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

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Human Chain

Land of the Dark Elves 

It is twilight, and I am swimming in cool waters. Never mind that an air force of mosquitoes is attacking any exposed flesh, I am in heaven. This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I am in a beautiful lake surrounded by tall pines silhouetted against the evening sky. The trees, the soil, the rolling countryside could be Norfolk, if Norfolk had lakes, and more trees.

But this isn't England. It is Deulowitzer See in Lusatia, a region of Germany near the Polish border; the east of the old East Germany, a place that for the whole of my childhood was invisible behind the Iron Curtain.

I am here with Greenpeace UK, part of an international camp that is hidden under the trees. We are here to help our colleagues in Greenpeace Germany because the lake, the nearby village of Kerkwitz, and the neighbouring villages of Atterwash and Grabko are all under threat from the Swedish energy company Vattenfall.
Heaven or Hell?

There is apparently a local saying "God made Lusatia, but the Devil put coal under the ground". Many environmentalists agree that what lies below the lake is indeed the work of Satan for the seam that lies below the lake is lignite, or brown coal, Europe's dirtiest fossil fuel.

During Communism its fumes made the East resemble Mordor. Burnt in power stations and made into ersatz petrol to power Trabants, it polluted the air and water and choked the lungs. Cancer, bronchitis, heart and respiratory conditions were the consequences for the local comrades. Acid rain and greenhouse gases were the consequences for the environment.

Marxist/Leninism may have gone, but the lignite remains in Germany, as it does in Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo and Greece, a dirty fuel from a different era.

The brown coal is bad

Lusatia and its lakes survived Communism, but they may not survive Capitalism. I'd seen what might be in store for the lake earlier in the day.

Photo: Hanno Bock Wikimedia Commons
Jänschwalde mine is an open cast pit the size of a city tended by machines size of skyscrapers. Giant bucket wheel excavators clear away the overburden to reveal the lignite lying a few metres below. 'Overburden' is a mining term. To the rest of us this means topsoil, trees, villages, and lakes.

The scale of Jänschwalde is hard to comprehend. From the coach the mine first appears as a wall of earth covering the entire horizon. Looking into the mine you see nothing of human scale.

To turn Deulowitzer Lake into this seems a crime against both God and Nature.

Decarbonising Europe

Ironicly the problem has partly come about because of the success of the German Greens. The country was home to an arsenal of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and dusted with fallout from Chernobyl in 1986. Anti-nuclear groups in Germany were popular and well organised and so when Fukushima went bang the country decided to phase out its nukes.

Although a world leader in renewable power, the German economy is as power hungry as any in the world and so the politicians looked to lignite to fill the gap. But turning to the brown coal threatens to blow the European Unions targets for tackling Climate Change out of the water. Lignite produces at least twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as gas, and nearly twenty times as much as wind power. The new mines would lock Germany into lignite use until 2050, meaning we can kiss goodbye to keeping Global Warming to two degrees by 2100.

Despite the support of local politicians, and despite a Greenpeace organised referendum in 2009 in which the population of Brandenburg rejected lignite, in April this year the state government approved the plans to expand Jänschwalde. Meanwhile, just across the river that marks the Polish border state owned energy company PGE also wants to start mining for the brown coal.

So the battle is on to save both the lakes and the climate. For Pastor Matthias Berndt of Atterwasch this is a spiritual war "We're not just fighting to save our property here in these three villages, we're fighting against the destruction of nature and for the preservation of God's creation."

The Human Chain

But the pastor and his flock are not the only people worried about dirty fuels.

Having failed to kill coal with their referendum, Greenpeace Germany organised the Menschenkette, or Human Chain. The plan was to get enough people to come together to make a line 8 kilometres long from Kerkwitz in Germany to Grabice in Poland spanning the width of the proposed mines.

Greenpeace groups from across Northern Europe are taking part, and so on the Thursday before the August Bank Holiday I was with 63 other people from Greenpeace UK on a coach.

We travelled through the night along the autobahns passing massive coal fired power stations, but also gigantic wind farms; onshore turbines the size of the largest offshore arrays in the UK.

Last time I passed through this area was more than twenty years ago. Then everyone drove Ladas and Warburgs and there were still Russian soldiers about. Now it is all BMWs and Mercedes and in the high-tech motorway services the toilet seats revolved.

Deposited in the woods by the lake, we pitched our tents next to French, Norwegians, Czechs, Belgians, Dutch and Germans from the west of the country. Our own party, being typically Greenpeace, included at least four other nationalities in addition to British. (Never confuse real Greens with Little Englanders; we are an internationalist bunch.) We were knocked out by the beauty of the forest, the quality of the beer and the warmth of the reception. Slightly less so by the lentil, admittedly, but you can't knock free food.

Standing in line with seven and a half thousand other people is a bit like being one yeast cell in barrel of beer; you know something great is happening, but it's kind of hard to tell what. This video clip gives some idea of the scale of the protest. I appear at 8 minutes and 42 seconds, which puts me more-or-less in the middle of the chain.

