27 March 2010

World Water Day

By Marguerite Finn

Supposing our only water was what we could carry in a bucket from the nearest source two miles away, would we wash our car, the baby or our food? A good question on World Water Day (22nd March).

Although World Water Day usually passes without much comment in the UK, some countries have a three-day celebration of this increasingly precious resource. The theme for this year is "Clean Water for a Healthy World". Clean water has become scarce and will become even scarcer with the onset of climate change. Water affects every aspect of our lives, yet nearly one billion people around the world don't have access to clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion still lack basic sanitation.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, issued a statement today highlighting the fact that more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war. He made the point: "Our growing population’s need for water for food, raw materials and energy is increasingly competing with nature’s own demands for water to sustain already imperilled ecosystems."

We have assumed for too long that water is freely available and we take it for granted. We have made some bad mistakes along the way. One such mistake was the introduction, in 1966, of the so-called “Green Revolution” in India. India's food security depends on the Monsoon. Recent monsoon failure and consequent widespread drought have impacted two-thirds of the country.

As Vandana Shiva, philosopher and authoress, explains: "the monsoons recharge the ground-water and surface-water systems, but since the introduction of the Green Revolution model of water-intensive chemical farming, India has over-exploited her ground water, creating a water famine. The chemical monocultures of the Green Revolution use ten times more water than the biodiverse ecological farming systems."

Humankind's hubris in thinking they have got the answer to everything brought about this situation. In the 1970s, the World Bank gave massive loans to India to promote ground-water mining. It forced states like Maharashtra to stop growing water-prudent millets, which needed 300mm water and to shift to water-guzzling crops like sugar cane, which needs 2,500mm of water. In a region of 600mm of rainfall, this is a recipe for water famine. Indian aquifers are now dangerously depleted. But that's not all – not only has chemical agriculture mined the groundwater, it has also mined soil fertility and contributed to climate change. Chemical fertilisers destroy the living processes of the soil and make soils more vulnerable to drought - as well as binding the farmer into the system of buying more fertilizer. Science did not get it quite right that time – and have bequeathed damaged soil and empty aquifers to the coming generations.

We are in danger of making a mistake of similar gravity and proportions in Norfolk.

A lot of development is planned for an area to the North-East of Norwich. The greater Norwich Development Partnership (GNDP) has big plans. There is to be an 'ECO-Town' at Rackheath comprising 4,000-5,000 new houses (built on agricultural land). Plans have also been floated for a £300m conference and tourism complex, complete with Jacussi, saunas and swimming pools. Norfolk, being one of the driest counties in England, is least well placed to absorb this level of growth. Despite that, Broadland District Council is determined to go ahead with the ECO-Town.

Broadland District Council leader, Simon Woodbridge, says that engineers will find the water that is needed – as though fresh water is an infinitely available bolt-on 'gizmo'. This is "flying by the seat of your pants" as one of my HMSO bosses once said to me – not best practice!! Fresh water is a finite resource, and using expensively purified tap water on the garden and to flush away our faeces is not living in the real world.

For further information / relevant maps see snubcampaign.org.

20 March 2010

Voting with your fork

By Charlotte Du Cann

55 billion farmed animals were killed last year. That's ten times the amount of people that inhabit the earth. It's one of the shocking statistics that haunts the global food industry and asks us how far from nature will we go before we realise the real value of our earthly lives, our exchange with the creatures and plants and each other.

Food lies at the basis of our relationships with the natural world. To eat our highly processed Western diet however means you can't think about what you are eating. If you do you keep bumping up against those difficult statistics about factory farming. In the 21st century to eat a plant-based diet is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions. You are what you eat, once a sign of how fashionable or socially acceptable you were has now become political. A demonstration of solidarity with the planet and its peoples.

