28 January 2006

What sort of energy policy would Bin Laden like?

By Rupert Read

So, the government has this week launched its long-awaited energy review. I have not had the chance yet to read all 77 pages of the 'consultation' document, but I have already noticed one interesting thing: nowhere in the document is there any mention whatsoever of terrorism.

Why might that be? Here are the only three theories I can think of, to explain the omission:
  1. There is no threat to nuclear installations in Britain from terrorism.
  2. There is a serious threat, but it would compromise our security to discuss it.
  3. There is a serious threat, and, if it were discussed, people might well get so scared that even pro-nuclear people would turn against nuclear power.
Theory (1) is obviously false: only last month, a group of would-be terrorists were intercepted at an Australian nuclear reactor, while plotting an attack on it. Former leaders from the most populous states in Australia and the US - former New South Wales premier Bob Carr and two-term governor of California Pete Wilson - have both publicly warned, during this past week, of mounting evidence of a potential nuclear strike on a Western country. "The nightmare scenario is a real one - the threat is very real," said Mr Wilson. "There is no question al-Qa'ida has been trying to obtain fissile material for a number of years." (Note that, if a plane were flown into a nuclear reactor, the terrorists wouldn't have even needed to have got hold of any nuclear material, in order to unleash a truly unprecedented catastrophe.)

Theory (2) might have a few grains of truth in it: it would be inappropriate to discuss in public detailed plans for protection of nuclear plants against potential attack. But it is quite obviously appropriate, for anyone who cares about their own survival, to discuss whether or not we as a people want to sign up to a technology that exposes us to serious risk of suffering the fallout from an 'incident' that could potentially be lethal on a scale far outstripping that of the al-Qa’ida attack on New York, and even of the 'coalition' attack on Iraq.

And so we are left with theory (3). And this theory seems to me alarmingly plausible, as an explanation for the astounding omission of any mention of terrorism, from the energy review document. For let us ask this question: if someone bent on terrorising Britain could write the government's energy policy, what would it say?

"Our country will in future rely on wind, wave, biomass and solar power”?
"We will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear by over 50% within 2 decades through implementing best practice energy-efficiency”?
"We will build a new generation of nuclear reactors spread around Britain”…?

Would a terrorist prefer us to depend on a few centralised nuclear power stations, or on millions of micro-generation systems for individual homes or communities, when it comes to security of a network?

And which would the terrorists stipulate when it came to potential targets for explosions? Nuclear waste stockpiles and nuclear power stations? Or factories making wind turbines and warehouses full of insulation materials?

Answers on a post-card please to Energy Review, Whitehall, London, UK, SW1…

The government tells us it wants to achieve 'energy security'. Such security should be treated as a two stage process:
  1. Security of electricity supply - avoiding political instability, and achieving diversity of supply. This counts in favour of a 'mixed basket' of renewables, from indigenous sources. It counts against relying on resources – such as oil, gas, and uranium – which come mostly from countries which are politically insecure!
  2. Forestalling any terrorist threat to energy generation – here, nuclear is much more vulnerable and deadly than fossil fuels such as oil and gas, which in turn are much more vulnerable and deadly than renewables (Don’t forget how easily a 'minor' disaster occurred at Buncefield oil depot).
    • Whichever way you cut the pie, it is reduction in demand for energy, implementation of energy-efficiency measures, and investment in renewables - and not reliance on fossil and fissile fuels from abroad - which offers the sure path toward energy security.

      A very good reason, then, to favour a long-term truly secure energy supply, is that, in these uncertain times, it will be least-attractive as a terrorist target. You can't really imagine terrorists bothering to fly a plane into a wind-farm or a tidal barrage. Let alone into mini-wind-turbines and solar panels on people's houses, or into an energy efficiency advice centre… It is these small-scale waves of the future that will deliver us genuine energy security.

      Many many thanks to Chris Rose for inspiration in writing this column.

    21 January 2006

    Night commuting in darkest Africa

    By Marguerite Finn

    It has been called Africa's forgotten war. It receives little media attention but the horrific war in Northern Uganda continues regardless.

    Uganda is a beautiful country. It lies along the Equator between the great East African Rift Valleys and has a population of about 20 million. Forty different languages are currently in use in the country – although English became the official language after Independence in 1962. The south has good rainfall and rich soils around its many lakes, while the drier northern savannah teems with big game.

    Map of conflict in Uganda
    Sadly, the acquisition of independence exacerbated the partition of the country into two economic zones with much of the south remaining a cash-crop-growing area while the north became a labour reserve. This socio-economic split ensured that the administrative and commercial sector was concentrated in the south, while the northerners controlled the army. Consequently, the emergence of a Ugandan nationalism was impeded and these regional divisions spawned the resentment and mistrust responsible for much of the political instability and violence there today.

    Since 1986 an anti-Government rebel movement, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has been waging a brutal war in Northern Uganda. It uses terror in a number of appalling ways, notably the forced abduction of children who are put into the front line of the LRA forces. Many of the children are between 10 and 14 years of age and nubile girls are given as "wifelets" to senior commanders (who prefer them as they are less likely to be HIV+). An estimated 20,000 children have been abducted from their homes since the war began nearly twenty years ago.