Without a doubt this is the biggest environmental demonstration I've every been on, five or six times bigger than our Manchester fracking rally. It is also one of the friendliest. A couple of die Bullen - as we're apparently supposed to call the police - are seen leaning on their squad cars smoking cigarettes, but basically we don't need anyone to tell us what to do.

Once we're unchained we head across the border into Poland for a gig headlined by our own Asian Dub Foundation. However we didn't drive for twenty hours from Islington in order a see a band from Hackney, so I don't see the set out and instead head back to Werkwitz.

Most people are chilling in the Climate Camp and the rest of the UK contingent are drinking the bar dry, but I head into the village to the meet the locals.

In the Biergarten of the local pub I meet a man who speaks fluent drunk, the parents of the German member of our party and a folk singer who seems to want to sing me a love song. The live musician struggles to play some English songs on his synthesiser and everyone is pleased to see us. Having spent most of the last decade wondering if their homes are going to disappear into a giant hole it's not surprising.

Tonight, at least, they seem hopeful for the future.

Old problems

It's been said before that environmentalist have been fairly successful in tackling the bad new things of the late twentieth century such as nuclear power, DDT, GM food and - in Germany at least - fracking. However we've been completely useless at stopping the bad old things of the early twentieth century such as cars, planes and most of all coal.

Hopefully The Human Chain has done something to redress the balance. Brown coal is bad no matter which way you look at it.

However although I came to Germany to save the climate, that's not why I want to stop the mine now. The truth is I am now in love with Deulowitzer See.

I've camped in some beautiful places in my life only to see them destroyed - the woods near Newbury and the Bollin Valley near Manchester Airport come to mind. This must not happen here.

For the sake of the climate, of the health of the people of Lausitz, but most of all for beauty's sake, let's unite against coal, the future is renewables.

Photo: Gordon Welters/Greenpeace

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Great Trees of Wales #2: Nevern's Bleeding Yew

Does a bleeding yew tree mark the grave on an ancient High King in a small Welsh churchyard?

Bleeding yew trees are actually common enough to be a readers problem on Gardner's World, but this one is the famous Bleeding Yew. It's a pity then that there isn't a better story about why blood red sap seeps from this 700 year old tree at certain times of the year, but maybe I can do something about that.

The main story is that a monk was hanged here for a crime he didn't commit, but there are also versions where it is empathy for Jesus or that it is waiting for an independent Wales or world peace, or something.

However the yew though is just the hook to lure you into the churchyard of this fascinating little hamlet.

Nevern is in an interesting part of the world. A few miles away is Castell Henllys, a reconstruction Iron Age village on the site of a genuine Iron Age village. The discovery of the post holes of the original huts in 1980 saved the place from becoming an Asterix theme park, and instead there are authentic Celtic roundhouses here, a reminder of a time when there were no Welsh or English, just Britons.

Also nearby is Pendre Ifan, possibly the finest dolmen in Wales.

The Church of St Brynach though is in its own way just as fascinating.

First of all there's St Brynach himself, who according to his chronicler was a bit of a lad until he converted to Christianity and cleaned up his act. At least one woman was apparently unimpressed with his new found chastity and attacked him with a spear when he wouldn't do the business with her.

The current church is a Norman one built on the site of St Brynach's original "clas". Apparently this was his third attempt at church building. The first failed when he was chased away by demons and the second when the locals stole his wood. (You know, I'm starting to think this chronicler was taking the piss.....).

What does remain though are some very curious stones. One is now the outside sill of a window and is inscribed with the seemingly random letters. Another is inside and has a rather stylised cross on it, but the most interesting has some curious upside down Ogham writign on it. It just says 'Maglocunos son of Clutarius' (was here?), but because it says it in Latin as well it helped scholars to decipher this ancient script.

Outside is a wonderful 10th century Celtic high cross, but the highlight of the churchyard is the
enigmatic Vitalianus Stone. This dates from about 500AD and is also inscribed in Ogham and Latin. Possibly this was here even before Brynach.

Now 500AD is right in the middle of the Age of Arthur. This is the year usually given for the Battle of Badon Hill, which is mentioned enough times in different sources to probably be a real defeat for the Anglo-Saxons, although it's far from clear if anyone called Arthur was ever involved in it.

Now Vitalani could just be some otherwise anonymous Roman who just happens to be buried in what subsequently became the home of a Celtic Saint, but he could also be someone much more interesting. The Latin inscription actually says "Vitalani Emerato" which is cod Latin, the second word should probably be Emeritus, meaning "of merit". This may be a spelling mistake, or it could be a local Celtic dialect.

But if the second word is wrong, what if the first word is too? Vitalani or Vitalinus is not a common Latin name. However the chronicler Nennius, who cobbled together a work called Historia Brittonum in the ninth century does have someone whose father and grandfather both have that name. After the brief mention of Arthur in the poem Y Goddodin, Nennius is our oldest primary source for the legendary chap, although Nennius actually calls him dux bellorum meaning Great Leader, not king. It is from Nennius that we get the famous list of Arthur's twelve battles.

