Posted by: Jack | August 21, 2008

SNP tries to scapegoat youth over alcohol problem


Back in June the SNP government announced plans to try and tackle the problem of binge drinking in Scotland.

There’s no argument that excessive drinking is a real problem, and one that I would have to admit to having been part of. Official statistics indicate at least 1 in 4 adults drinks in a way that’s hazardous to their health, and the cost to the NHS across the UK of treating alcohol related illness is estimated to be £20 billion.

The SNP solution however has been to turn to the tried and true methods of governments keen to look like they’re doing something-scapegoating and trying to look tough.

The biggest headline grabbing part of their proposals is to ban under 21s from buying drink in off licences (they would still be able to drink in pubs).

I think that we should oppose outright this plan to discriminate against Scotland’s youth in this way. It’s blatant discrimination, but not only that, I also think it won’t contribute to tackling the real roots of the problem.

We need to try and examine why we have the kind of alcohol economy we have in 2008. In 1989 the Thatcher government fundamentally changed the structure of the alcohol industry in the UK by passing laws preventing brewers from owning more than 2000 pubs.

Previously the brewers had owned and controlled pubs, making sure they had a monopoly on beer sold there. They subsisted primarily off men drinking a couple of pints after work. This was the context that men were introduced to drinking-with older men and workmates. But after the Tories destruction of British industry and the traditional working class the brewer’s traditional sources of profit went with them.

The idea behind Thatcher’s move was that it would break up monopolies and allow competition to flourish. But in fact what happened was that the brewers created new entities, known as PubCos. These companies took a portion of the brewer’s management, and were given sweetheart deals to buy up their pubs. These then went on to become the massive pub chains familiar in any city centre anywhere in the UK.

In 1989 the two biggest PubCos owned around 300, 000 pubs, half of the country’s total. Today the two biggest alone own a quarter of all pubs between them. Meanwhile the six biggest brewers, which are all now part of multinational corporations, own no pubs but produce more of the beer drunk-eight out of every ten pints.

The people running these pub chains know what they’re doing, and that is applying the marketing strategies of fast food to selling alcohol. The methods that have taken Pizza Express and Pret a Manger to every high street have also brought us Wetherspoons, Scream bars and Yates. These chains refer to drinkers in their marketing strategies as traffic, and are solely interested in getting people through, drinking, out and replaced by more.

The other factor that needs to be taken into account, which happened on a similar timeline, is the rise of rave culture and young people moving away from drinking towards ecstasy and water. This caused major consternation for the alcohol companies, who decided they must come up with a strategy to compete with pills.

Their solution was alcopops. In June 1995 Bass launched Hooper’s Hooch, an alcoholic lemonade. Within a month there was Merrydown’s Two Dogs, and by the end of the year Thronlodge launched Mrs Puckers and Carlsberg-Tetley had Lemonhead. Now every alcohol company produces some form of alcopop, loaded with sugar and designed to appeal to people without prior experience of alcohol and attract youth to drinking.

The alcohol industry in the past 20 years has seen extraordinary consolidation into multinational corporations, all with relationships with the ever burgeoning PubCos. To take one example, in Nottingham between 1997 and 2003 the capacity of licensed premises jumped from 65, 000 people to 110, 000, a pattern that is replicated elsewhere.

I’m not trying to idealise pubs prior to the Thatcher induced changes, but a pub that is controlled by a local landlord is more likely to know their customers and perhaps take considerations into account apart from selling drink. And it’s also not to argue that pubs now are acting wholly irresponsibly, but it’s ridiculous to try and claim that the heavily marketed and corporate finance backed pub chains have nothing to do with the binge drinking culture that has developed in Britain.

The SNP’s proposals won’t stop under 21s who want to drink from doing so. They’ll get someone to buy it for them, just as under agers do now. But probably a bigger impact is it will drive people into the pub. The government argues that drinking is more regulated in pubs, but I don’t think that driving people into the hands of the PubCos is going to be a solution.

It’s a tried and tested tactic to scapegoat youth for social problems. Scotland’s youth are some of the most disenchanted people with the political process and the various charlatan big business parties, and so are unlikely to vote. Binge drinking is something that affects many more than just under 21s, and this measure of discrimination is going to do nothing to tackle it.

To put forward some other positive ideas, I would suggest putting a stop to the mergers and consolidation in the alcohol industry, stopping the emergence of corporate giants determined to keep us drinking. An immediate ban on all alcohol advertising would be a big help as well. And prevent the onward march of the PubCos swallowing up more local pubs and controlling the entire market.

But ultimately we need to look at why people want to drink so much every weekend. Ask anyone in the pub and they’ll probably cite how hard they have to work throughout the week. People in the UK work the longest hours of any workforce in Europe. Our jobs, particularly for young people, are hard, stressful and precarious. There are no rights or organisation for workers, and many of the jobs are “McJobs” working for companies contributing nothing socially useful.

Faced with such an alienating and frustrating situation, what options are there for people to use their free time? Facilities for youth and general municipal sports or recreation facilities have been sold off and under funded. The entertainment that is available is privately owned and expensive. And our cities are filled with chain pubs. Given the economic and political choices taken by governments and the alcohol industry in recent years, is it any wonder we have a worsening problem with alcohol? And is scapegoating young people the way to solve it?

SSY is proposing to mount a campaign on the SNP’s proposals, demanding that this discriminatory measure is not brought in and instead real steps are taken to tackle Scotland’s alcohol problem.

Posted by: Jack | July 29, 2008

World running out of metal

Police across the UK recently announced a two day blitz on a new major crime problem: organised theft of metal.

The British Transport Police declared theft of metal to be the biggest threat to the railways after terrorism. Persistent thefts of the copper wiring used in signalling systems is a major cause of delays and potential dangers. It was reported last month that in the previous year metal thefts on the railways increased 70% and caused 2, 500 hours of delays.

Any kind of copper wiring is being stolen, but other metals as well. Metal theft, the police declare, is Britain’s fastest growing crime. Popular targets include aluminium beer kegs (400, 000 went missing last year), cast iron man hole covers and catalytic converters from cars for their platinum. The estimated cost to British industry is £360 million a year, and rising.

A hundred road signs made from aluminium in Devon disappeared in one night. The two metre long phosphor bronze propellers were stolen from the Royal yacht Britannia. And perhaps most strangely of all, a Henry Moore sculpture worth £3 million was stolen in 2005, but it’s thought to be melted down for scrap rather than sold as art.

It’s a global problem and is even worse in other parts of the world. In Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic whole bridges have been stolen, such as the 4 tonne railways bridge stolen in February in Bohemia. And last year Melbourne was virtually shut down to traffic after all railways crossings automatically closed due to theft of wiring.

Clearly to accomplish such impressive thefts the perpetrators must be organised and serious. But what’s behind the sudden leap in metal theft? A simple fact-several new manufacturing powers in the developing world are building industries on an unprecedented scale, and biggest of them all is China.

Chinese industry desperately needs natural resources to fuel the massive expansion it has been undergoing since its supposedly “communist” government decided to turn its back on trying to build socialism and instead build a powerful capitalist country. As the late former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping put it: “To get rich is glorious.”

Now a huge proportion of the manufacturing industry of the entire world is taking place in China. Every day we are surrounded by a universe of products that have been built by cheap Chinese labour. This means the factories need the metals, fuels and rare elements required to create the commodities we all use. And all those workers need homes too-some estimate that China will need to build 50 cities the size of London in the next 20 years to accommodate the massive flow of workers from the countryside to the city in search of work.

China’s industrialisation is on a bigger scale than anything that has taken place in the world before. It’s estimated that last year China used 40% of the world’s steel, 40% of the coal, 30% of the steel and 12% of the energy. This has been a major force driving up the price of basic commodities like metals and oil. The problem is then hugely exacerbated by speculators in the big banks, who realise they can no longer make money off the bubble in property prices in west after the sub prime mortgage crisis, instead betting on the price of raw materials going up further, meaning markets jack up the price even further.

As anyone who drives a car knows, the price of oil is at record highs, making it profitable for thieves in some cases to pump oil out of domestic heating tanks to be sold on. The price of copper rose 332% between 2003 and 2008. A tonne of scrap copper today is worth around £2500. There has been a 75% increase in the price of aluminium. A 2 pence coin is worth more as metal than as money. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa, a war has raged for years that has claimed more lives than world war one, and involves most surrounding countries. At the heart of the conflict is control of resource rich provinces that have reserves of copper and coltan, a rare material essential for manufacturing mobile phones.

