Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Book Review: Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert

This is an extraordinary book. It is not quite what I was expecting. And like all good books, I completed it with lots of questions, dilemmas and fears. When the UK voted to leave the EU, the BBC commissioned a number of public thinkers to provide commentaries. John Gray wrote that the populism that we are now experiencing is the norm. The period of liberal democracy, he argued, was always a blip and would not be sustained.

The same, it seems, is true of climate change. Whilst I had read before that ice bores from Greenland reveal that the climate that we have traditionally regarded as normal, is not. The present era – which is soon to change dramatically – is also a blip. It has been long enough to create human civilisation which, ironically, has also been long enough for civilisation to destroy the equilibrium that gave rise to civilisation.

This book charts a particular human history. It is a technological history in which human beings have clever solutions to all the world’s problems. Clever, but not clever enough. For every clever “solution” there is an unintended consequence. Many of these solutions spring from human beings introducing alien species into local environments with the consequential loss of biodiversity.

Take silver carp, for example. The opening chapter describes the extraordinary measures taken to prevent these fish from entering the great lakes in the USA. There are huge electric barriers that repel the fish optimised to their size so that other fish are less electrocuted. Then there is the extraordinary case of the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, all 93 of them. The whole world population lives in this flooded hole in the Nevada Desert – the biggest hole on the planet. At first read, one thinks that the Devil’s Hole is some top secret geological site, but not so. It has a Wikipedia entry and a viewing platform. Humans managed to introduce a beetle into the water. The beetle took a fancy to the eggs of the fish. As these fish produce a single egg, reproduction was heading negative. All sorts of interventions have been made to protect what is left of the species, including hand removal of the beetles when the eggs are sat on an exposed ledge.

Jacques Coutseau, 1971

The book also explores the world of coral. This had an effect on me that I remembered in my childhood watching an Australian TV series called “Barrier Reef”. I went looking for it on youtube. Of course it was there. I watched the first episode and discovered that the whole plot of the show revolved around attempts to exploit the reef and its natural resources (minerals, oil, etc.). This, of course, passed me by as a child, I was just mesmerised by the reef and fish. Whilst this show is not cited in the book, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” is. Another favourite of my childhood. Post-childhood I’d revised my view of Cousteau and viewed him almost as a Megalomaniac cod scientist given airtime. But actually, he was a polymath and had a significant impact on a generation of children sharing his extraordinary adventures onboard The Calypso. Though clearly not enough.

The early chapters in the book were simply taking us to an endpoint – geoengineering. The white sky relates to how the sky will look when – eventually – “powers” intervene to cool the planet by throwing into the stratosphere particles of some – as yet – undetermined mineral or compound (diamond is favoured). As one scientist tells the author:

People have to get their heads away from thinking about whether they like solar geoengineering or not, whether they think it it should be done or not. They have to understand that we don’t get to decide. The United States doesn’t get to decide. You’re a world leader and there’s a technology that could take the pain and suffering away. You’ve got to be really tempted. I’m not saying they’ll do it tomorrow. I feel like we might have 30 years. The highest priority for scientists is to figure out all of the different ways this could go wrong.

Quote from Dan Schrag, Director of Harvard University Center for the Environment

So, we have a perfect storm. Populism and climate catastrophe. My generation was far too worried about nuclear weapons and insufficiently so about geoengineering. It’s political.

Pictures – Jacques Cousteau: Peters, Hans / Anefo. – http://proxy.handle.net/10648/abe56934-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84

Climate watch: UK leading the way in disingenuousness

Deepsea Delta oil drilling rig in the North Sea.

The UK Government is deluding itself on its climate leadership ahead of COP26 in November. Notwithstanding the ignominy of trying to open a new deep mine for coal in Cumbria, in North West England and the debacle of the Green Homes Initiative, the Government has now granted licences to oil and gas companies to search for – and extract – new reserves in the North Sea. The justification, as far as I can see, is that by some amazing jiggery pokery, the oil industry will become carbon neutral and reduce carbon emissions by 50 per cent by the end of the decade. The Government will, meanwhile, invest £16bn to help the industry meet these targets while supporting 40,000 jobs.

Here we go again. First, no public investment should go into fossil fuel firms – public money needs to go into sustainable technologies and into retraining and building opportunities in a sustainable economy rather than subsidise unsustainable industries that will lead to climate collapse.

Second, even if the industry can meet emission targets, what about the fuel that they extract? When it burns, it will release its carbon. Where is that accounted for?

Third, the Government needs to get to grips with the UK financial services sector that continues to invest in fossil fuel companies. I draw here a quote from the Guardian Newspaper:

US and Canadian banks make up 13 of the 60 banks analysed, but account for almost half of global fossil fuel financing over the last five years, the report found. JPMorgan Chase provided more finance than any other bank. UK bank Barclays provided the most fossil fuel financing among all European banks and French bank BNP Paribas was the biggest in the EU.