Nennius also gives us the tale of Vortigern, who invited the Saxons over as mercenaries only to have them betray him. The story most people know about Vortigern is how his castle kept falling down until Merlin told him about the two dragons under the foundations. Merlin was added to this story in the twelfth century by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and in Nennius the boy who narrowly avoids becoming part of the castle is Ambosius Aurelianus, who is well attested enough to probably be real as well.

Meeting of Vortigern and Rowena by William Hamilton
What interesting though is that Nennius tells us
Vortigern's dad and granddad were both called Vitalinus. Now in Old Welsh Vortigern actually means Great King, so it could be a title rather than a name. In which case, what was he actually called? Well, the obvious answer is Vitalinus, the family name.

In which case do we have an ancient High King of Britain buried here?

We can't be sure, but both the Historia Brittonum and the Black Book of Carmarthen have Vortigern fleeing into the west from the victorious Saxons. With a church dedicated to a barely believable Celtic Saint along with some Ogham and bad Latin this is certainly the sort of place you'd expect to find someone like him.

Rutger Hauer as Vortigern in Merlin (1998)
So maybe what the yew is bleeding for is the last superbus tyrannus, the Romano-British ruler of old Roman Province of Britannia, who tried to hold together a Latin speaking Celtic kingdom to the very end, and who, before he died, saw his kingdom fracture into feuding tribal groups. Perhaps it bleeds because the process of putting it back together again is not yet complete? 

More on the possible Vortigern/Vitaninus link.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Five Questions On The Policing Of Barton Moss Protests

Igas have left Barton Moss and we don't know if they will be back. Another test drill is planned at nearby Davyhulme, but work hasn't started yet.

So whilst it is a bit of a phoney war situation for the moment in Manchester, many questions still remain about the policing of the protests over the winter. Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd commissioned an Independent Panel to investigate Greater Manchester Police's operations, but whilst the report is apparently finished it has yet to see the light of day.

There are many questions that need answering. Why was it so violent, why were so many Protectors injured and why does GMP see noting wrong with one its officers arresting a man for drink driving whilst sober and on foot?

But five key points that we would like answers to are these.  

Did the police have arrest quotas?

The police started making arrests almost as soon as the 'slow walks' down Barton Moss Lane in front of the Igas convoys started. It appeared to be pretty random who was actually nicked, but it didn't take long for the Protectors to figure out that the number of people arrested was working out a a regular five a day. Officers were even overheard discussing that they needed "one more" or "two more" or however many it was. Usually these arrests occurred just after the ritual changeover from the black trousered ordinary plod to the blue trousered Tactical Assistance Unit half way down the lane.

As an arrest meant bail conditions being set which usually prevented a return to the Moss, with the prospect of remand if breached, the result was that soon most of the Protection Camp were in some sort of legal jeopardy. In the end the courts were very lenient with bail, with Protectors often released on open bail, even if arrested for breach of bail, but had they not been the tactic could have emptied the camp within a month.

Jibes to the police about whether they were getting their Five A Day though hid a rather worrying reality; that the police turned up every day to a peaceful protest with the intention of arresting five people regardless of whether or not there was a crime being committed. 

Did the police know Barton Moss Lane was a private road?

Whilst the police could arrest the Protectors without too much trouble - these were always peaceful people - prosecuting them proved rather more difficult.

Some people were arrested for Obstructing the Police, a crime for which conviction could depend on your exact choice of words when they collared you, but for the first twelve weeks of the campaign the usual charge was Obstruction of the Public Highway. This was a useful charge to hang on a bunch of impoverished eco-warriors as you can't claim Legal Aid for your defence. Fortunately Simon Pook of Robert Lizar solicitors was willing to represent them on a pro-bono basis.

With a solicitor on hand though, that defence was rather easy. When you stood at the top of Barton Moss Lane one sign clearly said that it was a Private Road and, until it was loaded into a police van and taken away, another said it was a Public Footpath. How you can be arrested for obstructing a Public Highway on a Private Road was a question that was asked of the Police Liaison Officers every day. Their usual answer was that it was public if the public had access to it. This information was sometimes handed out on a piece of A4 onto which the FLOs had obviously typed up themselves.

The hard working Mr Pook said in open court fairly early on in the campaign that this claim was, in legal terms, bollocks and this was not challenged. Nevertheless the police continued to arrest people for obstructing the non-existent highway.

When GMP's flush was eventually busted by Judge Khalid Qureshi in Manchester Magistrates Court in February the police went away for a few days to think about things before returning to arrest the protectors on the charge of Aggravated Trespass. This is an equally bogus charge as you can't trespass on a Public Footpath, and it can't be used if the work being disrupted in not 'lawful' - which Igas's drilling may not have been - but at least you can claim Legal Aid to defend yourself.

Did the police ignore this warning about the legality of the arrests because they already knew Barton Moss Lane was not a Public Highway? Was it the case that Protectors were being arrested on a charge the police knew would not stand up in court in the hope they would not be able to defend themselves?