China’s largest steel maker Bayosteel has just agreed to double the price it pays to mining multinational Rio Tinto Zinc. And the BBC has even reported on how Chinese companies have purchased an entire mountain rich in copper in Peru, and are moving a town to it so it can be strip mined down to nothing.

All of this has made theft and export of expensive raw materials a very profitable business for organised crime. In China itself recycling is a huge industry, with whole towns dedicated to processing “e-waste”, or all the circuit boards and chips of all the computers, mobile phones and electronics we throw away every time we upgrade. Electronic commodities are designed by manufacturers to break or become obsolete, forcing you to buy new ones. The waste is then shipped back to China, where it is stripped down and useful raw materials extracted. As a result it’s possible to smell the stink of the centres of this industry for miles around, and workers need to drink imported bottled water since the water table is so polluted.

The immediate rocketing of prices for raw materials is driven by the rich bankers of the City and Wall Street, investing in contracts that bet on prices continuing to rise and making others think they will, which becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. But it appears that in the longer term this is a problem that isn’t going to go away. Last year New Scientist magazine reported on studies done by the University of Augsburg in Germany that attempted to quantify how much of various non-renewable raw materials the Earth has left.

Such calculations are extremely difficult to do precisely, as there are many variables, not least of which is the growing shadow economy dealing in stolen metals and resources, but also the fact that reserves of precious materials are closely guarded secrets of many governments. But even conservative estimates are extremely alarming.

The most worrying for manufacturers are the figures for rare elements which few of us have heard of but are essential to products we use. Extraction of indium has rocketed in recent years due to its use in flat screen TVs, but it’s estimated the entire Earth’s supply will have been used up within 10 years. Gallium is a material used to make efficient solar cells central to plans to move away from fossil fuels and ameliorate global warming, but in fact according to the studies these may be only able to contribute 1% of future solar energy generation, limited simply by lack of materials. Antimony, used to make flame retardant materials, may be gone within 15 years, and silver in 10. More plentiful metals may have longer left, but not much longer. Estimates show zinc could be exhausted by 2037, and within this century our need for copper will exceed what can be extracted.

The simple fact is that capitalism finally has to face the fact that there isn’t an unlimited supply of raw materials on the Earth. We waste an increasing and fantastic amount because of the structure of our economy, which demands ever increasing consumption to allow the endless growth in profits for big corporations. Short of going to outer space and mining the asteroids, there is no way this can continue.

In the meantime countless wild places across the planet are being strip mined into a wasteland, just as others fill up with the junk we have discarded, often not even used. This is a big factor behind the massive wave of extinctions facing all different kinds of life on Earth. The ultimate consequences for human civilisation, which depends on the rest of life to clean our water and air, and provide us with food and other essential needs, is impossible to quantify.

The crisis in the price of raw materials is in fact just one part of the massive and multi faceted crisis affecting the ecology of planet Earth, and calls for immediate and urgent action to curb waste, use what we have more efficiently and recycle the waste. But as long as our economy and society is run by a tiny elite determined to make ever greater profits no matter the cost to humans or the environment, that isn’t going to happen. The future of the Earth relies on the majority of its inhabitants taking power for themselves.

Posted by: Jack | July 7, 2008

Manufactured Landscapes

Last weekend I finally managed to get a chance to see the documentary ‘Manufactured Landscapes.’ This film was released last year to critical acclaim, and follows the photographer Edward Burtynsky on a journey to China to chronicle the massive industrialisation and urbanisation process taking place there.

Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who has spent years taking images of the destruction that industry wreaks around the world. He did a big series on mines and quarries, showing the sites where we extract the minerals and natural wealth our industries need, tearing away the land that is in the way. He has also moved on now to documenting factories and power plants.

Burtynsky image of a mine

We all know that these places exist. On some level we understand that the huge consumer universe we know inhabit, with its mountains of products, many designed to be thrown away back into the Earth almost immediately, has to be created somehow, but we’re disconnected from it. What Burtynsky’s work tries to do is show us the hidden part of our current reality that we don’t see, especially nowadays in the western world.

There has been an unprecedented and monumental shift of the world’s manufacturing activity to low wage developing countries, and overwhelmingly China. Much of the work that goes into producing all of this stuff is literally out of sight, out of mind for western consumers, largely forced into other forms of work in the service industries and “McJobs.”

Workers' morning roll call at factory in the film

The images that Burtynsky takes are stunning. They focus on the immense scale of industry, taking a step back and literally showing you a massive landscape devastated as far as the eye can see. The filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, who followed him to make ‘Manufactured Landscapes,’ manages to convey a sense of the breadth of some of his images in a cinematic form as well.

The opening of the film is a 10 minute tracking shot moving along a factory floor of a huge plant in China employing 23, 000 people. The camera moves past assembly line after assembly line for what seems like forever, and then finally we see Burtynsky’s photograph of the factory from a high view point, stretching into the blurry distance.

One thing I would have liked to see more of in the film is a focus on the workers, the human beings involved in these mega projects Burtynsky depicts. What there is is fascinating. After the opening shot, we get to see clocking off time as thousands leave the factory for the day. As they slowly file out the camera pans back across the floor until we see one worker asleep at his post.

There also many shots of workers’ hands as they perform the same repetitive tasks over and over again, making circuit breakers or testing the spray for irons. Some of the brief interviews with the workers are really eye opening, revealing the years they have worked in the same place.

When the filmmakers ask a man who for nine years has been working on probably the biggest engineering project in the world’s history, the Three Gorges Dam, if the work is hard and if he is proud of being part of such an immense undertaking, he replies, “Of course the work is hard, look at this place. I’m just working for my boss here the same as everyone else.”

The three gorges dam

In the film Burtynsky talks about his thoughts of trying to be more political in his work, to try and argue that what he shows is something deeply wrong. However, his decision has been simply to depict what he sees when he goes to these places, to try and prevent his being shut out by people who think he has an agenda. The images speak for themselves, and the viewer has to make of them what they will.

In one scene bosses are trying to stop him gaining access to a big open cast coal mine, worried that showing what goes on there will negatively affect their company. Burtynsky’s translator argues that in his hands the place will be made to look beautiful, and shows the bosses some of his previous work. Many reviewers have interpreted this as a ploy to get in, but I think it was sincerely meant.

These images do have a real beauty. In another time or another place there would have been no ambiguity about that. We forget how much of our understanding of how industry looks and what it does is today coloured by our understanding of the environmental crisis. In the 20th century many of these images would have been seen as heroic, and we only need to look at some Soviet propaganda or even Trotsky’s writings about technology to see how much that same view permeated the socialist movement.

Chinese coal mine

Of course the ultimate reason this was celebrated by socialists was because it created the working class and brought people together in social production. And that is precisely why I’d like to have heard more from the ordinary folk working in these places. Burtynsky’s photographs in my view are a really important body of work, and the role they can play in waking consumers up to the realities of what their life is built on.

But really we as ordinary consumers in the west have very little power to do anything about the horrors we know on some level are unfolding in China and elsewhere. And certainly the bosses, whether they’re at the level of the team managers harassing their small teams at the start of the film or the big guys trying to stop Burtynsky getting into the coalmine, can’t and won’t stop what’s happening either. The rapid capitalist development of China is capitalism’s last insane throw of the dice, and it’s now proceeded beyond the power of bosses to stop it.

The people who might just be able to have some kind of impact are the workers in the sites that we see in the film. The Chinese people organise tens of thousands of strikes, protests and petitions against their working conditions, privatisation, unemployment and the loss of their homes, lands or benefits.

The Chinese authorities themselves admit that in 2004 there were 74, 000 “demonstrations, mass incidents or strikes”, up 10, 000 from a decade before. The Chinese government has abandoned any attempts to build socialism in China, and in the process have removed the “iron rice bowl” of rights Chinese workers and peasants formerly enjoyed-free accommodation, health care, education etc. provided by the state.

They have privatised huge industries, meaning literally millions of workers have lost their jobs. Those that are still in work are forced to cope on very low wages with the huge costs of losing the government support they formerly enjoyed.

It’s clear that despite the massive repression faced by workers in China that there is huge anger lurking below the surface, and that the experience of the revolution and the Mao years, however many flaws there may have been in that process as an attempt to build socialism, serve as important experience for the class in China in combating the capitalist dictatorship that now rules them. This article in Monthly Review (along with a lot of other MR stuff, as I never tire of saying it’s simply the best source out there for socialists) is a really good starting point for learning more.

