How dare you, Priti Patel?

The blog below was written before Home Secretary* Priti Patel’s interview on LBC in which she defended the reporting of climate change protesters to the Prevent programme on the grounds that police have to look at “a range of security risks.” This inability to tell the difference between high explosive and superglue reveals Prevent to be a vehicle for criminalising dissent more than safeguarding society from violence. The subsequent revelation that a counter terrorism policing guide from June 2019 included logos from Greenpeace, PETA, Stop the War, CND, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Anti Fascist and Anti racist groups underlines the point.

Given that they are often so keen to tell us that it is the first duty of government to keep its citizens safe, perhaps Patel should heed the warnings of the Ministry of Defence, which is planning for a more unstable world up to 2040 as a result of the impact of climate change, or, the recent US Army report on the security impact of climate change which predicts severe water shortages, increased incidence of “natural” disasters, floods, fires, hurricanes of unprecedented scope and scale, global pandemics, and a break down in vital infrastructure and state functions, including a possible collapse of the army itself – and conclude that the “unco-operative crusties” and, indeed, school students, taking to the streets calling for action to avert this might have a point.

If she can’t do that, and recognise that safeguarding our future is a government responsibility, she should resign or be sacked.

*”Home Secretary” sounds very cosy. Other countries, that don’t do official euphemisms, refer to Patel’s role as the Ministry of the Interior.

 

Criminalising dissent

The decision by “counter terrorism” police in the South East to include climate change activists who speak in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution” or “neglect to attend school” or “participate in planned school walkouts” or took part in “writing environmentally themed graffiti” in their list of  “extremists” who should be reported to Prevent by their teachers is very revealing about the way these people think.

There is a very revealing use of the word “or” in this description of what the guide was for. “This document is designed to help you recognise when young people or adults may be vulnerable to extreme or violent ideologies.” The safeguarding concern of Prevent is supposed to be about violence, but the term “extreme” is put in here as an equivalent concern of equal weight.

This is elaborated further, again in a very revealing way in which climate change activism is defined as arising from an “Anti-establishment philosophy that seeks system change…”  Given that the “establishment” and “system” that we have is heading for a global temperature rise of 3-4 C by the end of the century – with everything that flows from that (not least melted ice caps) – that we are in the middle of the 6th mass extinction, that we can see the effects of climate change around us now and the future is closing in like a trap; why is it the “system” and the “establishment” that they instinctively seek to safeguard – not the futures of everyone threatened by it? This is of a piece with the use of public money to pay for under cover police officers to infiltrate non violent environmental campaigns under assumed identities; sometimes forming relationships and fathering children with unsuspecting women activists – in a way that is never held to account by any values at all – let even “fundamental”, “British” ones.

The rapid retreat from this classification shows that they can’t get away with this kind of labeling as a way to inhibit the climate change movement as yet. But it also raises concerns about the Prevent approach in general.

 

Guilt by association

During a Prevent INSET at a school somewhere in North London a couple of years ago – one of those after school staff meetings at which a course that is supposed to take a whole day is rushed through in a one hour “death by” power point presentation for a room full of teachers who are in that fresh, receptive, alert state of mind always in evidence after a day’s teaching – the trainer, who was quite good as these people go and put a lot of emphasis on the growing threat from the far right, noted that in some parts of the country the biggest terror threat was from “vegans.” What he meant to refer to was the physical force wing of the animal rights movement, but the verbal slip indicates two things.

  1. That the issues involved in generating people prepared to take violent action to force change are only seen as the context for the actions, not as issues of wider concern that mostly DON’T lead to people taking violent actions. Vivisection. Animal rights. Invasions of other countries. Military violence. Discrimination. Unequal rights. Racism. All are issues that demand and deserve open argument. Feeding back from the actions to the ideas, and putting those ideas solely in the context of “safeguarding”, freezes necessary debate and argument, making them a matter for enforcement and suppression ; which is more likely to bottle up people at risk than allow the exploration of worries, concerns and fears in a safe context with trusted people.
  2. That a term that includes a wide set of people – in this case “vegans” – can be used as a short hand term for “terrorists” and thereby implicitly brands the whole lot of them. The trainer was very clear about this in the case of violent Jihadis, often referred to simply as “Muslims”. A nudge on this to a small group of public sector workers is all very well, but this usage is common in the media, which frames the discourse of most people. The far right are usually correctly referred to as fascists or racists. Never as “white people”; which would be the equivalent. In their cases of course, they are often individualised, or seen as individuals with mental health problems not part of a movement: especially by newspapers that have encouraged their fears and hatreds and could be seen to be complicit in their actions.

 

Fundamental? British? Values?

Napoleon’s Foreign Minister, Tallyrand, once remarked that the chief characteristics of the Holy Roman Empire were that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.  “Fundamental British Values”  can equally be characterised as neither British, nor Fundamental, nor Values.