Was covert intelligence shared with Igas? 

The regular chant as the Protectors were pushed down Barton Moss Lane every day was "GMP - Igas private army". How true was this?

The police obviously co-ordinated their operation with Igas. This was only to be expected. Similarly the the police would have been keeping a close eye on the Protectors. This too was only to be expected. However it remains a question to what extent the police shared their intelligence with Igas.

A report on the Balcombe protests released by Sussex police failed to completely black out some interesting lines.

"Once the operation moved into August it was apparent that an appropriate range of intelligence sources were being harnessed, including where appropriate European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) compliant covert means."

'Covert means' could include phone taps, bugging devices and undercover officers infiltrating the Protectors. Following the revelations that undercover officer Mark Kennedy infiltrated direct actions protest groups for years, and had a long term relationship with an activist, this news was not a surprise.  The report also states though that this intelligence was shared with Cuadrilla Resources, the company drilling in Balcombe.

The question for Greater Manchester police then is not did they spy on the Protectors - we know they did and also know they won't admit it - but was the product of covert intelligence gathering shared with a private company?

Did the police wage a propaganda war against the Protectors?

Throughout the protest Greater Manchester Police regularly complained that they were stuck in the middle of a dispute they wanted no part of. Their protests of neutrality though sound very hollow when compared to their actions, and their other public statements.

GMP put out a series of Press Releases during the campaign with a common theme of a "hard core of trouble makers" and "locals intimidated by protesters".  The BBC filmed an interview with a woman, her identity not being revealed, who apparently backed up these claims.

This was posted on Facebook on 23 January 2014 and is typical.

Chief Superintendent Mark Roberts said, “At the start of this protest the majority of protesters were peaceful and law abiding but over the past couple of weeks local residents and officers have seen a distinct change to this. It now seems that the majority of people who are arriving at the site are not there to protest against fracking but are there to disrupt and intimidate the local community and to antagonise police. We have seen offences of assaults, damage, harassment of residents and workers, a flare fired at the police helicopter and threats to kill.
“I attended a residents’ meeting last week and people there were close to tears and have had enough of this daily disruption to their lives. Locals, who initially supported the protesters, out walking their dogs and driving down Barton Moss Road have been approached by protesters in balaclavas and have been questioned by them which has been extremely intimidating. We have seen a huge increase in the calls to police from that area and this is continuing.
“Officers are verbally abused on a daily basis, one has even been spat at and another officer required stitches to his hand after trying to get a protester down from a fence. The police are there to do a job and that job is to facilitate peaceful protest and to balance the needs of all parties, the residents who live there, businesses who operate from there and the protesters themselves. It is not up to GMP who operates on this land and who has access to it – we are simply there to police it to ensure that everyone remains safe. We are increasingly seeing protesters trying to jump in front of HGVs or jump down from trees on top of moving lorries – it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured if they continue to act in a reckless manner.
“We are working very closely with many partner agencies to try and resolve this emerging threat and issue to try and reassure the local residents who feel intimidated in their own homes from people who have travelled from all parts of the country to set up camp in Barton Moss.

It can't be denied that when the convoys were blocked on Barton Moss Lane they often disrupted the traffic on the busy A57 or, despite the massive local support which kept the Protectors alive through the winter, there was a significant number of people who disliked the Protectors because of what they represented. An officer did cut his hand on a fence (whilst making an illegal arrest) and the police were regular accused (with some justification) of being fascists on a daily basis. But nothing else in this statement appears to be true.

Did the police actually believe the Protectors were threatening local people or trying to leap, Emily Davidson style, from trees into the path of lorries, or was this just propaganda, invented to attempt to discredit the anti-fracking cause?

Was the story of a flare being fired at a GMP helicopter invented?

Of the allegations made by Roberts, far and away the most serious was that the Protectors had tried to shoot down a GMP helicopter. The allegation, which first appeared on the GMP Facebook page, was that a police helicopter coming in to land at the nearby Manchester City Airport in the early hours of Saturday 5th January had a flare fired at it from the camp with the intention of bringing it down. This claim, which brought memories of the fatal crash of another police helicopter in Glasgow the previous November.

In the aftermath of the allegation the police descended on the camp in force to conduct a search of all the tents. The weather being typically inclement, this resulted in all the bedding in the camp being soaked by the Manchester rain. Local support, and a donation from ethical cosmetics company Lush, prevented anyone dying of hypothermia.

No evidence of anything sinister was found in the camp. Nor was there any trace of the flare on the airport's cameras, the helicopter's cameras (which were apparently turned off), the state-of-the-art cameras on the Igas site, the ones on the nearby Barton Moss Secure Children's Home nor the cameras on the M62 which, we subsequently found out in court, were able to monitor the movement of individual Protectors around the camp. No witnesses could be found in the nearby Irlam and Brookhouse Estates, no-one driving down the A57 saw anything and neither did anyone on the camp itself.

