GM: a red herring, a straw doll and the elephant in the room

gm_cartoon

Click on this to read a summary of the issue.

I just sent the letter below to the BBC’s DG. It’s self-explanatory.

Lord Tony Hall
Director-General and Editor-in-Chief
The BBC

Dear Lord Hall

GM: a red herring, a straw doll and the elephant in the room

I am writing, not for the first time, to challenge the BBC’s apparent lack of integrity in its approach to the issue of GM food crops. This time I am addressing you, the Director-General, directly, as I have not previously received a satisfactory response. I feel compelled, as someone with social and environmental awareness as well as a scientific background, to continue to call your organisation to account for what could be perceived to be uncritical support for companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer, the former of which was recently condemned by an international tribunal of five judges:

‘The judges conclude that Monsanto has engaged in practices which have negatively impacted the right to a healthy environment, the right to food and the right to health. On top of that Monsanto’s conduct is negatively affecting the right to freedom indispensable for scientific research. … International law should be improved for better protection of the environment and include the crime of ecocide. The Tribunal concludes that if such a crime of ecocide were recognized in international criminal law, the activities of Monsanto could possibly constitute a crime of ecocide.’
(See https://systemicdisorder.wordpress.com/2017/04/26/monsanto-human-rights-environment/.)

In ‘The Life Scientific’, broadcast on Radio 4 on the morning of 16 May 2017 , Professor Jim Al-Khalili addresses Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University (SLCU), as follows, ‘We’re all aware of the need for a sustainable and secure food supply. How might your knowledge, of how plants grow, help?’ After Professor Leyser’s response to this seemingly innocuous question, Professor Al-Khalili goes on to say, ‘We hear a lot about modern technologies, like GM, playing an increasingly important role in agriculture. How might GM fit into this new, holistic picture?’

Professor Leyser answers, ‘GM can play a really important role. The role is very specific and limited: where there are traits that you can introduce into a crop that depend on a single gene, or a very small number of genes. One very good example is disease resistance, and there are single genes that can make a huge difference in protecting plants against major plant pests.’

Professor Al-Khalili continues, ‘Obviously a lot of people are nervous when they hear “GM”, so should we be worried?’

Professor Leyser replies, ‘No. GM has very little to define it uniquely that’s different from anything that we have been doing for a very long time. We used to be thinking about the collection of genes that plants have as very kind of stable, fixed things and the idea that adding one in through genetic modification was somehow a big disturbance to that system, but what we’ve learned about genomes over the last two decades is that they are frankly a mess, and the kinds of things we’ve done to them through conventional breeding – the scrambling kinds of effects – are far stronger than anything we can do by putting in one gene by GM, and it would be a good thing if we moved forward into a discussion about how do we deliver [a] safe and sustainable supply of high quality food that was distributed with some improvement in the level of social justice. There are no simple solutions and it is certainly the case that having GM or not having GM will make no difference on that landscape at all.’

Professor Al-Khalili says, ‘Of course, people often tend to think of any changes we make to the environment as unnatural, and therefore bad.’

Professor Leyser responds, ‘This is another key area where if you think like a plant, very rapidly it’s clear that that way of thinking is absurd, so let’s think like a plant. The thing we are eating, as people, is mostly seed: seed – plant babies. Plants do not want you to eat their babies, so most plants are hotly defending this seed. It’s indigestible, it’s small; some of the nastiest toxins we know about come from seeds. What we have done in 10,000 years of agricultural domestication, is essentially unilateral disarmament, to take out from the natural plants the things that make them poor crops, not so good to eat, not so easy to cultivate. So again we have to move away from this natural-unnatural dichotomy, because it’s a false dichotomy.’

There is a disturbing amount of disinformation/propaganda packed into this short exchange, much of which could come from a standard Monsanto crib sheet, given the similarity of the content to that of previous programmes and to the utterances of GM advocates in other fora. I attempt below to analyze what was said. (For a more detailed and referenced set of arguments on GM, please see my blog article – Pro-GM = anti-science. – in which I critique the statements of GM advocates on the Sense About Science website. You will also notice my reference to another BBC programme.)

Credibility of the interviewee

It is surely the duty of professional journalists to establish interviewees’ expertise on the specific topics being discussed, and also to reveal any vested interests such interviewees might have. Here, as happens all too often, we have an expert on gene expression being asked broad questions about the wide role of GM crops and concerns about this technology, with no revelation of her financial ties to the industry.

There is no reason to believe, from her research background, that Professor Leyser knows more about the de facto impact of GM crop technology, as pushed and implemented by Monsanto et al., on the environment (biodiversity), economics, social justice and health, than the average person on the street. Furthermore, as the Sainsbury Laboratory and Cambridge University have multiple financial links to these organisations (and the Sainsbury Laboratory is part funded by Lord Sainsbury, one of the UK’s biggest GM supporters with shares in the industry), she has good reason to avoid criticising GM. (See  Scientists’ hidden links to the GM food giants: Disturbing truth behind official report that said UK should forge on with Frankenfoods.)

In short, Professor Leyser is not a credible witness on the wider issues she was asked to address, and the BBC failed to make this clear.