    Furthermore, over 90% of the population is confined (on Government orders) to internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps. This is deemed necessary for their personal security and there is a ban on anyone moving out of the camps by more than 2km. This makes it impossible for people to till their fields, plant crops or harvest food – making them almost totally dependent on supplies from the UN World Food Programme (WFP). We are talking about 1.5 million people.

    Life in the camps is grim – in fact, one thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs) die every week in Acholi. This shocking fact is the conclusion of a survey conducted by the Ugandan Government and UN Agencies. Most of the dead are children who are dying of malaria, diarrhoea, HIV/AIDS and violence. Families living in rural areas surrounding the camps urge their children (anywhere from 4 to 17) to leave their homes and walk into a camp where they sleep – usually on the ground in the open – to avoid being abducted by the rebels. These children are called “night commuters” and an estimated 30,000 of them make this journey every night.

    Ugandan Children

    Ugandan Children. Photo credit www.invisiblechildren.com

    What does the Lord's Resistance Army want? The leader of the LRA is a self-styled prophet called Joseph Kony who aims to overthrow the Ugandan Government and rule the country according to the Biblical Ten Commandments. In 2003 Ugandan President Museveni referred the Lord’s Resistance Army to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to determine if the LRA is guilty of war crimes. The ICC investigation opened in January 2004 and in October 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four senior leaders of the LRA.

    This has caused sharp differences between various groups in Uganda. Christian Aid workers feel that the ICC is undermining traditional local justice mechanisms, and that an ICC conviction of Joseph Kony and officers would make a negotiated end to the conflict impossible. Instead, they propose a reconciliation process called Mato Oput, similar to the way enmity and resentment were tackled in South Africa to end apartheid. The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) composed of Christian and Muslim leaders also expressed concern at the intervention of the ICC at this stage in the negotiations. Amnesty International on the other hand sees it as an important opportunity to reverse the present impunity for crimes that have caused unimaginable suffering to thousands of people in northern Uganda.

    Photo: Malcolm Harper

    How can we possibly help? Malcolm Harper, former Director of the United Nations Association – UK, and two friends, are undertaking a sponsored walk to raise funds for ‘Friends of Northern Uganda’ (FONU). FONU’s work includes helping escaped or rescued abductees with school / training bursaries, giving them a chance of a better life. FONU works in cooperation with the UN, and local organisations to provide clean water, sanitation and other facilities in the IDP camps.

    The walk may be sponsored by cheques (payable to FONU) sent to Malcolm Harper, The Cottages, Church Lane, Charlbury OX7 3PX (Tel: 07778 450 515).

    14 January 2006

    Reconnecting with nature

    By Andrew Boswell

    Sadly many of us today live indoor lives, largely or completely cut off from nature. It is poignantly sad for young people, often severely limited from venturing from home. Studies show what we know - that children are playing for less time and less in nature.

    In one or two generations, the freedom to roam and play in nature, discover fields and woods, has been replaced by consoles, joysticks, mobile phones and virtual reality. We can expect that this rapid social change will bring disharmonies and dis-ease to the human spirit.

    The Californian eco-poet Gary Snyder captured separation from nature when he wrote "Nature is not a place to visit - it is home". Yes, many of us are fortunate enough to visit nature, but Snyder suggests more - that we completely connect - for without that we are psychically homeless. How many of us are?

    A recent book by Richard Louv "Last Child in the Woods" explores the possibility that the rapid rise of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), barely known before the 1980s, is related to children's loss of contact with nature. Thoroughly researched, his book suggests that we might need a new term - Nature Deficit Disorder.

    Louv explores reasons for "keeping our children out of the woods", which include: fear of harm by strangers - actually media generated panic as such incidents are not increasing; officious attitudes to keeping parks "neat and tidy"; children locked in desolate, deprived urban environments; fast-paced lifestyles and increasingly "time poor" children. He points out "It takes time - loose unstructured dreamtime - to experience nature in a meaningful way" - this sort of time is a scarce resource in materialistic world that sees free play as a "waste of time".

    But human beings are very adaptive and the damage can be repaired by reconnecting people with the living Earth - so they can see, hear, smell, touch and explore nature in a free, unstructured way. We could say the homelessness is healed by coming home again.

    So what can be done to turn around this dangerous trend? The growing Forest Schools movement is one step. Originating in Sweden and Denmark, these schools use the outdoors as part of children's learning of practical and social skills. Children are set small manageable tasks, some with their hands in the soil - real connection. Worcestershire is an area leading the way in giving children a good foundation for life and future learning.

    It has been found that the combination of freedom and responsibility has been particularly beneficial to children with little confidence or challenging behaviour. Crucially, the experience is fun and child led. This approach may be combined with conventional schooling as ideally children should attend Forest School sessions weekly, throughout the year, therefore experiencing all weathers and the changing seasons.

