25 October 2008

The Good Old Days

By Nicola Pratt

The majority of this year's intake of university first-year undergraduates was born in the same year that I started my own university degree. It certainly makes me feel old(er). When I was at university, there were no mobile phones, no internet and no email. I kept in touch with friends and relatives in other cities and countries by snail mail, whilst my day-to-day social life was carefully organized in advance using the pay phone on my corridor or by leaving hand-written messages in people’s university pigeon holes. Once, after graduation, I went to live in Egypt, it was at least a year before I got an email account and, during that time, I continued to write and receive letters by post. My mum still only handwrites letters. Having lived the majority of her life happily without computers or mobile phones, she is not in the slightest bit interested in them now.

Most of my students cannot begin to imagine a life without all the gadgets and applications that make it so easy to keep in touch with friends and relatives—wherever they may be. Perhaps, if email, texting and Facebook had been around when I was at university, I would not have fallen out of touch with some of the people who I remember fondly but who weren't so good at putting pen to paper. I'm happy that some of the people with whom I lost touch have found me again on Facebook. However, increasingly I have begun to admire my mum's steadfast position against new technology and I, like many other workers, often even resent the constant communication barrage.

What should be a positive development in life—that is, the ability to keep in touch more easily - has turned into one of life's necessary evils. New technology creates new expectations on the part of work colleagues and managers that often become new pressures. Supposedly, new technology enables us to do everything faster and, therefore, to do more of it. It also, supposedly, allows us to do it more flexibly. However, research demonstrates that new technology can contribute to work intensification, longer working hours and the erosion of a home life separate from work life. British workers, on average, work more than 40 hours per week and have the longest working hours in Europe. This is despite the fact that it is well over a century since the British labour movement campaigned to limit the working week to forty hours. It appears that new communication technology is creating more work rather than facilitating the work that we were already doing. This is good news for company bosses but not for those workers who spend their days checking and sending emails from work computers and/or Blackberrys. After our intense work days, sometimes made even longer by commuting, we may resort to using technology such as texting or 'Facebooking' friends and families because we simply don't have the energy for a full-blown conversation.

Perhaps we are willing to put up with the extra hours because of the financial and material benefits or even for the love of it? The first few decades following World War II witnessed a radical improvement of living conditions for the majority of the population. However, now we see that the gap between rich and poor is widening, social mobility is declining, job security is declining and British children are among the unhappiest and unhealthiest in the world.

The looming world recession brings into question all that we've worked for and all that we've sacrificed in terms of quality of life and relationships. I look at my mum's life and it is not obvious that my generation is better off. Certainly, in comparison to my mum, I have benefitted from increased access to education and increased opportunities for women in the workplace. However, the ideology of 'technology-driven efficiency' and the associated 'flexibility' and 'intensification' of work is not the cause. Rather, I can thank the labour and women's movements for campaigning throughout the twentieth century for the rights of ordinary men and women. The increasing marginalisation of those movements today (for a variety of reasons that we could debate) is helping to turn us into slaves of new technology, rather than empowering us to use it to enhance the quality of our lives. My mum's hostility to email and mobile phones cannot merely be labelled as an older person's inability to adapt to change. Rather, in a context where ideological alternatives to "technologically-driven hyper-efficiency" are difficult to come by in the mainstream media, her resistance to technology is maybe her individual resistance to the current state of British society.

18 October 2008

Confronting our thirst for oil

By Liam Carroll

"Soaring oil prices and loss of wealth in 2008 to the tune of $1.2-$1.9 billion each and every working day, depending on the price of crude, not only helped pop the US mortgage bubble but have also helped create the economic conditions that brought the US economy to its current dire straits", explains Gal Luft an energy analyst on a web-based discussion forum called Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH). The "dire straits" refer to the current financial crisis, but the general topic of discussion at MESH, which "brings together some of the most original strategic thinkers in academe, research centers, and government", is US strategy in the Middle East, of which the role of oil is a significant topic.

Indeed, elsewhere on the MESH website, further interesting comment on the role of oil can be found under the topic heading America's Interests (a Presidential briefing). Martin Kramer, a well known analyst has this to say; "The Middle East is home to 60 per cent of the world's remaining oil; the United States has less than 2 per cent. Transferring energy from there to here - and elsewhere to people who depend on us - is our primary interest in the Middle East."

To narrow the focus yet further, and to shed light on what Washington's highest priorities are, Mr Kramer adds with some humour "And within the Middle East, Mr President, the epicenter of our interest is the Persian Gulf. The name 'Persian Gulf' is a very old one, you'll find it on every map. But it might as well be called Lake Michigan, so integral is it to the lubrication of American life. This means that the US must secure the Gulf, and can't allow any part of it to be dominated by any other power, global or regional."

