29 August 2011

Row, Row, Row the Boat

By Mark Crutchley
A news item on the BBC website caught my eye the other day and I had to read it again to convince myself that it was really true. A British team has rowed to the North Pole – yes rowed, in a boat! Now admittedly it was the magnetic North Pole which is a long way from being at the very top of the planet, but despite that it is still a very long way North and should by all rights be covered in ice even in the middle of summer. That you can row to it highlights just how far global warming has gone in melting the ice pack of the Arctic Ocean.

Actually, following the progress of the melting ice is something of an obsession of mine. You can find regular updates on the web at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/) and it doesn’t make good reading, showing graphically, in both senses of the word, one of the most dramatic impacts our activities are having on the natural world. The charts show the area of ocean with at least 15% sea ice and naturally over the summer this falls to a much lower level. But in recent years the decline has become far more dramatic; the current year is very close to the record lows observed in 2007 and may yet exceed them before the summer is over. While the last five years are the lowest five on record – this comes from satellite data, so only goes back to 1979 but we know from other sources that the current ice loss is well in excess of a much longer historical record.

Nor was this the only story emphasising how rapidly the Arctic ice is disappearing because the BBC were also reporting the opening up of sea lanes. The Northwest Passage round the north of Canada and the Northeast Passage across the top of Russia, have both become navigable and though the former is not yet being used by freight shipping, tankers are already using the latter to reach the Far East more rapidly.

This may not seem to matter much to most people, particularly those threatened with losing their jobs or struggling with soaring energy bills. But just as everything is connected in an ecosystem, so too it is the case in the human world. It is our total dependence on fossil fuels which is changing the climate and causing the Arctic ice area to shrink. And it is that same dependence which is driving up the price of oil and gas as new supplies become scarcer and the number of consumers around the world grows.

Moreover our economies are in such a fragile state because we have pursued an impossible dream of endless growth in a world of finite resources. When the dream began to unravel, rather than facing up to the fact that it was unsustainable, both governments and individuals just borrowed more and more to keep the game going for as long as possible. All that did though, was put off the day of reckoning and ensure that the bust would be even more painful than it might have been.

In her excellent book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein detailed how global economic institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, used periods of crisis in individual countries economies, particularly those of South America, to force radical open market global capitalism solutions on them. Now with our current economic orthodoxy collapsing around us it is time for a new, sustainable, environmentally friendly future to replace it. The New Economics Foundation (www.neweconomics.org/) is one of the few places discussing the real economic future and it is an excellent place to start understanding what we need to be doing in our society. Going back to debt fuelled growth is no longer an option whatever the politicians of all parties may tell you.

20 August 2011

Who is for Humanitarian Intervention?

By Marguerite Finn

Yesterday (19th August) was World Humanitarian Day – not that you would know from the lack of coverage given to it in the media. World Humanitarian Day is a celebration of people helping people. The day recognises the sacrifices and contributions of those who risk their lives to give others help and hope. It is also about inspiring the spirit of aid work in everyone – like the Egyptian trauma surgeon currently on the front line in Somalia. Omar Saleh was leading a peaceful and comfortable life as a trauma surgeon and university lecturer in Egypt when the call came from the United Nations health agency announcing that surgeons were urgently needed in war-torn Somalia. He did not have to think twice. “I should be where I’m needed,” he said. “I’m a trauma surgeon. This is a conflict. Trauma is everywhere. I must be there”, he told the UN News Centre by telephone from Somalia, where he operates under the auspices of the UN World Health Organisation (WHO). Dr Saleh is just one of many hundreds of people who, at some point in their lives, devote themselves to helping other people.

The United Nations humanitarian chief – Under-secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos - stressed the need to further scale up efforts to assist the millions of people suffering in Somalia and the wider Horn of Africa, warning that more lives will be lost to famine and disease without urgent action. There are 12.4 million people across the wider region, encompassing Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia, who are in need of food and humanitarian assistance owing to the effects of the worst drought in decades. The UN and other agencies are on the ground in all countries in the Horn of Africa and are doing their best to combat famine and disease. Possibly the main humanitarian agency is the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and since the beginning of July, the WFP has reached nearly 8 million drought-hit people in the Horn of Africa with food assistance. WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide. Each year, on average, WFP feeds more than 90 million people in more than 70 countries. But WFP’s Horn of Africa appeal remains $250 million short of the funds it needs for the next six months.

