They Huffed and they Puffed…

Students are beginning to question arms-trade links beyond investments. Photo by Alex Green.

My last Activist Winds post told of the Edinburgh uni Occupation for Gaza. Well since then the hurricane has continued to spread like that hilarious super-storm in the Day After Tomorrow, with further occupations and protests in St. Andrews, York and Aberdeen.  So we can see which way the wind is blowing: a lot of students are p*ssed off and want militancy and corporate power off campus.  The interesting question then, considering that we’re about to choose a brand new campaign, is not which way the wind is blowing, but which things are most liable to wind-damage – which [campaign target] is the house made out of bricks, which one is made out of sticks, and which is made of straw.

Let’s start by considering what the occupations were trying to achieve. Many of the demands, like the clothing, hair-styles, and over-use of the words ‘comrade’ and ‘in solidarity’, were replicated across the occupied territories: scholarships for Gazans, scrapping contracts with Eden Springs, organising aid collection, and the cutting of ties to companies connected to Israel via investments, research programmes, and the careers service.

Keen readers will note that many of the occupations’ ‘campaign asks’ overlap with those of Corporate Power proposals – most prominently Reclaim Education, Ethical Investment, Reclaim and Regrow, and Total Ethical Procurement – the proposals which might crudely be groups as “the local campaign options.” Here’s what happened to some of the proposals’ ideas at the Edinburgh occupation:

On scholarships – as with several other Uni’s, scholarships were created and, although it didn’t go as far as the demands asked, they have set up a working group to find further funds and develop the admissions procedures. Perhaps they are open to something which promotes academia and diversity? Could suggest a way in for positive campaigning on research aims in Relclaim Education.

At the Forum 2009, we will choose which little piggy to go after.

At the Forum 2009, we will choose which little piggy to go after.

On procurement – again similarly to other unis, Eden Springs’ contract is to be cut, but this is more to do with the phasing out of bottled water from campus and its replacement with taps. They also welcomed discussion of other contracts. The message here would be do your research and find the argument that works with your uni. Good news for Total Ethical Procurement and Reclaim and Regrow.

On investment – progress on this depended on building on previous success. In Edinburgh an ethical investment policy was in force and students were invited to ‘bring their case’ through its procedure. This might be a long campaign if you’re starting from scratch, but it has obviously made tangible changes locally, and opened the door for many occupations to succeed here. Sign of the pass successes of the Ethical Investment model, and thus future fertile ground?

On research – Edinburgh Uni was categorically uninterested in even discussing this. They don’t want to talk about potentially losing revenue. Interestingly, St. Andrews has taken a different view on this one: “The University has conceded that its position is inconsistent and will now regularly communicate its research proposals to the Students Association and the student body” (from SAUO). This suggests that University research programmes could be a big battle – if P&P wants to take it on, ala Reclaim Education.

On the careers service – again Edinburgh wasn’t interested, citing the age-old “we must offer our students choice.” However, there were signs that flipping this into a more positive approach, getting careers fairs to be more diverse rather than just big companies, might work, as Reclaim Education aims to do.

As previously mentioned, maximum success will benefit from a gradual wearing down (or building up!!) and a willingness to work with advocates in different parts of the uni (never think the University is one organisation with a single head – they wish). All in all, a successful campus Corporate Power campaign is likely to resemble a mixture of a good-cop bad-cop interrogation, and that thing when you’re a kid and your mum says no so you go ask your dad instead (once again we play the bad guys both times….).

There’s lots to think about here in both strategy and targets, with elements that will alter between campuses and over the months and years that the campaign runs. But don’t be daunted thinking this through carefully: last Tuesday Edinburgh had an occupation de-brief attended by 50-odd people, many of whom were new to activism, and all of whom vowed to keep up the pressure and see their campaign through. If you take on corporate power on campus, you will find your supporters.

This post was originally published on the People & Planet Blog.


