24 February 2007

Old technology can be as good as new

By Rupert Read

Isn't technology wonderful? There's this amazing vehicle they're selling: it produces zero carbon emissions; it is much easier to park, because it is much smaller than a conventional car; it can zip through slow-moving congested urban traffic; it even keeps you fit. And it costs a fraction of the price of the average car. It's… a bicycle.

Isn't new technology wonderful?

Well, not always. Sometimes it makes things worse. And often it's just unnecessary - because often what we need in order to solve our problems is just to use tried and tested old technology better, and more. (Park that car in a garage, and dig out the bike…)

Take a remarkable true story from the annals of space travel.

US astronauts found that conventional ballpoint pens didn't work in zero-gravity because the ink wouldn't descend to the nib. So Nasa scientists set to work, creating - at huge public expense - a revolutionary new kind of pen, with a powered-ink system that pushed the ink down to the nib, even in zero-gravity. This was triumphantly unveiled on the next Apollo mission.

Meanwhile, the Russian cosmonauts had already reached a rather cheaper low-tech solution to the problem: they had stopped taking pens into space; they used pencils instead.

A recent survey of British university staff, to find out which innovations had aided them most in their work, found that virtually all the things that were making a positive difference to their working lives were not recent inventions at all, but had been around for decades, or even centuries.

In terms of people-friendly green initiatives, for instance, of far more significance than the recent technological fix of paper-recycling was the humble reusable envelope - an envelope designed to be used numerous times. Or, an even more basic solution - simply reusing ordinary envelopes for internal correspondence, by scrubbing out one's own name and replacing it with the name of the new addressee until there is no longer any room left on the envelope. One can reuse ordinary envelopes 10 or 20 times in this way, thus potentially cutting by 95pc the number of envelopes one needs. (Yes, as so often, 'going green' - or simply thinking smart - makes business sense, too).

Many of our problems simply don't require any technological developments at all in order to be solved. Often, it is social inventions rather than technological ones that are needed, to help humanity solve its real problems, and progress in a true way beyond the normal, crudely economic and technical version of 'progress' that we are accustomed to talking about.

Too often, decision-makers want to put their money into 'scientific' developments and 'space-age' solutions - when what is needed is improved social organisation, people's action and activism, and nothing more.

The Institute for Social Inventions is an inspiring example of what can be done by people - mostly thousands of perfectly ordinary people simply writing in with bright ideas, and often putting them into practice - trying to do just this: to make our world a better place, one simple social step at a time.

Among the many success-stories that are products of the institute are: the Natural Death Centre (green funerals, etc.), The Poetry Challenge (an innovative way of getting young people - and all of us - interested in poetry, through memorizing and reciting it), and the Global Ideas Bank itself (where social inventions can be instantly accessed and shared).

There are, of course, social invention success stories very close to home, too. For instance, Norwich has seen a fascinating social experiment in which unemployed people were bought allotments, to provide them with valuable 'work', valuable food, and a connection to the land, rather than wasting their time and talent in soul-destroying idleness.

Technology can easily seem something remote, and accessible only to people with big bucks. Social inventions, by contrast, are innately democratic, open to all to think up - and to try.

And, of course, sometimes the most important new thing of all to try is simply: to resist the siren call of fashion, to resist the pull of using more and more new technology; and to reinvent or recover the virtues of older ways.

There's this amazing communication technology: it goes instantly to the recipient; it allows the recipient the possibility of an instant response; it takes far less time to compose one's message; it allows the recipient to hear one's voice speaking the message, and vice versa.

It's… the telephone.

17 February 2007

Will the chickens outwit the fox?

By Marguerite Finn

When an ambassador warns in public that it would be like "putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop", it is as well to listen because ambassadors are not often given to making such statements. This was an ambassador to the United Nations from one of the developing countries, speaking about the world's only superpower. Even more remarkable was the fact that the new UN Secretary-General heeded the warning and changed his plans. What were these plans?

Plan A: In January 2007, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon proposed to downgrade the existing independent Department for Disarmament Affairs (DDA) and to make it a part of the Department for Political Affairs (DPA), which was expected to be headed by the United States.

The UN General Assembly was expected to approve the Secretary-General's plan on February 5, but two of the largest and most powerful political and economic blocs at the United Nations - the 130-member Group of 77 and the 117-member Non-Aligned Movement - both refused to be pushed into making the decision in such a short timescale.

They also questioned the fact that the Department for Political Affairs (DPA) was likely to be headed by a nuclear weapon state, which would be going against the UN's own unwritten rule that the Department for Disarmament Affairs (DDA) should not be headed by any one of the five declared nuclear weapon states - the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia. It was widely expected that an American would take over the powerful Department for Political Affairs (DPA) so, unsurprisingly, the strongest support for Ban Ki-Moon's proposal to subsume the DDA into the DPA came from the US, whose current administration does not place a very high priority on disarmament - either nuclear or non-nuclear!

