28 October 2006
Was Darwin right? Do the most intelligent, the most responsive to environmental change survive through thousands of years of painstaking adaptation and change? If you fail to adapt, then are you as dead as a dodo?
The human race has prided itself on being the species at the forefront of the race for survival – our bigger brains and superior intelligence have apparently placed us ahead of the pack. But when it comes to the knock-about world of politics, our biggest asset – brains - can be forgotten in favour of chest beating, tough talking brawn.
The overwhelming use of military force in Iraq and Afghanistan, the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people and now threats to Iran along with the so called war on terror have led to de-stabilisation and danger for all of us. North Korea is the latest country to flex its muscle but provocative as this is, it will benefit nobody to escalate tensions. Locking the world into a cycle of war and violence looks like a less-than-clever idea. While the Alpha males on all sides are puffing out their chests at one another, the horrific threat of runaway climate change that will threaten all life on the planet is largely being sidelined.
If Darwin was right, then humans, supposedly the most intelligent species on earth, might be realising in some hurry that current behaviour is not helping their survival chances and that something different is needed - perhaps as advocated by the political analyst Joseph Nye, who sees the use of 'Soft Power' as an alternative to the 'Hard Power' of US foreign policy.
Nye says Soft Power is "the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals". Although this is a move in the right direction, Nye seriously underestimates his enemies. How long would it be before we all see US 'soft' tactics as a cynical ploy to ensure the long-term goal of US imperialism?
Nevertheless, Nye's term 'Soft Power' is useful and it has been taken up in a more honest way by Lu Hsiu-lien, vice-president of Taiwan. She has travelled the world to talk about soft power with international leaders. In Taiwan she has demonstrated to the world the achievements in human rights, democracy, pacifism and humanitarism.
She has responded to the US-led war on terrorism by initiating the "Fight Global Terrorism - Provide Humanitarian Aid" campaign to bring aid to refugees in Afghanistan. She has launched numerous charities such as "Sending Love to India" and "Send Love To Tibet" to convey Taiwanese values to the rest of the world. A string of honours have come her way including the 2001 World Peace Prize.
Lu Hsiu-lien's ideas have not had a big impact in Washington and London; nevertheless there are plenty of similar ideas around just waiting to be taken up. One good example is a book by Scilla Elworthy and Gabrielle Rifkind, Making Terrorism History. They point to the overwhelming military power of the US, Britain, Russia and Israel alongside their persistent failure to subdue opponents and bring about peace.
Their book argues that such strategies will never be successful unless they address the full range of factors that fuel cycles of violence. The most important is the psychological and emotional effects of violence and humiliation – factors often missing from current approaches. This book offers numerous suggestions for breaking the cycle of violence but most important is the need to understand the roots of violence while avoiding actions that make violence worse. Soft power is not vague or escapist, it is not an opting out or appeasement, it is disciplined, insightful, and capable of considering our long term needs - "Preventing war works on the same principle as inoculation for small pox -it has to be done methodically, with proven vaccines, and a properly funded policy" - Scilla Elworthy.
'Soft Power' makes use of emotional intelligence, psychological intelligence and empathy, qualities often seen as more female than the mechanical, goal orientated qualities readily seen as male. Indeed Scilla Elworthy claims "tackling terrorism is women's work" and that the "future is female". We must not forget the men who have championed soft power - Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Kofi Annan and all those involved in diplomacy and conflict resolution. It is the quality of emotional intelligence and wisdom that should be valued and not gender.
One thing is certain, for the human race to survive we must change, these changes can’t evolve slowly; there simply isn't the time. We need Soft Power now and whether that comes from women or men is immaterial. 'Tough' talking politicians who favour force must be seen as the anachronisms they are.
21 October 2006
"Forward the Light Brigade! / Was there a man dismay'd? / Not tho' the soldier knew / Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply, / Their's not to reason why, / Their's but to do and die: / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred."
(Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1854)
With these familiar words, Tennyson immortalised the slaughter of British soldiers in the disastrous battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War (1854-1856).
Victorians reading the poem would have been well aware of Tennyson's implied criticism of the military command that had served the soldiers so ill. Yet for all that, they – and succeeding generations – did nothing to move away from a culture of war. For most of the 150 odd years since then, countries of the world – particularly the so called 'developed world' - have been locked into a mind-set of perpetual war.
Could it be that General Sir Richard Dannatt, UK Chief of the General Staff, has finally broken this mould? If so, this nation - and civil society as a whole - should be grateful to him. He spoke the unvarnished truth about the war in Iraq to a public sick of official lies and spin.
