24 September 2011

NDR: It’s the Ecos, stupid!

By Andrew Boswell

All this week, there’s been a debate in the Eastern Daily Press over whether the Government should fund the Norwich Northern Distributor Road – a £112.5m scheme on which the Council has already spent at least £15m of local people’s Council Tax. The arguments can get very technical – too complicated for many people to bother with. It’s my job to engage at that level day-to-day, and I have spent literally months poring over calculations of projected congestion levels, consultation responses, planning policy statements etc but I often feel we all just need to stand back and look at it all much more simply.

The issues really come down to what sort of future do we want – how do we want to live, work, play, eat? And crucially, what will future people feel about these fundamentals of human existence. That sounds a bit like Ecos – the root of the words economy and ecology.

What is on offer with the road proposal and the associated plans for Greater Norwich is massive housing growth in North East Norwich that is pure and simple ‘business as usual’. This was clear when the County Council’s PR offensive hit the EDP front page on 9th September with the headline “NEW BID FOR ‘£1.3bn’ ROAD”. No, I hadn’t got all my decimal points wrong on the cost of the road above – it turns out that this bigger number represents the benefits: the County are hanging their bid to Government on the road “adding £1.3bn” to the Norfolk economy. That’s £1,300,000,000 if you like lots of noughts. But has anybody at Norfolk County Council tried really defined what “economy” means?

I never tire of Satish Kumar’s wisdom having first come across him and Resurgence at the first Schumacher Lectures in Bristol in, I think, 1977 – an event that started to change my view on the world. Satish has written widely on what real economy means, here he is recently in Brazil:
The word ‘economy’ is made from two Greek words ‘ecos’ and ‘nomos’. ‘Ecos’ means the earth household and ‘nomos’ means the management of it, so I want to ask the world leaders, are you managing the earth household or are you managing only the financial capital? True wealth is not money, money is only a measure of wealth, true wealth is land, animals, forests, clean water, human communities and human intelligence. If we have lots of money but the natural capital is diminished then what good is that economy so please understand the true meaning of economy and manage it properly for all people now and future generations and create a system which is harmonious for all living beings.
However, I don’t think that is quite what the Norfolk officialdom folk mean with the £1.3bn claim. Even from the mainstream, rationale point of view, I am very sceptical, in the best sense of the word, about this claim and what it means. If you build 37,000 houses and then create lots of jobs of business parks and out-of-town retail centres for the inhabitants … and, if, the economy suddenly goes back to what it was in the last decade before 2008, and that is a big IF, then, sure, you must add something measureable to the ‘size’ of the economy. But that’s not adding something to the current economy – its actually saying if you replace Norwich over twenty years with a city like Nottingham, you have something bigger and, yes, it generates more business.

The £1.3bn claim keeps making me think of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where a computer is invented to discover the answer to the “Question of Life, The Universe and Everything” – the good old computer comes up with 42. Somehow, those folk at County Hall seem to have come up with a computer into which you pour lots of concrete, carbon emissions, lost landscapes, congestion, future human stress and found it comes up with the answer £1.3bn.

We all know too that some of this calculation involves adding up the fractions of time that a new road might shave of journeys and places a value on time - see references 8 and 9 in this article by George Monbiot for a good expose of this. Of course, this is not real money – not many people will be able to say “well, I saved 5 minutes each way of my commute since that brilliant road opened, and that’s enabled me to grow my business 50% this year”.

What is really disturbing is that the Council are still trying to tell people that all this growth, and the huge number attached to its value, will bring us a veritable land of milk and honey. In fact, they have been telling Norfolk people for years, that it is the ONLY way to the Promised Land.

Lots of big questions come to mind. The most obvious one that I don’t need to spell out for Transition and One World Column readers is ‘is it at all likely that this sort of economic growth vision will actually happen?’. Well, as I write, the latest ‘Markets plunge’ story is on all the newsfeeds, the Greeks are striking against extreme austerity measures, and all commentators are talking about a double-dip UK recession, and possible “contagion” spreading around Western European economies. And, yet, people are still thinking that this sort of business as usual model is going to continue and that it is the only vision for the future.

There is a much deeper question. Even if, our economies recover from the current situation, is this what people want? Everywhere that this sort of urban sprawl has been built, it hasn’t benefitted the local people. The main beneficiaries are the retail park owners, the likes of Tescos and B&Q, and the businesses like Aviva. For the ordinary person, high carbon transport brings lack of choice, greater conformity and greater dependence on the car leading to isolation for some people. Money is sucked out of the local economy to London, Chicago, Beijing as fast as you can say ‘N D R’.

