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Your kindness could kill

By Amie Robertson and Ric Lander

ipswich_poster

A poster in a Sainsburys in Ipswich, Suffolk, reads “could you spare 20p for a cup of tea? How about £10 for a bag of heroin? £12 for a rock of crack?”

The poster asks people to donate to a local homeless fund and gives a contact for Streetlink, who offer services to homeless people.

Demonising people who are begging under the guise of helping homeless people is not a new tactic for the police, but for homeless charities the emphasis of this campaign is part of a new, worrying trend.

Flyers designed to accompany the poster campaign read “in a recent radio programme one person claimed he could earn up to £150 per day.” No further evidence is offered.

Getting the facts straight

The campaign seems to rely on two core assertions: that “most people sleeping rough do not beg” and secondly that “most people begging do not sleep rough.”

We are invited to infer from these statements that homeless people are the deserving poor, people begging are drug addicts, and these are two different groups of people. Or to put it another way, people begging on the street are drug addicts pretending to be homeless.

Is it true that “most people sleeping rough do not beg”?

On the face of it, the 2011 Complex Lives study, coordinated by the UK Government Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), appears to agree with this statement. Its comprehensive study in seven UK cities found that 32% of homeless people reported having begged.

However, the study also found that begging was typically something that people engaged in “in the middle-late phase of homelessness.” This is vital because it suggest that people are only likely to resort to begging if they have been homeless for some time. The study also suggests that people in such situations are more likely to be cut off from society in other ways, more in need of help.

What about the second claim, that “most people begging do not sleep rough”?

Homeless charity Thames Reach takes this claim further saying that “the link is between begging and drug and alcohol misuse, not homelessness and begging, nor even homelessness and drugs.”

Again the ESRC study suggests this is misleading. It found that over time there was a close relationship between homelessness and begging: “there is a strong overlap between experiences of more extreme forms of homelessness and other support needs, with nearly half of service users reporting experience of institutional care, substance misuse, and street activities (such as begging), as well as homelessness.”

To be clear, it is not that there is no relationship between substance abuse and begging, or substance abuse and homelessness. It would not be fair to say that people begging on the street aren’t going to spend any of their money on drugs. It probably is safer to offer food, blankets or a hot drink, instead of money.

What is important here is that these posters imply that people begging are “frauds” and “not real homeless people” without offering clear evidence for this idea and with little apparent concern about the impact of pasting these false claims all over the streets.

Those involved appear to have thought little of the demonising effect of their campaign. For the sake of raising a few pennies these charities are selling the dignity of the very people they exist to help.

Surely we can help those suffering on the streets without erecting media campaigns further stereotyping an already extremely vulnerable group and stopping one of their few options for generating their own income.

We’ve all heard the stereotyping, that friend you have that tells you the supposed “Romanians” you see on the street “aren’t actually homeless”. These posters purposefully support the image of people on the streets as criminals and liars. Surely this is what we must collectively fight against?

A poster copied across England

How did it come to this? How did homeless charities hit on the idea of asking for people to donate by text, and turn away from people begging.

The poster seems to have originated from London-based Thames Reach. Their “your kindness can kill” campaign has been running since 2003, and they have extensive web-pages explaining it.

Thames Reach’s original design has since been remodelled and reworked by many councils in England, including Manchester, York, Liverpool, Cheshire, Kent, Bournemouth, and Exeter. Although Suffolk is a notable exception, most councils seem to have used less aggressive language than Thames Reach’s original design.

lydia_james_manchester-1A version of the posters in Manchester. Image: Lydia James/caption]

Why are these campaigns supported?

One can’t escape the feeling that these campaigns continue to be successful primarily because they make “the rest of us” feel more comfortable doing what most people are already doing: ignoring people on the street.

One Oxford University student told a student paper: “I feel ashamed when I see tourists who come to Oxford having to walk past beggars and homeless people on the streets. What sort of impression does this give of our city and our society as a whole?”

Jeremy Swain, Chief Executive of the London charity who invented the posters, Thames Reach, told The Guardian in 2013 that he wants to stop begging because “because of the incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of people begging on the streets are doing so in order to purchase hard drugs.” But he goes on “I have stopped giving to beggars for another reason too. It is, I’m afraid, because I’m sick of them. One of the regulars round my way, a bit clever, fag in hand, became so persistent, so intrusive, that I got quite hostile, dismissing him with the same curt tone I find myself using with cold callers who plague my phone.”

Concern that the posters exacerbate negative images of people on the street made the campaign controversial when it launched in the City of Oxford. City Councillor Sam Hollick told us: “These posters seem more focussed on preventing people asking for money in the street than addressing the problems that cause people to do it. The message of the posters reinforces the idea in people’s minds that any interaction with someone in the street asking for money is with an addict, and is somehow dangerous. This only increases the gulf between people who are homeless and those who aren’t, which can cause a hardening of attitudes against people worst hit by societies problems.”

A City Council run review of the Oxford campaign highlighted other problems. The evaluation found concern, from people begging themselves and service providers, that the campaign would “affect trust-based relationships with the beggars”, have an unfair impact on the minority of people begging who did so for necessities, and encourage people to turn to crime for income. There is also some evidence that these campaigns don’t have a significant effect on giving to homeless charities.

Kindness doesn’t kill

There is compounding evidence that homelessness is linked to volatile life circumstances which would often already cause high levels of social stigmatisation. These can lead to a variation of homeless experience where form of income has to be navigated outside safety of permanent or even regular residence.

Homogenising homeless experiences into one stereotypical understanding is not only patronising but ignorant.

Further categorising those self identifying as homeless into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ only propels the stigmatisation of those in the most vulnerable positions, often without the connections to such caring organisations, and indeed pushes them further away from any kind of inclusion into society.

There is not enough social housing in Britain; cutbacks to public sector spending is closing some of the most critical care and rehabilitation centres; we are becoming the imprisonment capital of Europe; and the welfare state is being violently eroded whilst at the same time wages have never been so low and insecure.

This is a way of constructing society that WILL make people homeless, and yet charities on the front line of care provision for those within this traumatic experience are concerning themselves with making money by demonising those they seek to represent.

If this is the true face of austerity then God help us.

Or better yet, let’s help each other. Suspicious and dividing narratives like these only serve to enforce a more individualistic society where governments can further enforce draconian policies in the knowledge that our communities are fractured and in judgement of each other.

Giving your pound to those begging on the street will not solve anything. In fact the best that money will do is absolve your guilt for the next ten minutes until you see that someone else that has been forced into the street within this system which you remain economically privileged within.

However, as a man begging outside Haymarket Station, Edinburgh, so rightly put it, “it’s no about wanting all your money, but at least see me as a person.” Stopping to give someone the time of day on the street is a radical act of change in a society that demands we see each other as competition for the recourses those in authority refuse to give us. When we acknowledge that specific people on the street will often have experienced violent circumstances and stigmatisation within their daily life, it’s not just a radical act, but a way of resisting their further subjugation.