The only other evidence ever presented on the flare was a post on the activist website Indymedia. This is an unmoderated website on which anyone can post anything, under any name. A post credited to  'Rachel Thompson' appeared to confirm that someone in the camp had indeed fired something. The real Rachel Thompson denied posting this, and the language used - referring to 'protester' and 'the protest' rather than 'Protector' and 'the campaign' also suggested it wasn't her.

As things stand the only evidence that anything at all was fired into the air are the public statements of Greater Manchester Police. Even the officers who allegedly saw the flare have never been named and have never made any public or on-the-record statement. However this did not stop GMP mentioning the incident in almost every public statement they made about Barton Moss, such as the one by Mark Roberts above.

All of which raises the biggest question of all about the policing of Barton Moss; did the police invent the story of a potentially fatal attack on their own helicopter in order the discredit the campaign and justify repressive policing?

We are waiting for the answers.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Adam Smith would oppose TTIP

"As among the different provinces of a great empire the freedom of the inland trade appears, both from reason and experience, not only the best palliative of a dearth, but the most effectual preventative of a famine; so would the freedom of the exportation and importation trade be among the different states into which a great continent was divided."

Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations came out in 1776, the same year as the US Declaration of Independence, and is the book that tells us that unrestricted Free Trade makes us all richer.

Thanks to the saintly Adam Smith the world has been remade so that goods and money can flow freely round the world and there is no nearly no obstacle to getting, as Peter Mandelsen once put it, "filthy rich".

The next stage in this ongoing mission to unshackle the Invisible Hand is the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. But what would the real Adam Smith have made of what is today being done in his name?

The Real Adam Smith

Mind you there was a lot about Adam Smith that people like the Adam Smith Institute don't like to tell you.

For a start his other famous book is "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" which is basically about being nice to people. That was ultimately what floated his boat. That trade turned out to be a means of making people happy was a very pleasant revelation to him.

For another thing he was opposed to the free movement of capital. To him trade was people exchanging real things for each other.Simply taking your money and running was not, for him, what it was all about.

He didn't like governments much, and so in that respect he would get on with his current fans, but why he hated them is a more interesting point. Here is something he wrote:

Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”

So his beef is not that the government taxes the "wealth creators" to waste money in the "workshy", but that they support the 1% against the 99%. Smith here sounds more like Joseph Stiglitz than Milton Friedman. Perhaps the Occupy movement should adopt him?

But what Smith hated more than governments was corporations, who he saw as restraining free competition and lax in their standards.

"The directors of such [joint-stock] companies, however, being the managers rather of other people’s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected, that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private copartnery frequently watch over their own.... Negligence and profusion, therefore, must always prevail, more or less, in the management of the affairs of such a company."

He also didn't believe in trade secrets, and so it's hard to imagine him defending treaties on intellectual property rights.

In Adam Smith's world, small traders and family businesses traded together in free and essentially local markets. It is a view of society that a Proudhon style anarchist would understand better than a Davos Set economist.

12th July 2014 is Stop TTIP day, and it's hard not to believe that the spirit of Adam Smith will be there.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Could an Ecocide Law Actually Make Corporations Responsible?

It can sometimes seem to outsiders such as me, that when company board rooms discuss their responsibilities to society it must resemble the scene in The Godfather when the mafia boss, seeing that the family need to move with the times and start dealing drugs, decides to "keep it respectable" by not selling them outside schools or to their own people.

Not that Corporate Social Responsibility is useless. Almost by definition CSR is invisible when it works. It's difficult to Google the companies not linked to the Rana Plaza disaster, who are not implicated in paramilitary death squads or who are not in hand-to-hand conflict with either indigenous people or eco-warriors, but they do exist. Some of those just haven't been caught yet, but others may actually be doing good work.

Looking at the performance of CSR in general though it appears to me that there are more successes in the field of human rights than the environment. Why that should be is an interesting question.

When CSR works, and when it doesn't.

CSR claims to be a profession. However although it has some unique quirks, such as an impenetrable vocabulary and dizzying number of awards, it is not self regulating.  To work in CSR is to work for a corporation and to obey the corporate rules of  "buy low, sell high, keep your job".

CSR folk have to justify their every move, and even their daily existence, in terms of  profit it, which sounds a fairly soul-destroying way to earn a living.

That's why the unfortunate truth seems to be that no matter how much a corporation wants to 'be good', CSR only appears to work when the pull from inside is matched by a push from the outside.

When the alternative is the locals sabotaging your pipelines or occupying your plants, spreading a bit of peace and love amongst the natives before you build your oil refinery makes a bit of sense. When Greenpeace give you the sort of publicity you can do without by occupying the oil platform you're about to dump into the sea, you understand the wisdom of doing the environmental impact assessment first.

So why does the Human Rights 'push' work better than the environment one?

Possibly it's that the Amnesty Internationals of the world are much better at providing it than the Greenpeaces. Maybe, but having done work for both I'm not convinced.

Maybe child labour tugs at the heart strings of C-team execs better than oiled seabirds, although I doubt personal guilt has much to do with it.