These – central to Government’s Prevent Strategy – require a closer examination because there is a statutory duty on public bodies not simply to respect them, but to promote them, and somehow quantify the impact of doing so.

When initially asked to define the sorts of things that might be considered “Fundamental British  Values”, then government Ministers like Eric Pickles came up with things like “the queen and red buses”; which are not values at all; more images from tourist postcards.  The real concern of government – it seems from this -was nothing to do with “values” at all, but just to draw on emotional signifiers of loyalty to a creaking established order.

Nevertheless, the values specifically listed (and for which public servants are accountable by law rather than ministerial prejudice) are

  • democracy,
  • the rule of law,
  • individual liberty,
  • mutual respect
  • and tolerance for those of different faiths or beliefs.

Most sets of values that emerge from genuine historic events come in threes (with only one of them as a phrase) whether its France’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the US constitution’s Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, or, indeed, Superman’s Truth, Justice and the American Way. These have the advantage of being memorable and with a historical resonance. They tell a story. There is something rather stodgy, bland and committee like about this list of one word and four phrases; and an ambiguity in the last two points. The need to include “tolerance” as a bottom line indicating that “respect” might be too much to ask for in some cases.

Nevertheless, lukewarm as they are, these five points are presented as timeless, unchanging and unquestionable truths.  Set in stone just like the 10 commandments… or possibly the Asda price promise. So it was, is, and shall be. Permanently, forever.

Historically they are not “fundamental” at all – in the sense of being built into the foundation of the state. They were not truths that were held to be self evident in 1707 when the Act of Union  absorbed the independent Scottish Parliament into Westminster. This was not a foundation on any kind of liberating ideals. It was a deal to set up England and Scotland as a joint colonising enterprise – after the failure of the Darien expedition convinced the Scottish ruling class that they couldn’t build an Empire on their own.

  • Empires are not founded on mutual respect, and tolerance is often is short supply too. The 100 years after the establishment of Britain were the peak of the Slave trade and the colonisation of India. The state brought into being by that Act had religious discrimination against Catholics built into its foundation.
  • Democracy had nothing to do with it. It was an oligarchic monarchy with no popular sovereignty.
  • Individual liberties and the use of the law to defend them had began to be established with the 1679 Habeus Corpus Act, but as a general principle had to be fought for in tumultuous struggles throughout the ensuing century and the laws that ruled hung the poor in great number for crimes born of poverty.

The point here is that none of these are inherent or single edged- “the birthright of free born Englishmen (sic)” as conservatives would have us believe – all are the result of struggles. Nor is the current settlement either perfect or fixed. Nor are these struggles over. As they say in France “La lutte continue!”

Setting up a set of officially sanctioned values  seeks to freeze society in their image. Thus far and no further. The government would like us to treat them as articles of faith; and boxes to be ticked with no further thought; especially given that the “training” is a rushed online exercise carried out by frazzled people with too many other things to think about to properly reflect on what they are skimming.

However, if we are to keep faith with History,  we have to look at them as a living and necessarily malleable partial settlement of unresolved political conflicts.

Its probably best not to ask all of these questions to a trainer if you want to avoid being referred yourself, but obvious questions that can be asked of each of them should be borne in mind by anyone having to be trained.

  • to what extent they are actually characteristic of contemporary British society and do they apply to everyone equally?
  • how fundamental they are to it?
  • to what extent are any of them are qualified, and if so what by?
  • and sometimes to what extent do they contradict each other?

 

Democracy.

“And it’s through that there Magna Charter,  As were signed by the Barons of old,

That in England to-day we can do what we like,  So long as we do what we’re told.”

Marriott Edgar

Taking it for granted that democracy, rule of the people for the people by the people (Abraham Lincoln, unfortunately an American but no one from Britain has put it better) is a good thing, to what extent can this be considered fundamental to the British state (or the states that currently make up the UK) today, in their domestic history and history of overseas Empire? Those who argue that democracy is essential to its character at least have the obligation to tell us

  • At what point did we become democratic enough for the idea to be considered fundamental? 1215 when the Magna Carta was signed? 1649 when Charles 1 was overthrown and executed? 1688 when James II was overthrown? 1832 when Parliament was reformed? 1867 when the vote was extended to (some) working men? 1928 when the vote was extended to women?
  • Was democracy fundamental to ANY of the Acts of Union that formed the UK?
  • How did this democracy come about?
  • Who was fighting for it?
  • Who was opposing it?
  •  Do we currently have a fully realised democracy (both in constitutional terms and more broadly to what extent are the decisions made reflective of popular will or needs and to what extent to they reflect imbalances of power or wealth)?
  • Can we be more democratic than we are? If so, how?
  • Are the current forms of the British state the last word in democratic participation and to what extent to they embody – and to what extent deny – popular sovereignty?
  • Is not the right to have an argument about both the history and the current reality a hard earned democratic right?