And then there is personal happiness and fulfilment. One has to be careful with this nowadays because despite all the years of good work by the people of Bhutan and the New Economics Foundation, the Government and David Cameron have suddenly latched on this. Wellbeing and happiness are the latest words due to have their meaning corrupted like sustainability and, yes, economy.

When you look at real wellbeing and real economy in the way Satish Kumar suggests, then it is hard to see how the road and its associated way of living will bring us any closer. It might be convenient for a few often, and convenient for others occasionally, but that’s not wellbeing. And the costs of that are landscape destruction, congestion and high carbon emissions. It’s clear that carrying on trying to pursue the business as usual, growth at 3% a year, is not just going to not give us happiness and wellbeing, but its actually going cause more harm and damage.

Transition and One World readers, and many others, are already working day to day for another vision. One based upon the true meaning of economy and ecos: an ecological society based in social justice. The challenges for this century to tackle climate change and resource depletion make concrete trophies like the NDR an irrelevance to real progress as they steal vital resources from social and environmental welfare. The economy needs stability and diversity not endless growth – a steady state economy is quite possible. Many of us are already downsizing to help economic and climate stability.

By the way, if you need any convincing that a shadowy “Yes, Minister” world occupies the corridors of powers at County, check out these two links: Link 1 and Link 2.

It is important for us to challenge the shadowy world of economic hallucinations that try to take us further down a destructive path – the growth-at-all-costs machine and its cogwheels like the NDR. Over the next few weeks, it is vital that many people write to the Department of Transport and ask them not to fund this road.

The public has an opportunity to comment on the bid until October 14. Comments can be made to the DfT by emailing development.pool@dft.gsi.gov.uk

If you wish to send a letter please email the campaign against the road on i_oppose_the_ndr@fastmail.co.uk and we will send you some guidance notes on the key issues that we hope people will tell the DfT. The postcard image above gives some headline points too. Many thanks. Andrew

18 September 2011

Why do people talk of peace while preparing for war?

By Marguerite Finn

That is a good question to ask on the eve of UN International Peace Day. It could be that the questioner has in mind the saying: Si vis pacem, para bellum – If you want peace, prepare for war. This is usually interpreted as meaning ‘peace through strength’ – a strong society being less likely to be attacked by enemies. It is not a new idea. It was first quoted by Flavius Vegetius Renatus around 375AD and it was endorsed by the former American President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell speech in 1961 when he said

“Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.”

It is probably the reason behind the British Government’s manic determination to keep and upgrade its nuclear weapons at all costs – despite having signed up to the UN nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Whilst on the one hand, it may seem a logical idea, the downside is that it was bound to lead to an arms race that would arm the whole world; and there was a growing industry in place that was ready and willing to service this nightmare: the military-industrial complex, which, in the UK, is represented by the Defence and Security Equipment International weapons fair (DSEi) that has recently taken place over several days at the ExCel Centre in Docklands, east London.

The Tablet magazine this week asks: “Why do so many countries in the world, including many that rely on British development aid, need such large armed forces, so expensively equipped? Armaments are for killing people. Who are they intended to kill? More to the point, how many refugees arriving at Europe’s borders will be fleeing armed conflict at home, facilitated by the British arms industry”? The arms trade is a business “on which Britain has become as dependent as any drug addict”. http://www.thetablet.co.uk/

This is a damning indictment on the country that prides itself on being the world’s second-largest arms exporter. However, that is not the way it is seen by the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, who said he was proud that the UK was the world’s second biggest defence exporter and stressed that the importance of the arms industry for economic growth was in the national interest.

But it is not in the national interest to rely so much on one sector of industry - just as it proved to be not in the national interest to become the world’s leading financial sector – and then have to spend more money on bailing out the banks than any other country. That is what happens when things get out of balance.

Dr Liam Fox had apparently not heeded the rest of President Eisenhower’ speech: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist”. The President then went on to say: “We must take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Here is a call to the citizens of a country to take action for peace and we will hear it echoed by the UN Secretary General, Ban ki Moon’s similar call in his speech to mark UN International Peace Day next Wednesday.

Each year, the International Day of Peace is observed around the world on 21st September. The day was originally established in 1981 by Resolution 36/67 of the UN General Assembly – and this year on its 30th anniversary, the theme of the day is “Peace and Democracy – Make your Voice Heard”

The UN sets out its vision for the International Day of Peace on its website: “In line with today’s theme, something remarkable is happening in the world. Young women and men everywhere are demonstrating the power of solidarity by reaching out and rallying together for the common goal of dignity and human rights and this powerful force brings with it the potential to create a peaceful and democratic future”.

Each year on the International Day of Peace, the UN Secretary General rings the Peace Bell at the UN Headquarters in New York, sending a message that he hopes will resound around the world. This is what he says this year: “Every year on the International Day of Peace, people around the world commit to non-violence and to harmony among all peoples and nations. Peace is our mission, our day-to-day quest.

This year’s theme focuses on the timely issue of peace and democracy. Democracy is a core value of the United Nations.

It is crucial for human rights. It provides channels for resolving differences. It gives hope to the marginalized and power to the people. But democracy does not just happen; it has to be nurtured and defended.

The world needs you to speak out; for social justice and freedom of the press, for a clean environment and women’s empowerment, for the rule of law and the right to a say in one’s own future. This year, young people have been on the frontlines for freedom.

I salute the activists and ordinary people for their courage and determination to build a better future. We at the United Nations will work in common cause to realize our shared aspirations for dignity, security and opportunity for all.

To all those seeking peace, this is your Day, and we are with you.” http://www.un.org/en/events/peaceday

It looks as though it is being left to “activists and ordinary people” to bring about a peaceful world. Certainly the governments are not going to do it.

It is not easy to sell the idea of peace when faced with the fact that war is big business and the arms industry is a favourite place to invest. Nevertheless, thanks to the pressure of protest from ordinary, concerned citizens, many churches and other groups have stopped investing in the arms trade. At the recent DESi arms fair, the Bishop of Brentwood, Thomas McMahon, led 200 people in a candle-lit vigil outside the arms fair. Churches across Britain and Ireland are preparing to mark the International Day of Peace with special services and study materials.

There is another dimension to 21st September and that is called “Peace One Day”. This initiative focuses on peace as the cessation of hostilities and war for one day.

‘Peace One Day’ is the brain-child of a young film-maker called Jeremy Gilley who was concerned about the starvation, the destruction and the killing of innocent people that seemed to be always going on somewhere in the world. In 1999, he founded “Peace One Day” to create an annual day – even just one day – without conflict anywhere.

The concept was good but the amount of work needed was daunting. Nevertheless, Jeremy was a man on a mission and he has managed to visit no less than 76 countries over the past twelve years. He spoke to Heads of State, NGOs and influential people around the globe. He even reached the warring parties in Afghanistan.

As part of his campaign, Jeremy has developed a Peace One Day Education package to advance active learning in the areas of peace, non-violence and intercultural cooperation, using Peace One Day as a focus. The goal is to provide free resource material to every school on earth, inspiring a generation to become the driving force behind the vision of a united and sustainable world. At this moment, there are 10,000 educators registered and using Peace One Day education materials in over 175 countries.

Individuals can make a difference. As Jeremy Gilley says: If you want to build a house you start with one brick; if you want to build peace, you start with one day.

If you would like to join the local celebration of Peace One Day on Wednesday 21st September, come to the Peace Pillar in Chapelfield Gardens at 4.30pm for the start of an evening of events.

Photo of drumming for Peace (Norwich Evening News). Peace Camp at the Forum, June 30 2011

12 September 2011

Are we a consumerist society - or a 'producerist' society?

By Rupert Read

We are thoroughly used now to thinking of our society as a ‘consumerist’ society, and of ourselves as, above all, ‘consumers’. This seems to many of us now quite simply an obvious truth, and in some ways a good truth: think of ‘consumer protection’ and ‘consumer rights’ organisations, from Ralph Nader to Which? Think of ‘ethical consumerism’.

But: what if this self-image were in fact both misleading and disastrous? The term ‘consumer’ summons up images of endlessly-open mouths, waiting to be filled with more and more stuff. It evokes ideas of us consuming the resources of the Earth. It figures us as the problem. But what if thinking of ourselves as ‘consumers’ were both to allow and facilitate the consumption of the Earth to continue (even: to mandate its continuation) and to take ourselves as individual consumers to be the primary agents of this consumption? And what if in fact we aren’t its primary agents?

The concept of ‘consumerism’ is extremely useful for those who want to sell us things. Because it then seems as though they are only doing our bidding. We are the agents: they are merely satisfying our wants and needs. This is exactly how mainstream economics characterises the fundamental nature of human exchange: it’s a matter of demand and supply. Supply exists, allegedly, only to satisfy demand.

I say that ‘consumerism’ is a piece of false consciousness, and indeed a tool for our continued and growing enslavement. The real push for us to be ‘consumers’ comes from producers. It is producers who need to sell us stuff, in order to profit – and the most effective way that they can do is to artificially create in us ever-growing ‘needs’. That’s where marketing and advertising come in. Marketing and advertising are the selling arm of the producers’ interests in our society. They are what turns us into consumers. Mainstream economics conceals this truth behind its rhetoric of individual consumers being the ‘pull’ factor at the root of economic exchange. But in fact, it is the ‘push’ factor that dominates – producers push their products at us continually, with thousands of coded messages a day. They even get us to blame ourselves for the disposal of the waste that such endless pushing inevitably creates: you wouldn’t know from listening to government and corporate rhetoric that by far the largest proportion of the ‘waste’ stream comes from corporations, not from households.

Our economy, our system, our world, is not really ‘consumerist’. It is producerist. Capitalism is a producerist system. Its most brilliant product, its greatest — its foundational — achievement and lie, is to produce individuals willing to participate in it, grateful for it, and in ignorance of its real nature. Its ultimate product, that is to say, is: consumers. It makes you and me into/as consumers… Producerism is a system – our system – the crowning achievement of which is to conceal from its workers and its bottom-level clients (those whom it changes in order to sell its products to them – to us) its own real nature, such that it becomes the accepted wisdom – and it even becomes a kind of pseudo-leftist or pseudo-ecological creed – that we live in a ‘consumerist’ society.

Producerism’s subtlest product is consumerism itself, as a hegemonic ideology. ‘Consumerism’ conceals the very great extent to which producerism is hegemonic. The production of consumers, of people as desiring-machines always wanting more, with inexhaustible ‘needs’, allegedly fuelling an endless need to expand the economy (and to eat up more and more of our ecosystems in the process): this is really what producerism is all about.

So long as we think of ourselves as ‘consumers’ we are blaming the victim. What we need to do is to slough off the consumerist self-image, and instead to get clear about who is primarily to blame for the waste, the ecological destruction, the ethicless profit-maximisation, the endless commodification of our world. It isn’t us: it is ‘the market’, capitalism, profiteering producers.
Of course, they aren’t even really producers. It is really workers who produce things, in factories, etc. . Well, actually, even that is an exaggeration. Unlike real plants, strictly-speaking factory-plants don’t ‘produce’ anything! They just re-arrange bits of the Earth, with (ever-larger) inputs of energy. But that’s a story for another occasion. For now, it will be quite enough of a transformation, of a truth-telling, if we can overcome the idea that the degradation of the Earth is our fault.

Don’t blame yourself. Don’t blame ‘consumers’. Blame those who made consumerism: the ad men, and the ‘producers’ for whom they work.

To say it again, in conclusion: the ultimate product of our times – the ultimate work of ad-man genius — is consumerism itself, and each of us (thinking of ourselves) as ‘consumers’. Strictly speaking we live in a producer-ist, not a consumer-ist society.

We need to move beyond the danger in the ‘consumerism’ concept of a widespread blame-culture, which I call blaming the victim. We never seem to pay enough attention to those who light and stoke the fires: the ad-men, the product-designers, etc.

Let’s start to do so.

[This is a revised version of a column that first appeared at BetterNation.]

3 September 2011

Putting Ourselves on the Line

By Charlotte Du Cann

This column is usually reflective of world events. We talk about the big subjects – Libya, the London riots, nuclear fallout in Japan, global peak oil and environmental degradation - but we also record the stories we come across as citizen journalists, as activists and writers within an international progressive culture.

We do this is because amongst the constant chatter of daily news and the distraction of entertainment the smaller and more radical stories are not told or given proper focus. Because we don’t see them or read about them, because they are not highlighted and given weight by professional commentators people think these stories do not exist. Or they don’t matter.

Whereas in fact they are key.

Today I want to highlight three of these stories you might not read about in the mainstream media. Because as every storyteller knows, it’s the listeners that make the story come alive. It’s paying attention to what is being said and making connections that makes the subjects of these stories enter the consciousness of the collective and change the course of history.

On the Dark Mountain
I am at the Uncivilisation Festival on the Hamphire downs. It’s the last event of the weekend. Jay Griffiths, author of Wild, is introducing Benny Wenda An independence leader from West Papua. Like most people in Britian I know nothing about the genocide in West Papua (though I did once watch a three hour documentary on East Timor and the Western media by Noam Chomsky). We have just watched a film made in this country that has been occupied since 1962. Benny Wenda in a headdress of bird feathers sings his Cry for Help, a song for the 250 tribes now being exterminated by the Indonesian armed forces, as Rio Tinto and BP ravage his ancestral mountain. He sings for the earth, for the soil, for the birds of paradise we are all losing.

“I lead my people with a tear,” he says.

Standing in the Square
I am at the Transition Conference in Liverpool. Last year the financial commentor, Nicole Foss was the breaking news. Her analysis of spiralling house prices in a devolved economic future sent everyone into a crisis. This year the key words are calm, focused, mature. Everyone is discussing collaborative methods of powerdown and community action. On Sunday night however while most people are enjoying an open mic session, activists from Transition Barcelona were showing videos of uprisings that have been taking place in the main square. How thousands of people in response to the financial and political crises of the time met and started to discuss a different way of doing things.

When the police forced the people out of the Plaza Catalunya the spirit of what had taken place went into 23 neighbourhoods in the city. People came together to prevent the police evicting their neighbours (thousands of homes have been repossessed by the banks). Groups went into the countryside and took the news of what was happening which had not been reported by the mass media. Indignados are walking now through Spain, going from village to village telling the story and also to the EU government in Brussels. It is estimated that 10 percent of the country has been involved in this “real democracy” movement.

Against the Wall
I am at home in Suffolk skimming tweetdeck. Lists of tweets flash by like so many newspaper headlines. It’s the holiday season and the feeds are quieter than normal, but here is one story that keeps grabbing my attention. A civil disobedience action now in its last day of action in front of the White House. The heads of the largest environmental organizations are calling for the President to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline, planned to run from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, citing dangers to climate, the risks of disastrous spills and leaks, and the economic damage that comes from continued dependence on fossil fuel.

Over the two-week sit-in 1,252 people have been arrested, including top climate scientists, landowners from Texas and Nebraska, former Obama for America staffers, First Nations leaders from Canada, and individuals including Bill McKibben, former White House official Gus Speth, NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, actor Daryl Hannah, filmmaker Josh Fox, and author Naomi Klein.

“On an issue as complicated as climate, there will often be disagreements over tactics and goal” said McKibben, one of the organizers of the protests for tarsandsaction.org. “But there are some projects so obviously dangerous that they unify everyone, and the Keystone XL pipeline is the best example yet.”

This is not the only action taking place in a nation that seems so rigid and militaristic that protest appears impossible. On the 17th of September, 20,000 nonviolent civilians will swarm Wall Street and set up an indefinite occupation - complete with free kitchens and doctors, tents and communal childcare - until their demand for real democracy is met. Inspired by the radicalism of Tahrir Square and Plaza Cataluna, the aim of #OCCUPYWALLSTREET is to save democracy “from the combined threats of plutocracy, oligarchy and corporatocracy. And with global climate change accelerating, there isn't a moment to lose.”

What connects these stories? We live in an institutionally separated world. Our media is highly selective, fuelled by base and reactive emotions. We are engineered to see news as discrete one-off events, whereas they are intimately connected with the fabric of the world and set within a deep framework of time and Empire.

There is a story about butterflies that is often told amongst people who campaign and put themselves on the line for a very different future. Here it is: when the caterpillar transforms into an imago it enters a state of complete dissolve within the cocoon. As it dissolves imaginal buds which create the new butterfly begin to emerge, which the immune system of the caterpillar violently resists. At the first attempt the buds are defeated. But at their second attempt the buds change their tactic. They are the same discrete units as before, but this time they start to connect with one another. It’s this combined network that holds out against the resistance of the old and brings the new form into being. What links the buds is communication.

That’s why the story goes both ways.

Photos: Forgotten Bird of Paradise, 2009; placard in Barcelona, May 2011; sit-in outside the White House, August 2011; tar sands in Alberta before and after; on-going demonstrations for social justice in Tel-Aviv

New film and discussion evening Little g presents the documentary, The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein on 16 September at the Friends Meeting House, 6pm. All welcome.