28 April 2012

The Big Six Energy Bash

Chances are you get your gas and electricity supplied by one of half a dozen gigantic global energy conglomerates. The British companies Centrica (which trades as British Gas) and Scottish & Southern Electricity; together with the Germans E.On and RWE the latter trading as NPower; Scottish Power, now a subsidiary of the Spanish utility Iberdrola; and finally EDF, the French state owned nuclear power operator, which in a move of Orwellian brilliance has taken to advertising itself using a Union Jack washed green. 

Between them they control over 99% of the domestic UK power market and effectively run energy policy in this country through their contacts with politicians and civil servants. Efforts by OFGEM, the regulator, to make the energy markets more competitive and ensure suppliers behave in a better manner to their customers have shown a singular lack of success (see the note at the end) in the face of their dominant market position. 

If we are going to meet the challenge of decarbonising our energy supply as our climate change targets demand, then the best hope lies in a focus on smaller scale local power generation (distributed production) rather than the big centralised power stations we have relied on in recent years. But this demands a dramatic change in the structure of the power market and it’s not one that these companies want to see happen because it would directly challenge their domination of the market and thus their profitability. 

On Thursday 3rd May the representatives of these companies will be meeting with politicians in London at the UK Energy Summit. There we can expect them to be pushing to maintain their grip on our power supplies and their enormous profit streams. In protest the Climate Justice Collective, a grassroots network of UK groups and individuals, is organising an event called the Big Six Energy Bash, a day of direct action against corporate control and in favour of energy democracy. 

If you want to find out more about the reasons for the protest and how you can get involved then just go along to the website and sign up to one of the groups making plans for action on the day. 

Even if you can’t get involved in the event you can still take direct action by moving your energy supply away from this group. There are alternatives out there though you have to look a bit harder to find them. Personally I use Ecotricity to supply both my electricity and gas, they are investing more per customer than any other company in building new supplies of green energy. There are others too like Good Energy, Green Energy, Co-Operative Energy; and gradually a number of smaller energy co-operatives are being formed across the country. Don’t be fooled though by the green tariffs which the big 6 have all introduced; you pay more but it doesn’t lead to any more green electricity being produced, just accounting for who is consuming it differently.

So do what you can and let's break this stranglehold which these big corporates have on our energy supply system.

NB An OFGEM report on the retail market published last year “demonstrated that further action is needed to make sure energy retail markets in Great Britain work in the interests of consumers”. It found that on a range of objectives covering market structure, supplier behaviour and consumer engagement the situation had deteriorated on four; was unchanged on seven; slightly improved on two and improved on just one.

27 April 2012

ONE WORLD EVENT: Occupy Norwich and Visions for Change - 1 May

An afternoon of discussion amongst a number of forward thinking groups and individuals from in and around Norwich will take place between 3-5pm at the Playhouse meeting room this Tuesday, 1 May. The idea is to use this special day to get to know each other and our visions, as well as strengthen the Norwich civil society network.

The detailed agenda is intentionally kept open, so as to encourage an open discussion of visions for the future of Norwich, Norfolk, the UK and/or globally in light of the current climate. Beyond mutual awareness, the outcome should be the creation and growth of ideas and of a network for potential joint activities.

Though the event is free and open to the public, spaces are limited and we therefore kindly request to register your interest with contact@occupynorwich.org. Interested groups and individuals, input and ideas are welcome from everybody.

Vanessa Buth Occupy Norwich contact@occupynorwich.org
Visions of for Change 1 May, 3-5pm at the Playhouse meeting room (as you enter
the foyer, turn right) 42 - 58 St. George's StreetNorwich, NR3 1AB.
web      http://occupynorwich.org/
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22 April 2012

Mind Your Media

In a few hours time the Bahrain Grand Prix will take place and the ruling monarchy will have won a publicity battle to show the world that all is well in their kingdom. Really? That is what we are told in the media, but it seems to me it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Unwittingly, Formula 1, through its desperation to follow the money and ensure the event took place at all costs, has actually brought more attention to the ongoing human rights abuses in Bahrain than could ever have been achieved by domestic protestors or a few of the more intrepid journalists. It provided both a focal point for local protest and the international media circus to report on it.