These are just two examples of positive humanitarian aid aiming to save lives. Another kind of humanitarian aid is so-called “humanitarian intervention” such as is currently happening in Libya, where NATO and its Western allies have launched an air war ostensibly “to protect civilians”. Many civilians are unfortunately being killed as part of the “collateral damage” that is a direct result of the air strikes. This type of humanitarian intervention tends to morph into one of “regime change” and becomes a full-scale war. Libya is a case in point. There is a difference between war and humanitarian intervention. The attacks on Libya were intended for humanitarian ends but the means used are those of war. The risks of war are several. First, people get killed -often those very people who are supposed to be protected. Secondly, a country’s infrastructure is damaged or destroyed, greatly increasing material hardship. Thirdly, war is always polarising, constructing extreme versions of ‘we’ and ‘them’ and guaranteeing the continuation of military action.

The only sector to profit from military action is the military-industrial complex and the arms trade. This deadly industry is not concerned with the humanitarian theme of “people helping people” but rather with fuelling wars and frequently arming both sides in a conflict. Where does the arms industry get its money? Pension funds and church investment are two sources that should know better than to invest in death. Another source of funding was highlighted by The Independent newspaper recently and that is British high street banks, including two that have been bailed out by the taxpayer. It appears that the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Lloyds TSB, Barclays and HSBC are investing hundreds of millions of pounds in companies that manufacture cluster bombs – despite a growing global ban outlawing the production and trade of the weapons. Cluster bombs come in a variety of different forms and are usually dropped from aeroplanes or fired in artillery shells. The spinning shell breaks away to release multiple bomblets which disperse over a wide area. The bomblets often contain a copper cone for piercing armour and incendiary zirconium for starting fires. The legacy of these pernicious weapons is that unexploded ordinance continues to kill and maim decades after the bombs are dropped. One third of cluster bomb victims are children and 60 percent are civilians.

One year ago this month, Britain became an active participant in the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a global treaty that bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster bombs. To date 108 countries have signed the treaty, which also forbids parties from assisting in the production of cluster weapons. Yet the Coalition Government has made no attempt to rein in banks and investment funds from continuing to finance companies that manufacture the weapons. The state-owned RBS is the UK’s worst offender. Taxpayers now own 83 percent of the bank but that has not stopped it from investing millions of pounds in the arms trade. The other partially state-owned bank – Lloyds TSB – which was bailed out by the UK taxpayer with an injection of £20billion of state funds, also invests in Lockheed Martin, the US arms giant with a long track record of making cluster bombs. Surely the public has a right and a duty to insist that the government acts to prevent these banks from investing in weapons that the government itself has signed a treaty to ban? After all, what could be more inhumane than a cluster bomb - or a human who makes money out of such inhumanity?

But, as The Independent tells us: “Despite clear indications that high street banks are continuing to invest in cluster bomb manufacturers, the government has refused to intervene. Anti-arms groups have called on Parliament to legislate against such investments, or create a code of conduct that UK banks could follow to make sure that tax-payers money is not inadvertently invested in cluster bombs. Yet sources involved in negotiations between the ministers and the banking sector have told The Independent that there has been virtually no movement in the issue since the Coalition Government came to power.”

However, one large institution is prepared to act in a humanitarian way; Aviva, the world's sixth largest insurance company has formulated a ‘black list’ of firms engaged in the manufacture and/or production of cluster munitions. In December last year Aviva executives wrote to a host of defence companies around the world seeking assurances that they were not involved in the production of cluster munitions or key components. Those who failed the test or refused to respond were blacklisted, meaning Aviva will not invest any of its own money in those companies.

This is another example of “people helping people”.

14 August 2011

The ignored report sitting on the Met’s website that indicates the possible consequences of Operation Trident: why these riots are really happening…

By Rupert Read

It was very striking in Cameron’s first speech responding to the riots and looting (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/8690895/David-Cameron-condemns-sickening-riots-across-UK.html ) that there was not one word – not one – about why this violence may be happening. Cameron was happy to enunciate very clearly that “If you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment”, which appears to me to be an incitement to jail children however young they be; but he said literally nothing about why these crimes are taking place.

This is a complete failure of thought and of leadership. Come back Lord Scarman and ‘Hezza’, all is forgiven?…

Here in East Anglia, thankfully, we have been spared the riots. But let’s not forget that there are pockets of extreme poverty in East Anglia… How easy it is to forget that relatively wealthy counties can disguise some appalling relative poverty (in rural areas, and especially in town and city estates) ...which should not go forgotten while the focus – because of the violence -- is on big cities.

