25 March 2006

The new climate cynicism

By Andrew Boswell

A few weeks ago President Bush declared that America was "Addicted to Oil". Was this a new found honesty marking the death of 'Climate Scepticism' in post-Katrina America?

Well, Climate Scepticism' was never viable – it was a mirage cynically created by powerful Oil interests, an attempt to fool the public that there was an alternative scientific view on climate change.

But Bush's speech does mark a new era: "climate scepticism is dead, long live climate cynicism". Its message was we are oil addicted but we can develop brave, new techno-fixes - promoted by and protecting the same corporate interests. The opportunity to tackle the greater, deeper addiction at the root of Western life was not explored - the addict in denial never wants to explore the underlying causes, and face real change.

It is investigated in the recent documentary film The End of Suburbia which shows how car dependency is deeply woven into the fabric of American life. For seventy years, planners have developed vast networks of roads and associated services like shopping malls. America is unable to heal its addiction, because it has been structurally 'built in' over many decades.

Instead, Opium dream like, a new mirage is needed to keep 'business as usual'.

Enter Bush's speech, part of a highly orchestrated campaign to promote a global, mega-scale biofuel commodity trade. The dream sweeping the world is that the global growth economy can continue business as usual by replacing endemic oil consumption with massive bioethanol production and consumption.

Just weeks later, a media fanfare accompanied the opening of the first E85 pump in the UK at Morrisons in Norwich last week - E85 being mix of 85% bioethanol and 15% petrol. A Google search shows that Norfolk had 5 seconds of fame as far away as Auckland and Beijing as glowing press reports described how "Harvest BioEthanol E85" is delivered through "environmentally-friendly pumps" featuring a new butterfly logo and a blue filling hose.

However, we won't be seeing queues at Morrisons for a while, as only specially adapted cars or one new model can actually run on E85 – and this is an image conscious, 'turbo' model. Such tokenism allows the better-off to salve their environmental conscience. Drivers really wanting to make a difference are better to dispense with image, and choose a conventional but economic model (ie Vehicle Excise Duty band A or B cars that generate less than 120 gms of C02 per km), and to keep to speed limits.

The hype breaks down further as:
  1. the Norwich E85 is imported from Brazil requiring fossil fuels for its transport

  2. recent research shows that there is only a 13% reduction in C02 emissions for sugar-based bioethanol compared to petrol (just 11% for E85), and

  3. more fossil fuel energy is required to produce it than it generates.
    • Could the UK develop an E85 economy? No, as we could never produce enough home grown bioethanol. Instead, the mass biofuels route would take us to dependency on imports with significant ethical issues. Yet, across the world, ever-expanding areas of cash crops for vehicle fuels are displacing local food production and decimating the livelihoods of small farmers and local people. Enormous areas of forests (our life-support systems) are being destroyed, with untold loss of wildlife and entire species, and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gasses.

      What about the new technology that Bush spoke of being able to 'deliver' within six years - 'cellulosic ethanol'? Heralded because its raw physics is more efficient – greater C02 savings than current sugar based technology and it can deliver more energy output than is put in. Could this deliver a US ethanol economy?

      Massive bioethanol burning could have unknown atmospheric effects - studies already show that it would increase atmospheric levels of the carcinogen acetaldehyde, and peroxyacetylnitrate (PAN - which damages genetic material, and an irritant to eyes and lungs). Increased use of ethanol in California has already caused significant increases in atmospheric ozone.

      Studies suggest, even given the vast mid-West croplands, that US food production would be impacted, and it is doubtful that the copious supplies of water required for the thirsty fermentation process are available. The biotech processes are in their infancy - the economic viability of mega-scale production and its early delivery are not givens.

      In attempting to solve one problem with mass scale biofuels, we may create a host of other problems. The energy climate crisis needs to be tackled at the roots. We must find ways to decouple prosperity from massive scale transport by localising and decentralising economies, and find happiness outside the unprecedented consumption cult and year-on-year economic growth.

      I am indebted to independent researcher Sue Pollard for many discussions on Biofuels.

    18 March 2006

    Tough on the causes of terrorism?

    By Rupert Read

    I was recently assaulted, for no reason. I was cycling on Marriott's Way, when a teenage lad punched me in the face, hard, as I cycled by. My girlfriend and I phoned the police: they came to find us in a patrol car, which was unfortunate, given that the kid who assaulted me was on foot, on a cycle-path!

    But however well the police were resourced, and however effectively they responded to crimes, it wouldn't actually solve the problem. What is really needed is to prevent this kind of mindless violence. What is needed - and this isn't easy, nor is it quick - is to end the societal malaise that makes some young people want nothing more than to punch a stranger in the face.

