Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Language of Money

 Newspeak
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.
This is how George Orwell described the new language that Big Brother was creating in 1984,  a language that would make it impossible for the citizens of Oceania to ever again discuss the old freedoms that they had once enjoyed.

In the world of 'Brexit means Brexit' and 'alternative facts' it certainly seems to be coming true. However in another realm of human existence it already has come true, and most of us never even noticed.

Monetarised

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister she ushered in a radical new economic doctrine,
monetarism. From now on the only interactions that mattered were financial ones. Profits were more important than people and money was to be set free to invade very part of our lives.

It was new theory, that had been gestating since just after the Second World War, and which had recently been trialed in Chile. That had required tanks and torture chambers, but the revolution in the UK, and in America the next year, was more peaceful.

So why didn't we resist? I think because we were lost for words.

"Moneydoesn't talk, it swears"*

Think about these words; value, wealth, debt. Do they have clear meanings?

Do you 'value' a friendship in the same way you 'value' your shares? Clearly not, but how do you tell which meaning is which? Do you 'value' your record collection like your friends, or your shares? How about your house, or your lover? Would you sell, or buy, either? Perhaps I'd better not ask.

Then what do we mean by 'wealth'? Is it just the collective monetary value of things, or does it have a broader meaning? When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, he did not the mean the same thing as John Ruskin, when he wrote 'There is no wealth but life'? But that was then, what about now?

Finally there's 'debt'. We have a national debt, prisoners pay their debt to society, and we owe a debt to our parents. The national debt usually means what we owe the banks, not what we owe those who died fighting fascism. However it's not just in Monopoly that you can buy your way out of jail, and you can certainly end up in jail if you don't pay your debts, although we do generally try to pretend this isn't the case. But what about the debt to our parents, assuming they were good parents that is. If they were bad parents we'd be talking about their debt to you. Either way, can this ever be turned into money?

The parents of nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton appeared to think so. On his twentifirst birthday his father presented him with a bill for all the costs incurred in bringing him up, including the fee to the Doctor who delivered him. Seton paid up, and never spoke to his dad again. No birthday cards, Sunday visits or worrying about which care home to put him in, he had paid his debt and that was that.

Seton may well be the exception that proves the rule, but it still appears that, like those citizens of Oceania, we have completely lost the vocabulary to talk about interactions in anything other than monetary terms.

Oldspeak


This becomes a major problem when we talk about resources we hold in common, particularly Nature.  

When we value Nature, what do we mean? We may say you can't put a price on a beautiful view, or clean air, but it can certainly increase the value of your house. Both a Thatcherite and an environmentalist would no doubt consider The Lake District to be part of the wealth of the nation, although only one would consider selling it off. 

Our current model of economics considers natural resources a free gift from Nature. The only argument is whether their value should be measured by what it takes to get them out of the ground, or what someone is prepared to pay for them. That's like valuing your lover by how much you spent wooing her, or how much you can pimp her for after dark. 

But then if we lack words that allow us to distinguish the bonds that bind us through love and affection, from those of work and commerce, this debate become difficult, to say the least.

That's why when I write these blogs, I sometimes end up sounding like a mystical old hippy. If I say the land is not just valuable, but sacred, you know quite clearly that I will not exchange it for money. If I say my connection with nature is spiritual, you know it is different to my relationship with my bank balance.

Perhaps we need a new language, one that can't be mistaken for the language of money. Let's recognise this Newspeak for what it is, and talk about Nature in words our ancestors would recognise. 

Let's not speak the language of money, but of the trees.

* Bob Dylan It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) 

Further Reading

David Graeber Debt The First 5000 Years 
J B Foster, B Clark, R York The Ecogical Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth

Friday, 3 March 2017

Communication Management Units: America's Political Prisons

He had sat silent against the wall, jostled by dirty bodies, too preoccupied by fear and the pain in his belly to take much interest in his surroundings, but still noticing the astonishing difference in demeanour between the Party prisoners and the others. The Party prisoners were always silent and terrified, but the ordinary criminals seemed to care nothing for anybody ... The positions of trust were given only to the common criminals, especially the gangsters and the murderers, who formed a sort of aristocracy. All the dirty jobs were done by the politicals.
George Orwell 1984
The history of prisons is not what most people think it is.

Until modern times they were for holding the accused before trial. Then they were for debtors, before finally becoming places where criminals could 'pay their debt to society'. Previously punishment had been public and painful, now it was private and, physically at least, painless. But as well as debtors and criminals, prisons were also used to house the politically undesirable.

One of the reason the use of the stocks fell out of favour in England was that Luddites and other radicals could use them as pulpits to preach their message, and the general populace were more likely to listen than throw things. Prisons kept the radicals away from the exploited masses. Orwell, a journalist as well as an author, knew this. He also knew full well how the political prisoners were treated differently to the ordinary lags.

What?

There is a prison system within a prison system in America called Communication Management
Units.

In CMUs the inmate's contact with the outside world is greatly restricted. Regular prisoners are allowed 56 hours a month of visits. In the high security Supermax prisons, where the most dangerous and violent prisoners are held, this is 35 hours a month. The CMUs allow just a single, one hour visit each week, and this is behind glass. Ordinary prisoners are allowed five hours of phone calls a month. In the CMUs it is just fifteen minutes a week, and these need to be in office hours and book more than a week ahead. Letters, usually unrestricted in prisons, are limited and read first by the authorities.

How?

These units are not for the most dangerous, or badly behaved criminals. They go to the Supermaxes. Nor are they for the people who murder abortion doctors or commit their crimes in pursuit of their sick, far right ideology. They stay in mainstream prisons, where their first First Amendment rights to free speech are respected. CMU are almost exclusively for Islamists, and those convicted of crimes in pursuit of environmental or animal rights campaigns.

In other words what decides who goes in a CMU is their religion or their political beliefs.