Why is the violence happening and spreading? Why is so much criminality so easily sparked? As has been argued fairly convincingly over at LeftFootForward (http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/08/a-crowd-psychology-analysis-of-the-riots/ ), it is simply not enough to talk about ‘copycat’ violence. Why is the copying occurring? And what exactly is being copied?

Hypothesis: Part of the copying is not just of other rioters and looters. It is of the rich. As Sunny Hundal put it, here (http://liberalconspiracy.org/2011/08/09/only-poor-people-go-looting-and-other-silly-claims/): “rich people do go out looting; they just do so in otherways.” Some of the copying that is going on, I would hypothesize, is of massively wealthy law-breakers and corrupt individuals and companies, be they in tax-evading corporations, in the media, (in) the banks, in Parliament itself, etc. . A society that projects unattainable images of wealth and opulence and then is surprised that, at a time of government cuts to community centres etc., there are lots of young people prepared to risk jail or worse to get their hands on a plasma-screen TV -- or just to thumb their noses at society at large, at get their 5 minutes of fame -- is a society that deliberately is refusing to know itself.

This is how and why a respectable protest against police brutality can morph into a far bigger wave of disorder and disaster.

My philosophical colleague Dr. Phil Hutchinson made some of these points 7 years ago, in a report (see the Appendix to this Met Police report) which you can still find on the Met website!:


His argument that Operation Trident – the London police operation against ‘black-on-black’ (sic.) guncrime in London, responsible it would seem for the death of Mr. Duggan, which began this whole imbroglio -- is racist made the front page of the Indy at the time (albeit the reporting on his arguments there was of very poor quality); but his report and his recommendations were greeted with great hostility by the police, and were ignored by politicians.

It is likely that Operation Trident played a substantive hand in starting this trouble in Tottenham, as a BBC reporter put directly to Simon Hughes on TV earlier today. But it did this not just by being a racist targetting of black people, but also, more broadly, by sequestering off 'the black community' as a ‘them’ and not part of ‘us’, thereby making it easier for their problems and aspirations (e.g. for what society tells us all is a desirable level of material wealth) to be ignored … at the same time as our society has ruthlessly stoked materialism and generated the fantastic levels of inequality whose natural consequences (in terms of alienation, desire to emulate the rich in terms of material consumption, reduced levels of trust and mutual care, etc.) have lately been documented for instance in THE SPIRIT LEVEL (see my http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/rupert-read/philosophical-and-political-implications-of-spirit-level-response-to-gerry-ha ).

Take a look at the key relevant sections of Hutchinson’s report: e.g. p.73 (3.11 & 3.12); p.74 (3.16 & 3.17(; p.85f. (Section 7 as a whole). Operation Trident has long been a repugnant mistake, an open wound, an accident waiting to happen: waiting to light a tinderbox.

In sum: Racism seems to have played a significant role in the police shooting that started all this off. Racism and social exclusion is endemic to Operation Trident in a far-wider sense too; in this sense, indeed, Operation Trident is simply symptomatic of elite ideas and practices in a society whose materialism and race- and class- hierarchies generate widespread cynicism and a sense that the only principle that needs respecting is the pursuit of personal profit, whatever the wider costs. The police, the government, and all those who have stoked a rampantly inegalitarian materialist culture bear in that sense some responsibility for the disgraceful and repellent looting and destruction that is at present consuming several parts of our country.

‘Consuming’: much as in rampant out-of-control consumerism…

6 August 2011

When the Chips are Down

By Charlotte Du Cann

It’s noon on Saturday and a small and buoyant crowd of people are gathering for The Spuds Don't Work rally outside the Forum. Activists from France, farmers from Norfolk, campaigners on bicycles with placards saying Stop Gambling with our Chips!, children riding small red tractors piled with red and white tubers from Wales. A waitress from The Greenhouse is handing around (delicious) organic chips to passers-by. I’m taking pix and speaking with Brenna and Tierney and Christine from Transition Norwich, Becky and Hayley from GreenGrow outside Bungay and the people from Growing Communities in Hackney. We’re all here to champion the potato, that key staple veg of all our allotments, gardens and fields and protect the land from the invasion of GMOs.