The Guardian, 24 March 2021

I’m sure leaders of countries attending COP26 will remind the UK Government just how uncommitted it is.

Picture: Erik Christensen (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

The reply from my MP, Sally-Ann Hart

Not that I had much expectation in the reply, but to read that the police violence is justified because of the pandemic – no mention that the man arrested and charged with the murder of Sarah Everard is a serving police officer. No attempt to justify the inconsistency between free speech being imposed in universities whilst being withdrawn from civil society. But we have to get the balance right between people going about their lawful business and the right to protest (a right that existed previously), but now has to be balanced with silence.

Dear Mr Grantham,

Thank you for your email and taking the time to contact Sally-Ann. Please see her response below on the issues you raised in your email regarding the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill:

“Thank you for contacting me about protests and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
In this country, we have a long-standing tradition that people can gather together and demonstrate, and the right to protest peacefully is a fundamental part of our democracy.

As you will be aware, however, a national lockdown is currently in place. This means we must all stay at home and only leave for a small number of essential reasons as outlined in law. Everyone is required to follow these rules and it is for the police, in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service, to determine whether an action warrants possible criminal proceedings. We must not confuse current coronavirus regulations with a new Bill which introduces sensible measures to deal with disruptive behaviours whilst maintaining a right to peaceful protest.
.
Thankfully, due to the impact of the lockdown in England, as well as the ambitious vaccination programme, the Prime Minister has now outlined a roadmap out of lockdown. This outlines a safe and gradual lifting of restrictions culminating in hopes for an end to all legal limits on social contact from 21 June. I absolutely understand the strong desire to fully reinstate our civil liberties, and I would like to make clear that as soon as it is safe to do so this is something that I will wholeheartedly support. In the meantime, we must continue to follow the Prime Minister’s safe and gradual roadmap out of lockdown to help protect the NHS and save lives.

More generally, I would like to make clear that under no circumstances do I believe that protests should become violent. The rights to a peaceful protest do not extend to harassment, intimidating behaviour or serious disruption to public order.
Of course, the responsibility for the maintenance of public order lies with the police, who have a range of powers to manage protests. How they deploy their powers and the tactics they use are rightly an operational matter for the police but I am pleased that we live in a country where policing is done by consent.

Over recent years, I have been concerned by the extensive disruption that some protests have caused. In particular, stopping people getting on with their daily lives, hampering the free press and blocking access to Parliament. I welcome the fact that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect. These powers will allow the police to safely manage protests where they threaten public order and stop people from getting on with their daily lives. It is welcome news that the Government is taking action to ensure the crucial balance between the fundamental right to peaceful protest and the rights of people to get on with their daily lives is maintained.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me about this important topic and Bill.

Kind Regards, 
Sally-Ann Hart MP”

Book Review: What Would Nature Do? by Ruth DeFries

This book essentially says, if humanity had paid more attention to how nature deals with the uncertainties of life on Earth, then we might have avoided some of its calamities – for want of a better word. Of course, there are two so-called calamities afflicting humanity at the moment; namely, a global pandemic and climate change.

One can often tell the whether the author truly has something to say in the final chapter. Can the content be summarised and rendered coherent? Does it hang together? In this case, I am not entirely sure. In fact, the author herself admits it:

In a fit of writer’s block for this final chapter, I ventured downtown to the New York Public Library to see for myself the tiny Hunt-Lenox globe with medieval-style etchings of dragons and strange sea creatures…etched pictures of dragons and monsters signalled seas and lands not yet seen by European eyes, although other peoples had lived in those lands for eons.

(p151)

The dragons, of course, represent all of the things that humanity has not yet discovered. But in getting to where humanity sits currently, the global commons have been well-and-truly “over-grazed” and pathogens serially mis-managed, despite the lessons of history, let alone nature. I’ll return to the calamity shortly, but DeFreis does discuss what humans have learned, though probably inadvertently.

Ancient trees had arteries and veins in their leaves that if severed by a pest – or just something that ate them – the effect on the overall plant would be significant in a detrimental way. The ancient tree is the Gingko, which eventually evolved a toxin to put off insects. But other plants and trees evolved alternative approaches such as “loopy veins”. In the event of part of the leaf succumbing to insect lunch, the sugars created in the leaves could still be delivered to the rest of the tree because they could be re-routed. The most obvious human-created analogy of this is the internet’s packet system whereby the data generated by this blog are put into small packages and sent on their way, often taking different routes and then reconstituted in the reader’s computer and browser. However, much of the human world is hub-and-spoke; i.e. centralised. When things go wrong, bottlenecks occur and all things – commodities, manufacturing components, finished products, foodstuffs – get jammed. In the case of food, hunger ensues.

