27 February 2012

A gesture of solidarity from East Anglia - and Britain? - to the Syrian people

By Rupert Read

I am devoting my OWC column this week to a letter I was delighted to be a signatory to. This letter appeared in yesterday's OBSERVER. It was initiated by the Syrian democracy protester Odai Al-Zoubi:

Expel the Syrian ambassador

We the undersigned petition the government to expel the current Syrian ambassador to the UK and to close the Syrian embassy in London until a Syrian government that is representative of its people can be formed in Damascus. Also, we ask the government to recognise the National Syrian Council. We believe the current Syrian regime is responsible for murdering more than 7,000 civilians. We request that the British government takes appropriate diplomatic action and deports the ambassador in order to de-recognise the Syrian dictatorship.

Dr Rupert Read
University of East Anglia

and 31 others

Tania El Khoury, artist; Roskar Nasan, musician; Odai Al Zoubi - PhD student; Hussam Eddin Mohammad, writer and journalist; Amjad Nasser, writer, poet and journalist; Bassam Jaara, journalist; Nouri Aljarrah, poet; Elfat Darwich, gallery owner; Mousab Alazzawi, doctor; Ghalia Kabbani, writer; Ghassan Ibrahim, journalist; Thomas Pierret, lecturer, University of Edinburgh; Dr Fiona Roxburgh, lecturer, UEA; Catherine Rowett, Professor of Philosophy, UEA; Davide Rizza, lecturer, UEA; Ibrahim Fakhri, interpreter; Gabrina Pounds, lecturer, UEA; Dr Costas Bouyioukos, computational biologist; Muslin Abdul Hamid, lawyer; Philip Wilson translator and tutor, UEA; Kokotas Konstantinos claims co -ordinator at International SOS; Ben Walker, tutor, UEA; David Jane, PhD student; Philip Wilson, translator and tutor, UEA; Silvia Panizza, PhD student; Dr Oskari Kuusela, lecturer, UEA; Keith Rowley, teacher of English as a foreign language and branch secretary with the GMB trade union; Dr John Barry, School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen's University Belfast;Graham Read, retired social and marketing research director; Razan Almohammaed Alali, student; Anand Wilbert, student.

It is good to see that the list of signatories has a distinctively East Anglian feel about it! Evidently, we are somewhat leading the way on this one...

(Here is the letter in its original place, ours is the second letter down).

19 February 2012

Holding Companies to Account

By Mark Crutchley

Companies which don’t pay their workers a living wage; excessive executive pay; tax avoidance; corporate complicity in human rights abuses and drilling for oil in the pristine Arctic. Just some of the issues addressed by a charity called Fair Pensions, and last weekend I went to a training session they were running on shareholder activism.

All of us own shares in companies, some directly, but most indirectly through our pension funds or life investment policies. That means we should be able to have our say in how they are run at their annual meeting (AGM), but because the shares are owned indirectly people don’t immediately have the right to attend this meeting.

The overwhelming majority of the shares in large quoted UK companies are held by the major financial institutions, both here in the UK and overseas. Pension funds, life insurance companies, unit trusts and the like have, with just a few honourable exceptions, a dreadful record of failing to use their ownership rights to call companies to account for their behaviour. In a few extreme cases they have mustered a significant minority of shareholders to abstain on key motions at an AGM, but most of the time company managements have things all their own way with little opposition.

You may think there is little the small shareholder can do in the face of the large block voting by the big institutions, but surprisingly you would be wrong. No amount of effort will enable small shareholders to influence the outcome of the big votes at a company AGM, those will go in the management’s favour thanks to the block institutional voting. But with the opportunity to ask questions at the end of the meeting, individuals can raise subjects which companies would rather gloss over. With the press present and looking for a story, a well structured question can embarrass businesses into agreeing to do something they might otherwise have avoided.

Last year Fair Pensions activists raised the issue of a living wage – higher than the minimum wage, particularly in London – at many corporate AGM’s and secured a commitment in some cases to ensure that not only their own workers, but also those of their subcontractors received at least this amount. This year they will be back again to check whether those companies have followed up on promises made at the time.

It isn’t only through shareholdings though that the individual can force a large company into doing the right thing for their workers or the environment. An online campaign targeting Apple over conditions for workers in the Chinese factories where their products are made, has forced the company to appoint the Fair Labor Association to carry out an audit of all eight factories involved. After visiting the first couple the organisation commented that there are a ton of issues, but also that they were better than the garment manufacturing facilities in the region.

