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.