Wednesday, February 28, 2007

what goes up simultaneously goes down

As Paul Simon warned, 'taking downs to get off to sleep and ups to start you on your way, after a while they’ll change your style'.

Ah, but what about taking downers and uppers at the same time?

What kind of total loon would inflict that on anyone's system? What kind of crazed amoral drug dealer would sell such things?

In the 1930s Smith Kline & French brought out Dexamyl, a mix of amphetamines and barbiturates, a breathtakingly potent psychopharmaceutical pincer movement that would make Danny out of Withnail suck air through his teeth and wince.

The advert from the 1940s says just one fat dose every morning 'is of significant value in depressed and verbally inhibited patients'. No shit.

The thing I love best, though, is the illustration.

Dexamyl: so good it makes you smile at the hoover

No addressing anything tricky like why she might be depressed and unfulfilled.

Give her medical grade speed to make her active and barbiturates to make her compliant - sorry, that's 'more approachable and communicative' - so she can get back to the robotic domestic enslavement.

If she finds her chores and lack of personal control of her own destiny upsetting, dose her up till she doesn't care!

Pack up your troubles in your old dust bag and smile smile smile!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

tarnished green power

My recent article on green electricity companies strongly recommended Ecotricity and Good Energy. I stand by that absolutely, but in researching the piece there were a couple of things I found that troubled me.

As awareness of climate change increases, many of the most blatant profligate emission industries are coming up with greenwash ‘offset’ projects. I've written before about why carbon offsets are a fraud.

And frankly, there is no way for an airline or an oil company to be sustainable, or indeed do anything other than accelerate climate change. In order to spin out their dwindling legitimacy, corporations in these kinds of industries will do some piece of social good.

Sponsorship of major cultural events is common. Shell sponsor the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, ignoring the impact on wildlife of the carbon emissions from using their products, the impacts of extraction or what happens when it goes wrong and there are spills.

Shell oiled wildlife

Top marks to the people who bluntly illustrated the link by spraying the exhibition with oil.

oil on canvas

But for real biscuit-taking, an ecocidal corporation will do a bit of high profile ecological good. Shell run Shell Springboard, giving cash awards for small businesses with ideas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rio Tinto buy themselves a ‘partnership’ with the British Trust of Conservation Volunteers. Assorted branches of the car industry switch their power source to renewables.

Ecotricity installed and maintain wind turbines at Michelin’s Dundee factory and Ford’s Dagenham plant. This means that diesel Jaguar engines are now made with renewable energy. Ecotricity trumpet this fact without shame or irony.

It’s one thing for Ecotricity to buy the necessary extra energy from non-renewables in order to generate profit for new-build wind farms, with a clear and swift timeframe for weaning off the nukes and fossils. But to lend your good name and eco-credibility in an ongoing way to an industry that is one of the prime causes of climate change – more than a fifth of the UK’s CO2 emissions come from the transport sector – stretches the principle to breaking point. Car plants should be assailed and occupied rather than turbined.

Are Good Energy any better on that front? Their chief executive Juliet Davenport was on last year's panel of judges for the aforementioned Shell Springboard awards. When challenged about it, she said she didn’t think Shell got any real publicity value from it. Yeah right, doing it for fun I suppose.

If you’re a Good Energy customer and a friend of yours signs up with them and mentions you as their recommender, both you and your friend are sent a free bottle of organic wine - from Chile, food miles fans.

All that said, whilst these things are undoubtedly dubious and counter-productive, these are points are nonetheless small diversions from the big issue. Both companies still stand head, shoulders and indeed up to their insteps above the big companies' green electricity tariffs.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

war on (some) waste

In December, The Independent launched its War On Waste campaign. There have been several front page splashes and numerous smaller articles.

It names and shames supermarkets who plastic wrap each pepper and swede, it invites readers to send in examples of overpackaged items.

Imagine - needlessly using finite oil reserves to make plastic for such pointless wrappings.

There's one glaring example I can think of. Wrapping water in plastic and wasting fossil fuels to ship it hundreds, even thousands, of miles to places that already have plenty of water.

Six weeks into their campaign, The Independent are still publishing 'infuriating' examples of 'absurd packaging', such as this

Water in bottles is about 1,000 times more expensive than tap water, which has no need for any packaging.
The same week, they ran a promotional deal. If you bought a copy in a WH Smith in a railway station or, ahem, an airport you got a free bottle of water. Shipped in from France.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

blimps over southport

The Good Year balloon. We all just accepted it back then in the 70s, as if it were normal and interesting. Looking back, it's utterly bizarre. A small blimp bobbing about promoting car tyres! Who the fuck thought of that?