What is a big factor, I'm sure, is the sheer scale of the change needed to become environmentally sustainable.

An oil company that wants to be a good neighbour just needs to spend a bit of more of its cash on community engagement, and bit less on death squads. What comes out of the ground afterwards is still oil. An oil company that wants to be green needs to go out of business and leave the stuff in the earth.

However I suspect the other big factor is that the Human Rights folk have the law on their side.

Corporations and Human Rights

Superficially it may seem rather odd that, nearly seventy years after it was agreed the we have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whether it applies to corporations is even up for discussion.

The live issue though is not whether or not corporations should be allowed to kill people - most people agree they shouldn't - but how guilty you are if they only pay for the bullets, supply the Jeep that takes the assassin to the scene of the crime, know about the hit beforehand but don't act or merely make a tidy profit out of the victims demise. These distinctions may seem tricky to lay folk, but they are meat and drink to Human Rights lawyers.

The responsibility of politicians and the military in crimes against humanity was established at
Nuremberg after World War Two. Unfortunately the next round of trials, which put the leaders of German industry on trial for their complicity in genocide and use of slave labour, was affected by the Cold War. Alfred Krupp, whose company had used 100,000 slaves during the war was found guilty, but within three years he had been released from prison and was back in charge of the company. Other business leaders escaped prosecution completely.

As a result it was far from clear whether "we were only making a profit" really was as useful a defence as "we were only obeying orders" and it has taken a lot of time and effort to get to the present situation where we have a set of volunary principles.

Still, that's better than nothing.

International Companies, National Laws

But even where there is a real law, prosecuting multinational companies using national laws is as tricky business.

Global brands can suddenly turn out to be very local when the chips are down. When Union Carbide's Bhopal plant blew up and killed 14,000 people, and when Coca Cola's Columbia plant called in a right wing terrorist group to bump off a couple of troublesome unions guys, it suddenly turned out these were independent local operators and not part of the parent company.

Similarly, just like the Moonshine runners fleeing to the county line, Capital can escape across international borders where the law cannot follow. In Ecuador, the 'Chernobyl' of oil disasters, US oil company Texaco, now part of Chevron, used the country as its dustbin for twenty years. Rather than spend money cleaning up spilled oil, Texaco would just send it by truck into the jungle to be dumped. The result was over a thousand toxic pits scattered across the country.

All that time the profits flowed back to the USA, but when Harvard trained lawyer Steven Donzinger took up the case against Chevron in Texas, the US appeals court told him they didn't have jurisdiction and he'd have to go to Ecudor.

This he did, and remarkably Chevron were finally brought to book and fined $27 billion, but by then they had no assets left in the country. When Donzinger went back to the US and Canadian courts to get Chevron to pay up he was once again told the courts didn't have jurisdiction. Donzinger must now be the only Ivy League lawyer in the world poor enough to claim Social Security.

Even when there are no international borders, and the company is as guilty as a puppy sat next to a pile of poo, things aren't straightforward.  Take the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which a US ship owned by a US company fouled up a pristine part of the US because the Captain was drunk. Exxon spent 14 years fighting the case and eventually got the $5 billion damages reduced to $500 million. Did CEO Lee Raymond dip into his pocket to pay the fine? Of course not, it was paid by the company. In the world of the big corporation bosses get bonuses, but shareholders pay fines.

A Law on Ecocide

What needed, according to Scottish lawyer Polly Higgins, is a universal law aimed at making it a crime to trash the environment that is both universal and which uses the nice simple mechanism of strict liability when determining whether you are guilty or not.

Higgins says she was inspired by William Wilberforce, whose campaigning led to the abolition of slavery.

(Unfortunately for the analogy Mr Wilberforce was an arch-conservative and spent the rest of his days campaigning against giving workers the right to form Trade Unions and the emancipation of Catholics, whiulst supporting the oppressive Combination Act and the suspension of habeas corpus. Oh well, another hero bites the dust.)

Although anti-corporate activists like me salivate at the thought of a law that sees CEOs being dragged away in chains, Higgins actually favours restorative justice. That is; you made the mess, you clear it up.

So how would, this work? Well, take Climate Change. At present some of the most profitable companies in the world are extracting a raw material that, when used, produces a gas that is destroying the world. Other industries, from power generation to cement production, are also locked into high carbon use. There are alternatives, from wind and solar power, to carbon capture and electric cement kilns, but they can't complete on cost with oil and coal whilst they are allowed to pollute for free.

A minimum carbon price would solve the problem, but that would effectively mean introducing a global tax on fossil fuels which would need to be introduced, at the same rate, in every country in the world. We just don't have a system of global governance that can do this.

An Ecocide Law, universal and up there with the big four international crimes against peace; genocide, crimes against humanity (such as torture and rape), war crimes and crimes of aggression, could be the answer.

Long tail risks

Corporations do not change because they believe "shareholder value now comes from delivering social value" or because they "recognized that business needs society as much as society needs business" or any of the other slogans that they spout today.  They may do lip service to the idea of a Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet, Profit) but execs may themselves in hard cash, not good vibes.

