26 May 2007

Leaders – who needs them?

By Jacqui McCarney

Last week, fellow columnist, Rupert Read argued that we desperately need 'real leaders' for the crisis of our time, namely diminishing oil supplies and escalating climate change.

But what about ordinary people – isn't there a difference that we can make? In fact, are we not the only ones who can make the real difference - more than the politicians!

Of course, it would be helpful, reassuring and very practical to have strong concerned leaders 'showing the way' as we make the momentous shift to a low carbon lifestyle.

Instead our leaders are in disarray, refusing to unite for the national good they waste time on political point scoring. In this vacuum of 'leadership', it's the people who have to take real initiative.

Two casualties from this week's news … Energy Performance Certificates (EPC's) for house buyers have been delayed and diluted because of lack of cross party support. Come on politicians … yet another vital tool for energy efficiency delayed in our so 20th century political process.

Carbon emissions are still rising, yet the Government's new planning system announced in this week's White Paper will make it easier for many catastropic climate schemes – more runways at Heathrow and Stansted, more roads, incinerators and the like.

We may feel we need a Churchill who will guide us through this period of transition, but climate change needs urgent action now! Even if a suitable leader were to appear in a decade or two that will be too late!

We have already lost over three decades during which our leaders have failed to understand the severity of the environmental crisis and act accordingly - instead leading us by the nose to the precipice of climate chaos.

Einstein was right when he said "You can't solve a problem with the same mind set that created it". Business as usual economics and vested interests make it impossible to tackle climate change.

It looks increasingly as if, centralised power revolving around an individual leader is the politics of the 20th century. Devolved power with spokespeople representing local concerns and needs - that is local democracy – should be the politics of the 21st century. This process has started already in Scotland and Wales.

Despite the trends for centralised government and planning power, we should encourage localisation wherever possible to deal with the realities of climate change. Why wait? We all know that if you want something done you had better do it yourself.

The Transition Town movement is encouraging just such local responses to peak oil and climate change by focussing communities on an orderly descent to a low carbon lifestyle. As diminishing oil supplies push up transport costs, long term food security is threatened. The people of Bristol, Totnes and Ashburton are just a few of the communities that have decided to take matters into their own hands by recently declaring themselves Transition Towns.

Recently, four hundred turned up to an 'unleashing' of the Town Hall in Lewes where they too became a Transition Town. This is a radical and popular expression of communities bypassing central government and acting now to protect local people and at the same time reduce their own carbon footprint.

Our infrastructure, transportation system, food supply, businesses, agriculture are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Changing this dependence can not happen quickly enough and these towns are refusing to stand by as the politicians dither. Just as in the war residents are growing their own food and learning the skills now to secure a local food supply, making sure that local businesses and transport are supported so that resources are poured back into the community. And, ultimately these communities aim to become self sufficient in energy with secure cheap, safe, renewable supplies from local sources.

Norwich's green credentials make it a promising place for such a transition project. Already some of our residents are demanding more locally grown food – perhaps we can develop community sustainable energy projects next?

Another example - Modbury in Devon went plastic bag free and has had hundreds of requests from other towns asking for advice on how to do this. Relatively small steps ... but once communities learn how to work together and align their concerns for the environment with their lifestyle, the more irrelevant central Government becomes.

The optimism of 1997 election that secured Tony Blair a huge majority was not just about us all wanting to get richer - it was about wanting a more equal, just, fair society. Now that has to be a low carbon, equal and fair society. Blair has delivered the opposite.

Who needs leaders? The future is local.

19 May 2007

Neither dictatorship nor anarchy

By Rupert Read

Tony Blair was widely-welcomed in 1997, but leaves widely-disliked and even more widely distrusted. Why do our political leaders so often fail us?

As the Blair era crawls toward its close, and the crown of our 'elected dictator' passes onto Gordon Brown, it is a suitable moment to reflect on the nature of leadership. What is it, truly to lead others?

I have just been on a wonderfully-stimulating weekend workshop that encouraged reflection on this issue, via the unexpected route of looking at one of Shakespeare's great political dramas, Henry V. Henry was the king who led the English to victory at Agincourt. In Shakespeare's play, he is commonly portrayed as a great and inspirational war leader.

The workshop that I just went on was run under the auspices of Richard Olivier, son of the famous actor Lawrence Olivier. Olivier Snr directed and starred in a famous version of Henry V that was filmed during the Second World War. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Richard Olivier’s workshop follows Lawrence Olivier's patriotic interpretation of Henry V closely.

There is another way of reading Henry V. In Kenneth Branagh's more recent film of it, Henry is instead a cold and cruel tyrant, almost a ravenous beast as he yells out the famous speech, "Once more unto the breach, my friends!", urging his soldiers to attack the French town that he is besieging without mercy.

