Category Archives: Social

Save the NHS!

The NHS is ours, and needs our support.

The NHS is ours, and needs our support.

On Saturday 4th March an estimated 250,000 people marched through London in support of the NHS. I, like millions of others, couldn’t be there in person but was with them in spirit, tweeted my support and felt impelled to write this blog. The NHS is one of the things Britain should feel proud of. This current government has a campaign to slash its funding, trash it in the media so as to weaken public support thus allowing them to accelerate their piecemeal privatisation. Many on the right wing of the Tory party want to make it more like the American system. This to me seems insane.

The American system may provide luxurious levels of care for the richest and most expensively insured people and huge profits for private companies running health care and pharmaceuticals, but for the majority it is a very bad system of health care. Many people live in fear of becoming ill and the crippling financial impacts this can have on them at a time when they are anyway most vulnerable. For those with chronic health conditions insurance may be difficult or impossible to obtain. Life expectancy is lower in USA than in any Western European country due to the abysmal access to health care of the poorest people. This is a system we have very little to learn from.

If the UK want to learn from other countries it should be to Scandinavian or other Western European countries that all organise their systems somewhat differently, but all basically offer very much better and fairer systems than the Americans. In Britain we have fewer doctors, less hospital beds and less overall funding per head than in most of Europe. We should increase taxes on all forms of pollution, close tax loopholes and increase top rates of income tax and double expenditure on the NHS. The founding of the NHS was one of the crowning achievements of the post war Atlee government and perhaps the single greatest thing that Britain achieved in the entire Twentieth Century. It should not be slashed, trashed and privatized by this reckless and short sighted government. It will remain a focus of political struggle until this government is thrown out.

Lovin trumps Trump

Swedish Green deputy PM

Isabella Lovin, Swedish Deputy Prime Minister, signs Zero Carbon legislation. The photo is a parody of Trump.

It is barely a fortnight since Trump’s inauguration. He is proving as ghastly and bonkers as we feared he might be. No American president even comes close. Hitler in 1933 is perhaps the best comparison. It is still way too early to see how things will develop. USA has very much stronger checks and balances than Weimar Germany had. Civil society is still strong. Resistance, demonstration and litigation will abound. My task here is not to detail the mess, but to understand it, and to offer hope for a better future.

Alex Steffen wrote an excellent article focusing on the carbon bubble as the prime motivator for both Trump and Putin and why their interests align so strongly. They are the political mouthpieces of oil industries whose very existence depends on delaying any meaningful action on climate change. Scientific reality demands humanity quits fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and the vast majority of governments signed up to the Paris agreement to start the transition to a low carbon economy. Trump and Putin exist to resist this. George Monbiot has written some of the best investigative journalism about the dark forces behind Trump, Brexit and the Conservative party and the Atlantic bridge that unites them.

By contrast many countries are embracing the transition to a zero emissions economy, and are doing so in ways that are very good for people and for the planet. Sweden is perhaps the most outstanding example to focus on. In legislation signed this week by Isabella Lovin, the Swedish Green Party member and deputy Prime Minister, Sweden committed itself to become a zero emissions economy by 2045. The photograph of the signing was designed as a parody of Trump’s style of signing executive orders. Not only great legislation and leadership, but done with humour! Environmental regulation does not need to be a cost to the economy; it can be the opposite, a net gain. The World Economic Forum (hardly a green or leftie organisation) recently issued a report titled ‘Why Sweden beats other countries at just about everything’, which shows how economically competitive Sweden is while running a very well functioning welfare state with great quality of life indicators.

The horrors of Trump’s America and the antics of Theresa the Appeaser may grab the headlines but it is the countless small changes happening elsewhere in the world that give me hope. The Irish vote to dis-invest from fossil fuels is but one of hundreds of hopeful signs from all over the world, which, like the Swedish legislation for zero emissions, indicate the inevitable ending of the age of fossil fuels and the possibilities of a better future.

Trump: Appeasement or Resistance?

Climate Science takes to the streets

Climate Science takes to the streets

Today Theresa May will be meeting Donald Trump in Washington. In 1938 Chamberlain went to Munich to appease Hitler. There are parallels. Trump is emerging as a real and present danger to world peace and good governance and must be resisted and not appeased.

