29 December 2007

Generation Less

By Rupert Read

How do we go from being Generation Stressed to what might be termed Generation Blessed? Since the term 'Generation X' was coined, one negative term after another has described the rising generation; how can we break the circle, and create a new generation that is… blessed?

That we are Generation Stressed is scarcely to be denied. To verify this, ask yourself when the last time was that, when you asked someone how they are, they replied, "Yeah, just fine; really relaxed. Totally unstressed." For some of us, I suspect it was sometime in the 1970s…

For, since about the 70s, our rising level of material standard of living has not translated into an improved quality of life. Stresses like job insecurity, an increased pace of life, rising environmental degradation (e.g noise pollution) and threats to our very future as a civilisation have cancelled out any benefit one gets from having more things.

As I write, the Christmas holiday is coming to an end. Isn't Christmas an exception to what I have been saying so far, one might ask? Isn't it a true de-stressor? No. Christmas is no different. For most, now, Christmas is just another stressor. Ask the Samaritans: there is perhaps more distress at Christmas than at any other time of year (just look at Christmas period suicide rates). And: Christmas is the ultimate consumerist binge. The ultimate example of the futility of a more, more, more! culture. Having more things doesn't make one happier.

I propose that the way to start to de-stress, is to see that one can actually be - if one has much less than virtually all of us in a country like contemporary Britain have. We can be rich, while living in every sense within our means; and, if we live with less, we have a chance of turning the tide, and showering blessings on our children and their children. We can create Generation Blessed, only by first becoming Generation Less.

'Generation Less': At first blush, it can sound negative. But being taught that what we need is more more more is what has made us Generation Stressed in the first place. The cult of consumerism is a treadmill – what used to be called the rat-race – that terminally stresses individuals, families, cultures, ecosystems. I stress terminally. The ultimate stress we are under is that cloud hanging over us in the form of a growing greenhouse gas-barrier in the atmosphere. Worse even than the threat of the mushroom cloud, or of the exhaustion of natural resources, the abundance of greenhouse gases is the ultimate stressor, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Our endless more is coming back to haunt us. To consume us. With each additional throwaway 'good' that is produced, we add another brick to the CO2 wall that we are throwing up around our planetary home, and bring terminal over-heat one step closer.

It is the rising tide materialism and consumerism that has brought us to this literal rising tide (the gradual increase of sea-levels that threatens us in East Anglia more than most). Generation Stressed is literally a product of 'the affluent society'. The way out of stress is through: less.

But less needn't translate into lack. Because: Less really is more.

Less stuff. Less waste. Less junk. Less impatience. Less marketing. Less competitiveness. Less working hours. Less travelling. Less carbon emissions. Less fear. Less mental illness. And yes: less speed, and less choice. The speed of life and the amount of choice we are faced with (think of absurdly large supermarket shelves) are making us distressed, ill. Just as they make the planet burn.

We're not talking about hairshirts and deprivation. We're talking in fact about a better way to live. The convenient truth is that the very things we need to do in order to stop climate catastrophe are the very things we need to do in order to become happier. Happiness comes not from affluence, not from material goods, but from the recreation of community, true security, and simple human kindness. As we relocalise our society, as we reverse the globalised madness that has brought us to the edge of catastrophe, we will willy-nilly water the seeds of well-being that have been withering since roughly the 70s.

Generation Blessed can come to us. But only if we take the road of Less. We know that, in the true sense of the words, less is more. So, in 2008, let's seize the day: let's be Generation Less.

22 December 2007

The land where the morning star dares not shine

By Marguerite Finn

On 1st December each year, a little ceremony takes place in a far off land. A flag is unfurled depicting the morning star and, for a few short minutes, a country dreams of what is must be like to be free. This year, the peaceful raising of the flag resulted in the immediate arrest and imprisonment of eight people. The morning star must not shine on West Papua.

It all stems from a broken promise which should have been fulfilled by 1st December 1970, the day when West Papua, a former Dutch colony, expected to become an independent state.

The Republic of Indonesia was created in 1949 when the Dutch granted independence to its colonised peoples. They retained West Papua, concerned to protect its Melanesian population and their distinct cultural characteristics. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, it carefully prepared the territory for independence.

The Indonesian government had other ideas. Backed by powerful Western allies, it laid claim to all the former Dutch territories – including West Papua – and the Dutch, bowing to pressure from the United States, entered into negotiations. In August 1962, an agreement was concluded between the Netherlands and Indonesia under which the Dutch were to leave West Papua and transfer sovereignty to the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA) for six years, until a national vote could be conducted to determine Papuan preference for independence or for integration with Indonesia.

Almost immediately, Indonesia took over the administration from UNTEA and the oppression of the West Papuan people began in earnest. A sham referendum was held in 1969, when just over 1,000 'representatives' hand-picked from a population of over a million, voted in the so-called Act of Free Choice to remain with Indonesia. The UN, bowing to the will of the US, UK and Australia, accepted the result. The West Papuans lost their independence. Today, Indonesia continues to exert its control through brutal repression and military occupation.

Imagine a land of incredible beauty and natural wealth: mountains, lakes, tropical forests – the last frontier in the battle for the environment. Imagine too, huge reserves of oil and natural gas, copper and gold and forests of timber – you can see how attractive such a land was to rapacious Western mining companies.

The US mining giant, Freeport McMoran was the first to get in on the act – followed closely by companies such as Esso, Shell, BP and RTZ. These multinationals struck a deal with the Indonesian military to depopulate and disinherit the Papuan people whose traditional rights to the land extended back millennia. Freeport McMoran established the world's largest gold and copper mine by destroying an entire river system in what had been a pristine rainforest providing hunting land and rich fishing for the local people. The Indonesian Government embarked on a policy of 'transmigration', funded by the World Bank, bringing in 'settlers' from other densely populated regions of Indonesia.

These newcomers forced Papuans off their lands, displaced Papuan businesses and assumed administrative control in what had been Papuan-controlled territories. Native languages, customs – even native clothing - were prohibited, reducing Papuans to a marginal existence, where they continue to experience killings, arbitrary arrests, rape and torture at the hands of the Indonesian military.

In what looks more and more like state-sponsored genocide, West Papuans have the lowest life expectancy in all of Indonesia. Access to clean water is a problem for seventy-five percent of the rural population. Not content with removing these basic human rights, the Indonesian government is targeting women in rural communities with a 'family planning' programme – using a dubious method of injectable contraception which the World Health Organisation fears may actually facilitate AIDS transmission and other communicable diseases. More than fifty percent of children under five are malnourished – all this in a land of plenty.

I was working in Australia in the 1960s at the very time when the West Papuans were being defrauded of their lands, yet I knew nothing about it. It has taken me decades to realise the enormity of what happened then while the world looked the other way.

Yet there may just be time to prevent the disappearance of the West Papuan civilisation. There are three things one can do immediately:
  1. Before 26 December 2007, sign the petition to the Prime Minister calling on him to urge the Indonesian Government to free political prisoners in West Papua.

  2. Ask your MP to persuade the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to put pressure on the Indonesian Government to halt the genocide of West Papuans.

  3. Contact the Free West Papua Campaign.

15 December 2007

Sometimes the law is an ass

By Juliette Harkin

On this day in 1791 the American government adopted the Bill of Rights as an amendment to the United States Constitution. Article 1 of this Bill recognised the right of people to "peaceably assemble" and to "petition government for redress of grievances".

These new rights didn't help the legendary Sioux leader Sitting Bull and his community, as they opposed the mass land grab and clearing of native Indians by American settlers and demanded a "redress of grievances" against them.

As with the African American slaves, the rights enshrined in the Constitution were of no use to the Sioux people. These rights were only extended to the white settlers. Sitting Bull was arrested on the 15th December in 1890 for his alleged involvement in resistance to giving up remaining Indian land and he was shot dead by Indian police loyal to the white settlers.

But today things are different, right? The injustices against the native Indians would not happen on our watch? But, who is watching? Well civil rights group Liberty are for one. They might beg to differ as we reassure ourselves that we have come a long way since the injustices of colonial rule and settlement and that dissent against such injustices would now be heard. As their website states:
    "Protest and free speech are crucial parts of political life, with a strong British history, yet a variety of measures undermine them. Laws intended to combat anti-social behaviour, terrorism and serious crime are routinely used against legitimate protesters".
We look back on history and admire the suffragettes who fought for the women's vote, William Wilberforce and the Quakers who played a role in calling for the abolishment of the slave trade, and Rosa Parks who, like all protestors since her time, have defied the 'norms' and the conservative tide to question injustice and demand a change.

Today, activists, protestors and even those following the 'wrong' religion at the wrong time, are often attacked, vilified and oppressed in our society and can be imprisoned with or without trial; as Liberty points out, free speech is one of the first victims in the 'war on terror'.