The Rule of Law and individual liberty

“What you’re saying is that there’s one law for the rich…”

“Oh no! There’s FAR more than ONE law for the rich.”

Peter Cook 

These also look smooth on the surface, but when you examine them there are a lot of interesting questions which make them more problematic and therefore more alive.

  • To what extent does the rule of law conflict with the notion of individual liberty?
  • What are the constraints on individual liberty, and are these primarily codified by law?
  • To what extent is there are shared set of social mores and accepted ways of getting along without recourse to law; and if so what are they and where do they come from?
  • Who makes the laws, and who enforces them?
  • Is our current legal system equally accessible to all individuals and if not why not?
  • Is there a right of conscience to act “criminally” for the greater good? What might the parameters of that be? Anti-war protesters have been known to break into BAE factories to smash up fighter bombers about to be sold to dictatorships. Their defence was that they were committing criminal damage to save lives. They were acquitted by a jury. On the other hand, a recent City of London Police anti-terrorist exercise bracketed terrorists with Occupy and Environmental protesters; which is another way to look at it and could be where this legislation is leading us.
  • Isn’t part of living in a democracy that people argue about what laws are right or just?
  • Isn’t part of the rule of law the recognition that people will sometimes feel oppressed by specific laws, or the people who enforce them, and have a right to argue and organise to change them?
  • Are all liberties individual, or do some apply to collective groups (Companies, unions, protected groups in equalities legislation etc)?
  • Is it compatible with individual liberty for the state to define ideas as criminal or pre-criminal, or would it not be better simply to apply John Stuart Mill’s principle that people are free to think, speak or do as they wish, so long as by so doing they are causing no harm to someone else?

Mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths or beliefs.

This is a very desirable value – that we can see implemented in practice every day on the front pages of tabloid newspapers and for thirty years in the journalistic scribblings of our current Prime Minister – which have never been less than respectful to women, gays, ethnic or religious minorities. Although this has been promoted in UK public sector since the Race Relations Amendment Act of 2002; after 2010 the coalition government removed virtually all equalities guidance from the DFE website within months of coming into office,  which shows what they thought of it.

Indeed, David Cameron argued in 2014 that “multi-culturalism has failed”, then in the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party attracted the votes of high caste, well to do Hindus with a promise to take caste discrimination out of equalities legislation, so it seems that some discriminatory practices are more tolerable than others; even those that do not “unite us”.

This value is presented as though it is the norm. Looking at statistics for discriminatory patterns in housing, unemployment, employment prospects, employment by sector, school exclusions, stop and search, deaths in police custody, rates of imprisonment and poverty it’s clear that “mutual respect and tolerance” is little more than a self regarding denial of yawning cracks of inequality and injustice; which creates “a sense of grievance” and a “desire to change things”, that is entirely reasonable and justified; and therefore the Prevent guidance warns against it.

The giveaway here, which is itself an expression of the reality described in the last paragraph, is that the allocation of funding  for the Prevent strategy is based on the proportion of Muslims in a given area. This puts a paradox at the heart of this value. Although there is mention of “far right extremism” as also an area of concern, funding is not based on proportion of votes for far right parties in any given area. Now that Tommy Robinson has joined the Conservative Party, along with the entire membership of “Britain First”, and Priti Patel is in the Home Office, we should not hold our breath that this might change any time soon.

 

British Values? When will Britain live up to them?

There is a further purpose in describing these as British values even though – as described above – they are not actually applied in Britain in any consistent way as lived realities.

A desire for democratic rights, mutual respect, individual liberty and the rule of law (in the sense of putting limitations on arbitrary power) is widespread across the world, and they are embodied (to a greater or lesser extent) in many countries. They are not specifically British as values. Posing them as if they were is to take them out of a  human rights framework – which has to be struggled for – and to put them instead as a privilege of citizenship and a reward for loyalty. They take what we have fought for and they resisted, and shamelessly present them as though they were gifts from them to us.

How dare they.

Conservative Environment Policy – a Manifesto for Mr Toad.

This graph speaks for itself. The spending commitments are all taken from the Conservative Manifesto. Conservative investment in Environment priorities

So road building is 58 times more important than saving the oceans and filling pot holes in roads is four times more important than carbon capture and storage. The commitment to homes and public building insulation is roughly 1:25th of Labour’s.

As Mr Toad might say “Poop poop!”

