31 October 2009

It's the inequality, stupid

By Rupert Read

Are big ideas dead in politics?

I don't think so. For there is a big idea that is coming back, and strongly. The idea is: equality. That people are equal to each other. That economic and social inequality is a huge harm, in itself.

The leading scholar of inequality is Richard Wilkinson. Here are a few of the key results that Wilkinson has shown:
  • Life expectancy is closely related to differences in income within societies, but unrelated to differences in average income between rich countries, and only fairly weakly related to differences in average income between poor countries. It is mainly inequality itself that is leading people to die younger, not income levels.
  • The UN index of child wellbeing in rich countries is related to inequality, but not to GDP.
  • Virtually everyone in a society is harmed by the society being unequal.
The list of ills that can be attributed to inequality is shockingly long. Wilkinson has demonstrated significant connections between all of the following and the level of inequality within a society:
  • Levels of trust (i.e. far more people trust strangers in more equal societies than in less equal societies)
  • Levels of mental illness
  • Infant mortality, and also children's educational performance
  • Obesity (people are fatter in more unequal societies)
  • The status of women, and teenage pregnancy rates
  • Homicides, and also imprisonment rates
  • Voting rates (i.e. the more unequal a country, the lower the participation in elections)
  • Levels of friendship (if you live in an unequal country, you probably have less friends than if you live in a more equal country)
  • Levels of (self-reported) happiness.
Wilkinson has shown convincingly that there are remarkably strong influences of inequality in itself on well-being. These considerably outstrip the influence of absolute poverty (certainly across the entire 'developed' world), and are not accounted for by differing lifestyles of the rich and poor (i.e. the poorer lifestyle on average of the poor (higher levels of drinking alcohol, nutritionally-worse food intake etc.) does not account for more than a fraction of the differences found). Here is Wilkinson, in his recent book, The Spirit Level:
"I, like most researchers working on this problem, [had] assumed that the health differences we saw between different classes resulted from differences in material living standards. (…[S]tudies had shown that differences in health-related behaviour – differences in drinking, smoking, exercise and so on – failed to account for the bulk of the health differences.) Most of us assumed that our task was to identify what aspects of the differences in material living standards contributed to which diseases. But what has become clear from numerous studies over the years is the surprising success of psychosocial variables in explaining differences in … mortality."
The main such 'psychosocial variable' is: inequality. What Wilkinson is saying here is that, while inequality may well exacerbate lifestyle deterioration, it is in itself the main problem. (Wilkinson develops detailed hypotheses as to why: including the effort to emulate the rich in one's level of consumption, the stresses this involves, and the damaging psychological effects of failure to successfully emulate one's 'superiors' or to attain their level of wealth.)

Wilkinson concludes:
"There are still people who say that greater material inequality does not matter, who think that only the absolute levels of income and wealth enjoyed by a society matter. That is a view that can no longer be sustained in the face of the evidence."
Wilkinson has launched a new non-governmental organisation / think-tank, to promote the idea that what we ought to be doing above all, all of us, is trying to make our society more equal. Check it out: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/. It's a whole new way of seeing our world.

24 October 2009

The Commonwealth @ 60

By Marguerite Finn

The last four years have been good years for diamond anniversaries: the United Nations in 2005, the local branch of the United Nations Association in 2008 and now in 2009, the Commonwealth is sixty years old.

All three organisations originated in a world reeling from the devastation of two World Wars, to promote common humanitarian values.

The Commonwealth of Nations came into being in 1949. Committed to racial equality and national sovereignty, the Commonwealth became the natural association of choice for many new nations emerging from decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Queen is Head of the Commonwealth, which today consists of fifty-three independent member states, representing over a quarter of the world's population. Much of the Commonwealth's excellent work goes on behind the scenes, sharing expertise and quietly helping members along the road to democracy.

The Declaration of Commonwealth Principles was issued in 1971 stating: "We oppose all forms of colonial domination and racial oppression and are committed to the principles of human dignity and equality. We will therefore use all our efforts to foster human equality and dignity everywhere and to further the principles of self-determination and non-racialism".

The Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meet next month in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. There will be lots to talk about – including climate change and global economic crises - but behind the bonhomie exist on-going violations of the Commonwealth's core principle of equality. I will focus on just two, which are happening with the connivance of two of its biggest members: Australia and India.

