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."