24 December 2011

Eat, Drink and be Merry

By Mark Crutchley

Christmas is a great time for sitting back, spending time with friends and family, and doing nothing. Eat drink and be merry as the saying goes and who am I to disagree with that. But once the season is over doing nothing ceases to be a positive course, because the problems which we face in both the environment and financial system mean that doing nothing is the worst possible option.

In 2011 Time presented its award for person of the year to “The Protester” and we have to hope that the movements around the world which sprang to life this year can gather strength and achieve even more in 2012. They are desperately needed because as is gradually becoming clear to people, our existing system has failed on many different levels.

It has failed environmentally. Climate change is just one aspect of this failure and our inability to reach agreement on limiting CO2 emissions says much about the lack of commitment to the environment which governments have. There are rapidly increasing rates of environmental degradation in many parts of the world and a collapse in bio-diversity, particularly in the tropics, which mocks the agreement which nations made to halt its loss by 2010.

It has failed financially. The ongoing crisis in the Eurozone is just one aspect of this failure, and crucially one which is diverting attention away from the fact that we have exactly the same problems of excessive debt here in the UK. There is an excellent interview from the BBC Hard Talk series with an economist called Steve Keen which I would encourage people to take a few minutes over the Christmas period to take a listen to. He argues that we are already in a new depression and we must take radical action to prevent it continuing and deepening.

It has failed billions of people, who in nations around the world are struggling to cope without basic necessities like clean running water or adequate provision for sewerage. Many lack enough food for proper nutrition despite the fact that the world produces more than enough to feed everyone.

These problems are not going to be fixed by a bit of modest tinkering at the edge of the system. A bit of belt-tightening; a more expansionary fiscal policy; write off some of the debts; and all will be well again tomorrow. We have to face up to the fact that the system needs a radical overhaul.

I am not saying that I know what the answers are. Just that the questions have to be asked and asked again until society is prepared to address them and move forward. So we need the occupy movement, climate change activists, 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and all the other groups which are refusing to accept that power should reside solely with our elected politicians and the narrow economic elites which control financial markets around the world, to continue the fight.

When you have finished eating, drinking and being merry, why not make a New Year’s resolution to join them.

10 December 2011

A burning issue: ‘embodied emissions’

By Rupert Read

I recently submitted evidence to a key Parliamentary Select Committee on a key issue of our time: the huge increase in carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels relatively inefficiently in parts of the world which have low levels of state regulation (e.g. China). This ‘outsourcing’ or ‘offshoring’ of emissions completely undermines Britain’s supposed reduction in carbon emissions since 1990.

Go to this link to find out how to read all about it: http://rupertsread.blogspot.com/2011/12/embodied-emissions-my-evidence-to.html

We share one world. It doesn’t benefit us or our common world at all if we reduce carbon emissions in one place, only to increase them more in another…

3 December 2011

Occupying the Conversation

This week's column is cross-posted from the Transition Norwich blog, This Low Carbon Life and is an on-site report of a local march and rally for the public sector workers' strike on Wednesday, organised by Lowestoft Against the Cuts (for a video of the Norwich 'Fair Pensions for All' March and Rally by former teacher Ken Hunn see end of post)

Wednesday 30th November, Lowestoft I've just got back from the High Noon Rally and public sector workers' strike march up Lowestoft High Street and the meeting afterwards where I sat with Kate and Rita and Charlotte in the packed United Reform Church, listening to people speak about the effects of the government’s austerity measures on their lives, pensions, families and future prospects.

Teachers, therapists, cooks, retired gardeners and trade unions representatives all spoke about how the government (and the system) was ennabling more than ever the richest to rob the poorest, pushing mercilessly for privatisation, for fewer and fewer workers’ rights or job security and longer hours for less pay. For YEARS to come. How it considers ordinary people as being of no value whatsoever. Like the starlings Jon wrote about on Monday.

A woman who had worked as a public gardener for thirty years told how her annual pension of £2,500 was officially considered ‘gold-plated’. Another who had been a teacher for twenty years said she loved her work, it was all she had ever wanted to do, but the prospect of having to wait until she was 68 to retire made her feel like she was being squeezed of all her life force and there would be nothing left by then. And how that marred the love she felt for her job.

“It’s as if [the people running the system] want you to die so they don’t have to pay you any pension,” said someone from the floor. Everyone cheered.

One primary schoolteacher had left a well-paid media job in London to come and teach in Suffolk after he discovered that all the money he was paying into his private pension would bring him almost nothing when he retired.

“I keep hearing this one word,” he said. “It just keeps speaking to me - solidarity. Now more than ever we need to stick together. We can’t afford not to. Solidarity.”

The atmosphere of the march and the meeting in the church was alive, attentive and engaged. People were listening to each other. I wondered whether I should “stand up to speak” something about Transition or Occupy, mention fossil fuel depletion and energy constraints and the preparations we are making in our local initiatives in the face of these along with climate change and economic instability. After all, Transition is where most of my attention has been focussed for the past four years.