Donald Trump’s insane plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and get the Mexicans to pay for it is not surprisingly causing outrage in Mexico. The Mexican senator Javier Lozano summed it up: “The uncertainty is over. It is confirmed that we will have to deal with an arrogant and ignorant despot in the USA”.

It is humiliating that the British Prime Minister is going to grovel at Trump’s feet. Britain needs friends in North America, but Theresa May would be better employed meeting Mexico’s President Pena Nieto and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rather than wasting her time trying to influence Trump. It is at a time like this that we should be deepening and strengthening our membership of the European Union, not blindly blundering into Brexit.

Naomi Klein provides insightful analysis of Trump’s cabinet and the corporate capture of American political power. It is clear that the resistance of ordinary citizens will be crucial to uphold human rights, climate science and much else. As Trump tries to silence scientists they are increasingly resorting to publishing facts on social media. For Twitter users I strongly recommend following ClimateReality. As they tweeted this morning “It’s a sad day for democracy when stating scientific truths becomes a rebellious act”. Again very similar to 1930’s Germany. We must not appease Trump and stifle scientific debate.

The recent Women’s March was the largest single day protest in US history. Worldwide about 4.8 million people participated in over 500 marches in eighty-one countries. Marching is important, but it is only a small token gesture. We will need to organise globally online and face to face in our communities to have any chance of success, and get politically engaged. Globally most people want the same things: peace, cooperation, clean air and water, economic and physical security. The UN Global Goals are all easily achievable if we can unite and cooperate together to build a better future. To overcome the forces of ignorant and despotic nationalism civil society will have to get organised on a scale it has never before achieved. That is the challenge. Join in. Connect. Be a part of the change you want to see.

Uruguay: Well done!

Ramon Mendez

Ramon Mendez, until recently climate and energy minister of Uruguay and responsible for excellent policies.

Last week I blogged about who was showing leadership in reducing carbon emissions and mentioned that several small countries were well ahead of any of the larger countries. This week let’s just look one of them: Uruguay. Uruguay has a small population of only 3.4 million people whose per capita carbon emissions are a very modest 2.3 tonnes. Uruguay can hardly be said to be responsible for much in the way of climate change yet is certainly leading the world in helping solve it.

In Paris this week the Uruguayan minister of energy and climate, Ramon Mendez, pledged Uruguay would reduce its emissions by 88% by 2017 compared with a baseline average for 2009-13. An 88% reduction is something a few countries are contemplating by 2050 or thereabouts. To achieve it by 2017 will be an extraordinary achievement. However Uruguay is well on track to achieve this and to do so while reducing power cuts, bringing down the cost of energy and creating many economic and employment benefits. How are they doing it?

Uruguay has long had hydropower providing about half of its electricity, more in wet years, less in dry years. Formally the rest came from coal, oil and gas. About 7 years ago they brought in auction contracts, rather than feed-in-tariffs, for renewables and are getting very good value for money, meaning both carbon emissions and energy bills can fall simultaneously. The speed and scale of wind deployment has been dramatic, rising from 50 to 500MW installed capacity during 2014 alone. By early 2016 they expect to have 1.4GW installed: enough that during windy weather 100% of their electricity will come from the wind and that the hydro can be just used in less windy weather. Together the wind and hydro combination will provide the vast bulk of Uruguay’s electricity. They are also adding significant solar and biomass to the mix. Uruguay used to be a net electricity importer from both Brazil and Argentina: now they earn good money from exporting renewable electricity to their neighbours. As Uruguay decarbonises and modernises its energy system it is not surprising that it has hired in expertise from the Danish grid company Energinet, as the Danes have long been pioneering efficient, reliable, renewables based energy infrastructure.

It is extraordinary to think that just over 30 years ago Uruguay was a military dictatorship. Now it is one of the best governed countries on Earth. It scores very well on all the indexes of corruption, equality, literacy, social progress and tolerance. Under the sensible yet inspirational political leadership of Tabare Vazquez and Jose Mujica it is setting the standard for other countries to aspire to.

