Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

THE SCRAMBLE FOR OIL:

In R.Richardson on August 25, 2010 at 12:43 pm

What happens when the supplies run out?

BP’s debacle in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted more than anything else what happens when once rich deposits of oil begin to run dry – and the oil companies are forced to try to tap in to more and more unsuitable and inaccessible reserves to satisfy our fuel hungry society.

It’s called “Peak Oil” – the time when demand for oil begins to outstrip the supplies of crude that can be exploited. And it’s happening now.

The big oil corporations are now being forced to drill further and further out to sea, to seek oil as much as a mile below the surface. In the Gulf of Mexico, BP has been portrayed as the big villain of the piece – and quite rightly so. But this company is not alone. All the big oil conglomerates are now scrambling to exploit what they can – and taking bigger risks all the time. Esso in Alaska, Shell in Nigeria – and BP wherever they can. They are taking risks with the environment – not to mention the lives of the people who live in the areas where oil exploration is taking place.

THE TAR SANDS:

The “tar sand” oil field in Northern Alberta, is a case in point. This is Canada’s “dirty oil”. The tar sands cover an area larger than England and Wales, and the environmental havoc being caused by the extraction and refining of the crude oil is enormous.

We highlighted the havoc being caused by the exploitation of the Albertan tar sands in the Clarion dated February/March 2008. Today the situation is even more dire.

America now imports the bulk of its oil from Canada. Apart from its own oil reserves, it had long relied on the Middle East to fuel its hunger for oil. But today it has turned to its northern neighbour – and American oilmen have a high profile in the Canadian tar sands. 65 per cent of the oil is exported to the USA. Incidentally, both BP and Shell also have interests in this massive project.

The tar sands have been described as the largest, most polluting industrial project in the world today. Extracting the oil from the tar sands gives off three times more greenhouse gas emissions than in conventional oil fields. It uses four times as much water and heat to fill one barrel of oil.

This is taking a terrible toll. The land, air, and water around the Athabasca River, and communities downstream from Fort McMurray (the centre of the oilfield) are now toxic, a process that is probably irreversible. Forests have been levelled, and millions of gallons of water a day taken from the Athabasca River that flows down into the Rocky Mountains.

What’s happening in northern Alberta naturally concerns Canadian environmentalists (but not, it seems, the Alberta provincial government that for years has ridden high on a wave of prosperity from the oil industry).

MORE TAR SAND EXPLOITATION:

The “success” of the exploitation of the Albertan tar sands has provoked a desire to exploit other potential oil mines. According to the Guardian in May this year , it “has triggered a rush by Shell and other oil companies to set up similar operations in Russia, Congo and even Madagasca”.

A number of other oil companies, including BP, seem eager to search for other tar sand sites to exploit. BP is interested in exploiting reserves in Venezuela, whilst other companies have their eyes on Morocco, Egypt, and even Jordan.

BP: THE AMERICAN WHIPPING BOY.

Currently, though, it’s been BP that has been gaining media attention, particularly in the USA, after millions of gallons of crude oil poured into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

With the help of US subcontractors, BP had been trying to extract crude from the below the sea bed. Thanks possibly to faulty equipment, the pipe line sprung a leak.

BP is, of course, identified by Americans as a “British” company, even though over a third of its shares are in American hands. Once upon a time, as British Petroleum, it had been owned by the UK Government – an arrangement favoured by Winston Churchill.

But Margaret Thatcher thought differently. She sold off all Government shares, and the company was floated on the international stock exchanges.

Now BP is little more than another multinational oil corporation with over a third of its shares in American hands. Indeed, for a while it promoted its initials as standing for “Better Petrol”.

As we entered the new millennium, BP tried to project a new, greener, image. It’s logo was changed to make it appear more environmentally friendly. It promised to move “Beyond Petroleum”, by seeking cleaner ways to produce fossil fuels, or indeed to invest in alternative energy sources.

GETTING ITS HANDS DIRTY:

But at the beginning of December 2007 it seemed to have abandoned its green image when it invested nearly £1.5 billion in the Alberta tar sands.

The Independent declared that such an investment committed it to “using methods which environmentalists say are part of the ‘biggest global warming crime’ in history. The multinational oil and gas producer, which last year made a profit of £11 billion, is facing a head-on confrontation with the green lobby in the pristine forests of North America….”

In a comment in the Independent, Mike Hudema, a campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, declared that “by 2020 the tar sands are expected to release more than 141 million tons of greenhouse gases annually…

“BP’s decision to enter this environmental nightmare strips away any credibility it may have had in being a good corporate citizen. Instead of trying to move “beyond petroleum” it has invested in the dirtiest oil project on the planet.”

But earlier this year, BP’s reputation took an even greater tumble with the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Whether the company will ever be able to recover from it remains to be seen. The cost of capping the leak, and the clean up, alone runs into hundreds of billions. Meanwhile, BP’s shares have tumbled, and its reputation is in tatters.

But there must be a number of other oil companies who breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t them.

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Utopian Dreams: in search of a good life

In C.Spiby, Reviews on August 25, 2010 at 12:38 pm

non-fiction review by C. Spiby

It is easy to regard as cheats authors who justify their observations and arguments by serially quoting those of other great thinkers in their work.