On the Branagh interpretation of the story, Henry V bears some intriguing resemblances to Tony Blair. In particular, in having attacked France without provocation, without a just cause, in a war of aggression. (For France, read Iraq)

So is Henry V a model for leadership? I think not. True leadership is not cold, nor merciless. True leadership is not dictatorship.

So long as authoritarianism and control-freakery passes for leadership, then Blair or Brown look like leaders. But surely real leadership is rather inspiration, service - and teamwork.

It is easy to react against the dire state of leadership in this country, and against the very centralised way in which the 'main' parties are run, by proposing a radical alternative: having no leaders at all. But as radical political activists have known for a long time, 'leaderlessness' or anarchy is just as tyrannical as tyranny: take a look at the wonderful essay, The tyranny of structurelessness, from 1970, for an account of why.

Without accountable leaders, an organisation or party will have its leaders picked for it by the media, who will home in on their own preferred 'stars' within the party. The cleverest way for a big ego to hide itself is for its owner to pretend to be against leadership. An out-of-control egoist has the perfect alibi, if they claim not to want to be a leader.

Our country, and our world - this one and only world that we have - desperately needs real leadership, at this pivotal moment in human history. The challenges facing us are far bigger than those faced by Henry V or by any of Shakespeare's heroes. The long emergency of diminishing oil supplies and escalating climate change is underway: there is no external enemy to fight anymore. The enemy is us: our own desires, manipulated and magnified by the markets, until we threaten to consume our one and only planetary home.

We only have one Earth, and one chance to treat it right. Now is not the time for acting like a dictator; and nor is it the time for anarchy; now is the time for true leadership. Nations and political parties need leaders, who are prepared to inspire, to lead from the front and to work as part of a team, to face the vast challenges which we must respond to fast, if we are not to fail our children in the most disastrous way possible.

It is an individualist fantasy to think that everyone is equally suited to leading. There are very few who are genuinely and consistently capable of leading (as opposed to being tyrants or dictators, which is easier).

Let us be ready to value and support true leaders, at this fateful moment in humanity's story. Leaders who inspire and yet remain humble, and who are ready to take responsibility rather than merely hiding behind the veil of a collective group: these are the women and men who, following in the footsteps of the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi, may yet lead us through the crisis of our times

12 May 2007

Marching together on common ground

By Marguerite Finn

Last summer a Peace Camp was held at the Forum in Norwich. There were no tents or caravans – just a gathering of people representing a variety of different groups and organisations in Norwich coming together to exchange views and learn from each other.

The gathering was unique in that it was the brain-child of members of the Norwich and Norfolk Muslim Association. So often accused of retreating into their own communities and not integrating with wider British society, members of the Muslim community took the lead on this occasion, in a bid to find the common ground between individuals of different cultures and faiths – including those of no particular faith. And it worked! In fact, it was a phenomenal success and lasting friendships, across different faiths and cultures, were made.

This month, on Sunday 27 May, the Norwich Peace Camp will be there again – and this time it will be even bigger, covering half of the Atrium in the Forum. All last year’s member organisations will be taking part again along with some new ones and everyone, young and old, is invited to come along and participate in this day-long event devoted to peace and better inter-communal relations. There will be stalls, a great atmosphere, information galore - and maybe even some food to sample!

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of events like this in today’s polarizing world. Multiculturalism – as a dogma – is not delivering liberté, égalité or fraternité in the ways originally intended. I watched the Panorama programme on television earlier this week and was surprised and saddened by the situation which has developed in Blackburn where the Asian Muslim and white populations have virtually retreated into separate parts of the city, with little or no interaction between them. The commentator said that the two communities lived "parallel lives" and that separation had entered "every aspect of their lives". This separation means that young people tend to stay strictly within their own areas. Neither group uses the city centre much, other than for visiting hospitals, shopping – and for marches and processions.

The Blackburn Muslim community organised a march to celebrate an aspect of their religion. The march was peaceful in origin and execution but all the flags, banners and chants were in Arabic. As a result, the non-Muslim section of the community looked on nervously, uncertain what the banners and chants were about and this peaceful and colourful event produced negative feelings of fear and exclusion in on-lookers and passers-by. A few days later, a march organised by the white community to celebrate St. George produced similar feelings of unease and exclusion in the non-white community! Leaders of both communities are working hard to overcome this fear and unfamiliarity before it degenerates into hatred.

Perhaps the most poignant example of the divisiveness of flag-waving is the 'orange and green marching season' in Northern Ireland. The recent, long overdue power-sharing agreement between Unionists and Republicans, which this week ushered in the new Northern Ireland government at Stormont, will, we hope, see the hatred that infused these marches being replaced, as the two communities become more accustomed to working with instead of against each other. Will we then see the aggressiveness of the marching season' replaced by all inclusive, joyful celebrations of life - such as Mardi Gras and the Notting Hill Festival – and not a flag in sight?