Talking of clothing, last year a Greenpeace campaign forced leading clothing companies to commit to removing toxic chemicals from their manufacturing processes used in China. Nike, Puma and Adidas were the first to be targeted, all finally agreeing to detox their supply chains, before the campaign moved on to force H&M to make the same commitment.

So whether you own shares directly, indirectly through your pension, or not at all, but still have access to the internet, you can get involved in campaigns to force companies to adopt better standards of practice. Lone voices can become very powerful when gathered together in their thousands and hundreds of thousands and few companies can afford to alienate that many potential customers.

11 February 2012

The journey is the destination

Occupy Norwich began their protest on Hay Hill, alongside hundreds of other cities, on October 15 2011. Today at their General Assembly the occupiers meet to discuss the way forward. As they debate how to bring their work into the wuder community, Vanessa Buth, one of ON's communications team, describes her journey.

I read through the articles posted on the One World Column, I read the news, blogs, listen to talks and lectures, get involved in debates. Problems are raised, things that are wrong are pointed out. On the bottom of this page I read “No one has had any answers”.

Since the 15th of October 2011 I have been involved in Occupy, first listening, than increasingly getting active and engaged. What I have learnt from this movement, from Occupy Norwich that is in particular, is more than I would have ever thought. No actually, it is not just more, it is completely different to what I expected.

I joined, because I could no longer sit still and watch a small number of people destroy our society and planet, whilst the victims are numbed with unawareness and apathy or – as Rupert Read points out – not even born yet. I could not face the injustice and neither could I close my eyes. I did not go into this thinking 'I can change the world', but I knew that doing something stands more chance to cause some change than doing nothing. That is obvious.

What I did not realize was the change it would bring about, and believe me it has done so big time. No matter what the Occupy movement will achieve in the big, yes global scheme of things, with regards to tackling inequality of wealth or indeed the definition of wealth, it has already started a journey. And this journey is the goal. I do not believe that the change will come about directly, that finding the answers to our questions, to the problems, new policies, is what we need. The change is coming about by process. A journey that instigates changes in the minds of people, in perceptions, in their skills – which will ultimately be the change we want to see, the goal.

The whole occupy movement is built on consensus. Consensus does not require the agreement of each individual that whatever is decided is the only way, but it requires people to accept the collective will, because they believe in the cause and trust the collective wisdom. Consensus does not ignore any individuals' view raised out of many, instead it requires all views to be voiced and discussed. In fact one view could change the collective will – or the collective one might change yours. The process of consensus encourages people to want, to actually make a real effort, to understand each other to move forward together, because no one can 'win' an argument for the cause. It teaches to be responsible, to understand that you play an important part in the whole. It lies in your hands to play that part, but you can only do so if you respect the views and feelings of others and if you make sure this is the case for all of you.

In the process of consensus, I did not only get to know the other Occupiers - a bunch of strangers connected by their passion for the cause, exercising endless patience, showing immense goodwill to move forward together and opening their incredibly great hearts towards each other. I have also learnt about myself, my own strengths and my own weaknesses. I realized how pre-formed my perceptions of people are, even though I always thought I was so open. Occupy has made me see these things in other people, which before I was blind to, because my perception was - and of course still is - so biased by the society we live in. And I realized how wrong these perceptions shaped by our society are, not only because they are not true, but also because they are the obstacle in our journey. We fail to understand each other, to want to understand each other, because we believe we already know.

The Occupy movement has taught me otherwise. I have learnt respect, to take responsibility, to care, to self-reflect, to fight, to hope, to believe, to feel, to see beyond fake fences. Occupy Norwich, with all its different people and all their unique indispensable characters, has given me a little insight into what the world has already started to look like, in over 1000 places across over 90 countries. We are in the process of learning the trades of the journey. In fact, maybe this is what the world does look like, we just have to open our eyes and let it happen. Vanessa Buth

Further information about Occupy Norwich can be found at their website, on Facebook or Twitter.

Vanessa Buth came to Norwich to do a PhD in political science at UEA three years ago. She worked previously as a research assistant in Mannheim, Germany (her native land) and as a freelancer at a political foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Photo: Occupy Norwich assembly by Ann Nichols, from article on Occupy Movement through Pragmatist Glasses by Olaya de la Iglesia

5 February 2012

Cold Comfort Farm or Some Like it Hot?

By Peter Lanyon

In the Committee Rooms of the House of Commons last Tuesday, with the outside temperatures below zero, people sat with their suit jackets off. Throughout the gothic splendour of our mother of Parliaments, with its echoing chambers, soaring ceilings and interminable staircases, the climate seemed unchangingly summery. A few weeks ago, in one of the maze of rooms in the Westminster Conference Centre, Energy Minister Charles Hendry was pink-cheeked with an excess of the commodity he presides over, as he parried questions from Non-Government Organisations on our nuclear future.

