Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Greta Thunberg – she’s got them rattled

Greta Thunberg (left) has risen from unknown Swedish schoolgirl to omnipresent climate emergency ambassador and conscience. I first heard her speak – not in person, but through a link in my Twitter feed – when she addressed COP24 in Katowice, Poland. My first impression was one of awe, not because of what she was saying, but that her message was given in perfect English and in front not only of the international delegates, but the world’s media as well. Some feat for any 15 year old. But Greta Thunberg appears not to be just any 15 year old. And I think some in power are beginning to realise that.

She went to the World Economic Forum at Davos (on the train) where the real unelected power wielders and brokers go annually to make things worse. She told them – and us – that she and her peers are not looking for hope but rather action. She wants us to panic and act as if the house is on fire, because it is on fire. Again, I marvel at the language skills and composure. The message is unequivocal.

But then I fall back into Brexitland. Thunberg has had her platforms. Great theatre. But surely it is time for her to go back to school (she has been on school strike, each Friday, since September)? Seemingly not. She fronted an international school strike on Friday 15 February 2019. And this really got the goat of the politicians. In the UK, the British Prime Minister berated the strikers accusing them of wasting teaching time (that of their teachers and increasing their workloads)* and damaging their own education as a result. Her spokesman said “That time [school time] is crucial for young people, precisely so they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates we need to help tackle this problem.”This was a well rehearsed ignorant response to the strikers.

In the USA, veteran – and I mean this in a pejorative sense – Senator, Dianne Feinstein (right), patronised a group of young people lobbying her to support the Green New Deal – claiming that her long service in the Senate and her recent re-election vindicated her position and that they should wait their time and listen a little bit more.

As the young people keep trying to tell policymakers, there are plenty of top scientists arguing for action to little effect. And by the time the young people become scientists, policymakers, etc. it will be too late. That seems genuinely difficult for the politicians, in particular, to understand. I have two observations. First, the politicians are rattled, being upstaged by articulate children who are supposed to comply. Even if the British Prime Minister does not understand the climate change emergency she reveals the true deficit in the democracy – and political system more generally. The system cannot manage fundamental change of the kind needed to meet the challenge with its hackneyed metrics for “wellbeing” such as economic growth (GDP) which positively counts environmentally destructive activities such as deforestation, but not positive elements such as caring, non-consumptive leisure, re-use and most conservation including energy efficiency. It cannot countenance universal incomes, reduced working hours or wealth redistribution.

My second observation is a concern. Thunberg is now 16 years old. She was at COP24 and Davos. These are invitation only. And neither were cost-free. Who is behind her? Now I sense that she is not going away in a hurry; but the going will get tough as she fronts up more action in the coming months and years. Politics is an ugly business and the gloves will come off. I hope there are some good people behind her. Please.

*  The irony here is that the government through targets and prescriptive teaching has wasted more teaching and learning time than any school strike could match.

Update – Thunberg goes to the EU: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2019/apr/16/greta-thunbergs-emotional-speech-to-eu-leaders-video

Pictures:

Thunberg: Jan Ainali

Feinstein: Now This News

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The Terrestrialists – Bruno Latour’s new-materialists

Regular readers will know that I have taken a little time out away from my regular work to read a few books to try to get an understanding of where we are, how we got here and how we might get out of here. Alive. Some discomforting answers are supplied in the reading of Eatwell and Goodwin’s book on nationalist populism; the latter, I think, can be extracted from Bruno Latour and his new book (left). I am sure there are many others, however (for example, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics and Diane Coyle’s (2014) unpackaging of GDP as a measure of  national wellbeing).

Both Eatwell and Goodwin and Latour are pretty clear that liberal democracy is a cause. Moreover, we must keep reminding ourselves, for example, that liberal democracy is relatively new in human history. Baby boomers and their offspring (myself included here), however, have no experience of other forms of democracy, illiberal or otherwise (illiberal democracies are now to be found in Hungary, Poland and increasingly in Italy). It has been the underpinning of economic growth and – what seemed until recently to be – inexorable globalisation. I am grateful to a single essay by John Gray to help me with this also.