Certainly, Tobias Jones’ own observations fail to compare with the likes of, for example, Mill or Milton of whom he quotes more than once. Indeed, for his part Jones remains little more than a journalistic observer, although to be fair he doesn’t set himself up as anything more even if he does promise to fully embed himself within the communities he and his fledgling family temporarily immerse. Putting aside my doubt over Jones’ own calibre as an original thinker there is, nonetheless, still some net gain to be had from his choice of quotations and concepts. What does it matter that we didn’t obtain such learning directly? Isn’t that the purpose of non-fiction: to observe remarkable things – not necessarily new things – and communicate these to us clearly within the context of a coherent theme? So, I chose to forgive Jones these initial misgivings.

Unfortunately, considering Jones the writer I was more than occasionally bored by his text. Even more so by his rather formulaic structure. Each chapter of ‘Utopian Dreams’ considers a different community and then as one progresses, quickly we see chapter upon chapter taking a familiar pattern: i) introduce a community through its idiosyncrasies, ii) delve a little into its past, its attitudes and aims, and then iii) deconstruct it through concepts like freedom, the value of work, or the very nature of what a community is or can be. Then finally, iv) move on to the next community in vain hope of addressing this new-found lacking, and in doing so regard the former community with a slight yet condescending derision.

Nonetheless the notion itself is highly compelling and fortunately each chapter doesn’t linger and nor does Jones.  For our attention we get to see and learn a little about an Italian new-age retreat which even has its own recognised currency (Damanhur); a Quaker retirement Community (Hartrigg Oaks) and its proximity to the Rowntree Trust; a monastery in the Nomadelfia and a place for social rehabilitation in Pilsdon.

Regrettably – as a secularist and socialist – I found little hope in the communities on offer inasmuch most appeared based on faith of one kind or another. Even with my respect for Quakerism and each community’s liberal attitudes towards education and communalism per se, Jones presents the case that all were founded on some form of supernatural core (and that includes the New Age). This is a disappointing but unconvincing conclusion: I simply don’t believe it to be true that a successful community needs faith at its core. It may be a characteristic of those communities Jones visits, but I don’t believe communalism as a concept and way of living has this as an absolute requirement.

Jones himself alludes to secular leanings, but I think he’s got doubts and is himself searching for a belonging of one kind or another. While he explores the role of faith to his somewhat unconvincing degree, he can’t deny his choice of communities speaks volumes in itself. At one point he even misunderstands or misrepresents the concern of Richard Dawkins on the subject of devoutly religious communities (p.203), as opposed to communities per se and that is either just too sloppy or suspiciously convenient for me.

Mr. Jones is at his best when considering existential issues like freedom. It might seem a logical place to start being such a fundamental principle for breakaway communities looking to escape the clutches of the state and big business, and as such one might expect it to be the theme of Chapter One, but actually it only appears in chapter 4 (of 6).

Freedom is the paradox of communalism. It offers freedom from the established norms of post modern society – a breakaway of the strangle-hold of modernity and social decay writ large, but at the same time communalism requires that we deny ourselves some personal freedoms in order to live amongst and with one another (to varying degrees depending on the nature and structure of the community). Indeed, it is building communities that we set out to purposely challenge, to the benefit of mutual cooperation, unfettered freedom and its modern byword: choice.

Here is Jones on this individual freedom versus community paradox: “Logically, they are opposites. Community is a place…where you take chunks out of your individuality in return for a place where you fit in. You sacrifice personality but get belonging. But a true community, they said echoing Weber, would be an iron cage. The cost of company, said everyone from the Stoics onward, is a reduction of freedom.” But if that freedom is the freedom for others to feed a shallow form of attainment through this new world of fake choices, then our current affluence is a rather depressing one.

Indeed, Jones rightly observes that creating a struggle between the two forces may itself be a fallacy; “I still thought the two could be complimentary. The trouble is that nothing is currently allowed to complement freedom. Freedom has become akin to a flag, raced up the pole to test our loyalty to it. Freedom has become one of those words which is hoisted to end all debate.” citing the US military operation entitled ‘Enduring Freedom’ as a poignantly trite example. The point is further qualified by his quoting Chesterton: “Most modern freedom is at root fear…It’s not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.”

Jones admits his work is a journal-like foray into shared communities which takes accident and reactive pondering as its guide rather than any structured approach. I’m not entirely convinced this is of benefit to the work and would even have preferred a more academic text. Indeed, I suggested to the popular philosopher and author Alain de Botton that he instead take up the challenge, recommending ‘Utopian Dreams’ as a signpost: de Botton, I’m sure, would really get underneath the rock Jones alludes to – but only de Botton would eloquently examine the grubs and shoots that really lie beneath. Alain replied saying he’d ordered the book off Amazon, so we’ll see.  Alain’s already published on work (‘The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work’) and what’s now called affluenza (‘Status Anxiety’) so the idea of communalism could offer a solution to both those anxieties.