After a very concise review of US involvement in the region, Mr Kramer explains that "by 2003 our grip on the Gulf was loosening", and thus when the US "finally invaded Iraq, we were in search of a foothold". The President is then advised "not to fritter away our advantage in Iraq", as, "there aren't many alternative platforms." Other MESH analysts also advise the President that the US must "maintain strong economic and political involvement to help ensure that Iraq is a moderate, pro-American force in the region", or even that "America's main investment and hope (in the Middle East) is Iraq".

Walter Laqueur, another contributor to the Presidential briefings (The first 100 days), has additional advice on the oil topic: "One issue which ought to have top priority is reducing the dependence on imported oil and finding new sources of energy. This is the Achilles' heel not only of the United States but of Europe and the developing countries." The solutions he proffers are "technological breakthroughs" for which "it will always be difficult to find the huge sums needed", but is resigned to the fact that "this is the only way to remedy a fatal weakness."

Gal Luft however, is not so optimistic, and is prepared to deliver a harder bottom line (to the President): "The reality is that neither efforts to expand petroleum supply nor those to crimp petroleum demand will be enough to materially address America's strategic vulnerability." The problem being "oil's monopoly in the global transportation sector" and "the stranglehold of OPEC over the consuming nations' economies."

Should we blame OPEC then for our economic woes then? "The problem with laying the blame for our economic calamity on OPEC is that it hides the plain truth that this crisis is about our greed, not theirs", Gal Luft concludes.

Clearly then, oil supply remains of huge importance, specifically Iraq's which is, according to Dr Salameh, director of the Oil Market Consultancy Service, "the only one of the world's biggest producing countries with enough reserves to substantially increase its flow. Production in eight of the others has peaked, while China and Saudia Arabia, the remaining two, are nearing the point of decline."

These conclusions, from credible establishment sources, tend to suggest that, sure, the Iraq invasion wasn't all about oil, but one can't avoid the obvious, it certainly wasn't all about WMD and terrorism. Should we therefore lay the blame on the Bush administration for not being up front and frank about America's real needs? The Council on Foreign Relations, an establishment think tank, in a report called Strategic Energy Policy Challenges, certainly seems to think so, "virtually every American recession since the late 1940s has been preceded by spikes in oil prices. The American people need to know about this situation and be told as well that there are no easy or quick solutions to today’s energy problems."

11 October 2008

Measuring values

By Marguerite Finn

Don't it always seem to go / that you don't know what you've got till its gone / They've paved Paradise / put up a parking lot!

So sang Joni Mitchell in the 1960s and her words are as relevant in 2008 as they were forty years ago – perhaps even more so in a world where paving over the countryside is seen as a sign of the progress essential to endless 'economic growth' and where unsought business parks are supplementing the parking lots.

On our allotment at Great Plumstead the noise of the traffic on the A47 seems to me like an endless succession of aggressive roars. To a county councillor, arguing about the planned Norwich Northern Distributor Road (NDR), much closer than the A47, it's a continuous loud rumble. To my partner, wearing a hearing aid, it is an uncomfortable and constant sibilant hiss. To avoid it, he usually takes off his hearing aid whilst working on the allotment. But then he can't hear the blackbird in the willow tree nearby.

The NDR's arrival would spell the end of any rural peace to the north east of Norwich, as the proposed 'ecotown' at Rackheath already prefigures. Rural villages would become anonymous, indistinguishable suburbs; blackbirds, if they survived, would perch on streetlights, confused by the intemperate light.

In their environmental assessments for the NDR, the planners measure road noise in decibels, and contrarily calculate that these will somehow decrease as the number of vehicles using the NDR inevitably increases! But it is impossible to reduce hearing pollution to a measurement of decibels because we all hear things differently and are not affected by them in the same way. To me, the loss of the blackbird's song isn't just a matter of decibels, nor even of political indignation. Feelings defy technical measurement, but possibly the abuse of our ears could be estimated in sighs and tears, and rural peace in the gurgles of a stream.

In today's frenetic and insecure world, humans appear to have suffered an irrevocable break from nature. Nature is just something to be measured, mapped, modelled, commodified, conserved, used. It is not felt, celebrated, enjoyed, honoured or given gifts. Nature has been neoliberalised and transformed into a spectacle.

The indigenous people of the Americas, invaded by European adventurers centuries ago, had no concept of land ownership. They and the land belonged to each other, and the one was bereft without the other. So it was with them and the sea, the animals, plants and the air; all sustained each other immeasurably. The money invaders offered them for the land was a meaningless unit, incomprehensible to the indigenes. They might as well have been offered decibels for it. So, of course, they were cheated right, left and centre. Now some of us are just beginning to realise what we might lose if those indigenous peoples disappeared, because we could not put a value on their priceless diversity.