Red herring

As per the putative pro-GM crib sheet, Professor Al-Khalili started his apparent attempts to elicit pro-GM statements by invoking that old red herring, albeit subtly, that a fundamental issue is a global shortage of food, and then trying to get his guest to state that GM technology addresses this supposed issue. While he does not explicitly say that there is an absolute global shortage of food (‘We’re all aware of the need for a sustainable and secure food supply’), the uninformed listener would probably have interpreted his words to mean that there is.

The problem is not total production; rather it is the interconnected issues of financial speculation, economic inequality, poor distribution, waste and spoilage. Far from tackling these issues, GM-crop technology fosters monopolies over seed and food production, promotes an environmentally destructive and inefficient agro-industrial approach to food production and widens inequality. Despite all the promises made by the advocates of GM crops over the years, and the vast amount of money spent on research, there are only two developments with major impacts (and these are overwhelmingly negative): so-called ‘Bt’ technology (the introduction of Bacillus thuringiensis genes to make plants pest resistant) and glyphosate resistance (which allows the increased use of herbicide).

Furthermore, the evidence that GM actually boosts food production is mixed, to say the least. There is abundant evidence that GM crops are expensive and have a high environmental impact and that the absolute yields from much more environmentally benign and cheaper forms of agriculture (for example, those described by such not-necessarily-exclusive terms as ‘eco-agriculture’, ‘organic farming’, ‘permaculture’, ‘agroforestry’ and ‘analogue forestry’) are at least comparable, if not higher, particularly in conditions found in the developing world. Of course the yields of GM crops, in relative terms (relative to cost or fossil fuel input, for example) are hugely higher, and this is a far more important point, especially in the context of absolute food production not being an issue.

Highly questionable assertion

There are several questionable statements made by Professor Leyser, but the one that particularly stands out is her assertion that GM makes no difference to the issue of social justice. Is she not aware of the fact that this technology is patented and monopolised by a handful of ruthless organisations, whose last concern appears to be social justice? Given the conclusions of the recent Monsanto tribunal, referred to above, it was surely remiss of Professor Al-Khalili not to challenge her on her amazing statement.

Straw doll

When proponents of GM crops are attempting to defend the technology they often avoid mentioning the more serious and grounded concerns raised by sceptics (such as the huge amount of money spent by the industry fighting the labelling of their produce, something which would facilitate large-scale investigations of the possible impact of this produce on human and animal health – see Opponents of GM Labeling Triple Lobbying Spending in 2014). Instead, they tend to mention spurious and/or ‘less scientific’ objections, seeking to use such straw dolls to damage the credibility of their critics, and to imply that they are ‘anti-science’ ignoramuses.

Professor Al-Khalili apparently sought to do exactly this, with his (disingenuous?) remark about ‘any changes […] to the environment [being] unnatural, and therefore bad’. We are not talking here about ‘any changes to the environment’. We are talking about a technology that is destroying the biodiversity upon which a future food supply depends, by fostering a monoculture-based agroindustry which displaces indigenous varieties and the people who developed and propagated them over centuries (an issue of which laboratory-bound ‘GM experts’ appear blithely unaware). This is to say nothing of the effects of glyphosate. We are talking about the attempted control of a major proportion of the global food supply by a handful of companies. We are talking about a technology which goes hand-in-glove with the destruction of food sovereignty, which is the elephant in the room at most BBC discussions of GM crops.

The elephant in the room: food sovereignty

I would be grateful if the BBC stopped its apparent championing of the GM food industry and addressed the balance of its coverage of it, setting it in the context of the global struggle for food sovereignty (http://www.globaljustice.org.uk/what-food-sovereignty). Please interview people such as Vandana Shiva , some of those who attended the recent European forum for food sovereignty (I can put you in touch with Scottish delegates), representatives of La Via Campesina, the authors of ‘Who benefits from GM crops? The great climate change swindle.’, etc.

To conclude on a more general point, please stop presenting as experts on Topics B-Z people who only know about the thin end of Topic A, and please reveal any vested interests of your interviewees (and interviewers). To fail to do so is surely to be complicit in misinforming the public.

Thank you for considering this. I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

R. Eric Swanepoel PhD (zoology/ecotoxicology), MSc (ecology), BVSc, MRCVS

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Tribunal finds Monsanto an abuser of human rights and environment

I am reblogging this as I think the topic is so important. You will find many articles on the topic of GM food on my blog!

Systemic Disorder

The corporation most determined to acquire control of the world’s food supply, a behemoth determined to bend the world’s farmers to its will, douse the world with pesticides and place genetically modified organisms on everyone’s dinner plate, Monsanto Company has long operated beyond effective control.

Although in no position to alter that status by itself, the International Monsanto Tribunal believes it could set an example of how international law could be used to counter the immense power of the company. The idea behind the tribunal, convened seven months ago, is that an international panel of legal professionals and practicing judges would provide victims and their legal counsel with arguments and legal grounds for further lawsuits in courts of law.

The tribunal, consisting of five international judges, has found Monsanto guilty. The tribunal is not a court of law and it has no power to enforce any judgment. The decision…

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Cheap 48x magnifier with large screen for visually impaired

UPDATE, May 2017.

