28 April 2013

Is Online Activism Enough

I’ve clicked to save the bees, e-mailed my MP about the NHS and even sent a letter to the President of Ecuador about oil drilling in their national forest. Plus I tweeted about the actions I had taken and shared the link on Facebook – what more do you want?

With the dramatic success of Avaaz and 38 Degrees, plus the move into online activism of most of the major campaigning organisations, from Greenpeace to the WWF via Action Aid and Oxfam, it seems like our inboxes and social media sites are filled to bursting with petitions we can sign and emails to send all aiming to make the world a better place. Some of these gather hundreds of thousands, or even millions of signatures, demonstrating the popular appeal of campaigns to save the NHS or protect the Arctic.

But just how much can be achieved through online activism and can we really change the world with the click of a mouse? Well there’s some evidence that they can have a significant impact. Take the UK government’s plans to sell off our forests to private interests. 38 Degrees launched a highly effective campaign attracting lots of support and publicity such that the government first decided to appoint a review panel and then backed down completely on the sale plans. Tapping into the concerns of an already divided government this demonstration of people power proved far too much to resist.

For every success though there are plenty of examples of campaigns which have just been ignored. One of the great strengths of the online campaign – how easy it is for everyone to participate – is also one of its fundamental weaknesses. If it’s so easy to participate it’s also easy for those on the receiving end of the demands to consider that the signer hasn’t really demonstrated any particular commitment to the cause.

Many years ago it was explained to me by someone who had worked in an MP’s office that there is a clear hierarchy of communication and the attention it will receive. At the top is the handwritten letter, followed closely by a typed, hand signed letter. After that comes a one-off email and right at the bottom is the generically generated bulk email you can create with a few quick clicks online. The impact of the first of these I was told, was hundreds of times that of the last.

So while the online campaign can a long way to raising the profile of an issue, on its own it probably isn’t going to change the political landscape. For that you need far fewer people but demonstrating a much greater involvement.

It’s an inevitable fact that in order to gain leverage, a campaign needs to attract media attention, and this is much easier to do with people on the streets than it ever will be with online activism. So that’s why this weekend saw protestors, many dressed in bee costumes, on the streets of London calling on the government to ban harmful pesticides. Their numbers were tiny by comparison with those that had signed an earlier petition or emailed the environment secretary; but their impact was far greater for being so much more newsworthy.

I don’t in any way want to put people off participating in online activism. It has a valuable role to play and in the right circumstances can win significant battles; in addition to which it can help greatly to bring people to greater involvement in a campaign. I do however want to suggest that physically turning up at meetings and going to demonstrations is likely to have more impact and remains crucial in the delivery of a successful campaign. It shows real commitment to the cause and brings people together in a way which online campaigning can never do.

23 April 2013

The 'In Vitro' World of the 21st Century

Marguerite Finn

Yesterday I received my copy of the New World magazine from the United Nations Association.  The theme of this issue was ‘Can Technology Save the World?’  Initially, I thought the editors would answer the question in the affirmative – there being so many wonderful advancements in science and technology.  One development that was mentioned in New World was the arrival of test tube meat.  Apparently a team of Dutch scientists is very close to producing edible, lab-generated meat – with a product-launch planned for Spring 2013. If this happens, it will be at just the right time because the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the global demand for meat will double in the next 40 years.  The global population is, after all, heading for nine billion and because of rising standards of living – especially in Asia – more and more people are demanding meat to eat. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), livestock already account for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, 10% of the world’s fresh water supplies and around half of all agricultural land.  So producing meat the way we do now is unsustainable. 

How would we get on with artificial meat – also known as in vitro meat, cultured meat or test tube meat ?    In vitro meat should not be confused with vegetarian foods such as Quorn sausages and other products.  Most meat is animal muscle. The process of developing in vitro meat involves taking muscle cells from an animal and applying a protein that helps the cells to grow into large portions of meat. Once the cells have been obtained, additional animals would not be needed. As of 2012, thirty laboratories around the world have announced that they are working on research into artificial meat. Scientists have to make the product profitable for corporations in order for them to take this emerging technology into consideration and to invest in it.  The challenge will be finding an industrial process, rather than a scientific process to make in vitro meat cheaper than conventional meat.  Assuming that the proper materials are used and conditions remain ideal, two months of in vitro meat production could deliver up to 50,000 tons of meat from ten pork muscle cells.  So, is it a technological challenge worth pursuing?  Will it be enough to stave off food poverty in the coming decades as the world’s population increases relentlessly.