    The Government would be doing something truly valuable for the future if it developed such programmes within the mainstream with funding and skills to make them work. By bringing children home to nature early in their lives, it would be healing the disconnection from nature early - hopefully healing it before it may become conditioned as a fear or abhorrence of nature, or an addiction to technology. Such contact with nature could be reinforced in mainstream schools themselves by providing gardens which children could participate in looking after.

    Many adults also desperately need help to reconnect to nature. The World Health Organisation estimates that depression and depression related illness will become the greatest source of ill health by 2020 - this growing epidemic may in part be caused by the same disconnection from nature.

    In continental Europe, there is a growing movement, called "Green Care", aiming to mitigate this. People may visit farms to assist their mental and physical health - psychiatric patients, people with learning difficulties or drug abuse history, disaffected young people, elderly people and social services clients.

    Farmers benefit by receiving payments for taking patients, and free labour, and can still sell their produce. Whilst there are hundreds of Green Care farms in each of Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Austria and Belgium, there is no provision in the UK. With the benefits to mental and physical health, we should surely develop such a programme in the UK.

    Here in Norfolk, it was good to read last week that the RSPB at Strumpshaw Fen has employed a people engagement officer, Jennifer Toms, to encourage people to "explore wildlife, relax and interact with nature".

    We should all take care of ourselves, taking time out to enjoy nature, and connect to it in "loose, structured dreamtime". This way we can all come home too.

    Inspired by Buddhist Retreat
    December 2005

    7 January 2006

    Crude oil

    By Jacqui McCarney

    In a couple of weeks we will know the results of the latest elections in Iraq. Hope for the fragile democracy born of chaos, violence and unthinkable suffering may offer a little light to Iraqis wishing at last to have some say in the future of their country. But despite George Bush crowing that the elections are "one of the most amazing achievements in the history of liberty", we all know that democracy in Iraq is up against formidable obstacles - not least those obstacles created by the "liberating" forces themselves.

    For behind closed doors and against the democratic wishes of the people, the country's major asset, oil, is in the process of being handed over to multinational oil companies. An extensive and detailed research report called Crude Designs published at the end of last year by PLATFORM and a group of NGOs including War on Want and New Economics Foundation (NEF) uncovers the truth about the future of Iraqi oil and the consequences of these decisions on the fledgling democracy.

    The West's covetous attitude to Iraqi oil goes back a long way - in this time of increasing energy shortage, the war on Iraq begins to make complete sense even to the least cynical of us. As Andrew Simms, Policy Director of nef says "Instead of a new beginning Iraq is caught in a very old colonial trap."

    In 1918 the first Secretary of the War Cabinet, Sir Maurice Hankey, wrote: "Control of these (Iraq / Iran) oil supplies becomes a first class British aim". In 1925 Britain installed monarch King Faisal and signed a "concession" contract with a consortium of British, French and later American oil companies, known misleadingly as Iraq Petroleum. The contract was modelled on one used widely in the British colonies and for a period of 75 years the terms were frozen. In the 1930 this consortium obtained the rights to all the oil in the country and Iraqi calls for even a modest 20% stake were denied.

    Frustration grew at the unjust terms of these deals and the ultimate conclusion was the nationalisation of many of the oil industries in the Middle East. In Iraq this happened in two stages in 1961 and 1972. Nationalisation meant that the state and not foreign companies had control of the industry. This did not fulfil Western interests.

    No surprise, then, that in 2003 Jack Straw Foreign Secretary announced that one of the Foreign Office priorities was "to bolster the security of British and global energy supplies".

    Observers waited for the triumphal privatization of Iraq oil, but while Paul Bremer introduced widespread privatisation of the Iraq economy in 2003 and 2004, he did not include the oil industry. Why?

    The oil companies had come up with an ingenious form of contract known as production sharing agreements (PSA). PSAs keep ownership with the state but by setting the terms the right way could deliver the same outcome as the older form of "concessions". The trick of making it look like ownership was in public hands is intended to calm nationalist pressures within the country.

    PSAs are extremely complex, often running into hundreds of pages of legal, technical, economic language. The oil industry employs the most experienced accountancy firms and lawyers to ensure it all works in its favour. These contracts are for fixed terms of between 25 and 40 years and once signed the Iraqi people will have to accept the consequences for decades.

    Economic projections published in "Crude Designs" show that the oil development being proposed will cost the Iraqi people billions of dollars in lost revenue, while providing foreign companies with enormous profits - rates of return of 42% to 162%. The report's authors suggest several workable alternatives which would provide adequate capital for the Iraqi people to develop the industry themselves.

    Instead, PSAs represent a fundamental redesign of Iraq's oil industry, shifting it from public into private hands. This is happening without public consultation or scrutiny and with the loss of democratic control of the oil industry to international companies.

    The Financial Times responded to the news of the use of PSAs in the oil industry in Iraq by saying: "The move could spell a windfall for big oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch, Shell, BP, and Total Fina Elf".

    As lead researcher of the report, Greg Muttitt of PLATFORM says: "The form of contracts being promoted is the most expensive and undemocratic option available. Iraq's oil should be for the benefit of the Iraqi people, not foreign oil companies."