27 May 2006

Women will pay a high price for climate chaos

By Rupert Read

The BBC is screening a major season of programmes on what it calls the 'hottest topic of the day' - climate change. The season includes the replacement this past Wednesday of the flagship children's programme 'Blue Peter' by 'Green Peter', and a much-trailed two-part documentary on Climate Chaos with David Attenborough narrating. Attenborough, the voice of BBC wildlife programmes, was once something of a climate-change-sceptic, but he has now seen the error of his ways: he sat down and looked at the scientific evidence, including that assembled by UEA's finest, and realised that catastrophic human-induced climate-change is set to devastate the world's living systems - unless humans put a stop to it. He then signed up to narrate the 'Climate Chaos' programmes.

At last, the media seems to be taking the issue of climate change seriously - although still not seriously enough. As well as melting polar ice-caps, rising sea-levels, droughts and famines, experts are predicting that global warming will lead to an increase in 'extreme climate events' such as Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. Apart from George Bush’s tame scientists, the world's scientific community now accepts that these changes are mainly due to greenhouse gas emissions, caused by the industrialized countries burning fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow.

As our climate becomes more unstable, who will suffer the most from the resulting 'natural' disasters? In general, it will be the world's poorest people, especially in regions like South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In a mass emergency, they have few resources to call on. Christian Aid has just released the results of a study indicating that up to 180 million people in Africa alone are likely to die unnecessary deaths as a result of the impacts of unmitigated climate change, before the 21st century comes to an end. If we do not stop that horrific prediction from coming true, that will be the equivalent of one man-made climate-change ‘Hiroshima’ every fortnight. No wonder it is said that climate change is the real weapon of mass destruction.

The majority of the world's poor people are women, so they will take the brunt of such impacts. Also, when it comes to extreme climate events, poor women tend to be more vulnerable than poor men, for various reasons, including having less geographical mobility, and greater caring responsibilities. Although the evidence is mounting up that poor women will suffer disproportionately from 'climate chaos', the issue has had little or no attention.

Yet, some of the worst catastrophes in recent years, such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami or the devastating 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, have already demonstrated how extreme climate events can impact differently on women and men. The TV pictures of displaced people crowded into the New Orleans Superdome last year showed mainly African-American mothers and their children, and we also saw frail elderly white women stranded in their care homes. When the 1991 cyclone hit the Bangladesh coast, thousands of women stayed put in their flimsy houses, waiting for their men folk to escort them to the cyclone shelters rather than making a run for it themselves. Their fear of the punishment they might face if they broke 'purdah' was greater than their fear of the cyclone, with the result that the death toll was five times higher for women than for men.

The 2004 tsunami, of course, was caused by an undersea earthquake and so was nothing to do with climate change, but we can still learn from it. According to Oxfam, in tsunami-affected Aceh, India and Sri Lanka, many more women and children died than men. Among the explanations Oxfam gives are that few women in these parts of the world can swim, and that many died trying to protect or rescue their children.

The world environment is our life-support system. Without it, we, and our non-human-animal cousins, are nothing. We in the North have a special responsibility in putting a stop to climate change – because we started it. For several years now, the United Nations has overseen international negotiations on cutting emissions and reducing the warming effect of humans burning fossil fuels. Of course, the world's poorest women have no voice at these meetings. When it comes to softening the impact of climate chaos, the principle of 'the polluter pays' should apply. After all, it was not poor women in Africa and Asia who brought about what is now almost upon us all: climate chaos.

Many thanks to Geraldine Terry for research without which this article would not have been possible.

20 May 2006

The steady state economy

By Andrew Boswell

Last week, Jacqui McCarney discussed how endless economic growth does not make us happy. Would a steady state economy be better for our well-being?

This is not a new idea – in 1848, John Stuart Mill wrote of a Stationery State economy. Mill had great concerns with the damaging effects on human character of the unremitting pursuit of possessions, foreseeing the happiness / growth conundrum. Mill was, even then, well aware of the world resource's being finite and the dangers of over-population, and foresaw the need for sustainability too.

Now sustainability is a much abused word - its virtuous qualities are all too often hijacked by those green-washing their far from virtuous and damaging agendas. Likewise the word 'renewable' when applied to energy-from-waste incinerators, and Blair's disastrous nuclear plans!

Renowned economist, Herman Daly, has studied steady state economics and sustainability for many years. He cuts through the dishonest use of words like 'sustainable' by defining three precepts of a sustainable economy:
  1. 1. Renewable resources such as fish, soil, and groundwater must be used no faster than the rate at which they regenerate.

  2. Non-renewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels must be used no faster than renewable substitutes for them can be put into place.