They are not just ‘beggars’, they are our brothers, our uncles, our aunties and our mothers, and their lives did not begin when they sat down and asked you for a spare bit of change.

I do not believe our kindness could kill, but rather that it could be transformative. Let our daily conversations become the building blocks for community organising where those affected by such issues are brought to the front line of grass-roots resistance against discrimination, and we work together to create an alternative society that puts the resources available in the public hands.

Oh, and what happened to that poster in the Sainsbury’s in Ipswich?

After the picture was shared widely on Facebook, Wesley Hall, a volunteer for Help the Homeless called up the shop asking for it to be removed. Although only put up that morning, the manager agreed to take the poster down.

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The fight against fossils: are we beginning to win?

Tomorrow is the world’s first ever Global Divestment Day. I’m quite excited.

The environmental movement used to be all about changing light bulbs and taking shorter showers. It is now getting organised around defeating the fossil fuel industry.  How did this happen?  And more importantly, how can it win?

For years environmental groups had been encouraging people to cut their own emissions.  In the late 2000s we got organised to get our governments to take a lead.  There was Climate Camp, “The Big Ask”, I Count, Plane Stupid, and a lot more.

We won. In 2008-9, shortly after the world economy crashed, the UK and its devolved parliaments passed world leading climate legislation.

So we asked the UN to join in. We lost.

Some people went back to the beginning and focused their efforts on local resilience, building low-carbon community projects. For a while this was the mode. It didn’t last. People weren’t just optimistic, they were angry. How could we push for the world-wide change we needed?

Sitting in the background, never quite top of the agenda, were a colourful bundle of campaigning ideas that hit climate change at the source: keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

In the early 2000s a campaign called Stop ESSO channeled the fury of environmentalists at a fossil fuel company that was worse that the worst: they funded massive climate denying PR, they were responsible for spills galore, they were even named as complicit in the Iraq war. The campaign was huge, but did not appear to have had much impact. It suffered from two fundamental problems. Firstly it asked people to boycott ESSO, but where do you then go – There is no “ethical petrol”. Secondly, even if you do have an impact on the company – what then? You can’t tell an oil company not to be an oil company. At the same time BP was trying to convince us an oil company could not be an oil company. It didn’t last.

When students started to focus on fossil fuels again in 2007 with the ‘Ditch Dirty Development‘ campaign, they didn’t make these mistakes. Their campaign wasn’t about the symptom (people putting fuel in their cars) but the cause: people getting it out of the ground. And it was cleverer than that still: it followed the money. First to UK banks, then to universities, cities and government.

Targeting the fossil-fuel brand, as Stop ESSO attempted, is not futile, but the target needs to be directed to the right outcome. We won’t get far telling people to get fuel from a different petrol garage, but we can do a lot depriving the industry of staff recruits, severing their ties with Governments, and stopping their PR machine. Fossil-fuels, not just one company, not even just one fuel, but fossil-fuels must be the target.

All other things being equal this effort could just have the effect of slowing production.  Great news for the climate in the short-run, but it’d also make fossil-fuels more expensive: terrible for the poor and furthermore, higher prices will rekindle production.

The opportunity created by this movement needs to be used to redirect that capital, all the subsidies, all the patronage, all the bright people, into the emerging renewable economy. We don’t necessarily need to work out how to do that now, but we do need to understand the plan.

We need a movement against fossil-fuels that has an industry-wide aim and a long term plan. Well we’re in luck, because we do, and tomorrow it goes big.

Map of planned actions for Global Divestment Day, 13-14 February 2015.

An amazing movement is coming together to get to tackle the heart of capitalism’s biggest catastrophe:

  • Fighting fossil-fuels at home: local community groups, anarchist networks and NGOs are making amazing strides to block onshore oil and gas, galvanised by real public outrage at the threat of fracking in the UK. Just last month fracking bans were tabled in Scotland and Wales, and these campaigns have brought in traditionally pro-fossil-fuel groups like trade unions.
  • On campuses: student groups are campaigning for “Fossil-Free” universities, not just in the UK, but around the world – first seeking to divest endowment funds from fossil fuels, then pensions and then perhaps cutting research links.  This is the lead guard of global divestment day.
  • Church groups are organising to divest parishes, diocese and faith organisations from fossil-fuels. Their part in the hugely successful apartheid divestment campaign was vital.
  • A growing group of organisations is supporting divestment of local government, bank and pensions funds.
  • Anti-poverty NGOs like the recently relaunched Global Justice Now(1) are calling for “Energy Justice” in solidarity with communities affected by fossil fuels. This builds on the work of organisations like Platform London and the London Mining Network who detail about how fossil fuel exploitation affects communities in the Global South, like Ogoniland in the Niger Delta.
  • Fossil-free politics: big NGOs like Friends of the Earth and Oxfam are drawing eyes on the fossil-fuel industries’ access to the 2015 UN climate conference. This forms part of a wider need to stop the lobbying and embarrass politicians for their oil, coal and gas connections.
  • Fighting fossil-fuels offshore: until it goes violently wrong there are no residents around to much care about deep-sea drilling. That’s part of why Greenpeace’s campaign against Arctic oil is such an important piece of this movement: we cannot just rely on people to stop what’s in their backyards.
  • Spilling the greenwash: Art Not Oil have kept the pressure on the Tate and National Galleries in London to counter their sponsorship by BP. Fossil fuel companies get credit for sponsoring all manor of events in the UK. Art Not Oil’s lead could be taken up in many other places.

With this much going on there has been much speculation about the political and financial implications of what’s being demanded.

Much of this has coalesced around the carbon bubble – the stock market value of fossil fuels which would be rendered “unburnable” by action on climate change.

Some financial pundits have suggested this bubble poses real present risk to financial systems and as such action must be taken to invest in green alternatives.

We need to understand these arguments – and then to avoid them.

The carbon bubble does not yet exist. When Shell and BP claim that none of their carbon reserves are “unburnable” they are right. The current plan, implicitly supported by their directors and investors, is to burn it all and live in a 6oC warmed world.  No, this carbon will only become unburnable if we start winning, and we have a long way to go yet.

Financiers may sell their fossil-fuel shares because they think we pose a present risk to the value of fossil-fuel stocks. They may be right, but they will buy them back up when the industry rebounds, and in the process we will have sent out a very bad message: listen to the money men.

We don’t need clever financial arguments to burst the carbon bubble. If we tackle the fossil fuel industry effectively and achieve a just transition it will deflate of its own accord.

The current financial turmoil of the fossil-fuel industry does provide us, though, with a great opportunity to question its future.