You’ll be eating lots of homemade chutney where we’re going Mr. Johnson

So you’re reading the *new* People & Planet blog huh? Presumably that must mean you’re interested to listen to the ideas and opinions of people around you. Well, perhaps you should give yourself a pat on the back then – because that puts you one step ahead of our beloved Mayor of London.

Two weeks ago the right Lordfull Boris Woop-se-daisy-am-I-on-have-I-got-news-for-you-or-running-London-today-urm-I-forget Johnson donated us, the good public (or at least the Telegraph reading portion), with some of his pearls of wittily crafted but ultimately short-sighted and dangerously irresponsible ‘wisdom’

Have a read – go on, I dare you.

You read it yet?

Well, yes indeedy, Boris would have us spend more bucks to get out of the recession, which after all, makes perfect sense if you focus on the very troublesome problem of consumer spending falling causing shops and their suppliers of various ilks shutting down, meaning fewer jobs. Simple right? Not buy stuff equals no jobs. Therefore buy more stuff equals jobs. Brilliant Mr. Johnson, you’ve done it again!

No infact the reason I lampoon the right honorable chap is because there is no way he listened to a damn thing any of his economic advisers said when making these apparently ingenious deductions.

In case you’ve been in a cave (which by the way, is a great way to spend a day, but perhaps not 6 months) something called the credit crunch has ocurred – which when boiled down and separated into its constituent fluids, can be explained something like this: companies made truck loads of cash so had loads to invest, so you could get money on the cheap, so people borrowed too much for too little cost, and lenders made a lot from selling crap loans to each other, before realising it was all terrible mess and running away to Hawaii leaving us to pick up the pieces (thanks).

So what do you notice about this problem and Boris Johnson’s solution? Well, it seems a lot like spending more will help out the high street meaning companies succeed again and make lots of money so have lots to invest and… oh dear we’ve done it again.

Yes indeedy it’s about time we all, and not just our dear leaders, woke up to a strikingly unpolitically palettable truth: contraction is not a bad thing. We need our economy to get smaller so we can focus on producing what we need (things like energy and food), and stop producing things we don’t.


If you are living in a world where there’s loads of stuff knocking about to use up, then it makes sense to do more to make the most of it. But as most economists will tell you, that is not the world of the 21st century. Telling people to spend more is downright irresponsible. Cheap fuel, minerals, even food and water are becoming scarcer. This is not about the environment anymore, this is barely even about long term thinking (unless you count 5 years as long term). We need to plan our economy to wind down at a decent pace, because if we just keep trying to spend more, we will crash and burn. This is a great opportunity for a rethink that must not be wasted. And if it takes a massive failure by idiot bankers and a government who was happy to let them idiot-up everything to kick start the process, then so be it.

This ladies and gents is view from the top, the bad-news-blog. Stay tuned!

This post was originally published on the People & Planet Blog.


The Time Has Come

When it comes to climate change the powerful have a lot to gain from espousing contradictions. Banks will tell you they exist to conserve the environment. Oil companies will tell you they don’t like oil. Airlines will tell you that flying can be sound. Supermarkets will tell you you need to spend more (1p from every bag goes to the rainforest!). Politicians will tell you it’s your fault whilst others will reassure you that you can carry on as you are.

Do not believe a word of it; when it comes to climate change, we must challenge everything we’re told.

Every one of these contradictions are carefully devised ploys to make you believe that these people know what the problem is, and that they can be trusted to see us through it. They are wrong.

The threat to our global climate is a crisis of phenomenal scale and with no previous precedent. Companies and law-makers would like you to buy (into) their solutions to this problem because that keeps their position secure. But solving this crisis requires that their positions be anything but comfortable. Change must come now, and be drastic.

So we need to find out for ourselves what is going on. We must challenge banks such as RBS who tell us their green credentials whilst investing billions in oil extraction projects. We must challenge the oil companies for failing to invest in renewables adequately. Because short-term thinking got us into this mess, we must challenge politicians who insist that sustainability comes second to short-term economic growth. We must challenge law-makers also when they tell us that you can have climate legislation that gives shipping and aviation companies a free-ride.