But I felt a bit tongue-tied (even though I hadn’t said anything), and there didn’t seem to be an opening. I thought, well I’ll write about the rally tomorrow and bring in the links with Transition and Occupy then. Better go and get on with that Transition Norwich bulletin. So I tapped fellow Sustainable Bungay transitioner Kate on the shoulder and mouthed “Got to go, see you soon…”

At that moment a woman stood up and brought Occupy into the meeting. I sat back down. She’d been to OccupyLSX and Occupy Norwich. It was really important to consider this movement, she said, because its presence in all these cities of the world brings constant attention to the vast economic and social inequality which exists and is exacerbated by the present gormengahst of the global financial system. Because of Occupy more and more people are seeing what they didn’t see before. And as Arundhati Roy once said talking about the social and environmental ravages of dambuilding in India, once you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it.

And take care not to just side with the mainstream media when they talk about finding drug needles and the presence of alcohol at the London Occupy site, the speaker reminded us. This is the middle of London. Every day food is provided free and there are tents to sleep in. Of course you’re going to get homeless people, maybe even people on drugs. That’s what’s going on in our society. “I’ve been there a couple of times and I’ve noticed that the homeless are included. Maybe included for the first time in a long time. Not everybody here may agree with the protesters but it is a non-violent movement, with a lot of young people concerned about a future with few prospects. Just like we are here."

The people in the room cheered again and the retired gardener with the ‘gold-plated’ pension stood up and exhorted everyone to make sure their trades union leaders supported Occupy.

This was the cue for Kate and me. We put our hands up. Kate went first, introducing both of us and Sustainable Bungay and a few core Transition concepts around building community resilience. This is the woman who a few years ago at one of our core group meetings stood up and delivered a two minute talk on Peak Oil and Climate Change with no props and you just got it. It was also Kate who stood up at a climate conference in Bungay in 2007 and exhorted the people in the room to get together to come up with some solutions. That was the beginning of Sustainable Bungay. So she had to speak first! And it made me feel far less nervous about standing up to speak.

I said one of the most important things about Occupy was how it opened up and held a space for conversations to happen which aren’t normally granted any space at all, certainly not in the mainstream public discourse.

And what could be more mainstream than the vast and growing social inequality wrought by a small elite via an oppressive machine-like system that ultimately has no one’s best interests at heart? This is a time when our very humanity is at stake. We need to be talking with each other.

Pete then said how at OccupyLSX he had witnessed an intense conversation start up amongst a group of besuited city workers visiting the site. They were talking about it, too.

I‘ve visited OccupyNorwich a few times now and experienced this openness, both in listening to what other people have to say about our human situation and in being listened to myself. And I've encountered warmth and intelligence each time.

As I left the rally for the library yesterday a young woman at the door offered me a ticket for the Murphy's Lore gig later in the evening. I'd have loved to, I said, I really like Murphys Lore. But I have to write an article and help prepare a bulletin. Help keep the spaces open for those conversations... Mark Watson

Pics: High Noon Rally in Lowestoft; Marching up the High Street; Occupy Norwich general assembly; It's the private sector too; You don't have to be a Socialist Worker to read the Socialist Worker, Kate and I at the public sector strike meeting

Read the original article here

Video of Norwich March - November 30

27 November 2011

Next Stop Africa

By Mark Crutchley

This time last year I wrote a column expressing a pessimistic view of what was likely to be achieved at the forthcoming climate conference in Cancun. Little did indeed emerge from that event, though at least the main parties continued to talk to each other and adhere to the idea that we need a new agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Now with Kyoto the verge of expiring the show has moved on to Durban in South Africa and ahead of that I went to a meeting organised by the Stop Climate Chaos coalition at the Greenhouse in Norwich.

There an exhibition on the theme of the African Climate Connection was opened by Norwich South MP Simon Wright, who then took questions from a number of organisations of the SCC coalition. The exhibition and the questions highlight the wide range of environmental problems the world faces today; from biofuels destroying forests to green growth in the UK; from biodiversity loss to children impoverished through climate change.

One piece of good news on the climate front appeared this week however, which is something of a rarity nowadays. In a detailed analysis of historic climate variability since the last glacial maximum around 20,000 years ago, an article published in Science indicated that the sensitivity of the climate to increases in CO2 may be lower than thought. Whereas it had previously been calculated that a doubling of CO2 would raise temperatures by around 3oC, this study suggests the outcome is more likely to be 2.3oC. This hardly lets us off the hook, since we know how significant the impact of a 2oC increase is likely to be, but it perhaps does mean we have a few more years than we thought to change our ways.

We need every bit of help we can get at the moment because after two years of small falls, last year CO2 emissions grew by the largest amount ever recorded to their highest ever level (Greenhouse gases rise by record amount). With China and India now the biggest and third biggest emitters there is no sense in just re-hashing the Kyoto treaty because it doesn’t cover these developing nations, only those already developed. The problem is the stand-off between the developed world, where emissions are high but relatively stable and these developing nations where emissions are rising very rapidly yet remain much lower than in Europe or the USA on a per capita basis.

So are we likely to see an agreement at Durban? Well Simon Wright’s view was that it was unlikely, though he did hope that something would be agreed in the next 2-3 years. We have to hope that the financial crisis doesn’t deflect political attention from the environment to their domestic economies, because while the science gets more secure year by year, the will and indeed the ability to act amongst the wider political community doesn’t seem to be making similar progress.

We still have enormous stores of fossil fuels left to be exploited. Not just coal, conventional oil and gas, but the newer sources of oil from tar sands and gas released by fracturing the rocks in which it is currently locked. Beyond that there are large quantities of methane locked up in the deep oceans which could potentially be used as technology advances. These are more than enough to drive our planet into a period of dramatic warming if we use them all and at present it seems we are hell bent on doing so.