DeFreis (right) writes extensively about pathogens and viruses in the human and animal world. In the human world, in the absence of politicians, viruses have been dealt with and eradicated by science on the one hand, and (disease) management on the other. Management here is track-and-trace as well as equitable global distribution of vaccines and other technologies. As with Covid-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe. However, we can learn from ants, bees and termites. Ants, famous for living cheek-by-jowl, secrete disinfectant into their nests collected from wood resin. Termites spread their own faeces in their nest benefitting from antimicrobial properties (that seems counter-intuitive). Bees can kill pathogens by flapping their wings! And so on. Ultimately, though, highly social creatures can isolate their kin should they succumb to disease. Primarily, this is to protect the queen and not for the benefit of the sick individuals.

Moving on from viruses and disease, DeFreis talks about the commons – the atmosphere, the seas, water and land. I had not previously been aware of Garrett Hardin, a man who believed that the solution to the commons was to de-commonise them, enclose them and “protect” them from over-exploitation. DeFreis counters his work with a celebration of the studies of Elinor Ostrom who demonstrated that human beings can adequately manage and protect the commons. They do not need permission by a central authority. However, one size does not fit all; what works in one place, does not in others. This is, of course, part of the problem. People have to be given the space and time to work things out, set quotas and agree sanctions for those who either free-ride or break the rules.

Talking about breaking the rules, I had equally not previously been aware of the Biosphere experiment in Oracle, Arizona, back in 1991. Three men and three women entered a CELSS – closed ecosystem life support system – and stayed there for two years testing whether it was possible to replicate the Earth’s life support systems (with a view to building one on the Moon or a planet). It was funded by a Texan billionaire, Edward P Bass, the Elon Musk or his time, perhaps. It took 11 years to build. Nothing that was not already in the CELSS when they entered would be added. It was not plain sailing – crops were blighted by pests and the air became thin as the plants generated carbon dioxide and oxygen mysteriously disappeared.

And so back to what nature would do. Nature is parsimonious. The limiting factor is always energy. All energy is derived from the sun. First in plants, then animals and humans. Most animals conserve as much energy as they can. Certainly through a winter, food can be in short supply. However, nature also builds in redundancy. Those loopy leaves use more energy to build, but when under attack, they are a life saver. Some humans have adopted this principle in their products. Most aeroplanes have redundancy – if one part fails, another kicks in. Apollo 11 would not have made it to the moon had it not been for Margaret Hamilton’s redundant computer code! But our economy is parsimonious – global supply chains do not react well to disruption, something that is increasingly occurring.

Pumpjacks, Kern River Oil Field, California

Our economy is different in another way, too. It is extractive. Its whole rationale is perpetual growth. Its metrics – productivity, GDP – are just wrong. They perpetuate the extraction and ignore wellbeing. Moreover, instead of generating energy sustainably – from the sun as plants do – we draw on stored reserves of energy in fossil fuels. Growth is only possible by doing that. Nature does not do that. Nature is not capitalist. It does manage its commons – or it did until homo sapiens disrupted the equilibrium. DeFreis does not engage with this. The reality of an economic system that destroys not only itself by undermining the life-support systems of the planet is glossed over. There is no system change needed, only a closer attention to what nature would do.

I can see why this is not tackled. Authors who do end up being criticised like Andreas Malm was on publication of his book, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. It is not pretty. But neither is climate change.

Pictures:

Ruth DeFreis: By One Earth Future – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiU0AlDsiPgPeace in the 21st Century: Ruth DeFries, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96380874

Pumpjacks in Kern ROF, California: By Antandrus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16373401

Climate Watch: Ireland exports calves by air!

Amongst greenhouse gases, methane is probably the worst with carbon dioxide caused by burning fossil fuels being the most prevalent. Aviation fuel is still a fossil fuel last time I looked. The Irish Government clearly did some climate-denial overtime to come up with the following: in order to improve the welfare of unweaned calves, instead of packing them in lorries and sending them to the Netherlands, they’ll pack them in transporter planes instead (Guardian, 6 March 2021).

Notwithstanding the fact that veal is a low-welfare meat, transporting any food commodity by air is to be avoided. Transporting a sack of methane, doubly so. If our politicians cannot get their heads around the kind of changes needed to tackle the climate change emergency, what hope for everyone else?

Pic: By David Monniaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=234720

Climate Watch: nothing in the UK budget for climate mitigation

On 3 March 2021, Rishi Sunak (left) the British Finance Minister (aka Chancellor of the Exchequer), presented his budget for the year ahead and beyond. Headline issues – taxes are going up for corporations (from 19-25pc) and for workers (freezing of tax thresholds). Public-sector wages are going up at a level essentially half that of inflation (equating to a pay cut) and public services will receive less money into the future, including the National Health Service. There is no support for social care.