A Hard Rain and Other Stories

Yesterday’s rain did not feel safe. Huddled under a bus stop shelter with a crowd of people, those on the outside getting drenched in torrents of water sloshing off umbrellas driving in on us with the wind. The river of water in the gutter easily a yard wide, rushing fast – anyone trying to cross it sinking footsoakingly ankle deep – and on the verge of breaking banks out of the road and across the pavement. These sorts of storms are new. The first time I can recall one is within the last ten years, getting soaked through on the two minute walk to the bus stop, watching the  volume of water rushing down the street like a waterfall and reflecting that our safe suburban streets were capable of being dangerous. We are at 1.1C above pre-industrial levels hoping to keep to now more than 1.5C if we are lucky – and actually heading for 3-4C without fast and drastic action. A sign of the times is that I was able to discuss this with a fellow huddler. Of course, what we are facing here is mild compared to the cyclones that have hit Mozambique – but the rain in our faces should help us wake up.

In the back alley behind our row of flats I have recently discovered a number of unattractive discarded things. The human turd – which sounds like a singularly unattractive superhero with powers I’ll leave to your imagination*- which is the latest of these – stood out  because it had been carefully done on top of a discarded table top – instead of on the ground where it might more easily rot in – and garnished with a piece of toilet paper: so it looked like a piece of performance art – a statement its creator was keen to make and for others to see. I resisted the temptation to photograph it and submit it to the Turner Prize.

*I worked once with with a rather scatalogical child who made up a superhero called “Pooperman”.

Another piece of accidental sculpture in the form of a once elegant Jaguar sports car, parked up and left to decay in the front drive of a quiet, winding hillside road overlooking Wembley. All four fat tyres deflated, long body streaking with livid green algae: like a metaphor for a lost youth that the owner can’t bring himself to give up.

On the way to the shops I walk past a neighbour. He’s the sort of bloke who wears his tin poppy all year round and once complimented me on picking up litter along our street… without joining in.  Making moue and pulling his hand across in a waist high throat cutting gesture he says “politics.” An enormous freight – and threat – in a single word and gesture. A dangerous sign.

Small story from September 20th

In Parliament Square small children dance in the sun on the plinths of statues.

They seem to have chosen wisely – ones they feel safe on.

None are standing under Benjamin Disraeli, or Lord Palmerston, or General Smuts.

Some are standing among flowers, as though they have grown there.

Some are jumping up and down under the open hands of Nelson Mandela, giving them a protective benediction.

Other are doing the same under the spreading banner of Millicent Fawcett – “Courage calls to courage everywhere”- as Millicent stares sternly above their heads.

Ghandi has been left in peace, but someone has stuck an XR sticker on the hem of his shawl. He does not seem to be offended.

Climate Crisis – which states are our allies?

Human civilisation is on course for a breakdown in the benign and stable climactic conditions that have been the condition for its development. This is a result of the rapid increase in greenhouse gas emissions generated by human agricultural and industrial activity, particularly since the industrial revolution, and especially in the last twenty years. The scale of this is greater than in any of the natural cycles of warming and cooling that have taken place throughout the holocene period (current interglacial). The last time there was a greater concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as there is today was before human evolution.

The trouble we have stored up for ourselves is becoming increasingly apparent in extreme weather events – hurricanes, floods, droughts, and their consequences, forest fires, unfarmable land, climate refugees, conflicts and wars resulting from the foregoing; alongside related issues like the accelerating loss of biodiversity and mass extinction.

Scenarios to avoid this written by academics are often premised on political conditions that we do not have – a presumption that the world has one political or economic system without significant variation – or a degree of universal understanding and political consensus that we don’t have either. There is no world government capable of re-wilding 50% of the planet or imposing a carbon ration: and if we had one, it would run into a lot of conflict if it tried to do it.

We nevertheless have to get from where we are now to where we need to be. And as quickly as we can.

The first point is that States Matter

In the absence of global governance, what different states do – and whose interests they represent – is of overwhelming importance. Protests are – in the last analysis – an attempt to get the state to do something, or to change a government, or transform it altogether if it does not. In the current state of international state relations, some states are part of the solution and are generally allies of the environmental movement – and some are not.

The Paris Agreement is both essential and inadequate. Countries will make targets and commit to reducing carbon emissions, then ratchet up those targets. If met, the projection is that the current targets would still leave us with 3C of heating by the end of the Century and, if not 4.3 – 4.8C; so the scale of the targets and the speed with which they are implemented need to be scaled up sharply if we are to cut off global heating at 1.5C, or even 2C.

The decisive crisis in this process is that the United States – currently the single wealthiest and most powerful country in the world – is pulling out of the Paris Agreement and pulling other countries – like Brazil – with it. Alongside it are countries like Saudi Arabia, Poland, Australia and Russia, which remain in the Agreement for now, but act to slow it down and impede its progress.