I have been commissioned to make another of the items described below. This one will involve a table-top box, on which the TV will sit, and to which the arm holding the video camera will be attached. The precise design will depend on the details of the video camera I have ordered, which might not arrive until mid-July. Details will be published on this blog in due course.

Introduction: two projects to help the visually impaired

This is the second of two posts on projects to help the visually impaired, motivated by the desire to assist an elderly relative with macular degeneration who is not computer-literate. Anything to help her had to be simple to operate and not involve computers. A further restriction was that it should not be too expensive. (You can find the first post here:
Audio books for the visually impaired: cheap alternative to special MP3-player.)

Project Two: a cheap way of achieving huge magnification

Background: TVs and video cameras

Many people these days have TVs with AV input sockets which accept jacks from video devices, and many video cameras come with cables and jacks which fit. When such cameras are plugged in, to the AV1 or AV2 sockets, the appropriate input source is selected on the TV, and the camera is switched on, the TV screen effectively becomes the camera’s viewfinder, showing whatever the camera is pointing at.

However, most inexpensive video cameras do not have macro capability, i.e. they cannot focus on objects near the lens, which means they are not of much use for reading newsprint and the like.

Even if one has a video camera which can focus on objects a few centimetres away, the least movement renders the image unstable and/or out of focus, and therefore impossible to read. Given that people will sometimes want to read very large items with small print, such as newspapers, any means of mechanically supporting a camera must not get in the way of such items, or make it difficult to move them.

The solutions: attaching magnifying glasses to the camera and attaching the camera to a fold-down boom

in_action_lowest_magnification

The completed unit in action at the lowest magnification (12x)

in_action_highest_magnification

The completed unit in action with the camera zoom set to 4x, giving an effective overall magnification of 48x.

I found a cheap video camera through Gumtree. It was a Telefunken TVC-500 5 MP, almost brand new, but going for less than a sixth of its new price, possibly because the manual was missing – what a bargain! This camera has a 4x zoom.

I then looked for good magnifying glasses, and found this one in a local discount store (Game in South Africa, the country I was visiting at the time):

magnifying_glass

This cheap magnifying glass comes with 12 LEDs to light up whatever one is looking at, although it only offers 3x magnification.

I then played around with this and other old magnifying glasses and found that by holding the one I had bought and a smaller one tightly together in front of the camera’s lens I could get the camera to focus on objects less than 20 cm away, making significant magnification possible.

Next, I wound tape around the handles of the magnifying glasses, and then used wire and an old hose clamp that happened to be handy to attach the lenses to each other:

lenses_attached

Magnifying glasses attached to each other using tape, wire and a hose clamp.

The next step was to attach this magnifying glass unit to the camera. I found that the best focus was obtained with the lens of the large magnifying glass virtually touching the front lens of the video camera.

First I mounted the camera on a piece of hardboard, attaching it to the hardboard by drilling a hole and then bolting it on using the hole on the camera meant for a tripod. (Fortunately I found an old bolt of the right diameter and threading parameters. It was a bit long however, so I put several washers on it, including a rubber one to give the attachment a bit of resilience.)

camera_mount_with_magnifying_glasses_attached.jpg

Camera removed from finished unit to show how magnifying glasses are attached.

Then I made a little rectangular frame from a strip of wood with a square cross-section of sides of about 15 mm. This was attached to the ‘front’ end of the hardboard, around the camera’s lens, such that it sat virtually flush with the front of this lens. I used both glue and small screws for this, drilling pilot holes for the screws so that the wood would not split. I then attached the magnifying glass unit to this frame. In order to do this, I played around with pieces of cardboard, cutting various shapes until I had fashioned two odd-looking shapes which would hold the frame of the large magnifying glass flush against the wooden frame around the camera lens when screwed to this frame. I used these pieces of cardboard as templates to trace out their designs onto the thin plastic of the lid of an old ice cream container. I then cut out the shapes from his ice cream container and screwed them into place. They held the magnifying glass unit in place very well.

marked_ice-cream_lid

The magnifying glasses were attached to the camera unit with plastic strips cut from the top of an ice cream carton. I designed the strips by playing with pieces of cardboard until I was happy with the shape, and then used the cardboard pieces as templates, which I traced onto the ice cream container before cutting out. Above you can see one such template and its traced outline.

boom_attachment

The bookshelf end of the boom (raised position), showing the stopper to hold it in place when lowered.

The next thing I wanted to do was to attach the camera unit to a boom (made of the same 15 x 15 mm square cross-section wood I had already used), such that it could be held in place the perfect distance above a small table on which reading material could be put. (Of course, it also needed to be such a length that the camera would remain within the length of the connecting cable from the TV, when plugged in.) While most reading material would be thin, I wanted to allow for the reading of thicker items, such as telephone directories and food packets. I found an empty box, which could be put on the small table to raise thin items and removed when thick items were to be viewed.

I then attached the boom to the camera, in the way that can be seen in the photographs, and attached the boom to a bookshelf next to the TV. The camera can be rotated slightly thanks to a wingnut arrangement. It’s easier for you to understand this from the photographs than for me to explain it in text!