Some people argue that multiculturalism is failing women, others argue that the political left-wing of western society is too silent on the often reactionary agenda of political islamist groups, in order to preserve alliances or to be seen to be 'politically correct'. Either of these subjects would fill a whole column on their own! However, we do live in a multicultural society and we do need to make it work for all. The best way to do that is to respect those following a different cultural or religious path from our own, while our understanding of them develops in a non-judgemental atmosphere.

A woman friend said recently that fear is a very negative reaction, which is the root cause of so much dis-ease in social relations. So let us substitute awareness for fear as far as we humanly can. Trying to understand the other does not necessarily mean justifying anything – but it is practical, for that is how we can peacefully live together – so necessary on our over-crowded, fragile planet.

That is what the Peace Camp in the Forum is all about: learning to appreciate the common ground and respect the differences. Come and see for yourselves between 10am and 4pm at the forum on Sunday 27 May 2006.

5 May 2007

No revolution – just ban plastic bags

By Jacqui McCarney

In Ireland and Bangladesh, India, Italy and Australia, Taiwan and South Africa, the sky must be falling - these are some of the places that have imposed outright bans or tax on plastic bags. Now, the small Devon town of Modbury has joined the 'revolution'. In one full swoop plastic bag use has been cut by up to 97% - Government and the supermarket giants must marvel at the audacity of such action.

Defra and British retailers have come up with an agreement to cut the use of plastic bags by a modest 25%. How this is achieved is down to individual businesses and recent weeks have seen a number of tentative schemes from the supermarket giants.

Hardly a revolution in supermarket shopping but I was intrigued to see how Sainsbury's were going to translate this sexy sound bite into action.

On 27th April, they declared a one-day embargo on throwaway plastic bags. Freeing the world of plastic bags is all very well but what do shoppers carry their goods home in? Our French neighbours more familiar with revolutions are often obliged to sort this one out themselves. But Sainsbury’s were taking no risks with British customers - anarchy in the aisles was avoided for the princely sum of £700,000.

Sainsbury's shopping bagHow? Well, you can't get more convenient than a bag – so a bag it was. And come to think of it plastic makes good shopping bags. Yes, it may sound just a tad insane to have a plastic bag free day by giving everyone plastic bags but that is just what Sainsbury's did and nobody so much as raised an eyebrow.

This dramatic, but tokenistic gesture, is hardly going to change the world – rather it may confuse people when Sainsbury's continue to give throwaway bags for the remaining 364 days.

Those still caught up in this revolutionary fervour will point out that the radical bit is that the bags were both 'reusable' and 'recycled' and available to everyone free of the usual 10p charge.

They are reusable because they are thicker and will last longer. Does that mean that they will last longer than the estimated 500 to 1000 years in the environment and break down into even more toxic scraps to seep into soil, water and be ingested by wildlife? Fewer thick plastic bags or more thin ones – we still end up with the problem of plastic in the environment.

This is all before we reach the horror of recycling plastic. While Sainsbury's may gain brownie points from the recycled label on these bags, but scratch the surface to find a process that is highly toxic, expensive and difficult. It is such an unattractive proposition that most of the western world dump used plastic bags back in Asia and China to be recycled. Here, they end up in poisonous heaps blighting towns and villages - overwhelmed by the quantity of plastic some areas resort to incineration, risking the health of people and animals.

While the supermarket giants talk of 'revolution' - the retailers of Modbury quietly got on with banning all plastic from their shops and declaring Modbury "the first plastic bag free town in the UK".

The 43 traders of Modbury are not revolutionaries. They are ordinary business people who felt morally compelled to stop giving plastic bags after watching a wildlife film by local girl Rebecca Hoskins showing the devastation caused to marine life by plastic in the sea.

It is not sound bites that change behaviour but honest information - plastic is devastating to human and animal health. It is toxic in the environment, manufacturing, transportation and disposal contributes to climate change, it is made from oil and it strikes me as an appalling affront to send soldiers into danger and risk civilian lives for a commodity we are going to casually throw away. And you just can't get rid of it – it accumulates in the environment making the sea as Rebecca said "like a trash can".

Norwich, has not thrown up a Rebecca Hoskins, but it does have its very own Bag Ladies who you might come across serenading shoppers into using alternatives to plastic bags - such as jute, organic cotton, and wonderful locally made baskets. And like Modbury and many parts of the world, and without a drop of spilled blood, they would like Norwich to become a plastic bag free city – with that in mind, they have launched a competition to design a logo for a non-plastic bag for Norwich. Entries can be dropped in the post box in the Forum lobby or emailed to wakeup.norwich@yahoo.co.uk.