27 December 2010

An End of Year Story of Decay and Hope

By Marguerite Finn

Yesterday, I walked down Copeman Road in Little Plumstead. It is a pleasant road with trees and a row of nicely spaced houses. ‘A very desirable place to live’, you might think, until you realise that seven houses are empty of inhabitants and have been left to fall into decay and ruin.

I was told that they have been like that for about eight years.

This is at a time when we are being told by Norfolk County Council (NCC) and Broadland District Council (BDC) that the need for houses is currently so great and so urgent that we must cover the North East Triangle of Norwich in 10,000 or more new homes. It is then hard to see why the houses in Copeman Road are being left wantonly to decay.

These houses were well-built council houses, whose infrastructure is still sound and which could be repaired and brought up to current standards for much less than the cost of building new houses.

However, a developer might not see it like that: there’s not enough profit to be made in refurbishing houses that are well spaced and have good-sized rear gardens. The real money lies in demolishing them and building as many houses per hectare as possible.

The empty houses in Copeman Road are just begging to welcome families again. And they are not the only empty buildings in the Norwich region. In Norwich city itself office blocks stand empty and deteriorating. The Norwich Evening News ran a feature on 24 December, saying that the “empty sites are ghosts of our city’s past” – in which, apart from one or two houses of historic interest like Howard House in Kings Street, the recommendation was that the houses and office blocks should be demolished to make way for new development. It is rarely argued that some buildings could be converted into flats for human habitation. One of the sites mentioned was Sovereign House, which overlooks (one might say ‘overhangs’) Anglia Square. I worked in Sovereign House for years when it was Her Majesty’s Stationery Office and employed about 800 people there. Would it not be possible to convert this building into flats? The infrastructure of roads, transport, energy and water are already laid on. Another huge, almost empty office block in the same area– Gildengate House – has also received permission from Norwich City Council to be demolished. These are just a few of the empty buildings in Norwich. It surely makes more sense to make use of existing empty buildings in the city, where transport and jobs are accessible, than to encourage people to settle in new houses on the fringes of the city where they will have to travel into Norwich for jobs - even though there is no satisfactory public transport system to support them? It will encourage the further use of the private car in an era of climate change and diminishing oil reserves.

Yet there is a marked reluctance amongst developers to take on an empty building and refurbish it as a dwelling. They prefer to work with ‘greenfield sites’ such as the Thorpe Woodlands in the developer’s ‘triangle’ to the north–east of Norwich. There are plans to build between 600 and 800 houses over the woodlands of Belmore, Racecourse and Brown plantations near the garden village of Thorpe End. This is yet another case of a developer wishing to clear perfectly healthy and environmentally valuable woodland in order to build houses – and this is at a time when we are being urged to plant more trees for the future. The respected naturalist and author, Richard Mabey, said of this proposed development: ‘the loss of such a large area of semi-mature woodland would significantly damage our attempts to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. The government has stressed the importance of trees in sequestering carbon, and is committed to increasing our forest cover, not encouraging its depletion for development. When the woodland in question is also valuable as a biodiversity reservoir the threat is doubly worrying’. The Friends of Thorpe Woodlands has been formed to fight the threat and they have the support of local councillors, local people and conservation bodies. These three woods are contiguous and although they have been called ‘plantations’ they are far from being full of conifers as the title suggests. In fact they are largely made up of semi-natural broadleaved species with an impressive array of ecological diversity. This fact has been recognised by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust who have had all three woodlands designated as ‘County Wildlife Sites’. Together they form the largest area of woodland within several miles of Norwich and boast a large selection of animal and plant life, including red deer, sparrow hawks, nightingales, and the white admiral butterfly. Many of the oaks, beeches, and sweet chestnuts found in the woods are between 100 and 150 years old.

So what is going on? The answer was plain to see in the three weeks plus of the Examination-in-Public (EiP) into the Joint Core Strategy (JCS) of the Greater Norwich Development Partnership (GNDP) last month. The debate was not whether material growth and development should happen – merely where and how it would happen.

As long as material growth remains a given by our overgrown human species on an already over-exploited planet, our future as a species (and that of many other species too) remains very doubtful.

17 December 2010

Why aren’t we acting to save ourselves on climate – and how can we start to actually do so

By Rupert Read

In the wake of the very tenuous ‘success’ of the just-concluded Cancun climate conference (see liberalconspiracy.org/2010/12/15/why-climate-talks-in-cancun-failed-miserably/), it is more important than ever to think about why the human race seems to be failing so miserably to address this existential challenge to civilisation on Earth. I have a suggestion as to why, and a suggestion as to what we can do about it.

Let me begin with this very thoughtful post that carefully makes the argument that those opposing serious action on dangerous climate-change eerily echo the arguments of those who opposed serious action to stop slavery. It points out for example the striking parallels that exist between the arguments of the capitalists who called for only voluntary action to reduce the negative impact of slavery, and the arguments of the capitalists who call now for only voluntary action to reduce the negative impact of manmade climate change.

But I believe that the parallels can be taken one stage further:

Global over-heating is happening because of our burning of ever more fossil fuels. This burning gives us access to a vast energy glut, compared to which almost all the preceding existence of human beings has been extraordinarily low energy. But Peak Oil and the soon-to-follow Peak Gas mean that this glut will be temporary. In future, people will not have access to cheap energy in vast amounts; and they will have to deal with the potentially-utterly-dire consequences of our burning up fossil fuels into greenhouse gases like there is literally no tomorrow... In effect, we have grown accustomed to depending on what I call 'fire-slaves', to run our cars, to heat our homes, to do just about everything that our economy-on-speed depends upon. We use (up) non-renewable fire-slaves in huge numbers - thus depriving tomorrow of access to them, and heaping on tomorrow a dire burden of climate instability.

In other words: like the slavers before us, we today, in our profligate and selfish use of 'fire-slaves', are imposing terrible costs -- unfreedoms, manmade 'natural' disasters, sicknesses unto death -- on other human beings. Unlike the slavers, we can't see most of them, for most of them have yet to be born. But that doesn't lessen our responsibility. It just makes it all the more acute. For at least a few slaves managed to escape, to survive, to win their freedom. At least the slaves triumphed in the end, and the proud American South was even defeated, humbled over the issue (and a damn good thing too). Whereas: if we are not careful we will utterly trap our descendants into a life (or death) where they are energy-poor while having to cope with disasters which Hurricane Katrina and the like are only trailers for. For them, there will be no escape.

We ought to think long and deep about the parallels between being soft on slavery and being soft on climate-inaction. When this parallel really strikes us as it ought, and when we wake up at last to care for future people like our own children (have a listen to me here for more on this) then we may begin to turn the corner, as we succeeded in doing on slavery two centuries ago -- despite all the dire warnings about how it would mean economic ruin, etc. . . .

If we handle the climate crisis wrong, there won’t be an economy, because there won’t be a society. If we handle it right, then it can actually help our economy (see http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/joss-garman-obamarsquos-new-fear-is-a-cleanedup-china-2158047.html ). But my key point in this piece is: it is simply the most basic justice (not to mention love or care or fellow-feeling), to not enslave our children … and so we need to stop depending on fire-slaves. It is obscene to rely (either way) on arguments about economics alone, when what is actually at stake is a slow mega-holocaust…

10 December 2010


By David Seddon

Kathmandu, Nepal

Even now, after many visits to Nepal, it seems strange to think that I am now six hours ‘ahead’ of you in Britain. Of course it doesn’t mean that I can experience things before you do – except the sun rising and the progress of the day in hours. I cant tell you what will happen to you, so we are not in the future here in any sense, just in a different place, as the Earth spins around itself and travels around the sun. But it does give one a different perspective on things. And yet, now I'm here, it seems the most familiar place in the world, no longer exotic or strange, just by the very fact that Im here.

In the same way, it is odd and in many ways comforting how rapidly one adapts to local situations, as well as to local time –although there is always a sort of social ‘jet lag’ as well as one associated with travel and time change. In part, this is because people’s concerns, although in some ways very different, are also very much the same: birth, marriage, death and taxes, as they say. Although of course the news here is different - and people are certainly concerned about the inconclusive nature of the recent national conference of the largest political party, the Maoist United Communist Party of Nepal, and the failure of the interim Legislative-Assembly yet again to elect a Prime Minister (that makes 16 times), the hike in petrol and oil prices by the National Oil Corporation, the uncertain nature of the electrical power supply, and the fact that Nepal only managed to secure one medal in the recent Asian Games - every-day life contains pretty much the same challenges as one does ‘at home’ in Britain. People are worried about exams, their job, unemployment, being ill, growing old, being unappreciated, and so on.