Why?

CMUs are not designed to rehabilitate the prisoners. How could they be when all experience says that prisoners benefit from contact with the outside world? Hugging your wife or holding your baby makes prisoners want get out and stay straight.

We can probably all guess why the Muslims are in CMUs. But what's with the environmentalists?
ELF activist and former CMU inmate Daniel McGown

One theory is that is is just to make the CMUs appear more ethnically mixed. In the same way that white dominated companies might employ a black bouncer on the door to appear diverse, the eco-warriors make the CMUs a bit whiter.

However that doesn't explain why it's only environmentalists and animal rights activists who get sent there. Anti-abortionists are just as white as environmentalists, and the far right tend not to have too many blacks or Muslims amongst their number.

The only conclusion is that a deliberate choice has been made to put the Greens in. Extreme racists and anti-abortionists are a challenge for law enforcement officers, but they are not a threat to the ruling political ideology. Or to corporate profits. We are.

Indeed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which many of those in CMUs have been convicted under, specifically defines 'terrorism' as an act causing "loss of any property", including profits.

So far these units are only on the other side of the pond, but what happend in the USA tends to happen here before too long. We should all of us be worried about CMUs.

References

Michel Foucalt Discipline and Punish
E P Thompson The Making of the English Working Class
Will Potter Green is the New Red


Tuesday, 28 February 2017

So Where Did It All Go Wrong?


This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Pan Books, London, 1979
So where did it all start to go wrong?

With the exception of the most wildly optimistic Bright Green, most environmentalists believe what passes for Western Civilisation made a disastrous wrong turn some time in the past. This has resulted in us facing, at the very least, a Sixth Great Extinction, and at the very worst our own extinction.

But when did we go wrong? Perhaps not as far back as Douglas Adams, writing at the end of the 'Decade of the Environment' suggests, but perhaps not.

So when exactly did we go wrong? When did we have alternatives?

The combination of Trump and Brexit looks set to see a bonfire of environmental legislation, but we were hardly heading for paradise in 2015. The War on Terror has provided a huge distraction from more pressing issues, whilst Dubya's decision to ditch the Kyoto Treaty set progress on climate change back by fifteen years. However for my first junction I will choose:

1989 The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The end of communism in Eastern Europe was a moment of optimism. A system that had promised paradise on earth, but which had delivered only poverty and oppression, had fallen. Democracy had triumphed, and with it capitalism, although rather fewer celebrated that.

The subsequent closure of polluting communist factories led to the only significant drop in European carbon dioxide emissions since industrialisation has begun. Things looked good, but it wasn't to be all good news.

Capitalism in the third quarter of the twentieth century had been different to the rest of its history. Now it wasn't enough to just make the rich richer, the poor had to also be kept happy enough not to want to vote in the dreaded communists. In the UK we got a National Health Service and in the US factor workers got complementary health insurance. Trade unions were tolerated, a labour policy tried to keep full employment, and when Rachel Carson and others revealed the extent of the damage to Nature caused by industrial pollution, a raft of government bodies were created to try to deal with the problem.

But with the red threat gone, capitalism had no need to compromise with anyone any more.

When George Bush Senior went to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 he basically said no to any steps to deal with any of the problems discussed.

At the same time intelligence agencies, with time on their hands now, turned their well honed skills on Green campaigners. So effective was this that when the War on Terror gave them a new threat to worry about, plenty of time was still found to deal with the 'terrorists' who targeted fossil fuels.

The men and women who broke the Berlin Wall in November 1989 had not wanted this. They had wanted the best of both worlds, socialism and democracy. However those brave pioneers were naive about what they were letting in. The world on the other side of the wall was not what they were expecting, and it has become increasingly clear that without communism to keep it honest, capitalism itself became the monlithic ideology prepared to do anything to defend itself.

The difference is that the 1%, unlike the geriatric rulers of communist eastern europe, look unlikely to go quietly.

1971 The Rise of Neoliberalism

On 15 August 1971 President Nixon broke the financial system that had run the capitalist world since the end of the Second World War.

France had sent a destroyer to New York to claim its share of the US Federal gold reserve. In response Nixon took the US dollar off the Gold Standard.

Nixon was responding to a growing crisis in the US economy, caused by the state living beyond its means whilst trying to keep the cost of the Vietnam War off the books. However the move was the first victory for a group that had been plotting the downfall of the western model of capitalism since 1945.

This group were radicals, but not left wing ones. The Mont Pelerin society, named after Swiss hotel they met in, were followers of the economic theories of Freidrich von Hayek. Hayek told them exactly what he thought of the sort of mixed economy, introduced by Roosevelt to deal with the Great Depression, with the title of his book The Road To Serfdom.

The doctrine he espoused was neoliberalism. At its simplest it said that the only transactions that matter are those involving money. Industry was not important, unless it was a way to make money. Family, society and the environment certainly didn't matter. The only role for the state was to maintain law and order, meaning to maintain the laws that allowed corporations to do what they want, and the order where the rich were protected from anyone who might object.
When the US launched a military coup in Chile to remove a democratically elected communist, it gave neoliberalism exactly the conditions it needed to thrive - total chaos. Whilst the army rounded up the leftists to be tortured or killed, the military regime imported Chicago school economists to rewrite the rules.

The election of Thatcher in the UK in 1979 and Reagan in the US the next year saw neoliberalsim rolled out across the western world. Trade unions were crushed, taxes were cut, and environmental laws slashed. The result was that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the USSR fell apart in 1991, the chaos that followed was ruthlessly exploited by the neoliberals.

Flooding in New Orleans, the invasion of Iraq, the Credit Crunch. All these provided opportunities for the neoliberals to extend their grip. Green capitalists belive that government regulation, smart taxation and a controlled market can make us sustainable. Neoliberals believe regulations, taxes and controllign the market are all morally wrong.