Sadly though this highlights the way in which the media distorts the prism through which we all experience the world. Short of having contacts around the world, virtually all of us are dependent on our media for our view of international events, and it is well for us to remember that the view we get is far from an impartial one.

“We don’t like Syria” so the unrest there is covered extensively, while in Bahrain “who are good trading partners” protests go unreported. Granted the situation in Syria is far more advanced and serious than in Bahrain, but is that any reason to ignore the latter? Just ask yourself, how many times did you hear about the political situation in Bahrain on the news in the year before this grand prix?
The selective reporting of what is considered newsworthy has an enormous impact on public opinion and that as we know is deeply important to our politicians. It’s just one of the ways in which our press in particular play a disproportionate role in setting the political agenda.

What is scary (in my opinion) is the degree to which the media and the press in particular, has allowed itself to become a vehicle for the public relations industry. I would highly recommend anyone to read Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, which exposes the way the print media has, in many ways, abdicated responsibility for checking or even originating stories in favour of rehashing press releases or running items picked up from the newswires.

Perhaps even more important though than how some events are reported is the fact that so many are not. Keeping something out of the media can be even more important than getting the right coverage, bringing us back to the case of Bahrain. It is also the ultimate expression of power, typically by the state, to be able to tell the media what it can and cannot report.

It is too much to ask that the media should suddenly change and offer us a wider and more balanced perspective on the world, so the emphasis has to be on each of us to seek out alternative views to flesh out our understanding of what is really going on. The internet gives us that opportunity in a way that has never before existed, but it also offers a lot of opinion served up as fact, so we need to stay sceptical at all times.

There is good information out there and if you spend a little time you can find some good reliable, alternative sources. Even Twitter, fatuous though much of its content may be, can be an excellent source of information if you follow the right people and organisations.
Cartoons from QW Magazine

9 April 2012

Tax Havens – for Whom?

By Marguerite Finn

On Wednesday 4th April I attended what promised to be a fascinating event at the Kings Centre in Kings Street, Norwich. A “Tax Injustice Question Time” was organised by Christian Aid. The topic for discussion was how the Government should handle the issue of large scale tax avoidance by multinational companies. The evening started with a presentation on the topic by Helen Collinson, a senior member of Christian Aid’s UK Campaigns Team. Questions from the audience were then put to a panel of politicians comprising the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and Conservative MP for Norwich North, Chloe Smith, the Liberal Democrat MP for Norwich South, Simon Wright, and former Norwich Councillor and Deputy Leader of the Green Party, Adrian Ramsay.

The campaign “End Tax Haven Secrecy” was very well presented by Helen Collinson. She demonstrated how tax dodging on a massive scale by some unscrupulous multinational companies is depriving poor countries of the revenues that could fund public services such as basic sanitation, good healthcare and the education of children. Christian Aid estimates that tax dodging costs poor countries US$160bn every year. This is what keeps poor countries poor. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – a body that brings together the world’s wealthiest nations – recognises that developing countries are losing more from tax dodging than they receive in aid.

How does this happen? There are a number of reasons why multinational companies are able to dodge paying their taxes, but a key reason is the lack of transparency in the global financial system. This financial secrecy makes it easy for companies to shift money between different parts of their business around the world. Sometimes such transfers are for legitimate reasons but in many cases they are designed to dodge taxes in the country whose resources are exploited, so that the profits may be enjoyed elsewhere.

One common method of tax dodging is for a company to manipulate its profits and revenues through ‘tax havens’ which combine high levels of secrecy with very low or even zero tax rates.

To get an idea of the strength of the tax haven economy, we have to appreciate that more than half of the world trade (on paper) passes through tax havens. In addition, more than half of all banking assets and a third of multinational company investments are routed through tax havens. As recently as 2010, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that the money on the balance sheets of small island tax havens alone amounted to US$18tn – about a third of the world’s entire financial wealth.