Of course, the average per capita income of Nepal is around 100 times less than that of Britain and our conception of poverty is very different from that in Nepal; life in the rural areas here in particular is really very different from that in the UK, and much, much harder. But, strikingly, there is now remarkably little difference in terms of the kind of life led by what we might call the ‘urban middle classes’ here in Nepal and in Britain, largely because the cost of living is so much lower. With it becoming increasingly commonplace for both men and women to have a job, salaries enable many families to enjoy a reasonable apartment or part of a house, to eat well, to have their children in school (often in private schools), to have a TV, motorbike or even a car, and to have money left over and time for leisure activities. And mobile phones are even more common in Kathmandu than in Norwich.

I feel very comfortable here – and of course with the significantly lower cost of living my pounds go a long way, even though the Nepalese rupee has held up well over the years – mainly because my friends live in many ways as well as I do ‘back home’. In many ways, in fact, they live better. The food is excellent and fresh and largely organic; there are still very few supermarkets or shopping malls in Kathmandu; fuel costs remain surprisingly low and, although there are ‘blackouts’ and ‘load shedding’ (when candles have to be brought out), public transport is very cheap, motorbikes abound and even locals regularly use taxis. There are numerous daily and weekly newspapers (some in English) and good bookshops; there are numerous little cafes and eating houses, all of which are constantly packed out by locals; you can get your shoes repaired for a pittance and a suit made up at a ridiculously low cost. And so on.

Much has changed since I first came here in the 1970s; indeed a report by the United Nations this year identified Nepal as one of the countries whose living standards, and particularly whose levels of education and health had improved most in the last 30 years. Of course, that is from a very low starting point and if average per capita income has doubled in that period, it is only from about $250 to $500 a year. Nepal is still one of the ‘least developed’ countries in the world where most people live on less than $1 a day. But things, as they say, are all relative!

As I sit here, in the late afternoon sunshine, still warm as the day gradually comes to an end, even in December, sipping a cup of tea from Ilam (in the eastern hills) and looking up at the snow-capped Himalayas, looking forward to dinner with friends (which will cost probably $2 a head), I am also enjoying the thought that, although we are six hours behind the time in Bangkok, we are still six hours ahead of you in Britain.

Street scene in Thamel, Kathmandu. Photo by Matthew Herschmann

5 December 2010

Uniting the Kingdom - the Great Norfolk Anti-Cuts Demonstration 4/12

By Charlotte Du Cann

"What was that phrase?" asked the student. “United we stand...”
“Divided we fall,” we chorused.

There were a thousand of us at least standing beside the bandstand in Chapelfield Gardens, stamping our feet against the bitter cold. The last time I stood here it was a sunny autumn day, and I was listening to a song by Seize the Day dedicated to the striking wind turbine workers on the Isle of Wight. In 2009 at a Zero Carbon concert this had struck me as unusual. Most of the protest songs were about the environment or the war. Now there’s a change of mood in the wintry air. The Great Norfolk Anti-Cuts Demo in Norwich on Saturday marked a social shift, as hundreds of marches and demonstrations break out in Britain’s cities and occupations take place in 30 universities across the country, creating a new ferment and new alliances.

The shock tactics of the cuts are a standard part of an economic doctrine that is being administered for the second time in Britain. The present Coalition cabinet have been called the Children of Thatcher and the dismantling of the welfare state is a hallmark of the Friedman School of Economics, widely embraced by the last Conservative government - a deliberate break-up of unionised workforce, privatisation of the public sector and deregulation of the markets to create a society of extreme wealth for the few, corporate control and a vast and voiceless underclass.

Only these present cuts are happening in a very different climate in a very different decade. This is no longer the boomtime of the 80s when Britain was able to export oil and gas and the majority of the population could find credit to go on a shopping spree. There is economic collapse in Europe, an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, 388PPM of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and perhaps more crucially a growing sector of people throughout Britain waking up to the fact that life is not the fossil-fuelled consumer dream they were once promised.

The key strategy in the shock doctrine is to keep people separated and unable to communicate. To make changes so quickly and brutally across the board that it is hard to grasp what is happening and retaliate. Confused, isolated and afraid, people give up. However after decades of individualism, different sections of society that have been out of touch with each other are beginning to connect up. I’m walking alongside the fiery-red banner of the Communication Workers, as we swing up Gentleman’s Walk, past the merry-go-round outside the Forum. I’m remembering the last time I joined a march with union banners was in Birmingham in 1976 when I was a student. Can it be that long ago? The Saturday shoppers stop and stare. But they are not divided as once they might have been. As we walk past the fire station the firemen come out and cheer.

We’re linking up. We’re joining up the facts in our minds and deciding how to act. We're meeting up as individuals and as groups and coming out of our houses. When this column was cut by the EDP after six years, the six writers did not go their separate ways. We decided to make the OneWorldColumn blog a focal point for all the activities that were taking part in the region; to start a conversation that would not only bring the organisations and disciplines we represented together (Green Party, Greenpeace, the peace movement, Transition movement, Campaign against Climate Change, international development), but to unify all the different strands within the local progressive community.

On the bandstand speakers from the public sector unions, the universities and the NGOs were advocating a clear alternative to the cuts that include scrapping Trident, stopping tax evasion, curbing banker’s bonuses, bringing troops home, introducing financial levies and creating a million green jobs and apprenticeships that would enable us to downshift into a low-carbon economy.

Cath Elliot, a Guardian blogger, is talking about the huge rise in unemployment for women, how equality has now been dubbed “a dirty word” (You can find her speech on the blog Too Much To Say For Myself). We all know that the 18 millionaires who are in the cabinet are not all in this together with us. That in the choice between people’s welfare or bankers' profit, the latter has been taken. And that knowledge brings a certain sobriety and solidarity within the crowd. None of us seem confused or afraid. I am standing next to a group of deaf people who are watching the speeches being signed by a woman in a white wool hat. “We’ve never had it so bad.” said the slogan.

The disabled and those who care for them will perhaps fare the hardest in these cuts. Crucial grants and benefits that make people able to live independent lives as human beings are being taken away. Many are being forced into unsuitable low-paid work. In another era I might not have been able to talk with them. Now we have something in common. We are realising that even though we face a global economic recession, we can come together, reorganise and redistribute amongst ourselves. And in a time of structural collapse, coherence and communication are perhaps the most vital things we can share.

Oh, the big society is happening all right. But it may not be the one the Government is banking on.


28 November 2010

Climate Change Time Again

By Mark Crutchley

A year ago our hopes were high that the Copenhagen climate change conference which was being attended by many of the world leaders, would produce a meaningful accord that would set us on route to tackling the problem of our excessive carbon dioxide emissions. Sadly it didn’t turn out that way and whether you believe the official line that the political accord reached was a major step forward, or the more common NGO view that it was a missed opportunity, you would be hard pressed to find evidence that much has changed in the past year.

The most positive interpretation I have heard of the outcome at Copenhagen was from David King at the UEA literary festival a couple of weeks ago. He effectively accepted that little had been achieved, but pointed out that this stopped us from pursuing the fantasy (my words) that some international accord was going to come along and save the day. Instead it forced individual governments to push ahead with their own plans to set emission targets as we in the UK have.

Now we are here again, though with rather less fanfare, as the world prepares to gather in Cancun to try to find a way forward. The UN is calling for concrete results to come out of the summit but with the Republican Party having taken control of the House of Representatives in the intervening period the chances of the Americans being able to deliver on any deal with binding commitments has diminished significantly. Without America, China is unlikely to make any firm commitments and without these two it matters little what the rest of the world may do.

So is that it? Game over. Do we stop trying and just accept that we are going to have to live with the problems that a 2, 3 or even 4oC hotter world are going to bring us? Or should we carry on trying to limit our emissions; stopping new coal fired power stations being built; trying to turn the tide against the expansion of agrofuels which are wreaking havoc in the forests of South East Asia; and lobbying against the push of oil exploration into ever more frontier territories such as the deep waters off Shetland, Greenland and the high Arctic?

I don’t think we have any choice other than to carry on taking the fight to the fossil fuel industry and I do believe that for all the failings of governments, the battle is still one which can be won. Ironically perhaps it is likely to be the Chinese, who are throwing up coal fired power stations like there is no tomorrow, who will be critical to progress. China is already the largest investor in renewable energy in the world and in its quest for ever more power needs to tap into all possible generation sources.

