29 July 2006

The stone throwers

By Jacqui McCarney

It is impossible for us to imagine what God, if there is a God, thinks. In the face of such unknowable mystery, humility would seem to be the wisest course to take. Humility is in short supply among those claiming to know God’s mind – the fundamentalists whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim would have us believe that they have a direct line with the Almighty.

The rest of us may feel we know very little about God but I had understood that we had agreed on one thing and that is that 'God is Love'. And it is at this point that I and many others, who have missed the 'born again' express, become enormously confused. Our confusion may simply reveal our ignorance, or our simplicity, but it is always useful to go back to basics - to what we all think before we make the gargantuan leap of trying to understand what God thinks.

There will be many who share my view that a God of Love would not think that killing another human is a good idea, no matter what the excuse is, and, there have of course always been excuses ranging from 'weapons of mass distraction', 'bringing democracy to foreign countries', and the excuse of all excuses, yes, you have heard it many times before the 'War on Terror'.

Knowing the one thing that we are certain about God, that God is love, what can we imagine she thinks of this 'War on Terror'? What does he think when she sees his/her creation – beautiful children, their mothers, fathers being blown apart. Can any rational person to believe that God supports such actions?

If, for the sake of argument, we were to truly believe as many fundamentalists believe that killing innocent civilians is noble, then we have to conclude that our God is not a God of Love but a God of injustice and discrimination. This is where, I believe, so called religious people can appear almost childish. Are we really to believe that God has chosen to favour one group of human beings over another – that like a dysfunctional parent, he has favourites amongst his children?

If he has chosen a group of people to be his chosen people, what does she feel about the rest of us – are we merely excess baggage, inherently inferior, and therefore disposable.

It does seem that many human lives have become disposable – people in the way of a greater plan – a plan that seems to be at present time about a 'new Middle East' in the recent words of Condoleezza Rice. How do these disposable people feel every day when calls for a ceasefire are delayed by these God knowing people – Mr Bush, Mr Blair, Mr Bolton, Mr Olmert?

To kill innocent people in the name of God seems to me to be the worst act of blasphemy. We can not surely commit an act that is inherently evil, to take the sacred life of another human in the name of God? This to me is a contradiction – surely we can only commit acts of love in the name of God and our acts of blind evil can only serve what is opposite to God and that is the Devil, if you believe in the Devil.

I don't believe in the devil. I do believe that the heart of every human being carries the seeds of wickedness and goodness, devil and god, and evolution is about waking up to our personal responsibility for which of these we express in the world.

We have some way to go. Current behavior on the global stage would put our collective evolutionary age at say early childhood. "It's all his fault" maybe a tiresome whine to mothers, but it is deeply depressing to hear world leaders repeat this phase – the only progress being able to express this in more sophisticated language: e.g. "the axis of evil that stretches from Tehran to Damascus", Ehud Olmert speaking of Iran and Syria last week.

Whatever the underlying Geopolitics, this sort of simplistic labeling has an underlying emotional immaturity that is the same as – "I am good, and everybody else is bad".

By the time most children get to ten, especially with sensitive parenting, they begin to acknowledge their responsibility in relationships. Until our world leaders begin to see War as an abysmal failure which starts with the human failing of projecting badness onto 'the other', we will continue throwing stones at one another. Our stones are getting bigger, and are now capable of destroying this earth, that so many of the stone throwers believe was created by God for them.

22 July 2006

A link to a better future

By Marguerite Finn

Confronted every day by news of the appalling situation in the Middle East, readers may not feel that there is much to celebrate in the world at present. However, a group of Norwich citizens is celebrating the 20th birthday of the El Viejo Friendship Link.

This link was set up in 1986 as an initiative of the Norwich Central America Group. It was conceived during the period following the overthrow of the despotic Somoza dictatorship when the democratically elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua was under attack from CIA-backed Contra rebels. A number of British cities and towns set up links with towns in Nicaragua as a gesture of support for the government. In 1985, the Norwich Central America Group approached the Nicaraguan twinning authorities with a view to finding an appropriate town for Norwich to link with. The town of El Viejo in the North West of the country was suggested, as it is the centre of a large agricultural area that had been particularly targeted by the US-backed ‘Contra’ militia. In 1987, over one hundred citizens met at Norwich City Hall and signed a declaration of friendship with El Viejo. The City Council approved formal civic twinning in 1999.