The scale of what Burtynsky is documenting in China really is without precedent, and in many ways is a clear example of the dynamic of capitalism’s destruction of the Earth around the world. There is no way that this can sustained ecologically, which is what makes me sceptical of the idea that China will ever be able to dominate the planet in the way the US has done since World War 2. That era is over, we now live in a time of climate change, diminishing raw materials and resource wars.

Tire pile

At one stage Burtynsky visits a town dedicated to recycling of “E-Waste”. This term refers to the vast quantities of electronic components from computers, mobile phones etc. that is built to become obsolete virtually immediately, so as to maximise the manufacturers’ profits. When we throw this stuff away much of it gets shipped back to China, where there is a huge industry of people stripping the components down to recover the valuable elements and raw materials involved in them.

Not only does this illustrate the waste of capitalism, but it also makes clear to us how rare these important materials that go into our electronic devices are getting, that it’s valuable and necessary to recover them from old components. The filmmakers tell us that you can smell the stink of the town from 10 kilometres away, so dangerous and dirty is the work. The water table has become polluted, and the people have to drink bottled water that is shipped in.

E Waste

As a good essay I read recently on imperialism in the current world writes:

“In addition, as is now widely recognised, China’s rise is revolutionising the entire world economy.

China accounts for a substantial and growing proportion of the globe’s material production. Since 1996, she has been the world’s largest producer of steel, a basic material for industry. Oded Shenkar claims that the Chinese already produce ’70 percent of the world’s toys, 60 percent of its bicycles, half its shoes, and one-third of its luggage’, as well as ‘half of the world’s microwave ovens, one-third of its television sets and air conditioners, a quarter of its washers, and one-fifth of its refrigerators’.

Another author writes that ‘China has more than 160 cities with a population of 1 million or more. You can go to towns on the east coast of China today that you have never heard of and discover that this one town manufactures most of the eyeglass frames in the world, while the town next door manufactures most of the portable cigarette lighters in the world, and the one next to that is doing most of the computer screens for Dell, and another is specializing in mobile phones.

Kenichi Ohmae, the Japanese business consultant, estimates in his book The United States of China that in the Zhu Jiang Delta area alone, north of Hong Kong, there are fifty thousand Chinese electronics components suppliers. . .

Today, there are about 30,000 textile exporters in China. Foreign-invested and private Chinese enterprises now account for roughly four-fifths of textile exports. China’s one-stop-shopping approach, in which integrated factories with ready availability of raw materials handle spinning, weaving, dyeing, cutting, and sewing operations, is hard to beat. Plus, these factories have the additional benefit of access to efficient transport networks.

Moreover, warns Shenkar, Chinese manufacturing is rapidly moving up the value chain, so that China is ‘fast becoming a player in capital-intensive products, such as motor vehicles, as well as in technology-intensive lines, some of which, like flat-screen TV, have conceivable strategic implications. Clyde Prestowitz notes that ‘China has more semiconductor plants under construction or about to go into operation than America has’.

But it is perhaps the employment statistics that provide the most stunning measure of Chinese industrial capacity. A recent report estimated China’s manufacturing workforce in 2002 at 109 million, compared with 53 million for all of the G7 countries put together.”

E Waste recycling products and tools

In the film Burtynsky says that at the time of the revolution the urban rural balance of China was 10% urban and 90% rural peasants. The current Chinese authorities aim to reverse this and have the vast majority inhabiting manufacturing megacities on the coast. This can’t possibly continue indefinitely.

Nowhere in the world is it more clear that working class power is needed to combat the damage capitalism and bourgeois power is doing to the possibility of the survival of civilisation.

Another image of the three gorges dam

A final environmental and human horror story that is worth a post in itself is when the film visits the Three Gorges dam. This is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, being built to feed the insatiable need of allt his industry for power. It’s been under construction for years, and will not be fully completed until 2011. It will eventually generate 22, 500 megawatts of power, and the steel alone being used in the project is enough to build 63 Eiffel towers.

The dam is a project on an unimaginable scale. The weight of water it will contain is enough to make a minute adjustment to the Earth’s axial tilt. More pertinently, the weight of water may well increase the risks of earthquakes in the area. Another mega hydro electric project has been implicated as a factor in the earthquake that hit Sichuan province earlier this year. The dam has also been a major contributory factor in the suspected extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin.

The area that is being flooded by the dam’s reservoir contains 13 cities, that Burtynsky visits in the film. Almost 1 and a half million people are being forced to move from their homes by its construction, and authorities aim to have another 4 million moved by 2020.

The problem authorities face however is that the doomed cities can’t be left intact before the flood. If they were then they would be a danger to the shipping travelling above them. So the current inhabitants of these cities are no employed to demolish their homes brick by brick, along with everything in the neighbourhoods where they and their families grew up. The film documents this heart rending story well.

A doomed city before the dam floods.

Of course, it’s easy to criticise people in the west who look on this and say it’s wrong. We should all be wary of making out that China is some kind of special threat, a unique evil incomparable to our own human and ecological crimes. Who am I to deny the Chinese people the fruits of industrialisation?

But the point for me is that all this work is not taking place for the benefit of the Chinese people. During the Maoist era there was at least the idea that industrial development was to be for the benefit of the people. Now there’s no pretence of that. The documentary at one point contrasts the conditions of the Chinese workers with a property speculator and her palatial home, a woman who is doing very well out of the gentrification of China’s cities as the ordinary folk are no longer able to afford the rent they once didn’t have to pay.

As Deng Xiaoping famously said, encapsulating the philosophy of leaders of one of the world’s most formidable capitalist operations, the modern Chinese Communist Party, “To get rich is glorious.”

The development taking place in China is for the benefit of people like her. And for their western partners, the same big corporate conglomerates that dominate our lives and our politics. If the human race, and the working class of China and the west are to have any hope of surviving the destruction being wrought by the unprecedented scale of industrial development taking place in the developing world, then the Chinese workers must re-discover revolutionary spirit and get more organised in their fightback against their bosses.

But that’s my reaction to Burtynsky’s work. I think he’s just happy for us to have a reaction. His work aims to show us what’s hidden, the face of a reality that is hidden from us by advertising and consumer fantasies. Behind consumerism lies the natural environment which it has despoiled, and the workers toiling to keep it going.

In the closing scenes of the documentary we see Canadians puzzling over the images on display in a gallery. They look perplexed and perturbed. They don’t quite know what to do, confronted with something that they always knew in their subconscious. My only hope is that some of them are moved to start taking action, in whatever small piecemeal ways, about the human and environmental train wrecks caused by senile capitalism.

Posted by: Jack | July 2, 2008

More on the Arctic military buildup

A Russian General has made clear that his country is preparing its forces to defend their claims over the Arctic seabed and the oil it is thought to contain.

“After the reaction of a certain number of heads of state to Russia’s territorial claims to the continental plateau of the Arctic, the training division has immediately set out (training) plans for troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions,” Lt-Gen Vladimir Shamanov was reported as saying last week.

Lt-Gen Shamanov

In comments in Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), Russia’s official army newspaper, Shamanov argued that it was vital for Russia to increase its military capacity in the far North, saying “wars these days are won and lost well before they are launched.”

Shamanov announced plans to increase the “operational radius” of Russia’s northern submarine fleet and reinforce the Russian army’s combat readiness along the Arctic coast.

Canada is also trying to beef up its Arctic military, in preparation for a rush to exploit the opportunities for oil, natural gas and shipping lanes that are set to open up as the Arctic ice melts due to climate change. But according to reports in the Canadian press*, they still have some way to go to match up with Russia’s superpower Arctic capability.

Last March the Canadian military conducted major exercises in preparation for building a permanent winter warfare training facility in the autonomous Inuit region of Nunavut. They revealed serious short comings in the equipment provided to troops.

Resolute, Nunavut

“A lot of things popped up,” said Lt.-Col. Marco Rancourt, commander of the Canadian Forces Land Advance Warfare Centre in Trenton, Ontario. “Conducting operations in the Arctic is difficult.”

Snowmobiles were drained of their fuel on the flight up to save weight, but that then allowed condensation to form on their fuel lines. When they reached the Arctic this water then froze, causing the snowmobiles to stall and break. The soldiers were forced to pour boiling water into the fuel lines to melt the ice and try and start the vehicles before the new water could freeze.

The standard issue boil-in-a-bag rations provided for troops also froze, requiring time and fuel to thaw out. The shovels and machetes provided for building snow shelters weren’t designed properly for breaking up the hard compacted Arctic snow. Troops only had one set of mukluks and balaclavas, meaning if these got wet there were no replacements while they dried out. They also had no gloves inside their mitts, meaning if they took them off to work with their fingers their hands froze.