This abdication of global leadership by the US, and its move to actively sabotage what needs to be done, is a stark expression of the decline of the Pax Americana; which can no longer claim to stand as an example for humanity as a whole. Faced with the rise of China (symbolised by  Chinese technology companies edging ahead of US competition in 5G) the USA under Trump is projecting “America First” – breaking up and disrupting multilateral institutions which have hitherto bolstered its global predominance.

Trump and his supporters in the fossil fuel industries have been widely characterised as “climate change deniers”. This is not accurate. When Wells Griffith, Trump’s international energy and climate adviser argued at the Katowice COP that “we” (we, here, meaning the US government) “strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability” he is recognising that the current ways of ensuring prosperity are not sustainable, but will carry on doing it anyway – projecting a future in which the system we have accelerates faster and faster and higher and higher until it runs out of road, crashes and burns and we all burn with it.

Steve Bannon put this more graphically, “Half the world is going to burn and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.” These guys know what’s happening. The 2007 US think tank report The Age of Consequences – The Foreign Policy and National Security implications of Global Climate Change  projects the following “expected scenario” based on IPCC reports- “massive food and water shortages, devastating natural disasters, and deadly disease outbreaks”. Given that IPCC reports have tended to underplay the pace of developments – with levels of arctic ice melt already at levels not expected until mid century, its likely that the more severe scenario they sketch out is in their minds. In the event of environmental feed back loops getting out of control, instead of gradual degradation that we have time to adapt to, there is a sudden breakdown that overwhelms us, collapsing agricultural and economic systems and states. They state unblinkingly that “Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long nightmarish episodes of triage: deciding what and who can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home.” Just think about that for a moment and imagine it. Its quite clear who the half of the world that they expect to burn is. And not all of them are on the wrong side of Trump’s wall.

Some of the uber wealthy are seeking to escape the consequences are trying to find themselves bolt holes from this – buying estates in New Zealand, building underground bunker homes, or fantasising about living “off world”. Trump wants to build a wall, making the whole US a gated community. At least Wotan, at the end of Gotterdamerung, having condemned the world to die in flood and fire, has the good grace to sit in Valhalla with his broken spear, waiting patiently to be engulfed, so a new world can be born.

A change of President and change of course away from confrontation and towards a Green New Deal from 2020 is crucial both for the chances of the world meeting its targets and for the US transforming itself into a society with some chance of becoming sustainable. The version of the Green New Deal put forward by the US Green Party – to finance it by cutting US defence spending in half – thereby freeing up just under $350 billion a year- is something of a challenge for US democracy – but has the merit of pointing out that it is a strange version of “defence” to spend as much on armaments as the rest of the world put together, while deploying soldiers, aircraft and ships in “around 600” overseas bases (according to the Pentagon). Any other country doing that would be denounced as an aggressive predator and threat to democracy.

In the Trump trade war with China, which will continue for four more years if he is re-elected next year, the US is doubling down on fossil fuels and locking itself into an outmoded technology: with subsidised petrol (and the fracking and wars for oil that go with it) relaxed emissions standards, overuse of internal flights (no high speed rail) sprawling energy hungry suburbs and crumbling interstates – the American way of life. In so far as it has a vision of the future it is a peculiarly old fashioned one (the present, only more so) that – crucially – requires climate change denial.

The world view of neo-liberalism, which is not confined to Trump and his supporters – that the current form of human relations is natural and eternal, that “there is no alternative” that “business as usual” is “going forward” forever and ever world without end – is unable to take on board the reality of climate change. In its own discourse it reduces it to being an idea among other ideas that can be argued with or denied – not a reality we can see and feel around us and that we have to respond to. It has been pointed out that, while the Chinese government is composed for the most part of scientists and engineers *- people whose whole being is geared to solving real world problems – the highest levels of US government are filled with lawyers – people whose role is trying to cheat the facts and conjure up a deceptive self serving narrative if that’s what it takes to win a case; which works fine in court, but not if you are trying to argue with the laws of physics (which are starting to sit in terrible judgement).

The Chinese – on the other hand – get it . This is symbolised in a startling statistic. Of the 425 000 electric buses in the world, 5 000 of them are not in China. Just think about what that means for a moment. Here are some further contrasts.

  • The US is doubling down on fossil fuels while China is investing massively in renewable energy generation, which has brought down the costs of solar panels so far that India and Vietnam – previously committed to  a big expansion of coal plants – are now going solar in a big way – and this is having a global effect even in wealthier countries too. China itself already has double the renewable energy capacity of the US and is still investing in it at a qualitatively greater rate (another £292 billion going in by next year).
  • Donald Trump prohibits mention of Climate Change in US government publications and sabotages scientific research into it, presumably on the principle that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, while Xi Xinping is talking about building an “ecological society”,
  • the US is planning to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, abandoning targets that were already quite lenient, and stands against international co-operation; while the Chinese favour “win win” solutions, are set to achieve their 2030 Paris targets between 5 and 9 years early and will ratchet them up.

