26 December 2009

Less religion, more peace and goodwill

By Lee Marsden

Anyone unfortunate enough to have watched Fern Britten's sycophantic portrayal of Tony Blair's religion and his self-aggrandizing Faith Foundation on television recently would have been left feeling amazed at the former PM's brass neck. Rather than facing trial at The Hague for war crimes he continues to strut the world stage as a 'peace envoy' in the Middle East and has embarked on a new mission to increase the importance of religion among world leaders. While some may feel, even at Christmas time, that the world might benefit from rather less religion and more peace and goodwill, late convert to Catholicism Tony Blair believes that religion is the answer to all the world's problems.

Certainly the world's major religions, depending on which sections of their sacred texts are emphasised, have the capacity to encourage their followers to live by the golden rule of doing to others as they would have others do to them. Religion makes big claims about life both in the here and now and in any afterlife. With such big claims also come big responsibilities – for its followers and leaders to live lives worthy of the calling. Sadly, while many religious actors are engaged in social action that has the potential to transform lives many others seem to work tirelessly to bring their religion into disrepute.

In the past few weeks US conservative evangelicals have inspired a campaign in Uganda to persecute homosexuals with proposed legislation to imprison gay people and anyone aiding and abetting them, such as landlords who might rent them a room. Sexually active gay people carrying the HIV virus could face the death penalty. The offensive notion that homosexuality is an aberration which can be ‘cured’ is not just confined to Africa but is mainstream among US and British conservative evangelicals.

In Ireland, the Murphy Report into child sex abuse cases in the Dublin diocese has revealed decades of abuse by Catholic priests, which have been systematically covered up by the church. In acknowledging the seriousness of this scandal, in terms of damaged lives and the reputation to the church, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has called for the resignation of four bishops as sign of collective responsibility for the abuse of trust and authority perpetrated in the name of the church. Only one of the bishops has so far resigned with other church leaders refusing to take any responsibility for their role in covering up these crimes.

Pope Benedict has recently signed a decree extolling the virtues of Pope Pius XII, a next step to possible sainthood, for the church leader who did so little to prevent millions of Jews being exterminated in the holocaust. Oblivious to the sense of outrage expressed by Jewish organisations the Pope is waiting for the opportunity to assert that a miracle has occurred which he can attribute to the intercession of Pius XII.

Finally, the recent sentencing of Mehmet Goren to 22 years in jail for the murder of his 15 year old daughter Tulay has highlighted the issue of so-called 'honour' killings among predominantly South Asian and Middle Eastern ethnic groups in Britain. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers a minimum of twelve such killings occurs each year. Forced marriages are also a huge issue as hundreds of mainly young women are spirited off to South Asia each year to be married off against their wishes. Religious leaders dismiss these as cultural, rather than religious, practices and yet little effort is made to wipe them out. According to Diana Nammi of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation in London "they may pay lip service to change but they have networks and contacts and they are not trying to change anything".

Maybe, rather than more religion, what is needed are more people who only do unto others as they would have done unto them.

19 December 2009

It's the climb

By Juliette Harkin

As we tuck into our festive dinner and settle down to watch TV this Christmas, Peter Offord, a Green Party councillor from Norwich, and a qualified art therapist, will be preparing to join over a thousand people on the Gaza Freedom March. This non-violent march will take place on the 31st December and marks a year since the Israeli military assault that killed and injured thousands of Palestinian civilians.

Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi have shown us that non-violent protest can deliver justice. In the fight for freedom, Mandela focused on the tough climb for recognition: "I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. […] I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended."

The marchers will enter Gaza from the Egyptian border and join hands with Palestinian students, teachers, doctors and academics to peacefully break the siege on Gaza. Gaza's borders are sealed by the Israeli military, creating prison-like conditions for the 1.5 million inhabitants.

Why do the activists care so much and why this conflict, when there is so much injustice around the world? Well, no western state supports the excesses of Mugabe's regime. We turned our backs on Apartheid South Africa and criticisms of the Sudanese government have been rightly very vocal.

On the other hand, Israel is positively aided and abetted by the US, the British and the European Union. The West provided the bombs, some of which were not used legally, including the use of white phosphorus bombs in civilian areas of Gaza. As we all ushered in 2009 Israel recklessly bombed a highly populated area that contained civilians. Sometimes Israeli leaflets or phone calls told citizens to leave their homes and yet they were locked in this tiny stretch of land and, unlike refugees fleeing war the world over, had nowhere to walk to safety. Israel bombed built up areas housing, schools and hospitals and it fired at ambulance crews. Civilians were beheaded or blown to pieces by illegally used weapons, or, if they were 'lucky', just mangled and crippled for life.

As far as the Israeli soldiers were concerned every Palestinian man, woman or child in Gaza was a potential terrorist. There were no civilians or humans, just the enemy.

What Israel did was as morally corrupt as the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Sovereign states, including ours, have a responsibility to act within the law, or else our world will never be a safe place free from terror. Israel gained its statehood to the detriment of the indigenous people and, as historian Avi Shlaim says, has subsequently chosen land-grabs over peace.

It is a sad indictment of our world's political system that we actually have to have rules for war – for war is surely a failure of politics – but we do and one of the world's most militaristic states, Israel, has been flouting them since the day it was born. Blair and Bush have set the bar so low now – complete disdain for international law and human rights - and guess what? Some rather unpleasant regimes around the world have jumped on this sordid bandwagon.

The organisers of the march, The International Coalition to End the Siege on Gaza, say that the "conscience of humankind is shocked", but this is not enough. The aim is clear: to "quicken" the conscience of the world towards a just solution for the Palestinians.

To understand more about what the march is all about and to see how you can support and help the marchers visit the website at http://www.gazafreedommarch.org/.

12 December 2009

Class War

By Lee Marsden

Gordon Brown's criticism that Conservative inheritance tax policy "seems to have been dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton" made some great headlines and revealed that the king of spin, Alastair Campbell is very much back in business.

While criticism of an inheritance tax policy, which proposes to provide a £1 billion tax cut for the wealthiest two percent of the population, is clearly justified, the media were quick to signal this as a change in tactics by Labour in a bid to steal the coming election by resorting to class war. An indignant David Cameron, filmed with the troops in Afghanistan, declared that this was "a petty, spiteful, stupid thing to do", adding that "what people are interested in is not where you come from, but where you’re going to".

Quite so, but what old Etonians and the nineteen millionaire members of the shadow cabinet fail to appreciate is that this is the point – where you're going to is overwhelmingly dependent on where you are from.

Class still determines winners and losers in British society. The seven percent of British children who are privately educated are four times more likely than those from state schools to achieve straight A’s at A Level, and three times more likely to go to university.

A private school education greatly increases the chances of admission to Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which in turn opens doors to the nation's top jobs. Three quarters of all judges, fifty percent of all senior journalists, and almost a third of all MPs were privately educated.

Senior civil servants, surgeons, bankers, and the Armed Forces top brass also disproportionately come from public schools. In contrast, two thirds of pupils from poorer social backgrounds don't even take A Levels and less than one percent of children who receive free school meals go on to achieve straight As at A Level. As overall exam results improve, significant numbers of mainly working class boys are leaving school without any qualifications whatsoever.

Private education enables parents to buy privilege and opportunity for their offspring denied to the vast majority of society. They emerge equipped with a confidence and sense of entitlement that puts them at a considerable advantage in securing prestigious university places, better paid employment and even seats in the cabinet. Independent schools argue that they also offer bursaries to children from poorer backgrounds but these are subsidised by the tax payer taking some of the best students from the state sector, improving the educational achievements of the private sector at the expense of the state sector.

A party that is led by people from enormously privileged backgrounds and seeks to perpetuate inequalities in society is, by its very nature, out of touch with the ordinary lives of the people it seeks to govern. The difficulty for Labour is that it too is out of touch with ordinary people. Eleven ministers seated at the Cabinet table were privately educated, even left wing stalwarts such as Diane Abbott send their children to private or selective schools, knowing the advantages that will accrue for their offspring.

It is a bit late in the day making an issue of class when for the past twelve years they have done so little to improve social mobility and increase life chances for the working class they once sought to represent.

The class issue, despite Cameron's protestations, is not about the politics of envy or spite but rather one of fairness and equality of opportunity. Cameron's policies may indeed have been dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton but Labour now has to convince its own supporters and the rest of the country that it is about creating level playing fields for all. Sound bites are all very well but will Brown actually offer any substance to making Britain a fairer society?