Assessing short term risks to profits is what businesses are good at. But it is also why we are in this mess.

What we are currently very bad at is long term risks, especially - to deploy my most overused phrase of the moment - long tail risks. That is small risks of big problems, and they are responsible for almost all the disasters that get companies on TV.

Just as selling mortgages to people with no assets must have seemed a terrific wheeze to the banks, right up until the moment they crashed the entire economy, so not wasting time waiting for the supply ship to bring those extra centralisers probably seemed a really smart cost-cutting move for BP, right up until the moment the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Similarly saving a few dollars by moving production to Savar in Bangladesh probably seemed a good move by Benetton, until their labels started showing up in the ruins of Rana Plaza.

Rewarding short term risk taking before the long term effects have played themselves out is a bit like applauding the magician after he's sawed his assistant in two, but before you find out whether he can stick her back together again. If businesses can solve this little problem, and start to spot long term risks before they bite them on the bum, then even the idea of an Ecocide Law could be a huge wildcard in the boardroom.

At present it may just be an idealistic lawyer's pipe dream, a risk of a risk, but there is the chance that somewhere down the line that this could become real. Looking into the crystal ball, seeing what harm we've done to the planet so far and what horrors await us if climate change is not stopped, seeing the angry people behind the compliant politicians, who can be sure that one day this law will not become a reality?

CSR to the rescue?

A mock trial in the UK Supreme Court three years ago suggested an Ecocide Law really could have legs.

If it does, crafting the case that pins the Ecocide on the C-suit will be the job of lawyers like Higgins. Getting them off the hook will be the job of the much better paid company legal team. But steering the company in a direction that ensures it never gets near the dock is the job of the CSR officer.

I know expecting you to believe lawyers can save us from the corporate psychopaths is a bit of big ask. I know expecting people who sit in the boardroom, and whose pay cheques depend on not rocking the boat, to save us is an even bigger one.

I wouldn't pack away the climbing harness and the D-lock just yet, but signing up to the campaign is quick and easy and, you never know, it may just work.

Eradicating Ecocide Global Initiative

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Stop TTIP or we're fracked

Trade deals are usually rather straightforward.

They are mechanisms by which rich, powerful nations get poor, weaker nations to open their borders to trade on their terms enriching the large corporations, a small elite and, if you're very lucky, a few in the middle as well whilst driving those at the bottom off the land and into the sweatshops.

However every now and again something comes along that's a little different.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is a free trade deal between two trading blocks, Europe and the USA, neither or which are particularly poor and which have very few trade barriers.

So what's going on?

Regulator race to the bottom

What there is between Europe and the USA is a different of regulations. Europe has a lot of faults - an awful lot of faults - but they have been pretty good in passing laws that try to make the world fairer, safer and touch greener. Usually these rules were passed over the kicking and screaming objections of the British delegation, but passed they were.

So there is the Water Policy Framework, the Habitats Directive, the Birds Directive, the REACH Directive on chemicals, the 2020 Climate Goals and so on and so on. You can be cynical - I frequently am - but you won't find an international body with anything better.

In the USA meanwhile they have, well, nothing much that is very effective.

So whilst negotiations over TTIP may take in the French subsidising their own film industry or the US ban on haggis, but I rather suspect the issue of environmental regulations will take up more time.


So what happens if we get TTIP and a corporation takes exception to the EU objecting to the Genetically Modified growth hormones in its milk causing cancer or the pesticides sprayed on its fruit wiping out the bees?

The answer is that the affronted company seeks redress via the investor-to-state dispute settlement.

Now ISDSs do have a place in the world. They allow companies to do business in parts of the world where the rule of law is not the norm, as if the local warlord decides to nick the plant they will get compensation. However this is very unlikely to happen in Luxembourg or even, nowadays, in Leeds.

We live in a world in which governments have largely failed to regulate the activities of powerful corporations, but ISDSs go one better than this and actually allow corporations to sue governments.

What constitutes a 'dispute' is not defined, so anything that upsets the company is fair game, and being stopped from dumping your toxic crap wherever you want would do.

A Stitch Up?

So what happens when you get a dispute?

An ISDS is resolved by a panel of three people. That's not very many for such a big decsision, but it gets worse. One panel member is chosen by each side and the third by mutual agreement. Sounds fair enough, but wait.

Let's assume we win and the government bans fracking. A US based oil company objects and we get a ISDS. Who does the government pick? Well, not someone who opposes fracking anyway. If the government has been forced to do something it doesn't want to by those pesky voters the ISDS gives it a get out of jail free card. They can hold up their hands and say, don't blame us?

We can't very well prove it, but this sort of thing is rumoured to go on all the time. Environmentalists get a corporation to bring in less destructive practises, thereby threatening the bottom line of a useful party donor. Solution? Easy, just get some friendly corporation to call in an ISDS. Donor happy, party treasurer happy, environment fucked.