Whilst the idea of corporation tax going up seems good, it depends on how many small/medium-sized enterprises get caught out by it relative to those firms that offshore much of the taxable earnings.

The budget also provides perks for homeowners looking to sell already price-inflated properties (stamp duty). There are no proposals regarding wealth or capital gains taxes. Those with wealth will keep it, seemingly.

What about climate change? What about investment in sustainable technologies and lifestyle changes needed to reach net-carbon zero by 2050? Erm, nothing. One programme – £1.5bn green homes scheme – seemingly failed, despite grants available to insulate homes and switch to alternative heating methods such as heat pumps. What I did not know is that the government had outsourced this programme to a US company (Virginia) that failed to pay the grants to applicants. This led to some firms actually having to shed workers (Guardian, 5 March 2021).

There is a new investment bank being set up (the Cameron Government sold a very similar entity in 2012), but its capital is paltry – £12bn. That might sound a lot, but this is a climate emergency, and unlike the pandemic, it is not going away. And what is more, the investments are not guaranteed to be climate zero or below – the priority is jobs, it seems, not carbon.

Finally, as the Guardian rightly points out, there is no money for public awareness; to promote the small things that all citizens can do such as eat less meat, recycle/reuse, save energy, etc. Without a broad change in attitudes, it is business as usual until it is not.

Pic: By Chris McAndrew – https://tinyurl.com/yxyt5be7

Book review: Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency by Andreas Malm

Gripping title, even more gripping content. It is made up of four elements: this is the climate emergency, this is Corona, this is how they are related to one another (be rest assured, they are) and this is what we do about it. The latter section is effectively a call to resistance. The word “sabotage” is used, and there are plenty of references to Marx, Soviets and Rosa Luxemberg.

Book cover

Let me take one step back. Malm is, in my opinion, one of the 21st Century’s great thinkers in the fields of climate, capitalism and now pandemics. Let me just qualify that – one of with the caveat that he is white, male and prosperous. If any readers can direct me to thinkers in his area that do not have this profile, please let me know. I genuinely want to understand these dynamics better. However, Malm’s earlier book, Fossil Capital, is transformative as a text on capitalist ideology – in the league of EP Thompson’s, Making of the English Working Class and, more esoterically, Nick von Tunzelman’s Technology and Industrial Progress: The Foundations of Economic Growth (both texts widely discussed by Malm). Where Fossil Capital was uncompromising in its extended narrative and detail, Corona is short, 175 pages (though with extensive end notes), and with pace that is difficult to keep up with. But we must, such is the real emergency here.

Readers of this blog are well aware of the arguments surrounding climate change, these are rehearsed in the early part of the text. Malm refers extensively – and rightly – to his earlier work. Humanity’s – by which he means capital’s – pursuit of growth enabled by the extraordinary store of energy captured in fossil fuels, is at the root of the current emergency. Growth has led to wealth, both absolute and relative, even in the poorest and most unequal societies and countries where capitalism is practised. Capitalism is inherently extractive and that means destruction of habitats. Now we can look at habitats – forests, for example – as exploitable resources, or we can look at them as places where there is essential biodiversity – counterintuitively, higher biodiversity correlates with lower transmission of pathogens (p41) – and the place where animals carrying pathogens live out of harms way . It is in this destruction and the stress it imposes on other creatures, according to Malm, that the pathogen makes the leap – zoonotic spillover – from animal to human.

We know that Covid-19 – or Sars-CoV-2 as it is now known – was likely to have been transmitted from bats (though probably through an intermediary animal). Prior to reading Malm, I did not really know anything about bats other than the fact they are flying mammals and they use some form of echo system to navigate at night. I certainly did not know that they very peculiar physiology – they being the only flying mammals – makes them supremely good hosts of viruses. In fact, Malm paints the picture of them as flying virus hotels (my image, not his). The bats have a unique immunity to the viruses and so close contact between humans and bats in, say, for example, a wild animal market in a densely-populated city, can have devastating consequences.

Malm reserves a special place for aviation in linking climate change and the pandemic. We should already be familiar with the arguments about aviation’s contribution to global emissions – not the highest but a significant contributor. The warming leads animals and birds to migrate further north, taking their pathogens with them. Fauna not used to mixing, goes Malm’s argument, do so and the pathogens take the opportunity to jump – so-called zoonotic spillover. Furthermore “[M]ost of the tens of thousands of novel pathogen exchanges anticipated along these routes will take place between one species of wild animal and another, but it will be a moving laboratory of genetic recombination, in which parasites may learn to make longer jumps: And their hosts will bump into, or skirt past humans. Viral sharing events are likely to be most common in places with fairly dense human populations, such as the Ethiopian highlands , Indonesia and – crossroads again – eastern China.” (p87)

The extent to which this is fact or hypothesis, I’m not sure. Malm’s extensive endnotes are detailed and derived from valid academic and informed sources. The causality of zoonotic transmission from animals to humans is not yet clear. Writing in the Conversation and reproduced in the Guardian, Dominic Dwyer who was on the recent World Health Organisation mission/investigation to Wuhan can only confirm that the likelihood of the virus being manufactured in a lab is very small indeed. The probability that the source is bats is very high, but the transmission route remains unclear. The Wuhan “wet market” is a viable option, but there remains no evidence that the transmission to took place there, despite the presence of bats, civits, pangolins, bamboo rats and ferret badgers, all viable carriers of corona viruses.

