Monday, October 31, 2005

power to the people

Whilst at the Big Green Gathering this summer, I learned about the ecological devastation caused at Cefn Croes wind farm, which opened near Aberystwyth in June.

Wind farms are portrayed as environmentally sound, yet at Cefn Croes they'd drained a peat bog - a rare habitat of undegraded moss which releases massive amounts of CO2 once dried - and trees had been felled as each turbine needed over 60 surrounding acres tree-free.

This week I learned that the controversial Romney Marsh wind farm is to go ahead, with all the attendant carnage for bird life.

And whilst we have to get ourselves off fossil fuels pronto, we cannot switch to wind farms for anything like a full solution.

As George Monbiot explains,

Wind farms, while necessary, are a classic example of what environmentalists call an 'end of the pipe solution.' Instead of tackling the problem - our massive demand for energy - at source, they provide less damaging means of accommodating it.

Or part of it. The Whinash [wind farm] project, by replacing energy generation from power stations burning fossil fuel, will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 178,000 tonnes per year.

This is impressive, until you discover that a single jumbo jet, flying from London to Miami and back every day, releases the climate change equivalent of 520,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. One daily connection between Britain and Florida costs three giant wind farms.

By those figures, even three Romney Marshes wouldn't offset that single jumbo jet.

So, what's to be done if wind farms won't do enough? The most important thing by far is, as Monbiot says, reducing demand. Encouraging energy efficiency would help greatly too. The problem with those measures is they're unprofitable. People consuming less discourages economic growth.

In their 1997 election campaign, Labour promised to remove VAT from energy conservation materials (thermostats, insulation, etc). We were in the ludicrous position of having 5% VAT on fuel and 17.5% efficiency materials, effectively encouraging energy use and penalising conservation.

The tax thing might contravene the EU Sixth VAT Directive but they'd do it anyway, Labour said in opposition, citing the Belgian government as having done precisely that in 1995 with no repercussions whatsoever.

'VAT on the installation of energy saving materials under existing grant schemes, such as the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme, will be cut from 17.5% to 5%in the Spring Budget of 1998,' Gordon Brown told the House of Commons in his pre-budget statement that year, getting a huge cheer from his back benches.

But in the end Labour did nothing of the sort. When challenged about it, Labour's junior scumpig Dawn Primarolo said it wasn't possible because they had to obey the EU Directive they'd promised to contravene.

The matter was brought up again in parliament this year, and Primarolo gave the same response, saying the government had 'a long-standing commitment to pursue an amendment to the EU Sixth VAT Directive to permit a reduced rate of VAT for the purchase of energy-saving materials'.

'Long standing' means they've done fuck all to push it forward and aren't going to start any time soon.

Not expensive enough, doesn't consume enough.

Tony Blair said earlier this year

if we put forward, as a solution to climate change, something which involves drastic cuts in growth or standards of living, it matters not how justified it is, it simply won't be agreed to.

Think what climate change could mean. Think what he means by 'it matters not how justified it is'.

He's recently reiterated the point

The truth is, no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in the light of a long-term environmental problem.

In Blair's party conference speech, he made clear that he was angling to make nuclear energy the solution to the growing energy crisis. Even consuming alternatives like massive efficiency measures and micro-generation (kitting out people with wind generators, solar panels, etc directly on their houses) don't get a mention. He wants a grand, centralised, big profits for big corporations solution.

Faithful ex-Minister of Energy Brian Wilson swiftly agreed about the nuclear plan, and the propaganda campaign builds by the day.

The government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, has recently declared that he cannot give opinions that are 'politically unrealistic', whatever the scientific truth. As he now just gives the government the answers it wants to hear, he too has come out in favour of new nuclear build.

The Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, tells us that nuclear energy counts not only as low-carbon, but as 'renewable'.

The Blair government's push for new nuclear power stations ignores several crucial factors. Firstly, nukes are of course not renewable. The fuel source is uranium, a rare and finite mineral. Also, the idea that using that source reduces the need for fuel imports is nonsense. Uranium mines do not exist in the UK.