5 December 2009

No chocolates please – we're British

By Rupert Read

Have you noticed the insidious way in which newsagents nowadays not only have chocs and other sweeties right by the counter, trying to tempt you to impulse-buy them, but actually push them on you. At every train-station-shop, at most WH Smiths, and on and on they say, "And would you like this great big chocolate bar, for just a pound?", when you step up to buy something. They don't even bother putting discount labels on them any more. No; the cashiers are simply instructed to try to get you to add a big hunk of processed fat and sugar to your purchase, whether that purchase was a newspaper, a drink, or even some medicine…

Why does this get me annoyed? Because we are supposed to be a society that cares about people's health. A society that is trying to reduce obesity, cut heart attacks, live healthy… And yet we tolerate this relentless oiling of the wheels of capitalism, of 'the market', of the mega-corporations taking advantage of our wants and needs…

I decided to write this column the other day, when I just couldn't take it any more. The lady in front of me in the queue knew the cashier. The cashier, who seemed a very nice woman, said, "So do you want your usual treat as well, then?" The lady in front of me, who was clearly overweight and feeling it, said, "Well, maybe not today; it does all end up on my waistline…" She seemed sorry to disappoint the cashier… I felt sorry for her, having these opportunities to make herself fatter dangled in front of her all the time, and it being implied to her that she was a fool to turn down such a bargain…

As I say, the cashier seemed good-hearted. But I confess, when I got to the counter, and she started asking me whether I wanted a slab of fat and sugar to go with my paper, I just said a curt 'No', and awaited my change…

Of course, it's not only chocolates at the newsagents. This is just the most in-your-face example of something that really gets my goat: we pretend as a society that we are serious about things that we show implicitly – by our actions - we aren't really serious about at all:
  • Prominent quality newspapers tell us how important it is to reduce our climate-dangerous emissions-pollution – right alongside adverts that they are happy to run for flights to Glasgow for £1…
  • Corporations' PR people jet around the world – to go to conferences about and tell us how serious they are now about 'corporate social responsibility'. (The most responsible thing to do would of course be – to run the thing by video conference, instead!)
  • On my own campus, at UEA, you can tell that the place is 100% serious about learning – by the fact that the sign for the student bar is about three times as large and prominent as the sign for the library…
This has got to change. Let's get serious about kicking the fat habit, and stuffing ourselves with 'treats' that we will only regret, ten minutes (and ten years) later. Let's start taking action on dangerous climate change that is commensurate with the scale of the threat – we need to rein in flights, not advertise them madly at every opportunity.

Yes, we all know that choccies taste nice. But there's a time and a place. We've clamped down (a bit) on turkey twizzlers and alcopops. Let's start thinking like a nation, like a society - not like greedy kids. Let's say No Pushing Chocolates At The Counter Please – We're British…

28 November 2009

Slaying dinosaurs in Copenhagen

By Trevor Phillips

Samba dancers led a large, colourful demonstration in Norwich a week ago which demanded action to prevent dangerous climate change. There is increasing public willingness to challenge the path to disaster on which our fossil fuel consumption is taking us. But attractive as it was, we cannot just samba our way to security.

The campaigners knew this of course. And tragedy in Cumbria has recently highlighted how serious climate change is. But colourful events attract attention to serious messages. And offering solutions, as the demonstrators also did, is more positive than sandwich-board doomsdaying.

The procession was one of thousands around the world in advance of the forthcoming UN climate summit in Copenhagen. Millions of people are pressing politicians to cut global emission of carbon dioxide (C02) and other 'greenhouse' gases which are heating up our planet at a dangerous pace. This could become unstoppable within very few years, not centuries. Don't take my word for it, the top scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have an agreed view on this, despite the claims of a few climate change deniers - some backed by the US oil industry. Copernicus had the same problem with earlier flat-earthers.

Copenhagen will not resolve the crisis. The US may offer only a modest, provisional target for its own CO2 reduction. Other nations may therefore reject burden sharing. Why, they ask, should I accept rationing while you consume twice or twenty times more than me? It's a fair question which our own society will soon have to ask those of our citizens who are energy guzzlers.

The UK, like all rich - though unequal - countries, must rapidly reduce use of fossil fuels: coal powered electricity, petrol, holiday flight aviation fuel. Will it be acceptable for 'market forces' and the price do the rationing? Can Mr Big have his gas guzzler and thrice yearly foreign hols while pensioners cannot afford one warm room in their house? Or will we share our limited energy in a civilised, democratic and fair way?

Even if some agreement is reached at Copenhagen, the targets for emissions reduction will be far too low. Further, tougher targets must be internationally agreed – and very soon. But Copenhagen will nevertheless be a watershed. We will soon begin to speak of that summit as we do of the historical point when the dinosaurs disappeared. The dinosaurs, recall, had inadequate brains unsuited for the complex task of collective survival and were unable to adapt to a changing environment. Sound familiar?

After Copenhagen, there will still be some human dinosaurs: Pre-Copenhagen Man will claim that business can go on as usual with unrestrained fossil fuel consumption. National and global inequality is just nature, he will say. One can already hear the shrill pubescent screams of his spokespeople that demands for more grown up behaviour are "just so unfair".

And there will be Post-Copenhagen People - who will come to terms with the end of an age of mistaken irresponsibility, accept that the world has changed and rise to the challenges: innovating, adopting new lifestyles, adapting, sharing, coping and inspiring others. We may see a kind of WW2 'Dunkirk Spirit'. Faced with a common deadly enemy we certainly need an early, radical response from brave leadership. OK, we have to create that last bit: the appeasers and dinosaurs can't lead this. In reality, the people must lead.

Many people will be on coaches from East Anglia to the national Climate Emergency demonstration in London on 5 December, demanding action in the UK after Copenhagen: the declaration of a Climate Emergency, a million new green jobs to develop renewable energy, to improve public transport and insulate properties. This could tackle unemployment, increase tax revenues, providing hope and direction and much needed social unity. We should join them - and speed up the final demise of the dinosaurs.

21 November 2009

Barefoot into the light

By Marguerite Finn

The debate continues as to whether overseas development aid is working or not. I want to tell you a story about a group of women in rural India. It is the most optimistic tale I have heard in a long while - a testament to the indomitable resilience of the human spirit. This is the story of India's female barefoot solar engineers.

Tinginaput is an ordinary village in remote rural India - two rows of neat mud houses, a few water pumps, a mango tree where people gather to talk. But there is something very modern perched on the tiles of each roof: a solar panel the size of two A4 books. From these, wires lead into the houses, bringing light and power. Five tall street lamps have their own solar system – giving light throughout the night and the villagers no longer fear attacks from bears from the surrounding hills.

Three years ago, four women from the village made an extraordinary journey. They left their remote highland homes for the first time in their lives and travelled into modernity, way beyond the strict boundaries that govern a woman's life among the tribes of India's Eastern Ghats – the irregular range of mountains running along India’s eastern coast.

"Before 2005, I'd never even seen an outsider", says grandmother Pulka Wadeka. Like most women in the villages she cannot read or write. But she can wire up and run a solar-powered 12-volt electricity system.

With three friends, Pulka journeyed to the southern city of Hyderabad for five months training in solar power technology. It took courage to travel to a big city where no one could speak their language. The initiative came from the Orissa Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme (OTELP) funded by UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Pulka remembered: "The train to the city was very scary. We missed home. But as head of the village self-help group I had to go, for my community". Training was hard – learning the English alphabet and numbers to work out the circuit diagrams. But now Pulka wields pliers and multimeter like a practiced electrician.

It is hard for us to imagine how solar power transformed so many aspects of the villager's lives. They save on kerosene for their oil lamps – an expensive and dangerous item. The bright portable solar lights they now use enable craftwork - such as broom making - to be done at night as well as during the day. Children can do their schoolwork in the evenings and there is more time for working in the fields. As a result, incomes are increasing.

Success at Tinginaput means solar power can spread across the district. A training centre has been set up to teach other people from the hill tribes how to erect street lighting and house-power systems. A banner proudly announces the women’s new co-operative: The Orissa Tribal Women Barefoot Solar Engineers Association. The women have been given a contract to build 3,000 solar-powered lanterns for schools and institutions.

Although DFID's five-year funding for the OTELP project runs out in 2010, the Department's representative in Orissa is convinced the project will continue: "When DIFID steps away, it will keep going because it is now a flagship programme for the Orissa state government".

Development Aid works providing it remains focussed upon the needs of the community. Peter Reid, DFID's chief technical adviser to the project, sums it up succinctly: "What's very satisfying is the increased strength of communities, especially among women. That may be the most important thing, because social cohesion enables people to withstand shocks. It gives them better access to finance, to information and skills – enabling them to adapt to the challenges of climate change."