Now, it seems, we have to fight for our rights to ensure that they are not eroded. In March 2003 people exercised their right to protest against the bombing of Iraq, travelling to RAF Fairford for a rally they were stopped by police. In a landmark case in December 2006 the law lords ruled in favour of the protestors in what Amnesty International described as "a case of fundamental importance for the right to freedom of expression and peaceful protest". The police were found to have acted unlawfully in first delaying a coach load of demonstrators and then in forcibly making them return to London.

People are making thei voices heard but it comes at a great and often unjust personal cost. Protests here in Norwich at the entrance to a company producing weapons have ended in one anti-war campaigner being charged with aggravated trespass. Yet the concerns these demonstrators were trying to highlight are real – the arms trade kills. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) has stated that 2,000 deaths and injuries are happening daily around the world as a result of our acquiescence in dealing arms.

Brian Haw has spent over 2,300 days camped outside our Parliament in peaceful protest against the suffering of the Iraqis due to sanctions and war. Liberty have supported his right to protest and successfully appealed against charges that he was in breach of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) of 2005, new legislation that criminalised him.

SOCPA makes it illegal for a person or persons to protest within one square kilometre of the Houses of Parliament without prior written permission from the police. This has led to ludicrous situations in instances in which individuals have to have police permission to don the Red Nose and can be stopped for wearing t-shirts with political messages.

A prime example of the law being an ass and a reminder that we probably need to exercise our rights in order to keep them.

So: Let us not be quick to judge protestors as anarchists, hippies and criminals; there must be a reason why pensioners and mothers risk their liberty in order to raise real concerns about wars being waged, about the nuclear industry and about dangerous climate change – issues that do and will affect us all.

8 December 2007

Letter to the future

By Jacqui McCarney

Letter writing was never my forte, but I have just finished writing a letter to the future, 2050 to be exact, to my great grandchild, who, if statistical probability is anything to go by, is, at this time, approximately eleven years of age.

It is a letter, now wildly overdue, unfinished from a seminar, based on the teachings of scholar, activist and modern day prophet, Joanna Macy. The intention is of course; to bring our awareness back to our emotional connection with our descendants and at the same time, see ourselves from the perspective of future generations.

I have described to young Alfie, it helped to give him a name, what it is like living in 2007, at the time of what, Joanna Macy calls "The Great Turning" and more importantly what my part is in all this. Macy imagines that future generations will look back on this period as a time of "epochal shift from a self-destructive industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society".

If the science of climate change is right, and there seems to be, pretty well unanimous agreement about this from the scientific community, it does indeed look like we urgently need to be shifting away from growth and towards sustainability.

But this is not just about changing our behaviour; in order for these changes to be sustainable we need a revolution of consciousness. For two hundred years we have seen improvement as growth, expansion, speed and individuality now we must see improvement as stability, contraction, awareness and community.

Yes, technology might come up with magic solutions in a decade or two, which appears to be the hope of western politicians, most notably George Bush.

And the market might decide that catastrophic climate change is not good for business, but so far, market solutions are not promising, according to Naomi Klein, big investors are pouring money into private security and defence companies and not into sustainability. This gives rich countries and individuals the gadgets to fortress themselves against the effects of an increasingly unstable world.

Then what about China and India's carbon footprint? They are copying, what we of course started - industrialization, so let's hope enough of them also want to copy our powerdown solutions too.

Our responsibility to future generations is clear. While we are not entirely responsible for the state of our climate, we are the last generation who have any power to act and determine what the future might look like. There is no time for postponement, by the next generation it will be too late. The tipping point for runaway climate change is very close. Some scientist's say the window of opportunity is ten years, others say it may already be too late.

Whatever the case, there is still only one defensible solution, practically and morally, and that is to adhere to the recent United Nations recommendation to reduce carbon emissions in industrialised countries by over 80 per cent now. And in so doing begin to set in place the framework for a safe, sane, coherent - "life sustaining society" for our children.

Some are already trying to do just this. Transition towns, founded by Rob Hopkins, in Kinsale, Ireland, is now establishing itself in the UK and is attracting interest from across the globe. This is a planned, whole community descent, into a low energy life style, with reduced dependency on fossil fuels.

There are already twenty towns and cities with transition status and a further 90 undergoing the initial stages. This is not about sack- cloth and ashes but about making low carbon living imaginative, fun and community based. Rob says that the early stages is about "Unlocking the collective genius of the community" and this also involves the expertise of the older generation, who remember growing sustainable communities during the 2nd world war with minimal oil supplies.

We can co-operate our way through, or fight our way through the climate threats ahead. The time for deciding is running out and we must be quick.

Parenting by its very nature is an emotional investment in the future, and in the build up to the festive season, it is worth remembering that happiness this year is not enough we want our children to have the possibility of happiness in the future too.

I have just put a PS on Alfie’s letter. I asked him, if he is safe? I asked him if he had a garden - or if he had a gun. That answer is going to depend on what we do now.

1 December 2007

Can Europe establish peace in the Balkans?

By Liam Carroll

The European Union is conducting a bold experiment in South East Europe that is paving the way for enlargement and assimilation of the troubled former republics of Yugoslavia.

In the aftermath of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the bombing of Serbia by NATO, in 1999, the European Union developed a plan to integrate the region into its administrative orbit. While the final status of Kosovo, vis a vis its eventual independence from Serbia has exercised much concern about the renewal of conflict across the western Balkans, the bigger story is that the EU has embarked on a bold a experiment of assimilation that some have dubbed neo-colonialism and others are calling Empire.

The Stabilisation and Association process aims to bring all of the Yugolsavian republics, and Kosovo into Europe through a process of institution building, trade agreements, reconstruction assistance and policy co-ordination. Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo), Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Albania as well, have all signed up to the process and have all received development assistance from a broad range of international development banks and institutions, including of course the World Bank and the United States.

Some have branded the exercise as colonial, some as foolish and beyond the capacities of the EU, but all, including it supporters, recognize that there is indisputably a risk, if not in fact, multiple risks of the whole project going disastrously wrong The charges that Europe is creating an Empire stem from the fact that the High Representative in Bosnia, and the Special Representative in Kosovo, for instance, both have highly autocratic powers in being able to dismiss officials, virtually at a whim, and the powers to impose policies over and above elected officials heads. Furthermore, tribunals have been run by international judges, the police by a NATO and European gendarmarie, with economic and trade policy being controlled by international and European technocrats.

Defenders of the project, including former high representative, Paddy Ashdown, have defended the authoritarian nature of the project as necessary for bypassing the corruption and criminality that is endemic to the politicians and parties of the region. Where organized crime and corruption is endemic and private militias abound, they argue, handing over political authority to whoever managed to secure enough votes might essentially be handing state power and development assistance straight into the hands of gangsters.

Brussels has then, to a large measure, offered the Balkan states incentives to establish judicial systems, national assemblies, tax regimes, budgetary controls, and laws that, when met, will enable these societies to enter the EU. The states in question undergo regular monitoring on their progress and receive assistance and or have assistance removed, depending on the assessments of their European co-ordinators.

In seeking to establish working state institutions and a civil society, before allowing representatives from that society a chance to model and shape their own agreements, therefore, the project certainly runs the risk of floundering in the face of a lack of political acceptance in the host country. When functioning elected assemblies do emerge in those states then, representatives may well choose to reject the EU accession process, claiming quite legitimately, that the process was at no time subjected to a test of public approval. Some critics, therefore, point out that the whole venture will ultimately end up as a huge mass of development assistance poured down the drain.

Public acceptance is indeed a big issue, however Paddy Ashdown and others contend that it works in the opposite direction. They claim that the vast majority of the Balkan people want to join Europe and that it is the politicians that fail to represent the will of the people when they do not pursue the association process with sufficient vigor.

In the background however, lie the ominous ethnic tensions of the bitter war between the Serbs, Croats, Bosnias and Kosovars that could reignite at any time. For this reason alone the EU was compelled to act in some form or another, and in this instance it was surely better to have acted comprehensively, rather than half-heartedly. This recalls the peace process in Northern Ireland that to no small degree was furthered by EU development aid and assistance. There are undoubtedly serious questions to be asked about the legitimacy of processes conducted largely out of the public eye, however they must go hand in hand with the possibility that some people might actually be pleased to have a functioning administration delivered to their door, rather than having to, almost literally, fight for them. The European stabilisation project may indeed have some imperial aspects, but for want of any better ideas, it might also prove to be the best form of peacekeeping around.

24 November 2007

Climate change – or climate crisis?

By Rupert Read

I teach at UEA. One of my fellow academics there is the climate scientist Prof Mike Hulme who warns against using terms such as "catastrophe" in describing the potential future impacts of manmade climate change because he is concerned that the use of such alarming terms may disempower people.