I drilled a hole about 20 cm from the bookshelf end of the boom such that it would fit loosely around a screw I drove into the side of the bookshelf. The boom then rotated around the screw and could be lowered into position such that the camera was above the reading table. In order to hold it in the right position, I screwed a small piece of wood to the bookshelf to act as a stopper for the boom.

The next step was to tie a small piece of cord to another bookshelf so that it could be looped around the protruding wingnut and hold the camera out of the way when not is use.

raised_position

Camera unit from the side in the raised position, showing the cord looped around the wingnut to hold it up.

The final set-up works perfectly. Without the camera zoom it gives 12x magnification. When the zoom is fully activated (4x) it gives 48x magnification.

My visually impaired relative can now easily read small print. All she has to do (if she is not using the zoom) is switch the camera and TV on (assuming the TV is left switched to AV1), position the table and what she is reading, and lower the boom.

The total cost of this (as I had tools, scrap wood, and other materials to hand, and the TV was already there) was R350 for the camera + R99 for the new magnifying glass, which is less than £30.

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Audio books for the visually impaired: cheap alternative to special MP3-player

Introduction: two projects to help the visually impaired

This is the first of two posts on projects to help the visually impaired, motivated by the desire to assist an elderly relative with macular degeneration who is not computer-literate. Anything to help her had to be simple to operate and not involve computers. A further restriction was that it should not be too expensive. (The second post can be viewed here: Cheap 48x magnifier with large screen for visually impaired.)

Project One: a cheap and easy way of accessing audio books

Background: why cassette tape-players and MP3-players are unsuitable

Victor_Stream

MP3-players for the visually impaired, such as this one, can be pricey.

Cassette tapes were excellent for the visually impaired as the players were cheap, and a tape plays from the exact place at which one has stopped it (which is, in effect, a perfect bookmark). However, audio books (‘talking books’) on tape are no longer produced commercially, they are bulky, and they are time-consuming to produce from digital formats. Furthermore, the technology to play them is increasingly hard to find.

These days, audio books are widely available in digital format. The ideal way to access digital files is through MP3-players, but most are extremely difficult for the visually impaired to use, and those that are not, such as the Victor Reader Stream, are expensive.

CDs offer an intermediate option. They are not as bulky as cassette tapes and can be burnt from digital files relatively quickly and easily. However, CD-players for the visually impaired, such as the Victor Reader Stratus 4 DAISY Player are, just like special MP3-players, very pricey.

The solution: labelling a cheap CD-player with a resume function

I thought I could adapt a cheap CD-player to make it easier for a visually impaired person to use, but one essential criterion was that it should start playing a CD from the place that it was stopped. In other words, it should have a proper resume or bookmark function, as distinct from a mere pause function.

I used Ecosia, my favourite search engine, to do some research, and found this video on YouTube:

What was particularly useful was the information below the video, and I reproduce it here so that if the video is removed it can still be accessed:

The Resume Play feature you get on many (not all) Sony Discmans (ie CD Walkmans) is very useful for playing CD audiobooks. With ‘Resume Play’, when playing a CD, when you press stop, the discman stops and turns itself off. When you press play again, it starts the CD from the point at which you stopped, the same as a cassette tape would play, and not from the beginning. Very handy.

For some reason, boogie pack and Hifi type CD players do not normally have resume play — you can put them on pause, but it is not ideal to do this for long periods

To see if a Discman has the resume feature, you can find and check the user manual for many Discmans at this url:

http://esupport.sony.com/US/p/select-system.pl?DIRECTOR=DOCS

Select Product category — ‘CD Walkman’ then the series and model number.

Don’t have resume:
D-130, 131, 132CK, 133 — early model — great buttons.
Series D-E220 / 225 — 200′s don’t resume.

Have a Resume slide-switch:
Traditional layout with flip-up lid and CD player buttons — car kit version has a lighter socket 12v to 4.5v adapter.
D33 — 1992
D-E300, 301, 305 , 307CK (have nice layout)
Sony DE 400 / 401 / 403, 405 / 406 409, 446CK (CK = car kit)
D-E405 is a good choice — 1998 has resume + lineout

Models with Resume play as default:
More recent and current Discmans have Resume Play as default –
When you press play after having stopped, resume play is the default and you have to hold the play button down for 2 seconds to get it to start from the beginning
D-E330, 340, 350, 351, 356ck
Circle shaped — D-EJnnn series eg EJ915 and D-FJnnn series have it built in.
We assume they all have, but you can check on the Sony website above.

Other notes:
The 90′s Discmans won’t play CD-R’s that you have made yourself — later models will play CD-RW’s. This is useful for playing copies of CDs.
D-EJ915 has internal proprietary flat rechargeable NiMh batteries.

Other Makes –
There are lots of other makes of discmans — we haven’t checked for resume play.
Technics SL-XP505 (nice player) says it has resume, but it resumes from the start of the track / chapter you were on, which is not nearly as good, as you have to fast forward to the point you were at.

Having watched the video and read the text below it, I searched various online suppliers for cheap Discmans and found several advertised on eBay. I looked for their instruction manuals using the http://esupport.sony.com/US/p/select-system.pl?DIRECTOR=DOCS link to check if they had resume functions, and discovered that the D-E300AN would do:
resume_function
Furthermore, I could get this player by express delivery for less than £25 in total.