Multinational companies use tax havens to hold huge sums of money that would attract tax in other countries.

It works like this:

  • a company extracts a resource (say diamonds) in a poor country. It creates a subsidiary company in a tax haven to which it sells the diamonds at cost price so there is no profit to be taxed in the poor country of origin.

  • The subsidiary sells the diamonds at a profit to a rich country, but as the tax haven charges little or no tax, the company’s profits are huge.

  • The identity of the parent company (that owns both the subsidiary and associated bank accounts in the tax haven) is usually kept secret so that the true extent of profits made and taxes dodged remains hidden.

As Christian Aid says: “An end to tax haven secrecy would make it easier for tax authorities in all countries – including developing countries – to detect where tax dodging is going on and claw back the money they are losing.”

Christian Aid’s campaign “Trace The Tax” proposes specific measures to help end tax haven secrecy:

  • A multilateral agreement requiring tax authorities all over the world – including tax havens – to exchange information about the assets of companies and individuals within their jurisdictions, with tax authorities in other countries.
  • A new international accounting standard requiring multinational companies to report on their profits made and taxes paid in every country where they have subsidiary companies – including tax havens.

To make these aspirations more concrete – a campaign of letter writing took place in February to UK’s business minister, Norman Lamb calling on him to support new EU transparency laws for oil, mining and forestry companies. There is, however, a danger that because of intense lobbying by oil, mining and forestry industries, some MEP’s might renege on their resolution and water down the transparency laws so as to render them useless for stopping tax dodging. One wonders how Christian Aid’s efforts at lobbying compare with those slippery and wealthy multinational giants? And is that fair or democratic?

Europe is important in this campaign because some of the most notorious tax havens are on European territory, such as Luxembourg, and Switzerland (Geneva and Zug) and Ireland. For example, in Zug the tax rate varies between 15% and 16% as against a corporate tax in USA of 35%. Other ‘off-shore’ tax havens offer taxes as low as 3% or even zero tax – such as in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.

Britain has a key role to play because at least three of the major tax havens are within her jurisdiction: the Isle of Mann and the islands of Jersey and Guernsey. The City of London itself is considered by many to be a tax haven. Part of Christian Aid’s campaign is to target the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, asking him to take a lead at the forthcoming G20 meeting in Mexico and call for tax havens to be pushed to share tax information with developing countries and to call for multinational companies to report their taxes paid and their profits made on a country by country basis. The Prime Minister should also be asked to support and promote the UN Millennium Development Goals.

This was meaty stuff indeed for the event in the Kings Centre but for some reason it never really took off – the questions were weak and did not seem to hold the two MPs to say what they were prepared to do to bring about an end to tax haven secrecy. Chloe Smith MP suggested that keeping taxes low to encourage multinationals to move part of their business to a tax haven could bring welcome jobs to that country. This was to ignore the real problem of cheating the developing country (whose mineral resources were providing the profit) out of the legitimate taxes due to it. Also the problem is hardly one of the tax havens being poor, as Chloe seemed to be suggesting. Are Switzerland or the Cayman Islands poor and needing welcome jobs? They seem to be doing very nicely by attracting so many big companies to use them by reason of their low taxes – but no one took Chloe up on this.

Paying fair taxes would enable a developing country to overcome its poverty by investing in health, education and clean water for its people and eventually to reduce its dependence on overseas aid.

Photo from article on Amazon Books (who pay no corperation tax) in The Guardian this week; poster highlighting Vodaphone by UK Uncut.

For more information on this vital and urgent topic, go to www.christianaid.org.uk

6 April 2012

The Moneyless Man

As the new financial year begins and teh economic fate of millions of people in the world hangs in the balance, we are cross-posting from the Social Reporting Project which this week has been looking at Living Withough Money. In this post, Mark Boyle, author of the upcoming Moneyless Manifesto, reflects on what it means to live outside the financial system.