We cannot save the world whilst the neoliberals run it.

1945 The Triumph of Consumerism

Having lived my entire adult life in the chaos of the post-Cold War neoliberal world, it's easy to be nostalgic about the world my parents inherited after the Second World War ended.

Unlike the other eras in this blog, this one was carefully planned in advance. In 1945, with the world in ruins, the memory of the Great Depression still fresh, and Stalin's tanks in Berlin, Prague and Budapest, the free world met at Mount Washington Hotel in Breton Woods, New Hampshire, to work out how the capitalist world's economy should work. The genius behind it all was Britain's Maynard Keynes, although he wouldn't get things entirely his own way.

Compared to wht followed, the Bretton Woods was very sensible, It provided the engine for social democracy which made the West somewhere that most people were actually happy to live.

But something had to power the machine, and that thing was consumerism. This was not a new idea, but one that accelerated after 1945. Things were no longer manufactured to meet needs, but desires. Unlike need desire, if the ad men did their job properly, was unlimited. From cars to washing machines industry produced a house full of new gadgets for people to want, and new forms of credit allowed them to buy it. 

The result is that we entered the exponential age, when everything, except the earth's capacity to sustain us, increased by a little more each year.

Since 1945 we have been always buying, but never happy, whilst the planet has been always dying, but we never noticed.

1771 The Industrial Revolution

In 1771 the modern world was created in Cromford, Derbyshire.

Visiting Arkwright's first mill now it's easy to be beguiled it. Resting in a picturesque valley, and powered only by the water, it seems a far cry from the Dark Satanic Mills of Blake. But that is to miss what the Industrial Revolution was. Later there would be a coal revolution, and a financial revolution, but the first revolution was a social one.

Previously human life had revolved around the family and the village. It had been human scale. Work had ended with the setting of the sun and followed the rhythms of the seasons. Life could be nasty, brutish and short, and the main source of wealth - land - was not evenly shared. But the system was sustainable, both in balance with the earth and relatively unchanging over time.

Cromford Mill changed all that. Women and children were dragooned into the factories. The worked, not at a pace set by themselves, but by a brutal overseer. The speed of the machines was set by the power they drew from the water. The people kept up, or perished.

Welcome to the modern world.

1620 The Scientific Revolution

In 1620 Sir Francis Bacon published his great work Novum Organum, which aimed tofinally move western science on from where Aristotle had left it two thousand years earlier.

To many Bacon was the man who demystified nature, who removed the wonder from the natural world and severed the sacred bond with the organic world that was carried over from pagan times.

This is going too far. Science has given us ecology as well as ecocide, the Gaia Hypothesis as well as the China Syndrome. It is a tool to be used wisely, and it is not the fault of Bacon that we have chosen to use this tool otherwise.

But the fact remains that if, like China in Bacon's time, we had chosen stability over enquiry, we would not be where we are now. The rulers of the world in the seventeenth century had the power to make human life hell on earth, but without the revolution Bacon started the earth itself would have been safe.

c. 10,000 BC The First Agricultural Revolution

But if Bacon started the process that would eventually lead us to be able to win a war on Nature, he was not the one who started the fight. Anyone who puts a plough into the earth knows that they are starting a battle. As soon as you clear and till an area of land you are in conflict with weeds, pests and
disease. You don't have to resort to chemical warfare, but fight you must.

But it wasn't always this way.

12,000 years ago we were all hunter-gatherers. This may not be
everyone's cup of tea, but the evidence is that the agricultural revolution actually made things worse. Early agriculturalists worker harder, died younger and lived in more socially fragmented societies.

What's more, it is probably only in the last century or so that average human health improved over what it was farming, and we still work harder than our 'caveman' ancestors.

What farming did though was allow a small elite of kings, priests, warriors and so on to be supported by everyone else. You can see what was in it for them, by why did the rest of us go along with it? They probably didn't, voluntarily.

Agriculture also allowed more people to live on the land, and in a fight 100 half starved farmers will usually beat a dozen well fed hunter-gatherers. The agricultural revolution did eventually allow what we call civilisation. Everything from art to science, dentistry to Doctor Who followed on eventually to make our lives more pleasant followed on.

But twelve millennia on not still everyone enjoys these things, whilst the earth has less than a hundred harvest left in her. Was it really worth it?

Conclusion

We can't turn back the clock even if we want to. We can no more rewrite Breton Woods than we can unthink the scientific revolution. We wouldn't want to rebuild the Berlin Wall even if we could, and we couldn't return to being hunter-gatherers even if we wanted to.

We must continue the fight from where we are, not where we'd like to be. However by looking back at our history, and seeing how how many times what looked right at the time has turned out wrong, should at least make us more modest about our achievements as a species.

As Douglas Adams also wrote:
For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

My Review of the Year 2016

January

In it was 2016 twenty years since the Newbury Bypass protests. A defeat that led to a famous victory, the snowy woods of Newbury were where it all began for me as an eco-warrior. The Guardian's John Vidal, who had been ignoring my press releases for the last three years, made amends by putting me in his Guardian article.

Back in the present day though I didn't feel much campaigning at all. 2015 had been about the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It had been signed, but we knew that was only the beginning of the fight, not the end. That was why the Red Lines action in Paris took place the day after the conference ended, not the day before it started. But a year of campaigning, then travelling to Paris for a demonstration that had been declared illegal due to the state of emergency, had taken it out of me.

The first stop was Wigan, the home of those early eco-warriors, The Diggers. I say a few words, drink a few beers, and chat to some interesting people.

Back in the real world the cull of music greats, that started with Lemmy before New Year, continues with David Bowie. Having released Blackstar three days earlier he goes out with style. I never knew the man, but the artist was amazing. He was soon joined by Glenn Fry, co-founder of The Eagles, and Dale Griffin, the drummer from Mott the Hoople, in what looked already like it was going to be a grim year for music fans. 

