Category Archives: Social

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

 

Russell Brand & Utopian Revolution

 

 

I’m not someone usually much interested in the utterances of seemingly superficial, hedonistic celebrities, but this week Russell Brand has created quite a stir and opened up mainstream political discourse in ways not normally given much media attention. In the few days since he guest edited New Statesman and was interviewed on TV by Paxman, his views have come in for some serious and very sympathetic consideration on various unlikely places, such as the Claverton Energy Group and at a 60th birthday party in rural Herefordshire.

In the New Statesman article Russell Brand cites one of my old heroes, Buckminster Fuller, saying ‘humanity now faces a choice: oblivion or utopia’. I would agree that ‘We’re inertly ambling towards oblivion’ and yes, we do need seriously need to ask the question ‘is utopia really an option?’ Russell Brand is very good at articulating the way many, perhaps most, people in the UK and around the world are disengaged from the political process. The banking crisis and subsequent quantitative easing and austerity have seen the biggest and fastest transfer of wealth in human history from the bottom 99% of the population to the top 1%. The three main political parties and the media in the main only represent the views and interests of the 1%. Levels of outrage and fury amongst the 99% are at ever greater levels. Contemporary capitalism is failing humanity’s basic existential requirement to ensure a healthy planet. Russell Brand is right to say the time for revolution is now. Our continued existence as a species may depend on it. Russell Brand is good on the need for utopian revolution, but clearly he has not thought through what that world might look like. That, at its core is what all my work over the last decade or so has been trying to articulate. I would dearly love Russell Brand’s access to the media!

The kind of revolution that both Russell Brand and I would like is not some old fashioned violent Marxist revolution but a peaceful one that starts from the individual human consciousness but also manifests politically. Quite what that utopian world would be like and how we might get there Russell Brand seemed unclear about, but is the topic of an essay I’m currently writing and hope to publish in a few months. Do please get in touch to pre-order your copies now! Russell Brand might even want to read it and maybe Paxman too!

Russell Brand in New Statesman http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/10/russell-brand-on-revolution

Comment on Brand in the Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/russell-brand-is-far-from-trivial-on-newsnight-he-made-paxman-look-ridiculous-8901524.html

Radio 4’s Analysis programme on Quantitative Easing http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03dfpjt

 

Values and The Movement

 

Avaaz Bee Campaign

In my last blog I wrote about ‘The Movement’. I now want to write about what are the values that underlie this movement and what distinguishes it from the mainstream. This is a global phenomenon of existential importance.

We live in a world dominated by a value system that is both destroying the very biosphere upon which we depend and which holds a global hegemony. This worldview sees no alternative to consumer driven capitalism, underpinned by the maximization of short term profits and an essentially neoliberal set of economic policies. It sees competition between nation-states as natural and nationalist foreign policy as therefore inevitable, with the defence and security spending priorities that this implies. It also sees very little wrong with increasing levels of inequality, just so long as the rich are getting richer. Economic growth and national self-interest are the key policy goals. Political parties of left and right, the mass media, the financial and business lobbyists all maintain that there is no alternative to this.

Meanwhile there is a rapidly growing movement that sees the world very differently. Ecological sustainability and global social justice are the twin principles that drive this movement. It sees the damage humanity is doing to the planet and to ourselves through myriad forms of pollution and destruction and believes that there are better ways of doing things, be it how we generate and use energy, how we build, farm or how we organise our economic and political life. Cooperation is seen as more vital than competition and fairer distribution more important than overall economic growth. The active pursuit of peace and non-violence are key aspects of this movement.

We can see these two rival worldviews being played out daily in debates over climate change, economic, social or housing policy, or quite frankly just about anything else. Take the global decline in bees as an example. The movement organised globally, but especially in Europe and focused on the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides within the EU. Avaaz, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, The Soil Association and innumerable other organisations networked and petitioned, wrote scientific reports and lobbied politicians. Syngenta, Bayer and other agrochemical companies lobbied against the ban. The corporates had the ear of the UK government which voted against the ban, but the EU as a whole, influenced by the citizen’s movement and by the European Food Safety Authority voted in favour of a ban. One small victory for the movement, many more happen daily, many more campaigns ahead.