Ethical shopping and diligent recycling will not solve this crisis. We must use our collective power as students to hold leaders of business and government to account to ensure they are making the right steps towards creating a low-impact society. So I urge you: read this issue of Student. Read the IPCC synthesis report (try it in Google). Write to your MSP about the Climate Bill currently being discussed in the Scottish Parliament. Talk to your banks, your energy provider and most of all your friends.

We are either at the start of solving this problem or on the verge of letting it slip out of our hands. Radical change is inevitable – if we don’t act we will see radical change for the worse, if we do act we have the opportunity to deliver radical change for the better: a habitable planet, a sustainable economy, and a fairer society. And anyone who tells you that achieving this is simple – challenge them. You know what they say about things that are too good to be true.

Originally published in the Student, 8th October 2008.


Oil price volatility and its impact on Kenyan families

In 2008 I completed an MSc in Environment and Development at the University of Edinburgh, passing with distinction. This is the abstract of my dissertation.

“It was found that there was a wide body of evidence supporting two views over the future of oil supply: an ‘optimistic view’ stating that there is enough oil to provide for increases in supply at least until 2030, and a ‘pessimistic view’ that oil supply will decline before 2015. The differences in forecasts stem from disagreement over the total reserves remaining, the quantity of resources available from ‘unconventional sources’, and future predictions of reserve growth. Both views agreed that dwindling supply in non-OPEC countries will increase the amount of oil controlled by OPEC nations, increasing supply volatility.

“As a substitute for oil, natural gas supply is closely related to that of oil and so ‘pessimists’ insist that gas production will peak shortly after that of oil. Known resources of coal are thought to be enough to last hundreds of years at current rates of consumption. Fuels such as petroleum, diesel, LPG and paraffin are derived from oil and gas and as such their supply is closely related.

“The report discussed how three Kenyan households’ livelihoods would be affected by the possible increases in fuel scarcity. It was found that without mitigation fuel scarcity could change employment patterns, increase migration, deforestation and social differentiation, and reduce gender equality, life expectancy, provision of education and healthcare.

“The report recommends a mitigation strategy of increased technology transfer and funding to allow increased access to electricity and supply of renewable sources of fuel. The encouragement of exploitation of fossil fuel sources and increased use of LPG is not recommended as it will exacerbate climate change effects, have few benefits to the poorest, and be unsustainable under all three scenarios.”

The full document can be downloaded here:

Global fossil-fuel supply scenarios and their impact on Kenyan households, RJL

The dissertation recieved 71/100.


The Eyesore at Faslane and the Joy of Resistance

Nuclear warheads are the most destructive objects present anywhere on the surface of our planet and they have been constructed and maintained by six of the worlds most powerful democracies1. If the arguments against nuclear proliferation are both moral and pragmatic (which I believe they are), then how has this been allowed to happen? Why have people continued to vote for the bomb? Is this a global conspiracy? Are people being lied to, or are they not listening? What can we as individuals do when all three main parties believe in the need to the nuclear “deterrent”?

Breaking the law is the last resort for the campaigner. I decided to answer the call.

I have never risked arrest before but in the company of good friends with shared objectives I felt I could do anything. Plunging into new situations with new people is always daunting, yet my experience at Faslane was both empowering and exciting.

I overcame my natural tendency to avoid the unknown and at the same time worked hard against my natural urge to volunteer for everything (it is my 3rd year after all2). I pretty much managed it. Months of planning, training, construction, fundraising and practising lead up to the weekend. York was due to hold the torch for the year round blockade 18th-19th March.