February

February though started with some good news. The Great Bear Rainforest in Canada, named by campaigners in the 1990s, finally received the protection it deserves. The home of the mysterious spirit bear, I had been part if the battle to save the forest in the late 1990s, when I was part of the British branch of the Forest Action Network.

The Paris Agreement was already looked like another lame treaty. In the USA the conservative dominated Supreme Court voted 5:4 to block Obama's, very modest, Clean Power Act whilst a series of fossil fuel funded legal actions against it were heard. Then right wing judge Antonin Scalia died, giving hope the deal wouldn't be killed before its first birthday.

This year's campaigning began properly with the start of Cuadrilla's appeal against Lancashire County Council's decision to reject fracking at two sites.

It was at Blackpool Football ground and getting there was the first challenge, as the Glossop to Manchester trains are off and there was a giant sinkhole in the road at Broadbottom. I do make it though, and there is a sizable turnout. There is also a rare appearance by the opposition, a dozen or so middle age men, who stayed for exactly an hour, before looking at their watches and leaving, presumably to fill in their time sheets and collect the £120 they were (allegedly) paid for attending.

All the usual suspects are there except Tina Louise Rothery, who turned up in Parliament Square with Greenpeace's fake fracking rig.

Inside the appeal all appears to go well for the anti-frackers. However, as we know the final decision will be made in London, not Blackpool, we weren't confident.

March

Meanwhile the revolt against fracking across the regions continued, with my friend Ed Kelly of the local Labour Party successfully getting an anti-fracking motion passed by High Peak Borough Council.

The next evening I headed off on the train across the snow covered landscape to meet the fledgling Warrington group. I don't think we got much organised, but we drank a lot of beer and had a very good time.

Meanwhile the next musicians to join the supergroup that was forming in rock's Valhalla was keyboard maestro Keith Emerson. It was promising to be quite a gig up there.


April

April started with a camping trip with my boys, and a chance to visit one of my favourite trees, the King of Limbs in Savernak Forest.

The Greenpeace group had a bit of busy month. First Sami was out in about in Manchester, as we collected postcards to send to the Norwegian ambassador. We were asking him to make the, increasingly ice-free Barents Sea, a protected area.  We also delivered anti-fracking cupcakes to Manchester City Council.

The world was certainly an interesting place in 1916, but a hundred years ago it was even more so. April marked the centenary of the Easter Uprising, which was the start of Irish independence. I decided to reflect on some of the historic places I'd visited whilst living there twenty years ago.

This month I also got to hear Paul Mason speak, along with John McDonnell, who is now the Shadow Chancellor, but who I remember as being the only Labour MP willing to leave their fortified conference venue to speak to the People's Climate March we put on two years ago. As someone trying to make Marx relevant to the twentifirst century, Mason certainly got my grey matter working, leading to this blog on how we got into the mess we're in.

In April I met an Oscar winning actress, and she smelt of poo.

Greenpeace had sent Emma Thompson, and her sister, up to Blackpool for the Great Fracking Bake Off, to cakes which Tina Louise and the Lancashire Nanas judged. I popped up to join them. The farmer who'd sold his land to Cuadrilla was there too, and decided to cover Emma, and the cakes, in manure. The volunteers still ate the cakes though.

At the end of the month came some good news. Several months of stealing tins of tuna from the shelves of Tesco, and hiding them around the store, had paid off and the company agreed to drop John, unless they actually completed on their promise to become sustainable. 

This month's famous musician to join the great gig in the sky was Prince.

Also dying this month was Colin Gould, the husband of the Liz Gould, the stalwart coordinator of the Merseyside Greenpeace Group for many, many years. His funeral was one of those moments when you realise that Greenpeace is really just one big family.

May

May started with the Big Session in Buxton, and its accompanying beer festival. Seth Lakeman was fantastic as usual.

Going Backwards on Climate Change was a national campaign, and Manchester did its bit. I was there with Sami, and in May it was pretty hot work. Sami is out again a couple of weeks later as we have a token protest at the Etihad Stadium, as arch-frackers Eneos are sponsoring the Great North Run. The day started with Lori and I being greeted by armed police, but they are friendly enough.

The same day we start our new target for the tuna campaign, Sainsbury's. The big news on the oceans campaign though was that whilst we hadn't yet got the marine reserve we wanted, several major brands announced they would not be buying fish from the Barents Sea.

June

Not much campaigning this month, as I instead chose to spend my spare time enjoying the countryside as this was my favourite month of the year. The purple orchids were out in Cressbrook Dale, and the snow had finally melted on Kinder Scout.

Another distraction was that it was exactly 25 years since I graduated from Leicester University with a 'gentleman's pass' in astrophysics. To celebrate the Leicester physicists class of '91 returned to the city, and tried to find a bar that hadn't been gentrified since we left.

I did however get to run a stall for Greenpeace at this years Envirolution Festival in Manchester. It is bloomin' hot, and we have far too much gear, but at least we sell all our cupcakes.

There were more centenaries this month, including a hundred years since the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest 24 hours in the history of the British Army. This was my view of why that was so.

Then Brexit happened. A victory for the tabloid press and their campaign of scapegoating. Suddenly moving forwards was no longer an option. We would need to campaign to defend the limited victories we already have.

Just to add to the gloom, this month's late, great musician was Dave Swarbrick. His last gig had been a benefit for refugees, an example of the sort of tolerance and humanity that threatened to be interred with his body.

July

July saw a fracking industry meeting at the Manchester Conference Centre. In the grand scheme of things it was a minor gathering of minor players in the industry, but on the principle that we go after them wherever they are, we held a demo outside. Tina Louise actually turns up this time. I made a speech linking fracking with the Paris Agreement, which now seems a very distant memory. Rather bizarrely we appeared on Cuban television. 

