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

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Parnell: The Empire Strikes Back

Inspired by Geoffrey Wheatcroft's article on Gladstone in The Guardian today, here is a little story of sex and unintentional revenge.

The story begins on the morning of the 28th February 1881 on a hilltop in South Africa. A British Army led by one of the best and brightest of its Generals has been defeated by a bunch of farmers. General Colley and 91 of his men lie dead and 59 bewildered survivors are marched off into captivity. The Boers have only lost one man dead on the field.

Back in the British camp, General Sir Evelyn Wood, an experienced and successful commander in many of the Empire's small wars, is plotting how to extract revenge using the large army that is even now marching to his aid. Wood is a veteran of the Empire's small wars, who had turned the course of the Zulu War with his victory at Khambula. However, before he can put his plan into action, word comes from the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, that he is to seek peace instead.

When Wood met the Boer leaders though, most of the talking was done by one Alfred Aylyard. An Irishman qualified as a solicitor and a surgeon, the talented Mr Aylyard was officially there as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, but he was really engaging in his primary occupation, that of professional revolutionary, and taking great delight in humiliating the British.

Aylyard wasn't the only Irish Nationalist jubilant at the Boer triumph. The Irish World declared, "Give thanks to God, ye starving Irish...the Boers and Basutos (referring to the recent revolt of Sekukini) of South Africa are fighting the battle of Ireland, although they don't know it."

Wood signed the peace treaty and his mentor, Sir Garnet Wolseley - the very model of a major general - was so incensed it was effectively the end of Wood's career.

As the 1880s wore on it seemed that Ireland would indeed finally get Home Rule. but without any fighting at all. O'Connell having won them the vote, Irish Catholics then used their votes to elect Charles Stuart Parnell to Parliament and to give his Irish Party enough seats to make them kingmakers in Westminister.

Unfortunately for Aylyard, Parnell and the Nationalists, the Wood family were to have their revenge, for the unfortunate General Wood had a sister, Katharine.

Known as Kitty, she had married one of Parnell's supporters, a Major O'Shea and it is as Kitty O'Shea that she enters history.

Like O'Connell before him Parnell fancied a bit on the side, and Kitty was his mistress. The Major was not impressed and when he sued for divorce Parnell was exposed and fell from power.

The Empire had stuck back.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

After Copenhagen: Have We A Prayer?

The protesters protested - and got nicked for their trouble.

The NGOs lobbied - and many of them were nicked too, or barred from the conference like Friends of the Earth.

Lazy people like me blogged and emailed.

But all to no avail. COP15 was a disaster and a damp squib at the same time (if that's possible).

So what do we do now?

We can lobby for another meeting next year, we can boycott goods from the two countries most responsible for the impasse: China and the USA, we can.......

Can anyone think of anything that we can do that will actually work??

Perhaps divine intervention is what we need. But which deity should we invoke?

As far as I can see there is one glimmer of hope in the science of climate change, one factor which may slow, if not halt, the rise in global temperatures that appears to spell the end of civilised life as we know it. It's a bit of a long shot, but here it is.

When I was an undergraduate Astrophysics student my final year project was observing the sun and measuring solar flares. I didn't see many. The telescope was positioned in such a way that after midday the sun was obscured behind the Social Sciences building and what student worth his Newcastle Brown is up and about before midday? However I can't blame the sun for not doing its bit as the late 1980s were a bit of a high for solar activity.

Since then though it's all been downhill for our nearest star. Solar activity has steadily reduced and sun spots are disappearing. This variation in solar output is tiny really, and hardly likely on its own to counteract the effect of pumping millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. However there is some evidence (well, not much more than speculation really) that there might be an additional mechanism that multiplies the effects of solar activity on climate.

Reduced solar wind from a less active sun allows more cosmic rays to get through to the earth. Cosmic rays are high energy particles formed in the heart of distant exploding stars. The hunch is that when they hit our atmosphere they in some way 'seed' clouds. More clouds mean more sunlight reflected back into space and a cooler climate. The reduction in solar activity since I graduated is small at the moment, but the disappearance of sun spots over the last few years has led some astronomers to speculate that we may be at the start of a big downturn in solar output.

This possible link is currently being examined by the CLOUD project at CERN, next to the Large Hadron Collider. The latter hopes to unlock the secrets of the Higgs Boson, the so called 'God particle' which defines mass. The Higgs particle may be a funny sort of god, but our dear old sun is a deity that pagans can identify with.

To the Ancient Egyptian the sun was Aten, and was revered with the song we know as the Great Hymn to Aten. The Christians borrowed this an it became Psalm 104.