I ordered it. It duly arrived, and it worked perfectly.

Furthermore, I discovered that, at least on the ESP (Electronic Shock Protection) setting, it resumed playing not merely within 30 seconds of the place at which it was stopped, but within a second – perfect!

The next step was to make it easier for a visually impaired person to use.

I marked the essential buttons with pieces of white paper marked with coloured pen.

I then cut out a piece of white cardboard to cover the lid, and then wrote the main function buttons on this in large coloured letters.

I also bent some paperclips and stuck these to the cardboard with sticky tape, such that if one felt along them from the letters they would guide one’s fingers to the appropriate buttons.

I then fixed the cardboard to the top with double-sided tape. (One little mistake I made was to overshoot slightly with the double-sided tape, such that the lid stuck down and did not open when the eject button was pressed, but this was easily fixed.)

CD-player

The CD-player with labels and bent paperclip finger-guides. Note the electricity plugged in: with rechargeable batteries the device itself effectively becomes rechargeable!

The final device works beautifully and the user is very happy with it. I am sure that she will quickly learn where the buttons are so that we can remove the cardboard and bent-paperclip guides.

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False-flag false flags? Why supporters of Scottish independence need to be careful about what they say re terrorism.

I believe that the appropriate immediate response to any act of violence perpetrated on non-combatants is to condemn all such acts out of hand and express sympathy for the victims. The most counterproductive response, if one is trying to build support for a movement opposed to the powers-that-be, is to speculate about false-flag operations.

I saw one outspoken supposed supporter of Scottish independence immediately using the term ‘false flag’ on Facebook in the wake of 22 March’s terrorist attack on civilians and the police at Westminster. Few things are more likely to damage the cause of Scottish independence than this sort of seemingly knee-jerk response.

Indeed, it plays into the hands of the British state, to the extent that if they were tempted to undertake false-flag operations then, ironically, this is the sort of thing they might do. I am not saying that the police/MI5 are responsible for this particular person’s actions, but at the very least they would welcome it.  Craig Murray has gone further:

11 April 2015:

A sweeping SNP victory on May 7 is considered enough of a threat to the United Kingdom for the security services to use up some assets. Long term sleepers within the SNP will now be activated, so expect to find one or two such events traced to apparent bona fide SNP members.

More importantly, a major thrust will be agent provocateur activity. Security service agents within the SNP will be trying to initiate and to egg on (yes, that is a deliberate and relevant Jim Murphy reference, think about it) impressionable members to vandalism or violence. Be very, very wary of such people and do not be tempted.

There are, 100% for certain, MI5 agents online posing as “cybernats” who will be quoted in the media saying outlandishly unpleasant and threatening things. We will also see more incidents like the Murphy eggs or the complete set-up of the “mob” jostling Miliband in the St James Centre, which by chance I witnessed.

21 June 2011:

There is, beyond any doubt, a police operation to infiltrate left wing groups in the UK with spies.

I don’t think it is wise to jump immediately and publicly to conclusions about who did what and why. Think about what impact your words will have on the wider public.

In the long run, of course, one can set things in context:

  • What the UK has suffered is as nothing compared to the suffering it has inflicted on others, such as the hundreds of thousands killed directly or indirectly in Iraq, or the treatment meted out to the residents of Diego Garcia, but one act (or many acts) of violence against civilians does (do) not justify another.
  • One can argue that the only way to combat terrorism is to treat others with compassion and fairness, to defend civil liberties and to promote social and legal justice. (For me, this, and combating climate change, as Scotland creates an inspiring alternative to neoliberalism, are the reasons I support Scottish independence.)

These points, however, should never be expressed in such a way as to give the impression of diminished sympathy for victims or diminished condemnation of the actions of perpetrators, however one might understand their mental states.

P.S. I am aware of the irony of citing Craig Murray’s words about the extent to which the British state is prepared to undertake false-flag operations in an article in which I urge people not to make quick accusations of false-flag operations, but I hope the gist of what I am trying to say is clear.

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Another Scottish independence campaign in the context of capitalism’s end-days: how to campaign coherently?

The end days of neoliberal capitalism

I have just watched the video below, in which Chris Hedges compellingly describes what is happening right now in the USA (and elsewhere). He paints a disturbing vision of the end-days of neoliberal capitalism, and possibly of humanity: a corporate takeover and kleptocracy. Overused adjectives like ‘dystopian’ and ‘Orwellian’ come to mind. It rings worryingly true.

Devouring every morsel

Predatory capitalism, in its death throes, is devouring every last morsel of the common good. The environment, healthcare and every public and state institution are all grist to its mill, along with justice and human rights, as the bloated military machine (a means of channelling resources into the rapacious maws of the super-rich) is super-super-sized, and minorities are systematically scapegoated for people’s misery in a relentless campaign of misinformation and propaganda, which leaves people confused and disempowered.

Left must come down from moral high ground

Towards the end of the video, Mr Hedges talks about the need for a broad campaign of non-violent resistance – of civil disobedience – for which a major requirement is that former enemies come together in a common cause, and that those who despise aspects of each other’s philosophies work together. He talks about the need for listening to each other, and says, in effect, that the left must come down from its various perches on its fragmented and partisan moral high ground and reach out. (These are my words for what he is attempting to convey.)