In a break from fracking the Manchester Greenpeace Network played its part in a day of action against Siemens, as the company was contracted to build a series of huge damns in the Amazon. We paid an undercover visit to one of their 'IQ Centres' in Altringham to re-brand some of their white goods. All went according to plan and all the activists escaped unscathed.


The 2016 Olympics open in Rio, with an environment themed ceremony. Interesting, but lacking in the humour and generally zaniness of Danny Boyle's London 2012 show. I reflect here on how much meaner a society we seem compared to those happy days.

August

Holidays and family illness limit things a bit in August, but I still get to the Cropredy Festival.


It's a bit of a wake for Swarb, but still fun. The headliners are Madness, Steeleye Span, the Bootleg Beatles and, of course, Fairport, who are fifty next year and all live up to expectations, especially Madness, who are very much not just a band cranking out their old hits (although they do get played).

However it's the new discoveries that make the weekend. There was the very weird and infectious bluegrass/metal act Hayseed Dixie. Then Wille and the Bandits, who were a fantastic blues act that make up for me missing the Black Keys. Bet of all there was The Pierce Brothers, an Aussie band that turn up, weary from a long tour, and pining for home, but who play a stonking set, and end up having an even better time than us.

September

More interesting centenaries came and went, including 100 years since T.E. Lawrence left his desk in Cairo and went off to become 'of Arabia'.

I don't seem to have done much this month except climb a mountain in Cumbria (High Cup Nick, at the top of which is the best view in England).

However I did find time to medicate on why so many Working Class people (although certainly not all, or even the majority) continue to shaft us all, and themselves, by supporting Trump, or the insane Brexit crowd, and the remarkable degree to which those three pillars of the establishment; the City, the aristocracy and the Tory Party, continued to support peace with Hitler even after the Second World War had started and Churchill was PM. Then, I should point out for balance the Working Class were 100% behind the war effort.

Having failed to sign up for fully fledged Corbyn-mania (I remain a fully paid up Green) I also had some wry amusement about how a bewildered old Trot like Jeremy managed to beat of the 'Blairite opponents' and remain leader of Labour.

October

October starts with me getting drunk in the Greenpeace warehouse, something I haven't done for a while. At least this time I didn't then have to get on a coach for a twenty hour journey to eastern Germany.

On 4th October the European Union ratified the Paris Agreement. The next day the government announced it was overturning Lancashire's decision to reject Cuadrilla's plans for fracking at Little Plumpton. It was game on again.

As bands of activists had been turning up outside fracking conferences on a regular basis, Shale Gas World decided to hold its at a secret venue when they met in Manchester. Fortunately we were able to find out where it was and stage a little demonstration of our own.

Uniformed plod met us met us at Piccadilly station and plain clothes officers escorted us on the train, but we managed to find the Radisson Blu Hotel without the. A recommendation by the Police Liaison Officer that we hold our demo at the station - where nobody would be able to see us - was politely rejected and we plonked yourselves down outside for a morning of making noise.

On 25 October the government announced that they were going ahead with the Third Runway at Heathrow. By chance I was in London that day visiting the Royal Astronomical Society (not for any particularly clever reason, but because a friend from university works there) so I got the news of Zac Goldsmith's resignation live.


November 

The month begins with the election of Trump as President of the AS of U. A man who makes George W Bush look principled and Dan Quail as talented, the only possible positive thing you can say is that at least the world's only superpower no longer wants us to even pretend we take them seriously.

Campaigning continued despite this calamity. The 'Secret Shale' event was the starter, but the main course was the United Against Fracking rally in Manchester on 12th November, which Frack Free Greater Manchester has organised, at very short notice, for Frack Free Lancashire.

For once, I did my job as Press Officer right and we had TV, radio and print media. Of course, it helped that Frack Free Lancs had persuaded Bianca Jagger to lead it, as well as John Ashton, former climate change diplomat and founder of Third Generation Environmentalism. It was good to meet him again, and he didn't bear any ill feeling towards us for knackering his lungs by taking him to Davyhulme last time he was in Manchester.

The rally started in Piccadilly Gardens, where I do a brief comedy turn on the microphone. there appear to be almost as many people as attended the Barton Moss event we held two years ago, which allows us to claim we've achieved our objective of being the biggest anti-fracking gathering ever in the UK.  I then take my place at the very back and follow every to Castlefields.

There we have some rather more serious speeches, including by Andy Burnham, the man set to be Manchester's first mayor. Hacienda legend Dave Haslem does the DJing, and Bez turns up too. We are the lead regional news story, but don't even get a mention on the national news, which is about par for the course I'm afraid. Next year we'll have to up the ante with a bit of direct action, but for now it's a fun day out in town. The show ends with Peaceful Dan leading everyone in singing 'the people have the power', whilst I order a taxi for Bianca.

During November I also play my part in Salford TUC's Environment Day event. It's a low key affair, but a sign of the links we have between eco-activists and trade unionists that we have in Manchester, but not many other places.

However whilst the TUC seems to like us, Merseyside police decided that we were all 'domestic extremists', and listed anti-fracking groups amongst those people should be worried about as part if its Prevent anti-terrorism strategy.

This months dead musical great was Leonard Cohen, who was at least pretty old. This was my vaguely relevant blog.

December

To round the year off I was asked by the Glossop Guild for Enquiring Minds, our local, independent spin-off from the Workers Education Association, to be one half of a talk entitled the Case For And Against Fracking. It could have been a very ill-tempered event, but in the end m and my opposite number, Peter Webb got along fine, and agreed on most of the actual facts. My side of the argument is here. 

The year's events weren't over yet for Tina Louise Rothery though. After a busy year she had the minor matter of Contempt of Court charges to face after refusing to pay a fine levied against her by Cuadrilla Resources. She was up in court and facing two weeks in Styal Prison. She is invited into the back room of the court with opposing barrister, whilst the judge 'disrobed' (hopefully he at least kept his pants on). Cuadrilla blink first and Tina doesn't get sent down, which is a pity in some ways as the Manchester Greenpeace Group had baked her a cake.