By speaking out, General Dannatt is ensuring that the British army will not suffer the same fate as Lord Cardigan’s men in the ill-advised Charge of the Light Brigade when, due to 'arrogant incompetence', the bulk of the brigade was lost in just 25 minutes – although in that case the arrogant incompetence was of a military rather than political variety. The situation in which the British Army finds itself today is a bit different: they are pinned down in a vicious, unnecessary and un-winnable war, entered into under false pretences at the behest of the US for their own political agenda. The point is: both now and at Balaclava, the fault was bad decision-making at the top.
Counterpunch has produced a horrifying review of the current situation in Iraq where some 655,000 people have died since the US/UK invasion in 2003; law and order does not exist and there are now so many bodies that their disposal has become a problem of waste management. Furthermore:
- Eight million Iraqis live on less than $1 per day;
- 96pc of Iraq's 28m people survive on basic food rations;
- 500,000 residents of Baghdad only have water for a few hours a day;
- 250,000 families in Basra have no homes and live with other families;
- Iraq's electricity generating grid is in a state of collapse;
$8.8bn given to the US-led provisional authority (CPA), headed by Paul Bremer, to rebuild Iraq disappeared without trace. Health services, once the most advanced in the Middle East, have effectively collapsed under the US/British occupation. More than 25pc of doctors have left the country or been killed since the invasion. Those remaining are shot at, threatened or kidnapped every day. Of the 180 health clinics the US pledged to build by December 2005, only four have been completed and none have opened. Hospitals are short of medicines, disinfectants, instruments, bed-sheets.
In one paediatric hospital in Baghdad, sick children are crammed three into a single bed; sewage leaks on to the floors of the operating rooms; flies hover around beds that smell of wet bandages. The Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) contains specific provisions about the delivery of healthcare services in occupied territories. Article 55 states that the occupying power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population. Article 56 states that the occupying power has the duty to maintain medical and hospital services and to combat the spread of disease. There has been an abject failure to carry out even minimal humanitarian duties.
Is it surprising that General Dannatt wants UK forces to leave Iraq sooner rather than later? An honourable man, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition – and maybe even with Kipling’s words in mind – he prefers to withdraw his troops from this dishonourable adventure:
"By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you."
(Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden 1899)
14 October 2006
Renowned environmentalist Professor Paul Ehrlich spoke at the recent British Association Science Festival of how we are eroding our "natural capital" – in his analogy, humanity is like "a rich kid spending without looking at the bank balance".
Far from living sustainably - when we live from a stable income of natural resources, renewed annually by nature’s cycles - we are now living off "capital", eating away at our very sources of security – soil, water, forest, fisheries etc.
Every year mankind's "borrowing" from nature hits a new record. Last Monday - October 9 - was calculated to be the day when we moved from spending "income" to "capital" for this year. For the remainder of the year, we are eating into our "ecological capital". In releasing their research, the New Economics Foundation noted that this annual day creeps earlier as consumption grows. "Ecological debt day" was on December 19 in 1987 and November 21 in 1995.
Ecological debt day effectively communicates another inconvenient truth. We have come to think of climate change as our greatest problem, and it probably is, but we face other very great dangers from rapid depletion of vital natural resources.
The double whammy is that climate change is set to make these losses happen much faster.
Take fresh water - a vital agricultural resource. We are seeing falling water tables, rivers running dry, and disappearing lakes. Aquifers are being depleted in many countries including the big three grain producers - India, China and the US.
Fossil aquifers are ones that are not connected to ground based water supplies and can not replenished – often the water is hundreds or thousands of years old. Once depleted, farmers can no longer irrigate and have to depend on rainfall to grow low yield crops. Agriculture is lost forever in arid areas such as the south west US.
In the North China Plain, aquifers are dropping at three metres a year and wheat farmers have to pump from depths of more than 300m in some places. China's grain peaked at 392m tonnes in 1998 – a level difficult to regain as irrigation water supplies are depleted.
Last week, Met Office scientists published key new research predicting drought threatening the lives of millions will spread across half the Earth by 2100. As water resources become more depleted, a general "global drying" effect from climate change will reduce supply – a deadly combination.
Disappearing glaciers - reservoirs in the sky – reduce fresh water supplies for huge areas of agriculture and mega city populations eg Calcutta. The massive mountain ranges above the Indian sub-continent – including the Hindu Kush and Himalayas - supply water to half of humanity in Central Asia, South East Asia, India and China.
As the changing climate raises sea levels and lowers water tables, sea water can penetrate into freshwater aquifers causing salination. As water losses and drought increases, these areas have to be abandoned, as there is no supply of fresh water to pump in. And roughly half the world's population lives within 40 miles of the coast.
Or take soil – which another veteran environmentalist Lester Brown calls "the foundation of civilization". Over long stretches of geological time, soil accumulated faster than it eroded, enabling agriculture and the rapid human development of the last few thousand years.