This effort is more timely still. There is widespread anger about onshore fossil-fuels and fracking. The future of the North Sea is in question. The UN is poised to meet to sign a treaty made worthless by the gentle whispers of lobbyists’ in negotiators ears. Divestment Day is coming.

Now is the time for us to draw these campaigns together to make a truly global movement against dirty energy.

It has run the world for almost 100 years. In fact it made the modern world and now stands on the brink of destroying it. The fossil fuel industry has been winning for an awful long time. Let’s make 2015 the year we started winning.

______
*Formerly the World Development Movement.

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Dust. Settled. Go Scotland: a 7 item to-do list

For two years up to September the country was in fever pitch with friends, colleagues, families and strangers debating and cajoling each other on every issue we have.  It was all encompassing and it was fascinating – but ultimately it was leading up to answering a binary question.

After we got our answer on September 19th the pieces made their moves.  Two party leaders resigned.  A key leader of the No campaign, Gordon Brown, then announced his intention not to return to Westminster.  And inside of two months the Smith Commission met, argued, and agreed limited new powers for the Scottish Parliament.  It has been quite a storm.

Scotland remains in political ferment. But the dust is starting to settle.

Politics in Scotland is complicated again, but not everyone has yet come to terms with that change.  Independence, the issue that changed everything, is still the number political issue on the street.  But many people have jumped into the ferment for other reasons: to alleviate poverty, to strengthen their communities, to stop fracking, to start talking to one another, to stop austerity and to grow alternatives.

The two biggest game changers are now on their way to settling: we have a new First Minister and a new agreement on powers for the Scottish Parliament.  Soon we’ll also know the Leader of Scottish Labour.

We know enough to get organised again.  What can we do?

Many things are vital.  Some of these things are especially vital right now.  The following is a list of things Scotland needs to do right now.

1. Nationalise our railways

“The power will be devolved to the Scottish Government to allow public sector operators to bid for rail franchises funded and specified by Scottish Ministers.”, p.21, Smith Commission report.

Well?  What are we waiting for?

Public support for renationalising the railways is historically high and considerable anger is mounting over the East Coast sell off, due this Spring.  This is the perfect time to reclaim the railways.

The Green alternative is not just about reversing the past. Public transport in public hands has been working effectively since privatisation including the Glasgow subway and the Edinburgh buses.  But we can go further.  Public transport is a basic need for many people: so why not make it free?

Who to talk to?

2. Champion the welfare state

Labour and the Conservatives are trying to out-do each other about who can make the biggest cuts.  Among other pledges, Labour have promised to scrap welfare for the under 25s.  Conservative plans will lead to “colossal” cuts, according to the IFS yesterday.  The 2015 General Election will be the first chance we’ve had to vote for an alternative for the UK.

The contract for work capability assessments is to be auctioned off in early 2015 following ATOS’ early termination. Labour say they want to “reform Work Capability Assessments to help more disabled people into work“(1).  But these assessments weren’t just mismanaged: they are plain wrong.

A small proportion of powers over welfare are to be devolved to Scotland.  These will allow the SNP to block things like the bedroom tax, but their overall impact may not be big.

Welfare is our vital infrastructure for a functioning society, as Adam Ramsay puts it.  We need the Scottish Government to know we’re watching how new powers will be used and we must join up with groups across the UK to defend the welfare we have.

We have positive stories to tell.  Greens have campaigned successfully to stop workfare and the bedroom tax in Scotland.  And we have a clear alternative to benefit cuts and means testing: a universal basic income.  This is the right time to talk about it.

Who to talk to?

3. Stop TTIP

A truly European-wide campaign has been born this year against two dangerous trade treaties which will codify new rights for US and Canadian corporations over UK markets. The NHS being exempted from TTIP is not enough – the treaty must be stopped.  Nicola Sturgeon has signalled some concerns about TTIP.  In 2015 it will either be signed or torn up.  Scotland could lead the opposition.

Who to talk to?

4. Tax the rich

At a time of austerity the UK Government’s response has been to cut taxes for wealthy people and wealthy companies.  In the first years of the Coalition UK Uncut did a brilliant job of reminding people what austerity was all about: we need to resurrect their energy and make redistributive taxation part of the debate in the 2015 General Election.

The Scottish Parliament is to receive new powers over income tax.  Although, as Iain Macwhirter points out, there isn’t much money to be raised from changing these rates, it is crucial that the SNP rethinks its low tax approach.  Corporation tax cuts, a key plank of the Independence White Paper and a continuing theme of Conservative Government, need to be clearly opposed.

Nicola Sturgeon has chosen to make land reform a key issue of her new leadership.  We need to make tax part of the debate: aspirations to redistribute land would clearly be advanced with a land value tax.  This is a solid green idea that also responds to another question raised by the Scottish Government: how to replace the council tax.

Who to talk to?

5. Defend migrants

The London media have set the stage for the 2015 General Election and Nigel Farage will be their leading star.  Immigrants are already getting the blame for most of society’s ills but never in our lifetime has a general election campaign had immigration as the central issue.  The SNP will claim they are pro-immigration by rejecting Labour and Conservative policies: that is not good enough.  We need a just and welcoming Scotland, to show that Scotland and the world would be better off if we opened our borders.

Who to talk to:

6. Stop fracking and unconventional gas

Scotland is facing an especially dirty wave of new mining.  Unconventional gas drilling, including shale, coal bed methane (CBM), and underground coal gasification, using new techniques such as fracking are on their way.  They have developed slower in Scotland having been met with caution from the Scottish Government but their time is coming: Ineos announced plans last month to bid for new drilling licences in central Scotland; there are new plans to get gas from lighting coal seems; and the enquiry on CBM in Airth will report in the Spring.

New powers are now due from the Smith Commission which said:

“the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction underlying Scotland [and] responsibility for mineral access rights for underground onshore extraction of oil and gas in Scotland will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.” p.21, Smith Commission report.

These powers could be used to stop extreme energy technologies but this will only happen if we get organised – now.

The Green alternative is clear: a green new deal with jobs from clean, locally-owned renewables and energy efficiency improvements to stop fuel poverty.

Who to talk to:

7. Discuss, critique, plan, prepare and join in

There has never been a better time to be organised in Scotland. There are some suggestions about places to start in the paragraphs above.  Here are some more:

Many people were brought into the conversation around remaking Scotland in the context of the referendum.  Today’s politics need to be different.  A yes vote is not coming our way to answer all our problems.  The new Scotland is so much more interesting than that.

We need to take the time to be critical of the SNP’s proposals for independence and build long term support for a more radical, coherent vision of change in this country – on currency, on energy, on tax, to name but a few examples.

Through radical action that’s needed now, and debating our vision for what’s next, we will become better organised than ever to build a just Scotland.

At the Radical Independence Conference in October 2013 Leslie Riddoch said Scotland was a socially democratic cat-in-the-bag, and it was time to open the bag.  A lot has changed in these 13 months.  Perhaps the cat could pop out for an adventure?