China is already the largest manufacturer of solar photovoltaic cells in the world, though largely for the export market. However the central government is now supporting expansion of domestic use and by the end of next year there is likely to have been a near 15 fold increase in their installed capacity over three years. With increasing domestic Chinese demand, solar PV could achieve even faster growth than the 30% per annum it has averaged in the last three decades, bringing even lower unit costs and competitiveness against other power sources. What’s more there are experimental solar technologies which are achieving far higher efficiencies than currently available that could be the way forward.

So this is our real hope for the future. Not a governmental agreement in Cancun or wherever next the circus moves on to, but a solar PV industry which makes all other forms of power generation uncompetitive. If we can hold the tide against fossil fuel and agro-fuel expansion over the next decade and make sure that we don’t lock ourselves into dirty technologies, then we might just avoid the worst of those climate changing scenarios.

One small point to end with. If someone tells you that our recent cold snap and the hard winter we had last year are proof that global warming isn’t happening, then just inform them that the UK is less than 0.05% of the Earth’s surface area. This year is going to be the hottest or second hottest on record regardless of what it may feel like to us.

22 November 2010

Support the communities of RAF Marham and RAF Lossiemouth

By Trevor Phillips

If you live in East Anglia you may currently be asked to back a campaign to keep open the RAF base at Marham in Norfolk. If successful, this will probably be at the expense of the closure of RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, northern Scotland. In Scotland, campaigners are lobbying to save RAF Lossiemouth.

The intended closure of one of these bases arises from the recent review of military priorities. Closure of either base would mean a loss of many jobs: perhaps as many as 5,170 at Marham or 2,631 at Lossiemouth, which is near the Kinloss RAF base already scheduled for closure and 1810 job losses. The local economy near Marham or Lossiemouth will suffer a knock-on impact of closure - further job losses and local decline. Both areas’ economies have a high dependence on their airbase which provides quality jobs - many using high levels of skill and expertise.

There is, of course, a view that spending on welfare not warfare ought to be the national priority in a time of 'austerity' and the government should cut military expenditure instead of social and caring services which face the axe. 70 % of UK people believe the disastrous Afghanistan war should be ended now. Military expense could be scaled down accordingly.

This is a view I support, but I also think the people employed at Marham - military or otherwise - have a right to employment, quality jobs, security and a healthy local economy. Their families are no less deserving than those of council care-workers expecting redundancy or 'outsourcing' to inferior employers in Norfolk.

Nor, of course, are the families in Lossiemouth. So why should these public servants and communities be in competition with each other for continued employment?

Having failed to diversify the vulnerable economies of areas such as North Scotland and West Norfolk, successive governments and local administrations bear some responsibility for the predicament of whichever community loses this sordid, fratricidal fight.

The government says it must tackle the UK's current budget deficit by getting rid of half a million public sector jobs. The victims of these cuts, we are assured, will soon find work in a revitalised private sector - liberated by the enlightened policies of a government serving enterprise. Well ask them in West Norfolk and Moray if they believe that.

It is saddening to watch MPs from Norfolk and Scotland cynically lobbying to put each other's community out of work, feigning to be ‘champions’. The ‘Make it Marham’ petition demands no safeguards for the potential unemployed at Lossiemouth. The ‘Save RAF Lossiemouth’ petition seeks nothing to protect the people of West Norfolk. Neither petition demands any national coherence.

How easily such politicians divide and rule. How easily local fear is mobilised and abused, enabling thousands of skilled workers and their communities to be abandoned. “We did our best” one group of MPs will soon tell its shattered community - and possibly be believed and re-elected.

It is also sickening to see the same Norfolk MPs declining to make - even equivalent - campaign efforts to save the jobs of thousands of local public-sector workers: staff who care for the elderly and disabled and support the young, the troubled and the unemployed; tax collectors, postal workers, teachers and others. Nor are they challenging student fees which will deter the bright working class.

Instead – together – all of those MPs should be forcefully telling their government chums that a new economic direction must be adopted. There is an alternative. The budget deficit can be tackled both more slowly and more fairly. There should be proper collection of many tens of billions of pounds of taxes currently avoided or evaded by wealthy individuals and businesses. Witness, for example, the cosy government deal which instead let Vodafone underpay £6 billion, recently. (See Private Eye magazine http://www.private-eye.co.uk/sections.php?section_link=in_the_back ).

A Robin Hood tax on speculative transactions could raise billions more. A levy on empty properties, a curb on bankers' bonuses and higher taxes for super-earners would also help to quickly wipe out the deficit.

If the armed forces need rationalising, it should be done in a timely and considered way. Surplus workforces should be offered redeployment or reskilling and support in a transition programme which protects employment, mortgages, families and communities.

The government should have a strategy for partial demilitarisation of the economy and redirection of employment and resources to meet modern national needs. When we end our futile adventure in Afghanistan, military workforces and dependent communities should not be competing for remaining work or abandoned to unemployment and local economic collapse - they were surely fighting for more than that. Their skills should be fully employed in government backed schemes to develop new civilian technologies for transport, energy, civil emergencies and a greener economy. Workforces may have ideas of their own, as did Lucas Aerospace staff in the 1970s when developing an Alternative Plan for socially useful products.

Outside County Hall in the grounds of Norfolk County Council, a replica fighter aircraft looms in memory of staff at the former nearby RAF Coltishall. Will the council, if it proceeds to sack 3000 of its own dedicated staff, also erect a statue in memory of their vital services? It might portray a carer or youth worker. A social worker, fire-fighter or librarian perhaps? The county’s MPs would certainly come along for the picture.

I hope those seeking to defend jobs at RAF Marham will join the Norfolk Coalition Against the Cuts and its demonstration in Norwich on Saturday 4 December (assemble 12.00 at Chapelfield Gardens, http://norfolkcoalitionagainstcuts.org/ ). The right to work and dignity is not divisible: it cannot be protected at the expense of someone else’s plight. It requires us to campaign together for all communities, not just ourselves.

7 November 2010

British Aid - who benefits?

By David Seddon

British aid refers to concessionary loans and grants to developing countries, provided by the British government, ostensibly to reduce poverty and promote sustainable growth. The main institutional mechanism for distributing aid is the Department for International Development (DfID). Under some governments, this department has been a full ministry with a seat in Cabinet; under others, it has been closely linked with the Ministry of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (FCO). The present Minister - under the Coalition Government - is Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP, who was Shadow Minister for International Aid from 2005 to 2010.

Spending on international aid is one of only two areas, along with health, that the Coalition Government has pledged to protect as it slashes domestic departmental budgets to try to tackle a public deficit running at about 11 percent of national output. In fact, it has gone much further than that and has increased the aid budget significantly, to a total of 13 billion pounds a year. Government has made clear that the international development budget will increase to 0.7% of Gross National Income from 2013. While most in all three major parties welcomed this initiative, there were many who were strongly critical.

Defending the government's decision to continue spending taxpayer money in other countries at a time when Britons are being warned to expect tough cuts to public services, Andrew Mitchell said, in an interview in July 2010, that it was ‘in Britain's national interest’. "We are making the choice not only on moral grounds but also on national interest grounds," he said. "It is an issue of national interest because many of the problems which make our world much less secure emanate from very poor developing countries often caught up in crisis and conflict." In the case of Afghanistan - a prime instance of a developing country which the Coalition government (like the previous Labour government) argues is a security threat, Mitchell claimed that there would be 40 per cent more going into the development budget.

The major focus of development aid is undoubtedly selected developing countries, and the major stated criterion for the selection of those countries is their poverty. Undoubtedly, some of the recipients are by no means among the poorest and some should probably not even be classified as ‘’developing’. Furthermore, it was revealed recently that, over the last five years, 45.6 million pound was spent by DfID directly on projects based within the UK, with almost half of that – £22.7 million – spent on the Development Awareness Fund, a fund for "projects which raise awareness and understanding of global poverty and how it can be reduced". Last year alone, DfID spent £13.6 million on projects based in the UK.

Many would argue that ‘development education in the UK’ is a good way to spend ‘development aid’ but others are highly critical. The International Policy Network (IPN), for example, believes that "it is ridiculous for DfID to spend tens of millions of pounds right here in the UK. Foreign aid should be just that – money spent overseas, not wasted on wishy-washy feel-good projects in the UK. The Tax Payers' Alliance also argues that "DfID funds are intended to help the world's poorest people, not pay for politicking here in the UK. Tory MP Douglas Carswell, who sits on the Public Accounts Committee, claimed that "these schemes are about making people feel good rather than helping Third World countries. It is time to radically overhaul how DfID spends our aid budget."

