Friday, 31 October 2008

Capitalist's snouts are still firmly in the trough

One of the more amazing features of the financial crisis is the fact that bank executives and staff still see their inflated salaries and bonuses as sacrosanct. Despite the fact that they have failed, and have been bailed out by the taxpayer its bonus business as usual.

The World at One on Radio four reported today that Barclays Bank had done a deal with Arab wealth funds to take on an extra £7.3 billion in capital. The government had offered Barclays a capital injection just two weeks ago at 12% which was reckoned to be a fairly punitive rate. But Barclays is taking the Arab cash at 16%! Why? - so they can avoid any potential curbs on bonuses and fat payouts. This beggars belief. Barclay's customers and shareholders are being taken for a massive ride.

On the same day Naomi Klein reports in the Guardian that chunks of the $700 billion bailout cash offered up by the Bush regime in the USA appears to be heading for executive pockets, and Citigroup is planning to spend $25 billion of the bailout cash buying other banks - how nice for them!

At this rate, we might as well just hand over the billions of taxpayers cash to the rich and let them get on with it - and all this at a time when thousands of taxpayers are losing their jobs and having homes repossesed.

So what does this tell us about global Capitalism? Well its clear that the Capitalists are in charge. Governments are either too weak or too complicit in all this to be able to stand up to the Capitalists. The function of governments and the rest of us is just to make them very rich. And while they party and ravage the planet we are supposed to look on in awe.

Karl Marx wrote about this nearly 150 years ago in a book called Das Kapital. Nothing much, it seems, has changed since. As for the capitalists their attitute, like Marie Antoinette's, seems to be - 'let them eat cake'. But we all know what happened to her don't we?

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

What is responsible for this pandemic of illness?

Are you overweight? Could do with losing a few pounds? I am. I suffer from the dreaded middle age spread - which has accelerated since I stopped smoking a few years ago. I now find that I am suffering from type II diabetes. Diabetes is a chronic illness, and one that can can have severe consequences - heart disease, blindness, impotence - need I go on?

It is estimated that two million adults in the UK suffer from type II diabetes and there are at least half a million who are undiagnosed.
So what happens next? We are exhorted to lose weight - easier said than done for many people. Overweight people are stigmatised - just like smokers have been. Its your fault fatty!

But is it your fault? Two important pieces of recent scientific research suggest otherwise. They suggest that this pandemic may have been caused by environmental pollution. Firstly, an article published in The Independent on obesity describes research that shows obesity is caused by pesticides. It has long been known that pesticides, even in low concentrations, have potentially harmful effects. Pesticides such as organochlorides - DDT, dieldrin etc - have effects which are oestrogenic - they behave like female hormones and have effects on humans at very low levels. This research is not a one-off. The link between industrial pollutants and obesity was exposed in The Ecologist magazine in November 2006

Secondly, new research suggests that bisphenol A, a chemical commonly found in plastics - such as food packaging - can cause Type II diabetes.

So, could the obesity/type II diabetes pandemic have been caused by environmental pollution? I believe it is highly likely that environmental pollution is a contributory factor, and not just because I find it difficult to lose weight. Its because I have background in molecular biology and an understanding of how these things work.

Yes, its complex. Yes, its difficult to prove cause and effect, especially when these pollutants are present in very low concentrations. But they are present in all of us. We still have DDT in our bodies even though it was banned about thirty years ago. Its much easier just to blame people for being fat, especially when we know that we eat too much, and don't get enough exercise.

But lets not underestimate the fact that the environment we live in is contaminated with chemicals which can have a significant effect on us even at low concentrations. Its important to understand that scientific studies of the effects of such chemicals are flawed. Why? for two main reasons: One - the dose-response studies that scientists use to test toxicity of chemicals are carried out mostly in rats - not humans; Two - at very low concentrations of many chemicals a response cannot be detected - because it cannot be detected it does not mean there is no effect. Nor are long term, or chronic, human effects studied

I intend to lose weight. But I do recognise that the condition I suffer from could be caused by environmental pollution - as well as diet and lifestyle. Why is this post in my blog? Because it is a log about environmental justice - pesticides and plasticisers like bisphenol A are used to make profits. Corporations will defend there use just as they did with DDT until someone can prove that they are harmful.