Certainly, it is my opinion that utopian views of the world are welcome in a time lacking ideology. And what is a utopia other than an idea or a set of visualised hopes shared and brought to life through living in a certain shape of society? A statement that ‘we can do better than this – and here’s how’. Jones’s most consistent and attractive offering for a Utopian dream is, aside from those theistic allusions, to live more simply and to do so alongside one another instead of in spite of each other.

Jones – rightly in my mind – is repulsed by our post-modern consumerist society; it’s his reason’ d’être for the entire project…

‘Our society now bears all the scars of decades of failure to teach those gentle virtues of gratitude and obligation. In an ideal community, the onus for you to take responsibility for other people is borne out of a thankfulness that someone, here, has taken responsibility for you. It’s symbiotic, joyous almost, because your relationship is based on love. In contemporary Western society, however, the instinctive mood is vindictiveness born out of years of being told one is a victim. Complaint becomes knee-jerk, litigation second nature. We can be spiteful to people because we’ll probably never see them again.’

And yet this is the very world to which he returns at the end of his ‘search for a good life’. How thoroughly depressing.

Cuts – bah! humbug!!

In Dinosaur on August 25, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Someone once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time or all of the people some of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Quite true. But the trick for successful politicians is to try to bamboozle as many people as they can, for as long as possible. By the time folk realise what’s going on, the politician has hurriedly left the stage, to write his memoirs in a welter of self-justification.

So far the Cameron-Clegg partnership seems to have been quite successful in kidding folk into believing that their cuts in public spending are necessary because of the dire state we’re in. They tell us that they hadn’t realised what a mess New Labour had got us into until they were able to see the books for themselves.

Oh, really! Come on, pull the other one! I seem to remember, just after the election, being told that the country’s debt increase wasn’t quite as bad as anticipated, and that the economy had rallied slightly during the last days of the last Government. As for “not knowing” – hadn’t Government ministers been reading the Mail or Telegraph? These two newspapers had been shouting words of calamity right through the election. So, too, had the Express – but nobody believes a word uttered by that newspaper these days.

No, the Government is making these sweeping cuts because it wants to. It just couldn’t wait to cut the public sector down to size. The state of the economy was a perfect excuse. After all the wealthier members of society won’t really be affected, will they? They can rise above it – as they did back in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the public services on which most of the rest of rely can go to the wall – whilst Cameron tells us that it’s all for our own good.

The view from the north:

Meanwhile, a reader up in Yorkshire has sent us a cutting from her local paper, The Huddersfield Examiner. Its columnist, John Avison, seemed to have been paying us in the Forest a visit, meeting one popular local character, called simply “Sarah”. On his rounds he bumped into Mark Harper, our MP. “thrust by the events of May 6 into the position of Under Secretary of State for Political and Constitutional Reform”.

This is what John Avison wrote: “This is a bright time, a honeymoon time, for Tories. They are full of confidence and optimism despite the fact that they are poised to become the most unpopular party the country has seen for a century. When the gloss has rubbed off and the people in the street have gone silent for Mark, when services have been cut and when those least able to afford their loss are suffering, the people of this village and all over the Forest will still be going out of their way to talk to Sarah.”

Disorderly behaviour?

I see that the new Home Secretary, Theresa May, has decided to scrap ASBOs (dished out to those deemed to indulge in unruly or anti-social behaviour) and replace them with a system where communities work with the police and other agencies.

It’s all a bit vague when it comes to detail, but with Cameron’s “Big Community” notion in mind, I’m sure I could come up with some suggestions, dredged up from punishments meted out in the past.

Public flogging might have been popular, but I’m afraid flogging is now illegal – so that’s out. But perhaps a return to the stocks might be an acceptable alternative? Rotting fruit and veg could be provided free, for the purpose of pelting the victim (sorry, I mean the accused). Or, for some offences, one of those placards to be warn around the neck of the culprit at all times – you know, “I swear a lot and am abusive” or “I defecate in public places” kind of thing. Alternatively, a curfew could be imposed on offenders – if it didn’t infringe on a person’s right to indulge in the late night/early morning drinking laws.

I don’t really think that’s what Theresa May has in mind. And seriously it’s not a bad idea to re-examine the whole notion of ASBOs. They were a bad idea in the first place, and never really worked. The only trouble I have is in believing that the Tories and their supporters could come up with something better. Their past record suggests otherwise.

No doubt we will see.

GM: the big sell

In M. Rudland on August 25, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Research by Martin Rudland.

GM foods today are big in America – and indeed in many parts of the world where the big agro-business corporations who own the patents hold sway. But so far Europe hasn’t fallen under their spell. Public opinion has seen to that. But if the GM lobby has its way, it could soon change.

Powerful voices are now pressing for further “trials” of GM crops – like the potato crops mentioned in a recent issue of the Clarion (April/May 2010).

And, of course, we now have a new Government – and a new Minister in charge of agriculture. Caroline Spelman, the afore-mentioned Minister, has made it clear that this government will be the most pro-GM yet, when she told the Guardian that GM “can bring benefits to the marketplace”. However, she failed to mention any benefit to the consumer.

“CONFLICTING INTERESTS”?