Tinginaput is one example of the effectiveness of oversees aid.

14 November 2009

Leaving the pleasuredome

By Charlotte Du Cann

Last November at an Energy Fair in a Suffolk village John Gummer MP declared how people like us were making a difference and how that lady in the front wearing the woolly hat had the right idea about keeping warm. He then went on to say how frightfully important it was he kept his five cars and in particular the 4x4 outside in the car park.

In another era I would have spent this column denouncing the politician. But the fact is my attention has shifted. The times have shifted. Because all across the region ordinary people are doing the extraordinary. Though they have been educated to believe the top of the world is the place to be, they are discussing how to proceed down the mountain. They have not yet turned their heating on. They are walking to work and darning their socks. They are swapping clothes and vegetable seeds, showing The Age of Stupid in their village halls. And I'm not writing as an observer. I'm one of those people.

Whatever happens in Copenhagen next month a wave of low-carbon communities and Transition initiatives across East Anglia are already cutting their carbon emissions. We're not doing it because the government have told us to, but because something like conscience has entered our field. And even though, like everyone else, we have been dazzled by the pleasuredome of the Western World, we know that no matter how many buttons we push or planes we take the walls that have allowed us not to see or feel the consequences of our daily actions have become thin. We can only live this way by exploiting the natural resources of the planet and millions of our fellow human beings. And it's not just the trees and animals and people who suffer. It is ourselves, in our rages and our depressions, our children who run crazy in the schoolroom instead of running free, our parents who lose their minds instead of becoming elders.

Today people from 27 Transition initiatives across the Eastern Region are converging in Diss to discuss how to co-ordinate this downshift into a low-carbon world. They are engaged in a movement that began in Totnes in 2005 in response to peak oil (the imminent decline of oil supplies) and climate change that enables communities to make active steps towards energy descent. Their hardest task is to communicate the fact that to reverse the downward spiralling of eco-systems and resource wars, we can’t hold on to our fossil-fuelled life-style. At some point you have to stop eating the disappearing fish in the ocean. You have to put on your woolly hat.

To see the reality of our situation beyond our fairy stories of heroes and saviours is to see that we live in a world run by a corporate machine that is munching its way across the green earth, like a vast voracious caterpillar. For things to change that caterpillar has to transform and become something utterly different. What grassroots movements realise is this is not just a top-down political decision that can be agreed in a climate change summit, it's a personal task for everyone. Because when you dissolve your old world, that's when you start to dream of the butterfly.

If you had told me I'd be writing a column about not turning on the central heating 17 years ago, I would have laughed. I was a consumer journalist, finding meaning and solace in little black dresses and designer chairs, jet-setting to Tokyo and Madrid without a qualm. Now I'm part of a response to the greatest challenge people have ever faced, creating a culture that can live in synch with the planet, one amongst millions of ordinary people doing the extraordinary thing. Walking down the mountain together. Dreaming of the butterfly.

The Transition East Regional Gathering is taking place in Diss on 14 November 2009. Charlotte Du Cann is a member of Transition Norwich and Sustainable Bungay.

7 November 2009

No we can't?

By Lee Marsden

This time last year the world celebrated the incredible victory of America's first African-American president. Barack Obama mobilised popular support and ran an impressive campaign which promised change. The not-Bush candidate with his soaring rhetoric and youthful good looks charmed American voters and interested onlookers around the world, promising a brighter future, one where internal and external divisions would be healed. One year on the Obama gloss is beginning to wear off as vested interests demonstrate that it is once again business as usual. A Washington Post opinion poll in January gave Obama a 79 percent approval rating, today this has fallen to just 57 percent. In making few guarantees, while encouraging voters to put their hopes in him, unrealistic expectations were generated that Obama is unable to deliver. Increasingly US voters and audiences around the world are beginning to realise what the Nobel Peace Prize selection panel did not, that it is one thing to promise the earth quite another to deliver it.

Obama started off with great gusto, reaching out the hand of friendship to the Muslim world, promising to withdraw from Iraq, close Guantanamo Bay, and work to achieve an Israel-Palestinian peace settlement. The best of intentions have still to produce results and those ambitions are being thwarted by vested interests. The hand of friendship has resulted in a warmer attitude towards America in majority Muslim countries. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Report, Egyptians' favourable attitudes towards the US have risen in the last year from 22 to 27 percent. Turkish favourable attitudes have also grown from 12 percent to 14 percent, not very high for a NATO member. While Pakistani favourable attitudes have actually declined from 19 percent to 16 percent and in the Palestinian Territories 75 percent express no confidence in US policy. Admittedly, Obama himself enjoys greater approval ratings, but a change of president without a significant change in foreign policy does not suggest that the hope for the future emphasised by the Democrat candidate in 2008 will be realised by the Democratic incumbent in the White House.

Taking the battle to Al Qaeda has involved becoming embroiled in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Iraq was Bush's war, Afghanistan and the undeclared war on parts of Pakistan by unmanned drones, is Obama's war of choice. Faced with different opinions by his army advisors, the vice president, state department and the Pentagon, Obama has dithered for two months unable to decide on a clear strategy for Afghanistan, whether to follow his general’s advice and significantly increase troop levels by 40,000 or pursue a counter insurgency strategy aimed solely at Al Qaeda. As part of that strategy he is paying the Pakistan government $7.5 billion over the next five years to wage war on their own citizens in Swat and North Western Province. What is clear is that a strategy for withdrawal is very much off the agenda. The promise to withdraw from Iraq within sixteen months and close Guantanamo Bay by the end of the year will not be achieved, with US troops set to remain in a training capacity in Iraq well into any second term the president may enjoy.

The prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are receding by the day as Benjamin Netanyahu the Israeli prime minister outmanoeuvres the US president at every turn, ignoring Obama's pleas to halt settlement construction, and removing East Jerusalem from any US constraint, with Obama apparently unable, or unwilling due to the Israel Lobby, to constrain his closest ally. Palestinians are losing confidence in Obama's ability to bring Israel to the table and bring about a two-state solution. For all the talk about hope and change in terms of US foreign policy it remains business as usual.

31 October 2009

It's the inequality, stupid

By Rupert Read

Are big ideas dead in politics?

I don't think so. For there is a big idea that is coming back, and strongly. The idea is: equality. That people are equal to each other. That economic and social inequality is a huge harm, in itself.

The leading scholar of inequality is Richard Wilkinson. Here are a few of the key results that Wilkinson has shown:
  • Life expectancy is closely related to differences in income within societies, but unrelated to differences in average income between rich countries, and only fairly weakly related to differences in average income between poor countries. It is mainly inequality itself that is leading people to die younger, not income levels.
  • The UN index of child wellbeing in rich countries is related to inequality, but not to GDP.
  • Virtually everyone in a society is harmed by the society being unequal.
The list of ills that can be attributed to inequality is shockingly long. Wilkinson has demonstrated significant connections between all of the following and the level of inequality within a society:
  • Levels of trust (i.e. far more people trust strangers in more equal societies than in less equal societies)
  • Levels of mental illness
  • Infant mortality, and also children's educational performance
  • Obesity (people are fatter in more unequal societies)
  • The status of women, and teenage pregnancy rates
  • Homicides, and also imprisonment rates
  • Voting rates (i.e. the more unequal a country, the lower the participation in elections)
  • Levels of friendship (if you live in an unequal country, you probably have less friends than if you live in a more equal country)
  • Levels of (self-reported) happiness.
Wilkinson has shown convincingly that there are remarkably strong influences of inequality in itself on well-being. These considerably outstrip the influence of absolute poverty (certainly across the entire 'developed' world), and are not accounted for by differing lifestyles of the rich and poor (i.e. the poorer lifestyle on average of the poor (higher levels of drinking alcohol, nutritionally-worse food intake etc.) does not account for more than a fraction of the differences found). Here is Wilkinson, in his recent book, The Spirit Level:
"I, like most researchers working on this problem, [had] assumed that the health differences we saw between different classes resulted from differences in material living standards. (…[S]tudies had shown that differences in health-related behaviour – differences in drinking, smoking, exercise and so on – failed to account for the bulk of the health differences.) Most of us assumed that our task was to identify what aspects of the differences in material living standards contributed to which diseases. But what has become clear from numerous studies over the years is the surprising success of psychosocial variables in explaining differences in … mortality."
The main such 'psychosocial variable' is: inequality. What Wilkinson is saying here is that, while inequality may well exacerbate lifestyle deterioration, it is in itself the main problem. (Wilkinson develops detailed hypotheses as to why: including the effort to emulate the rich in one's level of consumption, the stresses this involves, and the damaging psychological effects of failure to successfully emulate one's 'superiors' or to attain their level of wealth.)