So what do we know about El Viejo? It is the largest municipality in Nicaragua. Like Norwich, it is an old and historic city. It has the sea on three sides, as does Norfolk – but there the similarities end. The climate is sub-tropical with an average temperature of 27º C. It is fairly flat but the Coseguina volcano lies to the north and the still active San Cristobal volcano lies a few miles to the south. Large areas are planted with sugar cane. Some cattle rearing takes place and rice, sorghum and beans are cultivated. Bananas used to be a major crop until multi-national companies moved their operations elsewhere - but not before hundreds of banana workers were poisoned by the virulent pesticide Nemagon for which the producers, Dow and Shell, refused to accept liability. Cotton was also a significant crop until the collapse in international prices. Nicaraguan coffee suffered a similar fate.

Life in El Viejo today is harsh. According to a UN report in 2003, a massive 82% of Nicaraguans subsist on less that a US$ 1 per day. Twenty-five percent of primary school children fail to go to school because of poverty and hunger. Health care is unaffordable by most of the poor.

The situation in El Viejo was exacerbated by the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The local council sought the help of the El Viejo link on behalf of families whose homes had been destroyed in the flooding. The Link rose to the occasion magnificently and, with the help of the people of Norwich, raised enough money to provide new homes for forty-two families. They also raised sufficient funds to provide the new community with a healthy water supply, latrines and a small two-classroom primary school. The delighted families moved into their new homes in 2000 and named the settlement 'The Norwich Settlement'.

That's what I call 'making a difference' – and is just one area where the Link has helped improve the lives of the people in El Viejo.

Their current project involves the provision of 200 scholarships to children who would otherwise grow up to be unemployable - with all the attendant social problems that would bring to an already deprived area. The scholarships provide a school uniform, exercise books, pens, pencils, schoolbag, and covers the parental contributions to each school involved. To keep this project alive and maintain the 200 children in school until the end of 2008, the Link must raise at least £5,500 each year.

Nicaragua is still not free from the not- so-benign interference of the US. Two areas in particular give cause for concern: (1) the Bush Administration's use of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) to further expand Corporate Rights in Central America and (2) US Ambassador to Nicaragua's attempts unduly to influence the outcome of the elections in November 2006 to secure the victory of their preferred candidate.

There are two complementary ways to counteract this deadly trickle down effect of corporate oppression. One is by supporting El Viejo Link's ability to keep us informed about the effect it is having on our friends in Nicaragua; the other is by grass-roots assistance to as many school children in El Viejo as possible.

To find out more about the work of the Link, e-mail: ralph.gayton@ntlworld.com. Donations may be sent to: The Treasurer, El Viejo Link, 4, Church Road, Tasburgh, Norwich NR15 1ND.

15 July 2006

The Energy Review; it's not about energy

By Liam Carroll

Is David Cameron an old hippy in disguise? Is blue really green? Politics creates some strange bedfellows, but none so strange as the Tory party and Greenpeace. For a few years now Greenpeace have been pushing the green energy revolution. Just recently the Conservative Party decided to adopt an energy policy strikingly similar to the Greenpeace model and have called it 'the green energy revolution'.

So what is the green energy revolution? Well, the green energy revolution is about doing something quite sensible and relatively simple. Yes folks, the next generation of power plants won't be huge monolithic structures in the countryside, they'll be small and they'll be in our towns and cities. Yes, the next generation power plants will be; cogeneration power plants! These amazing installations create heat for heating local buildings and water, and at the same time produce electricity, hence it is called combined or 'co' generation.

Whereas currently we produce electricity in giant power plants and allow all the heat to disappear up the chimney, cogeneration plants generate heat for the purposes of heating nearby buildings and water. The cool bit is that they produce electricity at the same time. Whereas our centralised national grid system wastes up to 2/3rds of the energy input (coal and gas) in lost heat and transmission, cogeneration plants only waste about 1/20th. Quite a saving.

Now, the other smart thing about cogeneration is that it fits in rather well with renewables. While wind and solar power fluctuate in the amount of electricity they produce, the cogeneration plant can generate the shortfall in electricity, diverting the heat to a number of different uses from heating buildings in the winter to swimming pools and space cooling in the summer. That's right. Cogeneration plants can use heat to cool buildings in much the same way that fridges use heat to cool the inside of the fridge. Combined with wind turbines and solar panels, cogeneration plants can make massive savings on gas consumption, CO2 emissions and heating bills. Sounds good, but is it realistic?

Well, in Woking, Surrey, the borough council undertook to implement a cogeneration energy scheme. The council set up 60 installations of wind turbines, solar panel arrays and cogeneration plants to power, heat and cool municipal buildings and social housing. Woking is now almost completely self sufficient in electricity and even produces it at a lower rate for customers in social housing. Their heating bills are also significantly below the national average. Most significantly the council has reduced it's CO2 emissions by a staggering 77%. Wow.