“Extremities suffered the most in the Arctic,” says one of the documents summarizing the problems.

The course was designed to first give participants a couple days to acclimatize to cold weather, but that was done at Canadian Forces Base Borden near Toronto – nowhere near the type of terrain or climate the soldiers were about to enter.

“Due to the warm weather conditions, proper winter training and preparation for Arctic winter training was not achieved,” says a document.

Canada is spending billion on upgrading its Arctic military with a view to defending the claims it has made over the natural resources of the Arctic seabed and the new shipping lanes opening up as the Northwest Passage becomes ice free. However, it’s clear they still have some way to go, especially if they wish to match the superpower capabilities of Russia and the US in the region. The documents recommend the Canadian military should draft in civilian Arctic explorers and adventurers to help them properly understand the needs of their troops in the Far North.

“These (persons) should be brought into our planning process to provide mentorship, as well as recommendations for new equipment.”

The Canadian military is keen to spin the efforts as a success however. Rancourt said that despite the problems the course revealed the Canadian Forces compare well with other countries that train in Arctic conditions, including the United States and Britain.

“I’m not sure other nations are conducting a lot of training above the 75th parallel,” he said. “It’s one thing to fly above; it’s another thing to be on the ground.”

“We are getting there. I’d say compared to those other forces that actually have an active part in the North, we’re probably equal to them – if not better.”

Meanwhile, Canada has also been seeking to assert its sovereignty over the potential shipping lanes through civilian means as well. A report released by the Canadian Senate recommends that all ships entering the waters claimed by Canada should be obliged to register with NORDREG, a register of all ships operating in the Arctic sea. Currently registration is voluntary.

Although the move to make NORDREG mandatory is ostensibly to allow the Canadian coastguard and environmental regulators to operate better, the key reasons were made clear by Liberal Senator for New Brunswick Fernand Robichaud:

“To show that we control the water and that these are Canadian waters, to assert our sovereignty, every ship should report and NORDREG is the tool to do it.”

Canada should also implement regulations on the construction, manning and equipping of all vessels in the Arctic, the report said. The standing committee on fisheries and oceans also said Canada needs go-anywhere, any time icebreakers. Although that echoes a $720-million promise made in the Conservative government’s last budget, Canada needs more than one, said Robichaud.

“We expect a lot more traffic is going to happen up there,” said Robichaud. “Right now, I don’t think we have the capacity.”

“The government should have a long-term program of shipbuilding icebreakers.”

The government has purchased and implemented new radar technology so it can more efficiently track ships entering the Arctic. There are also moves to build more harbours. As Rob Huebert, of the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, puts it:

“Harbours are gates, and those who control the gates get to make the rules. You’ve got to build the right gates. But if you build it, you control it.”

The Inuit indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic look set to be drawn into Canada’s power games more and more. The report calls for building a series of small craft harbours in the autonomous Inuit region of Nunavut, as well as recruiting more Inuit to the coastguard to provide local knowledge. The Canadian army already has a programme of recruiting local Inuit to act as Rangers, providing reconnaissance and intelligence in the Arctic.

And the Canadian Polar Commission, a government advisory body, has issued a major report calling for a network of Canadian research stations across the North. Climate change, the environment, health and social stability, economic development, sovereignty and security – these are all major issues that will continue to demand our attention over the next few decades,” commission chairman Dr. Tom Hutchinson said in a statement. “The North is changing rapidly, and we need first-class research to help northerners adapt to changes, today and tomorrow. Such an investment would also support the sovereignty agenda by demonstrating Canada’s commitment to its North.”

The 50-page report, to be officially released on Thursday, says a key motivation for bolstering Canada’s scientific capacity in the Arctic is the planned reinforcement of its sovereignty claims in the North, including control over the disputed Northwest Passage.

“Sovereignty will continue to be a driver (of polar science) in the short, medium and long terms,” the report says, adding that “a pan-northern network, including ship platforms, would provide a highly significant demonstration of sovereignty – far more than any amount of activity at a single location.”

The report also suggests that “economic development will potentially be the most critical driver” for science investments in the coming years. Reading between the lines it’s clear that a lot of the science being proposed is mapping of the seabed to try and reinforce Canadian claims over potential oil and gas reserves. All the Arctic powers are scrambling to try and improve their research capabilities. Claims to extend territorial waters in international law are based on proving that seabed landscape is an extension of a nation’s continental shelf.

Record-high oil prices have spurred global interest in the potentially petroleum-rich Arctic seabed, and the five nations with Arctic Ocean coastlines – Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark and the U.S. – are gathering geological data on the polar sea floor to support territorial claims under terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“Pressures will mount with current world stress on fossil fuel reserves for the extraction and transport of these resources,” the report states. “Science must be proactive, not reactive, to development proposals.”

Even China, a nation with no Arctic coastline, is trying to get involved in the race to understand the changes taking place in the Arctic and what opportunities it presents economically. China’s 3rd Arctic exploration mission will set sail from Shanghai in July. The mission plans to study the polar region’s distinctive maritime resources and air quality, according to Zhang Haisheng, chief scientist for the project.

Scientists will also do comprehensive research on geological and meteorological conditions with the help of a helicopter, a yacht and an underwater robot, Zhang said.

“An important task is to observe the effects of the polar ice surface changes upon the climate of our country,” said Zhang, who is also director of the Hangzhou-based No. 2 research institute under the State Oceanic Administration.

The ice-breaker “Xuelong” (Snow Dragon) will leave Shanghai on July 11 and return on Sept. 25. China’s first North Pole expedition ran from July 1 to Sept. 9, 1999. It collected information on the Arctic maritime ecology and atmospheric, geologic and fishing conditions. During the second expedition, in 2003, Chinese scientists probed the inter-reactions of the Arctic region and global climate and analyzed Arctic influences on Chinese weather. They also set up China’s northernmost observation station.

Posted by: Jack | June 12, 2008

Exploiting malaria for chemical profits

Rachel Carson

I’m currently about ¾ of the way through Rachel Carson’s trilogy, ‘The Sea,’ which, aside from a few things that are out of date, I’ve really enjoyed. For those that don’t know, Rachel Carson was a natural scientist who wrote eloquently about the natural world and ecology. The middle book of the trilogy I’ve been reading, ‘Under the Sea Wind,’ is a brilliant and evocative series of fictional stories about different sea creatures, their lives and relationships to each other. The book manages to realistically depict the lives of several different animals without ever being anthropomorphic and ascribing human thoughts and feelings to creatures that don’t have them.

Rachel Carson is most famous for her book ‘Silent Spring,’ which I haven’t read but I’m intending to get a copy of ASAP. This book had a massive impact on the whole world and propelled Carson to the forefront of public consciousness. The subject is the chemical pesticide industry, and in particular the most popular insecticide of the time, DDT. Its publication is often cited as a decisive moment in launching the environmental movement.

The book details how DDT kills wildlife apart from the insects it targets, and even poses a threat to human health. The title makes real the threat of a year where there will be no songbirds, as DDT accumulates in the bodies of the insects it kills, which are then eaten by birds. The chemical has been linked to the thinning of eggshells, disruption of birds’ reproductive systems and their death.

Tern eggs damaged by exposure to DDT

Monthly Review (IMHO the best socialist magazine in the world and essential reading if you want to know what’s really going on) has a great article about how Rachel Carson’s work was part of a wider revolt of scientists in the 50s and 60s against the ecologically destructive consequences of modern capitalist society. This began with scientists attacking the huge long term damage done by nuclear weapons, which the US military (the only military to have ever actually used them) was trying to hide.

She was well known as a natural history writer before the publication of Silent Spring, but this book pushed her into the limelight as a social critic. She wrote of how the “gods of profit and production,” were destroying the environment, and that our society is unable to have a proper relationship with the natural world because we live “in an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at any cost is seldom challenged.”

Spraying DDT

‘Silent Spring,’ was hugely damaging for chemical companies, and led to widespread criticism of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. The discoverer of the insecticidal properties of DDT had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948, and it had been hailed as a panacea in the fight against mosquito borne diseases, especially after being used widely in World War 2 to keep troops safe when they moved into malarial areas. But now people were for the first time beginning to wake up to the consequences of widespread chemical warfare against other species.