Whatever the particular circumstances surrounding the particular case of Covid-19, Malm’s argument is a wider one, the more humans encroach on territories of wild animals, destroy their habit and force migrations north and into the human world, the greater is the likelihood of zoonotic transmission. Deadly though Covid-19 is, the next one could be a lot worse, and it will come sooner rather than later.

Back to aviation. Aviation is a contributor to a warming planet – becoming like Venus, as he puts it. It was also a transmission bridge or mechanism for spreading the human Covid-19 around the world in a remarkably short space of time. This book is full of linkages of this kind, one almost makes a list as he reveals like participating in a treasure hunt.

What is to be done?

I remember as a student this translation of Lenin’s question relating to the October Revolution. Malm draws on Lenin, Trotsky, Marx, Rosa Luxemberg; though interestingly, not Gramsci. He does this because he believes that “the time for gradualism is over” (p121). It is time for the state to reassert itself (he having flirted with anarchism as a younger man). But more than that, for us to take control of the state. That by my reading is revolution, not a reassertion, at least in the first instance.

Drawing on Lenin again, Malm reminds us of Lenin’s other major text from 1917, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It. The catastrophe was different, but of the same magnitude for the people of Russia. The people were engaged in combatting the catastrophe and the state took control of the means of production, food supplies and land, essentially declaring war on need. By contrast, of course, humanity (capitalists, more precisely) has declared war on the planet. Those of us who want either to survive, or pass something liveable on to those who come after us, need to declare war on capital.

Capitalism has to go because it cannot be a solution to the warming planet. First he suggests that if we leave it to capitalists to solve, carbon capture will have to be marketised – turned into a product that has commercial value. This is not possible because of the scale of carbon capture needed and the price that can be levied on, and for, carbon. The state has to have carbon capture as a function, not as a market opportunity. Indeed, as Jason Hickel reminds us, carbon capture is factored into the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. Carbon neutrality is contingent on carbon capture! Second, left to the capitalists, geoengineering will be imposed upon us. This means sulphate aerosol injection – what he calls a pseudo-solution – that will pay handsomely for suppliers, but have unanticipated – and predictably negative – consequences for the planet’s inhabitants. It is a shield from the heat needing regular topping up, as it were.

A state following a doctrine of Economic Leninism then, is one that [takes] “control of trade flows, chased down wildlife traffickers, nationalised fossil fuel companies, organised direct air capture, planned the economy to cut nearly 10 per cent of emissions per year and did all other necessary things…” (p166).

And so back to the link between Covid-19 and climate change. The link is real, even if direct causality is difficult to establish. Plundering of the earth in pursuit of growth and human gratification must end. States have reasserted themselves in tackling Covid-19, albeit imperfectly. To do it “perfectly”, the state needs to be much more robust and undertake a paradigm shift either leading its people or, even better, the people leading it. Finally, “[m]ore precisely, zoonotic spillover of this earth-shattering magnitude should make it clear that defending wild nature against parasitic capital is now human self-defence. But the conscious organisation of such defence is solely up to humans” (p173).

I have nothing more to add.

Travelling during a pandemic

Hopefully most readers are not travelling at the moment. Staying put is safer and, frankly, much less stressful. I am a frequent traveller to Europe for family reasons and have experienced most things – delayed trains and planes due to failed infrastructure, sick or unregistered passengers and luggage, unruly passengers, theft of my possessions, dodgy hotels, the lot. And then there is Brexit – my passport no longer seems to get me through eGates in Germany (we’ll see if that is a one-off or permanent) and, of course, as a non-EU citizen, I can only be a country for 90 days in every 180 and am barred from working.

Now before I get ripped to shreds on my hypocrisy flying as I do but also constantly banging on about climate change, let me state the following. Travelling is for family reasons, and whilst 15 years’ ago when I first established family connections in Germany, my ignorance – despite friends warning me about my carbon footprint – meant that flying was a viable option. Clearly things have changed, but my family has not. I need to travel to be with them. During the pandemic, I have been travelling less for three reasons. First, it is quite difficult; second, it is dangerous and inappropriate (lockdowns are lockdowns after all); third, I have the privileged of being able to work from home. With regard to flying, I am an advocate of a frequent-flier levy – the more one flies, the more you pay. And exponentially. That would hit me hard financially, and rightly so. I am also hopeful now of structural changes that will enable me to travel more often – or always – by train. The pandemic has demonstrated that we can work remotely. I am healthier and less stressed because of it. We will see how committed employers are to the permanent change in the future. I am hopeful, but not convinced. There is also talk of a new Trans-Europe Express to help people to move across Europe without planes.