 

Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/03/uruguay-makes-dramatic-shift-to-nearly-95-clean-energy

Wind http://www.windpowermonthly.com/article/1291776/interview-uruguayan-national-director-energy-ramon-mendez

Solar http://cleantechnica.com/2015/07/13/sky-solar-secures-85-million-loan-uruguay-solar-power-projects/

Lack of corruption https://www.transparency.org/cpi2014/results

Per capita Co2 emissions http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC

Carnage, Compassion & Community

Not in My Name, Rome.

Not in My Name, Rome.

Our hearts are with the people of Paris, Mali and countless other places, in the aftermath of the recent and ongoing carnage. ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram are currently the very embodiment of intolerance, yet Islam, for much of its history has been a force for tolerance and pluralism. It still is in many ways and the huge grassroots outcry against terrorism from the global Muslim community is a very hopeful sign, best seen in the ‘Not in My Name’ images and videos currently going viral on the internet.

Any religion or ideology can be usurped by the forces of violence and intolerance. Robespierre and the Terror had its origins in ‘Liberty, equality and fraternity’, Stalin’s terror in Marx’s ideas about social justice, the 30 Years War in rival interpretations of Christianity, current violence against the Burmese Rohingya is fuelled by hate speeches of Buddhist monks!

Love, compassion, tolerance and community are where hope lies. In a globalised World a global community is emerging which is ethnically, religiously, culturally and politically pluralistic, which seeks to embody the politics of hope, of tolerance and of love. No one organisation can represent such a huge and diverse process of historical change, but if I was to try and name one organisation that represented this mega-movement it would probably be the online and global community of Avaaz, tirelessly campaigning for a better future. In communities all over the World millions of grassroots organisations are seeking to improve things locally by applying these values of peace and pluralism, democracy and sustainability. The huge global rise and acceptance of inter-racial and same sex marriage is another manifestation of growing trend toward tolerance and pluralism.

The terrorists of ISIS have managed to unite the widest possible number of people against themselves. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned them, as did the Muslim Council of Britain and just about every other organisation one can think of. The hacker collective Anonymous has declared war on them, as has everyone from the USA to Iran, the Kurdish Pershmerga to Bashar al-Assad and Russia, the EU and USA are all dropping bombs on their strongholds in Iraq and Syria. I doubt if bombs will be very effective. This is a battle of hearts and minds. However if we all, the vast majority of humanity, can grasp the moment and recognise our collective solidarity, then and only then, will we build a better future. Let us all stand up together, for peace, for pluralism and for an inclusive and sustainable prosperity for everyone.

Not in my name http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/11/21/uk-italy-muslims-march-idUKKCN0TA0UA20151121 and

http://news.yahoo.com/french-muslim-calls-on-peers-to-stop-terrorism—the-solution-will-come-from-us-165741864.html

Papal Encyclical

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

I’ve been reading the Papal encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home’. It is referred to as a Papal letter, but at 180 pages or 40,000 words it is more of a book than a letter. It is a very interesting read and pretty radical in many ways. Pope Francis seeks to reach out beyond the global catholic community and speak to all of humanity. Many non Catholics, like me, are reading and commenting favourably. He is showing leadership in the face of the huge and interconnected macro –ecological challenges facing humanity and linking it very powerfully to the need for immensely greater global social justice. Sadly this kind of leadership has been entirely lacking from the global political mainstream. It has also been lacking from the mainstream of the other global religions, even if within each of them there are individuals and groups showing real concern.

As someone who has variously described himself as an atheist, humanist, pantheist and pagan, or a woolly mix of all of them, it is certainly unusual for me to be singing the praises of a Pope. Since becoming Pope he has been a powerful voice speaking up for the poor. Now he is speaking up for the planet, or rather humanity’s need to reform its relationship to the Earth and the health of its complex ecosystems, upon which humanity’s wellbeing depends. The media have branded this as the Papal encyclical on Climate Change, and it is about Climate Change but also so much more.