    New Labour once had a slogan, a slogan we've heard little of recently: 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'. People resort to crime because they are poor in an individualistic society which appears above all to value wealth, because they are not encouraged to value neighbours and strangers.

    Being 'tough on crime' is pointless unless one is prepared to be tough on crime's causes. It's pointless tackling the symptoms while ignoring the underlying disease. We need a real sense of community again. We need what Tony Blair is reluctant to countenance: redistribution of wealth. What community can someone living in socially-deprived parts of Mile Cross feel with relatively well-off total strangers from 'the Golden Triangle'? Two worlds collide, on Marriott's Way.

    What real sense of community can any of us have with the super-rich: Rupert Murdoch, Madonna, the Duke of Devonshire?

    If Britain fought a war on poverty, and gave people shared goals to believe in, crime would fall drastically. That would be: tackling the causes of crime.

    And that's why campaigns like End child poverty - a campaign, supported by the EDP, to transform the lives of the 3.6 million British children living under the official poverty line - are so important. This campaign provides a lead where perhaps the government is not doing.

    Now, what about terrorist crime? If we were going to be 'Tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism', what would we do differently?

    Well, we might start by acknowledging where our own country takes part in terrorism. The Oxford Dictionary defines terrorism as a "policy of seeking to obtain political demands by violence and intimidation". Remember 'Shock and Awe'? Remember the systematic terrorisation - the torture - of prisoners in Abu Gharaib and Guantanamo, and more recently the shameful photos of British squaddies found guilty of humiliating and torturing Iraqi civilians? Say no more.
    Next, we might look deeply to see what turns someone into a non-state terrorist (e.g. a suicide-bomber). What drives people to such despair that they turn themselves into human bombs?

    Maybe the grinding poverty suffered by most people in the non-Western world. Maybe feeling that there is something hypocritical in the West's insistence that we (including Israel) can have nuclear WMDs, but if you people ever try to get your hands on WMDs, we will annihilate you. Maybe the West's propping up of human-rights-abusing regimes across the globe, provided that their leaders are willing to do our bidding and sell us their oil. Maybe a searing sense of injustice at the seemingly-endless U.S. military presence in the Middle East, at the killing of a million Iraqis by US/UK sanctions in the 90s, and of over 100,000 Iraqis since March 2003; above all, at the vicious occupation of Palestine by the (US-sponsored) Israeli army.

    Maybe it is understandable then why ordinary people no different at birth from you or I become 'terrorists'. If you'd been brought up in a refugee camp, seen your parents humiliated daily, been deprived of economic opportunity, and given no effective non-violent outlet for your sense of injustice, maybe you too would have despaired.

    The truth is sometimes uncomfortable: it is our (Britain's and America's) unjust foreign polices - crucially, our propping up of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine - which are a pre-eminent cause of non-state terrorism.

    If global society fought a war on poverty, injustice and oppression, terrorist crime would fall drastically. That would be: being tough on the causes of terrorism. This week's Indonesian earthquake brought back memories of our world's wonderful response to the Boxing Day tsunami. Would it not be just as wonderful to pre-empt future terrorism; for instance by providing aid to the developing world on an unheard of scale? Let's Make Poverty History. Worldwide.

    11 March 2006

    Child Slaves to Old King Cotton

    By Marguerite Finn

    "Jump down, turn around
    - pick a bale of cotton !
    Jump down, turn around
    - pick a bale a day!"

    The song recalls the hard life of cotton-pickers long ago but that's all in the past now – or is it?

    A disturbing report by the Environmental Justice Foundation is particularly relevant in Fairtrade Fortnight, since cotton has recently joined the growing number of products to be granted Fairtrade Certfication. Cotton producers in West Africa have already been certified to International Fairtrade standards and farmers in India and Peru are working towards certification.

    But what about the world's second largest exporter of cotton - Uzbekistan? Uzbekistan exports around 800,000 tonnes of cotton every year. Europe, a major customer, buys US$350 million annually. You might think that the Uzbek cotton industry was a model of modern mechanisation thanks to re-investment by the State in its biggest earner. Think again.

    Instead of using machines to harvest the cotton like other major cotton-exporting countries, Uzbekistan's government uses children. Every Autumn, tens of thousands of children – some as young as seven – are drafted in to pick the cotton harvest by hand. They sleep in over-crowded barracks for weeks at a time. They miss up to three months education when they are despatched to the cotton fields, where the 'luckiest' amongst them can earn a meagre three cents for every kilo they pick of a product worth around $1.15 on the global market. Headmasters are issued with cotton quotas and made to ensure that the children pick the required daily amount. Those who fail to meet their target are punished with detentions, beatings, and told that their grades will suffer. Those who refuse to take part face academic expulsion.