Into this arena came the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an organisation founded in 1915, which works for total disarmament among other things. WILPF has a special project called Reaching Critical Will, which is currently spearheading an international campaign to stop the dismantling of the Department for Disarmament Affairs, claiming that the UN must live up to its mandate and prioritise disarmament in the Secretariat, maintaining an independent DDA instead of subordinating it to other agendas.

Disarmament is one of the central tasks of the UN, as evidenced by the UN Charter's vision for “'the least diversion for armaments of the world's human and economic resources” (Article 26). Therefore, it does not seem right that the UN should be planning to reduce the stature of disarmament just when the problems posed by nuclear - and other - weapons of mass destruction, as well as small arms, are increasing.

Plan B: The secretary-general listened to the objections, withdrew his original proposal and put forward his Plan B: instead of moving it into the Department of Political Affairs, he would move the DDA into his own office. It would then become the Office for Disarmament Affairs headed by an assistant-secretary general reporting directly to Ban Ki-Moon himself. Putting a positive 'spin' on this proposal, officials maintained that having a direct line to the secretary general would ensure better access, more frequent interaction and, therefore, would actually strengthen the DDA.

In fact, it would do just the opposite. Changing the department to an Office and demoting its chief still represent a downgrade no matter how you spin it, and would be a move in the wrong direction at a time when challenges to disarmament and non-proliferation are increasing. There is a (bad) precedent too: when the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was moved into the State Department, the agency's technical expertise and institutional memory was lost and all internal advocacy for disarmament faded quietly away.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul simply won't do, when disarmament has to suffer at the hands of budgetary constraints. The world's disarmament machinery is under threat as never before. Lowering the profile of the principal global agency responsible for implementing UN decisions on disarmament is not the way to go. The final decision has not yet been made so it is still all to play for. Civil Society managed to make its objections felt at the heart of the UN itself. We can continue to do so by writing to the Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon or to Sir Emyr Jones Parry, UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, or to your MP in support of keeping an independent Department for Disarmament Affairs.

10 February 2007

A new and dangerous nuclear era

By Liam Carroll

Two explosive events should have shocked the world last year – but only one of them managed to hit the headlines – the testing of a nuclear bomb in North Korea. The other, closely related event was an announcement by the International Atomic Energy Agency (the IAEA) that there are "another 20 or 30 States which have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a very short space of time." That fact though was hardly reported anywhere.

Then, in January this year, an article by cold war hawks Henry Kissinger and George Shultz also pointed to the fact that "the world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era". The article then went on to suggest that there should be a "reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons" and that "practical measures toward achieving that goal" should be taken by the United States and "the countries in possession of nuclear weapons."

According to the IAEA and indeed strategic analysts generally, the North Korean nuclear test is just the tip of the iceberg. What North Korea did – they extracted plutonium from some old nuclear fuel rods – can be done by anyone with a nuclear reactor. That is unless the used fuel rods are under effective international controls and supervised by the IAEA, of which many used fuel facilities are not. Renewed interest in nuclear power across Asia and Africa – and the weapons potential that comes with it – will make control over these nuclear materials ever harder.

A further problem lies with uranium enrichment, the other route to nuclear weapons – but also the path to nuclear fuel production and thus a perfectly legitimate undertaking. Japan enriches uranium, as does Brazil, South Africa and Canada. Iran will soon be there and after them come Argentina and Australia. If these countries wish to divert material to a secret facility then there is little chance that this would be detected.

Due to these facts, the IAEA is screaming for new powers and funding to monitor and inspect all nuclear related facilities everywhere, otherwise nuclear material control is impossible. They say, "As experience has shown, effective control of nuclear materials is the ‘choke point’ to preventing nuclear weapons development." Such control can only come from willing submission to an inspection regime and this means that all countries must agree to comply. The IAEA has pointed out though that the non-nuclear weapon countries "would be unwilling to accept more obligations without further benefits".

Indeed, they have reported that countries without nuclear weapons "have taken on increasingly heavy burdens without corresponding obligations on behalf of the nuclear weapon states" and that "some countries continue to rely on nuclear weapons, or even try to develop new weapons, while at the same time telling others that such weapons are no good for them. The logic is simply not there."

To induce all countries to submit to rigorous oversight of all nuclear activities then, the nuclear weapon states will have to put a decent deal on the table – if they are serious about non-prolferation that is. Fundamentally that means drawing up a timetable for the eventual elimination of all nuclear arsenals everywhere. Two years ago the prospect of such a deal would have been considered a joke - now however, with traditional non-proliferation efforts failing badly, the IAEA proposals are starting to be taken more seriously.