Now, I agree that it is absolutely not enough to scare people. I agree that one needs to emphasise how the changes needed to stop man-made climate change are in themselves life-improving (e.g. that localising life rather than globalising everything will actually make us happier). And I agree that one needs to ensure that people don't think that the mountain is too big to climb: people need to be given tools to see that preventing catastrophic climate change is doable. But, by sticking to talking of climate change rather than of climate crisis and potential climate catastrophe, one is in fact playing the same game as the more subtle and intelligent of the climate-deniers. One is talking their language.

Steven Poole has shown this, in his important book Unspeak. Poole documents how the term 'climate change' became the term of choice for the Saudis, for the US oil companies, for the Republicans, displacing even the fairly anodyne 'global warming'. It is the very people who have wanted us to go on simply burning fossil fuels as if there was no tomorrow who have insisted that the issue be described as one of 'climate change'. Because, as leading Republican pollster Frank Luntz put it, in a secret document that was leaked: 'climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming'.

Frank Luntz wants us all to stay cool-headed over 'climate change'. A goal that he shares with Mike Hulme. I by contrast think that we ought to be mad as hell, and scared stiff. The big bad wolf is at the door, with a thousand hurricanes in his belly…

Already in places like Bangladesh and Ethiopia, the climate crisis is biting and killing. If and when we get devastating sea levels rises – the leading US climate scientist James Hansen is now warning of sea levels going up by several metres, this century, enough to drown much of London and East Anglia, unless we stop polluting our atmosphere with so much CO2 – then would anyone not call that catastrophic?

None of this involves crying wolf. This is simply telling the truth. Runaway climate change could within a century or so collapse civilisation on lifeboat Earth almost entirely, just as (for example) civilisation and population levels on Easter Island collapsed over a much-shorter period.

My proposal is straightforward. 'climate change' is an Orwellian euphemism, and should be dropped. To use that term is still to be in denial. We should speak honestly, instead. We should speak of 'climate crisis', 'global over-heating', and the risk of 'climate catastrophe'.

Prof Hulme wants to maintain scientific 'decorum'. But it is not the job of climate scientists to tell us how to describe what the human consequences would be of us ignoring their predictions. That is rather the task of artists, activists, politicians and philosophers.

'Climate change' is a criminally-vague and anodyne term that is dangerous for us to use. Talking instead about averting 'climate catastrophe' is not alarmism. It is simply calling things by their true names.

Why are people so reluctant to acknowledge that global over-heat is the ultimate slow-burning manmade weapon of mass destruction? The bottom-line, literally, is that it is notoriously difficult for people to understand things that their salary depends on them not understanding. There are hundreds of millions of people whose prosperity in the current set-up depends on our continued decadent use of fossil fuels or chopping down rainforests. It is so tempting to find ways of thinking that one doesn't have to change anything – that the science is wrong, or that there will be a techno-fix, or that it is too late to do anything about it anyway.

Let's not soft-pedal on the greatest threat that humankind has ever faced. Let's not fool ourselves by using warm words such as 'climate change' (or indeed 'global warming', which still to my ears sounds pretty misleadingly-pleasant. I meet lots of people this time of year who say things like, "Yeah, we could use a little global warming around here!"). In the emergency that we are in, let's at least talk in a way that reminds us regularly that it is an emergency.

Parts of this article are drawn from a piece previously published in the Guardian.

17 November 2007

Nuclear liability: time to address the imbalance

By Marguerite Finn

"The one area where nuclear energy does receive an effective subsidy is in state support for insurance against the cost of a major nuclear catastrophe." (Malcolm Grimston in 'Nuclear energy – unlocking the market potential', 2006)

On 6th November 2007, Her Majesty The Queen pronounced the words "My Government will introduce legislation to provide clean, secure and affordable supplies of energy". The main aims of the Energy Bill are (a) to strengthen the market framework to help ensure secure and affordable energy supplies and (b) to encourage a diverse, secure supply of electricity while at the same time reducing carbon dioxide emissions. There is one important word missing from the description of the energy the Government aims to supply. It is the word safe.

Safety applies to all energy production but to none more so than nuclear energy – which is fraught with danger at every stage of the nuclear cycle and which is why nuclear power is so unpopular. To pacify and encourage a reluctant and suspicious public anxious not to see their money spent on unnecessary and dangerous nuclear technology, the Government has assured us that: "if it is decided that it is in the public interest to allow private sector investment in new nuclear power stations, the Energy Bill would create a framework that will help protect the taxpayer by requiring owners or operators of a new nuclear power station to make financial provisions to cover the full decommissioning costs and their full share of waste management costs". OK – that's better than the current situation where the public has to foot the bill. Yet, there is a word missing here too – insurance. Who pays the insurance policy against nuclear accidents? This insurance is often referred to as the nuclear sector's 'silent subsidy' and we don't talk about that – but we should talk about it because you and I are currently paying for it!

Insurance is something we grapple with frequently in our daily lives: whether it is chasing the best deal on car insurance (to protect us and our possible victims in the case of an accident), insuring our diamond rings or arguing with the water company as to who is liable for the drains between the house and the road – it is a tiresome but essential part of our lives. It is fair too that large companies whose waste products may cause severe damage, cover all such third party costs. Why then is the nuclear industry, so uniquely capable of catastrophe, exempt from this liability – which is currently underwritten by the taxpayer? At present, international insurance regimes only require that nuclear operators pay, in the event of a nuclear accident, a small fraction of the potential claims. The rest would have to be paid by the Government or not paid at all.

This may be about to change. On 5th November, Anthony Froggett, an independent consultant on European Energy Policy and Simon Carroll from the Centre for Biological Diversity, in Sweden, presented a paper entitled The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon Constrained World, arguing that there are "seriously inadequate nuclear liability and compensation arrangements currently in place across the various EU Member States". They suggest there is a "need to introduce new liability and compensation arrangements that reflect the actual potential costs of nuclear accidents, that would fully compensate damage caused in the event of a nuclear accident and which would eliminate this significant subsidy to nuclear electricity generation". So far, attempts to raise the minimum nuclear liability by even a modest amount have been fiercely resisted but the European Commission now wants to address the whole issue of nuclear third party liability. This presents a real opportunity to develop and implement a fairer, more efficient and effective nuclear liability and compensation scheme to the benefit of all.

The lack of such a requirement produces the biggest market distortion in the electricity sector. If nuclear operators were required to pay their own nuclear insurance, the cost of nuclear electricity production would significantly increase – and this would be reflected in the true cost of nuclear energy.

Renewable energy generators do not enjoy this economic protection. They have to take out insurance to cover the risk of potential damage to the environment and the public. This makes them seem less 'competitive' than nuclear energy – although the reverse may be the case.

The consequences of a nuclear accident are of such an order of magnitude compared to any other accident, that the international community should make absolutely certain that – if nuclear power really is necessary – the nuclear industry should cover all the risks itself with adequate insurance.

10 November 2007

Stand up for journalism

By Juliette Harkin

Reporters Without Borders catalogues the most feared 'predators' of press freedom in its infamous hall of fame. All the usual suspects are featured, from Musharraf's new Pakistan and Burma’s military to Nigeria's State Security Council. At any given time journalists around the world are being harassed, held without charge, beaten and some murdered for doing their job. In these cases it is the direct hand of the government, leaders and military who can be blamed for the flagrant disregard for freedom of the press.

People are risking their lives to impart knowledge about the every day events in our world. Article 19 reminds us in its global campaign for free expression that:
    Freedom and expression and a free and independent media constitute crucial actors in the development process and the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. The full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression is the most potent force to strengthen peace and pre-empt conflict. It is central to achieving individual freedoms and developing democracy and plays a critical role in tackling the underlying causes of poverty.
The state of the media is one of the key indicators as to the health and authenticity of a democracy and should serve as a source for knowledge and education.

And yet journalists continue to suffer at the hands of controlling governments. Egypt's courts have been kept busy over the last months in dealing with cases of journalists covering things that the government doesn't want them to – notably local corruption and speculation about the health of President Mubarak. Editors working on the few seemingly independent newspapers are being sentenced to hard labour for damaging the interests of the state.

In fact what is happening is that these journalists are continuing to push and push the boundaries of what is acceptable in Egypt's historically controlled state media environment. If any 'crime' is being committed at all, it might be ceded that the editorial process has not been strong enough to ensure that their reports can stand up. This should lead to action on raising professional standards not imprisonment.

Some countries of course don't even bother with the pretence of a judicial system. In Afghanistan and Burma journalists are simply killed if they become troublesome, in Iraq we are all too familiar with the grim reality of a complete breakdown of order resulting in assassinations of journalists going about their daily work. The committee to protect journalists keeps a score card – 56 deaths worldwide so far this year. Western governments certainly shouldn’t be let off the hook. Media organisations are not and should never be seen as acceptable military targets or collateral damage. The attack on al-Jazeera in Baghdad that killed Tariq Ayoub in 2003 is a case in point. The fact is that al-Jazeera and other channels were airing the unpleasant reality of war, including the high number of civilian deaths and the rising American body count.