I don’t believe the fossil fuel industry, or the politicians who regulate it will ever willingly stop exploiting these reserves, so I am left with the conclusion that our only hope is to make the renewable energy technologies so efficient and cost effective that they make fossil fuels obsolete. It could happen, particularly in the field of solar energy where the fuel is free and in permanently sustainable supply. What it needs is for governments to back a massive increase in research into these technologies rather than half-heartedly leaving it to the market and hoping something comes up. Now that really would show a commitment to a sustainable future.

20 November 2011

‘Now the crimson poppy – now the white’

By Marguerite Finn

The ceremonies surrounding Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday have been laid to rest for another year but reverberations linger on in letters and articles in the media. Apparently this year was a record year for the sale of red poppies. It may also be a record year for the number of people questioning the way this country remembers its war dead. Many would say that there has been a shift of emphasis from remembrance of the dead to an emphasis on support of the UK’s armed services – and the iconic red poppy has been compromised by this.

In the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday, a poll commissioned by the Ekklesia Think Tank produced some remarkable results. The poll findings contradict the jingoistic approach taken by Britain’s politicians and the tabloid press. Instead of concentrating on the “glorious” aspect of the soldiers who gave their lives fighting for our freedom and promulgating the belief that war was noble and justified, the majority of people questioned preferred to remember and mourn the totality of war with all its horrors, violence, agony and brutality. In fact, 95 percent of those surveyed said that the main message of Remembrance Sunday should be one of peace and 87 percent agreed that Remembrance Sunday should be about marking the dead on all sides of war and not just the British. An amazing 93 percent also felt that civilians who died in war should be remembered.

Ekklesia’s co-director, Jonathan Bartley, explained: “When Archbishop Robert Runcie remembered the Argentinian dead in a service in St Paul’s Cathedral after the Falklands conflict, he caused a political storm. Now it appears that the overwhelming majority feel that deaths on all sides in war should be remembered.”

Ekklesia says that the time has come for us to update our remembrance traditions and to acknowledge that we cheapen remembrance if we do not recognise the full tragedy of war for everyone – soldiers, civilians, environment and animals – and make an active commitment to peace. This signals a change from the militaristic remembrances of which this year was a good example.

In the years immediately after the First World War, “Victory Balls” were held on the 11th November to celebrate the successful outcome of the war. These occasions, which commemorated the war with dancing, music and food, attracted much criticism from those who saw militaristic values in such remembrance, rather than a commitment to peace without violence. In 1925, a great victory ball was planned to take place on Armistice Day in the Royal Albert Hall, but it was cancelled and replaced by a service of remembrance instead. The service was arranged by Canon Dick Sheppard, who was later involved in the founding of the Peace Pledge Union. In 1921 the red poppy became the national symbol of remembrance in Britain.

The Peace Pledge Union is the source of the white poppy. White poppies first made their appearance in 1933 when members of the Women’s Co-operative Guild – many of them mothers, sisters, widows and sweethearts of men killed in the First World War – anxiously noted the growing domestic and international tensions. They saw that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’, in which their men fought and died, could be followed by an even worse war. The white poppy was born from their concern and its aim was to spark debate and rally support for resistance to war. Over 300 wars later, the white poppy is still a painful reminder of the world’s failure to prevent war.

The white poppy has not enjoyed a good press. During the 1930s, many women who wore white poppies lost their jobs. In 1986, Margaret Thatcher condemned white poppies in response to an MP’s question. Nevertheless, this year several voices have been raised to suggest that people should be given the choice of wearing a white or red poppy – or both. The white poppy, with the word ‘peace’ at its centre was not designed to be in competition with the Red Poppy. In 1926, members of the No More War Movement suggested that red poppies should have “no more war” inscribed in their centre. The idea was rejected by the British Legion. When a few years later, the Women’s Co-operative Guild created the white poppy, it emphasised their hope for peace, as well as commemorating those who had died in war.

Since their inception, white poppies have caused a mixture of irritation, annoyance and anger amongst those who have interpreted them as a sign of disrespect. However, a crucial difference remains between the red and white poppy. In their refusal to state “no more war” or “peace” red poppies leave space to acknowledge the necessity of war, which white poppies challenge. It would not be right to suggest that red poppies glorify war but combined with the semi-religious language used in remembrance ceremonies, they do suggest the idea that redemption through war is possible. It cannot be denied that the red poppy has taken on both a political and religious meaning. The language of remembrance is full of religious ideology upholding the spiritual justification for war – as in phrases like “the glorious dead” and “they died for God, King and Country”. In some circles there is an obligation amounting almost to political correctness, to wear a red poppy and thereby to imply support for the armed forces whatever they are doing.

This is dangerous in an era of continuing resource wars with new and more sophisticated weapons (eg ‘drones’) threatening to kill more civilians. What is needed in future is a more inclusive remembrance covering opposing sides in a conflict, all the civilians killed and the devastation to the environment through chemical weapons.

The horrors of war should be remembered above all. If, as seems very likely at present with the Middle East – and possibly even Europe – about to go up in flames, then maybe we will not have time to remember the sadness of past wars. We may be too busy coping with present ones. Doesn’t that suggest that, however much red poppies have helped damaged service people, they have not helped to prevent war. Something wrong somewhere.

