28 April 2007

Are we digging ourselves into a hole?

By Andrew Boswell

This year's BBC Reith lectures by development economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs discuss how "with global co-operation our resources can be harnessed to create a more equal and harmonious world" but does he really solve the problem?

Sachs knows that one billion people are just too hungry, ill and poor to even get on the development ladder, and that climate change is likely to put another billion into such structural poverty. With disease, hunger, eco-damage, increasing military tensions and widening gaps between rich and poor, the pessimists amongst us feel that things are sliding out of control. I hoped that self-confessed optimist Sachs might offer fresh thinking after calling in his introductory lecture for a radical, new politics – 'Open Source' politics.

This week's lecture addressed the threat of massive war, asking "are we heading for a 2014 like 1914?". He was visionary as he invoked the ghost of by President John Kennedy through his prophetic June 10th 1963 speech, when Kennedy told America "we must re-examine our own attitude - as individuals and as a nation". Sachs called for that same self-examination now, and to re-allocate military spending to fighting poverty and climate change. Right on!

But Sachs approach to the environmental crisis has been disappointing. He vividly describes the Anthropocene – that new geological era since the industrial revolution when human activities have significantly impacted on the Earth's climate and ecosystems. So much so, that the planet is changing like a new geological era in which natural cycles - the carbon and nitrogen cycles, water cycles, the climate, habitats, biodiversity, evolutionary processes – are reduced to human influence and control.

But remember the adage "If you are in a hole, don't keep digging". If the Anthropocene is the hole, then surely we shouldn't keep digging deeper, making our impact of the planet and its natural cycles worse?

But, Sachs is looking for a way that the global economy can grow six fold by 2050 with wealthy nations needing to make few changes and solve climate change. And that essentially means keep on digging.

His high-level, three fold technical approach - energy efficiency, substitution of non-fossil energy sources for fossil ones, and better use of fossil energy sources - sounds good in theory, but what does it mean?

Energy efficiency and switching to renewables is crucial now. Sachs is right that the US should divert $70 billion to it per year from the military – the EU/UK should do likewise. However, even this will not deliver enough clean and saved energy for decades as these industries have suffered chronic and massive under investment and poor political support for years.

So we come to the hidden part of Sachs 'substitution and better use' message. He would make up the energy needed by the economic growth God via very large scale engineering projects – mega-scale biofuels, 'clean' coal and GM agriculture.

These each take us deeper into the hole of Anthropocene abuse. Monoculture crops for energy and food detrimentally affect biodiversity, water, soil and carbon cycles, and mass scale 'clean' coal - filling huge underground geological spaces with CO2 - is not proved safe.

Even if the hole were safe, we don't have enough time to dig it. As little further emissions are safe, Sachs says clean coal is needed immediately, yet it is unlikely to be viable on a significant commercial scale until 2020. Also, large scale biofuels will not make any significant reduction on vehicle emissions any time soon.

Sachs evades the real choice between going deeper into the hole or developing alternatives to climb out of it – alternatives to economic growth and our addiction to affluence such as a steady economy (see The steady state economy). Here he is no different to many techno-fix politicians – Al Gore, David Cameron, Chris Huhne, David Miliband. They understand the crisis well, but won't forgo economic growth.

Sachs' open source politics would be far-sighted if he meant new social and political structures to develop quality of life whilst winding down economic growth, and giving active citizens greater participation and grass roots control of their destiny.

Pockets of such Open Source citizenship are emerging – Transition Towns, CRAGS and One Tonners. These are recent community initiatives that are reducing consumption of fossil fuels, strengthening local economies and helping people become more self-reliant for a post fossil fuel future. Here in Norwich, the WAKEUP ladies are making Norwich a plastic bag free zone.

Can his final two lectures do some justice to his optimism by offering radical alternatives to free market economics and politics? Tune in to Radio 4 on Wednesdays at 8pm and see what you think!

21 April 2007

Can we really blame Iran?

By Liam Carroll

Recent reports about Shiite militia from Iraq receiving military training in Iran is more fuel for the fire of those people warning us about the increasingly dangerous influence of Tehran in the Middle East. The case for retributive military action against the Islamic Republic for the sake of disarmament or for the purposes of regime change is slowly being built. The argument rests on the perception that Iran is fuelling the insurgency in Iraq, arming and funding Hezbollah to fight Israel and continues a nuclear programme in defiance of the Security Council.

The perception that we face a massive existential threat if we do not take action is of course fundamental to creating public acceptance for the huge risks and potentially catastrophic consequences of taking military action against Iran. An obvious question therefore emerges; is the perceived threat real or do the proponents of war have an ulterior motive for magnifying the threat?

Is the threat real? The obvious point about the Iraq insurgency is that it was always primarily a Sunni driven conflict, where as it is Shiite militias that have been associating with Iran. No doubt the relationship involves funding, training and weapons supply – however the association predates the invasion of Iraq and it would be a bit rich, to say the least, to charge Iran with the crime of interfering in Iraqi politics; something the US and British have been doing somewhat more comprehensively over the last few years, equally without legal endorsement.