There are also many who are critical of where international aid goes, even when it goes abroad and is not spent in the UK. Early this year it was revealed that 10 million pounds were to be given over the next five years to The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), an Indian organization run by Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the controversial chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), despite growing concern over its accounts. At the end of October 2010, its UK head re-submitted its accounts to independent auditors after 'anomalies' in its accounts prompted demands for the Charity Commission to investigate. The decision followed a Sunday Telegraph investigation into the finances of TERI Europe, which has benefited from funding from other branches of the British Government including the Foreign Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

The decision by DfID to fund Dr Pachauri's institute, based in Delhi, will add to growing concern over allegations of conflict of interest, with critics accusing Dr Pachauri and TERI of gaining financially from policies which are formulated as a result of the work he carries out as IPCC chairman. Dr Pachauri has built up a worldwide network of business interests since his appointment as chairman of the IPCC in 2002. The post, argue critics, has given him huge prestige and influence as the world's most powerful climate official. According to TERI’s own website, both Dr Pachauri and his wife are on the jury panel for the 2010 awards, and Dr Pachauri has been on the jury panel in previous years. A DfID spokesman, however, described Teri as a “globally respected institution”. “Their accounts are externally audited and annually submitted to the government of India,” he said. “As is routine, DfID is undertaking a full institutional assessment of Teri as part of our due diligence process.” But one has to wonder.

Finally, also in October, and closer to home, The Sunday Times alleged that the international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, had intervened improperly on behalf of multimillionaire cocoa dealer, Anthony Ward, who funded his office in opposition. Ward, known as "Chocfinger", had asked Mitchell to lift a ban on his firm, Armajaro Holdings, which had been banned from trading in western Ghana after one of its contractors was alleged to have been involved in smuggling. John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, referred Mitchell to John Lyon, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, for further investigation. Mann said: "The reports that Andrew Mitchell lobbied on behalf of 'Chocfinger' raise serious questions to answer about the secretary of state for international development's conduct. Was Mr Mitchell acting in the best interests of the British government or a donor that has subsidised his parliamentary office and funded the Conservative Party?”

2 November 2010

One World Column - Looking Back, Looking Forward

By Marguerite Finn

The e-mail came out of the blue on 26th August 2010. It informed us that the One World Column (OWC) due out on Saturday 28th August would be the last one. This news came as quite a shock because there had been no prior discussion with the Eastern Daily Press (EDP) and no hint that the column was about to be axed.

The reason given, that the EDP wanted to “ring the changes” was not particularly convincing as we pointed out to them the OWC had six columnists all taking turns to write on a variety of subjects in very different styles, which we considered was “ringing the changes” every week! However, the Editor’s decision was non-negotiable so, after more than six years and over 320 columns, the OWC in the EDP came to an abrupt end on 28th August 2010.

The EDP has assured us that it will give “green” politics and environmental issues a “fair shout” – and no doubt it will, in its own way. But there is one category the EDP did not mention and that missing category is “peace issues”. This was a key area of comment for writers of the One World Column, along with international development, poverty, globalisation, human rights, international relations and the environment. The columnists’ aim was to provide a positive voice for the future and to represent a wide group of concerned Norfolk people.

We will continue to do this through our website http://www.oneworldcolumn.org/

The OWC started in May 2004 when the Iraq war was at its height. The EDP gave us the opportunity to have a column after a group of us in the local peace movement demanded a meeting with the then Editor, Peter Franzen, to complain about the pro-war stance of the paper and the lack of any alternative view point.

There were five columnists at the outset: Andrew Boswell, Jacqui McCarney, Marguerite Finn, Dr Rupert Read and Ian Sinclair. In time, we lost Ian Sinclair and Jacqui McCarney and we were joined by Liam Carroll, Juliette Harkin, Dr Nicola Pratt and Dr Lee Marsden. Over the years, these too moved on to other things and new people came along. Every column is available to read on our website.

The columnists today are: Marguerite Finn, Dr Rupert Read, Professor David Seddon, Charlotte Du Cann and Trevor Phillips. We will continue to write weekly columns offering a different way of looking at things. We hope you will join us regularly on http://www.oneworldcolumn.org/ and let us know what you think.

21 August 2010

Pakistan's floods are a warning to Europe

By Trevor Phillips

The Pakistan floods are severely affecting 20 million of that country's 180 million people. Pakistan is used to Monsoon rains and floods but this is not just a regular Monsoon event, it is the biggest flood in the nation's history. To put it into more familiar terms, let us imagine an equivalent tragedy in the UK, with has a population a third the size of Pakistan's. Ignoring our topography for the moment, we would have seen raging torrents surge from the Scottish and Welsh mountains and Northern England into Midlands rivers, Eastern plains and towards Southern England. By now, 250,000 homes would have been destroyed or damaged, with over 500 British people dead (it's already over 1500 in Pakistan). In Pakistan 20 million people are still without aid. Just imagine 7 million stranded UK citizens, including 2 million facing starvation.

Pakistan is already coping with around 1.7 million Afghan refugees. The UK is currently home to around 200,000 from many sources, 2% of the world's 10 million refugees. But the UK's economy is twenty times the size of Pakistan's in GDP terms (CIA world factbook, 2006). The UK is donating £30 million of emergency flood aid - high by international standards and deserving some praise - but this is only the cost of operating the Trident nuclear submarines for five days.

Pakistan's economy cannot cope with a tragedy of such a scale, which would even bring the UK to its knees and in search of international help. The suffering is sufficient reason for concerned human interest, but there is an even greater reason to monitor these sad events. The next few months may provide some indication of whether the world will act to minimise the risk of further extreme weather events - expected as the climate warms. Or whether we are watching a dress rehearsal of future - perhaps even European - tragedies being performed on the stage of Sindh, Baluchistan and Punjab.

Of course we don't expect the UK to ever experience such weather. We don't have the Himalayas channeling Monsoon water swiftly in one regional direction. We live in a rich country and expect that emergency plans are somehow ready for 'once in a century' events. We believe that families could quickly escape inundation by leaping into cars or trains to visit relatives or friends in safer areas. In the 'recovery phase' after a deluge we would expect UK health services to manage the health implications and our welfare system to support victims - who would eventually repair their homes, businesses and fields and reconstruct their lives. Not so in Pakistan of course, where for most people welfare is the solidarity of family and little else.

Our confidence is partly based on the belief that our Atlantic/European weather system will stay much the same as it is. This is now a dangerous, outdated idea. This summer, Poles experienced the worst floods in Polish history. Russians experienced their highest temperatures in recorded history with forests ablaze near Moscow, choking its citizens for weeks. When the global climate changes, local weather can change very, very quickly.

I don't claim that these weather events are firm evidence of human induced global warming - there is anyway enough evidence of that already - but their unprecedented scale should make every sensible government re-examine its climate protection plans. Sadly the new UK government may be burning its climate pledges as fast as the Russian forests. Heavily polluting new coal-fired power stations may yet be permitted, despite election pledges; the Sustainable Development Commission is already earmarked for abandonment and the government may be preparing to cut funds for responses to global disasters.

The Pakistan floods should be provoking an immediate reconvening of the delegations which attended the failed Copenhagen climate conference. From Pakistan to Poland and beyond, there is a need for urgency.

14 August 2010

The wrath of the goddess

By Marguerite Finn

The fires currently sweeping through Russia seem to me to be part of an apocalyptic vision: floods of Biblical proportions in Pakistan, fires burning large areas of Russia, devastating landslides in China's Gansu province, covering houses and streets with a metre-thick layer of sludge deposited by the flood waters. Despite our technological advances we seem unable accurately to predict these climactic occurrences or take adequate steps to prepare for them. If this is not climate change then it's a run of remarkable coincidences.

One thinks of Russia as a vast country, well able to cope with climactic events – but in reality Russia is struggling to contain hundreds of peat fires that are approaching cities and nuclear power stations with equal temerity. Suddenly the superpower looks very vulnerable – and so does its neighbour Europe. Russia is one of the world's largest producers and exporters of grain and Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, announced a temporary ban on export grains until at least the end of the year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has cut its global wheat forecasts for 2010 due to the impact of poor weather and drought on crops in recent weeks. The price of wheat rose by 80 percent in little over a month and is likely to stay high as lower grain outputs are also predicted from Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Canada.