With acknowledgement to Ekklesia’s report:” Re-imagining Remembrance”

(http:// www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/re-imagining_remembrance

5 November 2011

On a friday night in Norwich, November 2011

By Charlotte Du Cann

It's nine o'clock and eleven of us are discussing climate change. So far we have agreed that in order to mitigate the effects of modern civilisation on the planet's atmosphere we have to powerdown to a low-carbon economy, de-industrialise our agricultural system and bring equality to bear in all aspects of the human world. You might think this is taking place in a warm lecture hall or meeting room on this November evening, but we are far from such venues. We're meditating on the vicissitudes of financial power under the statue of Sir Thomas Browne at the Haymarket. We're sitting on a quincunx of (very hard and cold) granite shapes, inscribed with the names of his philsophical examinations upon life and death. Occupy Norwich is holding one of its evening talks and I've come to spend the night here amongst the tents. Like thousands of others I've been following the activities in Zuccotti Park and Finsbury Square on-line and I want to find out what it's like to occupy a space in physical reality.

Earlier in the week I took part in the general assembly at the Occupy London site at St Paul's where a sea change had just occured. The Church, having originally joined forces with the City of London Corporation to evict the protesters, decided not to go ahead. Clerics resigned from high places as the dilemma presented by the presence of 200 tents in the financial district forced the church to have a change of heart and threw light on the customary obscure power play of the Corporation.

As you weave between the tents you are first amazed by the camp's organisation- the field kitchens, information booths, rota of night watchmen, co-ordinators and working parties - and then by the intensity of the dialogues. In sharp contrast to the shoppers and office workers wrapped up in themselves on their journeys home everyone is talking and listening - a media team sitting in a circle outside the coffee shop, workshops on inner change and the NHS in the meeting tent, a soapbox exchange on industrialisation and slavery by the church railings. It feels modern and yet historic, significant in all ways. St Paul was famously a tent maker, this site was once a place for radical and popular debate known as the folk moot. It's as if all the spiritual and political contradictions about Western culture have been thrown up into the air, in these squares, on the these steps, for a radical re-examination. Not by the 1% who rule but by the 99% - the people who serve its complex machinery. Ourselves.

Philosophers, since the first Athenian city-state was created, have provided politicians with rational justification for all their red in tooth and claw deeds. Political ideas, sanctioned at universities, have justified all the empire's violent acts from the shock doctrine meted out in South America to the rationale behind the atrocities of the Khymer Rouge. In spite of the call from the "thinking classes" for a full-scale manifesto of economic demands, the Occupy movement is taking time to self-organise and find its own directives. Directives that are not just dictated by "left hemisphere" reason and force.

New kinds of street university are springing up around the world. These exist so people can get together and decide on the intellectual and ethical base behind their actions. Most of us have not met before and certainly not in these configurations. We are strangers bound together by a common cause, by our sudden realisation about the global banking system. We are used to living and thinking individualistically, within a hierarchical structure, sanctioned by the official bastions of education. Now we are coming together and learning to think and come to conclusions as a group, creating a new narrative. In common with other occupations, we use the tools of consensus decision making, skill-share, assembly and co-operative agreement.

"What we need is a maxium wage," declares one of the climate change debaters.
"What we need is a fair society," added another,
"What we need is a society," says a third and everyone laughs. A student called Sam writes everything down. All our names. All our conclusions.

It's a Friday night in Norwich. At the FoodCycle Cafe at the Friends Meeting House the long queue for the free weekly meal has now dwindled. At the Forum a Cafe Conversation on Philosophy and Depression organised by the UEA is winding up. We're just getting going. It's a debate that will go on until eleven and then continue around the camp kitchen until 1.30am.

* * * *
In 1992 a German professor from the University of East Anglia walked from Norwich down the coast of Suffolk. His meditation on life and death begins with Sir Thomas Browne and ends in the streets of London, following a train of black funeral silk woven in this city of silk-weavers. The Rings of Saturn charts the intricate wheel of history as it holds us ransom in its grip. In their seats of power, the 1% preside, like dragons with their hoards, coveting form, bringing death and ruin on the world. As I lie on the cold hard ground, next to Sam and Victor and Nick, I'm wondering what it would take to break that pattern, bring warmth and life back to the people, to get us off the wheel.

* * * *

There is the most terrific din outside as the street sweepers and dustbin collectors storm down Gentlemen's Walk. Someone is speaking loudly to an itinerant man with a flying helmet. It's six o'clock. I climb out of the sleeping quarters I've been sharing with the others curled up in sleeping bags in one of the communal tents. I greet the dawn watchman of the camp and walk out towards the loud speakers sitting under the plane trees.

One of the most challenging things about the camps is confronting the hard edge of our city culture, for this is no summer festival in a green and pleasant English field. In common with other protest camps Occupy Norwich has a no alcohol, no drugs policy, but that doesn't apply to everyone else out on a Friday night. As well as keeping yourself together physically, you have at all times be ready to converse with everyone that swings by and cope with both the positive and negative responses to the occupation - not just the ordinary shoppers and workers, but the police, the Street Pastors, the homeless, the bitter and confused and angry, the mentally challenged, curious and cynical teenagers, merry pranksters celebrating the end of another hard week. What is striking is the camp's general friendliness and openenss towards the people who turn up. The way strangers respond to one another generously, bringing not only free food, but their knowledge and time in order to articulate the complex web we are all caught in. We are the 99% means difficulties have to be dealt with rather than pushed away or dismissed in the heartless manner of all Empires.

