24 February 2013

The art of unravelling the carbon web

This month a new national newspaper, Transition Free Press was launched, and yesterday, as the paper's editor I gave a Trade School class in The Common Room at St Lawrence's Church to discuss how grassroots media can work in times of Transition. You can see an on-line version of the first issue here. and hard copies are now on sale in Norwich (£1) at The Greenhouse and also from our distributors (contact details here). To give a flavour of the paper here is Lucy Neal in our Talkback comments section discussing James Marrriott's book The Oil Road and his work with the activist collective, Platform.

In Suzi Gablik’s Conversations Before the End of Time Ellen Dissanayake describes art as ‘making things special’ - marking things we care about as extraordinary and important.

It sounds simple, but creative attention can have dramatic effects, especially when tracing or revealing what’s already there - or just beneath the surface.

In the book, The Oil Road, Platform artists James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello ‘make special’ a line from Baku in Azerbaijan to the City of London.They trace the metre-wide pipeline that delivers oil from below the Caspian seabed to the Caucasus mountains, onto ships at the port of Ceyan in Turkey, across the Mediterranean to Trieste and onto refineries of Northern Europe processing the  ‘liquid fossilised ecosystems’ that fuel our daily lives. 

There is poetry, compassion and dedication in the way this line is traced. A Carbon Web connects the banks, governments, law firms, universities, NGOs, and cultural institutions that give the Oil Road licence to operate. A story surfaces of environmental havoc, oil companies in hock to repressive regimes, of social and economic injustice. At two metres a second, a million barrels of oil a day rumble beneath the communities spread along its five thousand kilometre path. Imagine: a trillion dollars a day travelling under your farm, orchard or field. In an Azerbaijani village, while visiting families living close to the pipeline,  Marriott and Minio-Paluello are nearly arrested for following the line and ‘looking around’.

BP would like this ‘energy corridor’ to be ‘safe, silent, unseen’ but in a heroic act of ‘making special’ The Oil Road’s art pays attention to hidden truths. A restoration song for the biosphere is wrested from the unstable mix of power, history, politics, geology, economics and engineering. Imaginative space is made for us to join our own dots, sowing seeds of awareness about how it could be unpicked and redrawn differently. The ‘geology of elsewhere’ comes to our front door, with our own political and financial institutions integral to its flow.  I imagine the constant pulsing of black crude oil beneath the ground. My finger swishes my phone and I zoom in on Sumqayit, one of the world’s most polluted landscapes, north of Baku. I’m awakened, complicit, connected. It’s become clear: our current energy realities need dismantling and replacing with alternative energy futures. 

From Baku to Bell Lane Creek

The book’s last words sound clear as a bell.  A tanker on its way to us is ‘a climate bomb, partly commissioned by our city. We can defuse her.’ The Oil Road becomes a ‘how to’ manual of how this could be done. A story of revealing but also of restoring, returning, recovering.

Platform combine art, activism, research and education, and have traced lines closer to home to re-imagine the renewal of rivers and our city. Down Bell Lane Creek I find what I’m looking for: a tidal bell hung high on a sluice gate where the River Wandle meets the Thames. The cold bites into my hand as I remove my glove to take a picture of this part of Platform’s 10 year old Delta project, part of their initiative to reveal London’s hidden rivers, which led to the creation of RENUE - a bold plan to install renewable energy systems in Wandsworth and Merton.  The inscription ‘Salmon, Swan, Otter, Heron, Eel’ honours wildlife found there once and that might be found again.  Once devoid of oxygen, the Thames has come back to life. The River Wandle, once polluted and rubbish-strewn is better loved. It has a festival, a trail, wild life returning, and at Merton Abbey Mills, an Archimedes Screw.  I want to ring the bell and say:  ‘Making Special. Pay Attention.’

‘The river is a metaphor of what can be done and a reminder that things can change...we can retreat from our untenable position in the war against the biosphere.....we can retreat from the Carbon Web and enable a different future for this city’.

