anti-racism, capitalism, colonialism, history, racism, society, travel

06 Feb 2013

Happy Waitangi Day: The Shadow of a Land

Today is Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s national holiday. This day in 1840 marked the beginning of the end of New Zealand as a Maori Polynesian island, and its takeover as an arm of the white British empire. So, obviously a big cause for celebration.

The Treaty of Waitangi is given various interpretations, and the official and popular position today is that Waitangi day celebrates New Zealand and emphasises unity between Polynesian Maori and Pakeha (white New Zealanders). Many Kiwis see it simply, I suspect, as “a nice day off”. But Waitangi day – and specifically the 1840 Treaty – have also historically attracted a great deal of protest. And not within due cause.
Continue Reading »

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capitalism, climate change, society, travel, water

05 Jan 2013

Water, water, everywhere. And not a drop to drink.

I’ve been thinking about water. For most of September, October and November I was on a sailboat, in the islands of the western Pacific ocean. It was wonderful, although clean drinking water was sometimes a problem. In much of Latin America as well, I was sceptical about the quality of the water. There is much bottled water drunk in Latin America and the Pacific – by poor people, not just the well-off – out of fear of dangerous tap water.

But even that is nothing. 6000 people every DAY die through water-related disease. And within just ten years time, 1.8 billion people will be living with absolute scarcity. The issues are huge, and the mainstream market response to poor quality water or lack of water availability is bottled water – an absolute disaster in every way. So, I’ve made a video with my personal solution for me – the LifeSaver Bottle – and about the global issues. Plus, I drink some water laced with guinea-pig poo. So. Worth watching!

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capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, Panama, racism, society, travel, USA

09 Aug 2012

The Panama Canal – the great globaliser

As part of my journey round the world, leaving the American continents and crossing the Pacific ocean I took a container ship, in order to minimise my personal carbon emissions, and because I thought it would be an interesting way to travel. The  ship passed through the Panama Canal and shortly afterwards I recorded this account of the history of the Canal, the effect it had on Panama throughout the 20th century, and its role in placing the world in the straight-jacket of economic globalisation.

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capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, Panama, racism, slavery, society, travel

20 Jul 2012

Independence Day

Panama City. Friday night. The old town, the Casco Viejo, the historical centre of the city. It is raining. In fact it’s pouring. The weather forecast shows 32 or 33 degrees with torrential thunderstorms for the next six days.

I sit in the white brightly-lit bandstand in the centre of the central square, the Plaza de la Independencia. This is where Panamá declared its “independence” from Colombia in 1903. At that time all of Panama City was contained within the Casco Viejo. Within a few years the Canal was creating a boom and the city expanded. Today this area is barely more than an urban slum with the trappings of past wealth, not alike the centre of Havana, Cuba. Tonight, the plaza is practically deserted.

My photo set “Panama City Contrasts” on flickr

Below, still guarding their jewellery stall in the twilight are two indigenous Kuna people, the woman immediately recognisable with her colourful blouse, gold piercings and naked tightly-beaded calves. Above in the bandstand with me squat two gringos around their laptops, taking advantage of the bandstand’s power outlets. I think they live in the large van I saw on the corner. Something tells me they’re running Linux. Two dogs join us, one belonging to the gringos. A middle-aged Panamanian asks the gringos what their dog is called. She misunderstands him and gives him her name. I think she is Australian. He is shaving his face, very slowly and without a mirror. He has two different razors, as if he fears one might not do the job. It is unclear to me whether he has any water, or soap. He picks slowly to remove hairs from the blade. I think he might be also charging his phone. I presume he has a home, but his shoes are held together with neat loops of string. For all I know everything he owns could be in the carrier bag beside him. Continue Reading »

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climate change, fuel, travel

27 Dec 2011

“The plane will go anyway”

I choose not to fly as much as possible. People don’t like to hear this, because they can already feel a potential judgment coming of their own actions or choices. But let me explain why first.