You may not have known of it, because it was largely ignored by the mainstream press in the UK and USA, but on 13 September 2007, after twenty five years of negotiation, and despite very strong opposition from some of the most powerful countries in the world, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples.
    "Recognising the inherent rights and characteristics of indigenous peoples, especially rights to their lands, territories and resources, which derive from their political, economic and social structures and their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies…"
Quite a change from the convenient concept of Terra Nullius - developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. This meant 'empty land' and it denied indigenous peoples even the status of humans, falsely entitling European settlers, states and later corporations to claim the land was theirs to use as they liked.

Now that some of the false idols of that western attitude to land, property, wealth and welfare are in disarray and meltdown - land disappearing into the sea, houses prices falling, savings disappearing into black holes, good Samaritans being kicked to death, pensioners dying of cold while footballers are exchanged for millions of pounds – have we perhaps a chance to discover other values?

From whence might come different ways to conduct ourselves that were sustainable instead of self-defeating, life affirming rather than living at someone else’s expense? If the rights of indigenous peoples are observed, we may find good examples of ways and values to help us renew our Western culture. To rediscover our spiritual inheritance, we must reconnect with nature.

Thanks to Peter Lanyon, Resurgence Magazine and the right-hand side of my brain for their input to this column.

4 October 2008

McCartney's pipes of peace cannot be heard in Palestine

By Juliette Harkin

Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has said that he had not been willing to face reality during his political career and admitted that it would be necessary for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan Heights in order to secure peace. Whilst Olmert was reflecting and stating the patently obvious to Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Sir Paul McCartney had just performed live in Tel Aviv for thousands of Israelis. Despite pleas from Palestinians to boycott Israel because of its poor human rights record, he was determined to go ahead with the concert. He told Rolling Stone that "music can help people calm down". It seems McCartney too needs to do a reality check.

His ignorance of the situation is clear in his delusion that if only he could sing everyone would stop being angry and make up. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is not a lovers spat or even a conflict between equal civilians in one country but a deeply and dangerously illegal occupation of a native people and a damaging land grab by foreign settlers. At a time when respected international aid agencies are saying that the Middle East quartet is failing to improve the humanitarian situation for Palestinians, it is offensive for McCartney to reduce the hardships of occupation to an inability to be calm. To add insult to injury, Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank cannot get through the hundreds of checkpoints and the concrete wall to hear him sing anyway.

Whilst in Israel and Palestine, McCartney told the Jerusalem Post that he was apolitical and brought a message of world peace. But he doesn't seem to realise that he cannot be apolitical if, as a world famous musician, he chooses to visit a country that is condemned as an apartheid regime.

McCartney can think what he likes but the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, is very clear about how he sees the visit. As reported in the Guardian, Prosor celebrated it as a "diplomatic success of great importance" in conversation with the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv he said:

"When one of the most admired musicians in the world not only expresses his willingness to visit Tel Aviv, but also publicly talks about the positive things he's heard about Israel, this is an Israeli diplomatic and PR success of the first order."

If McCartney wanted to remain neutral he could have deferred to international norms and law. In doing so he would have found that his Israeli friends have an abysmal record of ignoring basic international law regarding occupied peoples and an appalling record of human rights abuses that continued as McCartney was playing his pipes of peace in Tel Aviv.

His brief visit to a Bethlehem music school and the Church of the Nativity, presumably under Israeli military auspices, was a hopelessly inadequate response to Palestinians. Israel proved adept in using his visit to normalise itself in the eyes of the international community, thus undermining efforts by Palestinians and human rights groups to show Israel for what it really is: a militaristic state that has occupied the land of Palestinians since 1948.

There comes a point when a country's actions become unacceptable and where it loses any rights to be treated as a democratic state in the international system. Israel reached that point long ago. It's just that woolly liberals like McCartney have a hard time condemning a state that became home to Holocaust survivors and refugees after the war. We have to look at what is happening today. Even Olmert is willing to concede that to some extent Israel has lost its way and that the rights of the Palestinians have never been acknowledged.

Maybe, McCartney showed his true colours when speaking to Yediot Aharonot during which AFP reports he said "I was approached by different groups and political bodies who asked me not to come. I do what I think, and I have many friends who support Israel." If he supports the excesses of the military state of Israel that is his prerogative but don’t dress it up in the language of friendship and peace.

Ironically, McCartney's website highlights how he is a Patron and Goodwill Ambassador of the Adopt-A-Minefield campaign. His favoured state of Israel littered southern Lebanon with thousands of landmines and children and farmers are still paying the price.

So why did McCartney go to Israel if he is a peace loving liberal? Given the high price of the tickets for the region this must be working out as a nice little earner. But more likely, and sadly, McCartney is blinkered by the notion that music can solve a bitterly uneven conflict between the Israeli occupier and the occupied people of Palestine. John Lennon must have been turning in his grave as Paul belted out the old Beatles tunes in Tel Aviv.