Another technological ‘miracle’ is the fact that on-demand organ transplants have moved a step closer. Scientists have for the first time successfully engineered a synthetic kidney - a break through that could have massive benefits those waiting for donor organs. Scientists led by Harald Ott of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston created the synthetic kidney using an existing bioengineering process that has previously been used in the manufacture of artificial windpipes and in successful human transplants.  Dr Ott is quoted as saying “ In an ideal world, such grafts could be produced on demand from a patients own cells, helping us overcome both the organ shortage and the need for chronic immunosuppression”  (Independent 14 April 2013).
It is estimated that some 100,000 people in the United States are waiting for a donor kidney. The above research will not yield a viable organ for human transplantation for a number of years yet, but the techniques used here are incredibly promising for future research and point to one day reaching the goal of being able to quickly manufacture new organs for those in need, something that could save countless lives.  Greater understanding of genetics and micro-organisms is changing the nature of medicine.
These are just two examples of wonderful developments in science and technology – but are they going to create a better world for its inhabitants?  Not necessarily so.  On issues that require far-reaching compromises, short-term and nationalistic preferences tend to dominate.  For instance, Monsanto’s development of specially coated anti-drought seeds did not really benefit those who needed the benefit most: the small farmers of India.  “It seems increasingly obvious, as the third millennium evolves, that we must adapt to the likelihood that environmental, health, security and resource problems will persist at a threatening level.  Each of these technological developments could be used to magnify the repressive power of governments to create new instruments of harm. For all the euphemistic correctness in ministries of “defence” no security system spurns the construction of offensive capability. Technology itself, in the electronic, nanotechnology and cyber fields, has become an instrument of military power.” (UNA-UK New World, Spring 2013)
In fact, the whole advance of science and technology requires a context of effective regulation and supervision, as well as good government and international co-operation – rather than a complacent feeling that we can do as we like because technology will save the planet.

One thing that will save the planet is some form of population control.  There are just too many of us on this earth and our numbers are increasing to unsustainably.  2013 is predicted to see the biggest baby boom in the UK in 40 years.  Nobody can work out the reason for this but adding an extra generation of consumers to an over-burdened planet does not seem the best way of going about things.  Earlier, I mentioned the countless lives that organ growing would save, but wouldn’t this make the overpopulation even more dire?

Martin Luther King had some wise words to say about population: "Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem."

Up to now, the subject of over-population has been the ‘elephant in the room’ – the subject that no one will discuss but that is changing – and the BBC (Radio 4) has hosted a series of talks and debates on the issue.  It is time to listen and join in.

10 April 2013

Does it matter if you believe?

Guest blogger Maria Crutchley has some thoughts on the spiritual aspects of life.

I have never really known what to make of the ‘spiritual’ movement; at times I have been dismissive, more often I have been apathetic, but now I am intrigued. Even so, when I heard about the Mind, Body and Spirit Fair at the Forum last weekend, it was not the chance of having my aura interpreted, tarot cards read or talking with alternative therapists that lured me in. Instead, I just wanted to pop in and say hi to a friend I knew was exhibiting and offering sound healing. If I’m honest I have no idea of how it works, I just wanted to support her, as she has done for me in the past.

Pottering around the show, I bumped into someone else she had recommended to me, an acupuncturist I had originally talked (gently nagged) my ‘spiritually sceptical’ husband to use because of reoccurring knee problems. Given I was feeling very low at the time, I decided to give it a go too. I honestly don’t know to what degree it was the needles or the opportunity to talk openly and in a calm environment; I certainly needed the latter, but it certainly helped me turn a corner.

It is easy to be sceptical, I hadn’t read, tried or really thought seriously about alternatives. I don’t think I am that odd in just ‘getting on’ with life, and not giving too much thought to how to live a happier enriched life. Surely new shoes, clothes, nice house, fine dining etc all provide that, don’t they? Well I’m not so sure, I mean I can easily fall into the trap of drooling over the latest Mulberry handbag, but 8 months ago my usually happy bubbly natter slowly morphed and I realised I was heading down a dark tunnel. From the outside I appear to have everything a girl could want, there really was no justification for this bleak outlook on life. 

When you are feeling blue, you take notice of those who seem naturally happy. You question what it is that keeps them smiling, and jealously ponder how you might tap even an ounce of that joy. Now I am sure my friends would describe me as a warm, open and happy person, but I wonder whether they have noticed that I very rarely let slip any personal troubles. I have my walls built high, like a lot of people do. The interesting thing is some people have a great knack for slowly digging away the mortar – releasing one brick at a time.

Now it is often said that things enter your life when you need or are most receptive to them, and that was certainly the case for me. Those happy people I was drawn to, all had a few things in common. They had a confident and calm presence about them, they listened, smiled and talked in that order, and instantly gave the impression that they cared as much about you as they did for their self. It was this nature that allowed me to feel safe enough to open up to a complete stranger; certainly not something I would ever have considered doing in the past – I still hate the thought of people ‘in my head’ though I’m guessing this is my inner control freak.

It sounds so clich├ęd to say the fair had such a positive aura about it, but to stand in the middle and look around, that really is the feeling you got. I could account for an element of this with proven business knowledge. Sales people who know their product well, believe and talk about it confidently, will succeed. But whether you believe or not, those providing these services really do think they can help and actively try to do so. Thus the forum was filled with positive energy. While we can accept as scientifically proven that a smile is contagious, some people struggle with the concept of ‘energy transfer’. For me the energy transfer is just an extension of a smile (warning though the opposite is also true, another person’s frown can also bring you down). So it stands to reason that regardless of whether you actively believe, and for whatever reason you may come into contact with spiritual people, they can offer you the potential to feel better.