We can retreat, we can recover.

Lucy Neal is a founding member of Transition Town Tooting and author of Playing For Time, a handbook of transitional arts practice that charts the imaginative and creative response to the challenges we face. lucy@lucyneal.co.uk

16 February 2013

Growing Campaigns

Norwich and the surrounding region is very well blessed with campaign groups covering a wide spread of activities, from those groups with a specific focus such as Norwich Stop the War coalition and Transition Norwich; to the broader organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth which campaign on a changing roster of issues. The Green Party too is active in many areas and organisations like the Women’s Institute (WI) also promote a positive social agenda.

Too often though as groups we operate in our own areas and have relatively little contact with many other organisations that contain like-minded people who might be interested in getting involved with our campaigns, but just don’t know about them. We need to expand our reach and bring together all the groups which are working for a better society and reach out to those individuals who are not members of any group but would support individual campaigns.

It’s precisely this idea which is behind the creation of Visions for Change (VfC) Norwich. VfC has been set up to provide a resource for groups and individuals in the area who are working for a just and sustainable world. Its objective is to improve communications about campaigns and events happening in the area, hopefully helping increase the numbers involved and the impact they can have.

The website is still in the early stages of its development at the moment, as is the gathering of interested people, but readers of the One World Column are precisely the sort of people we want to connect with and encourage to get active with more of the local campaign groups who so desperately need your support.

So if you are interested in protecting the environment, social justice and a fairer society then please visit the site and sign up; either as an individual or on behalf of any group you may be involved with. And once you have signed up, please pass on the message about Visions for Change and encourage others to join too; the more people who get involved the more we can achieve together.

Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

Meanwhile over in America scientists, politicians, climate activists, celebrities and ordinary people are coming together – and getting arrested together - to call on President Obama to stop the Keystone pipeline. If built this would deliver tar sands oil to refineries in Texas and open the way for a much larger exploitation of the Canadian tar sands.

This is a crucial battle for the environment because if we exploit all the tar sands available in Alberta, then not only is keeping the rise in global temperatures below 2C going to be completely impossible; but even keeping it below 4C is going to be very difficult. We have to hope – and give whatever support we can – that those opposing this scheme in America and Canada can carry the day and chalk a victory up for the people and planet against the oil industry.

10 February 2013

The Crystals of Catastrophe

by Peter Lanyon 

Sugar beet is such a feature of Norfolk farming that one may take it for granted. One expects to get stuck behind those lorries and to see the plume of steam above the Cantley factory. We are always hearing of new pests and diseases and of the wrong sort of weather for the crop, and we don’t notice that these headlines are interspersed with record-breaking sugar beet harvests.

We pass so many people every day who are obese that we don’t notice that either, however much harm we know it does to folk and however much of the NHS’s struggling budget is devoted to treating it.

Put these two commonplaces together and one wants to deny it, to say it must be more complex than that. It’s not. East Anglia is a centre for growing a drug that damages far more people than tobacco and narcotics, is not only legal but is blatantly flaunted, contains no useful fibre, minerals, or vitamins, is pure, white and deadly, and was castigated as causing “The Saccharine Disease” as long ago as 1974 By Dr T L Cleave.

There’s more. Because it’s a bulky crop torn out of the fields during the winter when they are wet, it requires machinery that destroys the structure of the soil, compacting the deeper layers and churning the shallower ones to lifeless mud. This became so bad a few years back that the mud being trundled out of fields onto the roads became an East Anglian scandal, only shelved by the development of more expensive machinery, but much of the soil ends as mud in the water courses as before. Bigger machinery still cajoles the denatured soil back into what passes for health in time for the next crop.