Some time in the 20th century soil erosion started to exceed its formation and now centimeters of soil created over millenniums can be lost in a single decade.
Rich countries saw massive social disruption with the huge soil losses suffered by America and Russia in the dust bowls of the 1930s Great Plains and the 1960s Soviet Virgin lands. Yet few know of the huge dustbowls today that will affect the South much more drastically, although satellite images pick them up easily. In January 2005 NASA picked up a dust storm, 5300km wide, moving out of central Africa. A shocking 2-3bn tonnes of wind-borne soil is estimated to leave central and west Africa each year.
Across Africa and Asia, deserts are advancing, as protective trees and grass are destroyed, and land is overgrazed. Loss of soil and desertification are undermining the basis of civilization, agricultural productivity and food security.
Faced with these harsh realities, rich countries are challenged to learn another way to live. If we look just at our country, 3.1 planets would be required to sustain the world’s population at UK levels of consumption – that is, "UK ecological debt day" is reached around late April.
To start repaying the debt, alternatives to Plan A – business as usual – are needed. Lester Brown's excellent book Plan B 2.0 offers one.
7 October 2006
By Liam Carroll
There has been plenty of debate in recent years about the virtues or otherwise of different forms of electricity generation. Faced with the prospect of cataclysmic climate change and dependency on foreign supplied fossil fuels, there has been general agreement that we have to move away from conventional gas and coal-fired power generation. Much of this argument has raged over whether we should have more giant off shore, or on-shore wind farms, new nuclear power stations or both.
Slightly over looked in this debate has been the role that micro-generation can play. Micro-generators are basically small scale methods of generating electricity that you can fit in, or on, your home or business premises. Small scale wind generators are a fairly familiar sight these days, but less well known methods of producing electricity from renewable resources include the wood chip-fired combined heat and power boilers that heat your water and your home and generate electricity at the same time. Pretty cool. The only problem of course is that they tend to be expensive. This means people don't buy them, which means that they never breakthrough into mass production, and therefore the price only comes down gradually. If they were cheap, we wouldn’t be having a debate about nuclear energy.
We are having a debate about nuclear energy though, however experts like Dr Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre on Climate Change Research has described the level of debate as 'abysmal'. Here are the reasons: by 2016 we are going to lose between 15 and 20GW of power which, out of a current capacity of 76GW, is quite a lot. Nearly all of our recently built generating capacity has been gas fired plant, which is still by far the most economic way to generate electricity. The Nuclear Industry Association has said, and these are the optimistic assumptions of the industry, that it would take 10-11 years to go through the regulatory process and construction phase before a new nuclear power station could start commercial operation. This is based on the assumption that the Government will be successful in 'fast tracking' the planning and consents process. It may well not be, and there are plenty of other resourcing problems for the industry – both in terms of available skills and vital components like reactor pressure vessel heads – that are likely to slow down the delivery of nuclear power. In short, low carbon generation from nuclear power is not going to arrive in a hurry, if at all.
This was pointed out by the Environmental Audit Committee in their report Keeping the Lights On: "over the next ten years, nuclear power cannot contribute either to the need for more generating capacity or to carbon reductions as it simply could not be built in time." And according to Tyndall Centre Director Kevin Anderson "With the UK's emissions of carbon dioxide continuing to rise, urgent action is necessary to curb the UK's contribution to climate change," and that "we simply do not have the luxury of waiting the decadal timeframe necessary to bring about such a supply transition (to low carbon generation from nuclear)." In other words we have to cut our emissions now and we have to bring in low carbon generation now, not in 11-16 years time. If nuclear can't be built on time we need renewables, and we need them in quantities.
Let us return to the world of micro-generation. The Micropower Council claims that micro-generation is on the verge of a mass market breakthrough. Photo-voltaics (solar panels), are in fact the fastest growing form of power generation in the world, showing an increase of 55% of installed capacity last year. This is mainly thanks to countries like Germany and Japan that lead the world in fitting solar panels. Germany installed 600MW last year – about half the capacity of Sizewell B. That represents a nuclear power station every two years.
Now the Micropower Council claims that Government needs to make its intentions clear on the desirability of mass market forms of generation. If they did so, by setting targets or supplying grants, then investors would quickly bring forward the money to set up mass production facilities. This is really quite an achievable task, and indeed a vital one if we are to seriously set about the task of producing electricity while only producing a small amount of CO2 (in production and shipping). The Government has not set targets for what proportion of the mix should come from micro-generation, but they could and there is still time to pressure them because the Energy White Paper is not due until March 2007. To find out more visit the Micropower Council website at http://www.micropower.co.uk/.