Obesity and type II diabetes are the pandemics of the current age. What will be the pandemics of the age of GM technology? But then that's safe as well isn't it?

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Its the environment stupid!

As we slide into a recession, one or two commentators such as George Monbiot have been doing us a service by reminding us that the credit crunch is trivial compared to what is potentially facing us in terms of a climate crunch.

In August I highlighted a report from the New Economics Foundation which stated that we had just 100 months to avert rising temperatures and runaway climate change - 98 months now! There is an increasing sense of urgency about our need to do something about this, and the recent pledge by the government to make an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is encouraging. Problem is, they have a lousy track record of delivery on such pledges - they are too wedded to big business and consumption.

In any case, we can't make big enough cuts unless everyone is involved - and that means you! And yes it means insulating your house, using low energy light bulbs, turning the central heating down, putting a jumper on, car sharing, dusting off your bike lights and cycling to work if you can. You have heard it all before but now is the time to get on with doing it and encouraging other in your local community to do so also.

I am working with a nearby local action group and trying to set up a group in the village I live in. In Cheshire, we have the example of Ashton Hayes, which aims to be the first village in England to become carbon neutral. Since starting in January 2006 they have cut their carbon emissions by 21%. You can get help in doing this from the Low Carbon Communities Network. If you have a local group - get involved. I have only just started but I'll keep you informed of progress. So far I have contacted the Parish Council and will speak at their next meeting to try and get their support. I've put a poster on the village notice board, and have an article coming out in next weeks local paper.

But this isn't just about climate change. Also of great significance is Peak Oil. Its worth quoting the definition from Wikipedia:

Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline

There is some disagreement about when peak oil occurred. Some people say 2007 others as long ago as 2005. But there is a consensus that we have passed peak oil. Just think for a moment what this means - a world without oil means massive changes in the way we live and there is no substitute, no magic technological fix on offer. We are going to go through what is known as an energy descent. And it is going to happen in our lifetimes. We are going to have to get used to living in a lower energy environment. And that means making the same kind of adjustments we would have to make for climate change anyway.

So, the local group I am trying to set up is not just about climate change because climate change adjustments to our lifestyle and peak oil adjustments go hand in hand. If you want to find out more I suggest you take a look at what Caroline Lucas had to say about the Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins.

We need to see theses changes as an opportunity rather than a threat. An opportunity to connect with our neighbours and build sustainable communities, communities free from the destructive excesses of free market capitalism,

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Time to take full control of the banking sector

So. One of the great architects of free-market failure, Gordon Brown, is now claiming to have found the solution. The £500 billion bail out plan, which he hopes will be copied around the world, didn't exactly get off to a spectacular start, and the markets are still falling. The plan is unlikely to work because there are still huge losses to unwind and no one knows who is holding them.

But Gordon isn't trying to reform the corrupt system of greed which threatens to undo all our livelihoods, he is trying to preserve it. Will people stand for this? I don't think so
. Already we are seeing more jobs losses and people are beginning to see the value of their pensions fall. The guilty have no place to hide and there is a lot of anger about. In the near future things can only get worse.

Instead of bailing out the banks we should be taking full control of them. We need to lower interest rates quickly - the 0.5% cut was too little too late. We must also nationalise some of the companies which are in danger of going under (and no I don't mean Karen Millen) and we need to help those who are threatened with repossession by the government taking over their mortgages and charging them rent. Local authorities must also be protected. But this just for starters. Then we need to start looking at economic renewal and that is where the Green New Deal comes in. The GND will not only create much needed jobs, but set us on the road to tackling climate change. Its interesting that the United Nations has now jumped on the GND bandwagon with proposals of its own.