There it would be, tethered to some event like the Southport Flower Show to which you were taken for the amusement visiting relatives. The balloon was not only seen as something semi-exciting in its own right, but as a mark of quality and proof of the worth of the Show, a denial of its actual mogadonesque experience.

Every year the Southport Flower Show got the same tired treatment from the Southport Visiter. Who knows, perhaps it still does. A headline with the word blooming, (Blooming Marvellous, A Blooming Good Day Out), and some comment about how it was probably as good or maybe even better than the Chelsea Flower Show.

Despite - and I thank a vast pantheon of gods for my good fortune - never having been to the Chelsea Flower Show, despite not even knowing by what measure one begins to judge the relative qualities of flower shows, I am certain the Southport one is worse. It wasn't just that Southport only got on Granada Reports whereas the Chelsea one got on national telly. Though that - fuck all your blimps - itself was a real mark of worth.

It's the desperation in the tone of Southport saying it was a match for Chelsea, the same tone you heard when Southport declared its rickety funfair was probably as good as Blackpool's.

It's like the way any popular band is going to be bigger than the Beatles. It tells us a lot about the Beatles and nothing about Slade, Kajagoogoo or Take That. (And it really was said about all of them).

It's like the parent of a pathetic underachieving child saying 'you're as good as anyone else' as a way to not only pointlessly encourage their useless offspring but also to avoid facing the awful truth themselves.

I never did understand why the newspaper was called the Southport Visiter. It's for locals rather than those just visiting, who in any case are visitors, not visiters.

Or is it the middle one of visit/visiter/visitest? In which case, what the fuck does it mean? Yet its name is as blindly accepted by a complacent public as the inexplicable Good Year blimp.

Of course, we call it 'the' Good Year blimp, but there must have been dozens of them if they could turn out at every country show and stuff.

Has it gone away? Or am I just liberated from tedious family days out now?

Friday, February 16, 2007

going for gold

One time in the mid 90s I was on the London Underground, heading north on the Jubilee Line in a carriage which was unfortunately full of England fans going to Wembley.

They were singing loyalist songs familiar to me from the vile Orange Day parades in Southport; lots of gleeful triumphalist stuff about killing Feinian bastards and gloating over the death of IRA hunger strikers.

Then they sang God Save the Queen. Like any other thinking person I've always disliked the song, but this was the first time I'd really thought about it. The title itself contains two concepts I despise. Then each individual line contained something despicable.

God save our gracious Queen

Stuff your god, and the idea she's ours, let alone the ludicrous idea that she's gracious.

Long live our noble Queen

No, die and rot like any other mortal; in what way noble?; and again with that belonging to us thing.

God save the Queen

Both of them can fuck right off.

Send her victorious

Over who? Haven't we done enough of that already?

Happy and glorious

What glory's that exactly? The glory of being vaguely descended from thieves and murderers?

Long to reign over us

No, rather against the wall as soon as poss

God save the Queen

No, no, and no.

Previously, and aside of the repulsive sentiment of the lyrics, I've talked about the inappropriateness of having God Save The Queen as the national anthem for the UK.

When we compete as one nation, the national anthem is God Save The Queen. When we compete as four nations, Wales and Scotland have their own anthems. Northern Ireland alternates between God Save The Queen and the Londonderry Air (the tune to Danny Boy). England, of course, uses God Save The Queen every time; the Englishness of the Union is reinforced to everyone concerned.

How can it be fair that the anthem of one of the four nations is the anthem of them all? How would it feel if the roles were reversed and English members of a UK team had to sing Flower of Scotland?

Next up after shedding the Union Jack should be England getting its own tune. (My vote would be Blake’s Jerusalem. It’s got the requisite striving, yearning and historical elements but without the galling arrogance and glorification of militarism so common in national anthems.)

However, others have a wiser plan.

I have been persuaded to change my mind by this excellent and stirring new petition on the 10 Downing Street website, which I urge you all to sign.

We, the people of Britain, feel that our current National Anthem has lost a bit of its sparkle.

When we are confronted by the rare occasion of us winning a medal at the Olympics, we all have to mumble through "God Save The Queen", well God help us in 2012!

We would thereby like to table the suggestion that we change the National Anthem to something more modern and appropriate and that will re-invigorate our pride.

What we specifically want to see, is that the National Anthem be changed in favour of "Gold" by Spandau Ballet.

Further, we would like our National Olympic Committee to decree that Tony Hadley is the only person permitted to handle medal ceremonies where the National Anthem is played.