Wilkinson concludes:
"There are still people who say that greater material inequality does not matter, who think that only the absolute levels of income and wealth enjoyed by a society matter. That is a view that can no longer be sustained in the face of the evidence."
Wilkinson has launched a new non-governmental organisation / think-tank, to promote the idea that what we ought to be doing above all, all of us, is trying to make our society more equal. Check it out: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/. It's a whole new way of seeing our world.

24 October 2009

The Commonwealth @ 60

By Marguerite Finn

The last four years have been good years for diamond anniversaries: the United Nations in 2005, the local branch of the United Nations Association in 2008 and now in 2009, the Commonwealth is sixty years old.

All three organisations originated in a world reeling from the devastation of two World Wars, to promote common humanitarian values.

The Commonwealth of Nations came into being in 1949. Committed to racial equality and national sovereignty, the Commonwealth became the natural association of choice for many new nations emerging from decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Queen is Head of the Commonwealth, which today consists of fifty-three independent member states, representing over a quarter of the world's population. Much of the Commonwealth's excellent work goes on behind the scenes, sharing expertise and quietly helping members along the road to democracy.

The Declaration of Commonwealth Principles was issued in 1971 stating: "We oppose all forms of colonial domination and racial oppression and are committed to the principles of human dignity and equality. We will therefore use all our efforts to foster human equality and dignity everywhere and to further the principles of self-determination and non-racialism".

The Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meet next month in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. There will be lots to talk about – including climate change and global economic crises - but behind the bonhomie exist on-going violations of the Commonwealth's core principle of equality. I will focus on just two, which are happening with the connivance of two of its biggest members: Australia and India.

The Australian Government has bowed to the uranium mining industry at the expense of the Aboriginal people, over the issue of mining royalties. Having carved up swathes of Aboriginal land for uranium extraction, the government proposes the mining company pay royalties only if they are making a profit! Senator Scott Ludlam says this will disempower the Aboriginal people, leaving them with a lasting legacy of uranium-contaminated land and no compensation. A recent study shows that cancer rates among Aborigines near Australia's biggest uranium mine appear to be almost double the normal rate, yet a Commonwealth scientist denied that communities living near the mine are being exposed to "abnormal levels of radiation". The Rudd Government appears seduced by the uranium mining industry as it continues to follow the wishes of the Uranium Industry Framework, an unrepresentative, industry-dominated body created by the former Howard Government

A similar situation exists in Orissa in India – involving the British company Vedanta. The British Government demanded a change in the company's behaviour after investigating a complaint submitted by Survival International against Vedanta's proposed bauxite mine on the Dongria Kondh's sacred mountain. The UK ruled that Vedanta did not consider the impact of the construction of the mine on the tribe's rights and failed to put in place an adequate consultation. Vedanta refused to participate in the investigation. Prize-wining author, Arundhati Roy said: "If Vedanta is allowed to go ahead with its plans for mining the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa for bauxite, it will lead to the devastation of a whole eco-system and the destruction of not just the Dongria Kondh tribal community but eventually all those whose livelihoods depend on that ecosystem". Meanwhile, the Indian Government encourages and protects Vedanta.

Here we have two Commonwealth countries in breach of Commonwealth Principles. Could the CHOGM meeting in November put pressure on the Australian and Indian governments to uphold the rights of the indigenous peoples in their countries, showing that principles still count for more than corporate greed?

1969, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Arnold Smith said: "The Future of the Commonwealth will be what its member governments, its member peoples and those who represent them in member parliaments, choose to make of it". In 2009, are its member peoples playing second-fiddle to corporate interests?

17 October 2009

When the boat comes in?

By Juliette Harkin

I went to watch a film about fish this week at the Garage Theatre in Norwich. I am not really interested in fish and I don't eat fish. But, the screening of The End of the Line gripped me from beginning to end, with its breathtaking underwater filming and powerful messages. It told us in no uncertain terms that, as leading scientists all agree, we have drastically depleted our supplies of large fish such as bluefin tuna. The filmmakers ask us to consider what a world without fish would really be like. They convince sceptics that it will affect me – as I swim on a beach that is infested by jellyfish because we have eaten all their natural predators.

On current projections we will run out of most sea fish by 2050. Yet the EU has run shy of introducing – and adequately policing - tough but essential quotas for the massive commercial fishing industry, which uses the most obscene methods to make big profits and strip our oceans of sustainable stocks of fish.

The related costs of massive over-fishing are movingly and beautifully potrayed in this film, through the story of traditional fishermen on West Africa's coast line. A young father explains how the sea used to be full of fish and how his father and his grandfather encouraged him to fish. Using more traditional fishing methods, these coastal villagers relied on the sea for a living. Yet they are forced into mere subsistence as the big European trawlers encroach on the African shores. At the end of the day the catch for the Senegalese fisherman barely covers his fuel costs. He contemplates the difficult decision of trying to travel to Europe to make a future for the daughter he holds in his arms. He knows how dangerous the sea can be and that he would risk his life trying to reach Europe. If he is lucky he will make the journey and, as one of the fisheries experts so poignantly said, he will not be as welcome on our shores as his fish is in our restaurants. But it is the practices of large-scale European trawlers that are decimating his livelihood.

The film is a call to action: ask where your fish is coming from before you buy it, put pressure on politicians to 'listen to the science and cut fishing fleets', and then let's campaign for marine-protected-areas and sustainable fishing.

We should start in the North Sea, right here off the Norfolk coast. The North Sea has been horribly over-fished by big business: our cod has been hugely depleted. We need to learn from Newfoundland where their cod stocks have completely disappeared – this in spite of a long-term ban. The cod never recovered. You can't suck up 50% of all the fish in the North Sea into your nets, and still expect to have a viable livelihood in the following years.

We should also do something about the damage caused by offshore dredging to the fish and other creatures that live there. So long as we go on allowing the East Anglian coast to be dredged for building supplies like sand and gravel, we are condemning our fish stocks to decline.

The alternative is marine reserves or National Parks for the ocean. Places where commercial fishing – and dredging – would be banned, and our fish can finally start to recover. The National Parks movement has been successful on land - we have the Broads National Park - it is time for the movement to enter the hidden frontier, the most terribly exploited place on this Earth, now: the sea…

As John Ruskin said: "There is no wealth but life'. Without life, without fish, our seas are nothing but a desert.

The End of the Line will be screened at 10pm on More4, on Tuesday 20th October.

10 October 2009

Blair set to become EU President

By Lee Marsden

The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by Irish voters has paved the way for the possible installation of former Prime Minister Tony Blair to the new post of EU president. The position is that of figurehead and answers Henry Kissinger's famous question of "who should I ring if I want to speak to Europe" the answer, as early as the end of this month, could be Tony Blair. Officially, the post involves representing the views of the 27 member states, chairing the European Council and, rather ambiguously, driving its work. The post could become as significant as the incumbent chooses to make it. A charismatic figure such as Tony Blair could have great sway in being able to influence the future direction of the EU, particularly in its relations with the outside world. The salary of £242,000 pa, personal staff of twenty, £37,000 pa housing allowance, chauffeur and other perks are unlikely to be the main motivation for a man who has, according to his biographer Adam Boulton, earned over £15 million since leaving office two years ago, but will undoubtedly help. European publics will have no say in the appointment, which is based on a vote of the 27 heads of state with support for Blair apparently coming from Sarkozy, Brown and probably Angela Merkel.

Blair's appointment would certainly increase the EU's international profile but at what cost? While Jonathon Powell, his former chief-of-staff, touts his friend's credentials around Europe as an international statesman, Middle East envoy, pioneer for climate change and Africa and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, others may recall a rather different Tony Blair. A Tony Blair who misled the British public and parliament about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his non existent weapons of mass destruction. A man who is to be a key witness into the Iraq War enquiry, which will take place, if appointed, during his first term of office. A prime minister who led the country into wars at the behest of the United States and was once dubbed by Nelson Mandela as the "US Foreign Minister". A leader who promoted the neoliberal economic policies that resulted in the global economic crisis. A Middle East 'peace envoy' who in two years has visited Gaza just once and failed to speak out about the Israeli invasion less than twelve months ago. A man who avoided being implicated in the MPs expenses scandal because an official 'accidently', we're assured, shredded his expenses claims. Although we do know that he claimed £7000 in roof repairs on his constituency home just two days before leaving office, and earlier remortgaged the same house for £296,000 in order to pay the deposit on his £3.5 million Connaught Square town house with the added benefit of being able to claim one third of the interest payments on expenses.