Galvanising alternative philosophy needed for Scottish independence and to defeat neoliberalism

While this seems compelling, I am struggling to see what practical lessons can be taken from it in the context of another Scottish independence campaign, especially in light of Bruce K. Alexander’s call (to me, self-evidently correct) for a ‘galvanising alternative philosophy’ to ‘hypercapitalism’ in his must-read book, The Globalisation of Addiction, A Study in Poverty of the Spirit, recently echoed by George Monbiot and, in the context of Scottish independence, by Jonathan Shafi of the Radical Independence Campaign.

I completely agree with Mr Shafi that we need such a galvanising philosophy if we are to win independence, and for me the establishment of a world based on such a philosophy is the only reason for Scottish independence, because a country in thrall to transnational corporations and the kleptocracy is not independent in any meaningful sense, and cannot act as a beacon for others.

Yes, I believe that the UK, without a free and independent Scotland to show the way, is a lost cause, drifting ever faster towards the nihilistic maelstrom described by Mr Hedges.

Staying part of the UK would not be an act of solidarity or brotherly/sisterly love. It would be folly; we would be entering a mutual suicide pact.

If we care about people in the rest of the UK, we owe it to them, as much as ourselves, to break free and show the way. For that I am convinced that we desperately need a ‘galvanising alternative philosophy’.

Dilemma

So how is it possible to put across a ‘galvanising alternative philosophy’ in a new Scottish independence campaign while not treading on the sensibilities of those who call for a Scotland ‘open for business’ (by which they effectively mean open for plundering by transnational companies), those who think the answer is low rates of corporation tax, those who support being a member of Nato (and therefore of the massive military-industrial complex at the rotten heart of neoliberal capitalism)…? (See ‘Tax breaks for “job-creators”? Toolkit for busting this and other neoliberal myths.‘ for evidence of the wrong-headedness of some of these beliefs.)

Without painting a detailed compelling vision of a world in which everyone and the environment are treated with dignity and respect, which necessarily means one in which corporate persons (specifically those in the form of transnational corporations) are not accorded privilege, how are we to galvanise people, and what are we fighting for?

If we win ‘independence’ under an essentially neoliberal regime, I cannot see another opportunity arising to break free of this poisonous doctrine, as we drift Trump-wards.

I think that if we stray any further to the right, we shall be unable to swim against the ever-stronger current, and we shall enter the maelstrom. If we were to win ‘independence’ under an essentially neoliberal regime, then I cannot see another opportunity arising to break free of this poisonous doctrine, as we continue to drift Trump-wards.

Conclusion: education, education, education?

I, for one, would struggle to argue for an independence in which Scotland is pictured as forging ahead with (neoliberal) business largely as usual, and I cannot see any ‘galvanising alternative philosophy’ in this.

I have no clever answer to this fundamental dilemma – how to make common cause with those who support the very forces responsible for the world’s problems, while painting a compelling vision of a better world – but I do know one thing which can help: education and awareness.

We urgently need to get facts across, in a non-hectoring way, to fellow independence-supporters as much as anyone else, before the forces of unreason close rationality down in the way Mr Hedges describes.

Huge difference between ‘pro-business’ and ‘pro-transnational corporation’

Perhaps we can convince independence-supporters of the ‘pro-business’ variety that there is a huge difference between supporting business, per se, and supporting transnational corporations? SMEs employ more people, and do not siphon off resources the way that transnationals do.

GDP and the parasitic financial sector

Perhaps we can make the point that the tools used to measure  ‘the economy’ (not least GDP) render what we call ‘the economy’ inimical to society (and the biosphere at large)?

It seems obvious that the economy (which many economists do not seem to understand, as they pay little attention to the fundamental issue of how money enters circulation and the disastrous consequences this has) should be at the service of society, and not the other way round. The abstract phenomenon called money, and the way it is manipulated by the parasitic financial sector surely need to be understood, and an alternative argued for?

Redistributive taxation is NOT bad for business

…And would it not be sensible to present the evidence that redistributive taxation is not inherently bad for business? On this topic and others, can we get potential allies to read Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t  Tell You About Capitalism?

Environment not an externality: talk about ‘the biosphere’ instead!

Above all, we need to make the point that we are not separate from ‘the environment’ – it is a misleading term; it is NOT an ‘externality’ – but neither should ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘natural capital’ be financialised, which means put under the control of the very forces blindly destroying the biosphere. We are part of the biosphere, and its wellbeing is inseparable from our own.

If we can direct fellow independence-supporters, and potential independence-supporters, to consider the evidence on these issues, then we can together spell out a compelling and coherent vision of a better world. If not, then I cannot see myself being able to  argue with any conviction for a nominally ‘independent’ Scotland.

A start

At the very least, I ask readers to watch the above video, and to get others to watch it too. It’s a start. Please.

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Trump antidote? Benoît Hamon, new leader of French Socialist Party, has great environmental proposals!

Benoît Hamon: 'Environmental and social issues are inseparable.'

Benoît Hamon: ‘Environmental and social issues are inseparable.’