Our journalists at home are safe, but we should not be too complacent. There are now ever greater challenges for journalists in this era of news on demand, interactive formats and so-called dumbed down information for increasingly busy people. In a paper entitled Do you get what you want? the European Federation of Journalists, the Association of Professional Journalists (AJP) and the Flemish Association of Journalists (VVJ) have come together to tackle what they see as some of the most pressing issues in the profession of journalism today. Working conditions and the creeping influence of commercial considerations are highlighted as of growing concern.

The lines between profit and content are blurring and the National Union of Journalists recently went as far as to call for a new 'Berlin Wall' to be erected to protect the journalists from the cut and thrust of the advertising budgets that pay for their newspapers. Meanwhile those striving for the highest standards of reporting, such as Le Monde Diplomatique, struggle with financially because they are operating with a clear conscience.

The International Federation for Journalists website quotes Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe Thomas Hammerberg as saying that "even in Europe's democratic heartlands governments and media employers were undermining scope for quality journalism". Along side attacks and harassment of journalists in Sudan, Article 19 publishes its latest report on concerns about free expression here in the UK. We are not immune and take our media and journalists for granted at our peril.

3 November 2007

Hidden dynamic to Kurdish conflict

By Liam Carroll

Analysts of Turkish politics have identified the Prime Minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government as a potential casualty if the Turkish-Kurdish conflict seriously escalates any time soon. In this light, Prime Minister Erdogan's threats to take military action in Iraq against the PKK should be understood as an attempt to avoid military action in Iraq, rather than as a serious desire to instigate it. In times of great tension, all is not always what it seems, and if ever there were a field in which perceptions can out maneuver realities, it is surely politics.

To understand who benefits from war it is quite often necessary to understand the political dynamics of a situation and how they might change in the event of conflict.

There is a general consensus that an escalation of violence in the current scenario would increase divisions between Turks and Kurds in Turkey and restore the role of the military to its preeminent place as defender of the nation's security. To be sure, the military has been suffering a declining role in the Turkish government recently due to constitutional changes being made by Erdogan and the AKP.

Recently the military also suffered a humiliating defeat over the selection of a conscientious Muslim President, whom they opposed. When the AKP held an election over the issue they won convincingly, increasing their share of the vote to 47%, over the old secularist elite and their military colleagues. The treasured secular nation of the Turkish nationalists, as founded by the revered patriarch Kemal Ataturk, was thought to be under threat from this new popular party, some of whom, including Erdogan and the new President, have Islamist origins.

The AKP are also avowed Europhiles and advocate improving human rights and granting the Kurds unprecedented cultural recognition. Yasar Buyukanit however, who is chief of the armed forces, is deeply skeptical about the European Union which he believes supports Kurdish nationalism and a continued subordination of the military to civilian rule. The very same Buyukanit also made cryptic references to "crafty plans" to "destroy the gains of modernity" in the wake of the struggle over the presidency.

The success of the AKP has been built partly on their ability to respond to the needs of the majority population by improving Turkey's economy and developing poorer districts and supporting the rural workers who have migrated to the cities.

This popularity has also been replicated in Kurdish provinces where the AKP won over 50% of the vote. By contrast the PKK performed poorly in the heart of their recruiting territory. In these poorer southeastern provinces the AKP government has boosted its popularity by extending free health care and schoolbooks. It is also thought that Prime Minister Erdogan believes in solving the Kurdish problem peacefully and through the recognition of ethnic Kurdish identity. The PKK may also have lost votes from the fact that they are a secular organisation, whereas most Kurds are in fact Muslims, like the AKP.

Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP have built a new political constituency in Turkey based on subordination of the military, improved rights for Kurds and economic liberalization that has brought prosperity to those outside the traditional political elite. A Turkish analyst, writing in the New York Review of Books on 27 September, welcomed these changes but pointed out that both the PKK and the Turkish military are loosing important political ground to Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP. The writer goes on to point out the PKK might try to increase its attacks on the security forces in the hope that the reaction from the military might help radicalize normal Kurds, who are otherwise fed up with the war.

The same writer, and others also see the Turkish military as being potential beneficiaries from an escalation in fighting. This view stems from the belief that a major conflict would end Turkey's chances of EU accession, return the military to its traditional role as defender of the nation's security, and undermine Kurdish support for the ruling AKP and the Prime Minister, Erdogan.

In this situation Erdogan may well know that to authorize a major military campaign abroad could well undermine his support at home. Alternatively if he fails to take military action, then the military might have an excuse to remove him, as others have been removed before. It is a great irony that militants from behind opposing battle lines can sometimes work together to achieve the same end; in this case the perpetrators may be but a handful, but the list of casualties could be huge, including Turkish democracy.

27 October 2007

The Turkish war on terror

By Liam Carroll

Do terrorists punch above their weight? The latest bout of fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish Workers Party near to the northern Iraq border is only the most recent example of a relatively small guerilla force of a few thousand fighters potentially instigating a major regional crisis.

A dozen Turkish citizens murdered in cold blood and scores of soldiers ambushed, blown up or killed in combat in one year alone has rightly angered the Turkish public, but like other comparable situations it would be absurd if the death of a hundred or so people led to a virtual Turkish invasion of northern Iraq, as has been threatened, which might lead to the death of far greater numbers of innocents.

An underreported aspect of the current conflict is the fact that the Turkish military has made major incursions into northern Iraq before, in pursuit of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) fighters, and has singularly failed ever to eliminate this enduring guerilla force. In 1997 Turkey sent 50,000 troops into the Kurdish area of Iraq with the support of local Kurdish parties who had also complained of PKK interference in their region, and several thousand troops have since remained. The campaign was unsuccessful, as had previous campaigns been which had shocked fellow NATO members for their high levels of aggression and abuse that included village burnings and torture.

As for the war in Turkey against the PKK, which has lasted over 20 years and resulted in 37,000 deaths and included thousands of village clearances, it has become evident that eliminating the PKK is no simple task. While the authorities in Baghdad, and indeed the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq have condemned the PKK actions and closed offices there, they are probably quite genuine in their protests that they have limited scope for action given the difficult terrain of the region and the considerable burden of other pressing security issues.

In short, after 20 years of a fruitless guerilla war in southeast Turkey and Iraq, and one that has brought massive condemnation upon their heads from allies and human rights organizations for the criminal manner in which they have conducted much of that campaign, Turkey might have to think more seriously about an alternative approach. Difficult as it may be, it has become almost a cliché of conflict resolution, of which the US military commanders in Iraq have become the latest advocates, you cannot have peace without a comprehensive political settlement.

Now, much as we may sympathise with Turkey for the current round of attacks and fatalities, there can be little doubt that they have treated the Kurdish minority, which is in the region of 16 million people or so, extremely harshly in the past. Indeed a comprehensive campaign of repression of Kurdish identity, including language and political expression, predated the resort to force by the PKK by over ten years. Since that time village burnings, torture and extra-judicial killings have become the tools of the Turkish campaign.

Turkey has moved in recent years to improve Kurdish representation in parliament, allow the Kurdish language to be taught in schools and the courts have upheld complaints by Kurds against the security forces. Turkish moves toward EU accession certainly appears to have encouraged the authorities to recognize Kurdish grievances, but reports of continued impunity for crimes committed against Kurds, amongst many other injustices, suggests that they remain far from being respected equals.

Now whether Turkey imagines that it really can make a clean sweep of the PKK with Iraqi Kurdish assistance or not, human rights organizations have warned that it would be premature to imagine that Turkey has made good its relationship with the Kurds domestically. Thus any temporary military success over the PKK now is unlikely to be the end of the matter if it is not accompanied by a long-term political settlement.

More alarmingly, trying to tackle the legacy of past repression through further use of force might end up adding woefully to another Kurdish communities problems if the cycle of violence, which might start as a disciplined counter terrorism operation, were to escalate in a fashion with which we are all too familiar with by now.

Turkey's NATO allies and the KRG are right to urge restraint and must do what they sensibly can to bring the PKK to the negotiating table, however the current crises cannot be entirely separated from historical injustices. This is a point that Turkey should be encouraged to recognize less they let their sense of injury destroy the political gains that have been acquired at great cost, both inside Turkey and out, but are not yet complete and indeed still remain, precipitously fragile.

20 October 2007

Biofuels may cause even more starvation

By Jacqui McCarney

A strange catch for a fisherman, a human body; catching a human in your net is no longer that unusual for fishermen fishing the waters of the Mediterranean. Nor is it unusual for bodies to be washed up, shockingly bloated or half starved on tourist beaches.

Two million people try to enter the European Union illegally each year and 2,000 of them drown in the Mediterranean. Exact figures are uncertain because nobody is counting and nobody seems to care.