Since leaving office, the man who did 'not do God' while in power has converted to Catholicism and started a faith foundation to increase religious influence on political processes. In a Europe which has grown increasingly secular over the past century Blair's religious fervour strikes a discordant note more in tune with the United States than the European Union. Which of course, apart from the undemocratic nature of the appointment, is the main problem of any Blair presidency, the willingness to subjugate British (soon to be European) interests to those of the United States. A close aide was quoted in The Times (3 October) as saying "if there was a genuine sense that people wanted him I think he would be up for it". Many thousands of people across Europe are busily signing a petition at http://stopblair.eu/ to send a message that he is not wanted.

3 October 2009

The world’s most useless gadget

By Rupert Read

While I was thinking what to write for my column this month, I happened to be in my kitchen, and my eye lighted upon a brush of some kind that I have in my cutlery drawer. It's a weird shape, with a big curved handle, and I really have absolutely no idea what it is for. And I thought: "Hmmm: it's pretty much a useless gadget really, isn't it?" (And it isn't the only such thing in my house, try as I might to 'spring-clean' regularly.)

And then suddenly, I had the title for this month's column: The World's Most Useless Gadget… And the search was on!

To be certain that I was going to come up with the right answer, of what really is the world's most useless gadget, I did what any self-respecting journalist with a limited time-frame does these days: I put the word out on Twitter and Facebook. Within no time, the candidates came pouring in. Here are some of the highlights…

Let's start with the brushes: it seems like there are LOTS of pretty useless specialist brushes out there! For instance a specialist brush specifically for cleaning grave stones. It looks sort of like a posh toothbrush. Probably it would be easier and certainly cheaper just to use an old toothbrush, rather than lash out on this product with its (ahem) somewhat limited usefulness.

Or how about a mushroom brush? A brush specifically and (supposedly) only for cleaning mushrooms. Yes, folks, honest, I am not making this up: you can buy mushroom brushes, gravestone brushes, and weird-curvy-not-sure-what-they-are-for kitchen brushes…

Now here's another beauty, of a different kind: a tie that doubles as a golf ball polisher. How crazy is that?

And then of course there's the fascinating case that hit the headlines a few years ago: NASA once spent millions developing a pen with a pressurised ink cartridge that could be used in space / upside down. While the Russians? They simply used pencils…

One of my Facebook friends directed me to a particularly useful website, if you want to laugh at useless gadgets. Gems you can find on the site include a 'french fry holder' that fits most cars (it is specifically designed to hold certain kinds of packets of chips); Dunkin Donuts cereal; Bubble Bath marketed by blood type (truly bizarre); and an inflatable neck extender – scary!

All good clean fun, and these gadgets certainly can give us a laugh; but there is of course a serious point here: we are wasting our time, wasting our money, wasting our resources on these frivolous wastes-of-space. And doesn't it seem a sad reflection on our culture that huge resources go to make and market these useless gadgets, when they could be going instead to environmental protection, animal protection, education or - you name it…

And the winner? The world's most useless gadget? Well, the one that I think really takes the biscuit is this, that I saw at an acquaintance's house last year: an electric pepper-grinder. Yes, for those too lazy to grind their pepper by hand, you too can have an electric pepper-grinder, making an annoying whining sound as it does what you can do yourself, quicker and better. It's the in-thing, it's useless and stupid and wasteful, it's available now at a shop near you…

But, maybe I am wrong. Maybe there is an even more useless gadget out there somewhere. If there is, then do get in touch and let me know what it is! Better still: write to edpletters@archant.co.uk, and let us all know…

You can follow Rupert on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RupertRead.

26 September 2009

The Burston Rebellion

By Liam Carroll

Every year on the first Sunday in September, people from all over Britain and the world descend on the small quiet and picturesque village of Burston in South Norfolk, a few miles north of Diss. Why?

As the EDP reported on September 7, they gather to commemorate the longest strike in British history; not a conventional strike of industrial workers, but a strike by schoolchildren against the school authorities.

The story begins when Mr and Mrs Higdon came to Burston in 1911 as head teachers. Not only were they very popular teachers, they were also social reformers. In those days the parish was ruled and controlled by the farmers, the gentry and the priest, although the majority of the voting population were farm labourers and craftsmen.

In those days farmers would take the children out of school to pick stones out of the fields for little or no payment. Such was the nature of society. The Higdons, however, tried to put a stop to these practices. Besides running the school, they would meet with the villagers and impress upon them the fact that, as the democratic majority in their village, they could run the village themselves.

Within a year or two, the Higdons had successfully encouraged the parishioners to take democratic control of the parish. This however offended the authorities, and a farmer's daughter at the school then claimed she was hit by one of the teachers. This gave the education authorities a reason to remove them from their position. Subsequently one of the students, Violet Potter, convinced all the school children to stop attending.

Due to the fact the children were not attending a state school many of the parents were taken to court and fined a large sum. This proved to be a great hardship as most of them were poorly paid, however they were adamant that they would not accept the removal of their teachers. Subsequently the village carpenter who had a small room on the green renovated it and offered it as a school for the Higdons to teach in.

In order to keep it running, letters were sent to trade unions all over the world seeking support for the school. Funds came in from every corner of the globe to pay salaries and maintain the facilities. The school ran successfully despite the fact that even the National Union of Teachers objected to this situation. The strike eventually ended with the death of Mr Higdon, and the children went back to the state school which had lain empty for 30 years.

The annual commemoration of the strike, the Burston Rally, always has a National and International speaker of high standing. It has stalls, from trade unions to Amnesty International, as well as having cakes, a beer-tent, second hand books and music.

The carpenters shop has become a museum containing artefacts and booklets about the strike. The external walls are made of engraved bricks from all over the world; sent by those groups and individuals who supported the strike. Significant among them is one from Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, whose involvement with East Anglia went beyond support for the strike school, for he also gave all the profits from a book printed in England to an anarchist commune in Suffolk.

What is exceptional about this strike is that it was instituted and carried out by children between the ages of 7 to 12 years. Their awareness of the social significance of what these two exemplary teachers in this small rural village were trying to achieve at such an early time is evident in this remarkable strike.

Please visit the museum which commemorates this unique place in our Norfolk history (a key is available in a nearby house).

This article is based on the work of Colin Phillips.

19 September 2009

Peace with justice

By Nicola Pratt

Last week, I sat at the Dead Sea in Jordan and admired the beauty of the rolling hills of the Palestinian West Bank on the opposite shore. The next day, the boom of Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier overhead reminded me that conflict continues to blight this beautiful area.

President Obama aims to resolve this situation. At the UN General Assembly meeting this month, he hopes to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. For almost two decades, the US has brokered several rounds of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The first round led to the signing of the Oslo Accords, in 1993, under the auspices of then US president Bill Clinton. In this agreement, Israel allowed the establishment of a Palestinian National Authority (with similar responsibilities to those of Norfolk County Council) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - Palestinian lands that Israel occupied illegally since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In the second stage (which was not reached), Israelis and Palestinians would negotiate issues such as the final borders of Israel and an expected Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948. This agreement was widely heralded as historic since this was the first time that Israel agreed to negotiate with the PLO, which it had previously labelled as terrorists. However, whilst the Oslo Accords got the two sides talking, it created a problematic framework for peace since it forced the Palestinians to negotiate for rights that, in international law, should be already guaranteed.

Imagine that you wake up one morning, look out of your window and see that a group of strangers have built a house in your garden. Not only do they refuse to leave (despite the fact that their presence is against the law) but they invite their friends to also build houses. They stop you from entering your garden. They siphon off your water supply. All this time, the police do nothing. You obviously get upset and decide that, if no one is going to evict these people, you will have to take the law into your own hands. So, you use violence to get the intruders off your land. The intruders retaliate with even more violence and manage to force you out of your house. Finally, the government intervenes to stop the fighting. However, rather than removing the intruders from your land, they instruct you to accept them and to renounce the use of violence against them. For their part, the intruders have to accept you but they do not have to recognise your rights to your land, or even to renounce the use of violence against you.