    In addition to picking cotton, the children are also required to weed the cotton fields and apply pesticides to the growing crop. The chemical constituents are not revealed to the children or their parents. Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, told me: "It is heartbreaking to see small children compelled for months on end to work twelve hours a day in the cotton fields. It is also remarkable that people in the West do not realise that this cotton monoculture is the cause of the destruction of the Aral Sea." His new book reveals the dark underside of the Bush / Blair 'War on Terror' and their support for "one of the most hideous tyrannies on earth".

    It not just the children that suffer. Uzbek farmers are locked into a neo-feudal system akin to slavery and prohibited from owning the land they farm. They are forced to sign contracts stipulating that they sell their produce to the state for a price twenty times below the market price. Sometimes they don't get paid for months on end, or are forced to accept containers of low-grade vegetable oil instead. Unable to make a profit, farmers cannot afford to improve their production methods and are caught in a dependency relationship with the state.

    The international community is aware of the situation. An assessment by the World Bank classified 30.5% of the rural population (4.9 million people) as too poor "to meet their basic consumption needs". Uzbekistan signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose Article 32 recognises the right of the child "to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development" – which it blithely ignores. Closer to home, Uzbek cotton is sold on the international market through our own Liverpool Cotton Association.

    So what can we do?
    • The European Union could suspend cotton-related imports from Uzbekistan until it no longer uses child labour in its cotton production;

    • The UK Government could work with the World Trade Organisation to introduce conditions punishing manufacturers / producers who use child labour at any stage of the supply chain;

    • We could demand that all products containing cotton be clearly labelled with the country of origin of the cotton fibre.

    • We could choose cotton products with the Fairtrade mark.
    In 2001, researchers attempted to trace the origins of a pair of jeans on sale in Ipswich UK. Extensive research revealed that the jeans were made in Tunisia using denim produced in Italy and Germany from cotton grown in Benin, Pakistan and Korea. The jeans components had travelled over 40,000 miles before finally ending up in Suffolk!

    How about tracing the origins of the jeans in Norwich?

    4 March 2006

    Iran – a call for peace

    By Jacqui McCarney

    Wednesday is the 97th year of International Women's Day. This day was first marked in America in 1909, as women were struggling to participate in society on an equal footing with men. On the eve of the First World War it became part of the brewing peace movement in Europe and on March 8th 1917 Russian women took to the streets; sickened by the loss of over 2 million of their men folk, and desperate to feed their families, they demanded "bread and peace". Within days, the Russian Revolution forced the Tsar to abdicate and Russian women were given the vote.

    These women's agenda honed by the circumstances of their time has continued to call for equality and peace. It continues to reach out across national, cultural, ethnic, political, and economic boundaries to unite women the world over.

    With political leaders queuing up to be interviewed on Radio 4 Women's Hour before the last elections, boasting about the number of female MP's they have, and desperate to attract women’s attention, you would think that women here in Britain had at last been heard.

    But the recent publication of "Women and Work Commissions" findings makes for depressing reading – there is still a 17.1% pay gap between men and women. Women represent just over one fifth of the seats in the Commons and the global figures for 2005 stood at just 16% of women’s seats in parliaments.

    The rate of change in our seats of power is "alarmingly slow" according to Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, an organization which promotes women’s rights. Without first, a change in equality, the efforts to achieve the second aim, that of peace, are well nigh impossible - as is all too frighteningly clear today.

    With too few women in Parliament, it is rare for true feminine values to be represented - they have had to fight to survive a combative adversarial world which is still stereotypically male dominated. All too often for women to succeed and survive, they must abandon the feminine qualities which would allow them a fresh and different approach and adopt male modes of operating. The 'Iron Lady' was rewarded for a toughness that even few men possessed. We desperately need the more feminine qualities of empathy, cooperation and wisdom in the political arena – yet it is toughness and winning that are valued. The dominance of male qualities has become particularly exaggerated during the time of this Government. Blair's babes have turned out to be just more window dressing and the opportunity to introduce feminine values in parliament has been thrown away.

    Visit faslane365.orgAnd so the women's call for peace has never moved beyond the streets. In Northern Ireland, this meant stretching across sectarian divides, as is the case with women's peace movements in Bosnia, Israel, and Cyprus. Women held hands around the nuclear base in Greenham Common until it was shut down and now many of the same women are planning an audacious civil resistance initiative: a year long blockade of the Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland (http://www.faslane365.org/).