What is disguised during this rape of the land is that East Anglia’s topsoil is being removed from its fields and run into its ditches, streams, rivers, drains and sewage systems. Since the Romans navigated their way far inland along the regions’ many rivers, these waterways have become progressively silted up, a mere vestige of their former size and depth. When we boast of the Broads as a boating paradise, we conceal the fact that they are a trivial (and artificial) remnant of a one-time efficient and low-energy method of transport.

The silting up has increased enormously since fossil fuel replaced horses, and since mechanisation required our fields to be run together, with ditches and field-draining often modified in piecemeal fashion instead of through sensible overall planning. This is one of the main reasons for the increase in flooding, only you won’t often hear the Government or water utilities admit this – the farming lobby is too powerful for that. Indeed our farmers will tell you, correctly, that since 2006, reduced subsidies paid to them by the EU have forced them considerably to reduce the amount of sugar beet they grow.

The EU had to do this to conform to the World Trade Organisation’s requirements to reduce such subsidies to prevent sugar beet being sold at below world market prices. Thanks to the subsidies our farmers had been getting, they could afford to sell their sugar so cheaply that exporters could dump it on less developed countries still cheaply enough to put those countries’ own farmers out of business. Oxfam played a memorable role in attacking this shabby system, and our Government and our farmers have never forgiven them for it. But for Oxfam and other NGOs, we would be wrecking our fields even more with sugar beet than we are now.

I wish the tale might end there. It can’t. There are two big UK sugar firms, Associated British Foods (AFB) that produces Silver Spoon, and Tate and Lyle. While the two firms’ granulated white sugars are exactly the same substance – pure, white and deadly crystallised sucrose – Tate and Lyle has always been proud that its product is pure cane sugar, whereas AFB’s Silver Spoon is proudly home-grown beet sugar. Norfolk is near the northern limit for growing beet, and the tropical sugar cane has a higher sugar yield and is sometimes considered to be a more efficient use of land. The appalling conditions of sugar cane workers, however, mean that is nothing but hypocrisy. One can’t compare the sugar cane workers’ casualties from pesticides, cutlass injuries, heat, overwork and callous employers on the one hand with damage to our own soil from growing sugar beet on the other. Each ought to be avoided – even if it didn’t result in our addiction to sugar!

Associated with the restructuring of the sugar industry in the wake of the EU changes, several refineries in the UK closed down, and AFB began to shift their focus towards cane sugar, buying sugar importers Billingtons and then South African cane plantation owners Illovo. I shall let Simon Fairlie, joint editor of The Land (Issue 13, Winter 2012-13) continue:
 “In theory the increase in demand for sugar cane should have improved prospects for third world farmers. But most of the imports are not coming from smallholder producers in poor developing countries; instead the beneficiaries are more likely to be land-hungry agro-industrialists who want to cash in on the sugar-cane boom.”

The massive land-grabbing perpetrated by rich corporations across the world deserves a column of its own, but because of the war in Mali it’s appropriate to mention one such land grab there, up-river on the Niger from its broad inland delta on the fringe of the Sahara. The delta area depends on the river for its remarkably rich and complex ecosystem providing sustenance for three different ethnic groups.

Further up the river a barrage was completed by the French well before independence to realise a dream of irrigating a million hectares of farmland, but so far less than a tenth of it has been developed. To change this, Mali began looking for foreign investors, and one of those was Illovu, mentioned above as a part of ABF, owners of Silver Spoon, who planned to cultivate some 14,000 hectares of sugar cane there.

“Its contract stipulated that the regional government should first remove the 1,600 people occupying the land, and the project’s water needs should be fully met before anyone else on the distribution canal can receive anything. If there is any water left that is. The project will take 20 cubic metres a second from the River Niger during the first phase alone ……. According to the Office du Niger data, since 2006 the barrage has failed to discharge the official minimum of water downstream to the delta between January and May. There simply isn’t enough water now.”*

Illovu pulled out when the war started, but one can imagine the chaos it left behind.