The Australian Government has bowed to the uranium mining industry at the expense of the Aboriginal people, over the issue of mining royalties. Having carved up swathes of Aboriginal land for uranium extraction, the government proposes the mining company pay royalties only if they are making a profit! Senator Scott Ludlam says this will disempower the Aboriginal people, leaving them with a lasting legacy of uranium-contaminated land and no compensation. A recent study shows that cancer rates among Aborigines near Australia's biggest uranium mine appear to be almost double the normal rate, yet a Commonwealth scientist denied that communities living near the mine are being exposed to "abnormal levels of radiation". The Rudd Government appears seduced by the uranium mining industry as it continues to follow the wishes of the Uranium Industry Framework, an unrepresentative, industry-dominated body created by the former Howard Government

A similar situation exists in Orissa in India – involving the British company Vedanta. The British Government demanded a change in the company's behaviour after investigating a complaint submitted by Survival International against Vedanta's proposed bauxite mine on the Dongria Kondh's sacred mountain. The UK ruled that Vedanta did not consider the impact of the construction of the mine on the tribe's rights and failed to put in place an adequate consultation. Vedanta refused to participate in the investigation. Prize-wining author, Arundhati Roy said: "If Vedanta is allowed to go ahead with its plans for mining the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa for bauxite, it will lead to the devastation of a whole eco-system and the destruction of not just the Dongria Kondh tribal community but eventually all those whose livelihoods depend on that ecosystem". Meanwhile, the Indian Government encourages and protects Vedanta.

Here we have two Commonwealth countries in breach of Commonwealth Principles. Could the CHOGM meeting in November put pressure on the Australian and Indian governments to uphold the rights of the indigenous peoples in their countries, showing that principles still count for more than corporate greed?

1969, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Arnold Smith said: "The Future of the Commonwealth will be what its member governments, its member peoples and those who represent them in member parliaments, choose to make of it". In 2009, are its member peoples playing second-fiddle to corporate interests?

17 October 2009

When the boat comes in?

By Juliette Harkin

I went to watch a film about fish this week at the Garage Theatre in Norwich. I am not really interested in fish and I don't eat fish. But, the screening of The End of the Line gripped me from beginning to end, with its breathtaking underwater filming and powerful messages. It told us in no uncertain terms that, as leading scientists all agree, we have drastically depleted our supplies of large fish such as bluefin tuna. The filmmakers ask us to consider what a world without fish would really be like. They convince sceptics that it will affect me – as I swim on a beach that is infested by jellyfish because we have eaten all their natural predators.

On current projections we will run out of most sea fish by 2050. Yet the EU has run shy of introducing – and adequately policing - tough but essential quotas for the massive commercial fishing industry, which uses the most obscene methods to make big profits and strip our oceans of sustainable stocks of fish.

The related costs of massive over-fishing are movingly and beautifully potrayed in this film, through the story of traditional fishermen on West Africa's coast line. A young father explains how the sea used to be full of fish and how his father and his grandfather encouraged him to fish. Using more traditional fishing methods, these coastal villagers relied on the sea for a living. Yet they are forced into mere subsistence as the big European trawlers encroach on the African shores. At the end of the day the catch for the Senegalese fisherman barely covers his fuel costs. He contemplates the difficult decision of trying to travel to Europe to make a future for the daughter he holds in his arms. He knows how dangerous the sea can be and that he would risk his life trying to reach Europe. If he is lucky he will make the journey and, as one of the fisheries experts so poignantly said, he will not be as welcome on our shores as his fish is in our restaurants. But it is the practices of large-scale European trawlers that are decimating his livelihood.

The film is a call to action: ask where your fish is coming from before you buy it, put pressure on politicians to 'listen to the science and cut fishing fleets', and then let's campaign for marine-protected-areas and sustainable fishing.

We should start in the North Sea, right here off the Norfolk coast. The North Sea has been horribly over-fished by big business: our cod has been hugely depleted. We need to learn from Newfoundland where their cod stocks have completely disappeared – this in spite of a long-term ban. The cod never recovered. You can't suck up 50% of all the fish in the North Sea into your nets, and still expect to have a viable livelihood in the following years.

We should also do something about the damage caused by offshore dredging to the fish and other creatures that live there. So long as we go on allowing the East Anglian coast to be dredged for building supplies like sand and gravel, we are condemning our fish stocks to decline.

The alternative is marine reserves or National Parks for the ocean. Places where commercial fishing – and dredging – would be banned, and our fish can finally start to recover. The National Parks movement has been successful on land - we have the Broads National Park - it is time for the movement to enter the hidden frontier, the most terribly exploited place on this Earth, now: the sea…

As John Ruskin said: "There is no wealth but life'. Without life, without fish, our seas are nothing but a desert.

The End of the Line will be screened at 10pm on More4, on Tuesday 20th October.

10 October 2009

Blair set to become EU President

By Lee Marsden

The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by Irish voters has paved the way for the possible installation of former Prime Minister Tony Blair to the new post of EU president. The position is that of figurehead and answers Henry Kissinger's famous question of "who should I ring if I want to speak to Europe" the answer, as early as the end of this month, could be Tony Blair. Officially, the post involves representing the views of the 27 member states, chairing the European Council and, rather ambiguously, driving its work. The post could become as significant as the incumbent chooses to make it. A charismatic figure such as Tony Blair could have great sway in being able to influence the future direction of the EU, particularly in its relations with the outside world. The salary of £242,000 pa, personal staff of twenty, £37,000 pa housing allowance, chauffeur and other perks are unlikely to be the main motivation for a man who has, according to his biographer Adam Boulton, earned over £15 million since leaving office two years ago, but will undoubtedly help. European publics will have no say in the appointment, which is based on a vote of the 27 heads of state with support for Blair apparently coming from Sarkozy, Brown and probably Angela Merkel.