None of this implies that China has always got everything right, nor that improvements can’t be made. Its huge tree planting programme – which has significantly increased forest cover – has been widely criticised for lacking biodiversity; creating woods more like Forestry Commission plantations than restored ancient woodland; so projects using diverse native species are now being brought in to address this.

The overall conclusion however is clear. On the most decisive question facing humanity, China is part of the solution while the US is part of the problem; and the environmental movement in the West needs to be very clear about that. The result of this clash – and the fall out from it – will be decisive in determining how much of a future the world has.

Its important to stress this because the news we receive in the UK is heavily filtered through a world view in which the US’s own assessment of itself as a globally progressive guarantor of human rights – as compared with any competing power -is taken as good coin. To argue that China is doing more for humanity than the US has to fight its way past a wall of scepticism. But, just consider this. The US prison system holds seven times as many people per head of population as China does. It even locks up more people in absolute terms (2.1 million in the US to 1.6 million in China) with a population barely a quarter the size. So far, this year, the number of people shot and killed by the police in the US is 614 (Washington Post). In China, its 2 (Wikipedia).

These figures jolt because they invert comfortable settled presumptions about the US’s relative standing that might be expected in most of the media; but they are also the dominant view throughout society and even in some sections of the left and environment movements. This is despite experience to the contrary.

There is therefore a certain vulnerability on the part of these movements to campaigns waged indirectly by the US designed to use us for its own ends. These are usually run through the National Endowment for Democracy. This body is funded by the US Congress to organise “human rights” organisations in countries that the US wishes to destabilise; which usually run very noisy  social media campaigns designed to go straight to people’s emotions. It is important to bear in mind that even where there are concerns that need to be addressed in either the policy or the practice of the states concerned, the aim of the US backed campaign will be directed at portraying everything about the country concerned through this lens, usually in a wildly exaggerated way, with an aim to bring down a regime that is unfavourable to its interests, partly by inoculating public opinion across the world against it. The extent to which “human rights” are a genuine concern can be gauged by the way the US has operated in Latin America almost from its foundation.

An exchange in Congress between Rep Ilhan Omar and Trump’s envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams is very revealing. Abrams stated that protecting human rights is “always the policy of the United States.” This is the same Elliott Abrams who was Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary for Inter American Affairs in the 1980s. In this role he oversaw support for Contra Terrorists in Nicaragua, Death Squads in El Salvador and an anti insurgency campaign in Guatemala that led to the President at the time being charged with genocide by a later government. Yet, the protection of human rights is “always the policy of the United States.”

The intervention of NED activists into the crisis of the Amazon rain forest fires is a warning. Keen to divert attention from the culpability of President Bolsonaro in Brazil – who is in favour of forest clearances in the Amazon to bolster soya production, dismantled the protections brought in by the previous Workers Party governments and even now is only imposing a moratorium on slash and burn fires for 60 days – they sought to divert attention to fires in Boliva – a tiny fraction of those in Brazil – and blame President Evo Morales – a thorn in the US side who is firmly committed to the Paris Agreement – and who is facing an election in November. Morales, declared a national state of emergency and suspended his re-election campaign to fight the fires, sending in 4 000 troops, firefighters and vets and contracting a Boeing 747 supertanker to help douse the flames; with the result that 85% of them were out within eight days. Buying and selling land in the affected areas has been banned to stop profiteers moving in, and his government has been praised by the United Nations for its swift and decisive action. By contrast Bolsonaro was more concerned to claim that NGO’s had deliberately started the fire to discredit him than to find any practical solutions. This was of no concern to the NED activists who focussed entirely on Bolivia and mentioned Bolsonaro not at all. 

So, the environmental movement needs to be very clear about who its allies are at state level in the current global struggle. Recognising that Morales is part of the solution while Bolsonaro is a – big – part of the problem is part of this. Disagreement or criticism of an ally should take a different form from criticism of an enemy and we need to be clear who is who. This is not always easy. In the context of an increasingly delirious form of political discourse – in which exaggerated and unrestrained claims are made and images hyped for emotional impact – it behoves us all to keep a cool head and the overall picture in mind: so we are not stampeded off in a direction that is the opposite of the one we need to be heading.

End of part 1. Part 2 will look at strategy in the UK.

 

*https://gineersnow.com/leadership/chinese-government-dominated-scientists-engineers

Mooning Jeff Bezos

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Possibly Voltaire, definitely Spider Man, but not, it seems, Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos, in an interview with Business Insider last year (when he was “worth” $132 billion) said, “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. I am going to use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.”