Secondly, they are enormously expensive, several times the present cost of electricity generation. Who's going to pay if we move the majority of power production across to nukes? It's also uninsurable - the cost of cleaning up any accidents would be borne by the taxpayer.

Thirdly, most importantly, it is incredibly dangerous. Even without reactor explosions or meltdowns - the chances of which increase with every new installation that's built - there is the production of waste that's lethal for 20,000 years. That is an almost unimaginable length of time. It is, by an order of magnitude, longer than a culture or even a language lives. There is no way we know of to make the waste safe. But it is being proposed that we vastly increase the quantity we generate and leave a thousand future generations to deal with our mess.

The plain fact is that our way of life is unsustainable, that this generation and its predecessor are blips in humanity and before then nobody needed this huge energy supply.

Furthermore, there is no renewable energy source that can supply our demand. A society that permits passenger aviation and private cars is simply not interested in having sustainable energy.

We have to relocalise our lives, everything from food production to holidays, we have to repair and reuse items instead of landfilling them as soon as they have a cosmetic blemish. We have to understand that perpetual economic growth is not only undesirable but actually impossible. 'Economic growth' is a synonym for 'accelerated consumption of mostly finite resources'. It doesn't take a particularly great mind to work out why you can't indefinitely consume finite resources at an ever increasing rate.

The longer we perpetuate the myth of perpetual economic growth, the harder the crunch will be when it comes and the worse mess we leave behind us. As if climate change wasn't enough, we now wish to bequeath as much nuclear waste as we can create.

"We are not saints, we are elected officials," the politician said. "Our job is to represent, unfairly and with unethical prejudice and forethought, the powerful and influential citizens within our respective constituencies to whom we owe our political careers, trading in the long-term good of the people for short-term material and political gain, for the ill of all. And that's what evil is all about."
The Onion

Thursday, October 27, 2005

get up stand up

Just a word on the death of Rosa Parks.

The popular version of her story makes out that she was just a quiet citizen who got tired of being moved on the bus. This is not true. She was a civil rights activist. She was on the bus that day with two friends, both of whom moved when asked. Rosa was told to move or the cops would be called. Her arrest was a deliberate stand.

Nowadays the cause she fought for is so self-evidently right that even the likes of Bush have to pay lip service to her. Let that be a lesson to those who would conflate legality with morality, and a spur to action to those of us who recognise legal immoralities.

I remember after my first arrest being sat in the cell thinking, 'this is it? All those times I held back from what was right, I did so only because I was scared of this? Of sitting in a room reading a book?'

And let us also be clear that the veneration of the likes of Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela or whoever is often the cause of a distorted and disempowering picture. They could only be figureheads because they had the backing.

As Noam Chomsky said in the documentary Manufacturing Consent

In history books there’s a couple of leaders, George Washington or Martin Luther King or whatever. I don’t want to say that those people are not important, Martin Luther King was certainly important, but he was not the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King can appear in the history books cos lots of people whose names you will never know and whose names are all forgotten were working down in the South.

When you have active activists, and people concerned, and people devoting themselves and dedicating themselves to social change then people like me can appear, and we can appear to be prominent but that’s only because somebody else is doing the work.

My work, whether it’s giving hundreds of talks a year or spending twenty hours a week writing letters or writing books is not directed to intellectuals and politicians. It’s directed to what are called ordinary people. And what I expect from them is in fact exactly what they are; that they should try to understand the world and act in accordance with their decent impulses, and that they should try to improve the world. And many people are willing to do that.

Friday, October 21, 2005

maoist foodstuffs

If you're selling a repulsive foodstuff - such as dairy industry effluent processed into a synthetic goo that looks like it should be on its way to reprocessing at Sellafield rather than heading down your gullet - a good consumer-capitalist would give it a name that implies light, love and even holiness: Angel Delight.