Extra!

It’s been pointed out that this is also a very good time to be getting active on housing in Scotland, with a consultation on Scottish Government reforms out and support from Labour for some private rent controls.  There’s more info at the Living Rent Campaign.

References

(1) October 29, Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Disabled People.

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Hope as Resistance: 16 Pictures of Dissent to World War One

The last surviving British veteran of the First World War, Harry Patch, died in 2009.  With him dies the collective memory of a generation that fought, resisted, endured and dreamed.

Living memory is a powerful thing.  It can assert itself in ways the dead cannot.  Patch himself met Tony Blair.   He told him “war is organised murder” (1).

Now he sleeps, the experience of his generation are up for grabs: a quote for a statue, an artefact for a museum, a sound-bite for a speech.  With their voices gone, our leaders are free to resurrect the same old lie: it is sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country.

Yet we can all be custodians of their memory and we can all reclaim history.  When the Government announced a year of “celebrations” to mark the start of the First World War, some of us started a radical history project to uncover more about the War to End All Wars.  Here is a picture of what we have found so far.

Britain’s entry to the First World War was opposed by many, including the then Labour Party under Keir Hardie, pictured here speaking in Trafalgar Square, 2 August, the day before Germany declared war on France. Image: Magnoliabox. Continue reading

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Crisis in the Scottish media: finding the phoenix

The Scottish media is in crisis.

Except for the Sunday Herald (exceptional for other reasons too) every national newspaper has seen dramatic falls in circulation in recent years. They have become machines for reprinting corporate and political press releases, stripped of journalistic resource and critical analysis.

BBC Scotland has been under relentless attack, quietly from unionists, and very publicly from Yes campaigners this year, and it’s not going away. Hundreds on Twitter have pledged to cancel their licences over perceived bias and misreporting.

This is to say nothing of the scandals that have rocked the media UK-wide and the embarrassment of the Levenson enquiry.

The credibility of the mainstream of Scottish media has rarely been so low. They are trusted by perhaps fewer people than every before.

The last year has of course been one of success for alternative media sources, including pro-Yes blogs such as Bella Caledonia and National Collective.

Much is also said of the role of social media. A new world of citizen journalism where Twitter lets everyone report what they’ve just seen or just thought, which everyone can read, anytime anywhere. In this world the morning news in print is already long out of date. If a a week used to be a long time in politics, a day often now seems like an age.

What does this new world pay to meaning, investigation, professionalism or verification? Not much. Barely anything is kept and recorded. The ephemeral is all, substance and reputation are cast aside. And the money and resource to fund our media keeps falling.

Must we choose between a dying bloated dinosaur and a swarm of flies?

Of course we mustn’t. In fact it is an imperative that in this hour, right now, we get to work on building a media that is fitting of a democratic country.

Robin McAlpin (Common Weal), Dom Hinde (Post Mag), and Sarah Beattie-Smith (Bright Green) discussed these problems and offered their ideas for the future at the 18th Independence and Radical Bookfare in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Book festival panel.

The Edinburgh Radical Bookfare on Saturday with Sarah Beattie-Smith, Robin McAlpine, Dom Hinde. Image: Alys Mumford.

They charted the dire state of our print media, with rumours of 50% job cuts coming at the Scotsman following years and years of decline for the paper, mirrored by the Herald’s similar decline.

We heard of the sad loss of organised radical media such as IndyMedia and Schnews.

We heard of the frustration of the public in the referendum debate, unable to find a source of information that gave them the honest news they needed (Sarah told us about a taxi driver who said he watched three news programmes every day but still didn’t feel he had enough information to vote for independence).

We heard of the rise of new blogs in distributing comment and opinion, and equally their inability to provide news and investigation, something only professionals can do sustainably, and is sorely needed – Robin McAlpine said there were now around 1.5 full-time investigative journalists in Scotland.

We also heard that there is no media business model out there which is working in the 21st century.

Where do we go from here?

These are exciting, fractious and tectonic times.  Something must rise from the ashes.  But what?

A number of organisational structures were proposed. Dom Hinde was interested in creating a new media group in Scotland as a not-for-profit trust, similar to the Guardian in England.

Robin McAlpine appears to be thinking along the same lines, but his primary concern was to focus on news. He announced that the Common Weal is creating a new media platform called “Common Space”. The core of the project will be the employment of 4 full-time staff who will write and research “the news stories which are currently being ignored”: on radical, non-party, politics, economic and social policy, poverty, alienation, and new forms of organising.

Bella Caledonia (whose Director Mike Small was speaking later at the festival) have announced a new role in media training.   Common Weal and Bella Caledonia have also announced many other, sometimes overlapping, proposals and plans (click the links to read them).

The Scottish Green Party is currently gathering ideas for a new cultural policy which surely must consider the role of the media.

It could include big ideas like devolving the BBC, setting up a government voucher scheme for media, and finding public money to fund journalists, rather than newspapers, also discussed by the panel.

Sarah Beattie-Smith reminded us of the gains to be made by working within existing mainstream – in the last two weeks BBC Radio Scotland and TV’s Scotland 2014 have had seven Radical Independence and Green Party spokespeople on different days.

And what of the tradition of the objective journalist? Robin was unequivocal: “objectivity is dead. No honest journalist can pretend they’re neutral. Instead we need to be honest about where we’re coming from.”

Where does this leave Bright Green?

In the next few weeks we’ll be unveiling our bright new editorial team, a new design and designers, a new manifesto document, and much more and varied content – including news straight from the social movements we are a part of.

It’s just a small part of making a better media. What do you think?

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Extreme Energy Inquiry begins in Scotland


Green Councillor Mark Ruskell with local community representatives and Friends of the Earth members outside the Inchyra Hotel this morning. Photo: Friends of the Earth Scotland.

The UK’s first public inquiry into unconventional gas drilling is underway in Polmont, Falkirk.

The Scottish Government called the inquiry after the troubled Australian firm Dart Energy appealed to speed up Falkirk and Stirling Councils’ planning process for their coal-bed methane drilling proposals.

The month-long process will have major ramifications for new gas drilling across Europe.  Photographers and TV crews gathered as well-wishers welcomed communities members participating in the inquiry (pictured).

Concerned Communities of Falkirk have collected objections to the proposals from 2,500 local residents.  They will submit evidence through a variety of experts, as will Falkirk and Stirling Councils, Friends of the Earth Scotland, and Dart Energy themselves.

The first session begun this morning with evidence from Dart’s own engineers.

John Spears and Andy Sloan, who admitted they expect to work on the developments if the application is approved, told the inquiry:

  • Water treatment facilities will be built with spare capacity to allow considerable expansion beyond the proposed operations.
  • Horizontal drilling already carried out at the site has taken place through un-cased shafts outwith the coal seems.
  • They were unable to say how much gas might be vented in an emergency situation.
  • One tanker a day of toxic sludge will be produced from the site.  They noted this could be reduced, but no assurances were given.