Even the Tory Daily Mail has been moved to question the motives of Ms. Spelman at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). In a recent article, the paper commented that “the Secretary of State apparently shares the same controversial beliefs as such biotech giants as Monsanto, the world’s leading producer of weedkiller and genetically modified crops.”

Caroline Spelman’s background, it seems, is in sugar beet. Some nine million tonnes of sugar beet are grown in the UK every year, making it one of the most important sectors of British agriculture. So far what we grow here is non-GM, though trials have been carried out in Suffolk. – sponsored by Monsanto. In the USA, incidentally, almost a hundred per cent of the beet crop is genetically modified.

“GM PROPAGANDA”:

Apart from powerful professional lobbyists (and, of course, Monsanto) there are other significant bodies who favour GM. The Food Standards Agency (FSA), for example,  has been overseeing a public consultation on Genetic Modification. Its claim to impartiality was rather shaken recently when two scientists (Dr. Helen Wallace and Professor Brian Wynne of Lancaster University) resigned, claiming that the consultation was an exercise in state-sponsored “GM propaganda” to which they couldn’t lend their name. Professor Wynne declared that the FSA was “dogmatically entrenched” in favour of GM.

SUPER WEEDS:

One major concern amongst farmers planting GM crops in the USA is the emergence of “super weeds” as a result of spraying with herbicides.

Apart from its lucrative patent for GM seed, Monsanto also produces weed killer. The general idea is that when GM crops are planted, the fields are sprayed with weed killer, to prevent other plant life invading the crop.

But thanks to the adaptability of nature, weeds are mutating, producing herbicide resistant varieties. In America, more than 130 types of weed have developed some degree of resistance, and it’s estimated that these “super weeds” have infested nearly 11 million acres so far.

One particularly nasty example is pigweed, which grows at a rate of more than an inch a day and can reach a height of nine feet. Monsanto is now advising farmers to use a “cocktail” of herbicides so that weeds would not develop an immunity to any one in particular. How this may work in the long term, one dreads to think!

The threat of cross contamination, where GM crops can affect other crops growing in fields nearby has also been identified by environmentalists. It is for this reason that California has placed a ban on GM alfalfa crops – but Monsanto is seeking to overturn this ban in the US Supreme Court.

The main genetically modified crops grown in the USA are soybean, corn and cotton. GM now accounts for between 85 and 90 per cent of these three crops grown in America. And scientists have warned that the increasing use of ever more powerful doses of herbicide not only kills weeds(or at least those that haven’t developed a resistance) but also kills beneficial fungi and bacteria.

According to Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, speaking at a conference in the UK in July, “planting herbicide tolerant GM crops is the surest way to spread diseases to neighbouring and subsequent crops”.

Considering the mounting level of evidence against genetic modification, one wonders why there is so much pressure on governments and farmers alike to go down the GM route. The only credible explanation is that powerful industrial lobbies see it as being in their interest to promote GM. These lobbies are a formidable foe – as Rachel Carson found when she wrote Silent Spring. But the GM lobby must be resisted, if we really have the wellbeing of ourselves and our children at heart.

THE LIBERALS: a tendency to self destruct.

In A.Graham on August 25, 2010 at 12:23 pm

by Alistair Graham

The Liberal Democrats, it seems, don’t learn much from history. But they ought to. Their party is the natural heir to the old Liberal Party, once a formidable political force that boasted the likes of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George amongst its leaders. It gave us great reforming governments – and yet by the middle of the last century it had been reduced to an irrelevant rump with a mere half dozen seats in Parliament.

It wasn’t just the the rise of the Labour Party that destroyed the Liberals. It was their own tendency to self-destruct that helped them to become political has-beens.

Twice during the last century, the Liberals went into coalition government with their old enemies, the Tories. On both occasions, the Liberal Party split and emerged weaker, and less relevant, than it had been before.

LLOYD GEORGE AND ASQUITH:

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Britain had a Liberal government led by Asquith. He may have been a great reforming Prime Minister, but faced with one of the most savage conflicts of modern times, he was not up to the task. In 1916, Lloyd George became leader of the nation, backed by the Conservatives. The war ended in 1918, and in the “Khaki Election” of that year, Asquith’s Liberals were reduced to a mere 34 seats in Parliament – and Asquith himself was defeated.

Lloyd George, too, was soon swept aside, as the Tories took over the reins of his coalition government. Although a re-united Liberal Party made a partial recovery in the election of 1923, gaining 158 seats, it had by this time been overtaken by the Labour Party, which returned 192 MPs. Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister, with Liberal support.

That first Labour government under MacDonald was short lived. Within a year it had fallen, and the Liberal Party crashed – losing 116 seats in the ensuing election.

HEADING FOR OBLIVION:

In the election of 1929, The Liberals (still under the leadership of Lloyd George) emerged with 59 seats, and once again chose to back MacDonald’s Labour government. But once again, the experience was short lived. The Wall Street crash of October 1929 left the government divided, and unable to cope with the slide into mass unemployment and economic collapse that followed.