The problem is that there is nowhere for people to channel their anger. We have the three main political parties - all supine adherents to the status quo. We have the trade unions - still stupidly tied to New labour. The Green Party is too small at the moment to be able make a significant impact. Other parties of the left have little influence or support. On top of this there is the general disillusionment with politics, because people don't think it can change anything.

People who would at one time have joined parties of the left are now putting their energy into changing things at a local level. There is a lot of local green activism around climate change and peak oil. At a meeting I attended on Monday, people from a small community (a housing estate) were working to strengthen and enhance their local area, and protect it from climate change and peak oil. They discussed all sorts of initiatives around reducing energy and water use. Their commitment, imagination, organisation and resourcefulness was impressive. They are changing things themselves because the government is failing them.

In the short term the only group who could make a significant difference are the trade unions. They should withhold all funding from New Labour until they have guarantees on bank nationalisation, protecting local authorities, regulation of the financial sector, and help for those facing repossession. What the trade unions really need to do is split the labour party, kicking out Brown and the Blairites, but there is little danger of that happeniing. But after the next election who knows? Aside from this there is still time and scope for a significant political shift to happen before the next election. What we need is a party of the left who can collect that vote. The only option for that at the moment is the Green Party.

My week

I've always been slightly bemused by commentators who seem to think if I'm blogging I'm wasting valuable time during which I should be actively changing the world. I've been accused of being an (self-confessed!) armchair middle class socialist and far worse. Karen invited me to attend a Manchester Rally on Thursday. I couldn't make it. Why? Because I wanted a night off. I fulfilled all the other commitments which I already had planned.

On Monday night I went to a local climate change action group meeting; Tuesday night was my regular weekly music lesson; On Wednesday I was in Bristol on business and Friday I traveled to Bradford for a weekend Unison seminar, from which I returned on Sunday morning. Only on Thursday night did I spend anytime in my well padded self indulgent socialist armchair. While all this was going on I was working to try and get West Cheshire Green Party off the ground.

Will this be enough to appease the critics? I doubt it. If you want to know, I didn't find the seminar very inspiring. But I did find a great pub - the Shoulder of Mutton - its Sam Smiths, has great organic lager and a lovely pint of bitter for just £1.47. So the trip was worthwhile. How was your week?

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

What is the value of a Nobel prize?

Its interesting to note that its possible to obtain a Nobel prize in economics without taking into account the realities of Capitalism. See this comment on the latest shenanigans by congress on the bail out of wall street by Joseph Stiglitz on CiF. Joseph Stiglitz is well meaning but where he goes wrong is by believing you can control Capitalism and protect people against its worst excesses.

History shows that you can't - that's why half the worlds population are living in dire poverty - three billion on $2 a day or less.
Ordinary people create wealth. Capitalists expropriate that wealth for themselves, leaving a few crumbs behind. Capitalists have no interest in providing pensions, holidays, health, & welfare because that all eats into their (sic) profits. All the gains we have made in the west have historically come from democratic and trade union activity - i.e. we have taken back from the Capitalists some of the wealth we created in the first place! - in the form of pensions etc.That is why (some of us) have a reasonable standard of living - but they still keep the lions share. While the Soviet Union existed it suited Capitalists to keep us 'on-side' by allowing us to keep the benefits we had won from then.

Now the USSR has gone and there is(allegedly) no serious alternative threat they are determined to reverse the gains we made. Hence privatisation and deregulation - making us work harder for them - for less.
The end result of this process will be third world levels of poverty in the USA and Europe - for most of us - if we don't stop it from happening. The truth is we need Capitalism like a hole in the head because it is Capitalism that makes us poor. What we need to do is keep the wealth we make for ourselves - i.e. by ending Capitalism as an economic system. That is what Socialism is really all about - not nationalisation - that is just one option for an alternative economy.

Capitalists want us to think that Capitalism is part of the natural order of things like gravity - it isn't. Its a system which is artificially maintained by a set of rules, and the rules are made by Capitalists - so no wonder it works for them! The wealth you have is something you (and you forbears) have had to fight Capitalists for - whether through the ballot box or industrial action.