    This year International Women's Peace Day will be marked by a breathtaking collaboration between American and Iraqi women and women throughout the world. On that day, a delegation of nine Iraqi women and a group of American women will be handing a petition into the White House. The petition is circling the globe via the internet at this very moment with the aim of collecting 100,000 signatures. This initiative has been organised by CODEPINK, an American women’s advocacy group that has spent time in Iraq witnessing the conditions for themselves. They are demanding the withdrawal of American troops and set out a possible timetable for this.

    More crucially the women are calling to 'Stop the Next War Now'. They want America foreign policy "to shift in strategy, from a military model to a conflict resolution model." The next war, as insane and frightening as that prospect is, could be the likely attack on Iran. Many observers are increasingly certain that this is America's next move, and some even suggest that it will involve tactical nuclear weapons. As our Prime Minister has shown himself determined to support George Bush, he will find it difficult again to support all those calling for peaceful resolution.

    Women who care passionately about our world can be heard as a chorus of voices circling the globe calling "Enough". We have made that call for centuries, particularly the last hundred years. Peace can only be achieved by leaving behind the chauvinistic, dangerous world where might is right – the world sorely needs more empowered women promoting true feminine values to do this.

    Democracy Now!

    By Rupert Read

    'Podcasting' seems all the rage at the moment, the new 'in' way of accessing broadcast media over the internet. There is a fine example of how podcasting can offer exciting listening opportunities, at http://www.democracynow.org/.

    When I lived in New York, I got to know Amy Goodman (pictured below), the presenter of Democracy Now!, while she worked for local radio there. She is a real investigative journalist of the good-old-fashioned variety, a female version of John Pilger or Robert Fisk.

    Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Photo: Amy Goodman

    But why is her show called 'Democracy now!' Aren't Britain and America leading examples of democracies? What could it mean, to call for democracy in a country such as ours?

    True democracy would mean that we - all of us - were seriously involved in deciding the vital questions of our time: questions such as how to combat global warming, and how to spend our Council Tax. Consider for instance what democracy would mean, in connection with the current controversy on whether or not to build an incinerator at Costessey, right on the edge of Norwich. It would surely not mean that a small bunch of Councillors who had said not a word about the issue in their manifesto would ride roughshod over local opinion on the issue. No; it would mean that the local people were deeply involved, from the start, in deliberating on how to deal with the 'waste' problem.

    Consider the fascinating experiment begun a decade ago in Porte Allegre, in Brazil, which has now spread across much of that country, and that could be introduced here, if politicians were ready to will it: the 'participatory budget'. What happens is that, each year, the citizens of a municipality get together in an intense series of meetings taking place over weeks and months, and they decide collectively what will be in their Council's budget over the next 12 months. Now that's an exciting exercise in rule by the people!

    Karl Marx once remarked, "in Britain citizens are 'free' for one day every 5 years". If our system were more genuinely democratic, if it gave us more than just the occasional right to vote, then massive protest meetings and marches to try to keep us safe, healthy, free, and at peace, wouldn't be needed, as often as they are.

    In any case, most of the politicians we are permitted to choose between nowadays, under globalised market capitalism, barely even disagree with each other: for example, all three main political parties in Britain now favour further privatisation, and the giving up of yet more of our remaining national freedoms and rights to patently undemocratic bodies such as the World Trade Organisation. Only in small but increasingly effective parties such as the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Socialist Party does a different point of view prevail. One real hope for future, I believe, is more MEPs, MSPs, and, yes, MPs from these emerging voices for true democracy.

    It would be simplistic to treat the 'main' political parties as monolithic organisations. As EDP columnist Chris Fisher often reminds us, there is an interesting struggle taking place within the Labour Party, to change 'New Labour' policies espoused at the top by Brown and Blair. But again, the Labour Party, which used to be much more democratic than the British state, has given up much of its internal democracy: for the sake, allegedly, of 'electability'. So it will be very hard for the anti-New-Labour rebels ever to prevail.

    It may be that we hear a lot less about 'democracy' in the near future than we have done, over the last few years, from the British and US governments. Why? Because they have been shocked by what has just happened in Palestine – the victory of the 'wrong' side (Hamas), in the elections there. The Bush administration is unlikely to want to bring more 'democracy' to the Middle East in the near future, unless they can be confident that those elected will be those they want elected. The US and Israeli governments are likely to withhold aid en masse from Palestine, because its voters made the 'wrong' choice. Has the definition of 'democracy' become: whatever the US / Israel decides it is?

    The vote is surely worth having, if it still can produce results that don't go the way in which 'the coalition' would like them to. The vote does give we, the people something.

    But it was not what the Chartists fought for, in the nineteenth century; it was not what the Suffragettes fought for, in the early twentieth. They fought for democracy; they were given only the vote.

    And that's why I say: Democracy Now!