However, if you are to adhere to the Maoist principle explained in the previous post - discourage someone from buying something in order to show you're not telling them about it because you'll profit from a purchase - a Maoist fast food outlet would have to demonstrate their impeccable credentials by naming themselves in Mao's language with words that denote revulsion in ours.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

yoda, aguilera, eminem and mao

I've previously mused on these pages about how Chrisitan websites can be so barking as to make you wonder which ones are real and which are spoofs.

It's not just the monotheists. There's hours of 'are they for real?' fun to be had over at the Maoist Internationalist Movement.

Not for them merely ranting about what they'll do to all us infidels After The Revolution. They give us Maoist reviews of a Star Wars computer game, concluding

All in all, the Cossacks/Knights of the Old Republic is one of the most manipulative pieces of software ever devised. It leeches morality of young minds and prepares them to kill their peers to prevent a revolution. After all... the strong fascist knight shall always win.

Their Eminem: To Be Banned page says

As Communists we are open about our intentions of instituting a dictatorship - the dictatorship of the proletariat. Under socialist government we want to promote revolutionary and progressive culture and squash out old reactionary ideas and behavior. We would not allow fascists to hand out leaflets calling for the gassing of all Jews or the re-institution of chattel slavery. By the same token we would not allow pro-patriarchy groups to hand out leaflets calling for the disenfranchisement of womyn or an end to the right of womyn to divorce their husbands. So why would we allow sexist, and homophobic garbage like Eminem to put out his records?

...All of it should be banned and Eminem should be one of the first people put into re-education camp.

They also want to tell us what they think - and what we should think too - about Christina Aguilera:

Her ideas are the perfect reflection of traditional views of many Amerikan pseudo-feminists, certainly appreciated by bourgeois males: wimmin's liberation amounts to the ability to have orgasms. Probably this is why most Amerikkkan wimmin have no qualms about having multiple partners, but still hesitate to major in math and science

The thing that baffles the casual observer is the review has links to buy Aguilera's albums from Why would the Maoists be encouraging you to culturally pollute yourself and give profits to such a capitalist behemoth?

There is a reason. Under the Amazon Associates program, if someone clicks a link to Amazon from your site, you get up to 10% of what they spend. Thus, there is a clear incentive for a reviewer to praise the item under review and thereby encourage greater sales and more dosh for themselves.

The Maoists give themselves the hairshirt of only reviewing things they actively hate, thus denying themselves the available revenue and asserting their ideological purity, valiantly upholding the revolutionary communist ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism despite the onslaught of crap pop music seeking to dissuade them.

Friday, October 14, 2005

you stick around now it may show

From The Independent:

GM Crop 'Ruins Fields For 15 Years'

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor

GM crops contaminate the countryside for up to 15 years after they’ve been harvested, startling new government research shows.

The findings cast a cloud over the prospects of growing the modified crops in Britain, suggesting that farmers who try them out for one season will find fields blighted for a decade and a half.

Financed by GM companies and Margaret Beckett's Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the report effectively torpedoes the Government's strategy for introducing GM oilseed rape to this country.

Ministers have stipulated that the crops should not be grown until rules are worked out to enable them to "co-exist" with conventional ones. But the research shows that this is effectively impossible.

The study, published by the Royal Society, examined 5 sites across England and Scotland where modified oilseed rape has been cultivated, and found significant amounts of GM plants growing even after the sites had been returned to ordinary crops. It concludes that the research reveals "a potentially serious problem associated with the temporal persistence of rape seeds in soil."

The researchers found that 9 years after a single modified crop, an average of two GM rape plants would grow in every square metre of an affected field. After 15 years, this came down to one plant per square metre - still enough to break the EC limits on permissible GM contamination.

Last night Pete Riley, the director of GM Freeze, said; "It is becoming clearer and clearer that it is going to be impossible to grow GM crops in Britain."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

vivienne westwood

I've got such huge respect for so much of what Vivienne Westwood is and has achieved.

Oh come on, it's just clothes, no sensible person is interested in clothes are they?

If you think that, try going about your day dressed in rubber shorts and your gran's nightie, see if you feel any different and if any of your not-judging-anyone-by-their-appearance friends treat you any different.