I have not really had much reason to consider Latour’s work; I have probably been more scared of it than I should have been. I was nudged towards it after reading an article in the NYT magazine about him, his methodological perspective (actor network theory) and its applications. Often seen as post-modern French philosophy – now conveniently rebranded by others as a philosophy of post-truth – it can be inaccessible.

Bruno Latour, 2017

There are four major events that Latour uses in constructing what he deems to be a hypothesis. Hypothesis because he does not try to prove anything. He recognises that he comes from a landed bourgeois family and is, himself, a boomer. But dismiss him – or his reasoning – at our peril, I sense. So, the events are: the Brexit vote in the UK; the election of Trump in the USA; the resumption of mass migrations caused by wars, failed attempts at economic development and climate change. The fourth event, however, is the most significant for Latour and it, itself, comes in two parts. First, the signing in Paris on 12 December 2015 of the Climate Change Accord; second, Trump’s policy to withdraw from the Accord.

On the former Latour says: “…on that December day, all the signatory countries, even as they were applauding the success of the improbable agreement, realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development. They would need several planets; they have only one.” (p. 5). On the second, “By pulling out of the Paris Accord, Trump explicitly triggered, if not a world war, at least a war over what constitutes the theater of operations. “We Americans don’t belong to the same earth as you. Yours may be threatened; ours won’t be!”” (p. 3).

Latour’s method is systematic, if a little post-modern and hence, non-linear. Liberal democracy is capable of delivering the Climate Accord, but not implementation. Even if all signatories tried to implement the Accord, liberal democracy with its growth, modernisation, globalisation and universal wealth (measured in material terms) philosophy is incompatible with delivery. At some point, leaders – obscurantists, in Latour’s parlance – have to tell electorates that under the current economic and political models, “climatic catastrophe” is unavoidable. Latour, however, interprets Trump in an interesting way. I have often thought that climate change deniers actually believe that climate change is not caused by human activity out of ignorance and failure to look at the evidence. For them, it is merely a natural phenomenon that governments need to prepare for. Depriving people of the benefits of capitalist modes of production, trade and consumption would, therefore, not help the environment. However, my naïvety, as is often the case, is clear. The actuality is that the climate change deniers are of two kinds – literally for Latour – the “Out-of-this-World” types who care little for evidence (p. 34, and maybe Trump is the cheerleader here?) and those who know only too well that human activity is the cause not only of climate change, but also of the increased rate of change and the cause of the 6th Great Extinction.

Let us add more to this; socialism is no better at dealing with climate change than is economic liberalism. The left, just like the right, is bi-directional. There are those deep internationalists who believe that modernisation, which usually incorporates economic and political globalisation, is equally important for the socialist realisation of equality (just like the economic liberals). There are also those who think about the local – tradition, the familiar, predictable, local production, etc. Increasingly this perspective captures the so-called “left behind” or “abandoned” on the left who seek controls on immigration, protection for strategic industries and sovereignty (whatever that is). As Latour puts it, “those who value ethnic homogeneity, a focus on patrimony, historicism, nostalgia, inauthentic authenticism”  (p. 53). The UK Labour Party is trying to reconcile these two perspectives against the backdrop of Brexit and goes some way towards explaining the Labour leadership’s support for withdrawal. Many modern social democratic parties in Europe are trying to do the same but losing out to overtly populist parties and Greens alike. For Latour, they are un-reconcilable in one party.