The chemical industry recognised the threat and attacked her even before the book’s publication, denouncing the eminent scientist as “a hysterical woman.” Companies such as Monsanto, Velsicol and American Cyanamid mobilised a massive campaign against Rachel Carson and her book in the media, and they were supported by their friends in the US Government Department of Agriculture.

But the facts marshalled by Carson are pretty irrefutable. DDT isn’t soluble in water, but it is soluble in fats and lipids, indeed it’s often referred to as “lipophilic” or fat loving. This means it accumulates in the bodies of creatures that eat the insects that have been poisoned with it, whose bodies are then eaten by more creatures and so on up the food chain. This means that every step you take up the chain, the more DDT will be concentrated in a creature’s body. This was seen most dramatically in raptors, birds that hunt and kill other animals. Their reproduction was disrupted and their eggshells became dangerously thin because of the large amounts of DDT in their bodies.

The banning of DDT in the US is credited as a major reason the bald eagle has been able to come back from the brink of extinction in that country.

Bald eagle

It also lasts very long in soil and the atmosphere, meaning it can travel around the world to areas where we would never expect to find it. Because of various processes of the Earth’s climate and water cycle for example, large quantities of DDT have been found in the Arctic, and it poses a particular threat to the peoples and wildlife of the region.

DDT attacks the nervous system, causing nervousness and hyperactivity. It alters the way animal bodies use their hormones to absorb calcium, making the hard body substances such as bones, and how animals reproduce. These are threats to human as well as animal populations.

Rachel Carson’s book caused an uproar, and the modern environmental movement grew up to a large extent around the effort to ban DDT and end the chemical war on our natural environment. First Sweden and then the US banned DDT in the 70s, and it has now been recognised at an international level through the Stockholm Convention. This recognises banning of DDT as a long term goal, although it allows some exemption for the prevention of malaria.

This brings us to why I thought of writing this in the first place: the chemical industry’s push to re-introduce widespread use of DDT. For years the chemical industry has attacked Rachel Carson and through her the environmental movement on the grounds that we supposedly don’t care about deaths in Africa and Asia from the deadly disease malaria. Malaria, so the reasoning goes, isn’t much of a threat to people in the western world, and so we only fixate on the damage it does us and our wildlife, ignoring how much it could help poor people avoid a killer disease.

In some of the more vitriolic attacks this even leads some writers to claim that the environmental movement is responsible for millions of deaths, and is the equal of Hitler as a mass murderer.

Now UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has made a speech as part of a new World Health Organisation drive against malaria calling for renewed use of DDT. Why? Well, like nuclear power and a whole lot of other environmentally unsound technologies, the makers of DDT are trying to jump on the bandwagon of climate change and portray it as the lesser of two evils.

Ban Ki Moon

Ban Ki Moon argues that climate change is going to increase heat and precipitation in a lot of environments around the world, creating warm wet conditions that will allow mosquitoes to expand their range into new areas, and with them will come the malaria they carry.

This is of course is important and true. And even without climate change, malaria is a major health crisis in Africa, killing at least a million people per year, most of them women and children. It’s estimated that a child is killed every 30 seconds by malaria.

So of course initiatives to try and do something about this are welcome and necessary, and Mr Ki Moon, launching the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) drive to “Roll Back Malaria” has announced: “The aim is to put a stop to malaria deaths by ensuring universal coverage by the end of 2010. This initiative will offer indoor residual spraying and bed nets treated with long-lasting insecticide to all people at risk, especially women and children in Africa.”

The move follows the controversial decision by the WHO to give DDT a “clean bill of health” as a means of preventing malaria, and encourage its use. This was met with protest and criticism from around the world. The problem isn’t just the damaging effects of DDT on living organisms, including humans, and the knock on effect on the biodiverse ecosystems that many developing world communities depend on. It’s also the fact that as DDT is used more and more, the limited usefulness it does have as a means of preventing malaria will be eroded by growing mosquito resistance.

Resistance to pesticides is evolution in action. If you spray a large area with DDT, and a small portion of the population has some resistance, then they will be the only mosquitoes that survive and breed. They will spread their resistance to the next generation, and if they get sprayed as well then the process will repeat itself, with ever increasing insect resistance.

To combat this threat Mr. Ki Moon is proposing to use limited amounts to treat cracks and crevices in people’s homes. But the real problem is that the chemical industry is still producing DDT and pushing it on countries where there’s weak regulations and environmental law enforcement, in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This has led to widespread illicit spraying, on a much wider scale than small amounts in people’s homes. If more of it is going to get produced for, and endorsed by, UN health programmes, then it will give the big chemical conglomerates a chance to produce more of the formerly very successful product.

The Bush administration has been one of the major international movers behind the bid to rehabilitate DDT. At the news conference last year when the WHO announced its newfound support for the pesticide, Admiral R. Timothy Ziemer, who leads President Bush’s $1.2 billion malaria programme, described spraying with insecticides as a tool “that must be deployed as robustly and strategically as possible.”

The health organization’s news release quoted Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma: “Finally, with the W.H.O.’s unambiguous leadership on the issue, we can put to rest the junk science and myths that have provided aid and comfort to the real enemy – mosquitoes.”

Senator Tom Coburn

Coburn is among the most right wing of the Republicans in Congress, an anti-abortion doctor who has been quoted as saying “The homosexual agenda is the greatest threat to American freedom,” as well as that he favours the death penalty for doctors practicing abortion. He also tried in Congress to block any official celebration of the centenary of Rachel Carson’s birth.

However, there can be little doubt that the massive agro-chemical corporations will be the force that lies behind the US stance on DDT.
In Africa and other countries affected by malaria the issue of DDT is very controversial. For example, DDT spraying in Northern Uganda was recently stopped by court order following a petition until there is a ruling in a lawsuit brought by farmers and environmentalists. The farmers fear that if their produce is contaminated by DDT they will be unable to sell it to Europe.

The fact that neither the international agencies, nor conservative US politicians and their chemical industry backers want to face, is that insecticide ultimately can’t prevent the spread of malaria. Sooner or later the insects will develop an immunity, and then the only ones hurt by DDT will be the much slower reproducing creatures further up the food chain, including humans.

Unspoken in the international drive to see DDT as the solution to malaria is that what can’t be considered is the path that really does work and has been proved in practice: providing universal, free high quality health care for people in developing countries. This has been proven to work by the example of the Cuban revolution. Malaria has been eliminated since 1959 in Cuba, despite the fact it is surrounded by malarial countries. This was principally achieved vaccinations, and high quality health care keeps it the disease at bay.

But this was only possible in Cuba after socialists seized power and started using the limited resources the small poor country had for the benefit of everyone. When we see what Cuba can achieve with so little and under a ferocious economic blockade from the US, its clear that there’s nothing inevitable about the huge death toll from malaria in Africa.

The problem is that these countries have been pillaged for centuries by the rich world, and that now the international financial institutions that we control force their governments to slash government spending as part of the neoliberal economic programme. This means that the existing governments simply can’t fund basic healthcare that would start to address the problem, or they risk retaliation from the US and its allies.

The US and the chemical countries would far rather see their profitable products used as the solution to malaria, regardless of the havoc they wreak on the ecosystem and human health. They have to be fought, both by environmentalists aware of the damage their doing, and people in countries affected by malaria who know that they have to stand up to these forces if they are ever to get decent healthcare and an end to the malarial plague.

Posted by: Jack | June 3, 2008

Panda diplomacy in Scotland

In the 7th Century Chinese Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty gave a gift of two pandas to the Japanese court.

This is the first recorded use of the iconic Chinese mammals as diplomatic tools by the Chinese government. The practice was revived under Mao, most notable when the US was given a gift to cement the Chinese opening to the west after President Nixon visited China.

Now it has been announced that Edinburgh Zoo has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government about bringing pandas to Scotland.

The move is of huge economic significance for the zoo, as there are only eight pandas in western zoos currently, and four of those are in the US. If it was one of the few places in the west you can see a real live panda the zoo estimates it could bring in well over a million visitors a year.

China claims that it no longer practices panda diplomacy, and only lends out pandas to take part in scientific and captive breeding programmes.

However, Chinese President Hu Jintao on a recent visit to Japan offered two pandas to replace Ling Ling, Tokyo zoo’s panda who had died just before the visit. The move was widely interpreted as having more to do with Sino-Japanese relations on a host of important issues such as North Korea and disputed rights to underwater gas reserves.

President Hu Jintao

The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible to get a panda from China without very high level involvement by the Chinese government, and their use is fraught with symbolism and meaning. In 2006 when a US trade commissioner visited China and was pictured on TV cuddling a panda many Chinese commentators claimed it meant he favoured closer US-China ties.