When Frank Zappa got some US Marines to dismember a doll on stage, one of the audience shouted 'get those uniforms off the stage'. Zappa replied, 'Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform,and don't you forget it.'

I will be at the front of the queue to agree that fashion obsession is a substitute for having a meaningful focus of attention and that most of what goes on in the world of fashion and textiles is not only meaningless, irrelevant snobbery but incredibly dull-witted too, but that doesn't mean great work and ideas don't come out of it. By the same token, car design doesn't really interest most of us but it takes a measly mind to deny the genius of Alec Issigonis.

For as long as she's been doing it, Westwood has been the most radical prominent thinker in her chosen profession, using her work and position to challenge preconceptions, to be bold and dare us to be equally bold, simultaneously showing up the lavishly praised small minds that saturate the field.

Like Brian Eno she is unashamed of her clear English voice, that slightly posh tone that is actually a declaration of her unpretentiousness, neither aspiring to the aristocratic, nor pretending to be street. It declares an authenticity and honesty in what she says, at least inasmuch as she really means it when she says it.

But every time she does something that amazes, she then does something really stupid to utterly deflate it. It's rather like Prince Philip serving a term as president of WWF whilst being a big hunter: build 'em up then shoot 'em down.

I suspect I like Vivienne Westwood more than she deserves, like someone trying to hold on to their respect for Eno if he suddenly started managing boy bands.

At the unveiling of her autumn/winter 2005 collection, her show notes for the audience said 'The more you consume the less you think'.

What a great slogan, and it's double-plus-great to be saying it to the vacuous superficial style-twats who will have made up a clear majority of the audience.

Unfortunately, it's a tad rich coming from a woman who was in the process of launching her Hardcore Diamonds range of expensive jewellery. She says that the range - featuring £10,000 necklaces and, oh how punk, £400 diamond encrusted safety pins - is 'affordable'.

Hypocrisy isn't a bad thing in itself, but this totally unjoined thinking is impossible to swallow, even for someone like me who really wants to like Westwood.

Of course, wildness of ideas and unpredictable changing of position is common in creative minds, but for some reason if it's a creative woman - think not only Westwood but Bjork and Sinead O'Connor - then rather than point out the inconsistency we tend to dismiss them as hatstand, no matter how great their good work is.

But anyway, in an interview with The Independent last month, Westwood said

The world suffers from three evils: nationalism, which has taken the place of religion; organised lying; and non-stop distraction. The most pernicious of these is non-stop distraction. These three things can be summed up in one word: propaganda.

I want to say to young people that every time you look up a word in the dictionary you are changing the world. Propaganda is about manipulating words and using big, abstract terms to affect people emotionally. Propaganda subverts language. If you look up a word in the dictionary, not only do you start to think more but you are actually fighting propaganda because you are finding out what these words have meant in the past and what they in fact still mean.

Great stuff again. And how does she manifest her avowed wish to see us think for ourselves?

When France had a referendum on the EU Constitution in May, Vivenne was lending her support to the Vote Yes campaign with a stirring appeal to the electorate's powers of intellectual appraisal.

'Don’t bore yourself reading all 800 pages and just vote “yes”. It’s very important,' she said.

The European Union is an idea at odds with itself, so much so that to simply say yes or no to the Constitution is to misunderstand it. Paradoxically, to say 'yes' or 'no' to the constitution is to say yes and no to your ideals, whereas saying 'yes and no' to it is the only consistent position.

But to declare that others should do so too without even knowing what they're saying yes to is to manage the impressive feat of being even more absurd than the yes/no referendum itself, and dollop a big helping of insulting patronisation on top for good measure.

In her autumn/winter collection there's a T-shirt with PROPAGANDA in massive Frankie Says style letters.

From that Independent interview:

I wanted to reactivate my World's End shop. I have so many ideas and I don't like letting them go so I thought I'd do them in different fabrics and sell them there, maybe for half price, you know, cutting out the middle man. I wanted it to be for kids, affordable, so I did some T-shirts too.