For the last ten years the Sainsbury laboratory at the John Innes Centre has spent £1.7 m of public money researching (so far unsuccessfully) a potato that is resistant to blight. During this time the UK has successfully resisted the introduction of GM food into its stores and supermarkets. But the laws in Europe are now changing, making it easier for GM crops to be grown and the debate is back on the table for both growers and consumers. Already the seed merchants and pharmaceutical companies are pressurizing farmers in East Anglia to adopt them and this event is bringing this into public awareness. At 1pm a red tractor will drive through the streets of Norwich to the John Innes Centre and deliver a load of conventionally bred blight-free potatoes in protest at the research and trials taking place there.

“It’s becoming impossible for farmers in Canada to be organic," reported one of the speakers (last week a farmer in Australia is suing a bio-tech company as their seeds have entered his crops and he has lost his organic status) as we listened to speeches from the Soil Association, local farmers and national campaigners outlining the main reasons why public money should be spent elsewhere.

“It’s complex,” said Josiah Meldrum of East Anglia Food Link before he went on BBC Look East to discuss the GM potato trials at the Centre. Scientific research and the debate around it is complicated, but the decision to allow GM trials is simple. You either believe that it’s OK to radically interfere and manipulate the structure of plants and sow the land with these invasive artificially-bred organisms.

Or you know it isn’t.

The real complexity here however is not this decision, but in arguing from different paradigms. One where corporations seek to control and exploit the natural world for profit and to drive the industrial food machine to every corner of the globe, and the other (of which Transition is part) where individuals and groups seek to establish a small-scale agriculture that works with the natural world, to prevent waste and relocalise the food chain. Josiah who has worked with local growers for years (including FarmShare) and knows his potatoes (as well as the research behind them), faces the same difficulty all of us do in facing that argument.

The people who push for GM are smart and aggressive and have little conscience about these matters. Their decisions are based on conquest and profit. They also fund the academics who can argue cleverly on their behalf. Those who oppose GM have gut instincts, a knowing in the core of themselves that bio-tech crosses a certain line and a feeling they do not want to eat food grown in this way, anymore than they want to eat cloned animals.

The majority of people in the UK have those same unacademic feelings and instincts and do not want to put “Frankenfoods” in their shopping baskets. Corporations seek to persuade everyone to buy bio-tech by claiming it will banish the spectre of future World Hunger, mostly in Africa. The reality is that there is already famine in Africa, as there are massive land grabs by UK bio-fuel companies (a main cause of rising food prices). There are also studies that prove growing organic crops is a far better solution to food security than global industrialised farming which dispossesses and exploits people, drains water tables and destroys local eco-systems. The “opposers” are in fact not so much against GM and its consequences but for everything it takes away, including social equity.

The difficulty is that it is not really an argument we need to be having. Arguments reduce issues into black and white boxes and exclude the ur-complexity, which is not the Byzantine line of scientific reasoning, but the richly-woven web of life, the way everything on the planet is connected and in relationship. The dominating “left-brain” mindset of Empire goes way too fast for this complexity to be seen or heard. It deliberately compartmentalises each issue, so that its contradictions never confront each other. It reduces communication into superficial feel-good spin whilst keeping the depth discussion of real-world ethics and social responsibility at bay. It reduces the globe to a soundbite. A few short moments on a television broadcast.

GMs have been in use in North America for years now. The crops don’t give the great yields that are promised (and sometimes fail), use more pesticides, and the seeds (which farmers can no longer keep themselves) have increased dramatically in price. Economically many farms are struggling. In spite of all the scientific research there has been no study on its effects on people’s standard of health (the US has one of the worst in the Western World). There are plenty of good reasons why we are outside the Forum today in defence of the real potato. But the underlying force that brings us all together has been the subject I’ve wanted to pay attention to this week on This Low Carbon Life.

Because ultimately there is a decision that we all have to take at some point down the line, as the Artic melts, as the environmental storm brews all about us: whether we follow the reason of the mind or the logic of the heart. This ultimately is a question of allegiance. Not just to the beating engine of our bodies, to the profound feeling intelligence of our beings that informs every great thing that we do, but the heart that is the natural order and organisation of all life.

The earth is not made of the human mind. Cities and civilisation are constructed of the human mind, but the natural world and everything we depend on for life is not. Air, water, plants, pollinators. Our minds tell us we can control what gives us life, in spite of increasing evidence to the contrary, and forget one essential fact. The earth is a creation of heart.

We just have to reassemble the letters.

The gathering outside the Forum; potato farmer from Sarpo in Wales; chips from the Greenhouse; Brenna on her bike; Jack from GreenGrow with the red tractors (small version); already blight-free potatoes from Wales.

Original article published on Transition Norwich blog, This Low Carbon Life