As well as its wheat, Russia (and Europe) is worried about the safety of its nuclear facilities as temperatures soar to 40C (104F) with little sign of relenting. Two nuclear sites have come under potential threat. Safety barriers and clearing surrounding land of any vegetation minimises the eventuality of fire entering a nuclear power plant. The greater danger comes from the unexpectedly high ambient heat, which can bring about sudden changes in a reactor's operation, like emergency shutdowns and problems with the supply of water used to cool the reactor. Power lines, which transmit electricity from the reactors to cities and towns are melting, which may also trigger emergency shutdowns. Nuclear expert Andrei Ozharovsky explains: "Damage caused by a transformer or breakdowns in power lines are a greater risk than the state nuclear operator is admitting. Such events cause emergency stopping of the reactor - as happened in Chernobyl when, after several attempts to switch the reactor off and on, the reactor was out of control."

There is concern too about the safety of Russia's nuclear design and production facility at Sarov, a closed town 220 miles east of Moscow. Emergency action was taken by Russian troops who dug a five-mile canal to protect the site. All explosive and radioactive material was removed. A defence ministry spokesman confirmed that weapons, artillery and missiles at a depot in Alabinsk, about 70 kilometres southwest of Moscow, had to be transferred to a secure site because of the danger posed by fires in the region.

Meanwhile, the elemental firestorms show their disdain for man-made limits in another way. Russia has always played down the danger remaining in the ground from the longer-lasting radioactive fall-out from the Chernobyl disaster, by shutting off those areas completely, so that the fall-out stays undisturbed in the ground. This is not stopping the wild-fires, which rampage through any barriers, suspending radioactive material high in the air and in the smoke clouds above the raging conflagration, to be borne away by the wind, ready to fall who knows where, when the next rain falls.

I often think that we have been asking for trouble, letting the atomic genie out of its bottle, boring through the bed of the ocean after black gold and covering prime agricultural land with concrete, in the expectation that other countries will feed us. And isn’t the quest for relentless and unremitting material growth, on a limited planet, inviting the wrath of the Gods?

31 July 2010

Big Society or Big Con?

By Charlotte Du Cann

We are, though we may not be aware of it, taking part in a social experiment. It's called the Big Society and formed a key part of the Conservative electoral agenda. But is it what it promises: an enlightened "devolution of power to the man and woman in the street", or is it an offloading of governmental responsibility?

Yesterday in Bungay a small band of people gathered in the Library courtyard and began to shovel earth into raised beds made from recycled bricks. We were laying foundations for a "Living Library", a garden that will showcase "Transition" principles ranging from carbon reduction to the restoration of the honeybee. This is one of many community gardens that have sprung up in towns and cities around the world. All of them made by people who know that engagement in neighbourhood projects brings social cohesion. And that in challenging times, the ability for people to hold together, is vital.

This is an entirely different scenario however to the one David Cameron envisages. Most self-organising initiatives work towards creating a new, fair and sustainable world. The dismantling of the public sector in favour of charities and volunteer groups is framed within an old philanthropic paradigm. It pays no attention to urgent planetary issues such as climate change or peak oil. It hands over decision-making about energy and planning to local people without regional or governmental strategy or resources to back them. It does not seek to reorganise society along more equitable lines, let alone ecological ones. Because the real power structures, steered by the interests of big business, are guaranteed to continue. It is localism firmly set within the global economic growth model.

Although this experiment clamours to dispense with State bureaucracy, its main function is to mask the public sector cuts already underway and devalue the meaningful nature of work. Our corporate-shaped world has already reduced workers to replaceable “human resources”, giving them almost no say in their destiny. Our civil liberties have been eroded - our rights to strike, to protest, to stand up for ourselves. We have been told to work harder for less money. Now we are being told: work for nothing.

Like "Care in the Community" the Big Society presupposes there are local people who are willing and competent to take on the skilled work of librarians, teachers and healthcare workers. It presumes anyone can do your job. And though there is no doubt that grassroots activism can unleash enormous potential both within individuals and communities, it is another thing to rely on volunteers for essential services within a top-down framework. Volunteers can be notoriously unreliable, having no obligation to turn up or consider their fellows. Within a hierarchical structure, volunteers are sometimes esteemed more highly than workers. This puts a huge strain on the "real" staff who often have to carry their load.

This may seem a small thing to consider, but it is these everyday working relationships that make for happiness in a society. The fact is without respect for what you do, you falter. Depression and defeat set in and this affects the mood of homes, workplaces and enterprises everywhere. For the want of a happy librarian, the whole town was lost. A real Big Society would cherish its workers and be empathic towards the unemployed. Fellow feeling unites us and makes us resilient. Divided we fall big time.

So the Big Society would make sense if it included everyone in its remit. If it were designed by people who really cared about the community. But the reality is it's a decree from on high, declaimed by millionaire politicians who do not depend on public services - a hazy piece of marketing that opens up the organising structure of the collective to further privatisation and fragmentation. The idea is Big, but its not much to do with Society.

For more information about Bungay Library Courtyard Garden http://www.sustainablebungay.com/.

17 July 2010

Growth and death

By Rupert Read

Death. Death. Death… Have I put you off yet?

We don't like thinking about death. We'd rather think about life. But death is of course an inevitable feature of life.

At least: of individuals' lives. Our hope for our species, and for this wonderful living planet, is that it will go on and on. That our individual lives (and deaths) are just part of the story of that common life without end.

I've been reading a fine book lately: Jeremy Rifkin's The empathic civilisation. Rifkin argues, controversially, that human civilisation is marked by a gradually increasing level of empathy for our fellow beings. The problem is that this increasing empathy has tended to fuel and be fuelled by increasing energy-use, increasing pollution – what the physicists call increasing 'entropy'. Because, as people's fellow-feeling spreads from their local area further afield, they want to go to those places, to trade and communicate with them, and so on. The huge challenge now facing us, according to Rifkin, is to turn a corner never turned before: to increase levels of mutual empathy, while decreasing the energy-use, resource-use, and pollution that is killing our planet. We have to achieve a new level of empathy with people living in vulnerable tropical locales, with many many species of non-human animals whose well-being is tied inextricably to our own, and (most crucially and most challengingly of all) with future people, those generations not even born yet. Unless we achieve an empathy – a genuine solidarity - with them, we will surely not do enough to reduce the entropic burden we are currently producing, that threatens to snuff them out before they are born…

The biggest obstacle to doing what is necessary to achieving this solidarity with our own descendants is the 'common sense' that our economy must keep growing and growing. We need to ask the question: What is our economy growing into? Well, as the economy grows, it eats up more and more of the Earth, colonises more and more of its treasures, and turns them into (harmful) junk and waste.

Something that has to keep growing in order to survive – whether it be a capitalist economy, or a cancer – cannot be indefinitely sustained.

Why are we so reluctant to countenance an end to economic growth? Why aren't we thinking more, at this time of profound ecological (and financial) crisis, of creating a new, prosperous economy that can be sustained indefinitely, a 'steady-state' economy that is not like a shark, but more like a stable woodland or a peaceful people, changing without needing to grow, without needing to invade more and more of the planetary ecosystem?

Jeremy Rifkin has a fascinating answer to this question. He believes that the idea that 'You can't stop 'progress'', and the connected idea that 'Growth is good' are tacitly ways of trying to avoid death. If we invest our - secular, materialist - faith in the fantasy of endless material 'progress' and endless economic growth, then we can distract ourselves (at least temporarily) from the harsh truth: that nothing can go on growing forever; that we as individuals are destined to die; and that if our society tries to go on growing, then it will destroy itself, through killing off its 'host', the living Earth.

We don't like to think about death – so we escape into New Age fantasies about reincarnation, or materialist fantasies about endless economic growth / 'progress'. There is a better way. Through empathic feeling and solidarity-in-action with one another, and with those who have come before us and those who will come after us, we can be part of something deathless. A 'steady-state' society, which will be able – wonderfully - to go on, indefinitely, giving new life to our children's children, and new hope to our imperilled civilisation.

10 July 2010

Football gives a suffering people joy

By Trevor Phillips

Tomorrow's FIFA (world football association) World Cup final will unite a billion people in a shared global experience. What the great Brazilian footballer Pele called 'the beautiful game' is now undoubtedly the world's favourite sporting entertainment, a multi-billion pound global business and a major cultural phenomenon. Love it or hate it, football affects the lives of millions of people around the world.

What's its secret? Well, according to George Weah, former Liberian footballer, FIFA World Footballer of the Year and possibly Africa's finest ever player: "Football gives a suffering people joy".

Hosting the World Cup has been a mixture of joy and frustration for South Africans. To stage such a prestigious global event has been a 'triumph' according to Desmond Tutu. For sure, the government and the nation have won great prestige for the organisational success and superb venues. The tournament has also boosted the sense of dignity and confidence of millions of citizens, proud to have brought the world to their new nation. The impressive performances of Ghana's team also united supporters across Africa, enhancing their shared sense of Africanness.

