An end to the war on terror


The kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the extremist sect Boko Haram is starting to make big waves in the international media, partially due to the horrifying nature of the story and partially due to the sheer unlikeliness of managing to kidnap so many people without anyone knowing where they’ve been taken. The story now is being focused on the reaction of the Nigerian government – a government which is famously incapable of caring for its own citizens, and more bothered about continuing to bring in oil revenue from the West. This is a government which responded to anti-oil protests in the Ogoniland region by executing the leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a move which spectacularly backfired in terms of providing terrible PR for the country for years afterwards.

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They are now proving just as incapable of dealing with Boko Haram, an Islamic group whose name means roughly ‘Western education is a sin’ – hence their targeting of schoolgirls. The Nigerian government seems helpless to stop the terrorists that inhabit the desert north of the country, and has instead started arresting leaders of the protest groups that are calling for action in the capital, Abuja – yet another piece of terrible PR for this hapless regime.

Boko Haram seem to be another part of the wave of militarized Islam that has been sweeping across the Saharan region in recent years. We saw similar ideologies in the extremist groups that hijacked the Tuareg revolution in northern Mali in 2012, before being beaten back with the help of French troops. What this seems to signify is yet another suggestion that the global ‘war on terror’ has been an abject failure and a new approach is needed. It turns out invading predominantly Muslim countries and bombing people from drones may be very effective in killing individual terrorists, but is singularly ineffective in stopping new terrorists being created – if anything, it just seems to encourage people to take up arms against the West and the Western-backed governments in Africa that they see as oppressing their co-religionists.

Beyond even the war on terror itself, the extremism in countries like Nigeria is further fuelled by Western-led policies. So much of Nigeria’s resources are concentrated in an oil industry which benefits only the Western countries that use the oil and the corrupt politicians who cream the profits from the top, leaving only a minimal amount to provide much-needed services to the long-suffering people of Nigeria. Unsurprisingly, this has led large parts of the country – particularly those outside of relatively well-funded areas like Lagos and Abuja – to have no faith in their government, or worse, to actively despise it. Such developments can only encourage populist religious movements like Boko Haram, that promise to ‘save’ the people from poverty and misery as long as they follow a set of religious laws.

Rather than focusing on wars and on attempts to force democracy onto people (if ‘forced democracy’ isn’t itself an oxymoron), we need to find a new way of halting the spread of this kind of extremism. We need international development policies that actually help countries pull themselves out of poverty, rather than relying on Western oil money to survive. And we need to stop tolerating regimes that are friendly towards Western corporate interests, but damaging and authoritarian towards their own populations. We can only hope that the kidnapping of these girls, however terrible it is, will help to push our leaders towards these new policies, as they realize that extremism will not go away if faced with violence alone.

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Historical justice, brought up-to-date


A big topic of conversation today (well, it’s a big topic among the people I talk to, anyway…) is that of climate justice. Roughly speaking, this means the need to take into account that some countries have a historical responsibility for the large amounts of pollution they have created, while other countries need help dealing with the effects of that pollution, and with ensuring that they do not create an equally large amount of pollution. Thus, the historically responsible countries should help the other countries. Simple, when you put it like that, but it’s actually quite complex to arrange in practice.

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It does bring to mind another similar, but much older, issue that has also been in the news recently – that of reparations for slavery. The effects of the slave trade between Africa and North America and the Caribbean are still being felt sharply even today, 150 years after the American Civil War ended slavery on that continent (and even longer since it was ended in much of the rest of the world). We see the relative poverty and discrimination against black people in the US; the resource based economies of the Caribbean that keep them poor; and the conflicts and troubles of places in West Africa where slaves were taken from.

Whenever these issues are brought up, western nations tend to try and bury their heads in the sand and ignore the people asking the questions. They are scared that if they admit any wrongdoing in the slave trade, they will be expected to pay billions of dollars in compensation and reparations for the damage they did over the centuries. And although we might say that maybe they should pay that money, they rightfully point out that handing over huge amounts of money to governments in countries that have conflict and corruption problems may not be the wisest solution – unless we want to help boost the balances of a few secret Swiss bank accounts.

However, a recently announced plan by the heads of various Caribbean states provides a much better way of looking at the reparations issue. Rather than directly asking for money, they are asking for European nations to help with medical treatment and education on the islands, and to help forge cultural and political links between the Caribbean and the West African nations that most of their citizens originally came from. This could help these countries become less reliant on western money, rather than more so – as an educated, healthy population with strong trading links with others countries would be much more able to fend for itself.