This energy system that embraces a combination of cogeneration and renewables has a name; it's called decentralisation. Decentralisation means lots of local power sources rather than a few centralised power sources. This is what is being called the 'green energy revolution'. It isn't really a revolution as the Netherlands and Denmark have been doing this for years and now generate 40% and 50% of their respective electricity supplies from decentralised sources.

It does give us a clue though as to why David Cameron and the Conservative Party have called nuclear power a 'last resort' and embraced what they call, 'the green energy revolution'. Decentralisation, or 'the green energy revolution' is also recognised by the government in the energy review published this week. They concede in the executive summary that 'local generation allows us to capture the heat and use it nearby' and 'to reduce the energy we loose in networks' and in combination with new technologies, 'could radically change the way we meet our energy needs'.

Decentralisation is universally seen as having huge potential. The green groups have, however, warned that nuclear power would divert much of the money needed away from investment in cogeneration plants and into giant centralised power plants, slowing the development of the energy revolution. David Cameron is, rhetorically at least, appearing to agree with them. The Liberal Democrats have also embraced the new thinking on energy, as have large sections of the Labour Party. Does this mean that Tony Blair stands alone in his quest to sustain the nuclear industry?

Don't be fooled. Conservative backbenchers will not so easily discard their love affair with nuclear power, and there is one crucial area of agreement between the government and David Cameron. Local planning laws stand in the way of a quick revival of nuclear power generation. The government intends to find ways to overcome this age old bastion of democracy, and on this crucial issue the Tories are with them. David Cameron might well clothe himself in the colours of Greenpeace to obtain green credibility, but the first victim in this great energy debate will be local democratic accountability. A strange form of decentralisation indeed.

8 July 2006

Powerful decisions at the heart of Europe

By Marguerite Finn

With the Prime Minister expected within days to say he has decided on new nuclear power stations, one wonders what it was that persuaded the Spanish government last month to phase out nuclear power altogether; and Portugal, next door, to resolve never to have it? Why, too, should Germany be so firmly against nuclear energy, while next door France plans more and more reactors?

All these countries with similar economies, are limited by the same broad resource parameters, have similarly burgeoning standards of living and power consumption, and inhabit the same part of the same climate-threatened planet. We are all threatened by the same awesome consequences of nuclear terrorism and we know that clouds of radioisotopes respect no national boundaries and the disposal of nuclear waste is a globally insoluble problem, not just a national one.

Over such a fundamental issue as power generation, how can there be such radically different governmental attitudes?

The prestigious German Öko-Institut shows, with its Global Emission Model of Integrated Systems (GEMIS), that for every kilowatt/hour of electricity it produces, nuclear uses over a kilowatt/hour of primary energy – that is, in trying to take a step forwards it goes more than a step backwards. So what is it about nuclear that compensates for that? Even dirty old coal produces nearly twice as many Kwh as it costs, and wind power produces more than 200 times as many Kwh as it costs.

Nuclear power can provide only electricity, not other forms of power, and in doing so it wastes two thirds of the energy generated as heat in the necessary cooling water and in transmission, so there must be some other strong reason for a passionately rationalistic Prime Minister to go for such a patently inefficient system of powering our affluent society.

It is electricity at the push of a switch that drives our culture in its headlong pursuit of more and more convenience, and Tony Blair knows that perfectly well – just as he knows that artificial light accounts for almost one-fifth of the world's electricity consumption, and that the global demand for electric light within 25 years is projected to be almost twice today's level, as the developing world scrambles to catch up with western levels. He also knows that the climate could never cope if that electricity were to come from the same sources as now, but also that the planet’s environment is every bit as seriously threatened by nuclear power, if he chooses that route. There are dangers in every direction.

It must in the end come down to a decision on the basis of the precautionary principle. For such decisions the quality of the information used is of paramount importance.

It is therefore ominous that Mr Blair is going for French nuclear know-how, in view of a report produced by the independent consultant nuclear engineer John Large, concerning the safety case for the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) the French are particularly interested in building. That safety case decided the containment of the reactor would withstand the impact of a military aircraft, so the reactor was therefore safe against terrorist attack. However the safety case was a carefully guarded secret, as is the French government's wont in les affaires nucléares, and only when it was leaked to Dr Large did he discover that the aircraft described would weigh only about 5 tonnes, whereas a large civil airliner full of aviation fuel would weigh about twenty times that much, yet such a possibility was not even mooted in the safety case. The Prime Minister would do well to heed his own Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which admits publicly that no nuclear power station is safe from some forms of wilful aircraft impact.