But surely that wouldn't happen here?

But surely only anti-capitalist conspiracy theorists believe any of this stuff will actually happen?

Well, the Canadian state of Quebec doesn't think that.

Quebec is a region of Canada that takes self government seriously, so when concerns arose about fracking under the St Lawrence river their parliament imposed a moratorium whilst they tried to figure out if this was safe. The experts didn't get a chance to submit their report though before the oil and gas company Lone Pine Resources Inc. landed them with a $250 million lawsuit.

They were using the ISDS mechanism of the North American Free Trade agreement. Pretty much
everyone agrees this is a bad thing, but the suit still stands. Nor is this case a one off. in 1997 Canada banned the chemical MMT as it a dangerous toxin. They were sued by Ethyl Corporation and the ban was reversed. The $13 million compensation payment was more than the annual Environment Canada budget for enforcement and compliance and the agency even issued a statement saying MMT was safe, which they almost certainly didn't believe.

You may not think of Canada as a poor county able to be bullied by corporation or its southern

neighbour, but that is what appears to be happening. If Canada can't stand up to NAFTA and the USA, who in Europe could?

My biggest fear for the anti-fracking movement used to be that we'd put in all the hard work trying to get fracking banned, only to find it wasn't commercially viable anyway. Now my main worry is that even if we get the government to listen to the people and ban fracking, TTIP will override democracy.

What would happen then is anyone's guess, but I suspect in that case Russell Brand would not be the only one calling for a revolution.


Saturday, 21 June 2014

Great Trees of England #4: King of Limbs

As the Joshua Tree is in the USA and the Porcupine Tree isn't real, I guess this is the only British tree with a rock album named after it.

Thom Yorke doesn't like the album being called 'experimental', but to my folk and metal attuned ears that's what it sounds like. A native of neighbouring Oxfordshire, he said he chose to name it after a tree over the border in Wiltshire as "environmental worries in my head have become this weird obsession."

King of Limbs is one of several 'significant' trees in the mighty Savernake forest. This wonderful place, on the edge of the almost equally wonderful town of Marlborough, is four and a half thousand acres of oak and beech forest. It is the only ancient woodland in England in which you can really lose yourself.

There is history here. A Roman road crosses it, it is mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon document of 934AD, it was given away as war booty by William the Conqueror, Henry VIII met one of his father-in-law's here and in World War II it was an ammunition dump.

The forest is owned by the Earl of Cardigan, descendant of him of Light Brigade fame. In 1985 a convoy of New Age Travellers camped there before heading off the next day to their own Valley of Death in the Battle of the Beanfield.

This recent heritage sits lightly on the forest. Under the canopy of great trees I think of Roger Deacon's phrase that being in a forest is like being under the ocean, with the tops of the trees the surface. Immersed in this great inland sea of green it is just about possible to imagine a time when the trees really did stretch across this land from ocean to ocean.

Thanks to a smart little Forestry Commission run camp site you can stay virtually in the wood itself. If you are lucky to enjoy a clear night and a full moon then you can explore the forest by night and enter a truly magical world.

The sentinels of this night realm are the mighty oaks. All told there are close to a hundred important trees here. Indeed, it is thought that there is nowhere else in Europe you can find so many grand old veterans as in Savernake.

According to local legend Merlin is buried next door in the grounds of Marlborough College. The Victorian designer and socialist William Morris was a pupil there and explored the woods in his spare time. Along with the other forests of his youth; Epping and the New Forest, the spirit of Savernake infused his writing.

In his later life, his socialist dreams in tatters and his marriage a sober ménage a trois with the Pre- Raphaelite painter and poet and Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, he escaped into a literary fantasy world. In The Wood Beyond The World the hero, betrayed by his wife, is haunted by the vision of beautiful woman who the hero eventually meets beyond a primeval forest.

The quest for the King of Limbs is an enchanting walk across the length of the forest. On the way I pass through the Arboretum and find myself rather incongruously standing next to a giant redwood. I've campaigned to save these trees in the USA, but never expected to meet one in person.

Awesome though these foreigners are they don't compare with the mighty oaks and beeches of the forest. The former outnumber the latter as they tend to fall over in storms. With wonderful names such as Spider Oak and Old Paunchy each old tree is a character in itself. King of Limbs is not the greatest or the most majestic, although, when I eventually meet it, it's multiple, fan-like trunks radiating out give it a dramatic profile.

We are now on the edge of the forest and the real world of intensive mono-crops is starting to intrude. Just beyond the edge of the wood, in its own grounds, is Tottenham Court House, an "old country pile ... crumbling at the seams." where Radiohead recorded part of their album In Rainbows.

Perhaps Radiohead's music is not the first thing that comes to mind in Savernake Forest. Trad. instruments round the fire or the singing of distant harps would at first seem more appropriate. But just as William Morris found an inspiration here that helped him transcend the ugliness of Victorian England and enter a proto-Middle Earth, the other-worldliness of these trees takes you to places in your imagination that you never expected to go, and that can include progressive indie rock.