So far there have been three “Attractors” – global and local (both with plus and minus elements, winners and losers) and “Out-of-this-world” those for whom reality triangulated by science and presented by educated elites, scientists, publishers and seemingly opaque institutes has no meaning. There is one more Attractor; namely the Terrestrial (p. 40). This is neither left nor right. In Actor Network terms, Latour’s thing, the Terrestrial is an actor itself. The other attractors are all about human history, human geography, human advancement, the modernisation of the human condition. The Terrestrial, argues Latour, puts human beings back into nature. That nature includes living things as well as the biosphere. It is the critical zone on the planet that makes life – human, animal and plant – possible. The Terrestrial, therefore, is an actor because, in Latour’s terms, it has agency and fights back (p. 41) – or at least responds to stimuli, largely human induced. Civilisation (human of course) is the product of the last 10 millennia of human (often brutal) interaction.

Terrestrialism is, essentially, a third-way. We’ve seen third-ways before. New Labour in the UK was packaged as such back in the late 1990s informed by the work of Anthony Giddens. But that was perhaps a third way in name only. It was an old consensus, a neo-liberal one at that. Latour’s Terrestrialism is a third way not between left and right, but between global and local, plus and minus and climatic catastrophe. Nice theory, but as Latour honestly notes, this is an essay written from the comfort of a Paris residence with no empirical underpinning. There are a few suggestions for how “we” might become Terrestrialists. That is the subject of another – later – blog entry.

References:

Diane Coyle. GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014

Anthony Giddens. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 1998

Bruno Latour. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 2018

Picture: Latour KOKUYO

The Economist and the UK General Election – what a squirm

Two years ago I critiqued the Economist’s advocacy of the Conservative Party to form the next UK Government under David Cameron. The magazine, in my opinion, disingenuously dismissed Ed Miliband’s programme in favour of the “stability” offered by more economic-liberal austerity by the Conservatives. The magazine overlooked the commitment to an in-out referendum on Europe despite its avowed support for the European Union, at least in the context of a single market and customs union.

Fast-forward 2 years and here we are with another General Election having been called – we are told by Theresa May – to protect the will of the people translated as her vision of Brexit from those who would oppose it (saboteurs according to the Daily Mail), like parliamentary oppositions are supposed to do under the Country’s usefully unwritten constitution. May, not being a democrat, or not one that I recognise, duly called her General Election after having been on a walking holiday. Though I am minded that she first had a word with the architect of the Conservatives’ last election victory, the benighted Lynton Crosby.

I was waiting to see what stance The Economist would take this time. Let me have a look. First of all, the leader of the opposition is called “ineffectual”. However, that is not the real story. May looks to achieve a landslide victory and increase her majority from the current 17 to something approaching 100. “For the 48% of voters who, like this newspaper, opposed Brexit, this may look ominous” says the Economist, un-reassuringly. However, we have mis-read this. Indeed, argues the newspaper, “[i]nfact, it offers an opportunity for those who believe in a more open, Liberal Britain”. Really? We need to know more.

If I read it correct, if May gets her increased majority, she will fear the Commons less when it comes to the final deal. The House of Commons fought hard to have a say on the final deal and would, if the “deal” was not as good as what the country has at the moment with EU membership, tell her to go back and try harder. One assumes she is particularly fearful of her “hard Brexit” backbenchers. If she has a bigger majority, goes the argument, she can accommodate their wrath as well as that coming from the depleted opposition benches. This means, continues the argument, that she is more likely to be able to make compromises with the EU with this safety net. And that means a softer Brexit. Brilliant!

Dear Economist, that is nonsense. May wants to close the borders. Only a hard version of Brexit will enable that. Plus Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, has himself described it as a “power grab”. Moreover, she also does not want to be bound by the current manifesto of her party written by her predecessor. So, her Finance Minister, Philip Hammond, who suffered ignominy when his budget tax increase was rejected, can now make this a manifesto commitment. Also, May herself is obsessed with selective education and already has in train a return to grammar schools at the expense of children from less privileged backgrounds. The Economist thinks that Theresa May with a majority can fix the housing shortage and make good the “funding crisis in social care”. Bearing in mind that her party is the cause of these two problems and policies so far pursued seek to make it worse, not better (for example, right-to-buy housing association dwellings).