What follows is an account of my experience to help others. Having travelled for many years, there are many like me who have family on the continent.

View from Hilton hotel, Hatton CrossI passed through Heathrow airport on Sunday evening (14 February). I travelled with British Airways – currently offering 2 flights per week Munich – London. Originally I was scheduled to come back the previous day with easyJet, but that plane was cancelled, with the next scheduled option being sometime in March. On 18 January, the British Government imposed a requirement of a negative Covid test on all arrivals. That was fine, but an extra task to fulfil prior to travelling. Travelling on a Sunday meant that I took the test on the previous Thursday giving enough time for the result to be notified assuming that weekend lab work is not likely. Sunday was, hence, the last day of validity for the test. If the plane did not go on Sunday, I’d have to take another test (€130). 

The plane arrived at its stand an hour before departure. The plane was fully boarded (busy but not full) at the scheduled departure time, 1745. But we were 45 minutes late pushing back from the stand due to an administrative error at the gate. Munich Airport would not allow the plane to go until everything was in order. Fair enough, I suppose. After being pushed back we waited motionless for about 10 minutes before the pilot announced that the plane had been damaged in the pushback. Engineers were called. 2 hours later, authorisation was given to fly.

I do not live anywhere near Heathrow Airport, and it being Sunday, the UK railway network enjoyed its usual scattering of engineering works, including on my routes home. If I was able to catch the last train/bus home, I expected to be back about 0300 – not a great prospect. But UK borders are never straightforward, and particularly with the need to demonstrate a negative Covid test and a valid passenger locator form (which includes payment of £210 for two Variant tests to be delivered to one’s home 2 and 5 days after arrival). Even though the arrivals are few, the border area was full and a long queue that snaked its way back and forth was created. Familiar image. Mingle, mingle, mingle.

The eGates were open as additional security staff were checking the documentation. My passport was rejected by the eGates and IHotel breakfast had to stand in another queue to be approved by a border official – there was only one on duty. In total, I was about 1 hour getting across the border. I decided to take a hotel rather than attempt the journey home. I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel at Hatton Cross (close to the Tube Station). Hotel prices are half of what one would normally pay, so that was not too onerous, though still a cost. The view (above left) was a shade dystopian, however. But I recommend the hotel if readers are ever in the same position. I bought breakfast – one retrieves it from the kitchen and consume it in one’s room. It was fine (right).

On Monday (15 February 2021) I was able to travel to the South Coast of England. The Tube and overland trains were largely quiet. I am now observing an obligatory 10 days’ quarantine. I stocked up on non-perishables before I departed, so I have most of what I need for the duration. Safe travels.

Book review: Yanis Varoufakis, Another Now

I did not start reading this book (below left) as a piece of science fiction, I actually thought it was a straight political and economic manifesto by a radical thinker. Bless him (not in a God sense), he has tried another route into our consciousness.

Another Now cover

His construct is the following – three different people, all disaffected by the present, meet or are introduced to one another with the express – and contrived – purpose of “trialogueing” the ideas that are obviously keeping Varoufakis awake at night. One of his characters, Costa, is an IT expert liberated from daily work by having anticipated 2008 and bet against it (or for it, whichever way one thinks). Costa was working on an alternate reality that one could choose to enter but only in the Hotel California sense (“you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”). Having created his new reality in a game called Freedom, he finds that holed up in it is another being, Kosti (also from Crete), who shares Costa’s DNA and past. Kosti inhabits a world know as the Other Now, in contrast to that which Costa inhabits; namely, Our Now.

Kosti engages with Costa until he becomes bored, at which point Costa visits once again his two other protagonists, an ageing Marxist academic who gave up on politics to create tapestries (Iris) and a libertarian banker (Eva) who became disillusioned about finance after the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank in 2008. This is the date, conveniently, that the fork in the realities occurred. So, these three characters interrogate the alternate future and its mechanisms.

So what is the alternate system that so successfully functions in Other Now that Our Now should aspire to? And how? I am loath to be a spoiler, but the object of the book is to achieve a mobilisation and create a coalition for change. Unless blogs like this share the ideas, then it really is just a limited work of science fiction. So here goes.