We don't mind what he wears when he does this, but preference is given towards a a gold colured suit.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

have faith in the market

Interesting place, the business pages of a newspaper.

Partly it's the real truth - the money people need to know what's really going on, so there's less spin and trivia than in the rest of the paper. GM crops, for example, were all over the business pages for months before the rest of the paper knew what to do with them (eventually plumping for 'another health scare' along the lines of salmonella, BSE, botulism and whatever).

But then there's the flipside; the economists' view of the world. These are, after all, people who believe that perpetual economic growth is possible and desirable. They are, therefore, completely insane.

They think economics is not the name for the study of certain sections of human behaviour, or even a model for understanding what goes on around humans. They think it's the whole story. If the market requires something then it will always be made available. It's blind faith.

The business pages of today's Independent features a piece on the new Barclay's Equity Gilt Study. Apparently we're going to avoid catastophic climate change and have an economic boom at the same time. Why? Because that's what'd be best for the economy.

Barclays Capital challenges the conventional wisdom that global warming will have a devastating impact on economic growth. It believes the need to increase energy capacity by 50 per cent by 2035, while simultaneously reducing dependence on hydrocarbons, will spark an "energy revolution" reminiscent of the technology revolution which led to the boom.

"If ever the time were ripe for such an energy revolution, it is now," said Tim Bond, global head of asset allocation at Barclays Capital, and author of the report. "And like all historical adoptions of general purpose technologies, the process should prove immensely stimulative to economic growth."

Mr Bond says that those who couch the climate change debate in terms of the cost to growth are underestimating the impact of an energy revolution. Last year's Stern Review concluded that if temperatures rise by five degrees celsius, up to 10 per cent of global output could be lost.

"All of the historical changes in energy supply - from dung to wood to coal to oil - were stimulative for the economy concerned...

"The impact of the replacement, restructuring and expansion of our energy infrastructure cannot be ignored," Mr Bond said. "Just as the personal computer cannot be un-invented, neither can the impending energy revolution."

I love the idea that you can't un-invent something that hasn't happened yet. It illustrates more eloquently than my analysis ever could just how utterly fucking deluded Mr Bond is.

There is a projected increase in energy consumption of 50% in 30 years. This is presumably based on the fact that we consume what we do now, and are going to get hungrier.

Climate change makes the need to cut fossil fuel use imperative.

These two things are not opposed in any way; they will surely be combined in some happy way as yet unforeseen.

The real issue that screams from the page goes completely unmentioned. He not only doesn't say how the new energy sources are to be economically viable and on-stream so fast. He neglects to say what the new energy sources might even be.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

ending the war: shit or get off the pot

There's the philosophy subscribed to by certain hippy dreamers that if we don't address a war and instead think positive things that it will make it alright. By focussing on a Bad Thing we entangle ourselves with it and become it. As the saying goes, battle ye not with monsters lest ye become a monster.

This leaves the monsters free to get on with inflicting all the carnage they want while we, safely thousands of miles away living on the spoils of that war, stick out fingers in our ears and go lalala.

But the methods of those new-age ostriches aren't the only way to block out the war. The rest of us are helped by mass media who keep the story in the news, only just tinkling somewhere in the background so it never grabs our attention.

Occasionally there's a big splash and people are outraged. Why were people are shocked by Abu Ghraib or the massacre in Haditha. What do they think war is?

We somehow think that our side shouldn't do that or even don't do that. Even today people don't want to really give Allied atrocities of the Second World War the attention they deserve. The best admission you can find is, 'they were worth it though, stop whining'. And indeed, we do largely stop whining, as it wasn't our families being incinerated in Dresden or our own gran getting raped in Vienna.

War necessarily means dehumanising anyone we see as the enemy. As one American soldier from the Iraqi occupation put it, 'If you start looking at them as humans, and stuff like that, then how are you gonna kill them?'

George Monbiot observes the links between the British occupation of Ireland and the American - sorry, 'allied' - occupation of Iraq.

Why should we be surprised by these events? This is what happens when one country occupies another. When troops are far from home, exercising power over people they don’t understand, knowing that the population harbours those who would kill them if they could, their anger and fear and frustration turns into a hatred of all “micks” or “gooks” or “hajjis”.

Once we dehumanise them, atrocities are inevitable. Atrocities are an intrinsic component of war. Wanting war without them is like wanting a sandwich but opposing the farming of wheat.