We should not be surprised by this spin and support for the Conservative Party; but we are where we are because of the Conservative Party (austerity policies and THAT referendum). The solutions and future must lie elsewhere.

Brenda says…

Brenda is just an ordinary woman in Bristol. She was questioned on the street by a BBC journalist and she said that she was fed up with politics – there is too much of it about at the moment – and she just wanted to live her life in peace. That is a bit of a paraphrase, but only a bit.

Let me be clear, I do not want an election. What is the point in a fixed-term parliament if an insecure Prime Minister decides that she needs a personal mandate for her mendacity and push for majoritarianism and the limited state? However, if we are going to have one – precipitated to some extent by the EU’s interregnum over exit terms – then so be it. But this is no ordinary election. I’m 53 and I believe this is the most important election in my lifetime. We can let the Conservative Party for the foreseable future dominate the executive and legislature (not to say judiciary if recent experience is anything to go by) or we can stand up for something bigger.

This is not a party-political election in the normal sense. Notwithstanding Brexit, this is an election to stand up for public services, the NHS, education, housing, social care, the environment, liberty and decency. All of these things the Conservative Party seem to be willing to denude or abolish in pursuit of power. Not the public good.

This will be an ugly island if May achieves her aim. All opposition parties have to work together on this one. This is not about Labour, LibDems, SNP, Green. This is about a future. Brenda needs to engage, vote and learn.

End.

 

Will the EU let the destruction happen?

For reasons that I cannot explain, I have been affected by the so-called Islamic State’s destruction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Palmyra in Syria (below right). The destruction of ancient artefacts for religious reasons somehow seems personal, and that is not diminishing IS’s penchant for killing that seems part of their ideology. But why should the destruction of ancient temples which I have not visited bother me?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Yesterday the Guardian newspaper ran a story about the impending destruction of another World Heritage Site, this time in Europe and by a member state of the EU. The site in question is the Białowieża forest (left). It covers an area of 150,000 hectares in Poland. It straddles the border with Belarus, where it is entirely protected as a nature park. It is home to 20,000 animal species, including 250 types of bird and 62 species of mammals – among them Europe’s largest, the bison (left).

The government has passed a law allowing 188,000 cubic metres of trees to be felled by 2021. It is argued that some of the trees – maybe even 1 million spruce trees – are infested with bark beetle and are dying. The felling, however, seems to go way beyond what is necessary to contain the infestation – assuming it needs dealing with at all. Nature is pretty good at regeneration.

The Polish government seems to have put a price on the forest. The logging in Białowieża is expected to raise about 700m złotys (£124m); however, some see it as the thin edge of the wedge. Undermine the viability and diversity of the forest and that might pave the way for extensive and lucrative tree clearances (as if what is proposed is not damaging enough).

So, what is the link to the so-called Islamic State? Well IS was not a member of the EU, or even the UN, so negotiation over the Palmyra site wereTemple_of_Bel,_Palmyra_02 difficult to arrange. There was not much sanction at that point in time. They willingly filmed the destruction for posterity, keen as they are to share their violence with us. Poland is an EU member state. Sanction is there if it chooses to exercise it. We shall see.

But the story did help me with the question of why it might bother me. Both sites are ancient. The trees or the relics – if they could speak to us – could tell us much about ourselves, our history and origins. I know they cannot. Both are irreplaceable. Take them away and they cannot be replaced. With forest, the whole eco-system is lost. The flora and fauna will die. That is also an issue. With the ancient relics, we erase our link to history, ancestors and the humbling that often comes with huge ancient buildings erected without, at the very least, lifting technology. Wonderment, that is the connection.

In the comments accompanying the article in the Guardian newspaper (link above), one comment suggested that countries with elected governments can do what they like with their land. And there lies the problem. Human beings believe the land and its content to be theirs. They are resources to be exploited. They are very rarely viewed as there to be protected, even though protecting the forest sustains the environment on which we depend. Humanity often struggles to see itself as made up of organic life forms. Rather humanity locates itself as some superior entity removed from its place in nature.