Links re bee decline and the neonicotinoid ban:- 

The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/apr/29/bee-harming-pesticides-banned-europe

Greenpeace report on bee decline  http://bees-decline.org/

Some of the organisations involved in campaigning for bees http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/news/news_topic.php?

id=871http://www.soilassociation.org/wildlife/bees/beeresearch

http://www.foe.co.uk/what_we_do/the_bee_cause_home_map_39371.html

http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_bees_global/


The Movement

In my last blog I wrote ‘I feel strongly a part of something very big and very little understood’ a movement that stands for ‘real social justice, real democracy and real ecological sustainability’. For me it is a source of optimism and hope, and it is as I said last time, of ‘profound significance’. It does not have a single name. In the 1980’s we talked of ‘The Green Movement’ and ‘The Peace Movement’, now there is ‘The Global Justice Movement’ and many other terms.

In my teenage years the Vietnam War and the Prague Spring were rallying points against the tyranny of violent superpower domination, be it American or Soviet it made little difference. I was on the side of the students on the street. In a way I still am. This is a movement perhaps better viewed through action and membership than through ideology or books (although books such as George Monbiot’s ‘Age of Consent’ or Paul Hawken’s ‘Blessed Unrest’ are useful introductions)

This movement manifests in virtually every country on earth. The internet and other digital technology allow us to work in powerful new ways. Avaaz launched in January 2007 and now has over 24 million members in 194 countries and perhaps better than any other single organisation gives the movement global expression, but it must be stressed that no one organisation gives leadership or is in control. Some estimates put the number of organisations that are part of this movement at somewhere around 10 million, ranging from the tiny to the vast, the locally focused to the globally focused. Here in Herefordshire we have many groups, some loosely coalesce in the Herefordshire in Transition Alliance.

Things are kicking off this week in Brazil, Turkey and Egypt, and all in part reflect this movement. One of the defining principles of this movement is the absolute rejection of all forms of violence. On the streets things get messy as members of this movement mix with others with very different agendas. As ever we have to hope that the forces for peace and justice prevail in the end.

Inequality inevitably destroys democracy

Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson in their book ‘Why nations fail: the origins of power, prosperity and poverty’ take a broad sweep though human history and demonstrate that inclusive political institutions are vital for long term prosperity, while extractive systems undermine both prosperity and functional democracy. These authors fail to make clear the extent to which inequality is now destroying countries long thought of as democratic, especially USA.

One statistic demonstrates the extent to which the USA must now be regarded as a failed state. “The top 400 people … own more wealth now than the bottom 185 million Americans taken together. That is a medieval structure.” (Gar Alperovitz) In January the Guardian Weekly quoted Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive, who said extreme wealth was “economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive”. ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, ‘Affluenza’ by Oliver James, Annie Leonard’s ‘Story of Stuff’ videos would all be known to many of the readers of this blog, and all give ample evidence to the destructive effects of excessive wealth.

Our mainstream political parties have utterly failed us in America and Britain. Barack Obama is probably the best candidate either the Democrats or Republicans could have come up with and yet judged by any meaningful political or economic indicators he has been a disaster. The extent to which the American state is in the hands of a few rich individuals and corporations makes democracy a sham. The UK is not much better. Inequality has risen consistently from the Thatcher era through Blair, Brown, and Cameron. Paranoia over terrorism has forced us into pointless wars and unprecedented surveillance.

However I remain optimistic. One reason is the burgeoning size and dynamism of what Paul Hawken in ‘Blessed Unrest’ calls ‘The Movement’. We can see it active on the streets of Brazil and Turkey, in the growth of online activism with Avaaz and 350.org, in the increasing global numbers of bottom up, self organising community groups. This movement is profoundly egalitarian, inclusive and global. I feel strongly a part of something very big and very little understood. We demand real social justice, real democracy and real ecological sustainability. I’ll write more about this movement over coming weeks: it is of profound significance.

 

The 400 individuals to 185 million ratio of American inequality is one I heard the excellent Ted Howard of the Evergreen Coops quote at a meeting in Hereford, but here is quoted by Gar Alperovitz on the democracy now website http://www.democracynow.org/2012/7/16/gar_alperovitzs_green_party_keynote_we

The books referred to in today’s blog are:-

‘Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty’ by Daron Acemoglu & James A Robinson, Profile Books, 2012

‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, Penguin, 2009

‘Affluenza’ by Oliver James, Vermilion, 2007

‘Blessed Unrest’ by Paul Hawken, Penguin, 2007

Tax Justice Now!

We are in the Anthropocene. Humanity has to rise to the challenge and take responsibility so that we can return to a position within the safe Planetary Boundaries, so ably described by Mark Lynas in his ‘The God Species: How Humans Really Can Save The Planet’ (see last blog) In a blog last November I proposed a global wish list outlining some of the steps we might take to a better future. I suggested raising a large sum, perhaps between 10 to 20 trillion pounds or dollars annually and some ways of doing this.

