Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The End of the World As We Know It

I don't know what's wrong with me at the moment. Can't seem to bring myself to write about anything much. Perhaps that's because I keep being given assignments about the onset of armaggedon at work which make everything seem a bit pointless.

Last time I checked terrorists were about to cause a clash of civilisations with the muslim world that would result in a Revelations-style fight to the death.

However, unlike the (apparent) majority of my fellow citizens I have never been particularly afraid of this scenario, partly because I think those threatening to destroy Western civilisation are more than usually incompetent and partly because we have most of the money and weapons on our side.

From what I can tell there's a large number of disgruntled 16 year olds from Luton with about 2 GCSE's to rub together looking for their moment in the limelight and a short-cut to credibility with their peers.

The shoe-bomber just made me laugh, as did the jeep 'attack' on Glasgow airport where the only person that got injured was the mujahideen doctor type who set himself on fire. From shame, probably.

True the whole 7/7 London Tube incident was scary but we definitely had more to fear from the IRA than these guys.

Climate change catastrophe and rising food prices is a different story.

The past year has seen startling hikes in the cost of basic foods: Corn has jumped 31%, rice 74%, soya 87% and wheat by an astonishing 130% since March 2007. As a result 100 million people could be pushed into poverty and hundreds of thousands put at risk of starvation according to the IMF and World Bank.

As opposed to the very localised threat of a possible terrorist attack (which can spread fear, but rarely, if ever, total destruction) the current situation is so grave that Ban Ki-Moon has warned it will cancel out all progress toward the Millennium Development goals of halving world poverty by 2015. Now billions of starving and desperate people is not only a humanitarian disaster but the recipe for a real third world war.

We are faced with the threat of a world which is deforested and denuded of its natural resources. Common goods like fish stocks and fresh water are getting rarer and will likely be the trigger for major conflict in years to come. If sea levels rise we'll sea a massive increase in refugee numbers, while natural disasters, salinisation and desertification linked to climate change will ensure harvests go from poor to non-existent in many of the world's poorest areas.

People like to blame biofuels for the current rash of food price hikes and shortages, and to a certain extent they are right since biofuels increase demand for crops, which boosts prices, which drives agricultural expansion, which eats forests, which releases even more CO2, which brings armageddon another step closer.

However, using biofuels as a scapegoat is a little too simplistic. Even if we turned over agrofuel fields to food production , that won't do much to counter world population growth and industrialisation which means people are consuming far more than the world can actually produce.

Take eating habits. The average Chinaman already eats 30 kilos more beef per capita now than he did in 1980. And the average kilo of beef requires 2000 square feet of land and 13000 litres of water. Since the same nutritional content can be gained from soya at 1% of the land and water, the logic of global capitalism, the logic of demand and supply to those who can afford goods, is pretty much responsible for the fact that farmers are growing food for the rich, and leaving the poor to starve.

Not that they have much choice. Agricultural markets are amongst the most restrictive and subsidised in the world, and their distortions trap poor farmers in a cycle of poverty and give them little incentive to increase food production. Likewise, the real culprit in the biofuels saga is the United States government which props up its industry to the tune of $7 billion a year, not including basic farm subsidies, which has a knock-on effect on world food production and prices.

It is the CAP and other subsidies, not biofuels, that are the root cause of this problem. If we really want to feed the world's poor, Europe and America should stop bleating about biofuels and move to end agricultural protectionism and export restrictions; enhance agricultural development in the poorest countries; and ensure the success of the Doha Development Round to encourage free, fair, and sustainable agricultural trade at global level.

Likewise, Europe must use its collective weight at international level to ensure that climate change and sustainability criteria are effectively integrated with trade policy to stop the latter undermining the former, as is currently the case. And that means stopping the Americans, in particular, screwing everyone over with their peculiar definition of 'free market economics' which is all about protecting their farmers, and damning the rest of the world.

It also means everyone becoming a vegetarian, as called for by Paul MacCartney.

It's a long shot. I dont see it happening myself. Armageddon is - sadly - a far safer bet.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Britain's Democratic Deficit

And while I'm on the subject of democracy and human rights I would like to draw attention to our own government's rather sinister double-speak on the issue.

According to Gordon Brown and others, the anti-Olympic Torch protests were a symbol of Britain's vibrant democratic values.

Or something.

The fact of the matter is that the police are using new anti-terrorism legislation to arrest people for demonstrating democratically.