In 1931, a “National” government was formed, with MacDonald remaining as Prime Minister, but now backed by the Tories. The bulk of the Labour Party refused to support this latest exercise in coalition government, leaving MacDonald to lead a party consisting of a mere half dozen “National Labour” MPs (including, briefly, the MP for the Forest of Dean) .  And, as it had done after the First World War, the Liberals split, on the issue of free trade. In 1935, the Liberal Party returned a mere 21 MPs. Those who had continued to support the so-called “national” government ended up with 33 seats – but this rump soon became an impotent appendage to the Conservative Party. Indeed, right up until the 1950s, many Tory candidates at election time described themselves as “Conservative and National Liberal” on their election addresses.

From there on it seemed to be down hill all the way for the Liberal Party. In the 1945 election, which saw Labour sweep to victory, the Liberals managed to return a mere 12 MPs – and the party lost its leader, Sir Archibald Sinclair, in the debacle.

Worse was to follow. In the 1950s the Liberals were further reduced to six, and then five, Members of Parliament. A partial recovery took place under the leadership of Jo Grimond (followed by Jeremy Thorpe), but the party only really started to recover when it went into coalition with the breakaway SDP. The new Liberal SDP Alliance was heralded as “breaking the mould” in politics – and during the early Thatcher years it became almost trendy, particularly amongst the middle class literati..

But although its vote increased, along with its tally of MPs, it failed to make the breakthrough its supporters had hoped. Finally it transformed itself into the Liberal Democrats – and the rest, as they say, is history.

WHAT NEXT?

Now that the Lib Dems are once more junior partners in a Tory Government, what’s next for the party? Polls show that its support has slumped, and there are mutterings of discontent in the ranks, as the Party leadership tamely accepts Tory policies that it opposed so strongly during the election. History suggests that it’s in for a rough ride. At the very least it’s likely to lose seats at the next election. The party itself may split – as the Liberals did in 1918 and in 1931, but this time from a far weaker electoral base. Certainly the decision by Clegg and his colleagues to join forces with Cameron in the “Con Dem” government marks a low point in the party’s recent history.

CUTS… With a vengeance

In Editorial on August 25, 2010 at 12:19 pm

It soon became clear who ruled the roost in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government. If anyone was in doubt, George Osborne’s budget back in June revealed all. This was a Thatcherite attack on the public service sector, carried out under the excuse that the state of the economy makes it “necessary”. And there were always the Liberal Democrats nodding their agreement, to give it a gloss of consensus.

Cameron’s reasoning seemed to be that the public sector had to be cut back. Never mind the fact that this will put hundreds of thousands out of work and deprive ordinary folk of services on which they rely. The private sector will grow accordingly. According to the PM, it’s been the size and strength of the public sector that has caused the private sector to stagnate.

Anyone who’s prepared to give this notion any thought at all will surely realise what nonsense it is. For a start, our industrial sector has been in decline for decades – aided and abetted by the creation of a finance-based economy by Margaret Thatcher, and adopted with enthusiasm by both Blair and Brown. Money makes the world go round, according to the song – but when the money dries up, what then? We’re all left stranded in a desert of debt.

Britain’s industrial sector went in to decline because it lacked investment – or, in some cases, because it lacked the will to survive. The banks became unwilling to give money to industry, preferring instead to plunge into the mortgage and personal loans market. Before the crash came, the fat cats in the City were making millions – much of it in undeserved bonuses.

You’d think that after being bailed out by the Government, UK banks would be somewhat chastened. That they would want to make amends. But no. According to a recent documentary on TV, presented by Will Hutton, they haven’t learned their lesson at all. The big boys in the City can hardly wait to return to the bad old days of easy money. The bonus culture hasn’t gone away – it’s either been put on hold, or disguised through awarding top bankers enormous increases in their salaries (bonuses by the back door). “Derivatives” (in which banks virtually gamble with their customers’ money) still make up a large part of their business – but when it comes to industry or legitimate business concerns, they find it difficult to get loans from the banks.

Returning to Cameron’s thesis, it seems unlikely that the private sector is in a position to take up the slack – unless of course we auction off even more of the public sector to foreign investors.

So, whilst the fat cats stay fat, savage cuts in public spending will affect may future pensioners, and those who survive on benefits and/or tax credits. Across the board, some 20 per cent could be knocked off public spending.

In his budget, Osborne expects to knock £2 billion off benefits next year, rising to £8 billion by 2013. Public assets will be sold off – those that are left to sell, that is – and to top it all, prices will rise with the increase in VAT.

Not only that, but we need to take into account the threat to local services, as cash-strapped local authorities are forced to make savings through cuts in their services. In many cases, it will be a case of “when it’s gone, it’s gone”. When a library is closed down, or a facility for old folk, it is unlikely ever to be replaced or re-opened. Once upon a time, local authorities were proud of the range and quality of the services they were able to offer – but no more. For decades now, we’ve been sliding inexorably towards a state of public squalor.

One point needs to be made loud and clear. The cuts planned by the Government are NOT necessary. They are ideological. The Tories have chosen to single out the public sector as the villain of the piece because it suits their Thatcherite instincts.

It was the banks who caused the crisis – and they’re getting away with a slap on the wrist. But it will be ordinary people who will pay.