  3. Pollution and wastes must be emitted no faster than natural systems can absorb them, recycle them, or render them harmless.
True sustainability is not just aesthetic thinking – ultimately physics will force it on us. Writing last September, in Scientific American, Daly correctly asserts "the facts are plain and uncontestable: the biosphere is finite, non-growing, closed … any sub-system, such as the economy must at some point cease growing and adapt itself into a dynamic equilibrium, something like a steady state." Endless, senseless growth is questioned more each day – by MPs such as Colin Challen, and even the Government's chief scientist, Sir David King.

Daly points out that beyond a point of optimal consumption, growth becomes 'uneconomic', or 'bad', anyway, as loss of leisure, depletion of our natural capital, pollution and congestion outweigh any benefits. Eventually a population consumed in uneconomic growth reaches a 'futility limit' where increased consumption brings no measurable benefits. The futility limit may have already been reached in rich countries, or we are very close, as increases in production and consumption come at ever greater expense in resources and well-being.

The sustainable, steady state economy will bring many benefits. Like a fit, adult human, it is dynamic, constantly changing and developing, but not needing to physically grow anymore. By comparison GDP, that measure of bland economic activity and God to economists and politicians, is a measure of obesity.

Dangerous, too, as global GDP is fossil-fuelled - measurements since 1960 show that each year's growth in global GDP has a corresponding increase in CO2 emissions – and Governments have not found a way of breaking this link. A large part of these emissions come from the energy expended growing the economy. Malcolm Slesser, an energy expert, has estimated that 50% of emissions are used in growth - that is 50% of fossil fuel is burnt just to produce 3% growth.

E F Schumacher intuited this when writing four decades ago: "It is easy to see that the effort needed to sustain a way of life which seeks to attain the optimal pattern of consumption is likely to be much smaller than the effort needed to sustain a drive for maximum consumption."

Researchers are starting to create measures of sustainable well-being. The index of sustainable economic welfare (ISEW) includes factors such as income inequality, unpaid domestic labour, health, education, and depletion of environmental assets. Try to create your own ISEW, based on how you value each of the full 19 measures making up the index, at this Friend of the Earth webpage. Research shows in the US that the negative factors in ISEW have been increasing faster than the positive - is this a society past its futility limit?

Whilst there have been two international conferences on Bhutan's Gross National Happiness, the New Economic Foundation's (NEF) composite Measure of Domestic Progress (MDP) provides a UK approach. Whilst UK GDP has soared in the last 50 years, NEF finds that our MDP is not improving, and the divergence is especially transparent over the last 30 years: GDP increased by 80 per cent, but MDP fell sharply during the 1980s and has not yet regained its 1976 peak.

As Jacqui McCarney concluded last week "Real strides in happiness in the West will only come about when people learn that we cannot consume our way to happiness, and Governments start putting true wellbeing before endless economic growth."

13 May 2006

Happiness is not an individual matter

By Jacqui McCarney

Happiness courses are now on offer at Harvard, the top university in the States and Wellington College, the expensive public school in Berkshire. Much media interest in these courses has opened up debate about whether we can cultivate happiness, and whether this has any place in education, or should be better left to the individual and their family. Judging from the interest shown at Harvard, where Happiness classes are heavily oversubscribed, students are willing to take time from more expedient career subjects to wrestle with the slippery problem of how to be happy.

In Buddhist culture, happiness is a central purpose in life and this is illustrated most readily by the tiny Buddhist country Bhutan where the success of the country is measured, not on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as is the case in western countries, but in Gross National Happiness. The aim of this tiny state is to prioritise happiness as a valuable asset for the individual and for society.

It is ironic that the scientific West has no real handle on happiness and is inclined to regard any attempt to teach it as an airy fairy, woolly headed waste of time. But this is only because the West is indeed woolly headed about happiness, and, while psychotherapists like Carl Rogers have produced insightful work on personal happiness, there is no essential philosophy of happiness. On the other hand, the supposedly less rational East came up with teachings and practices for happiness - known as Buddhism - two and a half thousand years ago. It is a philosophy, matured throughout Asia for the intervening millennia, that has found great favour among westerners who are increasingly turning to Buddhism - there are now a large number of Buddhist groups in Norwich.

Buddhism accepts that for all humans there is suffering and this profound simple acceptance allows us to move on. We all suffer to some extent whether it is physical or psychological and we all need to touch this pain rather than try to escape it. In the west we are encouraged to cloak our suffering in consuming - shopping sprees, drugs, entertainment. The overwhelming evidence that shows affluent western countries are growing unhappy is proof that all these tactics fail in the end.

Buddhist teachings, through the four noble truths, tell us firstly that "suffering is". Secondly we are asked to look at how our suffering came about and to look at the ways in which we continue to feed this suffering. To do this we may need the help of friends, a group of like minded people (Sangha, or spiritual community) or the help of a teacher or therapist. This is no quick fix, and the path calls for courage and commitment.

The third Noble truth is that we can stop suffering, and the fourth Noble truth is to follow the Noble Eightfold path which is a path that leads us to refrain from doing the things that cause suffering.