Will the EU act?

Pictures:

Bison in forest: Herr stahlhoefer, Wikipedia

Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria, Bernard Gagnon, Wikipedia

Belawege

 

University of Brighton degree show 2015 pt 1

Here is my annual review of the best (in my humble opinion) of the degree show. In light of the recent election result and my passion for students and young people more generally to engage with the political process, I highlight in the first instance the work that prompts thought about change and the environment.

First, let us start with the graphic designers whose task is surely to help us navigate the complex environment in whichDSCF1127 we live and to alert us to dangers both real and imaginable. There were seven exceptional examples in this year’s show starting with Hannah Jeffery (right). It never ceases to shock to learn just how few examples of these extraordinary animals there are left; largely because of poaching and game hunting.

DSCF1120Next, Amy Fullalove who asks, how do we alert future generations to the dangers associated with a huge nuclear waste repository in Finland (Onkalo)? I think these symbols (left) will do the trick!

Sasha George (below right) has another approach. Now this is my interpretation, and hence it might be entirely wrong. The artist seems to have presented a series of six extraordinary pictures depicting DSCF1129nature reclaiming human despoliation. There is a toppled Statue of Liberty (somehow on land); trees growing through houses and abandoned vehicles. The array of animals – tigers, bears, birds and fauna is fantastic. And to me at least, it shocks.

DSCF1125Next Lossie Ng Lei (left) takes on global warming with a challenge to feel the difference that 2 degrees makes with a set of oceanic images and a push towards veganism (as a solution).

Next, Beth Ducket (below right) who is in fact a print maker rather than graphic design. It is not clear exactly how explicit the artist is about the impact on the environment of consumption, but even by accident the reproduction of so many receipts makes a clear point. Her accompanying script could even be MarxistDSCF1117 with references to alienation (meaninglessness) and mass production/consumption. Perversely the artist has reproduced by hand the receipts on the one hand claiming artisanal value but also this wonderful ability to see art in the mundane and a deep commitment to classification.

My penultimate choice goes to an artist whose work seems not to have been labelled. I do not know DSCF1123whether this work is a critique of modern communication technology or a celebration of it (left). Every individual in the series of six pictures is completely consumed by a mobile phone. If it is a critique, well done. If it is a celebration, we really are doomed.

Finally in this section (fine art and sculpture to follow), Holly MacDonald is going to go far withDSCF1131 her caricatures of British politicians. There are two in this example (right). And they are brilliant and correct.

Das Gewitter

2015-06-06 21.55.2735 degrees heat has been imposing itself on central Europeans over the past few days. It is not to my liking as a English bloke from the north used to fog in the middle of summer. I do, however, love a good electrical storm. From a safe distance.

The weatherman on the TV on Friday night promised some activity on this front. First the clouds came over, then a breeze got up. Finally the flashes and thunder. Not a classic, but I did manage to capture a lit-up sky2015-06-07 22.47.10 on my phone. It required a little patience.

Actually tonight, I got some real lightening!

Here’s the next challenge to our liberties

TTIPSo here is the next outrage – the inappropriately named Transatlantic Trade and Investment Policy, coming to a court not near you very soon. It is inappropriate because it is not really a trade and investment policy. Such a policy would, on the whole, be benign. This one, by my understanding, gives large corporations the opportunity to challenge nation states/governments on issues that they view as restrictions on trade. So, a nationalised health service is conceivably a restriction on trade of US healthcare providers. Under this argument, US corporations would be able to make the case that they should be able to compete for contracts in the NHS – the whole of the NHS, not just the bit that the UK Conservatives have so far transferred to their private sector firms. Equally, all environmental policy could be viewed in this way. Restricting carbon emissions, for example, imposes costs on firms, that is a restriction on trade. Surely corporations should be able to pollute as much as they like?