Hopefully, this plan will prove more amenable than demands for monetary reparations have proven to be in the past, and the European states will help it to get off the ground. It could provide some excellent opportunities for communities that have been oppressed and exploited throughout history, but it could also provide a good example for how we can approach climate justice in the future. Rather than obsessing about money and figures, we can instead focus on working together to provide the skills and resources necessary for poorer communities to survive climate change – whether that be the ability to make their own solar panels or hydroelectricity, or to build houses in ways that will resist sea level changes, or anything else. This will take a lot of coordination, and, yes, will cost some money – but if we can manage to agree to do this kind of thing over the incredibly divisive topic of slavery, then we should be able to manage it when it comes to environmental issues that affect us all.

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Fighting the arms trade with non-violence


As I write this, news is just coming in from the West Midlands area of England about an important, but rather under-the-radar trial that has been taking place for the past two days. Last year, five activists blockaded the main entrance to the Excel Docklands in London during the biennial Defence Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair. The activists are all Christians (one of them a minister), and they acted completely non-violently at all times, simply kneeling down in prayer and singing hymns. Meanwhile, inside the DSEI, hundreds of companies were competing to sell weapons, explosives, armoured vehicles and more to the many government representatives who attend. The difference between the two groups couldn’t be more clear, and yet it was the activists who came off worse in this particular battle between non-violence and the state – they were arrested and charged with aggravated trespass.

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Today, they have been declared ‘not guilty’ by the judge at Stafford magistrates court. Admittedly, they appear to have only been let free on a technicality – police instructions for them to leave were not clear or detailed enough, so they couldn’t have been expected to fully comply – but this is still a victory of sorts. The activists were allowed to put forward their argument about the legitimacy of their tactics in a court of law, and the police – as ever – appear either duplicitous or foolish. At NRGLab and the Ana Shell Fund we applaud the five for standing up for their beliefs and risking up to three months in jail to make their point.

But what really stands out about this trial is the double standards and hypocrisy of justice in supposedly ‘free and fair’ countries like the UK. One of the defendants’ arguments hinged around an interesting side event at the 2013 DSEI, in which two companies were expelled from the convention. They were expelled because they were promoting the sale of weapons which are illegal under British law. The French company Magforce International and the Chinese firm Tianjin Myway were kicked out of DSEI for selling electric shock projectiles, stun batons, and weighted leg cuffs. DSEI only took action after the Green Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas raised a question in the British parliament about rumours that these companies were selling such items at the fair.

Yet despite the illegal actions of the two companies, and the relaxed initial response of DSEI, nobody involved with the arms fair was charged with anything. The crimes of those companies that peddle stun batons and shock missiles seems far greater than that of five calm and studious people kneeling down in the road outside, and yet it is only the latter who feel the force of the state and its police come down on them. Even now, as mentioned above, they are only free because of a technicality. If the police had been better at their jobs, the peaceful activists might well be in jail this evening while Magforce and Myway continue to go about their business – a business which is based on oppression and violence against the disenfranchised and poor.

The priorities of the state are clear – and this is not just the British state, although that happens to be where this story is set. If you try to defend the helpless, those who have nothing, those whose homes are being destroyed by missiles, whose lives are being taken by guns, and whose freedom is being undermined through weighted leg cuffs and the like, you are potentially a criminal. If you contribute to that very situation – if you make the leg cuffs, the missiles, the guns, the weapons of torture – you’re fine, free to carry on as you please, as long as you keep bringing in the profit for the politicians and shareholders. Non-violent protestors are dangerous, while companies whose entire business model is built on violence are upstanding citizens. This backwards ideology is at the very heart of our globalized, neoliberal culture today, and we should all be working like those five activists to stand against it.

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The death of Detroit


The city of Detroit has been seen as many things to many people. A city is such a huge and unknowable entity that every view we take can only be partial, colored by our own political perspective and background. Some of the lenses that have been used to view the wreckage and ruin of modern Detroit: to many on the right, it is a symbol of a town with too many unions, and an example of how those unions destroy the jobs they are meant to protect by making things too difficult for the capitalist class. Others from the same side of the political spectrum argue that the Democrats who led Detroit taxed the people too highly and spent too much money on public services and welfare. Those with a more extreme viewpoint take a racist approach – they say that Detroit’s problems stem from the fact that it is majority black, and that black people should not be allowed or expected to govern themselves properly.

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Those of us on the left would not agree with any of those viewpoints, but it’s impossible for us not to see that Detroit has problems. The population has fallen by 25% in the last decade, grand old buildings like Michigan Central Station lie in ruins, and in 2013 Detroit became the largest city in the history of the US to file for bankruptcy. The unemployment rate is by far the worst in any of the 50 biggest cities in the country, at over 23%. In some areas that have been abandoned and destroyed by gangs, broken down and boarded up houses are selling for a dollar.