Affordable; that word again. For the kids. A £65 T-shirt.

I think we must know different kids.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

cunning linguist

I was recently given a bottle of beer from the Faroe Islands.

Look, I know the Faroes have the enormous seabird population you'd expect of a bunch of islands in the middle of the ocean, and I understand that seabirds will therefore have a sizeable place in the Faroese psyche, but that thing on the label is quite blatantly not a gull. It's a sheep.

The front label weirdness is, however, dwarfed by the quote on the back of the bottle.

It seems to rhyme doesn't it? I never knew John Lennon spoke Faroese. But even if he didn't and it's a translated quote, how utterly bizarre is it to quote him on beer?

Most tantalising is the question it raises, what quote is it?

Faroese, as it happens, is a North-Germanic language, part of the same family as Danish, Icelandic, Swedish, Norwegian and Nor. Full respect to the people for keeping their language alive with a population of only a few thousand and centuries of pressure to change to the language of their Danish colonisers.

But it doesn't help me with the Lennon quote thing. No online translator I know gives Faroese to English.

I do love online translators. It's a great idea, and a valiant effort has been made in making them, but languages just aren't the mechanistic blueprints that devices like Babel Fish imply.

Languages are nuanced, they are the product of the cultures that invented and speak them, they do not simply overlay one another. There are several areas that illustrate this clearly.

Swearing tells you a lot about the taboos of a society. There are no swearwords in Japanese. The culture puts so much emphasis on social correctness and politeness that swearing is simply impossible. Whereas there are certain forms of address in some Australian Aboriginal languages where it is impossible not to be swearing.

Welsh had its swearing purged as the church brought its influence and became all but the custodian of the written language. You have to do elaborate constructions, but even then it's usually biblical and translates as 'you ugly devil from hell'.

Their word 'cont', clearly from the same root as 'cunt' is a friendly word for women, such as your mum might call the woman next door. My mum shouting over the fence, 'hey you cunt, how's it going' would create an altogether different atmosphere.

Another area of evidence is where a language has nicked words from another language. A concept is so sudden and new, it hasn't been in the culture so the language needs a swift off-the-peg word. It amuses me no end that the English have had to pinch words for chic, joie de vivre, and zeitgeist, being the frumpy miserable stick-in-the-mud neophobes that we are.

Online translators can actually help to give you a feel for how different languages are constructed. The best way to illustate this is to take a piece of writing you know well and understand, translate it into a language, then back into English.

You always get some accurate stuff, some comedy gobbledegook, and then a few bits that really show nature the language/culture.

Let's take the first and last verses of Ace Of Spades.

If you like to gamble I tell you I'm your man,
You win some, lose some, all the same to me,
The pleasure is to play, it makes no difference what you say,
I don't share your greed, the only card I need is
The Ace Of Spades

Pushing up the ante, I know you've got to see me,
Read them and weep, the dead man's hand again,
I see it in your eyes, take one look and die,
The only thing you see, you know it's gonna be,
The Ace Of Spades

Put it into French and back again and it's really quite similar, as you'd expect from us both being Roman occupied lands, and then England becoming part of the Norman empire.

(Killer fact time: To this day, an Act of Parliament only becomes law in the UK once it's had 'Royal Assent'. This entails the monarch's representative standing up in the House of Lords and declaring in Old Norman French that the monarch approves of the law; 'le roy le veult' if we've got a king, or 'la reine le veult' if we've got a queen. We're still partially the unfree subjects of the Norman empire).