George Orwell asserted

So far as it goes, the distinction between an atrocity and an act of war is valid. An atrocity means an act of terrorism which has no genuine military purpose. One must accept such distinctions if one accepts war at all, which in practice everyone does.

But the violent subjugation of a population and deepening your troops' dehumanised vision of their enemy does have a genuine military purpose. It makes your troops more capable of getting on with the business of killing. Moreover, as atrocities are invariably a feature of war, they aren't something separate, they do constitute an act of war.

Orwell goes on

a world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a loony bin made use of by some other planet.

By the same token, a world that is horrified by a squad of American soldiers shooting an Iraqi family yet stays unruffled by other American soldiers dropping bombs in the sure knowledge that there are families below is equally deranged.

There is a straightforward reason why we invaded Iraq. Noam Chomsky explained it thus

We're supposed to believe that the US would've invaded Iraq if it was an island in the Indian Ocean and its main exports were pickles and lettuce. This is what we're supposed to believe.

Now the truth of the matter, obvious to anyone not committed to the party line, is that Iraq has huge oil resources, maybe the second in the world, mostly untapped, that it's right in the middle of the main energy-producing region of the world and that taking control of Iraq will strengthen enormously the US's control over the major energy resources of the world.

It will, in fact, give the US critical leverage over its competitors, Europe and Asia, that's Zbigniew Brzezsinski's [President Carter's national Security Adviser] accurate observation.

That's the reason. The method is war, which necessarily means atrocities.

If the war gets temporarily unpopular in the wake of some scandal, they'll talk about leaving, but they'll never actually do it. Why else would a bill passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate have the clause removed that denies funding for permanent US military bases in Iraq?

We feel that there may be a withdrawal because our leaders don't have our support for the war. Over 99% of Iraqis feel the occupying troops did not bring greater security, over 80% of them want the troops to leave, it had the biggest demonstations ever in the UK, the majority of Americans think the war was a mistake and the majority of American troops want to come home pronto. That's surely enough, right?

Thing is, they don't need our support. They just need our acceptance. The best way of getting that is to subject us to a constant low-level feed of information. All we need is familiarisation - a feeling that this is how it always is and ever shall be - that it won't actually affect us personally and there's not much we can really do, and we're sold. We accept and stop even really noticing it.

Putting a ten second report of Iraqi carnage - one of those quick bits with footage and voiceover used to break up the longer stories on the TV news - doesn't inform, it dulls. It's only occasionally they make me reconsider what I've just heard and go 'hang on, that was a 7/7 in Baghdad today and it doesn't warrant anything more than that?'

It's been like this a long time. Jim Bliss pointed it out nearly two years ago.

A couple of nights ago I was watching the news on television. My flatmate came into the room... "anything happening in the world today?" he wondered. Without even thinking I responded "nothing important". In saying that, I was dismissively referring to the news of Labour backbenchers calling for Blair to resign, and to the tory shadow-cabinet reshuffle.

The thing is... the second item in the headlines was actually the news that another 60 random Iraqis had been blown to pieces in a Baghdad market. I hadn't meant to overlook it. In fact, as soon as I said "nothing important" I remembered the story and felt vaguely sick that I'd so quickly forgotten it.

...For anyone keeping a close eye on the geopolitical ramifications of resource depletion, the Iraq war was clearly about oil.

...Now. The trouble is, if you take that interpretation to it's logical conclusion, you end up saying some pretty nasty things about the people running the war. Things like how daily insurgency attacks killing scores of civilians is the perfect post-war environment for the US and Britain. It provides apparent justification for the continuing presence of huge numbers of western troops. It keeps the Iraqi government weak and unstable, and hence reliant upon those troops to maintain their position. And so long as a compliant media continue to report these bombings as second on the news, with an identical report to yesterday's bomb, and the one before that, and the ones last week and last month... and without any sense of genuine outrage that this shit is happening on our watch (self-appointed though that watch may be)... then it'll just fade into the background even for those of us who can be arsed to write pointless little rants about it.

The US administration bigged up al-Zaqarwi as the Big Bad behind the insurgency. He was the al-Qaida leader, the one who was the link between them and Saddam Hussain, the proof that the insurgency was a foreign incursion cos all the Iraqis love us.

The death of Zarqawi was a milestone in the war alright, but not for the stated reasons. It showed our governments no longer needed a bogieman. They were now confident that, whether we approve of it or not, we are resigned to ongoing Iraqi occupation.