Aside from the insurgency in Iraq, Hezbollah remains another perceived obstacle to US policy goals in the Middle East. The US backed Siniora government in Lebanon wants a peace process with Israel, as indeed does the whole of Lebanon. The dividing line between the government and the hugely popular Hezbollah is drawn over the terms of that peace process though. Hezbollah represents Arab opinion more generally in demanding that Israel release thousands of political prisoners, withdraw from the occupied territories and provide an honourable settlement for the two million odd Palestinian refugees still in Lebanon. The Siniora government would settle for much less and is thus popular in Washington, but less so amongst Lebanese.

Hezbollah was a product of the Iranian Revolutionary guard in the eighties, but as an organisation they have come a long way since; former CIA Lebanese specialist, Robert Baer, recently told the New Yorker that "The most important story in the Middle East is the growth of Nasrallah (Hezbollah leader) from a street guy to a leader – from a terrorist to a statesman". This is not to underplay the fact that Hezbollah represents a minor military threat to Israel, but to point out that it is also an established political organisation with legitimate goals. To frame Hezbollah as apocalyptic suicidal bombers bent on the annihilation of Israel and controlled by Iran is hyperbole. Sure, tensions in the region run high, and the politics of the Middle East are complex but these issues have their own dynamic and are local in origin; to blame the Iranians for Arab-Israeli problems would be hugely dishonest.

As far as the nuclear issue is concerned, leaving aside the fact that the Iranians do actually have a right to enrich uranium, lets assume that in two years time they produce a nuclear weapon; what then? Well the US administration talks as if this would mean instant nuclear war with Israel, a war that would almost certainly entail the more certain annihilation of Iran. Now the Iranian leaders may not be the most rational people in the world, but it seems unlikely that they have got where they are by being completely suicidal. Alternatively, Iran might use the protection afforded by a nuclear weapon to further destabilise the Middle East through mobilising militant groups throughout the Shiite crescent that the world has only just suddenly noticed. Are the Arab states and Israel really so vulnerable to influence from impoverished minority Shiite groups? If that is the case, once again, the blame can hardly be laid at the feet of Iran.

Is Iran really poised to overrun the Middle East and seize control of the world's major oil producing region, levelling Israel in the process? It is interesting that the people most intent on convincing us of these facts are the ones who have done most to open the door to Iran by levelling Iraq. If the Iranian threat really is as great as they claim, why couldn't they see it before Operation Iraqi Freedom? Maybe it is just simply easier to find a scapegoat for a Middle East policy that lurches from bad to worse, than to simply admit their own failings.

14 April 2007

Big results from a small miracle

By Marguerite Finn

Which modern global industry has a market value of $32 billion and involves up to 27 million people at any given time? Pharmaceuticals? Oil? No – it's the trade in human trafficking.

Slavery exists today despite the fact that it is banned in most of the countries where it is practised. It is a booming international trade. It may not be called slavery now but the conditions are the same: people are sold like objects and forced to work for little or no pay. This modern-day slavery takes various forms and affects people of all ages, sex and race – but the majority of victims are women and young girls who are forced into prostitution or otherwise exploited sexually.

Few countries can say their hands are clean – least of all our own. On 19 March, the BBC published a devastating article entitled Sex Slavery is Widespread in England. It is fed by the haemorrhage of vulnerable young women from countryside to city, described so vividly in Dickens' novels, which continues to this day. Human trafficking is now big business and it has reached epidemic proportions over the past decade. No country is immune, whether as a source, a destination or a transit point for the victims of this barbaric crime. In January, Prime Minister Blair announced that the United Kingdom would sign the 'Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings'. This would guarantee help and protection for all trafficked people in the UK – but only if the UK ratifies and implements the treaty! So far, thirty European countries have signed but only three have ratified.

Somehow, these 'top-down' attempts to tackle the problem seem remote and ineffectual. What is needed is a 'bottom-up' approach and just such an approach has been taken by a Norfolk charity right here on our doorstep in Great Melton. The Wulugu Project was founded in 1993 by Lynne Symonds, a lecturer in Chemistry at UEA, following a chance meeting with Karimu Nachina, a headteacher from Ghana. When Lynne heard about the extreme poverty and lack of education, particularly for girls in Northern Ghana, she decided to do something about it. As in many countries, there is a huge economic gap between the rural North and the urban South and thousands of northern girls migrate to the South hoping to find work but many end up as prostitutes. The twin demons of poverty and illiteracy force many parents to sell their children into slavery. Girls are sold more often than boys, who are kept at home to work the land. The Wulugu Project aims to tackle poverty through education and performs invaluable work in remote areas of Northern Ghana by helping women and girls, through education, to avoid slavery and prostitution.

Since initially providing books and furniture for the Secondary School in Wulugu (from which the Project takes its name), it has gone on to build schools in locations where they are most needed, in order to make education available to all. Work is carried out by volunteers in both the UK and Ghana and, with no office to maintain, a full 98% of money raised is spent on projects in Ghana.