Blair's appointment would certainly increase the EU's international profile but at what cost? While Jonathon Powell, his former chief-of-staff, touts his friend's credentials around Europe as an international statesman, Middle East envoy, pioneer for climate change and Africa and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, others may recall a rather different Tony Blair. A Tony Blair who misled the British public and parliament about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his non existent weapons of mass destruction. A man who is to be a key witness into the Iraq War enquiry, which will take place, if appointed, during his first term of office. A prime minister who led the country into wars at the behest of the United States and was once dubbed by Nelson Mandela as the "US Foreign Minister". A leader who promoted the neoliberal economic policies that resulted in the global economic crisis. A Middle East 'peace envoy' who in two years has visited Gaza just once and failed to speak out about the Israeli invasion less than twelve months ago. A man who avoided being implicated in the MPs expenses scandal because an official 'accidently', we're assured, shredded his expenses claims. Although we do know that he claimed £7000 in roof repairs on his constituency home just two days before leaving office, and earlier remortgaged the same house for £296,000 in order to pay the deposit on his £3.5 million Connaught Square town house with the added benefit of being able to claim one third of the interest payments on expenses.

Since leaving office, the man who did 'not do God' while in power has converted to Catholicism and started a faith foundation to increase religious influence on political processes. In a Europe which has grown increasingly secular over the past century Blair's religious fervour strikes a discordant note more in tune with the United States than the European Union. Which of course, apart from the undemocratic nature of the appointment, is the main problem of any Blair presidency, the willingness to subjugate British (soon to be European) interests to those of the United States. A close aide was quoted in The Times (3 October) as saying "if there was a genuine sense that people wanted him I think he would be up for it". Many thousands of people across Europe are busily signing a petition at http://stopblair.eu/ to send a message that he is not wanted.

3 October 2009

The world’s most useless gadget

By Rupert Read

While I was thinking what to write for my column this month, I happened to be in my kitchen, and my eye lighted upon a brush of some kind that I have in my cutlery drawer. It's a weird shape, with a big curved handle, and I really have absolutely no idea what it is for. And I thought: "Hmmm: it's pretty much a useless gadget really, isn't it?" (And it isn't the only such thing in my house, try as I might to 'spring-clean' regularly.)

And then suddenly, I had the title for this month's column: The World's Most Useless Gadget… And the search was on!

To be certain that I was going to come up with the right answer, of what really is the world's most useless gadget, I did what any self-respecting journalist with a limited time-frame does these days: I put the word out on Twitter and Facebook. Within no time, the candidates came pouring in. Here are some of the highlights…

Let's start with the brushes: it seems like there are LOTS of pretty useless specialist brushes out there! For instance a specialist brush specifically for cleaning grave stones. It looks sort of like a posh toothbrush. Probably it would be easier and certainly cheaper just to use an old toothbrush, rather than lash out on this product with its (ahem) somewhat limited usefulness.

Or how about a mushroom brush? A brush specifically and (supposedly) only for cleaning mushrooms. Yes, folks, honest, I am not making this up: you can buy mushroom brushes, gravestone brushes, and weird-curvy-not-sure-what-they-are-for kitchen brushes…

Now here's another beauty, of a different kind: a tie that doubles as a golf ball polisher. How crazy is that?

And then of course there's the fascinating case that hit the headlines a few years ago: NASA once spent millions developing a pen with a pressurised ink cartridge that could be used in space / upside down. While the Russians? They simply used pencils…

One of my Facebook friends directed me to a particularly useful website, if you want to laugh at useless gadgets. Gems you can find on the site include a 'french fry holder' that fits most cars (it is specifically designed to hold certain kinds of packets of chips); Dunkin Donuts cereal; Bubble Bath marketed by blood type (truly bizarre); and an inflatable neck extender – scary!

All good clean fun, and these gadgets certainly can give us a laugh; but there is of course a serious point here: we are wasting our time, wasting our money, wasting our resources on these frivolous wastes-of-space. And doesn't it seem a sad reflection on our culture that huge resources go to make and market these useless gadgets, when they could be going instead to environmental protection, animal protection, education or - you name it…

And the winner? The world's most useless gadget? Well, the one that I think really takes the biscuit is this, that I saw at an acquaintance's house last year: an electric pepper-grinder. Yes, for those too lazy to grind their pepper by hand, you too can have an electric pepper-grinder, making an annoying whining sound as it does what you can do yourself, quicker and better. It's the in-thing, it's useless and stupid and wasteful, it's available now at a shop near you…

But, maybe I am wrong. Maybe there is an even more useless gadget out there somewhere. If there is, then do get in touch and let me know what it is! Better still: write to edpletters@archant.co.uk, and let us all know…

You can follow Rupert on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RupertRead.