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.