I arrived in the middle of the night having missed the day of (legal) protest on account of being stuck in Nottingham. I had six hours to lay down my bags, sleep, wake up, eat, find out what I was supposed to be doing, wake up and put what was about to happen out of my mind. Then I woke up and tumbled into the van with my comrades on our merry way. With a strong sense of doom in the air, we sung exerts from Team America and prepared for deployment. 5.45am – the enclosed industrial city of the nuclear base appears out of the window. It is time. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. It’s a nuclear base. What the HELL am I doing. Oh shit. Oh shit. Ok. Ok. Do I have my tube. I… where’s my karabiner? Oh shit. Oh shit. Doors open. We run. Oh shit. Get Down! We’re down.

Lying on your back attached to two people through some plumbing inside the gate of a nuclear submarine base watching the clouds go by, is more relaxing than you might think. It’s about 2oC and it’s considering snowing. The concrete is cold. I’m very tired. But we made it. The traffic is stopped. At 6am the police arrive (they’re not very surprised) and the traffic starts to queue up. It makes me smile to think of that moment. We had succeeded.

It gets colder and noisier, and the “cutting team” arrives. By 6.30am we’re being picked off one by one and the traffic starts to move again. The good news is those at the South Gate kept the resistance for another hour.

I was covered with a sheet and the cast-cutter got to work on our tubes. I was marched down the road (chatting merrily about the weather) by two somewhat confused policemen, asked some questions, photographed, and put in a van where I shared my hobnobs with the male arrestees (not the policeman, they declined) and listened to the radio. Then through the beautiful Strathclyde countryside to Dunbarton where an equally genial officer discussed his last holiday to York with us. We had our possessions confiscated, details recorded, and were put in solitary confinement.

The cell is a bit bigger than a toilet in a train, with no window, just a crash mat and a toilet. The florescent light flickered and it smelt a bit of sick. But I suppose there had to a hard part to this experience somewhere. I thought I was in there for 24 hours. But after some lunch, a cup of tea (free food!) we were, to our great surprise, given back our possessions and our freedom. We discussed our relief in the foyer of Dunbarton police station and cheered the women’s release in Greenock. In Scotland at least, resistance is not futile: it’s a daytrip.

I didn’t get the impression I was being treated like a danger to society. It was more like the detention with the teach who actually liked you but felt your shenanigans needed to be punished to make sure no-one else was encouraged. I trust that isn’t the message you are receiving. Come to Faslane to protest this debacle. And if you like, you can lie down on the concrete too.

Join the list at http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/yorkf365/
or email york@faslane365.org

1 That’s India, Israel, UK, USA, Russia and France. China and Pakistan having nuclear capabilities but not being democracies. There are a lot more countries without and they do fine.

2Voice in my head

This article was originally published in the June 2007 edition of ‘GoodMag’.


Ethical Investment: Ethical Consumerism for Institutions – A means to an end

Universities hold many of the same characteristics as individuals – they manage an income, they make choices about their financial systems, and they spend money. Many NGOs have spent the recent years challenging the spending habits of individuals, institutions and corporations through schemes such as FairTrade. This has become so popular partly because it is blindingly obvious to people what’s going on: you buy a shirt produced in a sweatshop and you’re supporting that system, buy a chocolate bar from Nestle and you’re handing profits to the baby milk demons. The same principal applies to the purchasing habits of universities, and of course, other institutions too.

Campaigns such as Ditch Dirty Development challenge consumers, in this case student account holders, to think about the effect their banking choices have. This, in a way, is the exact same principal behind Ethical Investment – instead of looking at the individual or institution’s buying power (as with FairTrade) it challenges their saving power.

Corporations respond to user demand – this is, if you’re asking Adam Smith, the great strength of capitalism – so called “consumer sovereignty”. Companies are required to maximise profit to survive and therefore if you increase the sales of the most ethical options they will be supplied more (this is of course the theory, not necessarily the practice, but go with me on this). As such ethical consumerism is very much a in situ solution, it accepts the economic system as it is. We may pay FairTrade farmers more but the capitalist will say the demand for FairTrade products is driven by consumers who value freedom from guilt as a much as they do taste.