These are desperate people, fleeing hunger and famine, in open overcrowded fishing boats at the mercy the open seas, dehydration, sickness and starvation.

Those who survive the misery of the sea journey, often too weakened to stand are nevertheless, processed, held in detention centres and forcibly repatriated to their own countries, back to the certain starvation by countries like Italy and Spain.

Why? When the world has never been richer, when we can produce enough food to feed twice the world's population are people still dying from hunger? This situation has "outraged" Jean Ziegler the Special Rapporteur on the "right to food" at the UN.

He highlighted the problem of worsening starvation at the UN Food and Agricultural organisation (FAO) last Tuesday, October 16th, World Food Day.

The Millennium Development goals and hugely popular Make Poverty History campaign are no more than ashes, far from reducing global hunger, the problem of hunger is growing. Every year more than six million children die from hunger before their fifth birthday and that figure is set to rise over the next few years.

Few of us are under any illusions about the connection between the wealth in the Northern hemisphere and the starvation in the Southern hemisphere. Climate change is the latest addition to the already deadly mix of unfair trade agreements, liberalized trade rules and third world debt. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that by 2050, there may be 150million environmental refugees – people forced to leave lands because of increasing desertification and land degradation linked to global climate change.

Despite fine speeches, even fewer can still believe that Western governments had or have ever had any serious intention of tackling world hunger, or of even of fostering the conditions in which hunger would be reduced.

Any remnants of hope in the good intentions of western governments towards the poor of the world could be dashed forever in April 2008.

That will be when the UK carries out its part of the EU directive on Biofuels. The government will mandate 2.5 per cent to all transport fuels to be biofuels rising to 5% in 2010 and over 10% by 2020.

Biofuels are presented by European governments as being part of their solution to climate change. Yet, it is increasingly clear that they destroy forests, displace people, cause starvation and damage the climate. When our government claims to be going green, they are in fact causing huge suffering.

Leading up to this year's World Food Day, Jean Ziegler, has been highlighting the growing impact of biofuels on those most of risk of starvation. He says "It's a total disaster for those who are starving". Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute, has said "the stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world's 2 billion poorest people."

Already food prices are rising, peasant farmers are been pushed off their lands, forests are being cleared, water is been diverted for mass growing of crops for fuel and slave wages are paid to local people while the agro – industrial monopolies grow rich with the help of western governments.

Jean Ziegler sees the problem of the growing number of hunger refugees, increasingly linked to climate change, and emerging negative impact of biofuels on the right to food, as one than can not be solved until western governments begin to take responsibility for ending global starvation.

Therefore, he is calling for those fleeing hunger to be given refugee status. He is calling for an end to the criminalisation of migration which leads to increasing violations of the right to life and the right to food. It is only by recognising "refugees from hunger" that western governments will feel a real need to find solutions.

He is also, along with an increasing number of non-government organisations, calling for a global 5 year moratorium on the expansion of biofuels, until the potential social, environmental and human rights impacts can be fully examined.

Here is the UK consumers increasingly want the choice to consume ethically, yet after April there will be no choice about using biofuels. Those biofuels may well be causing people starve. How ethical is that?

13 October 2007

Keeping peace in space?

By Marguerite Finn

Q. What can a peace activist from North Yorkshire, Sir Menzies Campbell and an American nun possibly have in common?

The answer is a mutual repugnance against the militarization of space. Today is the last day of Keep Space for Peace week during which these three people, representing an 'activist', 'political' and 'scientific' approach, have been campaigning for a common goal.

Q. What does the 'militarization of space' actually mean?

It all began fifty years ago, in October 1957, when the launch of the Sputnik Satellite changed the world forever. Even then, Sputnik aroused fears of an arms race in outer space and the friendly peep, peep of the satellite as it passed over Norfolk was translated by the more paranoid members of US Space Command into a future threat to the interests of the USA.

Ten years later, in October 1967, the UN passed the Outer Space Treaty, which sought to ensure the peaceful uses of space for the benefit of all mankind. The United States however, has rapidly and unilaterally continued to militarise its own considerable space assets. It has utilized space to fight wars on Earth and to develop a prompt global strike capacity to achieve "full spectrum dominance" in land, sea, air and space. A statement on 3rd October 2007, from the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in Geneva, says "These provocative policies are instigating a new and deadly arms race which will devour resources needed for sustenance of human life, bring death and devastation and very possibly lead to a global war more devastating than the Earth has yet known".

Q. What does a peace activist from North Yorkshire have to do with any of this?

The peace activist is midwife, Lindis Percy and she will be actively protesting today, outside the USAF base at Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire, against the militarization of space. The UK Government quietly slipped out a statement in July giving the US permission to install additional equipment at Menwith Hill to support its missile defence system. Later this month, nearby USAF Fylingdales will switch on its upgraded radar to "contribute to the US ballistic missile system." The base will be part of a deadly space weapons system known as Operation Phoenix, which Lindis believes must be stopped, in the interests of human security and peace.

Q. And where does a senior politician like Sir Menzies Campbell come in?

In an article published in the Yorkshire Post on 20 September 2007, Sir Menzies castigates politicians and commentators who work themselves into a frenzy about power-sharing in Europe "and yet remain largely silent over the transfer of British sovereignty in crucial areas of national security to the United States". As he says, "There has been no public debate in Britain about the desirability or workability of missile defence, let alone the strategic assumptions that underpin it". What perturbs Sir Menzies is the continuation and expansion of American enclaves on British soil, protected from Parliamentary scrutiny or public debate. US bases like Menwith Hill and Feltwell in Norfolk are effectively outside the control of the British authorities. Sir Menzies argues, "The drive towards missile defence in Washington is driven by a mixture of industrial and military interests - the British Parliament has the duty to question whether such motivations are compatible with British interests".

Q. What does the American nun say?

Quite a bit. As well as being a member of the religious congregation the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, Dr Rosalie Bertell has a doctorate in biometrics and has worked in the field of environmental health since 1969. In her gentle and persistent way she has rocked the male-dominated world of nuclear physics and the military-industrial complex. Her latest book, Planet Earth – the Latest Weapon of War, warns us against the weaponisation of space.

As well as documenting the adverse effects of military experiments on the earth’s atmosphere, Rosalie shows how the habit of choosing violence as a first response to a threat has manifested itself as an addictive and ultimately self-destructive policy. She explains that, as in overcoming any addiction, the first step is for society to admit that we have become addicted to war. "Wars require the cooperation of civil society - involving universities, trades unions, governments and media. All of this cooperation could be withdrawn by a society determined to change the course of violence". Rosalie's vision is for a world where reverence for life is valued more than the ability to kill efficiently.

When three disparate voices argue together for the same thing, surely it is time to listen?

7 October 2007

Let the refugees in

By Juliette Harkin

"I went to the House of God and returned yet I found nothing like my home" - An Iraqi Proverb

You can take a ride from central Damascus in a small 'micro' van packed with workers and travel to Sayyida Zeinab, a popular district of Damascus and home for mainly Shi'a Iraqi refugees. At the entrance to the gold domed mosque foreign women can don the black Abaya, the long black cover worn by some Iraqi and Iranian women, and visit the holy shrine of Zeinab, which houses her remains. Zeinab was the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed, daughter of Ali the fourth Caliphate. Shi'a Muslims make the pilgrimige to mourn the assassination of the fourth Caliph and the 'betrayal' against Ali's family at a time that saw the Shi'a and Sunni split of Islam.

Syria has received many waves of Iraqi refugees throughout recent history, from those fleeing the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam's regime, the first Gulf war, the crippling sanctions and now the current violence as a result of the second American-led war on Iraq.

A steady flow of Iraqi refugees arrive in Syria and Jordan, the earlier and relatively wealthy now joined by the impoverished, by those who fled with nothing, in fear of their lives – journalists, those who worked with the occupation forces, foreign embassies or NGO's, victims of torture, and anyone living in the wrong side of the new sectarian divides that carve up Iraq’s towns. They are all waiting to go home and hoping to make a life until their country is safe.

Umm Ashraf and Abu Ashraf (the mother and father of Ashraf), a retired Iraqi couple are still waiting, as Christians they were too scared to return. I first met them in 2003; they greeted me warmly, shaking my hand saying what sounded like a thousand ways in Arabic to say hello, ask after my health and thank God. They invited me for tea and sweet biscuits. They had just returned from church in the picturesque old Christian quarter known as Baab Tooma in the old city of Damascus.

Abu Ashraf said they hoped to join their daughter and her family in Australia. They showed me a brochure of Australia and seemed happy that they would leave the confines of living in one room. They missed home and worried constantly about their son and family still in Baghdad.

This summer Sharouk Dillaa, an Iraqi involved in women's human rights came to talk in Norwich. She reeled off some extremely grim figures. One hundred women every day lose their husbands to the sectarian violence on the streets or the brutality of the occupation. There are five million Iraqi war orphans and every day four hundred more children are orphaned.