It also indicates how far you value your own life. You are what you eat now means we consume not only the terror and imprisonment of birds and animals, but the unholy cocktail of bleach, preservatives and enzymes contained in bread, and over 50 kinds of chemicals sprayed on vegetables and fruit. As a result our once-vibrant bodies have become inflamed and full of unnatural cravings. We blow up like balloons, get diabetes and allergies, our capacity to pay attention dwindles. The food that once sustained our hearts and imaginations, as well as our bodies, is not only losing its tastes and variety, but its ability to transfer life-force into our physical forms.

There is a way however to reverse this process. One day I stopped going to supermarkets. I started to eat plants grown in season, mostly from my local area. The positive benefits of sustainable food are usually measured in food miles, but the real shifts happen when you decide you don’t want blood on your hands every time you go shopping: forests torn down to grow palm oil and soya, rivers polluted by giant pig factories, the lands of "lesser" nations seized by multinational companies and their populations indentured.

It's hard to see these vast consequences of our small daily actions because the global food industry operates within such secrecy. The distributor hubs are kept out of sight. Farmers and producers are intimidated by corporations and supermarkets to keep quiet. The workforce (often migrant labour) is pressured by similar threats. Laws protect genetically-modified and cloned foods from being recognised. But the greatest block lies in our own minds.

We don’t like to think our habits have an impact, but the fact is they do. Eating industrialised food helps a handful of conpanies control the earth's seedstores (the most chilling scenes in the agri-business documentary, Food, Inc. were of American soya farmers being investigated by Monsanto for "illegally" saving GM seed). Some of this is played out in our contempt for "fat people". We project our guilt onto the poor and the malnourished, instead of looking at the part we all play in this shadowy business.

The fact is the more stressful and fractured our lives become the more we desire to escape. "Voting with your fork" takes perseverance because our bodies have become addicted to the comforts and treats of convenience foods. The industrial food machine tries to make us forget the things that really matter, the plants that alchemise life, the creatures who are our kin, the springs of fresh water we once held sacred. It runs on 24/7 time, in the fast lane, where human beings are interchangeable. Under its spell we have forgotten who we are, what we are doing. But some of us are waking up, stirring the pot that sits on the stove, sowing seeds, remembering that today is the first day of spring.

Charlotte Du Cann was once the food editor of Elle magazine and is now a member of Transition Norwich. Food, Inc. is showing at Cinema City, Norwich, followed by a Q&A with Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association and Norfolk organic farmer on March 29 at 8.30pm.

13 March 2010

Lessons of the Iraq Enquiry

By Lee Marsden

It is now seven long years since George Bush and Tony Blair launched their war for regime change in Iraq under the guise of searching for non existent weapons of mass destruction. This anniversary coincides with the second parliamentary elections in Iraq. Meanwhile in the UK, the Iraq Enquiry trundles on. It is worth reminding ourselves of the purpose of the enquiry which was to 'identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict. Already it is becoming clear what those lessons are for the Labour party and incoming governments.

When called to account for dubious foreign policy decisions:
  1. Stick to your story. Regardless of evidence to the contrary never admit that the decision to go to war was based on anything other than the best of intentions. Yes, of course they believed there were weapons of mass destruction and were seriously concerned about Saddam Hussein's human rights record. Don't admit that the real reason for sending troops into battle was to be seen as America's closest ally (sorry Israel) and that UK foreign policy is now subordinate to this strategy.

  2. Appoint a deferential committee of establishment figures. Chilcott Enquiry members are ideal, handpicked for the occasion, guaranteed to politely ask the easy questions and not forensically examine and challenge the evidence presented. They are much too deferential and polite to cause a fuss and after all, if you have helped write Tony Blair's major foreign policy speech setting out his interventionist instincts, as Professor Freedman did, then you don’t want to rock the boat too much.

  3. Ignore public opinion. Public opinion counts for very little if you simply ignore it. What does it matter if opinion polls show overwhelming opposition to troop deployment? Why should one and a half million people marching against war matter, when they can simply be dismissed as well meaning but ignorant dupes? Ignore mass demonstrations and those naive enough to believe that governments can be persuaded to change policy become disillusioned and vow never to march again. The anti war millions may win the moral high ground but policy remains unchanged and governments can go onto win elections.