So what is the cause of this decline, if we don’t accept the right wing narrative? We could instead argue that Detroit is a victim of suburbanization and the ‘white flight’ phenomenon. The suburban communities around Detroit are, perhaps surprisingly, very wealthy indeed. These suburbs became very popular in the late 1960s due to a number of factors. The increasing wealth of the white population in post-war America allowed them to be attracted to the ‘American Dream’ of owning a big house in the ‘burbs with a lawn and space for two cars. At the same time, race riots in 1967 and the growing power and militancy of the unions scared those same rich white people into making a decision – they chose to leave behind urban living and move out to the suburbs.

The problem is that these suburban areas are in a different jurisdiction from Detroit proper. The suburbs pay tax to themselves, while the large city of Detroit is left to run itself with an increasingly small amount of tax money – as most of the people that have stayed in the city, by choice or because they had nowhere else to go, are too poor to pay anything. The result is a police force that cannot handle the criminals, a city that cannot repair crumbling infrastructure, and a vicious circle of poverty that the remaining inhabitants find it increasingly hard to climb out of.

A similar story has been repeated on a smaller scale throughout the country, with rich whites abandoning inner cities in favour of bland suburbs where they can live exclusively with their own kind. Meanwhile, urban areas fall apart with no federal or state support to boost their meagre tax income. Detroit is merely the most extreme example. The suburbanization of America – a philosophy which is increasingly spreading to other parts of the world – needs to be discouraged as much as possible. Suburbs are a sign of segregation (between the rich and the poor, and the white and the black), a sign of environmental destruction, a sign of cultural uniformity – and a sign of economic distress for the inner city areas in which the poor and the exploited primarily live. The death of Detroit is a byproduct of the American dream of suburban living, and clearly shows us what happens to those who cannot afford that dream.

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The global food system – A madness that needs to end


Our global food system is broken, and anyone who takes the time to look at it can see this. The main thing that makes it obvious to even a casual observer is that we actually have more than enough agricultural output each year to feed the entire world – and yet hundreds of millions of people across the globe continue to be hungry. It should be an outrage on all of our lips, but it’s actually mostly swept under the carpet and ignored by those of us who are fortunate enough to have food on our plates. However, the UN has started to take notice, with the special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter recently releasing a very detailed report on the matter.

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Let’s take a look at some of the biggest problems with the system. Perhaps worst of all, poor countries are forced to grow food not to feed their own people but to pay off their debts. Because of the debts incurred by countries in Africa and Latin America during the 20th century – mostly money given by exploitative banks to corrupt dictators – developing nations need to get their hands on as much foreign currency as they possibly can, just to keep paying off the interest and avoid defaulting. This means they end up producing flowers, coffee, cocoa, and, particularly in the case of Latin America, meat and soybeans. These products have no nutritional value for the average hungry citizen, or, in the case of meat, are totally unaffordable to locals. They are all shipped out to the richer countries at low prices in attempt to pay off debts that should be cancelled anyway, and take up valuable agricultural land that could be used to grow edible crops for local people.

Meanwhile, the rich world has its own farmers, who produce wheat and other grains and animal products primarily, as well as some oil crops and soy beans. Due to the higher living cost in these countries, much of this produce would be very expensive – but the rich nations pay subsidies to the farmers to help them keep the cost down. So the taxes of ordinary people are given to the (usually rich) landowners in these countries to perform a service that is completely inefficient. In fact, the subsidies actually make the process even less efficient, as the farmers are encouraged to produce too much – there are so-called mountains of butter and lakes of milk going to waste in Europe because there is simply too much of it for people to eat. We could give it to the poor in other countries – but, of course, they can’t afford it, so we’d rather let it rot.

All of that is ridiculous enough, but our food system is also accelerating climate change. Industrial agriculture damages the environment through its intensive use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers; the raising of cattle for beef and milk contributes to greenhouse gases through the production of methane; and the transport of food all over the world, as opposed to encouraging people to eat food that is locally produced, requires a huge use of carbon-spewing fuel.

As an alternative, the UN’s special rapporteur is going to be encouraging small scale farms that focus on diverse crops and food sources, rather than singular cash crops; environmentally production methods that don’t rely on chemicals; and end to biofuel targets (an increasing amount of the crops we grow around the world are simply added to gasoline to make it ‘greener’); and an end to food waste in the rich nations. All of these are good steps, but it will take strong action from the UN if we are to implement them. After all, the current global food system may seem crazy, but it continues to operate in this way for a good reason – because some people make a lot of money from it. Those people will resist change for as long as they can, even if the current system hurts and exploits the poor – it will take a concerted effort from all of us to support the UN in bringing about something more sustainable and more just.