It’s not because I’m scared or because I don’t like looking at the clouds from above (in fact I do): it is just unfortunately the case that flying by air is just an incredibly quick way to blow all of the good karma you built up by cycling and reusing plastic bags. After space travel and splitting the atom it’s probably the fastest way you could burn fuel and create pollution. You’d have to cross the Atlantic by jet ski in order to be more environmentally unfriendly.

Everywhere I go however (by bus, boat and train) from Toronto to Mexico, from La Paz to Rio de Janeiro, I hear the exact same words, from different people, repeated with eeiree similarity: “But the plane will be going anyway. So why not be on it?”.

It’s fascinating to me that humans can trick ourselves with statements such as this when we know it would be morally reprehensible to respond to “look, we’re gonna gang-rape this girl anyway, so you might as well join in”. Continue Reading »

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colonialism, history, Latin America, travel, USA

14 Sep 2011

“A Tale of Two Revolutions: Guatemala & Cuba” or… “Sandwiches with Roberto Pérez”

On my travels in 2010, two of the countries I got to know the best are Guatemala & Cuba. Both had revolutions (Guatemala in 1944, Cuba in 1953) whose effects resonate through history. Both revolutions had similar causes and relationships. But ultimately very very different outcomes.

Guatemalan seller

Today Cuba is practically unique in the world. A socialist economy, largely centrally-planned and state-run, but one that boasts developed-world levels of health, life expectancy, literacy, and, dare I say, equality. Let me say right now that Cuba has problems – big problems. But on many indicators they are doing surprisingly well, especially given their handicaps, which still include being under a trade embargo by the United States.

By contrast, Guatemala is poorer in both absolute and per capita terms, much more unequal, and has a very low ranking on the UN Human Development Index, even worse so when accounting for its inequality.

More noticeable when I was there is the way that indigenous people sometimes turn their heads to look down or look away from you. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were killed by their own government, well into the 1980s.

Yet I found Cubans to be outgoing, passionate, care-free and confident. It pains me to say it: you could never call Guatemalans care-free. Half of them live in absolute poverty. Continue Reading »

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capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, politics, racism, society, travel

28 Jul 2011

Machu Picchu: “100 years of prostitution of Andean culture”

This month saw the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu. Its discovery by the West, that is: it was in July 1911 that Hiram Bingham, a Yale historian, was led to the already 400-year old site by a local shepherd boy, and announced the presence of the Machu Picchu estate to the world.

Machu Picchu, morning mist

I visited Machu Picchu a couple of days before its anniversary; it was glorious. A sublime city in a sublime location; the hundreds of tourists walking around could not detract from its wonderfulness. I was back in nearby Cusco, “the heart of America” for Che Guevara, and capital of the Inca empire, for the anniversary itself. To celebrate, Cusco’s main plaza saw parades, a stage with big screens, and a Peruvian folk/rock band in the evening. It also saw low-key protests, including one banner that particularly caught my eye: “100 años de la prostitución de la cultura andina”.

Elsewhere on the streets, the Incas’ conquered descendants mainly went about their business; selling chewing gum and proffering beautiful and often hand-made gloves and ch’ullus (traditional hats made from alpaca wool) to the hoards of foreign tourists, at knock down prices. Continue Reading »

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15 Jun 2011

The span of a life. How long ago is history?

Queen VictoriaThe Second World War ended 66 years ago. Seems like a long time? It’s really not. In fact, I was born at the midpoint between then and now. There is only as much time separating me now from my birth as separates my birth from the death of Hitler… the Nazi regime, the deaths of millions of people in the Holocaust. It really wasn’t that long ago. 33 years between then and my birth. And another 33 years between my birth and now. Being on a slow riverboat through the Peruvian Amazon is giving me a long time to think, and it’s occurred to me that as I get older this span will grow – both ways. By the time I’m in my mid-40s, you could flip my life around as if I were living it backwards in time, and connect with Hitler’s conspiracy of burning the Reichstag and taking power in 1933. Before I’m 50 I’ll have grown back to have been present at the Wall Street Crash. And only 60 years (of age) separate my birth and the killing fields of Ypres, Verdun and the Somme. This is an upsetting thought. Because if all that can happen in the span of one lifetime, what more could happen in the future in my lifetime? Continue Reading »

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capitalism, Latin America, politics, the Right, travel

04 Jun 2011

Something rotten in the state of Peru

Peru must, I think, have the most dysfunctional democracy I have encountered yet on my travels. And after the US, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, that’s saying something.