In some ways this encyclical reminds me of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Professor Ian Gough of the London School of Economics, although not mentioning Gandhi, shows how this ‘revolutionary encyclical challenges both current ethics and economics’ by differentiating between “need” and “greed”. Gough explains: ‘These represent two worldviews. One seeks to satisfy our wants and preferences, which are limitless, non-satiable, substitutable and amoral. The other prioritises meeting universal human needs, which are limited, sufficient, non-substitutable and with clear ethical grounding.’

The encyclical also has much to say about love for the natural world being essential to human wellbeing and mental health. Seeing in nature only resources to be exploited we undermine our own individual and collective wellbeing. This again has huge implications for economic, political and ethical debate.

The Encyclical http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

Guardian on encyclical http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/18/popes-climate-change-encyclical-calls-on-rich-nations-to-pay-social-debt

Guardian letters including that of Prof Ian Gough http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/21/exegesis-of-pope-francis-encyclical-call-for-action-on-climate-change

Jonathon Porritt on the encyclical and the challenge to the Church of England http://www.jonathonporritt.com/blog/can-archbishop-welby-former-oil-man-rise-pope%E2%80%99s-challenge

Employment & Decarbonisation

coal mining

In 1974 and again in 1984-85 the National Union of Mineworkers was in conflict with Conservative governments. People were seen as supporting the striking miners or the government. You were either for the unions or for the government. Yet really both these were very narrow vested interest groups. Who was arguing the case for clean air, enhanced biodiversity or social justice for all? Even back then Climate Change was a concern for some of us, now it is pretty well universally agreed as an absolute priority by all but the most scientifically ill-informed. Decarbonising the global economy will mean the ending of many millions of people’s jobs. Of course it will also mean the creation of many millions of other jobs. What we need is a system that allows people not to feel threatened personally and economically by the contraction of their industries.

Closing the global advertising industry would certainly help reduce the demand that is driving hyped-up hyper-consumption. That too, like shutting coal-mines, might be part of a more sustainable future. Taxes on carbon and on advertising are policies I’d like to see implemented globally and as soon as possible. However advertising executives, like coal miners, would fight to protect their jobs. We need a system that allows people to feel economically secure while their sphere of employment contracts. We need a system that allows people to identify less with their current job title and more with their own personal potential. We need a system where people see their utter dependence on a well functioning biosphere, and where this takes precedence over their own short term economic fears.

Mining always was a dirty dangerous job. Why would anyone want to do it? Many other jobs are pretty soul destroying. Currently money is the main motivating force that keeps people chained to jobs they don’t really love doing, and to jobs that do not help the longer term wellbeing of humnaity. We need a system which values the time and creativity of all people, irrespective of whether they are coal miners, advertising executives, economic migrants or climate scientists. Perhaps now is the time for a universal global basic income so that everyone can live without economic insecurity? Or perhaps better still a global guarantee of work for all: there is an awful lot that needs to be done to provide prosperity for all 7.3 billion of us humans, and to do it in a way that does not jeopardise our longer term survival as a species.

Waitrose & Employee Ownership

Last week I looked at the way disruptive change is happening in the electricity supply industry. Today it’s time to look at supermarkets. Here in Herefordshire the new Cattle Market development has just opened. I had been very much against it. The last thing Hereford needs is yet more shops, especially when there are so many empty ones already. We need to wean ourselves off identifying ourselves as consumers and off our debt fuelled excessive and wasteful consumption patterns. That said one of the new stores is a branch of Waitrose, which operates under a different business model from the big four; Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys and Morrisons.

Waitrose doesn’t have shareholders. It is part of the John Lewis Partnership and all its staff are partners in the business, sharing in the profits via an annual bonus paid as an equal percentage of salary. This means that the 91,000 people who work for the group should in theory be much more motivated, engaged and enjoy their work more than staff in other supermarkets. Looking at carbon emissions and other sustainability criteria, Waitrose out-performs the big four, but not Marks & Spencer or the Coop. Next time I go shopping I’ll pop into Waitrose and see if I can have a chat to one or two of the staff in our new store and see what they think about all of this.