That's right, following the Labour Party's example (when an elderly delegate was expelled from its annual conference for heckling Jack Straw over the Iraq war, under the 'Prevention of Terorrorism' Act) the guardians of law and order are using their powers to suppress dissent.

Much, it must be said, like the Chinese everyone was protesting about.

According to journalist Paul Lewis: "from the outset, police identified anti-Chinese protesters and subjected them to different rules to red-flag waving spectators.

Before the relay had even properly begun, my colleague witnessed police removing T-shirts and flags from demonstrators. At Ladbroke Grove, spectators carrying Tibetan flags were relegated to a pavement across the road, kept apart from a carnival-style reception.

Several protesters were dragged away.

Demonstrators who did not obey police requests to stand in designated areas were repeatedly threatened with anti-terrorist legislationl".

A victory for democracy if ever I saw one...

As Dan Kieran points out in his magnificent call to arms I Fought the Law, Britain is swiftly becoming an authoritarian state. As such, it is definitely a suitable successor to Beijing for the next Olympic Games. And from there, onwards to Sochi, in Russia, bastion of democracy and Human Rights.

And this is what they call progress.

Backdown or Boycott?

I've heard more crap about the Olympics than I can bear in the last week.

I've watched IOC President Jacques Rogge tell the world he was "saddened' by violent protests in Europe and that the Games would bounce back from this 'crisis'.

I've watched BBC reporters deliberate on how Britain can stand up for Human Rights and yet not 'offend' China.

I've watched athletes, from Tim Henman to Steve Redgrave, tell us how we should keep politics and sport separate.

I have seen noone, at least noone in the mainstream press, talk about China's broken promises to the world. Why we should be offended by China.

Tibet is actually a side issue. Even if the protests in Lhasa had never happened the West should still be demanding a boycott.

Not for emotional reasons

Not for political reasons

But because China has never, not once, tried to live up to the legally binding promises it made the International Olympic Committee when it won the bid for the 2008 Games all those years ago.

It signed a contract promising to improve democracy, human rights and media freedom in time for the Games.

No ifs, no buts.

Instead, all three have gone backwards.

Oppression is intensifying. Dissenters are held under lock and key, sometimes even in mental asylums. The international press is barred from entering Tibet and given minders while in China proper.

And just yesterday the governor of Lhasa said that if anyone tried to disrupt the progress of the Olympic Torch on its journey to Mount Everest through non-violent democratic protest they would be severely punished.

China has backed out of every promise it made the international community in return for its month in the limelight. Indeed, in failing to publish the Host City agreement, it is happy to pretend it never made any in the first place.

So I want the world to stop worrying about offending China.

While demanding a boycott now may not encourage change the IOC and the international community must demand that China lives up to its Olympic pledges by the time the Games commence in August.

If the authorities do not live up to this contract, we should boycott the whole event.

Some nebulous form of dialogue with the Dalai Lama will not suffice: that is just diplomatic smoke and mirrors.

We need concrete change. Or they can take their billion pound stadiums and use them as detention camps for all those dissidents. That would show the world what they are really made of.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Better Living Is A Science

To update from my last post, I can now state that - in some matters at least - better living certainly is a science.

After drinking far more than is remotely advisable at a staff party last night (yes, that was a Tuesday night and yes, that is as bad as it sounds, and yes I will have to live with the teasing for weeks to come) I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that moderation in, or indeed total abstention from, the consumption of alcohol is a preferable state of being.

It also helped me lose 7 kilos over the last two months.

Game set and match to sobriety.

I am pleased that I have resolved this moral dilemma. On to the other 99.9%.....

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

In God We Doubt

As someone who spends longer than can ever be considered healthy obsessing about theological issues, I have come to remarkably few conclusions. So few, that I have been forced to subscribe to Olin Miller's assertion that "to be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it". I guess that's my cynical pragmatism at work.

However that doesn't stop me wishing I could believe in something - really believe in a way that gives my life a purpose I can dedicate myself to, rather than forcing myself to swallow a grain of truth surrounded by a load of claptrap for the sake of a little solace, which seems to be the failure of most religious texts I've explored. Many people say that historical context and exegisis brings more clarity. But, no matter how much I read, I'm simply not there yet.