WHERE CUTS COULD FALL:

There are many areas where cuts in public spending could be made, to reduce our deficit, without sacrificing public services. For a start, we could abandon costly plans to replace our Trident missile system. Not only is Trident unnecessary, but it’s also provocative.

Then there are the plans to build new nuclear power stations, which over a period of time will cost billions. There’s also our costly involvement in the Afghan conflict.

No doubt readers would be able to extend the list.

FIGHTING BACK:

Inevitably, public sector unions will be in the forefront of the campaign against the cuts. They are already in the front line. But we’re all in this together. We must not leave the unions isolated.

There is a need for a united front against the cuts. Those who are members of the Labour Party should mobilise support for any campaign within the party, and we should all work towards building a wider, popular movement against these cuts. A number of public bodies including charities could be persuaded to voice their concern. So far the public seems to have sleep walked into acceptance of these cuts. We must persuade them otherwise, whilst we still have a public sector worth fighting for.

Environmental Disaster Unfolding

In R.Richardson, Reviews on August 10, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil & the future of a continent by Andrew Nikiforuk

Non-fiction/politics. Review by Ruth Richardson

A year ago the Clarion drew attention to the environmental disaster that is unfolding through the exploitation of the tar sands of northern Alberta. These sands are the Earth’s last great remaining oil field. Because the oil is in the form of bitumen its extraction is far more environmentally damaging than conventional drilling. But Alberta has become the richest of the Canadian provinces, and, it seems, profit outweighs all other considerations.

Now a passionate and forcefully argued book, Tar Sands by Andrew Nikiforuk has been published which reveals the scale of the enterprise.

Nikiforuk’s book begins with a “Declaration of a political emergency” – twenty two points that lead to the conclusion that our dependence on fossil fuel must be transformed. The chapters that follow cover the environmental, social and political effects of the tar sands development.

The scale of the operation is huge. Virtually every major oil company has a stake in it and investment now totals about $200 billion. The zone now being exploited is 54,000 square miles, a quarter of the land mass of Alberta. Many countries have an interest in the operation, but 60 per cent of the cash comes from south of the Canadian border. The US, of course, is keen to exploit a source of oil close to home and to minimise their dependence on the Middle East.

“HELLISH”:
Nikiforuk paints a chilling picture of the landscape of the tar sands operation – “more hellish than an Appalachian coal field.” Thousands of trees are felled, acres of soil removed and wetlands drained. The impact on wild life can be imagined.

This is just the start of the environmental cost. Huge amounts of water are needed to wash the dirty sands, and this is taken from the Athabasca River, resulting in widespread pollution. In fact the whole Mackenzie River basin, which protects and produces one fifth of Canada’s fresh water, is affected. Nikiforuk reckons that the Alberta Government has failed completely to deal with the water issue. A monitoring programme, RAMP, was set up by the industry and government in 1997. It receives funding from no less than ten oil companies, so not surprisingly the reports it produces suggest no cause for concern. Independent experts who reviewed RAMP’s work had serious concerns about the quality of its monitoring.

TOXIC DUMPS:
Another result of the oil extraction is the construction of huge toxic ponds along the Athabasca River. They are made from earth stripped from the top of open-pit mines and rise 270 feet above the forest floor. Of a size which can be seen by astronauts in space, they now hold four decades worth of contaminated water, sand and bitumen. These tar ponds cover 23 square miles of forest, and are responsible for the deaths of thousands of ducks, geese and other water birds as well as moose, deer and beaver. And they leak!

Fort McMurray was a mining community of 25,000 in the 1970s. It sits at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers, just south of the main tar sands. The town used to be surrounded by forest but tar sand leases will soon surround its neighbourhoods. Its population is now swelled by temporary workers from China, Mexico and Croatia. Half the general workforce hails from Newfoundland and the maritime provinces, the poorest parts of Canada.

SOCIAL WRECKAGE:
Fort McMurray’s infrastructure – medical care, education, social services – struggles to cope with this huge influx. On a more mundane level, it takes 40 minutes to get a cut of coffee in Tim Horton’s and queues at banks on pay day can be sixty people long. The term “Gillette Syndrome” has been coined to describe the social wreckage caused by this sort of boom development.

It leaves a legacy of disaffection, drunkenness, divorce and social breakdown. Nikiforuk quotes at length one resident of Calgary who has watched the “human eco-system wastage” escalate year by year. “Each day,” he says, “on my way to work I pass another homeless man ruined by crack cocaine or bad bitumen luck… Avarice fills the Calgary air and most people run like hamsters on a treadmill.”

In case this books generates a despondent air, Nikiforuk’s final chapter lists “twelve steps to Energy Sanity”, to get us headed in the right direction. The first is to recognise that cheap oil is a relic of the past. Nikiforuk leads us through economic and political reforms that would regulate and slow down oil extraction. An important step is to re-localise food production. Taxpayers’ money should be directed towards funding new railways, and instead of building more highways, money should be spent on planning walkable communities.

In short we should use what oil remains sparingly, all the while working towards the development of renewable energy sourcs.

Nikiforuk’s final point is that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) should be re-negotiated. Canada should not be beholden to the demands of its greedy neighbour to the south.