The itinerant man starts to reel down the steps, singing a military song in German. "People are sleeping!" I tell him, but he is oblivious. Heil Hitler! he shouts as we stand under an umbrella in the softly falling rain.

"I don't think we want any of that around here," I say and laugh, and direct him back to the street where he disappears into the day. That's when I remember it's the 5 November, why everyone has been wearing those masks and transfering their money out of the Big Six banks. It's a quiet revolution that's taking place in the cities, that burns within the right governance of all our hearts.

If we can hold out against the repeating hostilities of history, we might just make it to a future.

Sir Thomas Browne and young protester at Occupy Norwich, October 15 by Ruski Fari; group in discussion on those seats (blipphoto.com); the camp (South Norwich News); Guy Fawkes masks.

29 October 2011

Tipping Points

By Mark Crutchley

The evidence is beginning to mount that the developed world may be close to reaching a tipping point beyond which nothing we know will ever be the same again.

Most people are probably aware of the concept of tipping points, having come across them in association with environmental effects. So the threat of an ice free Arctic in the Summer, irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or collapse of the ocean circulation system which keeps us warm through the gulf stream, are examples of systems where an environmental tipping point has been discussed. The concept is that while small changes in a system may to date have resulted in equally small consequences, there is a threshold beyond which any further change may have a significant effect on the system.

But it isn’t in the context of the environment that I want to discuss the possible approach of a tipping point, but rather in society as a whole. We live in a system where our economic lives are ruled by a global capitalism model in which the majority of the rewards are channelled to a very small minority of people. It is a winner takes all society, where 99% of the people are losers.

It is a society where people are encouraged to believe that they too could be an X Factor winner, millionaire footballer, lottery winner or successful entrepreneur; but where the reality is more likely to be that their job is off-shored to India, their care-home closed or their house repossessed.

Most people in the developed world have acquiesced in the operation of this society because they too felt they were getting better off or had a good chance of doing so. But as the economics of this have begun to unwind in the last few years, so we have seen the beginning of people questioning just whether this model of society really is what they want. Not that you would know it to listen to our politicians. Keen though they may be to lecture the rest of the world on where it is going wrong and what is needed for a more just society, the idea that we need a social revolution here in the UK, Europe or the USA, doesn’t seem to have entered their consciousness. Apparently all we need is to arrange a few more loans and get the growth show back on the road again. Take a look at this excellent little video to see what I mean:


Do people still believe that? Or are we at last waking up to the fact that being passive consumer fodder for the global capitalism machine is not something we should be aspiring to? Is it significant that the ”occupy” movement began in the heart of American capitalism and has been gathering strength as time has gone on rather than petering out as many expected? The thing about tipping points is that you can see them very clearly with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time they are happening all is obscure.

Whether society is reaching a tipping point therefore I think is still in question; but I don’t there is similar scope for doubt about the financial world. We have just seen a major Western country have to (effectively) default on half its debt, yet even then its problems are far from solved. The system may struggle on now for a while, but only until Italy, Portugal, Ireland, Spain or one of the other financially crippled nations becomes the next domino to fall. We are tackling a debt crisis by raising more debt! It might have worked in the days when economies were growing strongly, but it cannot do so now, because the multi-national companies which dominate our system have no stake in the welfare of any individual nation. Growth and jobs will go where labour is cheapest, not here, and the benefits will flow to the few.

If I am right and we really have passed the financial tipping point though, it brings closer the time when we reach the social one; and as I said at the start, things will never be the same again.

24 October 2011

War By Remote Control

By Marguerite Finn

The military-industrial complex is never idle. War is big business and the US is engaged in developing a new and more lethal generation of weapons. The most widely known of these weapons is the drone or ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ (UAV). These drones enable targeted killings across national borders and the New America Foundation estimates that a third of casualties are civilians. The US deploys armed drones in six countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Somalia and these theatres of war afford opportunities to practice the targeting and execution of individuals. The ‘pilots’ of the drones are sitting safely some 7,000 miles away from their assassinated victims. Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur describes how “young military personnel raised on a diet of video games now kill people remotely using joysticks ----- far removed from the human consequences of their actions ” and asks “how will this generation of fighters value the right to life?” This is a valid question because in pressing a joystick to kill someone thousands of miles away risks an irreversible de-sensitisation of the operator to the violent death of the victim. If there is a danger of being killed oneself – or of one’s children being killed – one’s actions would be more considered and less casual. That is in a sense a more honourable way of fighting – where the risks are equal on either side. There is something obscene about picking off targets from the safety of another continent. Nevertheless, that is the direction in which modern warfare is going.

Drone design and production is a global activity with manufacturers all over the world. The United States and Israel were pioneers of the technology and US manufacturers have a market share of over 60% as at 2006, due to increase by 5-10% up to 2016. Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are the dominant manufacturers in the industry. Israeli and European manufacturers form a second tier with ambitions to acquire US systems because of higher levels of capability. A new and more sophisticated series of drones is in the pipeline. Northrop Grumman together with Lockheed Martin and Boeing are developing an Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicle (UACV) that is capable of making its own decisions about manoeuvring and targeting in battle.