It has been less than joyous for some other South Africans. The construction of new stadiums has caused widespread dissatisfaction amongst many poor black communities. According to Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu–Natal, (in Red Pepper magazine), more than a thousand pupils demonstrated against Mbombela stadium when schools displaced in the construction programme were not rebuilt. Markets which have traditionally served football crowds were banned as police enforced the government's agreement with FIFA that only FIFA endorsed items could be advertised within a one kilometer radius of stadiums – a deal estimated to bring FIFA an astonishing £2.2 billion. Riot police used tear gas against world cup stewards protesting over alleged pay cuts. Other World Cup related protests have been held against construction companies and local authorities and many peaceful protests have been banned.

New stadium locations were carefully chosen to create a positive image of the tournament and of South Africa. The £380 million stadium in Cape Town could have been built more cheaply, nearer supporters, but this was rejected according to a FIFA official because "a billion TV viewers don't want to see shacks and poverty on this scale".

Costs have spiraled. Durban's new stadium, budgeted at £160 million, will cost £275 million. The tournament may cost South Africa as much as £3.2 billion, leaving it with several stadiums which may never again be filled. Estimates of returns to the national economy have been considerably scaled down. Little of the generated wealth from the tournament is expected to trickle down to South Africa's poor, in one of the most unequal societies in the world.

The biggest winners of the 2010 World Cup will be the global corporations which secured the construction contracts for grounds and infrastructure upgrading, local entrepreneurs and the global brands which used the tournament as a televised shop window.

Some of the inequalities and social tensions in South Africa have been contained or disguised while the world's eye has been on the World Cup. But when the tournament is over and the euphoria has dissipated the real issues will remain.

Football certainly brings joy, however transient, but there is a danger that this joy can obscure more enduring problem. With its millionaire Premier League players, rising club debts and seat prices, multi-million pound TV and sponsorship deals, and its power to clinch lucrative deals with tournament-hosting governments - not always to the benefit of ordinary local people – is football is becoming a global business beyond the influence of supporters and regulators? It's disturbing, but for now let's share the joy and settle down for Spain vs Holland. What a pity Ghana didn't get there. Now, where did I leave my vuvuzela?

3 July 2010

Resilient and courageous women

By Marguerite Finn

On the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom stall at the 5th annual Peace Camp in the Forum last Saturday I had an interesting discussion with a lady about Afghanistan. She remarked that despite it having claimed a multitude of British military lives over two centuries, we know relatively little about the country itself or what it is like for women living there.

I did a bit of research and found resilient and courageous women who knew exactly what they wanted from life. Take for example the secret girls schools, now emerging in Afghanistan. These small schools, some based in homes, are blossoming because girls are subjected to violence on their way to and from school. There is little security and threats come daily from either the Taliban or from kidnappers.

Female education was banned under the Taliban and school-going girls continue to be hassled by Taliban supporters. In response, a number of parents have set up underground schools to allow their daughters to continue studying despite the current escalating campaign of insurgent attacks around Kandahar. This is a particularly brave decision on the part of the parents, especially as districts in Kandahar are dotted with 'safe houses' used by Taliban insurgents infiltrating the city. The risk of being found out is great in areas where neighbour dare not trust neighbour. Nevertheless, the desire for knowledge and an appreciation of the benefits of education for women are even greater.

In another part of Afghanistan a similar spirit of defiance and creativity can be found. Parwan is a province to the north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, with a rich culture originally founded by Alexander the Great in 329BC. Today, Parwan is the site of a new skills centre set up with a grant from the Parwan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to empower female breadwinners. There are 2,500 members of the Agricultural and Handicrafts Association of Parwan, a unique organisation which has helped pull women and their families out of poverty. What makes the association special is that from in 2007, when it was set up, it thought big and bold – not really what was expected from women in Afghanistan's male-dominated culture !

The female Director, Saleha Zarin, brought in 500 women with a broad range of existing skills and set about improving these and teaching them new, marketable ones. The activities include making jams, pickles and cakes, weaving carpets, tailoring, and farming saffron and livestock. The range has since been broadened to include new farming techniques. Membership costs around 80p for which the women become part of a ready-made cooperative. The association also takes on trainees with no existing skills and makes them self-sufficient in a matter of months.

At long last, things are beginning to improve on the ground for women in some parts of Afghanistan – but not everywhere. In Herat in the south of the country, officials report a 50 percent rise in female suicide over the past year. Many of these incidents involved women recently returned from Iran where they had fled to avoid the Taliban’s rule and where they had enjoyed a relatively better life. Returning in the hope that things had now improved, they found this was far from the case; they faced unemployment, poverty and violence.

However, this situation is not going unchallenged. Hamida Husseini, Director of the cultural department of the government’s directive for women's affairs in Herat, says they will be sending teams of people from house to house talking to young mothers and girls about their daily lives and problems, to learn how to support vulnerable families.

While the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to end anytime soon (especially now that 'vast, untapped mineral riches' have just been reported there), is it not encouraging to see Afghan women taking their lives into their hands?

26 June 2010

The Reality Crunch

By Charlotte Du Cann

Last week a shock wave rippled through 2010 Transition Network conference. A last minute change to the programme, an intense 90 minute lecture titled Making Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Era of Peak Oil brought an inconvenient truth to light: we are facing a reality crunch, in which a global financial collapse is the defining event.

The intellectual rationale behind economic expansion has shaped our society for decades. Milton Friedman's Chicago School of Economics underpinned the pattern of corporate rule throughout the world since the 70s. In the aggressive defence of free markets the rich have become immensely rich, the poor more numerous, and public services everywhere have been dismantled in favour of the private sector. It's a pattern this week's Budget is set to uphold.

But even though we are a civilisation obsessed by money, the financial system itself is rarely discussed. Though banker and credit crunch have became household terms, it's not until you look at the relation between credit and real wealth that you realise you are looking at a chimera and at some point it's going to disappear into desert sand.

With the exploitation of fossil fuels the financial bubble has expanded like never before in history. 1600 trillion dollars of virtual money in 30 years. For every slice of real wealth pie that exists there are one hundred claims. Because credit expansion is built on illusion the spell eventually breaks and deflation sets in. Credit disappears, house prices go down, prices for essentials go up. People start hoarding and without the lubricant of money trade halts. What do we need to do now? Nicole Foss (who writes as 'Stoneleigh' in the financial blog, The Automatic Earth) advised a packed lecture hall: look at your structural dependency, deal with debt, and make relationships you can trust.

In a workshop the next day 300 Transitioners looked at the future. We explored in images and words what would happen in one year's time, then five, then ten. What did it mean that we had so much debt? Everywhere you saw a split between breakdown and breakthrough, fall and transcendence; in amongst the dark scribblings emerged butterflies and the phoenix.

What we experienced after the shock was a different pattern emerging within ourselves. We were shifting from individualism towards community. We realised that if everything was falling apart we needed to be coherent. In a time of strife we needed to be harmonious. The culture of the credit bubble – with its exclusive dwellings and high-maintenance lifestyle, the Shangri-La of every shopping mall in the kingdom – was ceding to one where people had very little except the wealth they had inside - a wealth they were prepared to share.

It's a pattern that is emerging everywhere. Countries that have weathered the free market zeal that brings corporations and the IMF into play forces them to hand over real wealth – their natural resources – and reduce their vibrant people into a voiceless underclass, are turning their fortunes round. It's a pattern of neighbourhood engagement, workers' co-operatives and localised networks that foster the diversity and inventiveness that make all eco-systems resilient. Instead of being shut-off and in competition the people are getting together and working out how to rebuild their lives.

Meanwhile it becomes clear in Britain that we have a government that for all its talk of Big Society is not here for the majority, but to protect the priviledged. There will be no bail out for ordinary people, so we will have help ourselves. And the first step is to realise we are not on our own: there are billions of us in the same boat. This lifeboat called Earth.

12 June 2010

Our responsibility to the future: justice or love?

By Rupert Read

How ought we to think of our relationship to - our responsibility for - future people? Is this question (a question pressing all the harder in the wake of the recent failure to adequately safeguard those future people, at Copenhagen) essentially a question of justice? The rallying cry at Copenhagen was, "What we do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!" But what if it's not enough to call for justice?

Let me explain…

Future generations – future people - are collectively our children. We give birth to them. They are even more powerless than the newest new-born baby. They cannot entreat, nor even scream, let alone return our gaze. They are dependent upon us for every aspect of their life-chances. For we cause them of course to come into being; but moreover, and ever-increasingly, we cause their conditions to be what they are, too.