I also consider it rather unfair that so many so called Holy Books have rocked up on the earth's shores. It's hard enough working out, after many years of painstaking research, whether one of them stacks up let alone comparing them to the beliefs of Incas, Hare Krishna's or even just the other major world religions.

So imagine how pleased I was to discover this excerpt from a new book by John Humphrys entitled In God We Doubt. I remember the marxist vicar Giles Fraser well from my time at Wadham when he was our college chaplain.

One particular sermon of his on The Matrix and the meaning of modern life was instrumental in changing my understanding of British society at the tender age of 19, an understanding only reinforced by works like Affluenza and I Fought the Law which, despite their slightly hysterical tone, have helped prevent me ever becoming a fully functional member of a society obsessed by consumption, pleasure, and distraction.

As Humphrys himself acknowledges "For those of us who are neither believers nor atheists it can be very difficult. Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable".

I agree with him that while most attempts to justify belief in God seem hopelessly naive, the hopelessness of postmodernist thought, in which we are supposed to be satisfied with a life of pleasure with nothing at the end of it, doesn't make a great deal of sense either. In fact, if human beings, like other creatures, were supposed to exist happily without a sense of an external creator why did they all go to such great lengths to create one?

After all is said and done, "There remains what the atheist philosopher AC Grayling calls “the lingering splinter in the mind . . . a sense of yearning for the absolute”. There is a profound longing for something that will stimulate and satisfy emotionally and spiritually.

In the end our choice, as Humprhys points out, is to accept the conclusion reached by Jean-Paul Sartre that “There is no purpose to existence, only nothingness” or see the purpose in religion either as revealed truth, and therefore meaning, or as a social tool that is somehow in tune with the needs of human nature, and without which we function less well.

I suspect this will be top of my wish list for my birthday.

Casanova Clegg

I couldn't decide if this was an April Fool or if Nick Clegg is simply putting the 'L' back into Liberal.

According to today's Guardian "Nick Clegg cannot be accused of forgetting his promise to make British political life as "open and accessible" as possible".

"In an unusually candid interview [with the men's mag GQ], the Liberal Democrat leader reveals that he has slept with as many as 30 women and considers himself a competent lover, but admits he has received the odd complaint."

I'll be asking for Freedom of Information disclosures on Brown and Cameron next....

Are some things not best left unsaid?

Proud to Be British?

I had to laugh during my visit to the British Embassy today.

A big poster advertises its mission to provide the 'highest standard of service', even though they summarily closed the passport office last week and relocated it to Paris to cut costs. Of the 'service' that remains in the consular section, this is what the highest standard looks like:

As I had predicted, security was tight outside the embassy with lots of menacing looking anti-tank bollards blocking the pavement. I had to hurdle over one of them to get to the consular section.

Once there, the punters are left outside in the cold until they are called, one by one, into a room where they are x-rayed, frisked, and have their phones confiscated. Woe betide those who visit the place on a rainy day.

Once negotiating the security staff you go up the stairs and wait in what seems like an interminable queue while the two staff members on duty bumble about. You reach the cash desk where there is a big poster explaining which impossibly high fee goes with which basic administrative task.

Three attested copies of my passport were to set me back 36 euros which I thought was rather steep. We're talking about some good old fashioned ink and stamps here.

However that was nothing compared to the cost of registering your marriage, at nearly 100 euros, or giving up your citizenship (which I might otherwise have been tempted to do today, given that being British can sometimes seem a lot more trouble than it's worth).

I brought the question of these 'fees' up with the woman at the desk who told me, rather apologetically, that they were set by the government to cover the costs of the embassy staff.

I said I thought that was what taxes were for. But apparently the government is too busy spending our hard-earned on illegal wars to spend any on a foreign service British nationals might actually need.

Having swallowed the fees news, I took out my card to pay. Things were looking good until the machine broke down. Apparently it had been doing that all morning. A problem connected to the telephone line. Well, fair enough, but perhaps they would accept payment in cash. Pounds to be precise?

Of course not. I would have to go to the bank, get euros (of which I had five on my person), and wait in the stupid queue again, all in order to come back the next day to get the attested copies because this apparently simple procedure was to take them a full day to complete...

This contrasts markedly with my experience at the Irish Embassy, where I went for the same purpose with my Irish passport. I walked straight in - no queues, no checks - rang the bell, took a seat, and seconds later some pleasant old soul took my passport and attested the copies I'd brought on the spot - FOR FREE!

Rule Britannia, eh?