January 2007 has bought the first signs of change – not only has the cold-war hawk Henry Kissinger changed his tune on nuclear disarmament, but the Bush administration has also finally dropped their opposition to the long standing idea of a fissile material cut-off treaty – a treaty that seeks to end the production of nuclear warhead materials everywhere, including in the United States and Russia.

This small but significant shift may be the first inkling that nuclear disarmament may not be the dead duck that it appeared two years ago. Forty nuclear weapon states is not a prospect that brings comfort to any government anywhere; Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran or Tel Aviv. Events, like the North Korean test, are starting to force the hand of governments otherwise reluctant to let go of their most powerful weapons. The sooner they act of course, the lesser the danger, but radical change is hardly likely to occur tomorrow. The role that civil society could play in tipping the balance could therefore be crucial. If ever there was a time to embrace nuclear disarmament as an idea whose time has come, then it is surely now, for the more the grim reality is understood by people generally, then the greater the prospect that government's will finally act.

3 February 2007

Big Brother - a game within a game

By Jacqui McCarney

Human Psychology. Lesson 1: Bullying results from hatred and hatred grows out of fear. Simple!

A childhood where dad is absent - sometimes in prison - and mum is a drug addict who needs so much looking after that school is often missed must, indeed, be terrifying. In that situation children have few choices – they give up and imitate their failed parents or they fight their way out. Jade Goody choose to fight her way out and that fighting instinct got her all the way from deprivation and poverty to celebrity and financial success. To that extent she deserves our applause.

But simple it is not. Why be concerned about human psychology if,even simple stuff, when you can have all the excitement of righteous indignation and a reassuring feeling of superiority?

Jade Goody couldn't have known that the game she found herself in was much bigger than Big Brother and heavily stacked against her. She might not have bothered to fight her way out of her awful childhood if she had known how many people would relish pushing her back there. It seems that to be a white, working class female in Britain today is to give licence to any amount of venomous abuse.

Racism (except to Muslims) homophobia and sexism against the middle class women is no longer fashionable. That is a long way from saying it is no longer a problem! But it is a shift in the right direction. Fashions in scapegoats change but class hatred is a British perennial. Today we see an extraordinary level of viciousness and now increasingly directed at working class women - from Vicky Pollard to Victoria Beckham, the venom has a particularly misogynistic element. Jade Goody has been described as "thick bitch", "a witch" and "a slut". One tabloid newspaper described her as "a vile pig-ignorant racist bully" - apparently oblivious to the bullying nature of such attacks.

Jade Goody found celebrity by representing all we hate about the working class. New Labour knew that to be supported by the right wing tabloid media they needed to ditch their working class roots. In Mr Blair's 'Classless Britain' – multi-culturism and the changing economy were set to erode the class system anyway. But the only thing that has being eroded is mentioning the working class. It reminds me of the famous saying - when man stops believing in God, he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes in anything. The working class have become anything – as long as it is bad - "chavs"; the "feckless ignorant" who live on estates, fail at parenting, fill our prisons; "neighbours from hell" spend their money on fags, booze and drugs. Their offspring are "yobs", "hooligans", "hoodies" who need to be controlled by ASBOS, parenting classes and now 'respect zones'.

Whipping up hatred is a game that unites the fearful - the victim is irrelevant – whether it is gypsies, gays, blacks, immigrants, women, or teenagers – who cares? It is a game that has economic rewards for the tabloid media but immeasurable social costs for the rest of us.

Evidence suggests that our hatred and punishment is ineffective in quelling the problem. Anti- social behaviour is rampant and young people increasingly indifferent to authority.

Money spent on education has failed to improve the lot of the poorest. Work by Leon Feinstein, University College London, shows that the British class divide in education is one of the worst in the world. By the time children get to school it is too late – socio-economic attainment gap is evident in children as young as 22 months. It is the middle class who continue to benefit most from money spent on education.

Jade Goody represents our failure and our hypocrisy. We fail to protect the most vulnerable from the worst effects of poverty and deprivation and then we exploit them for our entertainment. When they get it badly wrong as Jade Goody did, they are very suddenly on their own and we refuse any responsibility for what has taken place. But we don’t stop there. Jade Goody's hatred and fear is nothing compared to the hatred and fear of rest of us.

We may not be in Big Brother but our hatred and fear is exploited just as successfully as Jade Goody's. It is all wrapped up and sold back to us by magazines, newspapers and television programmes.

Jade Goody's battle with Shilpa Shetty was about class - Class vs Trash as one newspaper described it. Money spent on education and the law is undermined by this culture of endless abuse – if we treat people like trash, they will act like trash.