The typical deal that China offers foreign zoos to get hold of pandas underscores their importance-they are rented out on 10 year leases, at a typical cost of $1 million a year. Any cubs born while abroad are automatically the property of the People’s Republic.

Pandas are icons of the global wildlife movement, most obviously as the logo of the WWF. But unfortunately their habitat is still incredibly threatened, and with it their ability to survive in the wild. The Chinese know how important it is to preserve the beautiful animals, but this often conflicts with the massive industrialisation process taking place in China.

The situation has been compounded by the recent earthquake in Sichuan province earthquake. Sichuan is the home of much of the remaining panda habitat, as well as the leading panda captive breeding installation at Wolong. Five members of staff were killed in the earthquake.

The Chinese government has had more pandas to offer in recent years because of the increasing success of its captive breeding programme. Although personally I think that captive bred animals may be able to play some part in the rebuilding of ecosystems and the survival of endangered species, the details of panda breeding are a little troubling.

For years it was notoriously difficult to get pandas to breed in captivity. They are a species that just doesn’t adapt well to life outside of their natural conditions, and find it incredibly hard to produce offspring.

That’s changed now because Chinese scientists have begun to perfect artificial insemination techniques for pandas. These basically consist of anaesthetising the male so that he can be given electric shocks in the rectum to induce erection and ejaculation.

Then the female is anaesthetised so that the semen can be injected into her uterus. However, there are still many problems, a major one being that pandas born in captivity have an incredibly high rate of infant mortality.

A 40 day old captive bred panda

Although an abstract level the more pandas there are the better, there’s obviously no future for the species on this basis, and they’re only hope lies with attempts to preserve and extend their natural habitat.

But, despite their protestations to the contrary, the artificial production of pandas provides the Chinese government with a very politically important and lucrative commodity.

The moves to bring pandas to Edinburgh has led to protests from animal groups, who argue that it is in fact a cynical move to bring more tourists to Edinburgh, and has little to do with conservation. They argue that the zoo should instead spend money on supporting pandas in the wild in China.

The moves were backed up by a motion in the Scottish Parliament by Green MSP Robin Harper.

But the Royal Zoological Society for Scotland, which runs Edinburgh zoo and has been negotiating to bring the pandas to Scotland, has been clear that both the Scottish and UK governments have been centrally involved in the deal with the Chinese government.

When I was trying to find out a bit more about this, and what the political significance of China allowing a panda to come to Edinburgh might be, I found that the SNP government recently published a major strategy document about its relations with China, aiming to find opportunities for Scottish capitalism in China.

I wonder whether we should see the gift of pandas in a political context. The Chinese take pandas as a business very seriously, and could it be that they are assessing the possibility of a Scottish state in the near future? Could the panda gift be part of cementing future relations?

Posted by: Jack | June 2, 2008

Japan approves militarisation of space programme

Japan from space

The Japanese House of Councillors has just approved a bill allowing the Japanese space programme to be used for military purposes.

In line with the pacifist clauses that were written into the Japanese constitution after the war, since 1969 Japan has legally banned military use of space. However, this has now been overturned by a 221 to 14 vote.

In the immediate term it will allow Japan to build more spy satellites and take part in the US missile shield project actively. The Japanese Defence Minister will also join the government taskforce on future space projects.

The Japanese constitution, which was virtually imposed by the US during their occupation following the war, Japan is banned from offensive military action. However, as a key US ally in East Asia, it has still been allowed up to build up a big military, and in recent years took part in imperialist operations in Afghanistan.

Japanese right wingers are pushing for the military to be allowed to take a more active imperialist role, and the new moves about the space programme have to be seen in that context.

Japan and China have been engaged in a space race of sorts, after China put its first man in space and both China and Japan have had ambitious probes launched to study the moon.

Both countries know how dependent the US military domination of the globe is on satellite guidance of its missiles and forces. They also know the US stated aim of “full spectrum dominance” of the globe includes control of Earth’s orbit and the moon, and through them the ground below.

In the longer term the huge industrialisation process taking place in China is helping to use up the world’s supplies of many basic materials required for modern technology. (I’m going to do a separate post on this in a bit.) Mining of near Earth asteroids and other space based sources of raw materials could become a real necessity if their expansion continues at current pace.

Joint European Torus experimental fusion reactor

And in the even longer term, if scientists do ever develop nuclear fusion technology one of the key fuel sources may be the Helium-3 isotope. This isn’t found on Earth but is available in abundance on the moon, making it a potential frontline in future resource wars.

Japan’s moves to militarise its space programme need to be seen in this context. Like the rest of the world’s powers it recognises the precarious ecological position of the world and the massive depletion of natural resources and the need to position itself for the struggles over access.

Many see the move as a response to the Chinese space weapons test last year where China used a ground based ballistic missile to destroy one of its own weather satellites. It was a clear message to the US satellite-military system, but it also dramatically increased the amount of dangerous junk there is in orbit.

The more debris left by satellites and space missions there is in orbit the more will collide with other pieces. At the colossal speeds objects travel in orbit this leads to them breaking up and creating more.

This points to one reason we should be extremely concerned about the militarisation of space (aside from the obvious). It’s hypothesised that it could reach a critical point at which the Earth would be surrounded by a belt of orbiting junk that could make it unsafe to try and reach orbit.

This makes it all the more important that people in all the leading powers of the world oppose their government’s attempts to extend their military rivalries beyond the Earth. Space must be explored in peace.

And for any country to try and lay claim to space based resources is blatantly absurd. In space there are no nations and all resources that are found and exploited there should be under the common ownership of all humanity.

Posted by: Jack | May 31, 2008

Energy Imperialism in the Arctic

For all the action that they have taken, or indeed the fake science they have indulged in, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world’s great powers don’t really believe that climate change is happening.

But as they tussle and prepare for the great 21st century struggles over oil, fresh water and other key resources, there’s one area of the world that proves that they know fine well what’s happening with global temperatures: the Arctic.

For a long time the Arctic has been a backwater in geopolitical terms, with minimal presence of the great military apparatuses and the political interests that they represent. Historically the Arctic was mainly of interest as an arena for feats of heroic exploration that allowed nations to prove their macho national prowess. That’s now changing.

The reason is simple: the Arctic ice is melting, and the kind of environment that is there is irrevocably changing, thanks to human made climate change.

As indigenous people have pointed out, climate change is being felt first and most strongly in the Arctic region. On average Arctic temperatures have risen twice as fast as in the rest of the world. Consistent study of the ice covering the Arctic Ocean has been taking place since the 50s, and continuous satellite surveys have been available since the early 70s. These show that the ice has consistently been declining, getting thinner in the winter and virtually non existent in the summer. The rate of decline is now estimated to be around 28, 000 square miles a year.

The shrinking ice cap

This is driven by the rise in global temperatures, but also the knock on effect of warmer air and more storms being able to reach further North, breaking up the sea ice and driving it away from the coastlines of Arctic nations.

This is of huge concern for the whole planet, as the Arctic plays a key role in regulating global weather patterns, and the massive disruption going on there has huge implications for all of us. On a more local level, it greatly threatens iconic wildlife that nobody wants to see die off, such as polar bears, beluga and bowhead whales.

The warming of the Arctic also potentially will accelerate global warming, in what is known as positive feedback: warming causes things to happen that will in turn cause more warming. Specifically, the Earth’s albedo, or reflectivity will be reduced as the ice melts. The huge expanses of white ice reflect a lot of the sun’s heat back into space. But as it disappears too be replaced by darker ocean, a lot more of that heat will be absorbed into the Arctic sea.

On top of this huge quantities of the greenhouse gas methane are currently trapped by the Arctic permafrost in Siberia. But as this melts, and the peat bogs beneath emerge to form fetid swamps, huge quantities of gas may be released, again accelerating warming.

The polar bear particularly is in an incredibly perilous state. It depends on being able to hunt on the sea ice to build up fat reserves for the summer when it has to survive on land. Anyone who saw the episode of the BBC series Planet Earth on the Arctic can’t forget the tragic site of polar bears struggling to maintain their footing on slippery melting chunks of ice, and forced to swim for miles desperately hungry, driven to attacking dangerous prey such as walrus that they would never normally attack.

The US has just designated the polar bear an endangered animal for the first time, recognising it’s precarious condition in a world that’s changing to a far different one than the one they evolved in.