  1. elimination of retail and investment banks
  2. universal basic income (UBI)
  3. employee ownership of firms and the elimination of hierarchies
  4. socialisation of land

1 and 2: The elimination of retail banks is linked to the form and function of the UBI. The UBI in this alternate world has three components in a Personal Capital (PerCap) account. First, Accumulation made up of basic pay and democratically-allocated work bonuses; Second, Legacy – which is paid on birth, but not redeemable until adulthood and a plan for using it! Third, Dividend, which is the UBI element funded by a tax on corporations at 5 per cent of gross revenues. The payments are stored in an electronic wallet and transfers are made independent of retail banks. Borrowing is replaced by a peer-to-peer lending scheme rather than by banks as we currently know them. That does not quite amount to the elimination of the need for retail banks, but comes close. Investment banks disappeared because they no longer trade their complex derivatives and create fictitious money. They are reduced merely to lenders and have no advantage over peer lending.

3: Each employee is given one share of equal value to all other shares in the company on Day 1, or when they join. The stock market has been dispensed with by the radical activists who brought about the change (see below). Firms become democratic with no senior bosses telling others what to do. And the surpluses created by firms are allocated by peer assessment on a points system. Those who are particularly creative and/or productive are recognised by their peers and given credit points that equate with a portion of the excess. These points can also be used by future employers to assess the suitability of a candidate.

4: Landlords received inflated unearned income. The socialisation of land in Other Now resulted in a new commons being created through Ground Trusts/Commons (gComms). By law all freehold land passed to the gComms. Leases were awarded to landlords and democratic businesses were also privileged. Two zones – one for commercial housing, the other for commercial businesses, enable communities to extract maximum rents in these areas to pay for social housing.

Getting there

The mechanisms for getting there are radical. In the Other Now, movements such as Occupy Wall Street were not defeated as they were in Our Now. They were transformed into a guerrilla groups that organised successful payments strikes (delaying instalment payments on bank loans and utilities such as water and electricity) that brought down the banks and caused the nationalisation of the utilities. Guerrilla groups targeted firms with poor employee relations and environmental records sufficient to get pension funds to divest. Another guerrilla group set about big tech – succeeding in bringing down Facebook and gaining property rights over data for users of social networks. Those companies that avoided attack by these guerrilla groups did so only by investing in green technologies, leaving stock markets and transferring full voting shares to their employees.

International organisations such as the IMF were completely reformed. Instead of being an organisation that gave loans to defaulting nations in exchange for the privatisation of public assets, the International Monetary Project (IMP) has a remit to stabilise the world economy and invest in countries or regions without indebting them. The resources for this come from levies on exports and capital transfers.

Yanis Varoufakis

Core to the success of the system and the security against exploitation and a return to some oligarchical system is transparency. The very systems that were turned on citizens to monitor and punish were instead directed at the powerful. An appropriately-named piece of software, the Panopticon Code, developed by a guerrilla group of coders, infected every computing device on the planet. Suddenly everyone could see everything about one another and particularly those “clinging to power”. As a reader, one can see that Varoufakis is perhaps not so keen on this as an absolute (everyone’s secrets are exposed with the negative impacts that would entail), but the longer-term impact on the Other Now was a democratisation of society on a global scale. Corporations were held in check by their internal democracy and Citizens’ Juries (with the power to dissolve bad companies). These, of course, required a high-level of engagement by the population to enact and maintain. A socialworthiness index (as a replacement for credit ratings and the agencies that generate them) helped to divert resources towards the good things in life that were not captured by GDP (a real bugbear of mine).

On immigration, states in the Other Now recognised the contribution of immigrants to host economies and also supported the communities in which they lived including providing sufficient school places, healthcare services and housing (the latter helped by the socialisation of land and management by gComms).

Other Now is a modern app-based world. There’s an app for PerCap and its funds. There’s an app for social media data trading – after all users of social media services were given property rights over their data. They now trade data with social media firms and receive payment for them. This had tragic implications – which are for readers of the book to discover (p169). Using an app and receiving the payment in the PerCap app! The proliferation of apps is an indicator of a vibrant digital sector, freed from the constraints of the former Techno-feudalism endured by Our Now citizens.

Why Other Now is not better than Our Now

Other Now is no Utopia. Varoufakis uses Iris to detail its residual failures that the elimination of capitalism did not banish. And in 2022, Other Now does have its own financial crisis caused by imperfections in the regulatory framework around gComms and PerCap. Again, I will not spoil it because this is the part where Varoufakis loses himself in his story telling. There is nothing original in what happens next – I am pretty sure that any seasoned SciFi fan would work this out before Varoufakis had written it, after all, he’s an academic economist. But we are asked, through his characters, whether we would elect to transfer to Other Now or stay in Our Now. This is an existential question. The identity of the characters prepared to transfer and which not, and their reasons for the choice, again, are not a surprise.