Conclusion

So that was my 2016. We held the line and kept the country frack free, kept the issue of climate change in the news, and made some progress on Oceans and the Amazon.

Meanwhile, though, the rest of the world went mad. War and refugees, fake news and fake politicians, extremists and authortiarians; that was the story of 2016, and my prediction for 2017 as well. If I ended 2016 not recognising my own country, we may all end 2017 not recognising our own world.

Still, we'd be bored with nothing to fight, wouldn't we? Yes, we lost on most of the big issues, but then we lost the battle at Newbury too. But we weren't wrong, and in the end we won the war.

See you on the blockades in 2017.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Eight Decades of the Soviet Union

Twenty five years ago today the world lost a superpower. That sort of thing doesn't happen very often.

To those of us on this side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union was usually presented as this grey monolith that never changed. Over here the Roaring Twenties became the Great Depression, the Atomic Age became the Space Age, but over there it was always the age of grey cabbage.

Not so.

The reality was that the Soviet Union never stood still. Instead it lurched from crisis to disaster, from oppression to invasion, and back again. When people looked back nostalgically from the grim years of Disaster Capitalism that followed, they remembered only a short, brief interlude in the seventies when things were dull, but stable; when life was grim, but tolerable.

1920s Civil War

The Russian Revolution was bloodless. More people were killed in the reenactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace for Evreniov's film than died in the real event. The civil war that followed though was anything but, as Red fought White, with almost every Imperialist nation lending a hand.

The Red Army, under the leadership of Leon Trotsky, was able to defeat the disparate and divided White forces, but in truth the Revolution was itself a very diverse affair. The urban proletariat of the Russian Empire had been tiny, and the use of a brutal War Communism had hardly made the Bolsheviks popular. So when the sailors on the island base of Kronstadt rebelled, it looked like it was all over. Had the Russian people been given a vote at this point, Lenin would have lost. Instead the Red Army, under the leadership one Leon Trotsky, was sent in to crush the revolt.

The next few years though were one of hope and a fair amount of freedom. Music and literature, Russia's great contribution to European culture, thrived. The country was ruined by war, but best economic minds were drafted in to devise the Five Year Plan. A planned economy would rise from the ruins of war.

In 1924, the man who had led this daring experiment, Vladamir Ilyrich Lenin, died. He was a difficult man to judge. Whilst genuinely committed to progressive ends, no means were too brutal to achieve them. A man who believed that history was inevitable, he'd done more than any person in the twentieth century to change it..

His death led to the rise of Joseph Stalin. An utterly charismatic man, he rose to power through the secret committees of the Communist Party, underestimated by everyone until it was too late. Trotsky was expelled from the party in 1927, and exiled from the Soviet Union two years later. Thousands of other party members followed him.

Then in 1928 their was a shortfall in grain production. Stalin threw the Five Year Plan out of the window and embarked on a massive program of collectivisation.

1930s Repression

Collectivisation failed.

Stalin blamed hoarding by kulaks - wealthy farmers - and so the process was speeded up. This turned failure into disaster, with up to 10 million people starving to death.

However starvation and counter-revolutionary 'kulaks' were not all that the people of the Soviet Union had to fear. In 1934 the popular mayor of Leningrad was assassinated, apparently by a 'fascist plot'. Over the next few years the Soviet people enjoyed the bizarre spectacle of dozens of senior communists, including every Old Bolshevik except Stalin and the exiled Trotsky, being paraded through court and confessing to being part of conspiracy to bring down the very revolution they had fought for.

These people though were just the tip of a very large iceberg of repression. Thousands of intellectuals, and hundreds of thousands of 'kulaks', Poles and others, were arrested by the Secret Police, and executed, tortured or exiled to the gulags in Siberia. In all, maybe a million people died. The final victim was the head of the Secret Police himself, Nikolai Yezhov.

The purge had also removed most of the senior military commander. When the Soviet Union went to war with Finland in 1939 the army suffered disaster after disaster.

If this wasn't enough dramatic change for a decade, in August the people learnt the world's only communist state had just entered into a pact with the world's only Nazi state. Within months the two strange bedfellows were carving up Poland between them.

1940s War

But the Nazi-Soviet pact failed to keep Hitler out. In 1941 he launched Operation Barbarossa. The result was the deadliest conflict in human history, with 30 million deaths. The Soviet Union survived - just - and eventually advanced into Germany and laid waste to Berlin, killing and raping as it went. Six million soldiers had died in battle and over three million had died after being taken prisoner.

The country was ruined by the war, but it also now occupied the whole of eastern Europe and part of Germany. The Iron Curtain came down across Europe and the Cold War began. The allies of the war years were now enemies.

1950s Thaw

Then in 1953 Stalin died. Disabled by a stroke, he was probably finished off by his doctor. By the end he admitted he didn't even trust himself. He was replaced by Nikita Khrushchev.

All the senior Soviet leaders were gangsters, but Khrushchev was a gangster who wanted to be a social scientist. Slowly he introduced reforms and reduced the oppression. Gradually intellectuals began to think again, and some people even began to dream.

It wasn't all peace and love though. In 1956 popular protests toppled the communist government of Hungary. Fears the country would leave the Warsaw Pact, and open a way for NATO to attack Russia, led Khrushchev to order in Soviet tanks to restore order. 200,000 Hungarians became refugees and 2500 died, as did 700 Soviet soldiers, many shot by their own officers for refusing to obey orders.

Russia had developed its own atomic bombs under Stalin, now under Khrushchev they built missiles to carry them. Along the way they also managed to launch the first artificial satellite into orbit. Sputnik One took off on 4 October 1957. It's signal could be picked up on an ordinary radio set, the beeping signal a dramatic statement of the potential of the Soviet Union.

Then in 1959 Khrushchev visited the United States of America. He was charming, he cracked jokes and he loved America. From it's hot dogs to its mass produced cars, this was a world he thought he could remake in the USSR. Stalin had been an aberration, the world of plenty promised by the communist revolution was still possible.

1960s Hope

Khrushchev's foreign policy missteps almost led to nuclear war with the USA over Cuba in 1962.
Disaster was averted, but things weren't much better on the home front.

Armed with the second best computers available (the best were working a missile defence system around Moscow) the Soviet planners were trying to finally make the planned economy work. A new system of prices was introduced, with the rates set by a complex algorithm. Logic would replace the market and the planned economy would deliver the workers paradise that had been promised for forty years.

The first result was that the cost of meat and butter shot up 25%. On top of other problems, this led to a minor revolt in Southern Russia. Twenty two people were killed, seven executed, and the authorities panicked. There were to be no more economic reforms.

Khrushchev had also tried, and failed, to improve agricultural production. Worse, he had started to take away the privileges of senior party members and talked about running multi-candidate elections. The party decided he had to go. In 1964 he was removed from power and exiled to his dacha. There he regaled passers by with his opinions of what had gone wrong, and wondered what sort of paradise this was that had to keep its people in chains.

He was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who brought back repression. In 1968 Czechoslovakia decided it wanted 'communism with a human face', but instead it received Soviet tanks.  Back at home the arts and the sciences had to follow the party line.

The economy, already stuttering, went into terminal decline. Instead of taking raw materials and turning them into useful things - adding value - the Soviet economy did exactly the opposite. It dug valuable natural resources out of the ground, and turned them into things nobody wanted.

The only reason the whole thing limped on into the seventies was that in 1961 they had struck oil in Siberia. The USSR used the money to buy computers from IBM = killing off their own research program - and an entire car factory from Italy. There they made their own version of an old Fiat design, the crude but tough car that they would export to the world as the Lada.

1970s Stagnation

Kept afloat on oil money the Soviet Union crawled through the one and only decade in its history in which nothing of any significance happened.

To western visitors there were attractions to the country. Moscow and Leningrad were beautiful cities, with streets free of traffic jams, advertising billboards and beggars. The opera and the ballet were cheap and first class.

However by 1979 there were problems on the eastern frontiers. Afghanistan was a friendly communist country. However the repressive regime was not popular and soon large parts of the country were in open rebellion, with the rebels receiving support from the CIA. A palace coup removed the Soviet Union's man and so Soviet paratroopers moved in to remove his replacement.

Initially all went well, and it seemed a re-run of Budapest in 1956 or Prague in '68. But this was deceptive. Afghanistan was to be very different.

1980s Chaos

The 1980s started with the flamboyance of the Moscow Olympic games. Brezhnev died in 1982 and his next two successors were both old, ill and dead within two years of taking office. The communist party leadership realised that a change was needed. The new leader was Mikael Gorbachev, the youngest member of the Politburo and the first Soviet leader to have been born after the revolution.

By this time the war in Afghanistan was going badly. Gorbachev wanted to pull the troops out, but rightly feared the forces that would be unleashed if he did so. Desperately he tried to negotiate with President Reagan to end the cold War, but instead the USA launched a new arms race, and supplied the Afghan insurgents with more and more advanced weaponry, some of which would later be turned on their own troops.

At home Gorbachev introduced restructuring - perestroika - and freedom - glasnost. To the West he was a hero, but to those who had to live through his reforms he was more like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, someone who could not control the forces he had unleashed. His aim of a more democratic communism, combined with a planned economy, was similar to Khrushchev's, and the outcome was similar too: economic chaos and food shortages. However whilst a high oil price had bailed the country out before, now a low one doomed it.

In eastern Europe the Brezhnev Doctrine, of military intervention in any communist country that turned capitalist, was replaced by the 'Sinatra Doctrine', meaning everyone was free to chose My Way. By 1989 the old, out-of-touch leadership of the Soviet satellite nations were facing open revolt on the streets. When Gorbachev made it clear Soviet tanks were not coming to help this time, the Berlin Wall came down, followed by the rest of the Iron Curtain.

1990s Collapse

Eastern Europe had now gone, but Gorbachev's problems hadn't.

The Soviet Union was actually a federation of 15 Republics, although a very centralised one. Many of these states were formed in territories added to the Czarist Empire only in the late nineteenth century. Most were artificial constructions based around the predominant ethnicity. With the economy in crisis, there were fears that many would try to ceded.

In the end it was actually Russia that started to break away first, passing a declaration of semi-independence from the Soviet Union. Hard liners saw the writing on the wall and launched a coup. Soviet coups had been in terminal decline for a while. Budapest and Prague had gone all write, but in Afghanistan it had taken four gos before they managed to bump of President Amin. This one was even worse, lasting barely two days.

After that the Soviet Republics didn't plan on hanging around to see if the hardliners would try again, and one by one they declared independence. Gorbachev was faced with a choice, send in the tanks or let them go. Once again he chose peace, and so on 21 December 1991 the Soviet Union was replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The world's first Soviet socialist republic had come to an end. There had been moments of hope, but most;y it had been a story of repression rather than freedom, of scarcity rather than plenty. The revolution had failed, and in the end the leadership accepted it had failed and let the Soviet Union die peacefully in its bed. To paraphrase Shakespeare, nothing it did in its life so became it as the leaving it.

It seems unlikely that the kleptocratic leaders of the fascistic gangster states that replaced the Soviet Union will leave power quite so gracefully.

References

I'm extremely grateful for the lectures given to the Glossop Guild by Chris Bins
Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Case Against Fracking

This is a presentation I gave as part of a debate at the Glossop Guild.

The case against fracking, in just over 40 minutes.


REFERENCES

Fracking

What is fracking? TalkFracking

Traffic Issues


In Texas, Traffic Deaths Climb Amid Fracking Boom Houston Public Media 12/10/2014 
AP IMPACT: Deadly side effect to fracking boom Associated Press 5/05/2014
Investigating the traffic-related environmental impacts of hydraulic-fracturing (fracking) operations Goodman, Galatioto, Thorpe, Namdeo, Davies, Bird 

Presentation to UKShale Gas Summit 11/10/2016 Dr Paul Goodman

Earthquakes

Fracking triggers 90% of large quakes in B.C., Alberta oil and gas patch CBC News 29/03/2016

Air Pollution

Town's Effort To Link Fracking And Illness Falls Short npr 16/05/2012
Town of DISH, Texas, Ambient Air Monitoring Analysis Wolf Eagle Environmental
List of the Harmed PACWA
Fracking and Air Pollution Physicians for Social Responsibility

Water Contamination

Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources (External Review Draft) EPA
SAB Review of the EPA's draft Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydrolic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources
Greenpeace Open Records Request from EPA

Health Effects

Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking Concerned Health Professionals of NY
Health & Fracking: The impact & opportunity costs Medact
Public Health England’s draft report on shale gas extraction British Medical Journal 17/04/2014

Regulation

One Man's Mission to Curb Illegal Dumping of Texas Frack Waste Inside Climate News 1/07/2014
Forbidden Data: Wyoming just criminalized citizen science The Slate 11/05/2015
You must accept fracking for the good of the country, David Cameron tells southerners The Telegraph 11/08/2013
EU summit back shale gas 'revolution' euobserver 22/05/2013
UK defeats European bid for fracking regulation The Guardian 14/01/2014
UK backing bid by fossil fuel firms to kill new EU fracking controls, letters reveal The Guardian 10/09/2015
UK government's fracking definition 'could allow drilling without safeguards' The Guardian 13/04/2016
Fracking in Lancashire given go-ahead by government BBC 6/10/2016
UK government suppressed damaging fracking report until after crucial Lancashire vote Greenpeace EnergyDesk 25/11/2016

Expert Opinion

Shale gas regulation in the UK and health implications of fracking The Lancet 27/02/2015
The risk of hydraulic fracturing on public health in the UK and the UK’s fracking legislation Environmental Sciences Europe 30/10/2015

Climate Change

7 reasons America will fail on climate change Vox

America's natural gas system is leaky and in need of a fix, new study finds Stanford News 14/02/2014
U.S. Methane 'Hot Spot' Bigger than Expected NASA9/10/2014
Why is there a huge methane hotspot in the American Southwest? PBS NewsHour 3/06/2015

Coal
 
Shale Gas Boom Helps to Slash CO2 Emissions, As Well as Create Jobs and Save Consumers Billions
Professor Mark J. Perry's Blog for Economics and Finance 23/05/2012
Asia to drive US coal exports Marginal Evolution 13/05/2011

Peabody: Why the world’s largest private coal miner went bust — in one graph Greenpeace EnergyDesk 15/04/2016

Infrastructure Lock In 
 
Carbon Lock-In: Barriers To Deploying Climate Change Mitigation Technologies Brown, Chandler, Lapsa, Sovacool November 2007
Gas power stations given go-ahead BBC News 5/12/2012

Alternatives

Energy [r]evolution Greenpeace International
One Million Climate Jobs Campaign Against Climate Change
UK and Norway to build world's longest undersea energy interconnector The Guardian 26/03/2015
How 'smart fridges' could slash UK CO2 emissions and help renewables The Guardian 28/09/2014

Further Reading


Are we fit to frack? National Trust, RSPB, Angling Trust etc
To the ends of the earth Corporate Watc
One Million Climate Jobs Campaign Against Climate Change
Health & Fracking: The impact & opportunity costs Medact
Energy [r]evolution Greenpeace International

ADDENDUM

Since I recorded this the EPA has admitted it did find evidence of fracking causing water contamination. Details here:

Reversing Course, E.P.A. Says Fracking Can Contaminate Drinking Water NY Times 13/12/2016

Friday, 11 November 2016

Who inspired Suzanne by Leonard Cohen?

'Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river'

 

So it's RIP Leonard Cohen. Poet, song writer and performer even in his final years. He will be missed. But what about his most famous song, Suzanne?

A much covered tune, including by the early Fairport Convention, Suzanne has a melody that can properly be described as haunting.

The inspiration was one Suzanne Verdal, then the partner of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, whose most famous work is a giant fountain in San Francisco dedicated to Quebecan independence. Cohen says that 'everyone was in love with Suzanne', including him, although, as the song says, he could only 'touch her perfect body' with his mind.

She was the one that pout the breaks on the relationship. She said in 2006 “Somehow, I didn’t want to spoil that preciousness, that infinite respect that I had for him… I felt that a sexual encounter might demean it somehow.”

Cohen met her in Montreal, and they would walk by the St Lawrence River before popping back to her place for 'tea and oranges'.

An early eco-activist, she was big into recycling, which is why  "she's wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters" and "she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers". This wasn't terribly fashionable at the time and so probably explains the line ‘you know that she’s half crazy but that’s why you want to be there.’

Suzanne travelled the world as a dancer and by the late nineties she was living in a home made shack with her seven cats and working as a dance instructor and massage therapist. However a serious accident ended her dancing career and she ended up broke and homeless.

The song appears in the soundtrack of last year's Reeth Witherspoon film Wild, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, as Verdal was a friend of the author's mother. It seems everyone really did love Suzanne.

So as Cohen humself shuffles off this mortal coil, his works remain, including this wonderful, bittersweet, hymn to a unrequitted, but still beautiful, deep and emotionally charged love affair.

Cohen missed Suzanne, and we now miss him.