Polar bears on thin ice

However, the US government was reluctant to take this step for the same reason that the Arctic population is rising, and global political interest with it: it is suspected that up to a quarter of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil reserves are in the Arctic. Currently much of this is inaccessible due to the ice pack. But the world’s powers know that ice pack is melting, and they know that this oil, as well as natural gas, is going to become available for extraction. At the same time, the rocketing price of oil as we possibly approach the peak of production means that the more difficult and expensive extraction of Arctic oil is going to become more profitable.

The madness of what is going on is actually mind boggling-the world is going to be hugely disrupted and endangered by the burning of fossil fuels. However, one of the major effects of this is taken as an opportunity to . . . extract more fossil fuels!

The Arctic currently has a population of about 4 million people, but only around 10% of these are now indigenous peoples, as huge numbers of settlers are coming in to prepare for this oil and gas bonanza. Already huge quantities are being extracted from Alaska and Siberia, and in the US oil drilling in the Arctic National Wilderness Refuge has for years been a touchstone environmental issue, hence the reluctance and opposition to classifying the polar bear as endangered. Oil companies fear it may pose legal problems for their business.

The US government is being sued by native peoples in Alaska, after they sold $2.6 billion worth of prime polar bear and whale habitat to oil companies. “We are honoured to join in the struggle to protect the traditional way of life of indigenous arctic peoples,” said Lily H Tuzroyluke, Executive Director, Native Village of Point Hope – Tribal Government of the village of Point Hope, Alaska. “Our Council has continued a long-standing and honourable duty to defend our lands for subsistence and ensuring whaling traditions are passed on to future generations. For centuries, our people have perpetuated a sacred relationship with our oceans and marine mammals for our nutritional, cultural, and emotional well-being.”

And in Canada environmental campaigners are desperately calling for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to call of a sale of rights to oil and gas exploration in five large portions of the Beaufort Sea, planned for June 2nd. The area is a key feeding ground for Beluga whales.

However, the different powers in the Arctic, including not only Russia, Canada and the US, but also Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland, are more worried about each other as adversaries than environmentalists.

Who controls the oil and gas to be got from the Arctic seabed is being fought over by the competing countries geological claims. All nations are considered under international law to have rights over the seabed up to 200 miles from their shorelines. But the same laws also give provisions for if a country can prove that its continental shelf extends beyond that limit then it can extend its rights.

This has led to Arctic nations scrambling to examine the geological features of the Arctic sea bed to prove their rights to extract fossil fuels from it. The Russians’ Arctic claim hinges on an underwater formation called the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs 1,240 miles from Siberia through the North Pole nearly to the juncture of Ellesmere Island (Canada’s northernmost point) and Greenland, and which Russia says is an extension of its shelf.

If this was accepted internationally it would put Russia in a position of great international strength, dominating the world energy market. As I already posted about, Russia is the prime mover behind a group of nations aiming to get natural gas producers organised into an OPEC style grouping, and it has the world’s largest natural gas reserves, making it the key supplier to Western Europe. If they were also to get recognised rights over the Arctic oil reserves, their economic influence in a world of dwindling fossil fuels would be huge.

The Russian government has been aiming to rebuild its geopolitical position and independence from the US since the embarrassment of the Yeltsin years, with some success. They are well aware of the crucial importance of the Arctic, and have a big team of geologists aiming to make good their claim. They grabbed headlines in 2007 when they lowered a submersible to the seafloor under the North Pole and placed a Russian flag on a corrosion resistant titanium pole.

Russia plants its flag on the North Pole seabed

Russia protested that the move wasn’t an attempt to make a political statement, with a then President Vladimir Putin claiming: “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. I was surprised by a somewhat nervous reaction from our Canadian colleagues. Americans, at one time, planted a flag on the moon. So what? Why didn’t you worry so much? The moon did not pass in the United States’ ownership.”

But the Canadian foreign minister at the time was clearly rattled. “This isn’t the 15th Century,” protested Peter MacKay.

However, Russia does have a pretty fair claim: half the Arctic’s 4 million people live in Russia, 20% of Russia’s landmass lies above the Arctic Circle and it has 6 major rivers that feed into the Arctic Ocean. The US hasn’t even ratified the relevant international treaties that would give it a voice in deciding on Russia’s claims, due to the opposition of hardline Conservative Republicans in Congress who oppose ceding any US sovereignty to international institutions. Now the Bush administration is desperately pushing to change the US position.

Russia's claimed Arctic territory

Of course ultimately control of access to the Arctic’s newly available resources won’t be decided by geological claims, but probably the old fashioned way. Canada’s response to the Russian flag planting was to announce 2 major new military bases in its Arctic areas. A new army training centre for cold-weather fighting at Resolute Bay, and a deep-water port at Nanisivik, on the northern tip of Baffin Island. The country is also beefing up its military presence in the far North with 900 Rangers.

Polar bears confront military sub

“Canada’s Government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is use it or lose it,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. He also announced 6 to 8 new naval patrol vessels were to be built for operation in the Arctic Ocean.

Russia for its part has resumed regular combat patrols by its air force over the Arctic region for the first time since the Cold War, and caused a stir last year when several of its bombers managed to fly across US and Canadian airspace undetected. The Russian navy is also aiming to develop missiles capable of being fired through the thinning the ice pack from underneath by its submarines.

Besides the oil, there is another major reason why a naval buildup in the far north has huge strategic implications: the opening up of the Northwest Passage. This was the mythical sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans round the top of North America. It was sought by explorers for centuries, such as Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson (who Hudson Bay is named after), Captain Cook and Captain Bligh of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame. It was eventually navigated successfully for the first time by polar explorer Roald Amundsen in 1905, but it has never become a viable route for regular shipping due to the ice pack.

But with the ice pack melting many are talking about the possibility of the Northwest Passage becoming a navigable sea lane open to commercial shipping. While it might not be as economically important as the oil reserves, it wouldn’t be far behind. It would cut in half the shipping time between the sweatshops of East Asia and the markets of wealthy consumers in Western Europe.

The Canadian authorities reported last year that the passage was ice free for most of the summer for the first time. If the pattern of warming and melting is kept up, the route has the potential to revolutionise global shipping and trade patterns.

Canada claims the passage as its own internal seaway. They want to see passage open to trade, but under their control and possibly subject to Canadian taxes. This lies behind the decision to majorly beef up the Canadian navy in the Arctic Ocean.

The new sea lanes

Of course as usual the people getting left behind in the race for the Arctic are the indigenous peoples, the Inuit, the Sami, Yakutsk and others who are now a minority in their own lands. Although the Inuit of Canada have gained a substantial autonomous territory, known as Nunavut, and Yakutsk people in Russia also have some measure of self government, the fact is that they don’t have the power to stand up to the great power maneuvering going on in the Arctic.
One Inuit man spoke to a newspaper about the competing claims over the Arctic, arguing angrily: “The Arctic sea is ours. It’s where we go for our food, our seals and whales. It’s always been ours, it’s ridiculous for anyone to think otherwise.”

Indigenous people in the Arctic are struggling to cope with the devastating impact of climate change, as the ground literally melts below their feet creating bubbling lakes of meltwater and methane. In Russia and Scandinavia their traditional economy, dependent on reindeer herding, is being severely undermined by ecological changes, for example wolves moving further north. They are also swamped by the huge influx of outsiders coming to work in the oil and gas industries. Like elsewhere in the world, ecological destruction is intimately linked with linguistic and cultural extinction, and many of their languages are unlikely to survive the coming decades.

The whole world needs to look at what is happening in the Arctic, and realise how it threatens our global climate. Action is needed to curb global carbon emissions and try and prevent the worst effects of climate change. But already those effects are being dramatically seen in the Arctic. Any wealth that might result from new economic activities in the far north belongs first and foremost to the peoples of the region, whose traditional lives are being despoiled by actions of peoples living thousands of miles to the south.

If the peoples of the north are to see their traditional ecosystem devastated, it at least behooves us to make sure that they see some benefit from the natural resources in their territories, rather than giving more massive profits to the already booming international energy corporations.

Posted by: Jack | April 30, 2008

“Gas OPEC” plan causes headaches for West

Governments of countries that export natural gas have been meeting in Tehran with a view to forming an organisation similar to OPEC.

In recent years the oil producers organisation has been revitalised and has helped member countries to get a better deal from the oil corporations (this process was pioneered by the revolutionary government of Venezuela.)

Now gas producers feel the time has come for them to get organised as well. As becomes more clear that the 21st century is going to be dominated by contests and wars over the control of natural resources such as oil, natural gas and fresh water, gas producers are realising that if they need to be prepared.