The Big Goal

Therefore Ethical Investment, just like ethical consumerism, does not challenge the economic system. It works within it. Its goal must therefore be to effect change in the companies it targets.

If an institution, individual or corporation changes its buying or saving habits, this will effect the company doing the evil by altering its demand. This has been worked in the past as a means of effecting change, but rarely without additional action. Just as my lack of buying a Yorkie has little effect on Nestle’s sales, if one university divests from BAE Systems it may go completely unnoticed (particularly true in relatively poor new universities). Thus, for the campaign to be successful and change the company it targets (or perhaps even bankrupt it) publicity and national coordination are crucial.

There is a great danger with an ethical investment campaign that highly dedicated campaigners could spend hours, weeks, even years slaving over the production of a policy which ends up being used by the University as an ethical Scout badge and has little impact on the true goal of changing corporate practice. Unsung heroes have no place in this campaign. I do not believe that Ethical Investment is an ends in itself – it should be used as a tool to embarrass corporations and put them to shame.

The Bonus

The other use of Ethical Investment is in connecting students with atrocity. We are often told we come from “apathetic” universities, but Ethical Investment sprouted popularity with uses of phrases along the lines of “it is awful that my money is being used in this way”. Just like other consumer-based campaigns, people feel that albeit indirectly, they are being made part of an unacceptable state of affairs. This “awakening” can have the potential to make all of the issues People & Planet campaigns on become front page, coffee break, conversation pieces. The media loves a story they can blame on specific, local people, because it makes it more accessible for Joe Nopolitics to comprehend. Tell a punter on the street that there’s a company called Exxon-Mobil that denies climate science and is destroying the rainforest, and they’ll probably say “I’m not surprised, but what can I do” – tell them money they pay is being funnelled into that company and they’re much more likely to get a little angry.

So, Ethical Investment campaigning can influence the companies it leaves behind, and educate students along the way. But beware: as an end in itself, it can have a very limited impact. This only deepens the challenge set before groups of a campaign which can last years, and require extensive negotiation and attention to detail.


Climate Camp and Real Direct Action

Good Company

“Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)

Non-violent direct action is a vague term. It is usually about stopping something happening yourself, not waiting for someone else, or a higher body to do it for you. Sometimes it is about refusing to do something or to cooperate.

In modern Britain, direct action is often most attributed to those who have no interest in using our democratic channels – but it does not belong to those people. There are a number of reasons why such action can be necessary: the system is corrupt, too slow, or in some cases, you feel the imperative is too great. Some say it is undemocratic, violent, naive, inconsiderate, or all of the above. Yet historically, it has been used by the most noble people for the most noble causes.

A More Subtle Injustice?

When Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting on a white-only seat of a bus she was making a stand against blatant systematic oppression.

The alteration of the world’s climate which is primarily caused by emissions in the rich North (or “developed world”) is an invisible crime that promises nonetheless tangible and harmful impacts on the world, and it is the poorest that will be worst hit. So on the coal fields of South Yorkshire in the summer of 2006, a new group of activists convened. They were protesting at the gates of Drax power station, the largest single point emitter of CO2 in Europe, angry about a less palpable injustice – climate change. Over the course of the year that followed they planned their next move.

Miracles in a Field Near Heathrow

Climate Camp 2007 was not about messiahs or martyrs. But small miracles were happening – firstly, a camp of over a thousand people ran almost entirely on renewable means and provided food and shelter without a formal economy, everything relied on donations and good nature (what is more, the camp had a surplus). Secondly the eyes of politicians and journalists turned towards the camp in numbers no-one could have anticipated.