Over four million Iraqi's have had to leave their homes. The UNHCR is describing this as "the world's fastest growing displacement crisis".

Amnesty International issued a report in September 2007 urging those responsible for going to war with Iraq to now help in the resettlement of Iraqi's who cannot return to their war torn countries. Amnesty says there is a "moral obligation" to intervene and provide the necessary funds and a safe haven for a nation of people totally traumatised by war, in fear of their lives and lacking the basic food and health needs.

The international community is largely ignoring this dire situation. Promising insufficient funds and setting tiny quotas, countries like the UK and the USA are put to shame by the relative generosity of Syria and Jordan. Amnesty International commended Syria for taking in 1.4 million Iraqis and Jordan over 500,000. By contrast, the UK will allow just 750 refugees to resettle in the UK under its Gateway Protection Programme. The USA is reneging on its commitment to take in 25,000 and now talks of maybe taking in… just 2,000.

Our politicians assume we don't want any more foreigners here in Britain, taking our jobs and welfare benefits. Jordan and Syria suffer high levels of absolute poverty yet Jordanian officials recently estimated that they spent $1 billion on coping with the Iraqi refugees. Syria has allowed all Iraqi children free education, emergency medical treatment and offered a safe haven for families from a war that they have always opposed.

Today Abu and Umm Ashraf are still in Damascus, living in one room, waiting. They are the lucky ones, they have food and shelter and their son in Baghdad is still alive. Their country is in ruins. Shame on us for closing our doors to refugees who watch in despair as their country is completely destroyed by the war that the British government initiated.

Iraqi names have been changed to protect their privacy.

29 September 2007

Will the next war be in Syria?

By Liam Carroll

The winds of change are blowing through Syria and Lebanon and there is now much speculation about the internal power structures of these two relatively young countries. Opinions seem to vary as to who rules Syria and what their role is in supporting the Iraqi insurgency, Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and several other candidates on the United States most wanted list. Throw in political assassination in Lebanon and you can understand why there is a body of opinion in Washington that believes Syria should be confronted more forcefully. A mysterious Israeli air strike in Syria some three weeks ago, for which concrete details remain elusive, are believed by some to be a beginning toward just such a confrontation.

Intimately related to the question of Syria is the question of who rules Lebanon. Although Syrian troops were forced to leave Lebanon in 2005 it is well known that they left a Syrian dominated intelligence service behind. Although some key Syrian intelligence officials have stepped down, the extent of continued military influence remains unknown. Western experts believe that the pro-Syrian military intelligence was running Lebanon as a private fiefdom, and to some degree still is.

Lebanon is however moving increasingly toward a more independent and sovereign state, despite the large number of assassinations and bombings that have targeted the anti-Syrian political community in recent years. Although there is no shortage of suggested candidates for the murders, from al Qaeda to Israel, the old pro-Syrian intelligence agencies are the most widely suspected. Whether Lebanon can endure yet another assault on its sovereignty remains to be seen, however in the wake of last years assault by Israel the signs are that the appetite in Lebanon for internal peace is strong. If Lebanon can sustain civil relations between its many factions and select a new President before the end of November, then the prospects for peace in that country are surely much improved.

The fate of Lebanon could, however, be contingent on events in Syria, and perhaps more importantly, on how Washington deals with those events. The big question in Washington appears to be whether or not Syria is more useful to US foreign policy in the region with President Bashar al Asad at its head, or whether they would be better off without him. Bashar al Asad comes from a minority Shiite sect (Alawite) and owes his position as President to his fathers rise through the army ranks and the ruling Baath Party. In power since his father’s death in 2000, Bashar, still at the relatively young age of 42, is considered by many to be unable to exercise authority over many elements in his regime, including that of the private fiefdom in Lebanon.

Senior officials in the US, including President Bush have been careful not to blame Bashar directly for the Lebanese bombs, and have vacillated between criticism and muted praise for his efforts in stemming the flow of insurgent activity across the Syrian-Iraq border. The hawks in Washington maintain that Bashar is still sanctioning cross border transfers while others maintain that he is simply powerless to prevent them. A similar division of opinion exists over the presence of militant organizations in the Syrian capital Damascus. Hizbullah and Hamas are popular in Syria and part of Bashar's legitimacy as a leader stems from his support for these organizations, leaving him no choice but to accommodate them.

Pro-democracy elements in Syria itself have warned against attempts to remove Bashar claiming that he has a genuine desire to reform and modernize Syrian society but is highly constrained by far harsher elements in the security apparatus who do not want change. They would go so far as to suggest that the bombs in Lebanon carried a message not just for Lebanese society, but also for Bashar himself.

There are elements in the US foreign policy establishment that would like to remove Bashar and bomb Syrian military assets. There are others that caution against such radical action on the grounds that Syria is a secular regime that, in spirit at least, if not in deed, is an ally both in stabilizing Iraq and in containing more violent Sunni militants such as al Qaeda and Fatah al-Islam. That Lebanon also might go up in flames again is another argument in favour of caution they argue.

For most of us the idea of smashing up another part of the Middle East with very little idea of what the outcome might be would of course be criminal insanity. The recent Israeli air strike in Syria and subsequent US talk of ‘nuclear facilities’ however, suggests that the debate in Washington hasn’t quite yet reached the same conclusion.

22 September 2007

Beautiful science explains climate

By Andrew Boswell

The greatest science can be understood by its simple relationship to the world. When something can be seen, heard or experienced through other senses, then we trust it.

As children develop spatial awareness, they start to understand how 'things' work. It's a wonderful experience to watch children as they explore the world, and a great moment for parents when share that Eureka moment as their child first sees a ball bounce, or an apple falling from a tree. A child learns to trust that a ball thrown in the air will return to earth, and in a predictable way.

Humanity had been on earth for thousands of millennia before Isaac Newton coined the term 'gravity'. Gravity, of course, had always existed. Newton just gave this name to the attraction between objects. Well not just - Newton, of course, did a great deal more, and developed an entire world view – Newtonian mechanics - that remained the pre-eminent understanding of the universe for two hundred years and is still by applied scientists including engineers and astronomers.

Newton largely developed his world view from 'first principles' and through the realms of mathematical logic. This is another essential of brilliant science - understanding a phenomenon from a simple logic, or deriving it from first principles. This also gives trust as we can feel that the process relates to something very fundamental.

The falling apple was described by Newton's in beautifully, simply formulas lead to an understanding of the motion of planets and our physical world. To look at Newton’s work is to see true beauty.

So too, with Einstein's theory of special relativity The beauty of Einstein's early work around 1905 was that it was derived from first principles. So simple, an A-level maths pupil can understand the equations and their logic. Just by working in this first principles way, Einstein was able to derive the famous formula E=mc2.

Those with great vested interest, like large oil companies and even the US government, don't care about science or truth of climate change and have put out that climate science is not to be trusted. Yet climate science is grounded too in first principles science, but this is largely ignored in the media.

Malicious climate deniers largely concentrate on trying to cast aspersion on climate computer models. This is because people can't see a climate model, nor understand its inner workings, so it is easy to build a false 'trust' problem. However many times Al Gore or leading scientists show how the models accurately predict current temperature rises in terms of both greenhouse gas emissions and background cycles some people just won't 'get it'.

Now, these computer models are essential tools in predicting and understanding the details of global warming. However, they are not actually the fundamental science. Let me briefly explain that science.

The Greenhouse Gas effect that underlies global warming is based on an effect called 'radiative forcing'. This is a measure of how much heat radiation leaving the earth is absorbed in the upper atmosphere – by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide – and is reflected back.

Radiative forcing is like gravity, it has always existed. There has always been a background level of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere, and some heat from the earth has always been reflected back by them. Without this greenhouse effect we would be a cold planet like Mars. The effect was first recognised over one hundred years ago.

The first principles of radiative forcing are that gases are made of molecules and molecules absorb heat radiation. Every chemistry student knows this causes molecules to vibrate with greater energy. However, such excited molecules don't hold this extra energy for long and they re-emit it. Radiative forcing happens because the heat is coming from the earth in one direction – out towards space – but the heat re-emitted is in all directions – in other words, half of it travels back towards the earth. Simply, the more gas, the more radiative forcing.

There is no reason why anyone who accepts that gravity exists would not also accept that radiative forcing exists. Climate sceptics may deny computer models, but why do they deny fundamental properties of matter that have been accepted for hundreds of years?

Recently Channel 4 broadcast another program where Michael Meacher and a top Met Office scientist were confronted with an audience clearly chosen because the majority of them were climate sceptics. This was such a lost opportunity to have a real discussion about the real first principles science that sceptics are failing to grasp.