On Monday its the longest night of the year, the day the sun is reborn. and so as a sun worshipping Druid I feel it is only my duty to call upon our nearest star to do its duty and give us a bit of a break so that humanity can get its collective act together and kick its carbon addiction.

Well, I said it was a long shot!

Friday, 18 December 2009

My message to Jonathan Pershing, US Climate Negotiator

Dear Mr Pershing

Many environmentalists blame the USA for the current crisis. They say that it is the 'frontier spirit' of old that is the problem, America's view that the natural world is there to be exploited and used.

However my view is that it is a lack of such spirit that is the problem. For the first time in its history America is afraid of a new frontier. The 'can do' optimism that has seen your nation rise to be the world's only superpower has gone. Your nation would rather cling feebly to old certainties than embrace a brave new world.

Please, show me I am wrong. Just as your namesake led his brave soldiers to Europe's rescue in 1917, please save these climate talks with a magnanimous offer. America may think it has much to loose in leaving behind the carbon economy, but is there any other nation with the scientists, the business people and the drive to better exploit the new world of renewable energies?

Yours sincerely

Martin Porter

Send your own message to a climate negotiator.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Lond Monckton helps the BNP

It's been a bad week for Climate Change activists, with several hundred banged up by the Danish police, but it's been a worse one for Climate Change deniers.

The shy and retiring, not to mention barking mad, aristo Lord Monckton was ambushed by rather polite climate activists whilst in Copenhagen. He responded by branding them all Hitler Youth.

The brunt of his attack calmly explained to the peer that as a Jew whose grandparents had had to escape Hitler he didn't know quite how to take this.

Well it turns out the one with the Nazi connections may actually be Monckton himself.

The evidence is in the British National Party's 40 page anti-Global Warming rant.

That it's a load on denier b*llocks is no surprise - it would be embarrassing for eco-warriors if it wasn't. But what does raise one's eyebrows is on page 36. It seems the BNP haven't just done a cut and paste job from Monckton's website, but that the peer has been in correspondence with them.

Monckton was an advisor to Mrs. Thatcher and has recently joined UKIP. Flirting with the nasty end of the hard right is clearly the next stage in his reverse political evolution.

They say politics makes strange bed fellows, but perhaps we shouldn't linger too long on the image of Monckton and Nick Griffin disappearing under the climate change denial duvet with Sarah Palin, Ian Plimer and the rest of the sad circle of right wing nutters.

Hmm, I think that's just put me off my tea.

Plimer versus Monbiot: Points victory to Monbiot.

So the big match has finally occurred, live on Aussie TV.

Climate change denier, spokesperson for an Exxon funded think tank and Spectator cover boy Ian Plimer appears to have finally met his Waterloo.

Having wimped out of an earlier debate by refusing to answer some basic questions on his book, he has finally found himself face to face with his nemesis in a televised debate.

Straight questions from our George, evasion and random facts from Plimer. In particular he failed to answer the question as to why, as a geologist, he doesn't seem to know how much CO2 volcanoes admit. Actuallyhis failure to stand by his claim suggests he does know how much CO2 they emit, but that he also knows that to say so will leave his credibility lower than the submarine volcanoes he erroneously claimed weren't in the US Geological Survey figures.

He also ducked, dodged and weaved over his claim that global warming stopped in 1998, a claim he makes no less than 16 times in one chapter. This is simply a bit of legerdemaine: 1998 remains the hottest year ever recorded, but 8 of the 10 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since then and this is the hottest decade ever recorded. Again, Plimer's evasion would suggest he knows this.

Plimer also rather amusingly called Monbiot, who is descended from French aristocracy, "ill bred". I guess that may be an Aussie thing. He also waved his book to the camera a suspicously large number of times.

No knockout blow, but the shows emails appear to give Monbiot a clear victory, with Plimer seen as the fact dodger he clearly is. Nice one George.

One person who really should watch this debate and hang his head in shame though is the new presenter of Radio 4's flagship Today program. Webb had Plimer in the studio last month and gave him the lightest grilling anyone on the program has ever had. Webb, an LSE educated economist, clearly doesn't do science.

But then, neither does Plimer.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Saving Swallows Wood: The Indirect Approach

I've tried to avoid putting up trivia about my life on this blog, but as a certain amount of useless personal tit tat is almost compulsory in the blogosphere I would like to mention that last night I had a very pleasant evening in the Bulls Head in Tintwistle with our local anti-road activists, The Campaign to Save Swallows Wood.

