not deserve our gratitude? Who stood to benefit from our ignorance?

This is the 19th anniversary of "the worst technological catastrophy in history". Funds are now urgently required to deal with cracks that have appeared in the concrete sarcophagus. The cracks are leaking radiation. There is risk of the structure collapsing.

On 12 May, a donors' conference takes place in London. The Ukranian government hopes to raise $300million. We must pray that they succeed - before another 20,000 men are sacrificed on the altar of nuclear power.