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.