Imagine that you are Palestinian and the intruders are Israeli. This, more or less, characterises the various rounds of peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Today, President Obama, with the EU, is pressuring Israel to stop further settlement building in the West Bank (which is already home to half a million Israelis). For the Palestinians, the settlement freeze is a prerequisite to restart negotiations. This is a good first step. However, there cannot be a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without recognition of the rights of the Palestinians. Israelis feel that having their own state is international recognition of the injustices perpetrated by Europe against the Jewish people - particularly, the Holocaust. However, it is unjust for the international community to make the Palestinians pay the price for European atrocities. The Palestinians deserve justice too and the US and its allies must recognise this and pressure Israel to do so too. Glaring double standards create violence and hatred. We all have an interest in ensuring that Israelis and Palestinians make peace – but a lasting peace based on justice and not merely a photo opportunity for politicians.

12 September 2009

Re-imagining our future

By Marguerite Finn

On 6th September I attended the Charities Day at Mannington Hall in support of the Wulugu Project. As I wandered around enjoying the many attractions, I found myself thinking how difficult it would be to explain the anomaly between an English, moated, stately home and the problems experienced by the children in Northern Ghana – for whom the funds raised at Mannington were destined.

On the surface, there would seem to be a vast economic and cultural divide between 'them' and 'us' - but this apparent difference is currently being shown to be false.

For the past 300 years, science, from Newton and Descartes onwards, idealised separateness. According to Lynne McTaggart, writing in Resurgence Magazine, "from the moment we are born, we are told that for every winner there must be a loser – and from that constricted vision we have fashioned our world".

But Lynne maintains that frontier research into the nature of human consciousness has turned this scientific 'certainty' on its head demonstrating that all matter exists in a vast quantum web of connection: "at our essence, we exist as a unity, a relationship – utterly interdependent, the parts affecting the whole at every moment".

Therefore what happens in Norfolk affects what happens in Ghana.

We are only just beginning to understand the vast and untapped human potential at our disposal: the individual's extraordinary capacity to influence the world. If we could learn how to direct our potential for influence in a positive manner, we could improve every aspect of our world – and overcome the endemic corruption found within global society. Across the world, governments are battling their way out of a greed-induced global recession. This applies to Ghana as well as Britain. Young people in this country often stray into alcohol and drug abuse, neglect their education and end up on the streets, wasting their individual potential and failed by a system under stress. In Ghana, young women are driven, through lack of opportunity, to head for the cities in the South, looking for employment. They frequently end up as prostitutes, only returning home to die of AIDS.

In Norfolk, a small, dedicated group of people has achieved outstanding successes in a deprived area of northern Ghana. This month, the Wulugu Project has managed to open six more primary schools, each with a full compliment of girls. Older girls, previously condemned to slavery, flood into the five 'Wulugu' vocational schools, where they get high quality training for locally-based careers. They learn to read and write, alongside nutrition, family-care, catering, tailoring, hairdressing and office work. Wulugu is currently building a hostel for girls at the vocational school in Savelugu, allowing girls from more distant villages to return safely to education.

Lynne Symonds, Wulugu founder, explains: "Wulugu owes its success in part to the dedication of its supporters here in East Anglia, who tirelessly fund-raise, strengthened by the knowledge that 99p of every pound goes to help people who are forgotten, largely due to their geographical inaccessibility. Those who work with 'Wulugu' in Ghana walk tall because it has such a good reputation due to its refusal to participate in any form of corruption".

Let us hope that the girls of Ghana are spared the excesses of 20th century philosophy where human beings became commodified 'units' or 'human resources' – their individual creativity curtailed by over-management.

This 21st century revolution in scientific thinking gives us back a sense of optimism, something that has been stripped out of our sense of ourselves by the arid target-driven outlook of the 20th century. We are not isolated beings living out desperate lives on a lonely planet. We were never alone. We were always part of a larger whole – just as the Wulugu Project has proved.

5 September 2009

Remembering the atrocities of war

By Juliette Harkin

As I was leaving Paris last week, after a wonderful train and biking holiday around central France, a piercing and frightening sound of sirens interrupted my enjoyment of the sights of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. As France commemorated the eve of the 70th anniversary of the 2nd World War, I was reminded of the rusty old Singer sewing machines that I had recently seen in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.

Oradour had been a sleepy village in the Haute-Vienne region of central France that had come under the control of the French Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis. The region, with its dense forests, was also a hide-out for the French Resistance fighters who opposed the Vichy government and the Nazi occupation. After the D-Day landing of 1944 in Normandy the Nazis swept into central and Southern France, in an attempt to avoid further allied advances in France. As part of this advance a Waffen SS unit entered Oradour, and (using the excuse of one of its officers having been seized by the Resistance) rounded up 642 men, women and children. The Nazis separated the men and moved them to locations across the village before shooting them in cold blood. The women and children had been taken by the Germans to the village church. In a brutal act of barbarity the Nazis opened fire on these innocent women and children, sealed the church and set it alight, murdering all but one woman who managed to escape from a window.

Today Oradour remains as it was on that fateful day of 10th June 1944 preserved as a Martyr's Village in memory of those slaughtered. It touched the lives not just of those in the village but in the wider region. Staying in the small village of Blond, our elderly neighbour Lucille recounted her own memories of the Nazis in France. They had swept by the front of her house and executed some men and women at the junction, a few hundred yards from her home. Lucille has never been to Paris, certainly not abroad, but when the war was over she cycled to Oradour and saw for herself what war had visited upon the rural communities in France.

The Germans sought to cover up their atrocity by attempting to burn all the bodies and the village down to the ground. Visitors can see this for themselves today as they walk around the burnt out homes; the signs of the burning and gunshot holes still visible. As you walk past what was once the village bakery and butchery the ovens and tools can still be seen. In the houses Singer sewing machines lie rusting in burnt as a poignant reminder of the families that were wiped out.

The perpetrators of the atrocity were not really brought to justice for this war crime. In the 1950s French soldiers from Alsace, who had been forced to join the German army, were put on trial in Bordeaux for their part in the Oradour massacres, but their sentences were seen as lenient by the local community. And then even those sentences were remitted.

The pain of the loss was intensified because most of the bodies were unidentifiable and the victims could not be given a proper burial, thus allowing a grieving process for the wider community. As a result the local authorities insisted on preserving the destroyed village as it was to aid the healing process and to remind us all of the evils of war.

It's a fitting reminder of how wounds of injustice and war crimes cannot really heal unless they are given an appropriate place in our history and are recognised and commemorated in a way that enables people to feel the long arm of justice.

29 August 2009

What price for our back yards?

By Marguerite Finn

The surveyor, naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau held that the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.

The price of the land must have figured in the minds of those proposing the 'Norfolk Hub Development', (appropriately dubbed 'Disney World for the Broads', EDP 27 July), of four square kilometres of farmland between my village of Little Plumstead and the gateway to the Broads at Wroxham. The proposal for a massive conference and tourism complex includes eleven hotels, a sports centre, outdoor stage, golf course, lorry parks…

What sort of 'life' would the developers exchange for this? Doubtless they took into account the increased traffic, road accidents, building-site mishaps, late-night violence and gang warfare that concreting over prime agricultural land would inevitably cost. Maybe they exchanged those in their minds for the new human life inhabiting the built environment? Did they think of the genocide of invertebrate life, from earthworms to ladybirds, and of plants from algae to dandelions, in every cubic metre of soil they would replace with tarmac and bricks? Does their balance sheet mention the sea-floor life extinguished by the dredging of building aggregate for concrete? The dictionary definition of "concrete" is "formed into one mass" – spot-on for the true objective of this development: to produce a concrescence stretching from Norwich to Wroxham, engulfing discrete Broadland villages and their communities all along the way. The Broads Authority has objected to Broadland District Council's (BDC) proposals and to the notion of "closing up the gaps" between the distinct communities of Norwich and Wroxham.

Where will the rainwater go, denied the 'sponge' effect of the soil? The run-off will cascade into the River Bure causing it to flood. Or, has the government magically taken care of that by proposing to replace the existing Internal Drainage Boards, thereby consigning a tried and tested system of drainage and flood prevention to the dustbin?

Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn said recently that Britain must produce more of its own food to help prevent the rising world population from going hungry. So the developers plan to grow conferences on good land here while our entrepreneurs grab Ukrainian land to grow wheat on! That’s a joke worthy of Micky Mouse.

And what about those who presently enjoy the peace of 'messing about in boats' in this unique part of the world? Who needs expensive leisure centres in such a naturally unspoilt and beautiful place?

If that makes NIMBYs (Not In My back Yard) of all the plants, animals and humans who would suffer from the Norfolk Hub, then so be it. Such an irrevocable transformation in our landscape involves all of us and our back yards. No matter when – or if – we climb out of this economic recession, the world has changed and we must change too in order to survive climate change, resource wars and a population explosion. One way of coping is to re-connect with Nature. Environmentalist Satish Kumar, writing in Resurgence, says: "The cause of these multiple crises is our disconnection from the place where we belong. Wherever we live we need to be rooted in our place." Spreading urbanisation mitigates against a sense of place and produces a sense of alienation.