The camp was parked inside the footprint of BAA’s proposed 3rd runway – a runway planned to provide the airport with a capacity increase of over 50% purely to create space for short-haul flights. Why is this wrong? It is wrong because the increased demand for air travel is lies on the back of the absurd subsidies it receives and a complete lack of taxation. It is wrong because two unwilling villages will have to be razed to make space for it. It is wrong because short-haul flights are completely unnecessary and should be replaced by improved rail links. And finally, it is wrong because the Government’s plans to increase air travel mean that by 2050 flying will emit over 90% of our carbon budget. These are not airy-fairy hippy arguments – they are well grounded, costed, and economically sensible arguments. 1500 invaded the countryside around the airport and surrounded BAA’s headquarters simply to draw attention to these facts.

Real Direct Action

Climate change is no-longer a problem whose discussion is confined to university hallways and environmental activist meetings. However, there’s a long way to go before the public is in agreement with the radicals and the scientists. Climate change is the world’s biggest challenge – politicians acknowledged that as far back as the 1991 Rio Earth Summit – it’s about time the rhetoric matched the action. In reality, the policies put forward by the Government and the Opposition will do little to turn this country from a carbon economy into a sustainable one. It is time to consider embedded emissions in targets and consider the entire economy – transport too. Until the government starts taking real direct action to reduce emissions it is hypocritical in the extreme to criticise the fledgling economies such as China of short-sightedness when our emissions per capita are orders of magnitude greater. These were the “radical sentiments” being espoused on the fields by Heathrow this summer.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

This post was originally written for the magazine The Interdependent.


The Trident Farce. Discuss.

In the autumn of 2006 Tony Blair announced that Britain needed to replace its nuclear weapons system, ‘Trident.’ This will cost £15,000,000,000 of taxpayers money and occupy years of government and industry time.

Is this really what our government should be preoccupied with? If Trident is a weapon we will not use, it is worthless. If it is a weapon we must be prepared to use, this sends a dangerous message to the world, kick starting a new nuclear arms race. Britain stands at a crossroads – one way to war, and one way to peace.

A decision on Trident will be voted on in Parliament later this month. Don’t stay silent. Resist.

Faslane 365 is a peaceful blockade of the Trident nuclear submarine base in Scotland and York is joining for a weekend in Easter. Visit York at Faslane 365 for more info or email rjl502.

Want to join the blockade or just find out more? York@Faslane is meeting 8.30pm weds week 5 in V/123
+ Caroline Lucas MEP talks on Trident 3.15pm thurs week 5 in A/TB057
+ Saturday 24th of February is the National Demo against Trident, email peaceeducation@cnd.org.uk for £9 coach tickets to London

Protestors at the Faslane nuclear base in Scotland.


Britain’s current Trident submarines at Faslane.

This article was originally published in Issue 2 of GoodMag.


DESO: A helping hand for all Your Weapons Export Needs!

DESO is bad. Let’s just make that clear. This mag is called good people against bad things. DESO fits into the latter quite cosily. There’s not a lot good about it. But before you run out on the streets to let everyone know this, I’ll let you in on a little more info.

The Defence Export Services Organization was founded in 1966 under PM Denis Healey to help sell arms to other countries. At the time the industry was largely nationalised and it was felt that the MOD should get a chunk of this increasingly global market. Since then the world has changed. And DESO has grown – a lot. At its inception it employed around 20 people – now it has 400 staff in London alone, with a hundred more employees in various other countries, including Saudia Arabia, India and Pakistan.

DESOs aim is to make sure that when these countries buy another 10 fighter jets or another 100 missiles, they buy them from British companies. Hurrah for that you say! If they’re going to blow each other up let’s have some good old Blighty chaps employed for their pains… Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that any more – companies like BAE Systems are multi-national and many of the arms DESO helps to sell are manufactured abroad. The only winners are share holders.

No other industry in the UK receives this level of help from a government agency. Surely taxpayers’ money could be spent better? DESO is a contradiction of foreign policy, a symbol of corporate influence on government, and a huge waste of money.

DESO needs to be shut down. Visit www.caat.org.uk and email your MP now.

This article was originally written for the February 2007 edition of ‘GoodMag’.