Recently the Tax Justice Network commissioned the economist James Henry to write a report on tax evasion and avoidance. His conclusion is that there is at least $21 trillion sitting in offshore accounts, and that as a result the rest of us are left to pay for the essential services of a civilized state, while these morally bankrupt and excessively rich individuals shirk their responsibilities. It’s time to make them pay. James Henry suggests a globally administered system is the only way to make it work, and he suggests that a 0.5% tax would raise 100 billion annually, and I might argue why not levy a 5% tax on these accounts and raise one trillion dollars. If as seems likely much of this money has come from illegal activities then better still to simply freeze the accounts and investigate which are legitimate and which illegal.

On 8th July I posted a blog advocating transferring our money out of the morally bankrupt banks and into real sustainability and social justice enhancing projects and into the more ethical banking sector. This report from the Tax Justice Network amplifies these arguments. Globally the worst aspects are to be seen in the poorest countries where kleptomaniac despots squirrel away the people’s money into their private offshore accounts, aided and abetted by this morally bankrupt industry. It’s time to change all this. I can certainly think of plenty of projects that would really help both global social justice and ecological sustainability, that would genuinely increase human wellbeing and that could put these trillions to good use! (For a few suggestions see forthcoming blogs!)

James Henry article and video clip

Tax Justice Network

Consumerism and the Need for Equality


Hello to all my readers, and I hope you’ve all had a “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. But what might that mean to a readership interested in Climate Change, Ecological Sustainability and Social Justice? As the crowds flock to the January Sales and enormous quantities of gifts were given at Christmas, many of us feel that this period of the year has become an epic festival of consumerism. Many of us in the Green movement have for long criticized this rampant consumerism and in turn often been criticized as kill-joy, hair-shirted environmentalists.
Perhaps we all already know that business as usual is not an option: we all need to change. Maybe a sustainable future doesn’t need to be as frugal and low tech as many Greens have long advocated. On the other hand a life ever more satiated with stuff clearly isn’t the root to greater happiness, as Oliver James’s book “Affluenza” wonderfully illustrates. The best hope it seems to me is for an evolution toward greater equality, thus reducing the insatiable desire for new stuff driven by status competition. “The Spirit Level” by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson brilliantly argues the benefits of greater equality within societies.
Annie Leonard has made a number of great video clips about consumer driven capitalism and the need for change. See the 21 minute “The Story of Stuff” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLBE5QAYXp8
Capitalism and the retail industry has a very long way to go to become sustainable in ecological terms; but small changes are happening as this interesting article in the Guardian shows http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/sep/17/uk-retailers-cut-waste-half
The mid-winter break, Christmas and the New Year, is not all about consumerism. The other side of the coin is very much a positive one of sharing food and drink, good conversation and country walks with family, friends and neighbours. There is also a powerful tradition of helping the poor at this time of year. This surely is something we can all agree on, and celebrate together!

Local and Global Thinking and Action


(350 kids in the Hindu Kush)
h-Energy week is over. Was it a success? Well large parts were; many of the events were very well attended, including most of the “small” rural ones and the very successful Transition Towns meeting with Rob Hopkins speaking plus literally dozens of others making 45 second presentations, ably organised by Rob Garner and Nick Sherwood. Saturdays technology showcase in the Shirehall had lots of exhibitors of solar panels and a few other bits of hardware, but was poorly attended and the talks section wasn’t organised at all and was cancelled at the last minute; the first time that’s happened at an event where I’ve been due to speak. Bit of a disappointment. But overall the week was a success, and well organised by Kate and Ali.
All the events of h-Energy week in Herefordshire were registered as just one of the 7347 events in 188 countries that made up the extraordinary 10/10/10 Global Work Party organised by 350.org The global reach of this has been amazing; actions in all but four countries in the world, and reaching into every corner of every continent. Avaaz.org is another of this new wave of global green campaigning organisations who are achieving remarkable results, and with membership growing at 100,000 per month they’re getting a lot done. See http://www.avaaz.org/en/global_victory_report/?cl=785972663&v=7362
The task confronting humanity to reduce atmospheric Co2 to 350 ppm is daunting, but with the growing global campaign and the strengthening technological possibilities of moving to 100% renewable energy it is, I feel, increasingly encouraging. Political will has been lacking, but I see increasing signs that this is changing. Herefordshire Council commissioned Wardle Armstrong to write a report on the possibilities for local generation within Herefordshire and Alex Salmond recently forecast Scotland will be generating 100% renewable electricity by 2025. Things are changing! http://newsnetscotland.com/general/702-renewables-can-supply-all-of-scotlands-electricity-by-2025