What is fair is decided in a negotiation, or in a court. In the course of the negotiation or case, one deploys principles to make one's case. These principles, ideally, secure a reasonable agreement. But, there is no fairness, no genuine equity, between two utter unequals. Treating one's baby merely 'fairly' is abominable. Dividing food,warmth or shelter 'fairly', in such a circumstance; doing this ought to be a matter of profound shame. Such 'fairness' is an invitation to bad faith; because there is no actual 'contract' here, no agreement, no negotiation; just whatever you decide 'is' fair.

So: fairness is not what is most to the point, here. We need to rely on something stronger.


Well, one must love one's newborn child. It must be second-nature to treat it as generously as one can. Or, to treat it as not separate from oneself at all.

The very same is true of future people. The analogy is so direct, it is barely worth calling an analogy: future generations are our children. The case is stronger still: if it is true that we must love our new-borns, then it's even more obvious that we must love our descendants, the future ones. Because they are still more profoundly our dependents (our children) than our own dependents (our children) are, for they are nothing without our love and care. Without that care, they will in many cases not even get the chance to exist…

There is no real chance of our descendants inheriting a planet habitable for civilisation, unless we love them. It is not enough to seek to be fair/just. We are going to have to open our hearts to the people of the future as we open our hearts to a new-born. We are going to actually have to care about them enough, for instance, to be genuinely willing to sacrifice the fripperies that decorate our dwellings, our lives, etc., and which are being produced at the cost of the future. It would be truly terrible not to do this, as (on a business-as-usual model) seems likely.
It may be very demanding, to demand love. It may leave us with little hope that we can do enough. But it's better to try to do something that would be enough than not even to try.

Let us give our all for our descendants, our collective children. For us not to be myopic, they need to be real to us. In short: let us love them.

That's the answer to the question which forms my title. It's not enough to try to do right by future generations merely by trying to do them justice, or merely to be 'fair' to them. We should give up, and admit that we do not love and do not really care, and consign them to their terrible fate – or we should love them.

I recommend the latter course.

5 June 2010

'We are all Greeks now'

By Trevor Phillips

I am revisiting Greece next week, where I always feel immensely comfortable as a fellow European. Greek 'philoxenia' (friendship to foreigners) won my affections long ago, so I shall closely observe how the world crisis of unregulated finance markets is unfolding in Greece.

The EU/IMF (International Monetary Fund)'s 'rescue package' for Greece seems set to deepen recession. The IMF is demanding severe cuts in public services and 50% cuts in pensions. Taxes will rise, as will prices - even for education and medicine. It will be easier to sack people, so low Greek wages will worsen further. A mass exodus of young talent is expected. (There has already been an exodus of the tax-evaded profits and savings of the wealthy, much of it to London).

So what should Greeks do? Nobody wants disgusting fire-bomb deaths or self defeating violence. Should ordinary Greeks pay for a crisis created by banks and rotten politicians? Can the token strikes and protests become a coordinated resistance linked to specific demands - such as regulation and control of financial capital - or will the Greek working class and civil society back off if the left fails to describe such alternatives?

Greeks famously once declared 'Ohi!' (No!) to Mussolini's demands for submission. If they resist the IMF similarly, should we offer solidarity? What if strikes are met with government hostility and - heaven forbid - troops? Or do we watch passively and hope the crisis stops at Greece or Spain and doesn't reach our shores?

Today's Greece may be tomorrow's Ireland, Portugal, Spain or Britain if financiers take advantage of vulnerability. The pound may not escape the speculators currently targeting the Euro. Speculators are not restrained by national borders - that is partly the cause of this crisis. So is it possible for ordinary British citizens to protect their interests while disengaging from concern about what's happening to others?

Prime Minister David Cameron recently rejected a Euro-zone appeal for UK funds to help stabilise the crisis of Greece and the Euro-zone. Perhaps he believes that 22 miles of the so-called English Channel can resist a run on the pound. A united European response, he said, was contrary to the interests of British people. But which British people? His fellow millionaire, former members of Eton and the Bullingdon Club? Or the elderly, the low paid and the unemployed on the estates of North Norwich and Great Yarmouth? Will he share out austerity according to capacity to endure? A 5% cut in cabinet salaries hardly equals the loss of a council worker's job, youth employment training or a pensioner's health visitor.

As the crisis or 'recovery programme' unfolds, the wealthy of Greece, Britain and elsewhere can cushion potential discomfort with their property and savings, investment incomes, financial mobility and accountants. They will not feel increased student fees and council tax, VAT at 20% or more and longer hospital queues. Closure of community centres won't impact on the lives of the well off, British or Greek.

I shall watch England's progress in the football World Cup in bars in Greece next week and cheer for England. I may even wave a flag while urging on Wayne Rooney. But I have no illusions that waving the same flag as David Cameron, cheering the same football team or sharing his nationality means my interests are the same as his or his class.

Britishness won't protect Britain’s economy and currency if speculators target them. So like it or not we are all Greeks now: their fate is ours. Pretty soon we may all be Irish, Portuguese and Spanish. And we may realise we are united not by flags and football teams or a spurious version of 'national interest' but by the interests and humanity of people in the same boat as us - wherever they live. And we may wish we had supported their resistance earlier.

29 May 2010

Personal Space

By Marguerite Finn

I was sitting in the garden last Sunday, enjoying the sunshine and listening to the birds, when suddenly my ears were assaulted not so much by the 'sound of distant drums' as by the deafening 'boom-boom' of music coming from a house several doors away. It made me realise that people choose to use their personal space in very different ways. How important is 'personal space' in our culture? How sustainable is it?

Like population growth, personal space has become the truth that dare not speak its name and must not be mentioned in polite society. Yet Western society is becoming more anti-communal and, in effect, anti-social. Growing children spend increasingly longer periods of time in the virtual worlds of their computer games. Older children play virtual tennis with a machine rather than interact with real players down at the tennis club. Is this is at the core of our problems – both domestic and foreign – that our species is losing the ability to interact peaceably?

The Eastern Daily Press reported on 25 May that modern life is leaving people feeling increasingly isolated and lonely. According to research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation more people are living alone with the percentage of households occupied by one person doubling from six percent in 1972 to twelve percent in 2008. Yet all this personal space has not made us any happier. One in ten people say they often feel lonely and 48 percent believe that people are getting lonelier in general.

I received a letter this week from Broadland District Council preparing me for "significant growth in Broadland". More trees perhaps? More crops? More Broads? Not a bit of it; just 10,000 more houses within a few miles of here.

Although it is obvious from housing lists that we need more houses, nobody I have spoken to on the subject could tell me why we need anything like this many. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) suggests that population growth is one critical factor, but so is the trend towards smaller household sizes as people choose to spend more of their lives living alone. CPRE suggests that as a nation, we should start asking ourselves "whether the fall in average household sizes is socially as well as environmentally sustainable".

The Community Parish Plan that includes my village shows that the number of residents per house in Little Plumstead comes out at 1.6. To get the average that much below 2 means that a lot of our bungalows have only one person living there. Even Thorpe End, with its many family houses and ideal commuter position for Norwich does not get above 2.6, kept down by the many one-person households.

Do an increasing number of people choose to live alone? Could the social 'alienation' of their youth have anything to do with it?

The plans to cover good agricultural land around Hethersett, Cringleford and the North-East Norwich triangle in houses suggests that - as population growth goes on and other nations need the food we presently import from them – we may have to decide between eating and having so much personal space. My partner and I live in a four-bedroom bungalow. It could easily be converted into two dwellings, and the social, ecological and demographical benefits of doing that are extremely disconcerting, because neither one of us would want to do it.

Yet, as low-lying nations begin to be submerged by rising sea levels and migration increases, I hope the media will begin to explore ways of dealing with the inevitable decrease in our entitlement to so much personal housing space. One thing is certain: as the numbers on this island continue to swell, untrammelled countryside to breathe in and share will become even more valuable, not less.

22 May 2010

Food for thought

By Charlotte Du Cann

Once food was about personal choice: now it’s become social. A year ago I might not have noticed a newspaper article about children being locked in schools to stop them buying take-away 'junk food', or that within the new millionaire' cabinet, Caroline Spelman, whose career in agri-business began as a sugar beet commodity secretary for the National Farmers Union, is now in charge of DEFRA.

A year ago I would not have stood on the terrace of the Norwich Playhouse before a table covered with plants – tomatoes, beans, edible flowers - taking part in a seedling swap. Or gone to a Bungay garden, hammer in hand, to prepare a hive for the queen bee of England's first bee CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

But these seemingly unrelated events demonstrate the pulls that are going invery different directions in our 'one nation' right now. Pulls we contend with every time we sit down to a meal.