Meanwhile in Norwich, Age UK Norfolk is working flat out both to help people to cope with the combination of cold weather, energy-inefficient homes and rising fuel costs, and to publicise as widely as possible that Age UK is able to provide real and prompt assistance. The government made funds available just before Christmas to relieve the plight of those who cannot keep themselves warm, and Age UK is able to cut the bureaucracy to a minimum to distribute these funds directly and swiftly to where they are needed. To seek advice or help contact Age UK Norfolk on 01603 787111, or elsewhere ring 0800 169 65 65, or try http://www.ageuk.org.uk/about-us/local-partners/ and click on Your Local Age UK.

Meanwhile again, last autumn British Gas raised gas prices by 18 per cent and electricity by 16 per cent, EDF increased charges by 15.4 per cent and 4.5 per cent respectively and SSE by 18 per cent and 5 per cent. Last month after wide public outrage, they all announced price cuts; but the level of the decreases – averaging a scrooge-like 5 per cent – provoked further anger.

So what is going on? At one end of the “comfort zone” scale this winter, people with reduced immunity, impaired mobility and lessened ability to sense cold are at risk of reaching the state of chill when their minds become numbed. Like that, they’re less than ever able to steer themselves towards ways of getting warmer, even if they can afford them. At the other end, literally in the corridors of power and in the boardrooms of big business, inequality luxuriates in the heat.

Beyond stating the obvious - that this is capitalism at work – I’m not sure what is going on. Yet it was pure luck that this winter we didn’t have the early freeze-up of 2010, for the government’s hand-out mentioned above would have been too late to mitigate that. The timing of it looks more political than to solve real problems of hardship. So let us look at what the government itself thinks about “Fuel Poverty”.

Their strategy defines a fuel poor household as one which needs to spend more than 10% of its income on all fuel use and to heat its home to an adequate standard of warmth. Adequacy in that sense is defined as 21°C in the living room and 18°C in other occupied rooms. That sounds alright, doesn’t it, for one assumes that those temperatures are sensible, or otherwise it wouldn’t be government strategy, would it?

Wait a minute though. 21°C is the recommended temperature for a sick room, yet our leaders are suggesting we all need to live at that temperature. The Health and Safety Executive, not renowned for being harsh, says work places should be at least at 16°C to enable us to work without extra clothing. So the government has set a level of warmth, that we should all expect our living rooms to reach, a whole 5°C higher than a place fit to work in. Otherwise, say our leaders, we are entitled to feel hard done by and deserving of compassion and help.

As I write, the temperature on my desk here at home outside Norwich is 11.5°C. I’ve a lot of clothes on so I’m OK, though my fingers are a little chilly, and if I felt like breaking the thread of this I’d stop and put mittens on. When we cook supper and when the gas heating comes on later, the temperature will probably go up to 15, maybe 16°C. We couldn’t get anywhere up to 21°C if we ran the heating night and day, although the bungalow has wall and loft insulation that was recently checked. But we wouldn’t even try to reach that temperature. It’s winter, for Goodness’ sake. And the planet’s in a climate change crisis already. And we couldn’t afford it anyway. So we are in fuel poverty. What utter rubbish!

Unknown to most of us, last year Professor John Hills was appointed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change to undertake a review of Fuel Poverty. He produced an interim report in October; it was publicly consulted upon rather quietly for less than a month, and is due to report finally later this year. Nowhere in the 192 pages of the interim report can I find a mention of what a reasonable standard of domestic heating might be, and there were no questions on it in the consultation of the public. It’s all about the money side of it – oiling the wheels of capitalism.

What are we to deduce from this? If government is simply inept and not fit for purpose, that’s bad enough. If it’s deliberately raising people’s expectations in order to harness us all to some sort of effete dependancy on an irrational level of comfort that boosts industrial growth in the short term, that’s evil – especially if it exacerbates climate change, as it must by causing us all to burn more fossil fuel and hack more uranium out of the rocks.

As a retired biologist, I wonder where this is taking us. Species survive by adapting to their environment. When adaptation involves brain work to develop things like housing and the manipulation of fire to protect us from some aspects of the environment, these devices must still fit into general planetary systems, otherwise we are merely putting off the crisis a little, ensuring that,when it comes, it will be more severe and take more species with us to extinction. There is no way that this country can aspire to heating all our living rooms to 21°C without sending climate change through the roof. So what is the government up to?

Log stack in East Anglia coppice wood (Charlotte Du Cann)