23 December 2006

Love for sale?

By Rupert Read

Prostitution - such as that that has recently attracted national notoriety in Ipswich, because of its extraordinarily tragic and appalling consequences - involves a woman selling herself to a man. It's a pretty ugly matter. Some (e.g. David Prior, in the EDP earlier this week) say that legalising prostitution outright will improve the situation. Maybe. I am rather more impressed by the following idea: that, while nobody should be criminalised for having to make desperate choices to survive and feed themselves and their family, the buying of another human being for sexual purposes should be a crime. This is now the law in Sweden: such that it is the 'johns' - and not the sex-workers - who are targeted by the law. The activities of prostitutes are decriminalised; the activities of their 'clients' are not.

Legalisation? Or the Sweden solution? Or perhaps an intermediate policy, making the activities of prostitutes' clients a civil but not a criminal offence?

This is an important debate; but it is not the debate that I want to engage in today. I want to look deeper into the roots of this problem, to see, if we see prostitution as what it is, a peculiarly-unattractive commercial transaction, what factors underlie its demand and supply. For, if we understand these factors better, mightn't we be able radically to reduce both, so that this ugly and dangerous trade might be drastically reduced in volume?

Start with supply. Why are women selling themselves? Cheaply, desperately, dangerously? The answer, in the overwhelming majority of cases, can be summed up in two words: illegal drugs. Women will continue to put themselves in harm's way, as long as they have an illegal habit that costs a bomb and that they cannot get help with ending without placing themselves in a legal no-man's-land. According to a Radio 4 investigation, up to 95% of prostitutes in East Anglia are addicted to illegal drugs. We need to start treating drug-addiction as a medical problem, not as a crime. We need to have walk-in centres where people can get treatment on the NHS; and, until they are clean, they should be entitled to buy clean, legal, regulated drugs, just as they can in a pub or at a tobacconist's.

If young women could get heroin without having to rely on dodgy gangland dealers - and could get methadone on demand - then there would be far less of them willing to sell themselves over and over, to get their fix.

But now we need to look at demand too. 'Love' is only for sale because there are some who want to buy. Prostitution is sometimes termed 'the oldest profession'. But the plain fact is that there has been a huge expansion of prostitution in Britain (up to an 80% increase, according to government research), since the early 90s. Why? Because of consumerism and globalisation.

Globalisation results in people traveling much further to work. Local ties to family, community and loved ones are put under severe pressure. The result: more men whose lives are empty of intimacy, and who are therefore willing 'to pay for it'. Our consumer society turns everything into a commodity - sex is no exception. Advertising runs rampant; everywhere, there are messages tempting us with sex, telling us that if we buy their product, we will increase our chances of getting some. These messages create a sense of frustration, among many of those who don’t get to live the sex-drenched life that is constantly dangled before them on TV and even in the pages of newspapers…

In the long run, if we are to radically reduce the number of women selling themselves, we need to radically reduce the number of men wanting to buy. That will not happen, until more men are living fulfilled lives of quality, rather than empty relationshipless lives. And that's perhaps the most important result of thinking of prostitution as a market transaction: a society that marketises sex, as ours does relentlessly, can hardly be surprised when men want to buy it. And a society that leads men to think that women can be bought and sold is likely to produce a pathological minority of men who think that they can do what they want with their property. Such as, for example, strangle it.

To sum up: We need to offer medical help to women dangerously hooked on drugs, and, in the longer term, to re-localise our society, and re-invest life and community and love with meaning. So that men are no longer even inclined to get hooked on 'hookers'.

17 December 2006

A peace dividend for 2007

By Marguerite Finn

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, from those who are cold and are not clothed. The world is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes if its children."

Dwight D Eisenhower, President of the United States, 16 April 1953.

President Eisenhower's prescient words in 1953 went unheeded as the world drifted into the Cold War. His farewell speech in 1961 was laced with words of wisdom which are as relevant now as then: "In meeting (crises) - great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties." (The words shock and awe spring to mind!). With extraordinary foresight, the President warned: "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

There were hopes when the Cold War came to an end that reductions in arms expenditure would release large sums for investment in development and social programmes. This was to be the much-heralded and longed-for 'Peace Dividend'. It has still to happen.

The US military budget for 2006 was a massive $441 billion. The share of national income spent on US defence has risen steadily since President Bush took office – yet, in 2003, Pentagon officials admitted they couldn’t account for over a trillion dollars of past spending. Their inventory management was so weak it lost track of 56 airplanes, 32 tanks and 36 missile launchers! The head of the Washington Project on Government Oversight, said: "Another agency would have been closed down but the Pentagon is Teflon. Any challenge to the Pentagon is seen as unpatriotic." This regressive mind-set facilitated the disappearance of millions of dollars earmarked for the post-invasion 'reconstruction' of Iraq.