The Wulugu Project is currently helping over 100 villages to break out from the cycle of poverty - by building schools, teaching skills that enable girls to get jobs, providing safe hostels to encourage female teachers to work in remote areas thus enabling girls from outlying areas to attend school. The Project also provides small loans to enable mothers to start up a business to earn money to send all their children to school.

Here is an approach that actually works - by a local organisation that is making a real difference to people's lives. Karimu, the Wulugu Project's man on the spot in Ghana, reports that Wulugu's vocational schools have minimised the number of girls going to the South. Some parents have even gone to the South to bring their children back to attend school! Several schools now have waiting lists for subjects such as dress-making, typing, computer skills and weaving and there is pressure to start new classes in catering and hairdressing. To me, this small, dedicated group of people in Norfolk has performed a miracle by bringing education and hope to people in a far off land. Not 'democracy' down the barrel of a gun but the possibility of a better life for themselves and their children – and an end to slavery of all kinds.

To learn more about the Wulugu Project, visit http://www.wulugu.co.uk/, phone (01603) 453750 or write to Lynne Symonds, Church Farm, Great Melton, Norwich NR9 3BH.

7 April 2007

Half the cases of breast cancer now!

By Jacqui McCarney

In December a friend of mine died of breast cancer just before her 52nd birthday. Death at a relatively young age is tragic but she was not the first female friend to get cancer, in fact the seventh in about seven years - five have died. This has stopped feeling like a tragedy to me and more like an epidemic.

There isn't a person in the UK today who has not been affected by cancer - we pour endless amounts of money into cancer research and rightly demand the best treatments for our loved ones. Yet, despite the billions spent and years of research we are failing to win the battle against cancer.

All cancers are increasing at a terrifying rate with breast cancer outstripping all other cancers. Government statistics, published in September 2006, show breast cancer has increased by a staggering 80% in the last thirty years. Mastectomy rates have jumped 44% in fifteen years (unpublished Government data) with the biggest upward trend in women in the 15 to 44 age bracket, up by forty one percent. In fact; breast cancer is the most common cause of death in women in the 35-54 age brackets.

We are told that "early detection is the best prevention" and that we should have regular mammograms as a "preventive measure". Detection and mammograms do not prevent cancer; prevention must be about eliminating the causes of a disease before it can affect people.

The Government, mainstream cancer organisations advise us that cancer is a disease of ageing, lifestyle factors (obesity, drinking, and diet) and genetics. In fact research shows that these factors account for less than 50% of cases with genetic components a mere 5%.

No More Breast Cancer points to the substantial scientific evidence, gathered over seven decades, that point to the link between man made chemicals in the environment and cancer. Many of these chemicals disrupt the function of the endocrine (hormone) system and are thought to have particular significance for hormone related cancers such as breast cancer. As far back as 1980, Danish scientists found that 27 patients who died of cancer had significantly higher levels of pesticides in their fat tissue in comparison to 44 people who died from other causes.

Don't bring your sick friend grapes – at least not unless they are organic. Our food is a major source of exposure to synthetic chemicals – many of which are bio-accumulative (they build up in the body), carcinogenic and hormone disrupters, and grapes are among the ten worst foods for pesticide residue. Pesticide Action Network looked at all the available data, including Government sources, and came up with a list which included, grapes, flour, potatoes, bread, apples, pears, strawberries, green beans, tomatoes and cucumbers as among the worst offenders – in fact all the foods we are encouraged to eat lots of to prevent cancer (http://www.pan-uk.org/). Over 31,000 tonnes of pesticides were applied to agricultural land in 2004 and despite the growth of organic industry our dependence on chemicals is growing. As well as food, be aware that toxic chemicals are also used in household cleaning agents, cosmetics, shampoos, toothpaste and plastics.

So why are environmental factors in cancer ignored by Government, industry and mainstream cancer charities? Well, it is probably not always for cynical reasons – there is a traditional preoccupation with management of the disease and drug and gene therapies. Nevertheless, the 'cancer industry' is worth billions – it is ever expanding incorporating services, products, materials and technologies. According to Breast Cancer UK "A thriving enterprise with a guaranteed future 'cancer' is a growth industry in every sense of the word. It would be extremely unlikely that this particular industry would champion a case which has the potential to undermine its very existence".

Instead, the huge financial burden falls on our National Health Service and the UK tax payer. The cost of managing one cancer patient was approximately £20,000 in 2004 and the rapid increase in new drugs is set to continue costs rocketing.

To protect ourselves and our families, eat as much organic foods as possible, especially those foods that are most susceptible to pesticide residue; make sure that household and personal toiletries are chemical free eco brands, and reduce use of plastics.

Also reduce consumption of imported foods from countries with less strict bans on chemical use than the UK – citrus fruit in some countries are regularly sprayed with DDT. Contact MP/MEPs asking them to support and strengthen legislation calling for a safety assessment for all chemicals being released into the environment such as Reach, and ask them to sign the 'Paris Declaration' to help regulate toxic chemicals.