Thoreau's back yard was a pond in Massachusetts. The former Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva's back yard is the rainforest. She resigned from the country's ruling party, berating the country's leaders for pursuing material wealth at the expense of the natural world, and may stand for president. Would that they could join Broadland District Council – and the latest outfit, the Broadland Growth Project - bringing practical common sense to offset the current virulent outbreak of Developer's delirium.

Since they can't, we must deal with it ourselves; BDC's consultation ends on 4th September.

22 August 2009

Identity and Afghanistan

By Lee Marsden

The other day I came across a book on the construction of Japanese identity, which seeks to explain changes in Japan's international role before and after the Second World War. As I considered the changes from a militaristic to a largely pacific nation I was reminded of an old Geography textbook passed down to me as a child. Written in 1913 it described the Germans as a 'hardworking and industrious people', during the Great War someone had scrawled across this description 'naturally warlike and vicious'. In both cases a connection between national identity and worldview is presented but one in which perceptions and identities change over time, resulting in changes in how countries engage with the rest of the world. Although identities are contested, dominant discourses emerge that impact on the foreign policies pursued by countries. Ruling elites present their foreign policy to appeal to these constructed identities.

Why then is it that countries like Japan and Germany are reluctant today to engage in warfare, despite having militaristic pasts, while Britain and the United States enthusiastically embrace war as a means of resolving disputes? Even now is there an Afghan child scribbling in a text book that the British are 'naturally warlike and vicious'? Of course not, you cry, because part of British identity is fair play, support for the underdog, a sense of duty and responsibility to others. When Britain goes to war, unlike other countries, it is always in a noble cause. Indeed, we have been well trained.

Our government appeals to a British identity that eschews naked self-interest to legitimate policies carried out in our name. In order to justify sending British troops to kill people in Afghanistan, for example, citizens need to be prepared and kept on side. The 'enemy' must be demonised and presented as the personification of evil, an existential threat that, unless we act, imperils our own security and way of life. We must be seen to act on behalf of the ordinary people, especially women, and provide them with freedom, democracy and human rights. Our troops must be presented as the best in the world bravely fighting an enemy that simply doesn't fight fair. The sacrifice, in terms of lost lives and limbs, is worthwhile because of the higher goals of bringing peace, stability and freedom to the Afghan people and reducing the terrorist threat to Britain.

Against this there are inconvenient truths which must not be acknowledged and dissident voices which must be silenced. When a government minister says that the campaign in Afghanistan makes absolutely no difference to Britain's internal security, or an incoming army chief warns that Britain's involvement would last for decades, they must be made to recant. Democracy must be seen to be working despite rigged elections, deals made with Taliban warlords, the influence of tribal elders, and the sale of votes. Women’s rights must be seen to be advanced despite only one in six girls in education and laws restricting women’s freedom of movement, attire, and marital rights. We must be seen to be making a difference and defeating the Taliban despite little improvement to the country's infrastructure, and de facto Taliban control of almost half the country. We must not acknowledge that our troops are unable to defeat a poorly equipped but resilient and resourceful enemy. We should not acknowledge that the real bravery and heroism comes from the Afghan people forced to live in a battle zone. Finally, we should not acknowledge that Britain's involvement has everything to do with standing alongside the US in order to enhance our international importance.

Such acknowledgements might after all appeal to a British identity that seeks peaceful solutions, would prefer a foreign policy that serves British rather than US interests, and rejects any more troops dying to prop up the Karzai government.

15 August 2009


By Rupert Read

The media has been a hugely powerful set of institutions for several generations, and especially in this last generation or so. It has achieved a level of influence and even dominance in contemporary culture that would have surprised most citizens of the Victorian age.

But is it time to write the media's obituary? It seems the media may be in decline, perhaps terminal. Its mediation of the messages we receive is under threat. A process that we might term dismediation is seemingly underway.

What is happening is that the ostensible products of the media are being increasingly made available free via the internet, and are simultaneously being broken down into bite-size chunks. (When one looks for a podcast, one needn't look for the rest of the programme / of the series / of the paper.)

The process of dismediation, that might spell the end of the media, is fairly widely (though by no means universally) seen as inevitable. Those who think it is inevitable typically worry about some of its consequences (such as the end of newspapers, unless they can find an alternative funding stream, such as philanthropy), but typically welcome its vehicle: consumer-choice. It's widely seen as a good thing that media-consumers can bypass media to go directly to the stories / information / infotainments etc they desire.

I wish to challenge that assumption. While there is clearly something superbly democratic and levelling about the process of dismediation, I wish to suggest here a powerful reason why the end of media would be a bad thing:

There is good reason to think that such maximisation of consumer-choice is not good. Excessive choice leads to extra unnecessary time trying to make such choices; it involves usually a net loss of information; it leaves us less able to negotiate our world.

There is a good reason then why many people regret and warn against the threats to media. The loss of the Guardian or the BBC would be a genuine loss. These 'mediators' have a style; they hang together in a particular way; they help us know our way around. They embody a wisdom. They help us 'navigate' the world. In simple terms: they make us feel at home, for a reason.

Printed newspapers and public-service broadcasters bring together all that they've decided is worth looking at in one place, and force me to be aware (at least briefly) of a lot of stuff I wouldn't have gone searching for on the web. They make me step outside my information comfort zone (a little).

The welcomers of dismediation ignore this truth: that the collective 'social mind' of communities is very frequently superior to the individual mind that consumerism as an ideology elevates for highest praise. The 'social mind' of something like the Guardian or the BBC or the EDP may be flawed; but it also contains much wisdom. And obviously, alternative media can sometimes contain still more: look at something like Z magazine, and Znet.

But isn't my argument one-sided; won't it be an unalloyed benefit to lose Fox, or the Daily Mail? No; because even these help us know the world. They provide a lens, a gathering system. We come to know our way around them, and to understand something of their biases. Without media, there will only be the individual pitted against an incalculably vast array of sources of information and entertainment.

Mediation is not then prima facie a bad thing, insofar as it helps us to navigate our way about, to a greater extent than we could ever do as isolated individuals. The media must not and will not end, for that reason. Because actually we are wise enough to know that we are not as individuals wise enough to know all we need to know about…

8 August 2009

Nuclear double standards

By Nicola Pratt

August 6 was the 64th anniversary of the explosion of the first nuclear bomb by the United States over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This was followed by another nuclear explosion over Nagasaki on 9 August. These are the only nuclear attacks ever conducted in history and the scale of destruction wrought is almost too terrifying to comprehend. In Hiroshima, the bomb laid waste to two thirds of the city and killed up to 180,000 people (out of a population of 350,000). In Nagasaki, almost one quarter of the city was destroyed and up to 100,000 people died. Approximately half of those killed, the vast majority of whom were civilians, perished on the days of the bombings - from the effects of the intense heat and fires, from flash burns, trauma, radiation burns and radiation sickness. Since 1945, hundreds have died from cancers attributed to exposure to nuclear radiation. Norwich CND, like many other peace groups around the world, marks the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings annually by calling for global nuclear disarmament to prevent another nuclear tragedy.

Given the horrors of nuclear warfare, why do some countries still possess nuclear weapons? Our own government has committed to replace the Trident nuclear arsenals, estimated to cost £76 billion. Other countries possessing nuclear weapons are the United States, Russia, China and France - all of whom are signatories to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This means that these countries are committed to negotiating in good faith to achieve complete nuclear disarmament. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the treaty was signed in 1970 and the Cold War ended in 1989, there is only limited progress towards this goal - notwithstanding last month's agreement between Washington and Moscow to reduce their nuclear weaponry by as much as a third. Until now, the Treaty has failed to halt proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond the 'big five'.

Contravening the NPT, the US has transferred between 150 and 240 nuclear weapons to Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. Meanwhile, Israel, India and Pakistan have not signed the Treaty, yet possess nuclear weapons. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and has tested nuclear weapons on several occasions (the last time being less than three months ago). Iran, a signatory to the NPT, was deemed by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be failing to comply with the treaty in its development of nuclear energy for civilian use. Although the agency did not find any evidence that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, there remained "uncertainties with regard to both the scope and the nature of Iran's nuclear programme", according to Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director.