Possibly this will be the last festive gathering of this fine body of people as they seem to have done what very few such campaigners have managed and actually won. After a two year public enquiry it seems that there is no money for the road and if any bypass is ever built it will be somewhat reduced in size and will go nowhere near the titular forest. Bravo and all that.

When I first considered moving to Glossop nearly ten years ago it had a number of points going for it: work, Kinder Scout on the doorstep, live music, a haunted valley, and most importantly it wasn't in Yorkshire. It also offered the possibility of a real live road protest right on my doorstep. No more burning up fossil fuels running up and down the country to lie down in front of bulldozers, when they come to build the A57/A628 bypass I would be able to D-lock myself to a JCB and still be home for tea.

Alas it wasn't to be. Thanks in small part to the campaigners the money has been spent on something less controversial and Swallows Wood appears safe. How a disparate, and frequently feuding, group of campaigners stopped a road that had the support of the Department of Transport, Tameside Council and the local MP, not to mention overwhelming, in the beginning at least, local support is an interesting study.

They lobbied and protested, wrote letters and made Freedom of Information requests. They received help from the Campaign to Preserve Rural England, who took time out from opposing wind farms to actually do something useful. However possibly the most important thing they did was adopt, unknowingly, what the military strategist Basil Liddell Hart called The Indirect Approach.

Liddell Hart had studied the slaughter of the First World War to see if there were better ways to do things. He had also read the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu and his conclusion was|

"In strategy the longest way round is often the shortest way there; a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, whereas an indirect approach loosens the defender's hold by upsetting his balance."

Unfortunately for Liddell Hart the only people who read his work were the Germans, who used his ideas to bypass the Maginot Line and knock France out of the Second World War.

The Campaign to Save Swallows Wood didn't have any tanks, but they did have considerable lobbying power and following Basil's strategy they briefly turned their fire away from the DoT and its backers and, like Romell sending his tanks to attack neutral Belgium, they set upon the previously uncommitted Peak District National Park Authority.

The National Park weren't in favour of the road, but they'd agreed not to oppose it when the DoT promised in return to drop other plans for road building elsewhere in the Peak District. However faced by some vigorous lobbying form the campaigners they were forced to shake off their neutrality and step in to oppose a road that would mostly be built through open country in the National Park and which would increase lorry traffic.

The result was that when the Public Enquiry opened, the Department of Transport wasn't just faced by a bunch of amateur activists, but by a fully constituted legal body in full war cry. We'll never know exactly which way the chairman of the enquiry was really leaning, but in the bits of the enquiry I personally endured he certainly seemed to be taking the National Park seriously.

All campaigns are different, and like Generals constantly re-fighting the last war it doesn't pay to copy previous successes too faithfully, but any campaigners out their tackiling a seemingly invincible foe could do worse than try to find their own way of following Liddell Hart's doctrine.

Just keep your tanks out of Belgium.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Bhopal Plus 25

I wrote this five years ago.

Tragically very little has changed.

Bhopal: Still Waiting for Justice

Pagans are not on the whole the sort of people who care much for large organisations. Although it’s not an easy thing to say who or what a typical Pagan is, they are rather more likely to be found out on their own repairing dry stone walls or plying their trade as alternative therapists rather than being chained to a desk in a large corporation. When two or three Pagans gather together to discuss the Pagan Federation, its size and omnipotence are not generally considered to be amongst the organisation’s virtues. Indeed one suspects that should ever a McCrystals plc emerge to buy up all the New Age shops in Britain, most Pagans would then choose to look elsewhere for their herbs and incense.

However, like it or not, we live in a corporate world. Multinational corporations account for about a
quarter of world trade and many have a turnover equivalent to a medium sized country. For many environmentalists and social justice campaigners, as well as the ragged assortment of people who the media call ‘anti-Capitalists’, the increasing globalisation of financial markets and world trade is a cause for concern. Demonstrations, peaceful and otherwise, now accompany any large international gathering of ministers from rich nations.

There is a counter argument that Globalisation doesn’t actually exist, and all we have is the old problem of the rich West and an impoverished rest-of-the-world. Working in a Nike factory in Indonesia may be pretty grim, the argument goes, but it’s better than being an Indonesian farmer or working in a local factory. Whilst campaigners get angry when factories and jobs move south in order to pay less and pollute more, the corporations claim they actually help the locals more than they harm them. Whilst working in a call centre in Britain is for unemployed northern ex-steel workers who don’t want to take up stripping, in India it’s a prestige job for graduates.