Living without money. On first inspection, these three words sound extreme and would seem to involve no small amount of sacrifice. I can understand why. The cultural story that is money has such a powerful hold on our minds today that we have come to believe that we could not possibly ever live without it. Living without clean air, fresh water and fertile soil bizarrely seems a more moderate challenge in comparison. Yet on closer inspection, our reaction towards even the discussion of moneyless living reveals more about the extremity of our own indoctrination, our own conditioning, than it does about the way of life itself. For to see the non-monetary economy in action, one need only go for a simple walk in the woods, cook dinner for a friend or swim in our vast oceans. Every other species on Earth lives without money. Our ancestors had no notion of money, and many peoples still resist it today, even against all the might of the military-industrial complex and the cultural missionaries spreading its Word.

And I myself, after two and a half years of living without money, no longer see it as extreme. Extreme is converting the Earth's splendour and bounty – its salmon, its magnificent ancient redwoods, its rolling hills, its generous soil, its gushing rivers, its gloriously Wild creatures – and the pageantry of life into meaningless numbers with no intrinsic worth. Extreme is not knowing our neighbours, let alone feeling comfortable enough to ask them for help. Extreme is having a spare room in your house while others sleep on the street. Extreme is spending our lives doing jobs we hate, just so that we can repay the bank money that it created out of thin air in the first instance. Extreme is taking what was freely given to us and then charging another part of Nature for it, only sharing that which was gifted to us if we receive something in return. Extreme is walking towards the precipice as we smugly recycle our tetrapaks. Extreme is letting it all unfold before our eyes, as if somehow we were not powerful enough to stop it.

Yet such views go against everything we are taught from the moment we enter school and begin training to meet the needs of the economy. We learn that financial considerations must usurp respect, compassion and the health of our land. And anyway, why would anyone consider co-creating their own local economy when this big one we already have is so convenient?

The reasons are as varied as the ecological, social and financial crises we have created. For some, it is simply because the dominant economic model makes it almost impossible for them to make ends meet without accruing debt. Others want the sense of freedom and autonomy that comes with being completely self-reliant, avoiding dependence on what they abhor as the brutal machinery of the state and capitalism. Some tell me they strive towards it as a deep spiritual journey, living in the moment and trusting that each day will provide. A few have divulged that they are getting prepared for that apocalyptic scenario we all want to avoid. Many want to do it because they want to reduce their complicity in a monetary economy that seems hell bent on destroying all before it, turning the Earth into a hot landfill site that is a viable home for 50,000 fewer species each and every year.

My own original reasons for moving beyond money were simple: I believed – and still do four years later – that until we reconnect with what we consume, there will always be sweatshops, always be clearcuts, always be oil spills. Money disconnects us, and protects us from being fully exposed to the atrocities that we fund, things that if we witnessed we would never want done in our name. Despite reading lots about the social and ecological impacts of fossil fuels over many years, it wasn't until I saw the watery eyes of Iraqi refugees in Calais in 2008 that I decided to give up using oil. I believe that until we feel the pain of the Earth and all that dwells on it at the deepest level, our behaviour will not drastically change. Why would it? I also realised that until I connected with Her, I would not understand my interdependence with Her. We believe we are somehow separate from Nature, above Her, and it is here that all our problems begin. Consciously rejecting money reconnects you and places you amongst Nature once again. You see that the air, the water and the soil are not your environment, they are you.

That was the initial impulse for rejecting it. Today there are an almost infinite number of reasons why I believe that moneyless living (which I prefer to call "the localised gift economy") is the only truly sustainable and non-exploitative economic model available to us. These range from the economic to the ecological, and from the social to the personal, but a short blog is not the place to explore all of that.