I bought the book without reading the cover. Fortunately. Readers know that fiction – and particularly science fiction -are not my thing. Varoufakis demonstrates that they are not his either, but he has a fair shot at it – and certainly his main points about the nature of change – and critically the process of change – are well made. Probably better in this format than a straight monograph, of which there are many. I come away with some ideas of my own. But also with a dilemma. Not only should I go to Another Now if I had the chance; but seeing as though I don’t have that option, should I try to create Another Now? Now. The answer…I am not into tapestry.

Picture: Twitter

I walked out of a speech by George Monbiot

Monbiot

Many years ago when I first migrated to the South Coast, I joined the Green Party. It was, I thought not unreasonably, a quick and easy way to meet some like-minded people, one of whom became a close friend, now sadly deceased. I canvassed a number of local elections and proudly watched the party increase its support and eventually run the Council.

The party had few famous inspirational leaders, but I believed in localism and supported the local nominee for the parliamentary seat against the Party’s eventual decision to nominate its biggest name, the then MEP, Caroline Lucas. I’m still not reconciled to that. En route to the constituency being the first to elect a Green to the Westminster parliament, the local party organised many events and invited speakers, one of whom was George Monbiot. I regarded Monbiot as being a windbag with a platform in the Guardian newspaper. I helped set up the event on the day and then left immediately prior to his arrival on the stage.

Demo, Hull

I am someone who spent his formative years on demos. Every weekend I was somewhere – outside a factory farm, animal experimentation laboratory, and most memorably a weekend at Porton Down in Wiltshire. The overnight demo (right) was outside the Reckitt factory in my hometown of Hull. At these events, particularly the mass gatherings in London and other cities around the country, I heard many – what I thought were – inspirational speeches. The late Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, was a regular and particular favourite.

As I grew older, I began to get bored with speeches. If I attended a demo – whether it be against war in Iraq, the Pope’s visit, Fridays for the Future or more local industrial disputes – I have not stayed for the speeches.

In recent years, I started reading Monbiot’s Guardian columns again. My new-found environmental zeal directed at climate change extended my reading. Monbiot is an advocate of re-wilding, unloosening the shackles of the National Curriculum to enable flexibility in the classroom and an opportunity for children to experience the outdoors and flora and fauna. He’s also a Marxist, which brings me to the point of this blog entry.

head portraits,RHUL

I’m a regular reader of Chris Grey’s Brexit Blog. It is classic, longhand academic musings about the labyrinthine journey to Brexit. This week, Grey (left) takes on Monbiot using his highly effective academic spray that puts the targets to sleep before killing them painlessly. The article in question this week was Monbiot’s “follow the money” piece, published in the Guardian on 25 November 2020. Monbiot argues that there are two types of capitalists: warlords (disaster capitalists as well as the zealous free-marketeers/deregulators) and the housetrained (one-nation, post-war consensus Tories). Brexit is being defined by the Warlords and the campaign was funded by offshore, dirty money such as that supplied by Robert Mercer, Christopher Harborne and Jeremy Hoskin. The piece flows with allusions to “false consciousness” but, according to Grey, leads to a cul-de-sac. That is because the remain side also received money from the likes Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Sainsbury’s. With Sainsbury’s being exposed this week as contributing to deforestation in Brazil, this money is hardly clean, housetrained or otherwise.

What really caught my attention, however, was Grey’s reference to Stuart Hall, the hugely influential cultural sociologist writing in the 70s and 80s. Hall’s contribution is to point out that the follow the money approach, whilst not invalid, is not causal. Grey quotes Hall: “material interests … are not escalators which automatically deliver people to their appointed destinations, ‘in place’, within the political ideological spectrum”. It is the culture war, the tangibility of the intangible “sovereignty”. If Monbiot is right, Biden might have defeated Trump by something more than he did.

Grey concludes: “So whilst the debate about the relationship between economics and culture is a perennial one, and discussing…in general I think of them as inextricably bound threads, not base and superstructure. I prefer both/and explanations to either/or explanations, prefer contingency to determinism, and see as much cock-up as conspiracy.” 

Monbiot is a journalist. His epistemology – through training and the graft of weekly newspaper column writing – is different from that of the academic. I cannot speak for Monbiot, but I doubt that he is in too much of a disagreement with Grey; but Grey’s argument would be subject to some editorial scrutiny. Monbiot does well to get “false consciousness” into an opinion column in a liberal newspaper, let alone trying to introduce Stuart Hall. Grey’s critique demonstrates two different epistemologies – those of journalism and academia.

There is no revolution coming. The housetrained capitalists are the best we have – and may be re-asserting themselves in the United States. We should focus on the Green economy, not the economic system. We need somehow to inspire youth. Get them interacting with nature and help them develop a desire to dig down, literally and metaphorically, into the knowledge of these complex systems, by whatever means. Taking on Chris Grey is a bit of a cul-de-sac.