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Fracking our way to disaster


Recent reports from the US have suggested that water contamination from the new energy technique known as ‘fracking’ might be more common than previously thought. There were complaints of contamination in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, and Ohio. Texas, the state with the most detailed reporting on complaints (which is itself perhaps surprising, considering Pennsylvania’s more liberal image), had over 2,000 complaints about oil and gas wells, although no cases of water contamination have yet been confirmed. In Pennsylvania, however, over 100 confirmed cases of water contamination from the oil and gas industry, including fracking wells, have been recorded.
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Of course, one of the very first things that started to bring fracking, or hydraulic fracturing to use its proper name, into mainstream public consciousness was the documentary Gasland, which showed homeowners being able to set their tap water on fire using an ordinary cigarette lighter. Because fracking requires the pumping of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and chemicals into the earth in an attempt to fracture it and release trapped natural gas, it provides an inherent risk of cross-contamination with local groundwater – and the actual composition of chemicals being used in fracking fluids often remains a closely-guarded industry secret.
So will these findings halt, or at least slow down, the fracking boom which has been spreading across the US over the past few years, and which has recently begun to take hold in other countries like the UK? While there are some cases of homeowners being heavily compensated for undisputed disruptions to their water supply, as fracking increases in scale it seems unlikely that energy companies will cave in. Ultimately, fracking provides the possibility of access to continued cheap, onshore natural gas deposits, allowing our current fossil fuel economy to continue unabated – that kind of opportunity is something that businesses and governments won’t pass up, as switching to a more environmentally friendly energy economy based on renewables will only pose a threat to those that make power and profit from the status quo.
In addition to this, it is likely that the majority of fracking wells will be drilled in rural areas and on the working class outskirts of towns. The majority of the people who will be affected by this infrastructure are those with little land, few connections, and essentially no power to do anything about it. Rich landowners will be able to use their money to defend themselves against fracking wells, while poor people will see their land destroyed, their views spoiled, and their health taken away from them in the name of corporate profits.
This continued drive for fossil fuels is surely the greatest folly of our time. There are so many potential alternatives out there – some of which we are exploring here at NRGLab – which would be much better recipients of the public funds and government support that industries like fracking are now receiving. Through judicious use of technology we could bring down household energy bills, lift people out of energy poverty, and protect our natural environment – rather than contaminating our water and destroying our health in pursuit of a few more years of the easy option of fossil fuels. Hopefully, public awareness of the dangers of fracking will be the first step towards seeing some real change over the next few years.
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Fighting for the Union in Tennessee


A few weeks back, a Volkswagen manufacturing plant in Tennessee had a vote on whether to affiliate with a union. A fairly standard procedure, which happens in industrial workplaces across the world on a regular basis, right? The vote narrowly fell, and the shop will remain non-unionized, at least for now. However, despite the seeming ordinariness of this occurrence, the vote has become a much bigger talking point across America.
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Republican senators have been accused of influencing the vote by essentially threatening the workers that they would be damaging the entire state of Tennessee and taking away potential jobs from friends and family members. The senators argued that if Volkswagen unionized, it would mean other employers would avoid Tennessee when making decision about where to locate manufacturing plants – they would move to a non-union state instead (as many of the other southern and western states continue to be). More perniciously, they also argued that if the workers were to unionize, the state government would no longer provide subsidies to Volkswagen to encourage them to locate their production facilities in Tennessee – essentially trying to force their prophecy to come true by actively pushing VW to locate elsewhere.
Of course, anti-union situations like this remain widespread in the US. German companies like Volkswagen actually have quite a strong culture of unionization, at least domestically, as there is clearly a much stronger belief in cooperation, mutual benefit, and the need to work together as a society in Germany. In the US, however, anti-union ideology abounds, and many companies will indeed threaten to leave areas if unions are formed – with no repercussions from politicians or the government.
Walmart and McDonalds are both staunchly anti-union, with the former keeping a very close eye on employees and moving into action at the first sign of labor organization – a selection of anti-union talking points given to store management were recently leaked. And since the birth of NAFTA in 1994, it has been increasingly easy for companies to simply uproot their manufacturing processes to just south of the Mexican border, where wages are cheaper and the labor is more easily exploitable due to high levels of poverty.
Unions may have their faults, but they have long been the traditional way in which the working class and the poor have demanded and won their human rights and freedoms from the exploitative owners of the capitalist class. Consequently, it’s fairly understandable that ultra-capitalist corporations like Walmart want to destroy them. Politicians, however, should be standing up for the people they represent, rather than siding with the corporate anti-union line, like the Republicans in Tennessee have. Unfortunately, today’s politicians seem to be more concerned with money and their corporate friends than with helping the poor and the working class – and it’s time the working class of the southern states started to realize that and vote differently.
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