The Reporter (Chair) from the Scottish Government agreed that the closing statements alone will take two days.

While Day One of the the proceedings unfolded at the Inchyra Hotel, MSPs in Holyrood debated the current planning framework.

The Scottish Government have proposed to introduce buffer zones around onshore drilling sites to protect homes and businesses, but are yet to announce how big they will be.

Today in Parliament Claudia Beamish MSP announced Scottish Labour want these buffer zones to be 2km from drilling sites.

The inquiry continues and you can follow events in the room at #dartinquiry.

This article was originally published on Bright Greeen.

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After 160 years Central Scotland has had enough

After 160 years Central Scotland has had enough

Ric Lander, 11th June 2013. Originally published in Perspectives Magazine and on Bright Green.

Illustration1
The central belt’s fossil-fuel industrialists: James ‘Paraffin’ Young; John (Lord) Browne, BP; Mark Lappin, Dart Energy.

When new technology offers us great promise – and the new gas boom certainly does, offering up cheap, clean energy and jobs galore – it’s worth taking time to consider what lessons can we learn from history.

Discussing the announcement of a gas industry-financed report proclaiming ‘drill baby drill’ for the UK, Newsnight reporter Andrew Black says Scotland’s shale oil was “a once proud industry that years ago was the envy of the world” (1). We are often proud of getting through traumatic events. Few industries have given a place as much trauma as the fossil-fuel extraction industry. What is remarkable is that the quite small patch of central Scotland where new gas drilling is being proposed is the very place that has perhaps the longest history of this trauma.

From shale oil to coal to the North Sea, the central belt of Scotland has seen it all before. Boom and bust, pollution and catastrophe, and then the inevitable mess for communities to clean-up. Proposals by Dart Energy to drill for coal-bed methane on the River Forth could be just another chapter in this story, but encouragingly, local people might be poised to make history.

Bings and the first booms

It’s been almost a century since Scotland’s shale ‘bings’ (similar to spoil heaps) have been out of use, and much seems to have been forgotten of the true nature of the industry that created them.

Central Scotland’s history of oil and gas began with shale oil, which for a brief period made Scotland one of the world’s largest oil exporters. Beginning in the 1850s, it was a boom industry in the time between the abundance of whale oil and Texan black gold. Entrepreneur James ‘Paraffin’ Young invented a process to produce easily transportable and relatively safe lamp fuel which made him very rich, and in terms of sheer scale left the most astonishing footprint on the Scottish lowlands.

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Shale oil bings at Broxburn, East Lothian. Image: Flickr user bethmoon527 (Creative Commons)

This land is, of course, totally lost to agriculture, but the human cost of the boom was greater. Places such as Burngrange, W. Lothian suffered greatly in incidents like that in January 1947 where rapidly spreading fires took the lives of 15 shale miners. Epidemiological studies from this time reveal considerable damage to health including skin and respiratory conditions (2). Unlike the James Youngs of this world, shale miners did not die old.
Yet shale oil’s impact on the central belt was dwarfed by later developments. The deepest scars in the area were left by the coal industry. At its height it employed over 140,000 people in Scotland. Mining families made up 10% of the population (3).

In the 10 years from 1877 to 1887 Scotland lost 343 people in three disasters with workers killed in mines kept in appalling conditions. The outrage and courage of those they left behind was a major driver to the budding Labour movement (4). Like shale mining, numerous effects shortened life-spans. Although great strides were made by the unions these mines were never safe, with subsequent disasters taking lives right up to the 1960s.

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Official list of deaths at the Burngrange shale mine disaster, 1947. Image from: ‘Report on the Causes of the Explosion and fire at the Burngrange Mine, Midlothian’, Ministry of Fuel and Power

Central Scotland’s deep mines have now gone, but their impact still remains. They left their slag heaps and their bings, and occasionally the mines remind of their presence when a house sinks into an old coal seam, as happened in Edinburgh in 2001 (5).

Remaining open-cast mines have now gone under, and the liquidation of Scottish Coal is providing nowhere near enough assets to pay for the sites’ restoration (6). What a mess.

Communities built for the pits defined themselves by coal and shale. Now all that is left is legacy of poor health and environmental destruction.

Central Scotland and the North Sea

In October 1970 Scotland’s energy industry was transformed anew with the discovery of the giant Forties oilfield in the North Sea. A new boom was on the horizon. Many urban centres on the east coast competed for a piece of the pie. To a considerable extent, the winner was Aberdeen, but facilities were built in many places elsewhere and the largest installation of all came to the central belt: the Grangemouth refinery.

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Grangemouth refinery in the 1950s and today. Photos: RCHAMS (Crown Copyright) / Flickr user Gee01 (Creative Commons)

Just like the coal and shale industries before it, the oil boom brought jobs and cash to central Scotland and Grangemouth rapidly grew with its refinery owned by BP.

Carbon Trade Watch’s film ‘The Carbon connection’ revealed local people’s experiences of the refinery (7): people who can’t sleep at night, strange sickly smells on a daily basis, breathing troubles, and a constant threat of accidents justified a poor safety record. Most recently SEPA fined Grangemouth refinery £100,000 in 2011 after a pipeline leak and fire (8). The last deaths were in 1987 when three were killed by a fire which took hold of leaking gas (9).

Accidents seem to come in spates, and the following year Scotland was the scene of what remains the world’s worst off-shore disaster. 167 died when the giant Piper Alpha platform catastrophically exploded. 49 of the dead were from the towns of the central belt (10). Many of their homes were ex-coal mining towns.

Survivor Jim McDonald from Stirling was the last of his crew to give evidence on the disaster. He told the Cullen enquiry he only knew how to escape the doomed living quarters because he worked on rig’s construction (11).
Studies have revealed the deep pain of Piper Alpha’s legacy: survivors living with post traumatic stress syndrome, families ripped apart, whole communities broken.

Today North Sea oil is in decline. Tax breaks are awarded by the UK Government to encourage drilling of the last untapped acres of the North Sea, but it will do little good. Peak oil was struck in our part of the world in 1999. Lord Browne oversaw BP’s sale of Grangemouth and the refinery is now struggling to make a profit (12). Before long the global oil companies will pack up operations to more lucrative prospects. More towns and villages, and in Aberdeen’s case possibly cities, must lose their heart. The trauma continues.

New gas boom in the Lowlands?

In 2012, Australian gas company ‘Dart Energy’ applied for a licence to start a whole new form of mining in central Scotland. Having drilled 20 test wells already, they propose drilling a 14 commercial wells to tap methane trapped in old coal seams, known as coal-bed methane.