One Baghdad resident said on the announcement of al-Zarqawi's death

How do I feel? To hell with Zarqawi (or Zayrkawi as Bush calls him). He was an American creation - he came along with them - they don't need him anymore, apparently. His influence was greatly exaggerated but he was the justification for every single family they killed through military strikes and troops. It was WMD at first, then it was Saddam, then it was Zarqawi. Who will it be now? Who will be the new excuse for killing and detaining Iraqis? Or is it that an excuse is no longer needed - they have freedom to do what they want. The slaughter in Haditha months ago proved that. "They don't need him anymore," our elderly neighbor waved the news away like he was shooing flies, "They have fifty Zarqawis in government."

So now that Zarqawi is dead, and because according to Bush and our Iraqi puppets he was behind so much of Iraq's misery - things should get better, right? The car bombs should lessen, the ethnic cleansing will come to a halt, military strikes and sieges will die down… That's what we were promised, wasn't it? That sounds good to me. Now - who do they have to kill to stop the Ministry of Interior death squads, and trigger-happy foreign troops?

Yet, of course, there's still 7/7 level carnage and worse going off in Baghdad day after day, and we don't even register the voice that tells us.

Why we are there and what it will entail have always been clear since we invaded. To be around the day by day details fed to us by the corporate and embedded media is to deliberately move into the trees in order to be unable to see the woods.

There are two suggested ways out of this desensitising, which can be roughly be categorised as 'shit or get off the pot'.

The 'get off the pot' option stems from an idea expressed in last May's issue of the superb Arthur magazine. Douglas Rushkoff talked about how his students are

...overwhelmed by the seeming futility of taking a stand. Just the other day, they were debating whether going to a protest or rally even matters - especially when it can be reframed by the mainstream media as almost anything... Besides, most young protestors' rally activities are betrayed by their real-life purchases and behaviors.

Is futile or unconsciously hypocritical protest really better than no protest at all?

...Mustn't we take a stand? A direct, informed, progressive and potentially courageous stand?

Perhaps. But... not without a cost to our ability to see, think and feel clearly.

For example, to 'learn' about the war in the Persian Gulf, we must wade through disinformation upon disinformation. Which news agency to trust, if any? How smart are the reporters at those 'good' papers like The Guardian, really? Smart enough to remember and remind us that America's real goal is permanent bases in Iraq, or that 9-11 was used as an excuse to establish those bases? And what is communicated to us by daily headlines of single-digit casualities in that war, with often no mention at all of the thousands who died that day in Africa?

In short, does 'staying informed' itself subject us to more propaganda and distorted values than it’s worth? Does it suck us into 'their' story so deeply that we are incapacitated rather than prepared to act? Is 'having an opinion' about a distant war or policy of any value, or is it an intellectual cocktail party substitute for caring about something in a realm where we can actually make a difference?

...There's something to be said for creating works of art or media that instead give people the tools and energy to disengage from the story being told to us on TV, and to feel optimistic about our own potential to rewrite reality on terms more consonant with our hopes.

This, though, places a high level of faith in our ability to stay detached from the 'information' sources yet not turn into the aforementioned 'will it away with nice thoughts' brigade.

The other, 'shit', approach starts with asking us to spot the crucial difference between opposition to Iraq compared with Vietnam. It's not about the proportion of the public opposed - that's greater for Iraq. It's about the urgency and priority it's accorded.

This time, the war's had Dick Cheney - one of several members of the Bush Administration who would find argument being had over which set of war crimes they should be tried for first - in a key command role.

As a member of Nixon's team, he remembers the Vietnam war and why it failed. Opposition to the war was stoked by the draft. Ordinary Americans couldn't become desensitised when it was their own children coming home in body bags. Teenagers had such a fire under them to protest cos it was their friends getting drafted and killed, and they might be next themselves.

This time it's a volunteer army from the American underclass alongside a staggering one quarter of American troops who aren't even American. They're foreigners who'll be given citizenship if they come back from Iraq alive.

So, Congressman Charlie Rangel is lobbying for a return of the draft. Johann Hari explained in The Independent

a draft would change the attitude towards war back home: we would need a lot more persuasion to allow a war to be launched, and we would follow its course much more carefully. Most of us place so little importance on the war because we don't know anybody who is fighting it. Speak to military mothers, and they know the map of Basra better than the Tube map; but how many of us can even picture it? It's hard to sympathise with abstract people, no matter how nice you are. The people fighting the war are overwhelmingly black, brown or poor. Most of us are not.

...Conscription would, paradoxically, reduce war... If a war is worth fighting, it is worth fighting with everybody's children. And if it's not worth fighting - like the barely supervised collapse in Iraq - then nobody's child should die in its futile name.