There is a current among the uber wealthy to project space as their future – as though they can avoid the problems involved in destroying the conditions for human survival on Earth by getting “off world”.  As though they were exposed to too many plays of “The Final Countdown” at an impressionable age. The fantasy in that song, that – having trashed the Earth – everyone could head off to live on Venus (not an enticing prospect with an surface temperature hot enough to melt lead, air pressure at ground level 92 times greater than Earth’s – and enough to crush anyone unfortunate enough to be standing on it – and an atmosphere largely comprised of dense clouds of sulphuric acid) and that the Venusians would be welcoming to a species that had just destroyed their own habitat and wanted to have another go in theirs; is only marginally less absurd than the idea that life on Mars (with virtually no oxygen, no water cycle, no vegetation, an average temperature of -67C and dust storms thousands of kilometres wide that last for months) would be remotely desirable compared to living – say – in an upscale part of Seattle.

In an interview with CBS News in July this year Bezos said “Human beings are in the process of destroying this planet” and – in a leap of imagination that treats planetary destruction as a given premise instead of an avoidable problem – produces a wild fantasy of off world manufacturing, with factories on the Moon within a few hundred years.

What he seems to be missing here is that the Amazon – the other one – is on fire NOW; and we don’t have a few hundred years to deal with keeping our planet habitable. We have a decade to make a serious dent in greenhouse gas emissions if we are to have half a chance of getting through to the end of the century with a civilisation intact. Recognising that business as usual – including his business as usual – is “destroying this planet” would probably make most people think that anyone with a spare $132 billion might want to put most or all of it into stopping the destruction. This does not seem to have occurred to him.

Its the phrasesmy financial lottery winnings from Amazon” and  the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource” that stick out from his original quote (my emphasis).

His “winnings” from Amazon are not a lottery but the result of profoundly ruthless and dehumanising management systems that are part of the reason our planet is being destroyed in the first place. Mr Bezos’s “winnings” are the flip side of the following.

  • Amazon pays 15% below average wage rates for warehouse workers.
  • Workers employed at the Amazon depot in Dunfermline were found sleeping in tents near the factory because the cost of transport took such a huge chunk out of their meagre wages that they couldn’t afford to commute.
  • In Ohio, 700 of their workers are on food stamps.
  • Workers are often employed as “permatemps” to minimise their legal rights at work.
  • Delivery workers are paid by the package, putting them under huge pressure to zip round as quickly as possible – the implications of this for safe driving should concern everyone.
  • In 2013, they had the second highest turnover of workers of any company in the Fortune 500 Index. According to a Study by Pay Scales, the average Amazon worker can’t stick it out beyond a year.
  • Warehouse workers are tied to electronic monitors that keep them to targets that are set just beyond what they can do if they work flat out without a breather. Some workers have taken to peeing in bottles so they don’t lose the time taken in going to the loo.
  • As a result, in the UK, there have been 600 ambulance calls to Amazon Warehouses in the last 3 years. Just over one every other day. The Rugely depot in particular looks like a place to avoid getting a job if you possibly can – with 115 call outs.

The “logic” of this is – while the company is waiting for robots to take over, they will treat their workers as much like robots as possible. Seen this way, people are robots with needs that present as flaws.

Treating workers as throw away resources is of a piece with treating the Earth’s resources in the same way.

Amazon made $3 billion profits on $180 billion in sales in 2017. It paid no Federal taxes in the United States in 2017 and 2018. In the UK between 2016 and 2017, even though business increased by a third, the tax paid was halved – to a tiny £4 million (about the same as the annual budget for one medium sized secondary school).

So we have a company that treats its workers like robots, burns them up and spits them out, does not contribute to the social costs of creating its labour force or the infrastructure that sustains them, or the transport infrastructure along which the company’s goods are delivered, or anything else. An essentially parasitic relationship.

And we have an owner who thinks he, personally, has the right not only to keep his “lottery winnings” but to blow them on space exploration rather than the million and one tasks that face us in keeping this planet habitable for the next generation.

The sheer entitled self indulgence of people like this shows them up as unfit to control such concentrations of wealth; and any society that sets them up as “aspirational” role models – because what else should you aspire to if not to become filthily, selfishly, rich – is dooming itself to self destruction. A future future determined by people like this is not  good enough for humanity, nor is it viable. Saving ourselves means becoming more human, more social, less robotic, less exploited and exploiting.

We can do better than them.

 

 

 

 

 

Death to Rat Runs.

When Waltham Forest Council proposed to bar through traffic between the shops in Walthamstow village there was a vocal and lively resistance. Believing that preventing cars driving through would finish the shops off, over 100 people demonstrated, complete with a coffin symbolising the death of the shops.

The effect was the opposite. The absence of cars made the space between the shops quieter, safer, more peaceful , more pleasant. It even made the air fresher. As the street was now a more attractive place, more people came to it. The shops are thriving. None are boarded up. Opposition seems to have dwindled to one irate antique dealer. At the end of the shops, a side road has been bollarded off and a small park enlarged to make a public square run by the local residents association as a social space, and people play petanque on it, among other things. A small corner of North East London that will be forever Paris.