The debate over nuclear non-proliferation reveals the hypocrisies that exist in world affairs. Those who have led the imposition of sanctions on Iran, for its alleged potential to develop nuclear weapons, include the US - the only country to have actually used nuclear weapons - as well as Britain, who is trying to renew its nuclear capability, rather than reduce it in line with its NPT commitments. The anti-Iran chorus also includes Israel - a country that has not only failed to sign the NPT but has also refused to admit to possessing nuclear weapons, and which kidnapped and imprisoned for 18 years a former nuclear technical assistant (Mordechai Vanunu) for revealing the existence of a nuclear programme to the press. My aim is not to defend the Iranian government as a shining beacon of peace. Rather, I highlight the current double standards because they undermine possibilities for an agreement on global nuclear disarmament and provide new incentives for a nuclear arms race in the most volatile regions of the world.

Next May (2010), there will be a review of the NPT. To pressure our government to make serious steps towards nuclear disarmament, sign the petition at ipetitions.com.

1 August 2009

Two faces of the nuclear industry

By Marguerite Finn

Is nuclear power Janus faced? The two faces were juxtaposed on the same platform of a special meeting of the Sizewell Stakeholder Group (SSG) about the worrying leak at Sizewell-A in 2007. Briefings were given by current and past Site Directors of the station, and also by the joint authors of the only report on the accident from Nuclear Installation Inspectorate (NII) that anyone has been able to acquire.

It is beyond question that the then Site Director, Bob Kury, Chief Engineer Paul Wilkinson and their staff dealt with the emergency immediately and competently, minimising the risk to the public. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

But the NII Report revealed a shambolic system of Control and Instrumentation (C&I), which had gone unchecked by NII Inspectors and previous site operators. C&I has been described as the "cerebral cortex" of a nuclear power station. It governs systems that monitor and control the station's performance – including computerised safety systems. It was evident that in January 2007, some C&I at Sizewell-A had been allowed to break down.

Most readers will know that the radioactive leak was only discovered when a contractor made an unscheduled visit to the laundry room to wash some clothes and just happened to notice water from the cooling pond leaking on to the laundry room floor. As much as 40,000 gallons of radioactive water had spilled out of a 15ft long split in a pipe – a pipe which the original contractor incorrectly installed with thinner than specified walls made from PVC instead of ABS. There was no record of this plumbing ever being inspected by the NII.

The Report confirmed that radionuclides CS-137 and Tritium were discharged into the sea through the storm drain. It also revealed that a drain in the laundry toilet floor had discharged some radioactive water into the local sewage works. The Central Processing Unit failed and a new pond alarm system, which had been in place for months, had not been connected properly and did not work.

I was not re-assured by the pin-stripped casuistry of the representatives of the NII – and by extension that of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) – or their approach to safety in the highly dangerous nuclear industry. They spent a lot of time defending their decision not to prosecute Magnox South (the owners of the station), glossing over many of the dangers listed in the Report and trying to exonerate the NII for failing to detect past safety lapses prior to the event.

Turning to new nuclear build in general, the government has asked the NII to do a Generic Design Assessment (GDA) on two types of new reactor against a pressing time line. They have found the C&I on safety of one reactor design to be far from satisfactory; but rather than missing the government deadline, they propose to allow the safety problems to be addressed later - ticking boxes on time being more important to them than public safety.

Finnish regulators have already raised concerns about the very similar Olkiluoto reactor's C&I systems and France's own attempt at Flamanville to build the same type of reactor as is planned for the UK is also beset by some C&I problems troubling the French nuclear regulators. In fact, both reactors are so behind schedule and over budget that Areva (building the Finnish reactor) is unwilling to predict when they will be finished and working.

We are unlikely to see new nuclear reactors in the UK any time soon – for which we should be glad, given the manifest safety problems at nuclear installations. As the Rev John Pomfret (1667-1702) said: "And who would run, that’s moderately wise, A certain danger for a doubtful prize?"

25 July 2009

My roller coaster education ride

By Juliette Harkin

Last week's One World Column, on the lack of access to education for bright, working class students, reminded me of my own unpleasant experience as a school leaver in Thatcher's Britain. Like many 16 year olds, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I ended up wasting my potential, when my local careers service sent me on a youth training programme for 'problem' teenagers. I was not really a problem teenager; just undecided and unaware of what possible opportunities there might be out there. Yet, there seemed to be an assumption, based on class, that I should have no aspirations and should train for factory work.

In my twenties, after a series of dead end jobs, I finally went to college, studying Business and Finance, and took up my dad's advice to learn how to type – a skill which later enabled me to get a temporary job at the BBC, where I was able to work my way up through the grades. Whilst at college our lecturer, Sally McCabe, encouraged students to apply for a place at university. This had never occurred to any of us and we had no idea that we might be able to go on with our studies. Sally, a high flier from the City who had burnt out and come into teaching, changed my life.

Even now with the more accessible information about higher education, the important ingredient is encouragement and the belief that you are capable and that you can succeed in your studies. Being the first in my family to go to college and university, I was from one of many homes that do not have the tradition and assumptions of a formal education. My dad was relentless in his attempts to get his four children into proper and secure jobs, but none of us had found our way and the large scale unemployment of the 1980s fuelled insecurity and squashed confidence.

This year I will graduate from Oxford University with a Masters in Modern Middle Eastern Studies. I was double the age of most of my fellow students and rarely, if at all, did I come across someone who was not being generously funded by their parents. I have felt like an Alice in Wonderland, in an academic environment which has its own strange and plentiful rules and quirks. It was a tough course for me, having been away from education for nearly twenty years, but, it was an experience that made me acutely aware of my own background and exposed for me the inequality of our education system. At Oxford I was convinced that entry is and should be based on merit, but this is just the beginning. Progress for bright students is held back by a lack of access to funding and other financial support. This seems unfair and arbitrary. It was a roller coaster ride in which I saw how some very privileged students receive, as young undergraduates, a very high quality education based on one-to-one tuition in which they are pushed to develop their writing and analytical skills. The thing that had the most impact on me though was the supreme confidence of Oxford students – that they can do anything and that they deserve the best. It can be a good thing, if it is harnessed in the right way. But confidence is the hardest quality to instil in a younger and disaffected generation.

18 July 2009

Education, education, education?

By Lee Marsden

This week has been one of the most exciting weeks in the University of East Anglia calendar as thousands of students attended the graduation ceremonies that mark a rite of passage into the world of work, or higher study, where the skills developed and honed over three years can be put to effective use. As I sat applauding the achievements of those students I was also struck by the realisation that those graduating this year may be leaving with record levels of debt and, due to the recession, some of the worst employment prospects for many years but going to university was still the right course of action for them and for those who will follow after them. The critical thinking and analytical skills developed during their time at university will stand them in good stead as they contribute to an economy and society that is dependent on a highly skilled and articulate workforce. In the United States President Obama recognises the importance of higher education pledging to invest one billion dollars in universities and research so that by 2020 the US will have the greatest proportion of graduates of any country in the world. All of which is very different from the approach of our own government.

In 1999 Tony Blair pledged to have fifty percent of school leavers in higher education, which would provide opportunities for the many rather than the few, widening participation and encouraging those who otherwise would not consider university to do so. Rather than university being the preserve of the middle classes it was to become accessible to all. However, such lofty rhetoric has not been matched with results. Today there is little talk of the fifty percent target, indeed the percentages of 18-30 year olds in higher education has only increased from 39.2 to 39.8 percent over the last ten years, an increase of just 0.6 per cent. Students from the poorest twenty five percent of the population still only make up 6.5 per cent of the student population. While the aspiration to go onto university has led to record numbers of applications, the government, despite all the rhetoric of investing in the future, are determined to cut back on the increase in student numbers. Originally committed to increasing the number of new places on offer to 15,000 they have decided to cap the number of new places universities can offer at 10,000. In practical terms this means that universities, including the University of East Anglia, will have fewer places to offer students in 2009/10 than last year.

The reason given for capping student numbers is because too many would be entitled to means tested grants. In other words, the very people the government purported to be encouraging to enter higher education as part of its widening participation agenda are set to lose out again. As many as fifty thousand potential students may be unable to access higher education this coming year. Competition for places will be particularly tough and, in a league table-obsessed culture, will be based on A level grades rather than academic potential. Statistically higher A level grades are achieved by those best able to afford them through private or selective schooling with working class students from comprehensive schools faring less well. No prizes for guessing which students will miss out when the scramble for places occurs in August. In the current economic climate the government must find the money to enable students, who after all pay back most of the cost of their education through fees, to progress into higher education rather than face the prospect of unemployment. This is good for the student, good for social inclusion and good for the country – anything less is a betrayal of those lofty ambitions of ten years ago.