15 September 2007

Peace one day

By Rupert Read

Six years ago, the United Nations General Assembly set 21 September as the now permanent date for the International Day of Peace. In establishing the International Day of Peace, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed that it would be appropriate:
    "to devote a specific time to concentrate the efforts of the United Nations and its Member States, as well as of the whole of humankind, to promoting the ideals of peace and to giving positive evidence of their commitment to peace in all viable ways […] The International Day of Peace should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples."
The Assembly's resolution declared that the International Day of Peace
    "will serve as a reminder to all peoples that our Organization, with all its limitations, is a living instrument in the service of peace and should serve all of us here within the Organization as a constantly pealing bell reminding us that our permanent commitment, above all interests or differences of any kind, is to peace. May this Peace Day indeed be a day of peace."
This year, the International Day of Peace is receiving more media and public attention than ever before. This is in part due to the remarkable efforts of British filmmaker, Jeremy Gilley (see http://www.peaceoneday.org/), who is a startling living reminder that one dedicated person can make a huge difference in the world. He started this whole process up, eight years ago – without him, the UN would not even have been discussing an International Day of Peace, because it was his lobbying that set the UN General Assembly on the path to the resolutions quoted above.

Due to the efforts of Mr Gilley, and of over 27 million people internationally who took part in 'Peace one day' celebrations on 21 September last year, the International Day of Peace now has a truly worldwide reach.

"But", I hear you ask, "What has all this got to do with me? What can I possibly do about it?"

Well, one thing you could do would be join those of us who are celebrating the International Day of Peace locally, this year.

For example, the Norwich Walk Together for Peace. Let me give you a flavour of what this upcoming event will look and feel like:

The Norwich Peace Walk will be a colourful celebration of peace, designed to help build community understanding in and around Norwich. It is taking place on Saturday 29th September, beginning outside the Forum in Norwich City Centre at 11am.

The Lord Mayor of Norwich will lead the Walk together with the MP for Norwich North and other representatives of cultural and faith communities in the city. Blue and white banners and balloons featuring the Walk for Peace logo – a dove supported by hands on a bright blue background - will be on show. Members of Norwich's Big Sky Choir will sing as the walkers assemble.

The interfaith group who have organised the Peace Walk believe that getting to know one another is a vital part of building peace. Peace isn't just about international treaties or 'peacekeepers'. Peace is in every step, every breath, every word. We make a little bit of peace, every time we respond coolly to the harsh words of another, or de-escalate a situation in our homes or workplaces. Norwich is a relatively peaceful city - compared to many hitting the headlines these days - because its citizens have historically made good human relationships.

Peace-making is a process. It is about connecting with the highest aspirations for everyone, acknowledging that all human beings who inhabit the same fragile planet, this one and only world of ours, desire the same respect for their ways of being. It is about knowing that the kaleidoscope of colour that the different communities who have settled in Norwich have made is the warp & weft of Norfolk cloth…

We "do different" in Norfolk. Let us take time to think about how all our citizens can live together in this beautiful part of the world, peaceably.

And in doing so, it is worth us all reflecting on the double meaning of Peace one day:
  • One day in each year when we all specifically do something in the cause of peace;
  • In the future, one day, peace will reign.
The first could help make the second happen. What will you do this year, for the International Day of Peace?

Thanks for help researching this column to Diana Stephenson and Ann Lewis.

8 September 2007

We are all skating on thin ice

By Marguerite Finn

An award ceremony took place in New York on 20th June this year, without much media attention. A female Inuit leader won a prestigious United Nations award for activism against climate change. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a 53-year-old political leader representing indigenous communities in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia – and a nominee for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize together with former US Vice-President Al Gore – received the Mahbub ul Haq Award for Excellence in Human Development from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Sheila was born in Nunavik in Canada's frozen north. Her mother was a skilful healer and interpreter and for the first ten years of her life, Sheila was raised traditionally, travelling on the land by dog sled before being sent to school in Nova Scotia. From the mid-1970s she worked to improve the education and health of the Inuit people. Elected President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) in 1995, she served as spokesperson for Arctic indigenous peoples in negotiating the banning of the manufacture and use of 'persistent organic pollutants' (including DDT), which had entered the Arctic food chain and accumulated in the bodies of the Inuit.

More recently, Sheila's work has concentrated on the impact of global climate change on the Arctic. Claiming that unchecked greenhouse gas emissions violated Inuit cultural and environmental rights, she declared: "The world must pay attention to what is happening to Arctic communities because we are the early warning system for the rest of the planet".

It is generally accepted that the Arctic is the barometer of global environmental health. In May this year Aqqaluk Lynge, Greenlander and current President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, made a similar point in a devastating critique of the link between Britain's cheap flights and the effects of climate change on his people and he pleaded for an end to plans to expand Stansted airport. His testimony, given to the on-going public enquiry into plans to increase the capacity of London's third airport, is as relevant to discussions about the expansion of Norwich Airport as it is to Stansted.

Arguing that the effects of flying from Stansted, where 80 percent of flights are on budget carriers and eight out of ten passengers are travelling for leisure, are felt far beyond Britain in the vast Inuit ice fields stretching from Russia's Bering Straits to Greenland, Mr Lynge pointed out: "There is now a connection between our backyard and your backyard and we would like you to question some points of your lifestyle such as flying and creating more emissions. That is why Stansted is important. Getting on a plane in England for a cheap holiday is felt here on the Arctic ice today".

No country in the world is immune to the effects of the actions of another. The Arctic is being disproportionately affected by the global warming created by our carbon emissions. Emissions from the extra flights at Stansted, if the expansion is permitted, will increase from five million tonnes to seven million tonnes each year – the equivalent of the emissions that would be saved if every home in the UK switched to energy saving bulbs. Yet to suggest making such simple changes to our precious lifestyles provokes howls of rage. The Government has lost the plot. It's plans to cater for up to 460 million passengers at UK airports by 2020 are directly at odds with its vow to cut carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050.

For generations, the Inuit lived in harmony with their environment and travelled safely on the sea-ice to hunt seals, whales and other animals for essential food. Today the ice flows - their traditional hunting grounds - have disappeared. Melting sea-ice and thawing permafrost have caused fatal damage to the infrastructure of their towns and villages. We, in the industrialised countries have placed the Inuit in the 'firing line' of global warming. They are experiencing at first hand the effects of indisputable climate change.

Their plight is a salutary warning. Discussions about climate change focus on political, economic and technical issues rather than human impacts and consequences. The refusal to even consider a modification, however slight, to Western 'lifestyle' is extremely short-sighted. It is not just the Inuit who are skating on thin ice. What is happening to the Inuit today will happen in Britain and Europe tomorrow – so what price 'cheap flights' then?

Which is more important: regular visits to see grandchildren in Washington DC and cheap holidays in the sun, or ensuring that the Inuit children have a present in which to grow up and that the grandchildren have a future in which to do the same?

1 September 2007

What is the Middle East anyway?

By Juliette Harkin

What is the Middle East, anyway? In the Middle of where and East of where? My Jordanian colleague posed this question as I resorted to the usual generalisations to describe a geographic area so diverse in culture and history. This is as important a point now as it was when Edward Said, the late Palestinian academic, tackled it in his influential book Orientalism first published in 1978. Said had argued that old fashioned colonialist Orientalism served only to create and reinforce negative views of the Arab people and the Arab world. We are taking Arab history away and replacing it with our own versions – as it relates to and is important to the British, French and the Americans.

As we cling to old clichés and stereotypes that hark back to the time of Lawrence of Arabia we are missing the opportunities to learn and understand about contemporary Arab culture in all its exciting forms. In my first Arabic class my teacher rolled her eyes as we told her we were studying Arabic because of the politics in the region. "Arabic language has nothing to do with politics," she exclaimed defiantly, "…can we not learn about the people and the culture and leave the politics out?" At the time I was somewhat perplexed, the only Arab world us political science students knew was the one we had been introduced to through its political conflicts and wars. Our teacher, a Muslim from Sarajevo and refugee in America, was certainly not living in blissful ignorance of the effects of politics on people.

Ten years ago I arrived for my first visit to the Arab world, Jerusalem. I struggled with a heavy suitcase at five thirty in the morning in search of a taxi to take me to Ramallah. The streets were deserted except for the small gathering of Arab labourers who were hoping for a day's work. They were wearing traditional headscarves favoured by many older Arab men. I wondered, should I cover my hair? Are they looking at me? They were, as I looked like a crazy foreigner on an empty street! At the time I had just completed a year’s research into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But my own 'Western' conditioning had planted a faint fear of other.

Fed on a diet of bad news about the Iraqi wars, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Lebanese-Israeli war for so long, we cannot think of Arabness without thinking of war, terror, conflict. These images of the Arab world dominate my family's thoughts each time I travel and yet they bear absolutely no resemblance for me to the glorious cities I visit and the experiences I have.