Coal-bed methane poses an number of environmental and health risks including well-founded records of hazardous air, groundwater and surface water pollution (13) (Dart have ruled out the need to use the controversial ‘fracking’ process, but they do use this process at other sites). The industry have admitted that well leakages may be inevitable.

The UK and Scottish Governments say new gas is safe when it is properly regulated, yet elsewhere where regulation has been tightened drilling has stopped (14). It is difficult to escape the conclusion that new gas may simply be “unregulatable”, as UN Advisor Mariann Lloyd-Smith claims (15).

The life-span of a coal-bed methane well is 5 to 15 years, with output typically declining by “between 50% and 75% in the first year of production” (13). Most recoverable gas is usually extracted after just a few years. Given this sheer drop-off in production it is difficult to make a site viable without drilling wells in phases. These 34 wells at Airth won’t be enough: Dart will need to, and may have plans already, to drill further towards Stirling. There could be much more to come.

And the safety fears still abound. Just last year an explosion at a new on-shore gas rig killed 1 and injured 3 in Colorado (16).

The drilling site at Airth is just 5 miles outside of Grangemouth and Dart energy has a habit of reminding planners of its proximity, as if comparison to the refinery should be reassuring.

New gas comes at the right time and place for an industry desperate to find the next big boom, and they have a well funded PR machine making sure we know all about the benefits.

So what about these benefits? As we have seen, coal-bed methane can hardly be described as clean, and its global warming damage is considerable. Low gas prices have abounded on the US market, but crucially these low prices have not reached consumers. Dart’s own website says they have created at most just 37 new jobs (17).

Just as before, what few benefits there are accrue to a very small number of people. And more so than before these benefits will fall away quickly; a get rich quick scheme where once again all the costs are born by local people. In a very short space of time they will drill, spill, take, and leave. The rest of us are left with empty communities and polluted landscapes.

What well informed community could possibly let this happen to itself?

The beginning of a movement

Something may be happening that did not happen when the shale pits were sunk, coal was first mined, and oil was struck: people may be about to stop it.

For whilst the wisdom of their time defined that oil and coal were good for Scotland, there is not much wisdom rooting for new on-shore gas. There are people saying it, certainly, but these are industry people, the few who stand to gain.

This is partly because of the litany of environmental costs identified, the unknown risks, and to some extent the health impacts too. But what tips the balance is the overriding feeling that the benefits of this endeavour are simply not enough to make it worth it. It is too great a sacrifice and a risk to set up this industry only to see it wither in 10 years.

In Scotland, genuine alternatives are making great strides and there is real concern that a new dash for fossil-fuels could sap the energy out of the renewables industry which, evidence suggests, is well placed to sustainably power the country (18). Perhaps we’ve had enough of the boom and bust?

Communities at Airth and Grangemouth are responding. Hard working local campaigners have been out on the streets explaining, informing and encouraging people to take action, and it’s working: over 2000 residents have signed an objection to the proposals at Airth. Partly as a result, Falkirk and Stirling Council extended the outcome of the planning proposal, now referred to the Scottish Government, and in May the news came that Dart had halted its exploratory drilling programme.

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‘Lock the Gate’ demonstration at Seacliff, Australia, October 2011. Coal-seam gas is the Australian term for coal-bed methane. Image: Flickr user Nocsgillawarra

A loose coalition is forming between environmentalists, including in the Falkirk and Stirling Friends of the Earth groups, and local residents associations. The campaign in central Scotland is starting to look like the incredibly successful ‘Lock the Gate’ campaign in Australia: an alliance of community activists, environmentalists, and conservative conservationists that has defied stereotyping. What is all the more remarkable about what’s happening near Grangemouth is that these aren’t conservative people who are simply unfamiliar with this heavy industry: they’re just sick of it.

The Scottish Government is starting to respond too. Whilst a year ago the overriding message was “it’s not our fault: talk to Westminster” (19), change has come in the announcement of the draft National Planning Framework which proposes ‘buffer zones’ around drilling sites. According to Friends of the Earth Scotland if buffer zones were imposed similar to those in place in New South Wales (14) more than half of Dart’s wells would be inoperable.

There is so much to be gained by this campaign. Learning our lesson from history we can turn from boom and bust fossil-fuels towards sustainable industries. We can turn our back on the solutions of rich industrialists and build an economy made for people.

References

(1) Newsnight Scotland, 22 May 2013. Full video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw0ST73keNI
(2) ‘Morbidity and Mortality Study of Shale Oil Workers’, Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 30, Jun., 1979, Joseph Costello / Liddell, F. D. K. (1973) ‘Morbidity of British Coal Miners 2961-62’ British Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Jan., 1973), pp. 1-14
(3) Coal Collections, 2013. Site: http://www.coalcollections.org/
(4) Udstone Mining Disaster and Keir Hardie, 1887. Site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Udston_mining_disaster
(5) ‘Mines blamed for housing collapses’, 30 July, 2001, BBC News. Site: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/1463512.stm
(6) ‘Scottish Coal liquidation leads to dispute over clean-ups’, 12 May 2013, The Herald. Site: http://www.heraldscotland.com/business/company-news/scottish-coal-liquidation-leads-to-dispute-over-clean-ups.21050751
(7) ‘The Carbon Connection’ film, 2010, Carbon Trade Watch. Site: http://environmental-justice.com/1615/environmental-justice-campaigning-in-grangemouth-scotland/
(8) ‘Grangemouth refinery operators fined £100,000 after crude oil pipeline leak’, 5 July 2011, STV. Site: http://local.stv.tv/glasgow/261310-grangemouth-refinery-operators-fined-100000-after-crude-oil-pipeline-leak/
(9) ‘Paying the price of safety failures’, 27 July 1999, BBC News. Site: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/405090.stm
(10) ‘Oil Platform Disaster: Disaster dead are named’, 9 July 1988, The Guardian (London).
(11) ‘Piper Survivor ‘Crawled over bodies to get out of smoke”, The Glasgow Herald, 25 April 1989. Site: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2507&dat=19890425&id=hjNAAAAAIBAJ&sjid=RFkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3432,2613467
(12) ‘Alarm over Grangemouth refinery losses’, 24 June 2012, Sunday Herald. Site: http://www.heraldscotland.com/business/company-news/alarm-over-grangemouth-refinery-losses.17951522
(13) Toxic Chemicals in the Exploration and Production of Gas from Unconventional Sources, April 2013, National Toxics Network. Site: www.ntn.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/UCgas_report-April-2013.pdf
(14) ‘Coal seam gas buffer zones alarm the miners’, 20 February 2013. Site: http://www.smh.com.au/data-point/coal-seam-gas-buffer-zones-alarm-the-miners-20130219-2epiz.html
(15) ‘Coalbed methane and fracking ‘unregulatable’ says toxins expert’, 20 May 2013, Friends of the Earth Scotland. Site: http://www.foe-scotland.org.uk/node/1606
(16) ‘1 dead, 3 hurt in natural gas well explosion near Fort Lupton’, 16 August 2012, Denver Post. Site:
http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_21323110/1-dead-3-hurt-natural-gas-well-explosion
(17) Dart Energy, 2013. Site: http://www.dartenergyscotland.co.uk/about-us.html
(18) ‘The Power of Scotland Secured’, Friends of the Earth Scotland. Site: http://www.foe-scotland.org.uk/power-secured
(19) ‘Ministerial Optimism sees Fracking Stumble Ahead onto Uncharted Paths’, 23 January 2012, Ric Lander http://brightgreenscotland.org/index.php/2012/01/ministerial-optimism-sees-fracking-stumble-ahead-onto-uncharted-paths/