Magazine subscriptions

I subscribe to two weekly magazines – the New Statesman and The Economist. The former for twelve years, the latter perhaps four years. The Economist is an essential read for my work. The New Statesman feeds my interest in political debate. I took up reading it when I ended my daily subscription to the Guardian newspaper.

NS_coverWhen big public holidays arrive, both magazines publish bumper editions – sufficient to keep readers satiated for the two weeks that the magazines are on holiday, as it were. The New Statesman’s bumper edition is, generally, full of pap and even some of my favourite columnists let the side down. This year, for example, Will Self has taken to writing about another columnist in the same magazine! And to make matters worse, when that columnist started a few years ago, I only managed a couple of weeks before I lost the will to read any more, life being too short and all that. Holding the fort are the veterans Peter Wilby and Hunter Davies.

The Economist, however, fills out its pages with features on history, culture and science. Although it is unashamedly Economist_coverconservative, neo-liberal, it is at least well written and thoughtful. Hence I’m prompted to relay one of those features to readers (20 December 2014, pp82-84). It tells the story of the rise of pork as a symbol of affluence in China. It is a favourite food. Seemingly, Chinese citizens eat the equivalent of half a pig each per year (that is 500 million pigs annually). Such is its importance for the Chinese government seeking social stability, it is subsidised to the tune of $22bn per year. However, this leads to environmental and resource challenges.

Most are factory reared. Consequently they are routinely fed antibiotics to stave off disease that could decimate what is increasingly an in-bred, non native pig population. They are mainly fed on cash crops, particularly imported soy beans. These are grown predominantly in South America on land much of which has been cleared of rain forest. Moreover, the Chinese pork industry is responsible for 50 per cent of the total global soy market. Each kilo of pork requires 6kg of feed.

PigThen there is the waste. Each pig produces, apparently, 5kg of waste per day. Traditionally, pig excrement was highly valued as a fertiliser; however, mass produced pigs generate contaminated waste – antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, etc., not suitable to spreading. There is also too much of it. Pigs and pig waste have become increasing sources of water and soil pollution.

Moreover, the pigs themselves produce methane and nitrous oxide. These are potent greenhouse gases somewhat more damaging than carbon dioxide (300 times more so, it is argued).

I gave up meat 35 years ago. I may give up the New Statesman in 2015.

The oil price is a problem

Oil_wellWhilst I am delighted to see that I can fill the tank of my ever-so reliable van for a fraction of what it cost this time last year and fly until my heart is discontent in the knowledge that the value of the airlines (share price) is increasing, they having done nothing more than survive three months since the oil price started to plummet, it is bad news. Why?

First, burning hydrocarbon fuels is bad for the environment and price is a key regulator of consumption. Second, many oil producing countries – some of them not the richest – have set their budgets at anticipated levels; for example, $100. The shortfall of $35 (reflecting today’s price-per-barrel) can make the difference between life-and-death. High oil prices, then, can be good transfer payments between rich and poorer countries.

Third, oil company shares are down sharply. With these stocks being some of the key investments made by pension funds, meeting obligations becomes more difficult. Fourth, investment in renewables will be hit. Suddenly it is only cost-effective to burn oil. Fifth, geopolitics. When demand goes down, price is often regulated by cutting supply. This is not happening for reasons which are currently unclear. However, there are some suggestions that it is a power battle between oil producing countries particularly in the middle-east rendering the region even more unstable than it already is. That is also not to mention the situation in Russia. Very much an oil economy that is suffering also from ludicrous EU sanctions. There is unrest ahead.

What about the positives? Well, I can think of one key positive. The glut in demand is, in part, caused by shale oil production in the USA and tar sands in Canada. These two practices are very damaging to the environment. $65 a barrel is not sufficient to warrant such production. Whether the firms will cease their activities remains to be seen, but what is clear is that where fracking has not yet started, it is unlikely to do so.

Picture: Flcelloguy/Wikipedia