  4. Claim victory. Ignore the death count. In fact, don't count the dead. Probably only around three thousand people will die violent deaths in Iraq this year, the lowest figure since the invasion. Democratic elections have taken place, Iraq hasn't disintegrated into civil war and British troops have left having successfully contributed to this happy state of affairs. Do not mention that the final months in Basra were spent ignominiously under fire, hunkered down at the airport, confined to barracks, as the Americans and Iraqi army dealt with the Mahdi army. British troops were unable to deal with the problem because their presence was the problem.

  5. Insist that the ends justify the means. Even if there were no weapons of mass destruction, at least Iraq is a better place than it was under Saddam Hussein as John Chilcott has helpfully reminded Brown and Blair. Don't ask 'better for whom'? Better for the families of over one hundred thousand who will never see their loved ones again? Better for the hundreds of thousands who have been maimed? Better for the two million refugees who had to flee the country? Better for millions of internally displaced Iraqis? Better for thousands of children born with severe birth defects as a result of the detritus of war? Perhaps it is better not to mention that for many Iraqis the war will never be a price worth paying.
Fortunately, for all those who opposed the Iraq war the forthcoming election provides an opportunity to use the ballot box to give those who took us into the Iraq war a very different lesson.

6 March 2010

Future people

By Rupert Read

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; …any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. - John Donne

We are starting to recognise that humankind is one precious tapestry, one unified mosaic. One people. It is no longer socially-acceptable to exhibit prejudice against ethnic minority people on grounds of their ethnicity, women on grounds of their gender (thus: humankind, and not just mankind), or working-class people on grounds of their class. The last bastions of discrimination are being overcome: such as prejudice against gay and lesbian people, and against disabled people.

…Or, is there one more, crucial bastion of discrimination still strongly in place?

Take this kind of remark, that I've heard on an alarming number of occasions, and perhaps you have too: "I don’t really care about what happens after I'm dead and gone." We might dismiss this as the attitude just of some old curmudgeon, and think that it is of no moral or political consequence. But: it directly implies not caring about future people, the next generation. How would we react if someone said to us, "I just don't care about what happens to black people" or "I just don't care about what happens to disabled people"? We would be appalled.

Future people count, too. Their lives matter just as much.

Or what about this: "No-one is going to infringe on my rights! I can drive or fly as much as I like. That's freedom!" This kind of sentiment, in one way or another, is widespread these days. It is a product of the extreme individualism of our times. Now think what it implies: Because of an unwillingness to tolerate 'infringements' on one's own 'liberty', one is willing to take many things that future people might need. We don't any longer tolerate stamping on (the life-chances of) black people, working-class people, disabled people… Why then do we have any respect at all for the person who prizes their own 'freedom' above the right of future people to have a decent life, or indeed any life at all?

Because we haven't fully thought through yet that future people deserve to be well-treated and decently provided for, just as children and severely disabled people (etc.) must be. Just because we can't hear the cries of anguish of our descendants yet to come, doesn’t mean that they don't count… On the contrary – it just makes it all the more urgent that we make the effort to think and care about them…

We will not flourish as a species unless our ecosystems flourish. I believe that it is high time for future people to be given the kinds of rights and protections that present people – black or white, gay or straight, abled or disabled – already take for granted. Our human descendants need to be granted legal standing. This will protect them, and will offer some significant protection – probably, much better protection than any we currently have in place – for ecosystems.

A tentative start has been made, for instance in Hungary with their bringing in a Commissioner for Future Generations, a sort of ombudsman with the interests of future people in mind. But this is only the most tentative of starts…

What John Donne's timeless poem tells us, is that we are all related, all one: past people, present people - and future people. In the wake of the utter failure at the Copenhagen climate summit - which had the chance of being the most important Conference in the history of our living planet - there has never been a more timely idea.