This eightfold path takes us from the personal to how this philosophy operates in society. The renowned Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, wrote "Happiness is not an individual matter". It is difficult for us to be happy if our children are in difficulty or our partner is unhappy. Fear is prevalent and growing today. How can we be happy if we fear for our safety and the safety of our loved ones - whether the danger is from attack, nuclear accidents, and terrorism. It is difficult to be truly happy if our life style causes terrible suffering for others in Iraq, or by exploitation of third world countries. To deal with the overwhelming suffering of the world, we numb ourselves, deadening our feeling to these things. We live a deadened existence that denies us authentic feelings. Buddhism by it very nature is to be alive, and to be alive we have to be engaged with the world around us - according to Thich Nhat Hahn, an engaged Buddhist himself, "it is not Buddhism if it is not engaged".

The privileged students taught happiness classes must try to practice the lessons they have learned in a world that is increasingly violent competitive and unequal. Without the support of a deep philosophy of life, suffering and happiness, this will be very difficult. Those who are happy, despite the suffering in their families and worlds, are deeply narcissistic and this is both superficial and dangerous.

Real strides in happiness in the West will only come about when people learn that we cannot consume our way to happiness, and Governments start putting true wellbeing before endless economic growth.

6 May 2006

Romancing the atom

By Marguerite Finn

In 1945, American science writer David Dietz painted a rosy picture of the new Atomic Age: "Instead of filling the gasoline tank of your automobile two or three times a week, you will travel for a year on a pellet of atomic energy the size of a vitamin pill."

In 1953, US President Eisenhower delivered his now famous 'Atoms for Peace' speech at the United Nations, pledging that the United States would ensure: "the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life."

In 1957 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was set up by the UN to promote the commercial and peaceful use of nuclear technology and to prevent the proliferation and dissemination of atomic weapons – an inherent and dangerous conflict of interests, which would become glaringly obvious in 1986.

In 1959 enthusiasm for nuclear matters was undimmed. The Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Committee, Lewis Strauss, declared the development of nuclear energy would mean "our children will enjoy electrical energy too cheap to meter – and will know of great periodic regional famines only as a matter of history".

What happened to destroy these hopes and aspirations? Chernobyl happened.

On 26 April 1986, human error caused an explosion in a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, USSR. Within minutes, plumes of deadly radioactive debris were hurled into the atmosphere. Radioactive clouds drifted across Europe, shedding their radioactivity wherever the wind blew them. Virtually every country in eastern and western Europe was contaminated to some degree. A nuclear nightmare had come true. There had been nuclear accidents before but nothing on this scale. Chernobyl revealed a country’s – any country's – limited capacity to deal with a catastrophic civilian nuclear disaster and in doing so, marked the beginning of a life and death struggle with a technological monster out of control.

Thousands of people have died, are dying and will die as a result of Chernobyl – yet the IAEA and WHO consistently downplay both the number of immediate fatalities and the estimated number of future deaths in the irradiated populations.

As one would expect in a tragedy of these dimensions, several UN Agencies were involved in the relief effort – including the IAEA and World Health Organisation (WHO). Established in 1948, WHO is the UN specialized agency for global health. Its objective, as set out in its Constitution, is the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health. Health is defined as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Already in 1957, WHO was indicating its desire to extend its research into the damage caused by radiation to the human genome with a "view to safeguarding the well-being of future generations".

Chernobyl provided a unique opportunity to do this - but the WHO failed to grasp it. Why?

Instead of being first on the scene in the immediate aftermath of the explosion in 1986, WHO only started its scientific work on post-Chernobyl radiological damages in 1991 – five years after the event!

Many independent, scientifically-based reports are now coming out – from the Ukraine, Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Finland, Germany, the UK – all charting increases in genetic defects, infant mortality, leukaemia, premature ageing, mental and socio-psychological disorders – forming a medically indisputable bank of information in the wake of the Chernobyl explosion.

Yet the IAEA and WHO confined their research to thyroid cancers in children in Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine, ignoring the mounting evidence of diverse radiation-induced illnesses occurring elsewhere in exposed populations.

To understand why, we must return to May 1959 when an agreement was signed between the IAEA and WHO, preventing WHO from undertaking independent medical research into the health effects of radiation or from informing the public of the consequences of nuclear accidents like Chernobyl – when the IAEA does not agree. This Faustian bargain makes the IAEA the primary decision-maker about radiation research, with the right to suppress information that might negatively affect the promotional work of the IAEA – and by extension, the nuclear industry.

WHO's Constitution obliges it "to assist in developing an informed public opinion among all people on the matter of health" - exactly what is required now when the UK is considering a programme of new nuclear build. These considerations should be based on medical and scientific information, with due regard for the ethical and moral consequences of the inevitable effect of the nuclear industry on our descendants. The decision should not be taken for murky political reasons.

There will be an opportunity to reflect at the Commemoration Service for the Victims of Chernobyl, in Norwich Cathedral at 6.30pm tomorrow (Sunday 7 May 2006).