Benoît Hamon, the new leader of the French Socialist Party, has some interesting ideas! I have translated them into English. There may be some errors, so I link the original text to make it easier for you to judge the quality of my translation. Corrections welcomed!

More information: https://www.benoithamon2017.fr/le-projet/

12 Environmental Proposals

Environmental issues are inseparable from social ones.

For several decades, despite the alarm calls of scientists and civic society, and despite a few successes, such as COP21,  we continue, in France, to tolerate to a large extent the damage, caused by our behaviour, to our environment, to our health and to our immediate surroundings. We continue to accept the pollution of our seas and our air by toxic industrial waste products, the privatisation of our water, and the poisoning of our food by pesticides. We are all collectively responsible for this inaction, whether the reasons be procrastination, inertia, or complicity with those who want, above all, nothing to change.

We cannot continue to turn a blind eye. It’s our responsibility, we left-wing progressives, to see that this guilty tolerance always benefits the same people: those who will be able to maintain their own comfortable lives despite it all, and who will continue to benefit from our lack of awareness. Above all, it is our duty to acknowledge that the price is too heavy, and that it is too often paid by the most fragile among us.

air_pollution

The poor are most exposed to air pollution, which kils thousands every year.

The inequalities in this area are glaring. Chronic disease, pneumonia, cardiovascular problems: it is the poorest who are most vulnerable to the risks associated with environmental degradation and our lifestyles. More likely to live near sources of pollution, in poorly insulated homes, far from health centres and effective means of prevention, they are the ones who are inhale more airborne particulates and who struggle to afford quality food, free of GMOs and pesticides. Increasing awareness of this should fuel more than memes: it must deeply transform our outlook

It makes no sense for the left to choose between the protection of our planet and social progress. By protecting our fellow citizens from air, water and soil pollution, we protect their immediate environments, their health and the future of their children. This applies to all, but especially to the most disadvantaged. This campaign must be conducted in parallel with one for a new model of development, more temperate and more respectful of humans and the global commons (oceans, biodiversity), more energy- and resource-efficient, and based on a sharing economy.

Here are what I think our priorities should be for accomplishing such a transformation:

Proposal 1: In the six months following the presidential election, launch a major national Ecology-Prevention-Protection-Health conference, which will make France the pioneer and vanguard in this field in Europe.

We cannot solve the environmental issue without a broad citizens’ movement. If we are to succeed in transforming the way we consume and produce, we must all understand the urgency of the need to act, and we must build on the collective intelligence of civil society, researchers and specialists.

As early as 2017, we will launch a major national conference on this issue, which is fundamentally a social and democratic issue. In that same year, we will take the measures necessary to protect the health and environmental circumstances of all.

Thus, we will establish ourselves as pioneers in this field in Europe and, so motivated, we shall drive forward a major European project for social and ecological progress, mobilising European citizens around our common values.

Protecting our commons

Water and air are common goods that we must protect, come what may, from any deterioration or risk of capture by private interests.

Proposal 2: Go beyond the precautionary principle by constitutionalising common resources (the commons) and developing an environmental democracy.

Water and air are common goods that we must protect, come what may, from any deterioration or risk of capture by private interests. Faced with the market, states should be the guarantors of the protection of natural resources, and citizens must watch over this protection. The constitution must ensure that these principles are respected.

While these fundamental issues are often dealt with behind closed doors under the influence of private lobbies, we must devise a true environmental democracy that will enable citizens to decide together on the use of common goods.

Laying loft insulation

Insulating social housing is an important component of energy policy.

Proposal 3: Launch a wide-ranging energy renovation plan for public and private buildings over a five-year period.

This massive energy renovation plan will reduce the country’s energy dependency, create quality jobs in the building sector affected by the crisis, develop an industrial sector of excellence and, by its contribution to the reduction of CO2 emissions, enable the state to fulfil its duty to be a good example, especially in the context of France’s international commitments.

The plan will have three priorities:

  • Thermal rehabilitation of social housing on the basis of quantifiable objectives: it will be based on tools such as loans, the budgetary constraints of the ANRU (National Agency for Urban Renovation), conditions applied to building rights, and a premium for virtuous landlords.
  • An ambitious plan to support private sector initiatives, conditional on the use of certified artisans (which helps to support the development of the sector and our SMEs).
  • Protection of households suffering from fuel poverty: social tariffs are useful, but not a sufficiently ambitious response. We will establish a real “energy” shield to protect the most deprived.
Diesel exhaust polllution

Diesel must be phased out.

Proposal 4: Implement a rigorous plan to phase out diesel by 2025.

  • This phasing out of diesel is essential to protect the quality of the air we breathe. We can no longer tolerate the nearly 50,000 deaths caused by air pollution in our country each year. It is one of the leading causes of chronic diseases and causes more deaths annually than road accidents.
  • The end of diesel will see the ending of this fuel’s tax advantage, the installation of electric-car charging points across the road network, as well as a coordinated effort at the European level to invest in research and development to improve electric vehicles’ battery life.
  • Moving away from diesel necessitates rethinking mobility. The digitalisation of the economy also offers the opportunity to change the way we travel, through car-pooling or car-sharing. Other non-polluting forms of urban transport must also be developed and facilitated in all cities.
  • Fighting air pollution means restoring confidence in the train. France was for a long time the country of the railroad; I intend it to remain so. At a time when the founder of Tesla is investing billions in Hyperloop – groundbreaking technology for an ultra-high speed train (1,000 km/h or over 600 mph has been announced) – France is opting for the low-cost bus. Let us get away from this anachronism and equip ourselves, alongside other EU nations, with an Airbus of the railtracks, capable of holding its own with the many countries on all continents choosing very high speed, without CO2 emissions or fine particulates.
renewable energy

50% renewable energy by 2025

Proposal 5: Achieve 50% renewable energy by 2025.