In the UK, the MoD has been using armed US ‘Reaper’ drones in Afghanistan since 2007 and they have recently announced plans to double the number of these drones at a cost of £135 million. Currently they are flown by RAF pilots from the United States, but a new Reaper Squadron is being formed to fly them from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire* .

The MoD has acknowledged the serious legal and moral issues arising from the use of armed drones. On 30 March this year, the MoD issued the Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 : The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft, in which the technological, legal, moral and ethical aspects of drone use are examined. One of the points raised was that if the risk of loss is removed from the decision-makers will they resort to war far sooner than they might have done previously? “One of the contributory factors in controlling and limiting aggressive policy is the risk to one’s own forces. It is essential that, before unmanned systems become ubiquitous (if it is not already too late) we consider the issue and ensure that by removing some of the horror – that we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely”.

The Joint Doctrine Note quotes General Robert E. Lee after the Battle of Fredericksberg in 1862, who said: “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we might grow too fond of it”. This point goes straight to the heart of the debate. Revelations about UK and US forces illegally torturing and mistreating prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay show how quickly their “controlling humanity” can become eroded under war conditions. As Professor Christopher Coker from the London School of Economics says: “We enter a new century knowing all too well that our ethical imagination is still failing to catch up with the fast expanding realm of our ethical responsibilities. Robots are taking us even further away from the responsibilities we owe our fellow human beings.”

The MoD’s Joint Doctrine Note echoes this worry in some places. Putting itself into the mind of a robotic drone, it observes that “to a robotic system, a school bus and a tank are the same – merely algorithms in a programme”. “It doesn’t have to know why it is engaging a target. There is no recourse to human judgement in an engagement, no sense of higher purpose on which to make decisions, and no ability to imagine (and therefore take responsibility for) repercussions of action taken.” The MoD goes on to say that “The use of unmanned aircraft prevents the potential loss of aircrew lives and is thus in itself morally justified.” Maybe, but what about the question of honour? This ignores the slaughter of innocent civilians by a drone when badly targeted or out of control. At present, the MoD does not publish figures of civilians killed in this way in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This unaccountability is illegal under international law.

The Joint Doctrine Note (JDN) is an unusually frank, official exposé of the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with the use of drones – and it is high time they were discussed in a public forum. We need to know if we are approaching the time when an autonomous flying machine armed with a nuclear device will fly over us making its own decision as to what is a legitimate target. This nightmare scenario is not science fiction. Robots cannot be emotive, cannot hate, cannot care. The robot does not care that the target is human or inanimate, terrorist or freedom fighter, savage or barbarian. Can it be held accountable for war crimes? The pace of technological development is accelerating and the UK must establish a clear policy on what will constitute “acceptable machine behaviour” in future – and time is running out. It is far from certain that there will be time for a debate or for a policy to be developed because the technological genie may be already out of the ethical bottle.

Will the Geneva Convention, the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and the Rules of Engagement (ROE) have to be re-written – and if so, by whom?

*It is time that we – the public – made our views known about the use of drones and UACVs. We can do this by visiting and supporting the new peace camp that has been set up at RAF Waddington – call Helen John for details on 07971- 675776

Acknowledgements to Dave Webb (CND Chair) and Campaign Magazine and to The Joint Doctrine Note (2/11) (DEP2011-1514)

18 October 2011

ONEWORLDNEWS: Biofuels Protest - 23 October

Under the UK government’s Renewable Obligation Certificates scheme (ROCs), electricity from bioenergy is receiving twice the subsidies compared to relatively benign onshore wind. OneWorldNews looks at this weekend's protest by biofuel campaigners.

This Saturday there will be a key protest in London to bring attention to the destructive nature of subsidies for bioenergy. The protest coincides with a DECC public consultation on Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) which are government subsidies for renewable electricity. Instead of rewarding true renewable energy, such as sustainable wind and solar power, a large share of ROCs goes to biomass (wood) and biofuel (mostly palm oil) power stations. These are paid for by consumers through a surcharge on fuel bills. At a time when health, education, social welfare and environmental programmes are being cut drastically, the government is planning to reward biomass and biofuel power stations with £3 billion a year.

Biomass and biofuel production causes deforestation and adversely affects the climate, food sovereignty and human rights. Nearly all of the biomass and biofuels burned in UK power stations will be imported from countries including Indonesia, Brazil, Ghana or Kenya. Burning biomass and biofuel causes air pollution resulting in health problems for those who live nearby. It also creates 50% more carbon emissions than burning coal and is highly inefficient.

As Deepak Rughani of Biofulewatch explains:

One of the key challenges with electricity power generation is not just to do with transmission losses from centralised power plants but the gross inefficiency of electricity production from biomass itself; 30% conversion efficiency, so 70% losses. Combined Heat and Power would raise efficiencies considerably but this requires completely new infrastructure and so far in the UK there are no policy plans for serious investment and retro-fitting is almost impossible.

Looking at Forth Energy’s proposals for 540MW of bioenergy power in Scotland, this will be met by 4 large power stations. If 540 MW were to be produced through biomass energy it would require the conversion of 80% of Scotland’s arable land to fast-growing biomass in order to meet this demand for wood alone.

However there is a case for small-scale biomass energy on a local level for heating purposes but it could only supply very limited volumes. Any more and you’re into short-rotation coppicing and industrial forestry, both with biologically inert monocultures dependent on regular aerial herbicide and pesticide applications.

Bioenergy companies sometimes promote sawdust and mill end residues, but these are already utilised for chipboard and other low grade wood products and companies depending on them are challenging the incentives which are diverting this resource into power generation. The construction timber salvage business is equally hard hit and some experts see it virtually shutting down across the UK if bioenergy incentives are not repealed.

But the main concern for campaigners is the environmental damage wreaked overseas. In August 2010 the energy company, W4B, was granted planning permission for a new biomass powerstation in Bristol. The government overrode the rejection of the power station by the city council on the grounds that “indirect impact” i..e deforestation, land grabs and human rights abuses, including murder, were not considered material evidence.

As a result of this ruling there are now over 40 power stations with planning applications in the pipeline around the coastline of the UK, in preparation for shipments of vegetable oil and forest timber (chips and pellets) from areas which include of biodiverse forest in the Amazon and the Congo.

Corporations like Drax, one of Europe's biggest climate change contributors, are lobbying DECC to increase subsdidies for producing bioenergy. This protest aims to show DECC that the public is incensed by the negative impacts of this policy.

If UK citizens tell DECC Yes to true renewable power from wind, wave, tidal, solar and geothermal and No to bioenergy we can stop this destructive industry overnight.

Where: DECC – Department of Energy & Climate Change, 3 Whitehall Place, SW1A 2AW. Nearest tube stations, Embankment & Charing Cross.
When: Saturday 22nd October, 12.00 noon
Who is the protest for? – for anyone concerned about environment and social justice.

Supported by Campaign Against Climate Change.

Bring a friend, your banners and placards to the Department of Environment & Climate Change on the 22nd. There will be a 'green' drinks afterwards to help with campaign building and exchanging stories, tips and tactics.Bold


Photo: biofuels action at The Mall (protesters dressed as orangutans); of landgrab in Papua New Guinea (Greenpeace): palm oil monoculture; poster from Biofuelwatch article on use of biofuels by the aviation industry

15 October 2011

A Load of Rubbish

By Rupert Read

How Norwich shows the way: Regular food-waste collections renders Pickles’s bribe to Councils to abolish Alternative Weekly Collection a white elephant

Eric Pickles’s recently-announced hare-brained plan to incentivize local authorities to bring back weekly collections of rubbish-to-landfill is an anti-localist move by an allegedly localist Government; an extraordinary waste of a quarter of a billion pounds at a time, allegedly, of austerity; and a measure that has been proven by the Government’s own research likely to decrease recycling rates by at least 5%. (‘Alternate-weekly collections’ have tended to increase recycling rates by between 5 and 15%:

Things are however even worse than that, in at least two respects:

It is an integral part of Pickles’s Department’s plan to seek to damage-limit the dangerously negative impact on recycling rates of this measure by encouraging Councils to ‘commingle’ more recyclate, to help increase recycling rates. As I have shown previously it can actually be a move in the wrong direction to increase headline recycling percentages, if the quality of the recyclate is lowered by so doing. And this is exactly what happens under commingling.

And secondly, the main premise of the drive to bring back weekly rubbish-to-landfill collections is, in Pickles’s words, that It’s a basic right for every English man and woman to be able to put the remnants of their chicken tikka masala in their bin without having to wait a fortnight for it to be collected.’ .

But this premise is fatally flawed. For, here in Norwich City Council area, where I am writing from, as in various other parts of the country, we Councillors added a food waste collection component into the job of dustmen

In Norwich, which is among those Councils to have consistently year after year increased recycling rates over the last decade (in rough correlation with the increased numbers of Greens on the Council…), recyclate is collected every fortnight (alternating with rubbish-to-landfill), but food waste is collected every week. Anyone’s tikka masala remnants are collected regularly without stinking out the neighbourhood – and without the vast additional expense and negative impact upon recycling of abolishing Alternative Weekly Collections.

Once this is understood, the case for the bribes that Pickles is seeking to introduce is entirely eliminated.

'Never mind’, though: We’re all bin this together, as they say…

This is an updated version of an article first published in Left Foot Forward.

8 October 2011

The Writing on the Wall

By Charlotte Du Cann
The future is fraternal John Berger (Hold Everything Dear)
Last night I went to a meeting about the Dark Mountain Project in Norwich. This literary and intellectual movement revolves around a manifesto written by ex-journalists, Paul Kingsnorth (The Guardian) and Dougald Hine (BBC) who, like many writers, artists and contemporary thinkers have "stopped believing in the stories our civilisation tells itself".

In response people are gathering in order to create a new cultural narrative. As Paul Kingsnorth explains in a recent interview in The Ecologist:
We’re an open space in which people can gather when they stop pretending that everything will be all right – that the world can be ‘saved’, that climate change can be stopped, that governments will start being nice if we shout at them loudly enough, that the world will change for the better through the sheer force of rational argument, that all the trends which are currently converging towards collapse will be magicked away if we work hard enough. Once you feel ready to step into that space, we ask people to look honestly at the way the world is, and where it is going, and to respond to that culturally and creatively.’
What is clear is that a space is being opened up, a vacancy in which a different configuration of people, thoughts and ideas can come together, a state in which the old dominant paradigm can be dissolved and a new one created.