Should we judge the people by the actions and inadequacies of their political masters? Do we want to be judged on the past or present record of our governments? The people I met in bustling cafes, bars and nightclubs in Damascus, Beirut and Cairo want to get on with their lives as we do. They are working two or three jobs to cover the fees for their children to complete high school and go on to university. Family is central and it is a delight to see. Syrians celebrate life by going to restaurants that serve food in huge quantities. Tables full of meats, salads, breads and then fruits and Arab sweets washed down with Arab teas and conversation extended as the water pipe is smoked. In Beirut, café culture outlives all the wars and normal life picks up as soon as it is physically possible. I can picture my family and friends there too, being monumentally surprised by the fun to be had and the beauty to behold in these Arab cities.

As home to the three monotheistic religions it would be strange if religion did not hold a special place in the Arab world. You cannot fail to be in awe of the majesty of the mosque in Sana'a built during the life of the Prophet Mohammed and sense the history in the great mosque in the old city of Damascus. As the Islamic holy month of Ramadan approaches, practising Muslims will fast from dawn to dusk and even those that aren’t so pious will make a special effort during this holy month. All the better to enjoy the evenings as the fast is broken and its time to kick back and relax until dawn breaks and the fast starts again.

I now understand my Arabic teacher's sentiment much more clearly.

25 August 2007

The US will not leave Iraq

By Liam Carroll

In the face of recent reports about enduring military bases in Iraq and the designation by the United States of Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation, it is surely worth considering why Washington continues to pursue a strategy, both in Iraq and toward Iran, that many believe has gone hopelessly awry.

The answers might be found in an appreciation of Washington's wider strategic objectives. As the world's largest economy, America's strength is inevitably bound to the well-being of the global trading system which the US has spent no little effort in promoting. From the Marshall Plan, through to the work of the World Bank, the IMF and more recently the WTO, the United States has worked tirelessly to increase demand for, and the production of, globally traded goods. In the post-war world the US found itself commanding huge industrial and financial resources that made it uniquely placed to take advantage of international trade.

In conjunction with its trading strength the US had the military might to defend those political regimes that were willing to respect the rules of global trade, and where possible to overturn regimes that dissented. The history of the last 65 years is replete with examples of nationally popular leaders being overthrown by US backed-proxies, most notably in Iran in 1953, Indonesia in 1962, Chile in 1971 and Nicaragua in 1989, not to mention the failures, including the recent US backing for the removal of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. In each case the reasons for regime change were pretty much identical; the political leaders wanted to nationalize their countries’ resources and to keep control of the economy within the nation state, thus removing the country from the American based global system. The ultimate nightmare for Washington in this respect was what they called 'the domino effect' in which if nationalism were seen to prosper in one country, then other countries might follow.

In this context it is worth recalling where Iraq and Iran stood before the invasion of 2003. With the world's second and third largest reserves of oil beneath their feet, the strategic importance of these countries could only grow, and in conjunction with weapons of mass destruction, their ability to undermine Washington's authority in the region was also set to increase. The very harsh sanctions that were imposed on Iraq since 1991 and the determined efforts to disarm the country can also be understood in this light, and it was in no small measure the gradual disintegration of those sanctions that precipitated the invasion. Much as the weapons issue may have been exaggerated to gain public support, there is plenty of evidence that the fear, in Washington, of Saddam's weapons programmes was quite genuine, as indeed it is of Iran's.

In destroying the Ba'ath regime then, the US removed a defiant power from being able to interfere in its long term plans for the region, which inevitably will involve bringing the oilfields under corporate control sooner or later. The threat from small divided militias in Iraq too is surely more manageable, from the Washington’s point of view, than the threat from what would eventually have become a well armed state, and a hostile one at that. The US may not have achieved all its war aims yet, but it has surely at least eliminated a major impediment to long term management of the world's major oil producing region.

The determination of the US to maintain enduring bases in Iraq, to push through the hydrocarbon laws that will open up the oilfields to foreign control, and to continue to stitch together a government that will give the process its legal legitimacy and guard against nationalist or Iranian takeover are all in keeping with America’s long term strategy. A careful reading of US presidential candidates' views on this topic reveals that there is no serious dissent from this position.

Similar objectives are discernable in Washington's policy toward Iran; weaken the regime through every means possible, encourage dissent amongst ethnic groups, sow seeds of division amongst the leadership, build an international sanctions regime and try to deny the country access to any nuclear technologies. Undermining Tehran at every opportunity, most recently by classifying Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as terrorists, is all part and parcel of this same strategy.

The US doesn't expect to achieve its goals over night, as indeed no empire ever did, but it is sure to remain focused on very specific objectives. For the US government the war in Iraq won’t end, it will just be a question of steadily pursuing objectives, and with regard to Iran, the war will never really start, for in many senses, it already has.

18 August 2007

Still time to change fait-accompli decision?

By Jacqui McCarney

Last year, Greenpeace won an injunction forcing the Government to re-consult on nuclear energy and no government decision for new nuclear power stations is lawful until this public consultation is completed. Yet, during PMQs on July 4th, Gordon Brown apparently ignored the Court's ruling and sabotaged the ongoing consultation by stating that: "We have made the decision to continue with nuclear power."

Most people, including many Labour backbenchers, see nuclear energy as a disastrous, dangerous diversion – both literally and economically. Even those supporting the Government, like most in Conservative party, see it as a nasty choice ‘of last resort’ given the industry's long record of accidents.

You can be sure that none would welcome any new stations close to their backyard when Chernobyl fallout in 1986 contaminated about 40% of Europe and restrictions still affect over 300 farms in the UK. The Russian Academy of Medical Sciences declared in 2006 that 212,000 people have died as a direct consequence of the disaster.

Closer to home, a serious radioactive leak went undetected for 8 months at the UK Thorp reprocessing plant in 2005. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) found the plant "condoned the ignoring of alarms" and failed to learn from previous incidents.

Last month's earthquake in Japan triggered a radioactive leak at the Kashiwazaki nuclear power station, and leading seismologist Professor Katsuhiko Ishi-bashi says that warnings have been repeatedly ignored – luck, as much as anything, had helped to avert a combination of earthquake and nuclear meltdown capable of destroying millions of lives.

Despite industry denial, a review published in the European Journal of Cancer Care, July 2007, concluded that rates of leukaemia are higher in children living near nuclear plants.

The former head of M15 said recently it remains a real possibility that terrorists may attempt a radiological or even nuclear attack, as Independent consultant John Large has warned that our nuclear infrastructure is vulnerable to sabotage.

The difficulties of de-coupling civil nuclear power from nuclear weapons are demonstrated by the ongoing tensions with Iran and North Korea. Dr Rebecca Johnson, former senior adviser to the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission says "the only realistic way to minimise the dangers of contamination and proliferation is to wind down nuclear power and eliminate nuclear weapons."

However, just economics alone should be enough to convince a former chancellor PM to reconsider his predetermined views. Nuclear is simply just not profitable without subsidies, and it has bled funding from other cheaper and much more socially acceptable technologies for decades.

Operators have limited insurance liability in the case of an accident, anything over £700 million is covered by the taxpayer. So also, security and bills for radioactive waste and decommissioning and cleaning up the current generation of stations is estimated at £75 billion. Will our grandchildren, living in a less stable world be able to cope with this fiscal burden?

A graph on page 372 of the Stern Review shows just how much money has been wasted on nuclear energy research and development across IEA countries since 1974 – well over 50% of the total of some $300billion. Renewables have a meager single figure percentage – yet we would not face the current clean energy crisis if we had invested in them from the 1970s.

Figure 16.8 from the Stern review

Figure 16.8 from the Stern review

When 70% of centralised, large scale power generation is wasted in heat and electricity cables, policies for demand reduction, energy efficiency, and smaller, decentralised renewables are key to preventing climate change (see (Micro) power to the people! and Blue energy: sea snakes, stingrays and lagoons).

Graph from Allan Jones' presentation

Graph from Allan Jones' presentation.

The UK is particularly suitable for developing energy from tides, waves, geothermal, wind, solar, biomass and gas from landfill sites. The UK and Norfolk are in a prime position to be at the forefront of the renewable energy industry with all the economic benefits which would follow.

Although the government seems unable to think innovatively and sensibly about our energy future some local communities are acting independently to build up their resilience to the challenges ahead and at the same time reduce their carbon footprint. The transition town movement that is gathering momentum is trail blazing radically different community based, decentralised microgeneration.

Despite Gordon Brown’s predetermined and illegal policy statements, the consultation should be an opportunity for serious scrutiny exposing how a huge bleeding of resources into nuclear will divert us from developing the energy strategy that really could help prevent climate chaos. To prevent this undemocratic fait accompli, take part in the government's consultation on nuclear power at nuclearpower2007.direct.gov.uk.

I am grateful to Anne Dismorr of the http://www.newnuclearpowernothanks.org/ campaign for help in researching this column.