At the core of many of these arguments is whether or not these big corporations can be held to account for their actions. It’s something of a truism that all governments in power like to suck up to the rich and powerful whilst having a go at the weakest in society. We may not ever see the day when the Prime Minister makes a speech blaming the nation’s ills on rich white men whilst inviting social workers and asylum seekers round for tea at number 10, but is that just politics or are the corporations now more powerful than national governments?

Perhaps the most graphic story of big business getting away literally with murder is the continuing tragedy of Bhopal. If terrorists were ever to release a deadly gas in a built up area in Britain they would be hunted down and brought to justice. If a foreign country were to shelter them then the very least we could probably expect would be a cruise missile or two directed their way.

However nineteen years after a toxic gas release in the central Indian city of Bhopal killed 4,000 people the victims are not just still waiting for justice, but also still drinking contaminated water. Some estimates are that four times as many people have died since the accident as died on the fateful night, and up to 500,000 may have become ill.

The factory responsible was owned and run by the Indian branch of the US multinational chemical company Union Carbide. They may not have deliberately released the gas, but the accident was the result of serious errors by the company. A faulty valve allowed water to enter a chemical storage tank where a corroded stainless steel wall provided the catalyst for a reaction that produced 40 tons of a deadly cyanide compound. The plant lacked the basic safety features that could have contained the gas and so the deadly chemical escaped into the crowded slums of Bhopal. The sleeping residents could not be warned as the alarms had been switched off.

Pretty damning stuff, but Union Carbide’s HQ still claimed it was nothing to do with them. First they said the disaster was the result of sabotage and then they added that the plant was wholly designed and operated by their Indian subsidiary. No evidence of sabotage has ever been produced, and even if it were this would not excuse the lack of safety devices at the site. Their second point has also looked a little weak after a New Scientist investigation last year turned up leaked documents showing how Union Carbide in the USA not only approved all designs for the plant, but knowingly cut costs in building it.

Despite the clear trail of evidence leading to Union Carbide’s US offices, the US legal system refused to hear a case brought by the victims and their families. Instead a settlement was reached in the Indian courts where they received compensation amounting to about $500 per victim. Seeing as how you can get a small fortune for scalding yourself on hot coffee in the US, this seems a little miserly.

The Indian authorities for their part tried a more direct approach, and in 1991 they charged Union Carbide’s boss Warren Anderson with 14,000 cases of murder. But Mr Anderson failed to appear in court to answer the charges, and the Indians were told that the US government didn’t know where he was. That appeared to be that, he’d done a Bin Laden and no-one could find him.

But Mr Anderson, it turned out, was not hiding in a cave on some disputed frontier, and in August last year, right in the middle of the Johannesburg Earth Summit, he was found. Casey Harrell, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace USA, tracked him down to his country club in Hampton, Long Island, New York state. He was shown a copy of the warrant for his arrest, but he decided not to turn himself in. The local police don’t seem too keen on popping round to arrest him, and so far no cruise missiles have been seen heading towards the Hampton Country Club.

So justice has proved frustratingly elusive for the victims of Bhopal. Should we be under any illusions that this is purely an American problem, four years ago a British court threw out a case against Cape plc, a British mining country. They had used children to mine asbestos in apartheid South Africa with scant concern for Health and Safety, but the court decided that there was no case to answer in this country. Multinationals, it seems, are not liable under international law, but local courts do not have the jurisdiction to pursue claims across international borders.

What can be done to about this sorry state of affairs? Well the first thing is for us not to forget those who died, and who continue to die, in Bhopal. The survivors of Bhopal and the families of the victims continue to press for justice. Dow chemicals now own Union Carbide, and they are being told quite clearly that they have inherited Union Carbides liabilities. To drive home the message their website has been the target of a virtual sit-in.

Such actions may not be about to bring Dow to their knees, but it all helps. If you’re well off enough to have a pension plan and a bank account with a positive balance, you can wield some measure of power over the corporations by investing your money ethically, the new growth financial market. If you’re someone who has more time than money you could invest in a single share in a dodgy company, as it allows you to go to their AGM and annoy them in person. I personally can vouch for the hospitality you receive from the road and pipeline builders AMEC and the arctic oil drillers BP. And if we do nothing else we can always remember Dow and Union Carbide in our own rituals. As James Pengelly and others have said, Pagans don’t do nearly as much cursing as they should these days.

But real change will only take place when international justice accompanies international trade. Friends of the Earth are campaigning locally and internationally for governments to pass laws to make companies accountable for their actions. Many other organisations are doing so too. Big business is still accountable to government, and governments are accountable to the people. If enough people make enough of a fuss we might be able to offer the people of Bhopal justice. Better late than never.

The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal has a website.