Things may be about to change. The Human Security Report (2005) listed a number of positive developments like the decline in international and civil wars since the end of the cold war. Greater global economic inter-dependence has increased the costs of cross-border aggression while reducing its benefits. The report highlighted a change in public attitudes to war. Prior to the 20th century, warfare was a normal part of human existence - for governments, it was an instrument of statecraft. Since 1990 there has been an upsurge in conflict management, conflict prevention and post-conflict peace building activities involving NGOs and the international community, spearheaded by the United Nations. The International Criminal Court was established to tackle the culture of impunity.

Today, the forcible acquisition of territory is universally seen as blatant transgression of international law, while resorting to force against another country is only permissible in self-defence or with the sanction of the UN Security Council. The 2003 Iraq invasion and the Israeli wall encircling Palestinian cities are just two deviations from this norm.

The end of the Cold War removed a major driver of ideological hostility from the international system. Rather than replacing one 'enemy' with another, to keep the military-industrial complex afloat (or submerged, in the case of our Trident nuclear submarine!), the challenge for governments is to change the concept of national security into one of human security.

Between now and March 2007, we have an unprecedented opportunity to highlight the benefits of a 21st century approach to security by cancelling any replacement for Trident. Every day we hear of hospitals, post offices and schools closing, inadequate old-age pension schemes, cash-less councils and climate-change horrors. Our way of life seems under threat – not from some evil 'enemy' abroad, but from the reckless mortgaging of billions of our hard-earned money on weapons of mass destruction we may never use and which breach every ethical imperative. Rather than providing 'insurance' against unspecified future threats, replacing Trident will increase the danger of nuclear proliferation and contribute to a new nuclear arms race – the logic being that all states need nuclear weapons to defend themselves, if we do.

The £25 billion needed to replace Trident could be better spent in providing 60,000 newly qualified nurses and 60,000 new secondary teachers for the next ten years and in tackling climate change – a far more realistic security threat.

There is time to make the right decision – having carefully considered the options in line with Britain's true security needs. Festina lente – hasten slowly – says the old Latin motto that I had to write out a hundred times, many years ago, as a punishment for racing down a school corridor!

10 December 2006

Peak Soil

By Rupert Read

On the last Tuesday night in November, I attended a Norwich City Council meeting with a difference: the evening began with a presentation on 'peak oil'. Norwich's Councillors were informed in detail about a problem which will have a huge impact on us all over the years ahead: the fact that the supply of oil is 'peaking', worldwide, and soon we will have less oil each year than we did the year before. The effects of peak oil will include less availability of oil for essentially frivolous uses such as cheap short-haul flights, and more expensive oil for more essential uses such as keeping our houses warm through the winter.

The One World Column has recently featured several articles on peak oil. The problem is becoming better known and understood, even though its impact is still less widely recognised than its 'twin': dangerous climate change (See Less oil - more climate chaos?).

My topic today is slightly different. It is a problem hardly anyone has heard of. In fact, I pretty much invented the name for it myself (although I then discovered that a few people out there on the internet had already thought of the idea). Peak soil. We may be at or already past the point where the supply of soil worldwide is at its peak or in decline.

Why? Why is the world at - or perhaps already - beyond 'peak soil'? The problem is intimately connected with the 'peak oil' problem...

Most agricultural production the world over today is highly intensive. It requires high energy inputs (e.g. oil to run tractors). Such agricultural systems are very vulnerable to the impending impact of peak oil. But the most crucial vulnerability of all is this: much of our soil, in such intensive farming systems, is oil. Because intensive farming uses lots of fertiliser. And many of the most widely-used fertilisers are made from oil.

If we are dependent upon oil for our fertilisers, which are maintaining the productivity of soils in ways and to levels which are not feasible using sustainable low-intensity agricultural systems, then what are we going to do once oil starts running out? The soil will start running out too... In other words: once oil supply has peaked, then our food supply will become vulnerable, too. Because our soil will suddenly start lacking an ingredient that our farmers have come to rely on.

The way out of this conundrum is to switch now to low-intensity, sustainable, organic farming methods. There is very little time to spare, given that 'peak oil' may be with us within a few years at most.

In fact, we should make this switch anyway, regardless of the coming of peak oil. Because peak soil may already have beaten peak oil to it. Soil from the world's croplands is being swept and washed away 10 - 40 times faster than it is being replenished. Astonishingly, an agricultural area the size of Scotland is destroyed every year. Soil is deposited at a rate of 1cm per 1000 years - and is currently destroyed by careless farming methods at a rate of 1cm each 10 years!