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Fracking Stumbles Ahead onto Uncharted Paths

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Rally against Fracking in Ohio, United States

Ministerial Optimism sees Fracking Stumble Ahead onto Uncharted Paths

In a letter regarding the controversial drilling process Sarah Boyack MSP says regarding the Scottish Government’s position “I am sure that you share my hope that the Minister’s optimism is well-placed” [1].

I do share Sarah’s hope, but optimism is a frivolous commodity when dealing with the regulation of heavy industry. Gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing, known as ‘fracking’, with its highly dubious record of negative health and environmental impacts, demands a more serious attitude.

Onshore gas extraction has hit set-backs in the in the UK in the last six months, with Vale of Glamorgan Council rejecting plans for exploration in September [2] and in October gas drilling company ‘Cuadrilla Resources’ published a report saying it was “highly probable” that their operations triggered earth tremors near Blackpool [3]. These events could spell further trouble ahead for the on-shore gas industry as increased public awareness of its impacts affects policy making.

However, reliable information on these impacts is desperately lacking. Anecdotal reports of cancer rates and neurological conditions increasing in areas of gas development in the US have caused considerable stir [4], but there are only a couple of governmental studies and their results are inconclusive [5]. A county in Colorado state investigated potential adverse health effects of a proposed 200-well operation and concluded that nearbye residents might experience chemical exposures, accidents resulting from industry operations, and psychological impacts such as depression, anxiety, and stress [6], but their study was never been finalised due to disputes with the gas companies and local residents [5]. Bernard Goldstein, a professor in the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, says published epidemiological studies relating shale gas production to health are “virtually non-existent” [5].

US journal Environmental Health Perspectives reports vastly increased levels of methane in ground-water near fracking sites [6], but there information about the effect of dissolved methane on human health is limited.

It is claimed that toxic chemicals from the fracking process, as well as enormous amounts of salt, some radionuclides, heavy metals, and other contaminants are entering the water supply from ponds of waste water from the extraction process [5]. Although this impact is better understood, it is not well quantified.

This lack of data from the US is crucial because it is the only country with any active fracking operations.

Yet all of this might be brushed aside if there was a clear view on the impacts on energy policy.

Scottish Government Minister Furgus Ewing [1], the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency [8], and the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change [9] all believe that shale gas can help in the transition to a low-carbon economy. But their view is opposed by scientific groups including the Tynadall Centre. In a report for the Cooperative they concluded that gas from fracking will increase global greenhouse gas emissions [10].

For fracking to be permitted in Scotland, a company needs a drilling licence from the UK Government Department for Energy and Climate Change, planning permission is required from the local authority, and authorisation from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency [8]. So far these conditions have been met by only one operation in Scotland, in Canonbie, Dumfries and Galloway. However the operator, Greenpark Energy, says it has not yet decided whether it will use the technology [11]. Another firm, Dart Energy, is developing a site for extracting coal-bed methane on Airth, Falkirk. The fate of this site is unclear, with Furgus Ewing denying knowledge of the company’s intent stated in the Scotsman that they may apply for a licence to frack [11].

Fracking is on the cusp of going big on the British mainland without any reliable data on its likely health and environmental impacts.

It is not clear that this technology is a mistake but concerned citizens should ask for more than poorly-informed optimism from their decision makers.

References

  1. Letter from Sarah Boyack MSP enclosing note from Fergus Ewing MSP.
  2. BBC News
  3. Telegraph.co.uk
  4. Earth Works Action
  5. Environmental Health Perspectives
  6. Garfield County, Colorado
  7. Environmental Health Perspectives
  8. Scottish Environmental Protection Agency
  9. UK Parliament
  10. Tyndall Centre
  11. The Scotsman

This post was originally published on Bright Green.

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Durban, and how we stopped climate change

Panel at COP 17
photo courtesy of UNFCCC

Durban could yet be a chapter in the story of how we stopped climate change

If a successful campaign needs a story, then since 2009 the global climate movement has been in deep trouble.

We certainly started off with a great story. I love to tell it to people all the time. Gather round kids, I say to fresh-faced activists and strangers in pubs, listen up – here’s how we changed the world. In the early noughties the UK and Scottish Governments were somewhat interested in climate change, but they were pretty convinced that we didn’t need new legislation to tackle it. “Leave it to me”, said Tony Blair, “the climate is safe as long as we’re in charge”. We didn’t agree, and after a monumental protest, lobby, and direct action campaign the Climate Change Change Act and Climate Change (Scotland) Act were passed with cross-party support in both legislatures. Onwards and upwards. Gordon Brown then created a cabinet level position for Climate Change, a move which remains somewhat unique internationally. With our climate bills in hand, the then minister for Energy & Climate Change Ed Milliband, went to the UN Climate Change Summit at Copenhagen. We’d set the course for the UK, and now we were going to lead the world!

That’s where I tail off a bit. Time for another drink. Because we don’t have a story for what happened next. We made our ministers be bold: they had to be, because if the world didn’t join us in the fight against climate change, then UK industry would have been at a disadvantage. So since 2009 British delegations to UN climate negotiations have tugged and dragged and hauled the efforts of the rest of the world along, but apparently to little avail: what have we ended up with? What do we have to show for our leadership?

In 2009 a maelstrom of campaigning was whirling towards Copenhagen. We put all our hopes in a legally biding agreement, and the climate movement was left bewildered when it failed. NGOs pulled their money out of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, so crucial to getting our climate legislation in place, and as a weathervane for the movement as a whole, activist-film maker Franny Armstrong redirected her organisation’s considerable efforts from political action to behaviour change with the 10:10 campaign. Friends of mine who were at Copenhagen said its failure made them reconsider their efforts: the UN process was always doomed to failure, they said, and we should have put our efforts into other things. It was in this haze that the transition movement took centre stage. Franny was right, they said: we need local-scale change first.

I do not agree with this version of the story. It says that Copenhagen taught us that we were wrong to bother with the UN. That international cooperation was never going to work, and that taking control locally is more effective. This is false. If it was true, we didn’t need a failure at Copenhagen to make us see it. There are greens who’ve been doing this work on the ground for decades. It has never led to successes on the scale of the climate change acts, or a global deal at the UN, and it won’t in the future either, without being linked to wider scale action. Copenhagen hurt because we needed it to succeed, not because we were wrong to focus on it in the first place.