As a young man I was deeply upset by Vicki Baum’s “The Weeping Wood”, about the sadness behind the history of rubber, and still feel unease about that material. If we renamed sugar as “the crystals of catastrophe” might it help us to wean ourselves off our dreadful addiction?

* - extracted from Fred Pearce’s book The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, Eden Project Books, 2012, featured in The Land (ibid), for which I am grateful.

2 February 2013

Do you see the cat?

by Pete Smith
“Seeing the cat” has served as a metaphor for achieving an understanding the teachings of Henry George since he set them out in his bestselling economic treatise “Progress and Poverty” in 1879. George sought to understand why there are recessions and poverty amid plenty and his investigation led him to identify the central role of land in the economy. The original story goes something like this:
"I was one day walking along Kearney Street in San Francisco when I noticed a crowd in front of a shop window... I took a glance myself, but I saw only a poor picture of an uninteresting landscape. As I was turning away my eye caught these words underneath the picture: 'Do you see the cat?' ...I spoke to the crowd. "Gentlemen, I do not see a cat in the picture; is there a cat there?" Someone in the crowd replied, "Naw, there ain't no cat there. Here's a crank who says he sees a cat in it, but none of the rest of us can." Then the crank spoke up. "I tell you," he said, "there is a cat there. The picture is all cat. What you fellows take for a landscape is nothing more than a cat's outlines. And you needn't call a man a crank either because he can see more with his eyes than you can with yours."
The metaphor works because the cat – like role of land in the economy - is utterly unmistakeable, once it becomes clear. I first “saw the cat” about three years and now I can’t help but see it everywhere. I see it when I walk up the High Street and pass street traders, empty shops and unaffordable house prices in estate agents’ windows. I see it when I walk past the Job Centre and derelict brownfield sites in other parts of town. I see it when the discussion turns to the barriers facing business start-ups. Any media coverage of economics, welfare dependency and poverty and again I “see the cat”.
The ramifications of these findings are far reaching and extremely relevant to the Transition Movement today as it develops initiatives to build resilience, re-localize the economy and create prosperity that is shared across the community. To be successful Transition requires social cohesion which in turn rests on equal access to economic opportunities and relative parity of wealth. However the Law of Rent is immutable – it is an economic reality that cannot be wished out of existence as we shift to a new economic paradigm. Landlords still need to be paid and new enterprises still need to secure locations at the going rate. The squeeze of rent will continue to be felt.
A possible future scenario is that land values will fall as the old economy unravels and landowners, finally recognising that there will be no “return to normal”, capitulate. This may then create the conditions for economic rebirth – a transition economy of new work opportunities, full employment and decent reward for an honest day’s work.  Examples of communities pulling themselves up by their bootstraps can be found in the past, particularly in the aftermath of wars and natural disasters. This “pioneer phase” is typically characterised by a high degree of cooperation and community spirit. Nevertheless as the economy blossoms it is inevitable that rents will rise once more and a wedge will again be driven horizontally through society, elevating those above it and pushing down those beneath.

What then is the solution to this problem? Henry George proposed that the economic rent of land be shared equally by the community rather than be allowed to flow into private pockets. He held that this remedy is in keeping with the highest principles of justice because people own what they create through their labour while the things found in nature, most importantly land, belong equally to all. Whether or not one accepts George’s remedy the crux of the matter is that as human beings we cannot survive without access to the natural environment. The big issue at the heart of economics therefore is the terms upon which people have access to land. Understanding this and developing an effective response is the challenge facing all of us who are engaging in the task of creating an economy that works for people and planet.
“Until there be correct thought, there cannot be right action, and when there is correct thought, right action will follow”. Henry George, Social Problems, 1886.
Pete Smith is co-founder of the Henry George Society of Devon, amateur economist, and entrepreneur.

Post originally published on Transition Network's Social Reporting Project during their recent week on Economics

Images: the cat in question; estate agent window, Totnes; derelict buildings - photos Pete Smith