On the streets of cities this is the #occupy the world movement. Inspired by the social uprisings that began in Tahrir Square in the Arab Spring of this year and later in the indignado movements in Greece and Spain, the #occupywallstreet campaign that began on September 17 is a direct reflection of this kind of cultural alchemy. It's a protest against the existing order but it's also a creative process in which the voices and feelings of ordinary people converge in order to find a way of expressing and manifesting social change. Real democracy and real solutions to our living on a planet in a state of crisis.

At present the prevailing "official" culture is rooted in a Western business-as-usual view of the world, that denies rather than reflects systemic collapse. However the structures on which this culture is based, the myths of endless growth and that special "celebrity" people (1%) have the right to rule and possess great riches, is being eroded as people throughout the world (99%) are waking up to the reality that words belong to everyone and that we need a new story that includes us all.

To criticise these occupations for not having a clear political agenda is to miss the point. Creativity has to allow a certain period of flux and uncertainty, where new forms appear unexpectedly, that don't fit the known or make sense, that appear random and most of all don't obey the existing rules.

You could observe that the #occupy events in New York and cities elsewhere are gimmicky, short lived, or not properly organised, but these leaderless, non-violent gatherings are key in that they focus fearless attention on what is described as "an entity of tremendous power which the mass of people resent and fear: the financial industry". They have also highlighted the extent to which the police will violently defend the existing story (women kettled and pepper sprayed, independent journalists arrested for filming) and the mainstream media are reluctant to relay a new one:

As a result people are now starting to realise just how corrupt and unfair the system is, and are choosing to join the movement which is sweeping across America (70 occupations in different cities and towns in the USA and several cities in the UK). Trade unions and other progressive organisations have teamed up in support and the numbers of people taking to the streets and campaigning online is increasing.

Meanwhile back at the neighbourhood pub in Norwich we discussed how we might go forward as a group of students, thinkers, artists, clowns, writers and community activists. We're going to organise an event in the Spring, write a journal, start creating a culture that does not just reflect the status quo bolstered by historical precedent. But first we are going to meet in an open space and see what happens when we come together.

Because the future is an ensemble act.

OCCUPY NORWICH Occupy Norwich is inspired by Occupy Wall Street, a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders, abilities and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.

Come on down on to the Haymarket on October 15th from 2pm. bring your placards, bring food and drink and warm clothing if you intend to stay. We don’t know how long this will last, but the first step is to get ourselves down there together, talk and plan, make friends, reconnect with our local community, and make it OURS!

UPDATE! (via @NaomiKlein)"After cops raided and tossed their stuff in the dump, garbage workers returned it to the protesters, saying "we r 99 % too, And in NYC, transit workers say they don't want to drive the paddy wagons taking protestors to jail, because they too are the 99 %"

Photos from occupywallstreet and occupymanchester.

2 October 2011

Pandering to the m****s

At a time when services are being cut across the board, who in their right mind thinks it is a good idea to spend £250 million to enable a return to weekly bin collections. Money which could have been spent on supporting the most needy members of society, such as those with mental health problems or the elderly - see the Norwich Evening News story on Age UK's concerns about funding - will instead be used to allow people to avoid the arduous task of separating out their glass, plastic and paper for recycling. The government's own figures suggest that this will lead to a reduction in recycling, with 1.5 million tonnes of recyclable materials being sent to landfill instead.

The UK is already below average in the European recycling league, with a rate barely more than half the best practice achieved by Germany and we are set to get worse with government approval. But if we are to address our excessive carbon footprints we not only need to recycle more, even more importantly we must re-use things and reduce our overall levels of consumption. These though are messages you rarely hear from government because they run counter to the whole consumption led structure of our society.

Consume less and growth will fall, making governments look bad - but will we actually feel worse. Most research seems to indicate that ever higher levels of consumption have done little to make us happier, if anything the reverse has been true. So maybe it's time for us to get off that treadmill.

Maybe it's time we all started buying more second hand things, re-using others' cast offs rather than throwing them away and making new ones instead. In that vein it's nice to see that here in Norwich there has been a surge in the number of vintage clothing shops around the city in the last year or two. Maybe it's also time we rediscovered a degree of community spirit and borrowed more from our friends and neighbours. Nowadays most people have tools and other things which they use very infrequently, it would save us all money, and the carbon emissions associated with producing the goods, if we bought fewer things and shared more with others whenever they needed something.

Excessive consumption, and the waste it generates, is behind controversial local issues such as the proposed incinerator at Kings Lynn. Instead of planning to burn millions of tonnes of waste we should be seeking to avoid creating that waste in the first place. Build the incinerator and the incentive to reduce waste is removed - the council will be locked into providing a stream of waste to the operators and will have a vested interest in ensuring that waste stream isn't reduced.

The incinerator too raises one of the other absurd facets of modern government - the consultation process. Undertaken because it is the "right thing to do" rather than because the government, local or national, really wants our opinions, these consultations are a sham to legitimise a course of action already decided upon. Whether building an incinerator, new nuclear power stations, or it would appear, raising the speed limit on motorways to 80. We need to reduce our carbon emissions, so the government proposes a measure which is bound to increase them and lead to more deaths as a by-product. It brings me back to where I started: who in their right mind ....?

You may have thought the missing word in the title of this piece was masses, possible, but I was more thinking of morons.