At the talks in Durban last week, delegates pushed exhaustion to new heights to agree a loosely worded set of agreements:

  • The “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”: an agreement that all UN members will sign a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” in 2015 that will begin cutting emissions in 2020.
  • An extension of the Kyoto protocol, due to expire next year, to 2020, with those countries that are still signatories (this includes the EU, Australia, Japan, Russia, and not many others of significance) making new legally binding carbon cut commitments in this time.
  • A new adaptation fund worth $100 billion a year from 2010.
  • Some other small agreements, listed here (For more discussion of the outcomes of the talks, try Richard Black on the BBC, the Economist, and this guy. It may well be a symptom of our lack of focus that the BBC and the Guardian only had three journalists writing from the conference at its conclusion. In a world of 24-hour news, Durban was given a level of attention akin to a community fete. Alas.)

Clearly these agreements are entirely insufficient to deal with the problem at hand. But when questioning our efforts we must ask: how would things have been different if we hadn’t made the UK pro-active in these talks? Would anything have been agreed at all in 2009? With no previous agreement that we needed to keep warming to under 1.5oC or 2oC, we would have had yet another obstacle to climb over at Durban, and perhaps the wording would have been weaker, the numbers just too loose.

At the very least, there is now a crack of light through the door: we need to claw it open with everything we’ve got. By pushing coordinated Government-level action in the UK we can keep pressure on the UK, and the UK in the EU, to get other countries to step up. To ensure other countries stay with the Kyoto protocol; to get Governments to up their commitments in the Copenhagen Accord; and to make sure that when everyone is tired beyond humour, the UK Minister for Climate Change is still there, nagging, disputing, and refusing to give up.

This does not mean giving up on local action – but it does mean putting it in context. If we’re creating local food networks, we should be asking our leaders to stop subsidising big supermarkets. If we’re fitting insulation in people’s homes we should be getting the government to pay for it. If we’re asking people to take the train rather than fly, we should be telling Government how many more would do if they could afford to. If we want to rebuild our entire towns and cities to make them sustainable, then we should be sharing this struggle with our decision makers, and asking them why they’re not making it easier. In the fight against climate change there never was a place for isolated change, and we mustn’t allow our frustration with the pace of international agreements to convince us of otherwise.

There is still a chance that in 10 years time, I’ll be able to drunkenly tell a new generation of plucky activists and random strangers the full story. That we passed a climate change act, that we took local action, and that we used both to keep our leaders totally sure that there were a lot of people waiting to vote them out if they slipped up. In doing so, the UK led the EU and the world, helped sign into international law agreements which safe-guarded our climate. It’s an unlikely tale perhaps: but as of last weekend, it’s not impossible – and just like at Copenhagen, we don’t have any other option – so we better try our damndest.

——-

For another explanation of why we need internationally coordinated action on climate change, read the post below:

The world’s scariest news? Methane bubbles from the arctic ocean

This post was originally published on Bright Green.

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Machiavelli: power, transition and institutional change

In 1513 Machiavelli provided a seminal analysis of the flow of power in Europe. The ideas defined in “The Prince” have inspired political thinkers ever since. At the time his acute, perhaps cynical, understanding of power, made him notorious, and his works were added to the Vatican’s list of banned literature. Today his name has become a byword for manipulating, perhaps evil, genius.

Yet his ideas may help you with local grass roots campaign strategy.

In Chapter IV of The Prince we are told about the fates of the Kingdom of France, and the Turkish empire. France is a feudal country, led by a king, but also by noblemen who have their own authority. The king has some lands he controls directly, but the majority of the country is owned, taxed, and defended by his nobles. These lands even pass in and out of the nation as allegiance with the king ebbs and flows. So while France is described as one country, the nobles in fact hold much of the characteristics of a king and power is highly decentralised.

Turkey is very different. Having seen a process of total centralisation, all land is controlled and taxed by the emperor. There is one military force, and although power is administered by many, it is done so on behalf of their despotic leader. There are no feudal lords to stand up to the despot, and a single bureaucracy and national identity provide a stronger sense of cultural and political unity.

Machiavelli tells us that France is easy to invade. Small, less powerful lordships are easily defeated and with them a part of the country falls. Alternatively, the favour of local lords can be bought.

Turkey is very much more difficult to invade. A centralised army is an effective defence, and there are no significant powers other than the despot with whom one can buy favour.

However, France is a lesser prize: if you fight or bribe your way through France and succeed the king, you do not hold power easily. Local lords must be kept happy and regions may easily fall under the sway of neighbouring powers.

On the other hand, if the emperor of Turkey is toppled, his power can be held. A centralised state provides the same power that made it so difficult to invade.

Between the Springs of 2009 and 11 I spent two years working for Transition Edinburgh University, a community group striving to, through behaviour change and campaigning, make Edinburgh sustainable.

The University of Edinburgh is France in 1513. Colleges, departments and faculties are independent and proud. They have considerable control over their own spending, staffing, use of space, and policy. Many have a strong sense of identity, particularly those which have been more recently incorporated into the University, such as Moray House, who rarely use the name of their parent.

Queen Margaret University is Turkey in 1513. Power flows from the central management and departmental independence is minimal. Budgets and policy are decided by the core and the sense of identity is with the University, not departments.

Hence, when I visited QMU’s Sustainability Committee as a guest, I was knocked back by the speed and ease at which they were able to affect changes within the university. There were no departments to convince, no toes to tread on: policy agreed here was policy everywhere.

Back in Edinburgh, we spent years trying to effect such changes. Policy may be agreed centrally, but it had little effect unless colleges and departments were convinced of the benefits of implementing it. We had to talk to many staff, at many offices and campuses, to make changes.

As such, I often found myself wishing we could have it like QMU – like Turkey. Sometimes it might be harder to convince those in power, but once we had, the job would be done.

But perhaps, this is where Machiavelli got it wrong.

Through might you may have taken power in Turkey, but power without consent does not endure. Lasting governments are connected to the people, and here the Turkish empire fell short. Local nobles force you to do what you should regardless: build authority with a wide base.

In the same way, social change is poorly achieved by a centralised power base. The need to go department by department at Edinburgh University required us to set in motion a much wider and more significant cultural change in our community. We need structural changes put in place by a central power, but they will not affect the true lasting change we seek without a contact with the community. We need people to change the way they think, and that is not done by a passing decrees, but by holding discussion.

You may spot these pattens in the institutions you are trying to change – businesses, local councils, national Governments. Understand the distribution of power and you will be close to affecting policy and physical changes. But beware – there are no short-cuts to changing hearts and minds.

This post was originally published on Bright Green.

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