The idea was first proposed by ex-Russian President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin. Russia has the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, and in recent years has been using them cannily as a way of putting pressure on Europe in the midst of disputes about the expansion of the EU and NATO, the Litvinenko murder and Chechnya.

Britain is particularly vulnerable, having been engaged in a feud with Russia ever since the murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. The UK is right at the end of pipelines leading west from Russia.

The idea for a gas producers group was immediately backed by Iran, which has the world’s second biggest reserves. They have been meeting with the governments of Algeria, Venezuela, Qatar and Egypt informally since 2001 as the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF). Now a two day conference in Tehran has met with a view to formalising an organisation.

The US in particular feels threatened by the move. The USA is currently largely self sufficient in natural gas, but its imports are predicted to rise sharply in coming years as its domestic supply runs out. Last year the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution condemning the new organisation.

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said: “At a time when American consumers are facing staggering increases in gasoline prices due in large part to the OPEC oil cartel, the United States cannot allow the creation of another global extortion racket, this time for natural gas. The establishment of a “gas OPEC” would constitute a major new threat to the security and to the economic well-being of the United States, our allies, and the world as a whole.

In addition to economic extortion, Iran and other U.S. opponents have openly stated their intent to use this cartel as an instrument for political purposes. If we are to prevent the rise of this new threat, we must develop a joint strategy with our allies and all countries that are importers of natural gas, including by diversifying sources and increasing access to international markets through construction of new pipelines.”

This statement points to a key issue for both the US and the gas producers-the siting and control of pipelines. The US has already been actively trying to control the resources and routes of distribution of fossil fuels to the emerging powers of Asia, primarily China. This is a major part of what lies at the heart of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the major expansion of US bases and influence in Central Asia.

China meanwhile has been building alliances of its own through the Shanghai Co Operation Organisation.

The move to build a formal relationship between gas producers has to be seen in this context. The US doesn’t want China, Russia or Iran and other countries with the capability of challenging their global co to have access to the natural resources they need, and if they do they want to control the pipelines.

And the gas exporters have their own tensions. Iran is trying to play Europe off against the US as it seeks to escape dependence on Russian gas. Meanwhile, Russia wants pipelines built to Asia to prevent Iran becoming a competitor in the European market.

The resource rich countries all realise that as fossil fuels dwindle and the world faces ecological collapse they are all targets, and they need to be organised. Following this conference it’s expected that the organisation will be formally launched in Moscow in June.

Meanwhile, the UK is facing even more frustration in its attempts to escape dependence on Russia. The UK government has been pouring investment into the complicated infrastructure required for Liquefied Natural Gas. To be kept in a liquid state natural gas requires expensive technology to keep it at temperature well below freezing.

However, shipments liquefied natural gas is traded openly on the world market to the highest bidder, and countries such as Japan and South Korea are far more dependent on them. Consequently they are more willing to pay a higher price. As a result the UK hasn’t had a delivery since January, increasing its dependence on Russian pipelines and its own dwindling supply in the North Sea.

Posted by: Jack | April 29, 2008

Fem ’08

I wasn’t able to post anything this weekend because I was down in Sheffield at the Fem ’08 conference.

This was an interesting event organised to bring together feminist activists from across the UK for a day of discussion and organising, and I’m really glad I went along, not least because there really ought to have been more men there. It’s a bit of an indictment that so few male activists can be arsed getting involved in the fight against patriarchy, and shows how far movements against the existing world order have to go themselves to really understand how the oppression of women is such a fundamental part of what’s wrong with life on this planet.

That said, there was a really good plenary session in the morning with Chris Green, UK co-ordinator of the White Ribbon campaign, and Damian Carnell of the Nottighamshire Domestic Violence Forum, which was about challenging traditional ideas of masculinity.

In his part, Chris showed a video from US activist Jackson Katz called “Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity” which is on youtube here.

The video is well worth a watch, and Chris also dealt with the issues raised in it: how masculinity is something that boys learn from an early age means dominance, violence and control over women and indeed over other men.

Damian talked about an experience on a train on the way there where he challenged a young man who was reading a lads’ mag, asking him what he thought about it and why he read it. He admitted that it was an extremely difficult experience, and argued it would be much better if small isolated attempts by different men to challenge sexist behaviour and culture could become more co-ordinated, with people learning from each other’s experiences.

I think it’s possible to talk a lot of nonsense about how “patriarchy oppresses men too!” as if the ways that sexist society affects men are equivalent to the way it oppresses women. However, I do think that what’s going to be crucial in making all our lives happier and freer is working with and challenging men and their behaviour.

In conversations with comrades after this really thought provoking session, one of the things that came out was the idea that shame and guilt won’t work as methods of changing people. We have to really examine our lives as men. Yes patriarchal society gives us privileges and advantages, such as the ability to exploit and dominate women, from in relationships to their being turned into an object we can buy for sexual stimulation. Men who have grown up in a porn culture where women are constantly seen as being available to be bought are going to find it hard to give this up.

But in fact these advantages are false, because they stunt our lives and development, meaning we aren’t full human beings who can relate to each other, and women properly. I think when asking men to give up the advantages that patriarchy offers them we have to hold out a vision of a better happier life where we can live more fully and freely without dominating others.

In another session the reasons why we need to fight the ever expanding grip of pornography over our society and psyche’s were vividly illustrated in a heartbreaking film. Hardcore is a documentary made by channel 4 about an English woman who travels to Los Angeles with the aim of becoming a porn star.

The film brutally exposes the reality of the hugely successful pornography industry. It’s an industry that has come to be seen as more and more mainstream, but is in fact on the abuse and rape of women, as shown in the film.

Felicity, a single mum from Essex, has been brought to the USA by her agent Richard. She has had a difficult time growing up, and it’s clear in the film this is what led her to want to be part of the porn industry. But from the start she has clear boundaries-she doesn’t want to do anal sex or rough unpleasant scenes.

However, the agent Richard knows that in a market that is now saturated with every kind of horrendous material imaginable, porn users are always trying to get their hands on more and more extreme material. He knows that the real money to be made by him (through the exploitation of Felicity) is in anal sex scenes and films of abuse and domination.

Therefore he is constantly trying to break down her resistance to doing more “hardcore” scenes. He is an exemplary capitalist, caring nothing for the damage he does to human beings in his pursuit of profit. Indeed, he clearly loves his business and the opportunities it brings to posses and exploit women. In the film he leads Felicity around by the hand, and afterwards it was made clear what wasn’t included on screen-she was staying in his house where there was only one bed.

The process of breaking Felicity down culminates when Richard takes her to the home of Max Hardcore, a notorious figure in the porn industry. The house is far from anywhere in the desert, defended by armed guards and dogs.

Max Hardcore is renowned for horrendously abusive films in which he violently hurts the women he is working with. When he arrives home to Felicity there the first thing he does, without even looking her in the eye or properly speaking to her, is to rape her. While Richard looks on laughing, and the camera crew don’t know what to do, he walks straight up and penetrates her. Felicity herself doesn’t know what to do, and is unable to offer any resistance beyond nervous words.

He goes on to persuade her to take part in one of his films that day, an experience that reduces her to tears and forces her to run away from the set. Pursued by her abuser, she is only helped into being able to get away by the intervention of the camera crew, realising if they don’t intervene they will be complicit in her abuse and rape.

The purpose of Richard taking her to this place becomes clear afterwards. In the days that follow she continues to work under horrendous conditions on different porn sets, but her demeanour is different. She is basically suffering from shock and post traumatic stress from her experiences at the hands of Max Hardcore.

Richard himself is quite clear that this was his aim all along- “Once she’s been to see him everything else doesn’t seem as bad,” he comments. He has deliberately tried to break her so she can become an object to be abused for his profit.

The film really exposes any romanticised ideas people might have about how the porn industry works. The porn that really sells is abusive and horrible, and to persuade women to take part in that they have to have been through bad experiences already and be psychologically broken. Watching it is a harrowing experience, but it leaves you with renewed determination to confront people who try and paint a false picture of the harm this industry does to people.

There were some other sessions I took part in that I will post on when I get the chance, and I brought away a few good essays to read that were available on some of the stalls at the conference. Pretty soon I’d like to write about the work of a left wing writer I’m just discovering called Robert Jensen who really tackles all these issues, from race and gender privilege, to pornography to the crisis of masculinity well. But until I get a chance to do it, I really recommend checking out this article by him, Pornography is a Left Issue.

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