Tar Sands is a hard-hitting and readable book, with plenty of mind-blowing statistics. All who are concerned about our oil-dependent society should read it. This megaproject which is growing year by year has not received the publicity it should in the wider world.

IBSN 978-1-55365-407-0 – published in Canada by Greystone Books in association with the David Suzuki Foundation

An alternative view from 1978

In A.Graham, Reviews on August 10, 2010 at 3:31 pm

‘The Right to Useful Work’ edited by Ken Coates

Non-fiction/politics. Review by A. Graham

A slightly different view of our society is contained in the book, “The Right to useful Work“, which was originally produced for the Institute for Workers’ Control in 1978, and which has now been reprinted by Spokesman Books (price £12). In a series of articles, it brings together a range of factors that are vital to any community – employment, the environment and the welfare of the people who live in it. Whilst some pieces may have dated a bit, as a whole it shows up how many of the issues highlighted are still relevant today, almost three decades after it first appeared.

Since the late 1970s, de-industrialisation has transformed many areas of Britain. There has been a concentration of economic power, and the creation of what we like to call “the global economy”. And, as Ken Coates writes in the first chapter, industrial concentration has produced a remarkable growth in productivity. Today, “the market” rules.

“Yet the same market which stimulates unprecedented efficiency in the manufacture of some commodities, totally ignores large and growing areas of human need,” writes Ken Coates.

“Several hundred pressure groups will testify to this: from the all-too-feeble lobby for adequate provision of speech therapy, to the network of organisations to help and teach mentally and physically handicapped people, to the numberless local groups which seek to assist the old, or the deprived, or the poor. All these bodies are a permanent reproach to the hidden hand which regulates the market: this hand is not only invisible, it is unfeeling, they all insist. To seek redress for the wrongs they suffer, or have seen to be suffered, such groups are compelled to join together to levitate themselves, too often by their own bootstraps, over the blind cruelties of their economic inheritance.

“That the ill-housed or homeless could benefit if tens of thousands of workless builders might only pick up their tools again, is plainly evident. Teachers join dole-queues while children still crowd into classes which are far too big for the methods of modern pedagogy. Legions of school-leavers are innoculated with the butalising serum of pointlessly imposed idleness, while want and waste still face each other out in all our cities. … the late capitalist market is a near-total failure when we confront the overall problem of matching needs to resources.”

THE RIGHT TO WORK:
It’s natural that employment, and the right to full employment, is at the core of this book, but it’s placed within the wider context of the community. As Ken Coates suggests, the unemployed themselves are isolated and cannot take effective action in defence of jobs that no longer exist. The 1970s was the decade that gave us such imaginative plans as the study by Lucas Aerospace workers, for alternative fields of employment. At the time it caught the imagination of the left. It came about when Lucas shop stewards lobbied Industry Minister, Tony Benn. He asked them to work out alternative proposals – which they did. But by that time Tony Benn had been replaced by Eric Varley who was less than sympathetic.

Yet who today can remember the Lucas shop stewards’ report? Or other work, by trade unionists in defence of jobs or the growing environmentalist movement? The year after this book was first published, Thatcher came to power. In 1985, the miners were crushed – and as they say, the rest is history.

Published by Spokesman Books.

‘Not Buying It’? DON’T BUY IT!

In C.Spiby, Reviews on August 10, 2010 at 3:24 pm

‘Not Buying It: My Year Without shopping’ by Judith Levine

Non-fiction/journals/consumerism/politics. Review by Carl Spiby

There is some rich, if rather bitter irony in buying a copy of Not Buying It. Especially since, having read it, I wished I hadn’t bought it at all.

As a concept Judith Levine’s year-long sabbatical from consumerism is admirable. In reality her book, essentially a journal with meandering thoughts and reference to philosophers, economists, social commentators and politicians, is frustrating and perplexing.

For one, as a British reader, I find it has too many Americanisms. Whereas with fellow Stateside author Michael Moore a little research will uncover just who or what he is talking about, Ms. Levine’s assumes we are all at one with the everyday of American consumer life, inadvertently demonstrating a certain lack of global vision which I for one find presumptuous and, frankly, rather rude. In fact I might even suggest it is nothing less than typically American.

For example, if you do not know what SmartWool is or what Q-Tips are then you will be as flummoxed as I was at the author’s almost insatiable desire for them. Were we to assume that the publication was not intended for overseas ‘consumption’ (ahem), we might forgive her these annoying Americanisms. We might even speed-read over the sections where they occur, but, at the expense of the narrative and salient points, they return throughout the book.

Imagining this had not been the case I would still have to walk away frustrated: this could have been so much more.

Not Buying It might have done for consumerism what Naomi Klein’s No Logo did for labels or what the movie Supersize Me did for burgers. What a shame. If only Ms. Levine could’ve kept up thought-provoking phrases like ‘What’s left of the counterculture is the counter’ and concentrated on bringing together the greatest minds into a lucid and inspiring text.