The PM must also bear in mind the advice of Sir Jonathan Porritt in the Sustainable Development Commission's report earlier this year that "it is essential for the government to allow the fullest public consultation in developing a policy on nuclear power. Not doing so would compromise the principle of good governance and risks a huge public backlash against top-down decision-making".

This is a message for us all: it must be our decision, not the government's, whether we go on increasingly illuminating our failing world towards its damnation, or whether we step back and think quality instead of quantity in our life-styles. People die of hypothermia in this country because 40% of our social housing lacks cavity wall insulation, yet we prefer to equip everyone with television so they may bathe in affluent advertising, rather than keeping them warm.

I am grateful to Peter Lanyon for help with this column.

1 July 2006

What if London were Gaza?

By Rupert Read

Amnesty International has issued a report in which they condemn the current massive Israeli attacks upon Palestine's Gaza Strip as war crimes.

It is no secret that Israel has been longing for an opportunity to delegitimise the Hamas administration governing the Palestinian Authority. Much as September 11th served as a pretext for the US to attack Iraq, so the hostage-taking of Gilad Shalit by unknown Palestinian gunmen appears to be functioning as a pretext for Israel to attack Palestine. There is an important difference, however: the Hamas administration in Palestine, very unlike Saddam, is an elected government. Even those who supported the attack on Iraq, in the name of democracy, should be horrified by Israel's blatant power play in Gaza, which has now seen a third of the Palestinian Cabinet, including the Deputy Prime Minister, kidnapped by the Israeli army.

Amnesty's report attempts to focus the eye of the world upon the enormous scale of the destruction and misery wrought by Israel’s armed forces, supposedly over the life of one man, upon an already highly impoverished and oppressed civilian population.

So I here attempt a simple 'thought-experiment'. I have taken part of the main text of the Amnesty report, and simply inserted the word London wherever the word Gaza appears in the original. I hope that this may bring home to readers the awfulness of what is now happening, as a supposedly civilised country attempts to batter the population of the giant open-air refugee camp next door – the Gaza Strip – into submission:
    "Deliberate attacks by Israeli forces against civilian property and infrastructure in London violate international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes. Israel must now take urgent measures to remedy the long-term damage it has caused and immediately restore the supply - at its own cost – of electricity and water to London's population in the affected areas. As the occupying power, Israel is bound under international law to protect and safeguard the basic human rights of London's population.

    "The deliberate destruction of all of London's electricity power stations, and of water networks, bridges, roads and other infrastructure is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and has major and long-term humanitarian consequences for the inhabitants of the city.

    "Almost half of London's inhabitants are now without electricity and water supplies have also been cut in several areas both by the lack of electricity, necessary to operate the water pumps used to extract and deliver water, and by the destruction of water mains as a result of the bombings of bridges and roads.

    "The extensive damage caused by Israeli artillery and air strikes against these facilities in recent days is estimated at tens of millions of pounds and will require months of work to repair. Unless alternative emergency measures are promptly put in place to restore electricity and water supply the consequences could be dire for the health of London’s population.

    "The destruction by Israeli forces of bridges and roads is slowing down, but not preventing movement between different areas of London. This causes disruption to London's civilians, who have to take long detours to reach their workplace, but it does not prevent the movements of armed groups - Israel's stated objective.

    "As the tension between Israel and the Greater London Authority and armed groups continues to mount, there is growing concern for the safety of the civilian population. High numbers of civilian bystanders, including women and children, have been killed and injured by Israeli artillery shelling and air strikes in recent weeks and months. This situation looks set to worsen in light of the end of the unilateral cease-fire which the armed wing of London’s armed defence-groups had been observing since last year.

    "According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, 'collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited' (Article 33) as is the destruction of private or public property, 'except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations' (Article 53). The Convention requires all states party to it to search for and ensure the prosecution of perpetrators of the war crime of 'causing extensive destruction … not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.'

    "'Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects' is also a war crime under Article 8 (b) (ii) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court."
What if all that is said above were true of London, and not of some miserable far-away non-country of which we know little? Why is that we tolerate this incredible abuse of a defenceless Arab population, while we would not for one moment stay silent over a similar abuse of some population of Britons? Why do allow these war crimes to happen, and remain on good terms with the perpetrators?

There is only one answer that I can think of, and it is not a comfortable one. It is this: an attitude, on the part of the media, mainstream politicians, and many ordinary citizens of this country, of casual racism. After all, those suffering are 'only' Arabs.

I urge all readers of this column who reject such racism to make a stand against what is happening right now, with the connivance of US and UK governments, in Gaza. One way in which you can do so, is to turn out to support the Peace Camp at the Forum in Norwich, all day Saturday 15 July. Don't stand silently by, as an oppressed people is threatened with large-scale racist assault.