Anyway, from centuries of colonial despotism to Motorhead:

If you like to play me you say that I am your man,
you gain some, lose some, all the same one with me,
the pleasure must play, it does not make any difference what you say,
I do not share your avarice, the only chart that I have need is
the ace of the thimbles

Raising the ante one, I know you have to see me,
read them and cry, the hand of the man still died,
I see it in your eyes, take a glance and stamps,
the only thing which you see, you know that it will be,
the ace of the thimbles

German has, as one might expect, a greater air of precision in the language:

If you may play me explain to you the fact that I am your man
wins you some, loses some, all same to me,
who pleasures are,
it plays differentiates between none that you to say,
I divides not its having craze, the only one map,
which is I Karo As

Ante pushing up, white I, you, me see to have,
it read and, the dead hand of the man again,
I sees it in your eyes, takes a view and a cube,
the only thing, which you see, you knows to cry that it will be,
Karo As

Italian gives us:

If appreciate to play them you say that he is your man,
you gain some, you lose some, all the same ones to me,
the pleasure you must play,
it not fairies difference that what you say,
I not shared yours greed, the only card I have need of are
the ace of the staples

Pushing towards the high the ante, know have got to see it,
that you read to them and that you cry,
the hand of the out of order man still,
I you see it in your eyes, you take to a look and dice,
the only thing you see, you sapete that is going to be,
the ace of the staples

What it would be in Faroese is, as yet, unknown.

Monday, October 03, 2005

begging: the question

I remember the time before Thatcherism kicked in. There really weren't that many beggars and street-homeless people. It's a simple fact, but one that should be said plainly.

There was the occasional beardy old guy who talked to himself and drank sherry, but the sight we're now so used to that we don't even register it - the young beggar - was almost unknown.

Of course, there may be other reasons apart from Thatcher's sledgehammer blows to the welfare state. The proliferation of heroin for one. But still, the relative newness of the situation implies that if we recently had ways to ensure people are housed and given the help they need to keep them off the streets, then we could be doing it still. It means that the suffering of the street-homeless is unnecessary.

The question that I find myself chewing over whenever I think about beggars is this; Why do they attract far more blaming of the victim than other people who've suffered severe misfortune?

In a recent post mentioning Londoners finding homeless people to be invisible, Jim Bliss quotes Lester Bangs' review of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks:

If you accept for even a moment the idea that each human life is as precious and delicate as a snowflake and then you look at a wino in a doorway, you've got to hurt until you feel like a sponge for all those other assholes' problems, until you feel like an asshole yourself, so you draw all the appropriate lines. You stop feeling. But you know that then you begin to die. So you tussle with yourself. how much of this horror can I actually allow myself to think about? Perhaps the numbest mannekin is wiser than somebody who only allows their sensitivity to drive them to destroy everything they touch - but then again, to tilt Madame George's hat a hair, just to recognize that that person exists, just to touch his cheek and then probably expire because the realization that you must share the world with him is ultimately unbearable is to only go the first mile. The realization of living is just about that low and that exalted and that unbearable and that sought-after. Please come back and leave me alone. But when we're along together we can talk all we want about the universality of this abyss: it doesn't make any difference, the highest only meets the lowest for some lying succor, UNICEF to relatives, so you scratch and spit and curse in violent resignation at the strict fact that there is absolutely nothing you can do but finally reject anyone in greater pain than you.

There are several other possibilities too. In the anti-work essay Working Or A Living I said:

No wonder these workers, like the starving with their faces pressed against the window of a building in which a great feast is being prepared, resent the freedom of those outside the tyranny of the clock — the unemployed, travellers, beggars, artists. They know they should feel sorry for beggars, but their resentment of their own lives under the meaningless will of others and the clock's reign of terror means they resent those who are free from it, no matter how wretched. They tell each other 'they're all rich really' stories to remove the guilt of passing a helpless homeless hungry person.

They have this discomfort, but can't admit it is envy. Deep inside those who live by routine know it's crap, but don't see a way out. Those who are outside have achieved the workers big ambition, so they must be thought of as having a good time (or perhaps just irresponsible). Either way, they are jealous or resentful, hence the tabloid stories of beggars with BMWs.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell wrote:

Why are beggars despised? - for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except 'Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it'? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging [this was written in 1933 when that was a decent wage], it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.

There is yet another factor here too.

The proliferation of beggars means that you cannot afford to give to all of them. Thus, you must deny or ignore the overwhelming majority. Their very existence has turned you into somebody who walks past beggars.

Hard to not resent them for that.