This vital resource - our soil - is something we need to husband more carefully than ever, at this time of ecological crisis. For, after all, soils are a key factor in regulating the Earth's carbon cycle. The amount of carbon stored in soils dwarfs that in vegetation. Increased 'fluxes' of carbon to the atmosphere, such as occur when wetlands are drained, contribute to the buildup of key greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide and methane, in the atmosphere.

We cannot afford to allow 'peak soil' to threaten our food supplies, and that most vital of all renewable resources: the soil itself. We need to be protecting our soil, and treating it the natural way rather than being reliant on feeding it with the undependable 'drug' of oil. So that our food supply can remain reliable even when 'peak oil' kicks in. And we need to avoid our soil declining and releasing its stored carbon. So that we don't add further to dangerous climate change, by willfully letting our soil degrade and release its stored carbon into our atmosphere.

The challenge of gradually building up our soil in a sustainable way will be a key challenge of the 21st century. The good news is that, although crop yields fall when one removes the drip feed of high-input oil-based fertilisers, the soil 'recovers', and yields rise again, after a few years of carefully - managed organically - based food production. So let's get started: on turning organic food from a niche market to the mainstream.

3 December 2006

Radioactive poison – a lesson for our times

By Liam Carroll

So, the personalised radiological weapon, capable of killing just one person, has finally arrived. The death of Alexander Litvinenko by radiation poisoning is said to be the first attack of its kind.

It has made headlines. It has created a climate of fear in which more than a thousand people have called the NHS helpline to seek assurances that they have not been contaminated by being in the same place at the same time as the now dead Russian.

Radioactive contamination has a relatively short, but bleak history. Indeed radioactive contamination begins with the discovery of radioactivity itself – Marie Curie, the principle pioneer in the field of radioactivity died from aplastic anemia, almost certainly due to massive exposure to radiation—much of her work had been carried out in a shed with no safety measures being taken, as the damaging effects of hard radiation were not yet understood.

But, in truth, this tragedy is not new. The hospital picture we have all seen of a healthy young man transformed in days into a pale, weak shell of humanity, dying from something invisible in his blood, is an image of the after-effects of radioactive contamination.

More well known incidents – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl – are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Indeed, deaths attributable to the Chernobyl incident are still occurring, some twenty years later. Nearly 400 farms in the UK, not to mention those in other countries, remain contaminated and are prohibited from rearing livestock for the human food chain.

There are many other incidents; reactor fires at Windscale in 1957, and Three Mile Island in 1979 resulted in substantial releases of radioactive substances. Atomic-bomb testing by the United States more than half a century ago converted the Pacific island of Bikini from a tropical paradise to a radioactive wasteland. Today, Bikini and other islands in the Marshall Island chain remain hazardous for living organisms, and those who once lived on Bikini remain Pacific nomads, as do their children and grandchildren.

A serious question emerges from these grim facts; are these incidents relics of the past stemming from a lack of a proper understanding of the dangers that we were dealing with – as in the death of Marie Curie – or is our continued relationship with nuclear materials condemning us to a serious incident sooner or later?

As far as the UK is concerned the threat cannot be dismissed. Only a week before the Litvinenko incident, the Foreign Office was briefing journalists on the dangers of terrorists staging a nuclear, or more likely a radiological attack, in the UK. This, thankfully, appears to be based on purely circumstantial information; there has been an increase of 'chatter' about such incidents on so-called jihadist websites. In reality, although limited quantities of radioactive materials are known to exist on the black market, they remain relatively scarce, and remote from the UK.

A more worrying possibility exists in the form of an attack on a facility used for storing radioactive materials. The Office for Civil Nuclear Security has recently had to upgrade its presence at nuclear sites such as Sizewell where armed guards have are relatively new phenomena. More recently still, a reporter from the Mirror newspaper was able to place a package on an unguarded train carrying highly radioactive waste, prompting further consternation from the authorities who have been compelled to reconsider the vulnerability of these highly dangerous materials.

Now here lies the cause for concern, for at the heart of the security system for nuclear materials there lays a conflict of interest; the same Government department that is responsible for setting the standards for security – and thus the costs to the industry – is the same Government department that is relying on the nuclear industry to build the nuclear power stations that it believes we now must have, the Department of Trade and Industry.

Alexander LitvinenkoLicensing for new nuclear reactors is still at an extremely early stage and little has been set in stone as far as security is concerned. In my opinion, the security of nuclear materials and installations should not be left to the same people that are falling over themselves to bring down the costs and speed up the planning process for nuclear new build. Topics of this nature are not purely of an academic nature – the DTi is holding a number of workshops and consultations on nuclear new build over the coming years, and the public are able to attend (see Nuclear Free Local Authorities, publications, critical reactions for further info). The picture of Alexander Litvinenko dying in his hospital bed is a personal tragedy. But perhaps it is a timely reminder to us all.