The attempt to reclaim our streets from the car is beginning to flower. Waltham Forest has 6 mini-Holland schemes in place, with several more in preparation. Every week there are delegations from other local authorities coming to have a look to see how it works.

Essentially the idea is to keep through traffic confined to main roads – by cutting off through routes on side roads with bollards at one end. These block cars, but allow walkers and cyclists through. That means that local residents with cars can get in and out, but their streets will no longer be rat runs. This dramatically cuts the volume of traffic and the speed it goes at; because any traffic is local and part of the community, not racing through in an edgy quest to get somewhere else as quickly as possible. It makes the areas concerned calmer, quieter, more peaceful. An elderly pedestrian carrying his shopping at a slow shuffle illustrated the importance of this. In most streets the presumption is that we all have to skip or jog out of the way of an oncoming car just as an act of self preservation. This man couldn’t do that if he wanted to and now he didn’t need to. None of us should have to.

With safer roads, more people – and children – are walking or cycling. The council has put in 250 lockable bike hangars with space for 6 bikes. These take up the parking space of one car. At a rent of £25 a year per bike, 3 000 people are on a waiting list; providing a demand for an additional 500 hangars. There has been a measured improvement in physical activity and health which is self generating once the framework is in place.

Subtle changes to street furniture are also taming the traffic. Extending double yellow lines further from corners improves visibility. Making the corners on junctions sharper forces vehicles to slow down to take a bend; so the emphasis is put on pedestrian safety rather than the speed of traffic flow. Mixed use paving at junctions makes drivers think of the primacy of walkers when they cross from a main road to a residential area. All this seems quite small, but the cumulative effect is civilising. One local resident commented that before this scheme was introduced he used to have several near misses with vehicles every week when he was out on his bike. Now its down to about one a month. The children pouring out of schools at 3:30 stroll confidently and socially down empty roads previously dominated by speeding cars.

The barriers to traffic are sometimes in the form of trees or planters, further greening the area. Maintenance of the planters is run by local residents, and several residents associations have been formed to keep them up; thereby bringing people together and creating more of a community with a sense of ownership and neighbourliness. Residents of one social housing block – seeing the example – independently crowd funded so they could plant trees and flowers along the end of an otherwise bare patch of green lawn.

One of the first things that people noticed when a railway bridge that had previously been a rat run was bollarded off was the bird song. In a space that no one would previously hang around in, someone has thoughtfully fixed a little notice at infant child’s height with the time of trains on it; so they can stand and watch as they go by.

So far, so civilising. All of these developments are south of the great circle of smog that is the North Circular, where there is a greater density of tube stations and tighter bus routes facilitating alternatives to cars even among the well heeled; who nevertheless keep cars and mostly park them up during the week but retain them for weekend escapes. The North Circular is also the border for the first phase of the ultra Low emissions Zone – leaving the outer suburbs as a zone left behind in an earlier car based phase of urban development.

But the problem in these wider, sparser unreconstructed ‘burbs is not just an infrastructural one, but a matter of politics. The MP for this area is that godfather of all things backward, Ian Duncan Smith – or “Ian Duncan Smith Nurrrgh” as he is known in the House of Commons – the groan of despair that greets his name every time he is called by the speaker making it habitually triple barreled. That’s the Ian Duncan Smith who turned up at Chequers recently in an open topped sports car like a depressive version of Mr Toad – an instant meme for a mid life crisis – and clearly “the motorists friend.” The Conservatives are digging in against the expansion of the ULEZ and will make it a theme of their 2020 Mayoral election campaign; so the prospect of successful mini- Hollands between the North and South Circulars and the M25 becomes something of an imperative. What they will be seeking is a response like the initial reaction in Walthamstow Village, but one that has no chance to learn from experience that there is a better way to live.

Post script – a personal encounter with IDS.

What I wrote above may seem a little unkind – though not as much as one of the fit for work assessments brought on by Mr Duncan Smith when he was at the Department for Work and Pensions. It is partly driven by an odd sixth sense experience while I was accompanying a visit to the House of Commons by our School Council. While Emily Thornberry was showing them the Terrace overlooking the river I was standing just inside and felt a sudden chill behind me. It was a bit like the moment in Star Wars when Obi Wan Kenobi says “I felt a great disturbance in the force – as as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” I turned, and there, looming up from the restaurants below, staring blankly ahead, was the former leader of the Conservative Party, although wreathed in all the bready, buttery aromas of what passes for a good lunch in the home counties- carrying with him such an air of misery and gloom that I’d have felt sorry for him had he not been so intent on pulling the rest of us down with him.