  • Launch a massive public investment plan to help citizens equip themselves with domestic renewable energy production equipment.
  • Use the state’s position as major shareholder to initiate a reorganisation of EDF’s (Électricité de France) activities in order to enhance its capacities for research and the production of renewable energy. Rather than focus on its expertise in nuclear power, EDF should invest in renewable energy and organise the decentralisation of such energy production in line with our regions’ resources.
food waste

Target food waste.

Proposal 6: Launch a National Zero Waste Plan. The goal is to move quickly from a wasteful linear economy to a circular one, by means of a zero-waste plan that includes:

  • A strand targeting food waste.
  • A requirement for metropolitan areas to recycle 50% of their annual waste (by 2022).
  • Combat the programmed obsolescence of goods by developing a plan to encourage companies and citizens to recycle, repurpose and reuse materials, and by actively promoting eco-designed products.
pesticides and dead bee

Get rid of dangerous pesticides.

Proposal 7: Combat pesticides and endocrine disruptors.

Measures should be taken as early as 2017 to bring an end, as soon as possible, to these substances’ harmful effects on the health of our children and fellow citizens.

Protect the population from pesticides:

  • In line with the precautionary principle, we will withdraw authorisation for all pesticides for which a certain level of hazard is permitted (e.g. glyphosate). We cannot wait for diseases to occur before we protect populations. Similarly, permission to market will be subject to stricter requirements.
  • The state will commit all necessary resources (financial support for conversion, access to land, technical advice and support) to assist farmers transition to a human-scaled and organic agriculture for all.
  • We will ban the importation of agricultural products using substances prohibited in France.

Vote immediately for a moratorium on neo-nicotinoid pesticides.

At the European level, make CAP subsidies conditional upon high standards of pesticide use (with regard to type and quantity).

Green investment

Put finance at the service of ecological transition

Proposal 8: Put finance at the service of ecological transition.

Left to its own devices, the market will not meet the finance needs of ecological transition, which are about 3% of GDP (60 to 70 billion euros/year). We must use all available levers to redirect financial flows towards the projects essential to this transition.

That’s why we must:

  • Lower VAT for the most environment-friendly products. Environmental taxation should encourage virtuous industrialists and the circular economy.
  • Mobilise French savings for ecological transition.
  • Attract finance to ‘green’ projects through an ‘energy transition’ label for financial products.
Man drinking milk from cow.

Perhaps this is taking short supply chains too far!

Proposal 9: Create 13 regional development agencies for new production and consumption models.

These 13 agencies will be responsible for the realisation of our new development model and will in particular:

  • Promote short supply chains, especially with regard to food, which will reduce waste. Financial support will help the disadvantaged to access quality food.
  • Use information technology and digitisation to directly link producers and consumers in supply chains, which might be longer in distance terms, but which would be short with regard to the number of intermediaries.
  • Use government instruments such as public procurement, particularly in school canteens, to promote, organise and develop responsible initiatives at the local level.
  • To extend agro-ecological contracts so as to rebalance the financial relationships between actors in this sector, supporting the best from an environmental perspective – those which are successful but currently only marginally profitable (Système U – Terrena, Système U – Biolait, Filière Qualité Carrefour).
  • Make agro-ecology a distinguishing factor for our exports, and stop focusing our export strategy on the agro-food sector alone.

Proposal 10: Re-launch “Europe of projects”, via energy transition.

  • Plan energy transition projects at the European level, systematically positioning France as a leader on these issues in Europe.
  • Campaign for public investment in support of ecological transition no longer to be counted in the 3% deficit (Maastricht criteria).
  • Rebuild the legitimacy of the EU on this fundamental issue for the future of its peoples through an ambitious contribution of the member-states, the channelling of private funding towards green investments through incentive mechanisms, and the abolition of all subsidies for fossil fuel.
Happy piglet

Animal welfare is also important!

Proposal 11: Launch a plan against animal abuse.

Our objectives in terms of quality of life and quality of food do not justify the abuses that have multiplied recently in slaughterhouses, for the sole purpose of economic return. We must guarantee the highest standards of animal welfare in all circumstances and without exception.

Eating locally, thinking globally.

Promote short supply chains and local production,

Proposal 12: Act II of the social and solidarity economy: support this economy of the future so that it grows from 10 to 20% of GDP by 2025.

A ‘social and solidarity’ economy is a moderate and resilient economy which, in its principle and in its modes of action, consistently supports a green transition. By promoting the local, short supply chains, and a rational use of our resources, it points towards a new model of development. We shall foster the spread of this model to all our regions and to all sectors of our economy.

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