What we get instead is a middle-class, arty-type with two homes who worries about movies more than world poverty and sweatshops. Not that the latter is not covered in Not Buying It‘s 257 pages, but one feels that this is done so almost in passing and without much depth of feeling. Indeed, you can help but wonder how sincere the entire premise is here: to live for a year, simply, buying nothing but the barest necessities. What the author presents as necessities turns out to be pretty lightweight stuff and actually highlights the problems of the modern predicament more than one suspects was intended. It is not entirely flattering. If society itself were to react like this to Schumacher’s vision of living simply and small is beautiful, then we, the left and Clarion readers are all dreamers. Perhaps we are.

The latest way to describe rampant consumerism, ‘affluenza’, isn’t even mentioned in direct terms but kind of is if only in passing, and that’s despite a major US documentary series and a significant new book on the subject (reviewed in the last issue of THE CLARION, no less). Even a preface or postscript would’ve done on the topic would make the work seem a little more up to date, perhaps a little more relevant rather than pedestrian.

Not Buying It really only has about an essay’s-worth of quotations and research that would have made a handy pocket book, but no more. As far as rejection of consumerism goes; I suggest we revisit No Logo or Monbiot’s Captive State – the corporate takeover of Britain. They are now aging, but still have so much more to say than Levine’s work.

Lightweight guilt-cash-ins like Not Buying It make activists like comedian Mark Thomas look like Che Guevara and Judith Levine like some middle class Liberal Democrat who has switched to fair trade coffee thinking that they’ve saved the world. Ethically and morally, the best this book can do is make money for Oxfam because that’s exactly where my copy’s heading!

PS. since finishing the book I have discovered that Q-Tips turn out to be cotton buds. How very trivial! Forget jobs & welfare for all – Q-Tips is what we demand!

Published by Pocket Books, 2007.

More Time For Politics!

In R.Richardson, Reviews on August 10, 2010 at 3:16 pm

‘More Time For Politics: the Benn Diaries 2001 – 2007’ by Tony Benn

Non-fiction/politics/journal/autobiographical. Review by Ruth Richardson

Another volume of Tony Benn‘s diaries – his eighth – was published just before Christmas. Again it is a blend of the political and the personal, a hugely readable account of the six years since he left Parliament.

The diaries provide ample evidence of the title of this book. When he gave up being an MP, his wife Caroline said that he would “have more time for politics”. In the last six years his schedule of meetings, broadcasts, travelling and writing would have exhausted a man half his age. On the eve of his eightieth birthday, he writes: “From the time I left Parliament… I’ve made 555 speeches in around 130 towns. Did 1,089 broadcasts… and wrote 190 newspaper articles and three books. So it’s not a bad record, but I’m now getting to the point where I just want to quieten down a bit.” But he shows no signs of doing so. The following year he writes, “I’ve got 24 meetings this month. I must be absolutely out of my mind.”

WAR IN IRAQ:

The event which dominated these years was, of course, the Iraq war. Those of us who attended the huge demonstration in Hyde Park in February 2003 will remember the eloquence and passion with which Tony Benn spoke. Two weeks before that he had flown to Baghdad to interview Saddam Hussein, a visit that Tony Benn had been trying to arrange since before Christmas. The interview is printed in full and makes interesting reading.

Tony Benn wrote “A lot of people will be… disgusted that I was friendly to him, but for God’s sake it was to stop a war!” He writes of the chaos and looting in Baghdad and predicted that there would be huge problems in post-war Iraq, a prediction that we now know to be only too true.

ERODING CIVIL LIBERTIES:

Tony Benn’s disillusionment with New Labour, already evident in his 1991-2001 diaries, is even more pronounced. He writes of Labour Party conferences where the role of delegates is “just to look up and admire the satellite”. Blair, he writes, is an absolute control freak, and Gordon Brown has little time for trade unions or Socialism. Tony Benn is greatly concerned about New Labour’s erosion of civil liberties, as evidenced by the attempts to introduce ID cards and the Anti-Terrorism Act. “Bush’s war is being used to take away our civil liberties,” he writes.

He is, however, aware of the effect his outspokenness may have on his son Hilary’s political career. He is immensely proud of Hilary and likens their relationship to that of himself and his own father.

FAMILY BONDS:

The love and support of his family is extremely important to Tony Benn. In between the meetings, the speeches and the journeys are accounts of happy family gatherings and holidays. Often they remembered Caroline, who died in 2000. On the first anniversary of her death they held a little family gathering of remembrance, and on the fifth anniversary he writes, “there’s not a day, not an hour, goes by when I don’t think of her.” Benn’s daughter, Melissa, and his grandchildren are frequently mentioned with pride and affection.

ENCOUNTERS:

As in the previous diaries, there are a number of quirky encounters with people on trains, taxi drivers, his builder, and the nuns who live next door. Apparently Tony Benn got to know them when he was sweeping his front steps one Christmas morning. He writes, too, about tackling the laundry and the shopping with “my big shopping trolley”, and I liked his account of managing to sew a button on his trousers and of how proud he felt!

Tony Benn is wary of being “a bit of an old hat”. It is heart warming to read “I’ve got to develop new thoughts, have a dream, but be realistic, try and understand the world and encourage people.”

I think that that is what Tony Benn has always done. May he long continue to do so.

{Tony Benn is an honourary Clarion subscriber}