It seems important to me that we need alternatives to the shareholder-driven profit-maximization principle behind our big companies, be they supermarkets or electricity suppliers. We want organisations that are more ethical, more concerned to help reduce their environmental footprint, more concerned to help put funds into charitable causes and into treating their staff well and not into the endless greed of shareholders. I and many others are switching our purchasing power to reflect these preferences. I see Waitrose’s market share has risen pretty steadily over the last 20 years, and is now just under 5% of the UK grocery spend: plenty of scope for them to grow, and for more ethical and innovative new entrants to the market.

Displacing the big incumbents in the supermarket sector may prove a slower process than in the electricity supply sector…but disruptive change is coming. Let’s work to make it as positive as possible!

Better stoves & lamps in Africa

Marcus Brigstocke with the Concern Universal Flower Pot Stove

Currently about 40% of the global population still rely on directly burning various forms of biomass (wood, charcoal, cow dung, crop residues) for their cooking, mainly on open fires. This causes many health problems, drives deforestation and gathering firewood is a huge drain on people’s time and energy. Also many millions of people use paraffin/kerosene lamps, and this causes a kind of fuel poverty in rural off grid locations where many poor people spend a disproportionate part of their income on kerosene. Also both these practices are bad from a carbon emission point of view. Two charities are pioneering innovative solutions that create new and sustainable businesses that address these issues on the ground in Africa, helping overcome multiple problems from poverty to climate change.

Concern Universal is promoting a kind of efficient clay stove that they call a ‘flower pot stove’. These can be made and sold locally so generating new livelihoods, and as they burn less wood this helps decrease pressure on forests, carbon emissions and reduces health problems associated with smoke. Marcus Brigstocke (my favourite comedian) is doing the Radio 4 appeal on their behalf.

Solar Aid is seeking to replace the kerosene lamp with solar powered lights all across Africa. They’ve just sold their millionth lamp, despite working across just 4 of Africa’s 54 states. Their aim is to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020. Again they, like Concern Universal, have an interesting model that combines charity, commercial and entrepreneurial aspects and seeks to solve multiple social, economic and environmental problems simultaneously. I wish them both well. Do explore their websites.

Concern Universal http://www.concern-universal.org/home

Solar Aid http://www.solar-aid.org/about/?gclid=CJS3o62pyb0CFQoIwwod4D0Aqg

 

Billionaires Row: a Palatial Wasteland

billionaires row dilapidation

Over the years on this blog I’ve frequently written about the obscene levels of inequality that are now so prevalent in many countries, and that most political parties now only really represent the interests of the richest 1%. The 99% are effectively marginalised. I have also written about the corrosive effect this has on many aspects of our society, and have referred people to Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson excellent book, ‘The Spirit Level’.

In this week’s Guardian Weekly there is an excellent article by Robert Booth titled ‘Billionaires Row: a palatial wasteland.’ One street, The Bishops Avenue, in London’s Hampstead Heath is full of houses valued in the tens of millions of pounds standing empty and dilapidated. The owners are a motley crew of Saudi Royals and Russian oligarchs who’ve bought these properties as investments, with no intention of living in them. I’d like to quote the last paragraph of the article in full because it shows the staggering lack of vision of our typical politicians when confronted by such realities:

‘A Conservative Councillor, Andrew Harper, whose ward covers the avenue, asked whether leaving homes vacant for decades was acceptable said: “That’s their prerogative. It is difficult to imagine what one would put in place to force things to be different to how they are.”’ He sounds like a spokesperson for this tiny super rich minority, rather than a representative of the people in his ward, let alone the poor and homeless of London. Just off the top of my head let me make a few suggestions for our hapless Councillor to consider.

Setting levels of Council Tax on empty property is now up to local authorities. They should set these at the maximum levels, ideally many times higher than for occupied properties, and to increase every year the property is left empty. Stamp duty on property sales should be radically increased: if someone can pay £30 million for a house they can probably pay £60 million: a 100% stamp duty would also have the effect of pushing down prices at the top and probably generally too, so reducing the London Housing bubble. Currently the top rate is 7%, but as demand for these palaces is so strong, clearly the top rate is far too low. Alternatively, what about compulsory purchase and conversion to housing association apartments, perhaps for London’s homeless?

Robert Booth in the Guardian Weekly  http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx