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.