A pernicious craving for sugar, fat and salt is one of the consequences of a globalised industrial food system. This is a system that relies on subsidised commodity crops, factory-farmed meat and a science that disguises its poor nutritional quality with addictive feel-good tastes. It relies on people being alienated and unaware.

The Transition events are part of a growing community culture: people coming together to grow vegetables and forge relationships between farmers, neighbours and local shops. This informal distribution network relies on people being intelligent, good-hearted and far-seeing. Who know, for example, that Spelman has for the last decade co-owned a food and biotechnology company (Spelman, Cormack & Associates), lobbying the very department she now heads.

When the East Anglia Food Link's Food Plan was publicised last month in the Eastern Daily Press, Richard Hirst of the National Farmers Union dismissed its vision of small-scale organic farming and local milling as "dangerous". However it is a 'business-as-usual' attitude towards our food supply that is dangerous. We live in unusual times. If we are prepared to invest in low-tech solutions and switch to a vegetable-based diet we could all become more self-sufficient and resilient.

While we demonise children for eating fast-food and ignore the unhealthy links between the bio-tech industry and government, we are not considering our future. We are not taking climate change into account, nor the damage our cheaply-produced food wreaks on nature. Nor are we considering the escalation in energy costs in the coming years. Our current food system is only efficient while energy costs remain low. What will happen when they rise? When the resources – water, nitrates, phosphates - on which monoculture relies become scarce? When the oil that fuels tractors, trucks and tankers becomes increasingly difficult to extract and costly?

It's widely believed that agriculture must double its output to feed a hungry world. Behind this 'truth' however lies multinational agri-business which stands to profit from the ownership of seed and increased pesticide production. Companies like Monsanto and BASF, who have pushed for GM production in Europe after a 12 year ban.

The real truth is our food system produces twice as much food as we actually eat and a good proportion of it is thrown away in the waste bins of supermarkets, restaurants and our houses.

"You like wheat, rice, corn?" asked a commercial beekeeper in the documentary film, Vanishing of the Bees. "Well, that's all you'll be eating." Last winter a third of America's honeybees died. For the growers of Californian oranges and Vermont cranberries that depend on pollination by bees, this is a serious concern. And it will be ours if we keep reaching for the OJ without thinking. Time to focus on neighbourhood apple trees and the small plants now growing on our windowsills in this late, very late, May sunshine.

15 May 2010

Churchill was an 'unelected PM'.

By Rupert Read

Last Saturday, I was in London, taking part in a big demonstration in Trafalgar Square in favour of changing on antiquated voting system in this country. Alongside Libdems, Greens, one or two Conservatives and UKIP-ites, and many people belong to no political party, I marched with Billy Bragg to where the Conservatives and LibDems were talking about a possible coalition. We chanted "No deal without PR [proportional representation]", until eventually Nick Clegg felt obliged to come out and address us. I stood a few yards away from him, as he spoke with us and (sometimes) we chanted back friendlily to him. It felt like democracy alive.

Now, a week later (how long a week can be in politics!), Nick Clegg is actually Deputy Prime Minister, in a coalition with the Conservatives. And all the intervening worries about how we might end up with 'an unelected Prime Minister' (if we had ended up with Brown’s successor as Labour Leader, as Prime Minister) seem like ancient history.

But they are not. For the new coalition government, whatever its faults (and I suspect that they will be many), is promising some interesting political reforms. We may end up with a changed electoral system (not, sadly, PR, but at least AV, the 'Alternative Vote' system, in which you rank the candidates in order of your preference, and therefore no candidate can be elected without a majority of votes). We may end up with an elected second chamber. And we will probably end up with fixed-term-Parliaments.

Now, if we have fixed-term Parliaments, and if those Parliaments are hung (as they often will be, especially under AV voting), this makes it inevitable that there will sometimes be 'unelected Prime Ministers'. For, if power changes hands during a fixed-term Parliament – if there is a rupture that forces a change in what the governing coalition is - then the Prime Minister will by definition be changing without a new election.

Some might say this is awful, having an 'unelected Prime Minister'. But note the following three facts:
  1. We are not talking about a Prime Minister from the House of Lords. We are talking about a Prime Minister who has been elected just like any other MP, to our House of Commons. We have a Parliamentary system, not a Presidential system (the misleading format of the TV debates notwithstanding). MPs choose who the Prime Minister is, the people don’t choose the PM directly. We saw this in action a few days ago, when it was the balance of preferences among the MPs that ultimately determined that it was Cameron who would end up in number 10.

  2. Many countries on the Continent are well-used to this. Germany, for instance – and if you travel Germany's railways, see Germany’s green infrastructure, etc., then you’ll know that Germany is often governed much better than Britain…

  3. Commentators have often pointed out recently that it is exactly 70 years since Churchill’s coalition government was formed. But they omit to mention that Churchill too was an 'unelected Prime Minister'. He succeeded to power after Chamberlain resigned, without any intervening General Election. If being an 'unelected PM' was good enough for the man who is by popular acclaim the ‘greatest Briton ever’ (though actually Churchill wasn't great in how he behaved toward the miners, Gandhi, etc. – but that’s a story for another occasion), then it should be good enough for us now.
As I say, if we have fixed-term Parliaments (which would end the ludicrous uncertainty about when General Elections are going to be), then we will get used to it being thus. And why shouldn't we; for there just is no decisive argument, at the end of the day, in our political system, against having a so-called 'unelected Prime Minister'.

1 May 2010

Vote for One World!

By Trevor Phillips

Imagine for a moment that Thursday night's TV debate between the three main UK party leaders had contained an unexpected element: the trio were joined by the leader of a new global political party seeking to represent the powerless, ordinary citizens of the world, the 'One World Party'.

The party aims to create lasting worthwhile jobs, secure justice and human dignity for all, promote development to take the world's poor out of poverty, protect the environment, end the arms trade and aggressive war, bring about the emancipation of all women and minorities from discrimination and provide adequate social protection for the elderly and the vulnerable.

Here is an extract from the speech by its leader:
"Dear UK citizens, our circumstances are largely driven by global forces: international finance and competition influence where investment and jobs go; poverty caused by unfair trade or climate change creates desperation and pressures for migration. We can only improve our own circumstances if we also tackle the problems facing others. As Benjamin Franklin said 'we must hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately'.

"My government would therefore seek an international agreement to generate over $100 billion in new and additional public finance from 2013 to help developing countries curb emissions and adapt to climate change. We will also act swiftly to prevent the EU from supporting Economic Partnership Agreements which would lock 750 million of the world's poorest farmers and producers into direct competition with rich nations.

"We will immediately bring your sons and daughters home from Afghanistan, where their finest efforts and sad suffering have only propped up a corrupt regime and created resentment across the Muslim world – recruiting young men to commit atrocities. It has maintained the opium trade which wrecks the lives of many of our young people. I will press the United Nations Development Fund to launch a programme to employ two million poor Afghans in agriculture, housing and education. The UK's contribution will come from reductions in our military budget. Returning staff will be offered counselling and financially supported retraining for shortage trades and careers. Funds will also be directed to drug user rehabilitation and job training.

"We will retain the nationalised banks and take democratic control of others to create a National Development Bank to finance UK economic recovery and the redesign of our economy for the future. We will reverse the deregulation of public transport and begin to introduce an integrated public transport system which serves urban and rural dwellers alike. Railways will be nationalised and properly integrated. In three locations: London, Norfolk and Liverpool, we will introduce five-year experimental projects providing free public transport, funded from national and local budgets including funds previously allocated to road building.

"We shall abandon the Trident nuclear weapons programme and put all the UK's illegal nuclear weapons beyond use. Our recent enemies have used rucksack bombs on buses and nuclear weapons are now redundant. Some of the £90 billion savings will be earmarked for the conversion of the Barrow-in Furness Trident workshops and the Faslane navy base into regional youth apprenticeship training centres for the skills needed for renewable energy technology. Former shipyard and military workers will be offered work in a Skills Transfer Project and a Socially Useful Products Development Scheme, for which your ideas are invited.

"I apologise for the brevity of my presentation. Many of our ideas come from excellent websites such as Oxfam, Drop the Debt and the New Economics Foundation.

"Finally, we shall introduce a Robin Hood tax on speculative investment. This will raise many billions of pounds to finance our economic recovery and fund jobs and services. There is already resistance to this but at this moment members of the One World Party are currently occupying stock exchanges in New York, Mumbai and Paris. I am proud to say that amongst the protesters in Mumbai are my daughter and my husband."