Instead, let's get down to the nitty gritty. If you did decide to give moneyless living a go, what would it mean you have to give up? In general, my experience has taught me that it involves the sacrifice of very little of value, whilst the gains have been immensely rewarding. Sure, money can give us a sense of security and independence. But anyone who has experienced hyper-inflation will testify to the illusory nature of that security, and 'financial independence' is simply replacing dependence on neighbours with dependence on more distant people who you don't have to be nice to. Someone is still growing your food and making your products – you just don't meet them. I have come to see living with money as living without full and total relationship with the Earth, without interdependency on our communities and without full awareness of the horrors that are inflicted on Nature (including humanity). Money allows you to live with oil and plastics, but without the sight of the collateral damage that is an Iraqi's tears. Living with money is living without the Wild that currently lies caged within your soul. And it has consequences – the ecological and social mess we see before us today.

Non-monetary economics is not prescriptive – take what suits your purposes and leave the rest. You may want to be moneyless simply for food, or for your shoes, aphrodisiacs or soap. You may just want to travel overland to a cave in Turkey without needing a penny, make your own drum out of a roadkill buck, or produce all your own booze. It was in recognition of this that myself and Shaun Chamberlin, Transition Town Kingston co-founder and author of The Transition Timeline, devised a mechanism called the Progression of Principles (POP) model to help us all on our individual paths. It allows you to make a transition from the economy you live within now (the global, exchange based economy) to whatever economy you would like to be in (which for me is a localised gift economy), progressing with the speed and urgency that feels appropriate to you.

The model is created by you, for you, and there is no 'right' or 'wrong'. For example, my ideal for transport is to walk barefoot, feeling the dew beneath my feet as I tread carefully amongst Nature. But in reality, I'm up to my neck in work. Therefore at the bottom of my personal POP model for transport is where I am now – a bike salvaged from the detritus of industrialised society, in the middle a pair of clogs I made from local wood or a pair of cast-off trainers, and at the top barefoot walking. Using it I can then commit to designing my life in such a way that in two / five / seven years I'll have made my way to a point where my actions reflect my beliefs, and where my spirituality is applied in the litmus test of the physical world.

Practically speaking, there are many ways you can live moneyless. The purest (least dependent on the monetary economy you are trying to replace) of these is to do it Palaeolithic style. This involves foraging, hunting with stone-age weapons, flint-knapping and making your own shelter, cordage and so on. A difficult option in The Age of the Machine, but a beautiful one to strive for. One rung down from that is Permaculture, which I feel gives the best balance between realism and idealism. Finally, there is the mode of moneyless living that is fully embedded in industrialised society. This involves squatting, eating waste food, and using gift economy websites (such as Freeconomy, Freecycle, Couch-surfing and so on) to meet your needs. None of these options are more right or wrong than the others. Your unique situation will dictate what is most appropriate for you both now and in the future. If you crave freedom and complete connection with the land, then learning to live off its fruits completely is the option for you. However, if you're an activist campaigning against the atrocities of The Machine (in which we are all easily interchangeable cogs) by using your laptop in a city, squatting and skipping will mean that you can devote all your time to that without having to get a job to pay rent or buy food. Either way, it will also reduce your complicity in the destruction you see around you by simply not investing in it.

Living without money is not extreme, and it is not a sacrifice, but it appears so if viewed through the lens of the dominant cultural stories, the ones that have led to the convergence of crises we face. We know that we need to change the way we live now, and we need to do it drastically, but doing so will look unrealistic until we challenge and change our thinking. Until we fully understand our interdependence with the whole, and reconnect with what we consume, I do not expect to see the fundamental social, political and lifestyle changes that could make our future not only sustainable, but worth living in.

Moneylessness can be a simple practical tool to help you live the life you want. And by doing so, you'll be an example that there is another way of living, one based on respect, symbiosis and unconditional love, to everyone that you encounter along your way.

Mark Boyle is author of The Moneyless Man and the founder of Freeconomy. His new book, The Moneyless Manifesto (out in November 2012, published by Green Books) explores the entire philosophy behind moneyless living, and offers a complete guide to how to do it yourself.

Photos: Mark drinking tea outside his home (Jose Lasheras), Mark's home, members of Mark's local freeconomy group learn to make their own wild beer, cider and wine (Mark Boyle), Foraging for blackberries, its free to read a book (Jose Lasheras)