Tomorrow Peruvians go to the polls to decide how to vote in their Presidential election. There are only two candidates left: Ollanta Humala, a left-wing military officer and previous presidential candidate, and “Keiko”.

Keiko propaganda

Keiko propaganda - below is grafited "corruption" and "murderer"

“Keiko” is now such a household brand in Peru that nobody need say her family name: Fujimori. A name that could – or at least should – strike fear into many Peruvians. As President of Peru throughout the 1990s, Keiko’s father Alberto Fujimori first enacted wide-ranging neoliberal reforms, called the Fujishock. Electricity costs quintupled, water prices rose eightfold, and gasoline prices rose 3000%. Yet Peru was made safe for international capitalism. Then, feeling that Congress was holding him back, with the support of the military he carried out a presidential coup, which was roundly condemned by the international community. Strangely – and this is the worrying thing about the Peruvian national mindset – the coup was welcomed by the public, according to numerous polls. Continue Reading »

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capitalism, society, USA

18 Apr 2011

Is Charlie Sheen everything that’s wrong with America?

I didn’t expect my next blog post to be about Charlie Sheen. I am writing a long comparative history of the Cuban and Guatemalan revolutions, but it seems to be without end, so I thought dissing “Two and a Half Men” would be some comparatively low-hanging fruit.

TwoandaHalfMen-CastThe dreaded sit-com was on in the corner of a hostel where I stayed for an afternoon in the Colombian city of Cali a few days ago. I asked casually of a young English tourist whether anybody actually found “Two and a Half Men” funny. “Are you kidding?” she asked. “It’s like the best thing on telly. It’s hilarious!”. I was put on the back foot, clearly the ‘uncool’ one in the room, and when I protested that “it doesn’t really seem to be about anything” she explained “it’s about having sex, drinking, taking drugs and getting fucked up. If you don’t like any of those things, then yeah, you won’t enjoy it”. Which made me feel even more on the back foot, obviously. To make me feel better an intelligent Israeli traveller broadly sided with my take on things. I observed to the English girl that she didn’t seem to be laughing very much at it, to which she claimed she just wasn’t paying attention. But I did pay attention to it, and, like all the other times I’ve ever seen it, I found it spectacularly unfunny, and after a few minutes clichéd, repetitive and depressing. I agree with the critic in The Australian who called it a “sometimes creepy, misogynistic comedy”, and in the New York Daily News who called it “occasionally funny”. It might be about sex, but it seems to be about having unfulfilling, predictable, boring sex. It might be about drugs and drinking but there doesn’t seem to be much fun involved. There instead seems to be lots of dissatisfaction, rather a lot of arrogance, and repeated trips to the shrink. Continue Reading »

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climate change, fuel, society, travel, USA

15 Jan 2011

4 tuktuks, 3 airplanes and a Mississippi steamboat – my Carbon Footprint in 2010

I’ve done a lot of travelling in 2010. Namely across the Atlantic, looping around the USA, into the Caribbean and travelling down Central America as far as Nicaragua. So naturally I’m concerned about what the cost is to our shared natural environment of all my wanderings. From the outset I’ve tried to travel as environmentally friendly as possible, which informed my decision to travel across the Atlantic by ship

Even so, my travelling must have had a big impact on the environment that we all have a stake in, and over the New Year I’ve been trying to figure out to my satisfaction what that might be, and how good an idea (for everybody else and our shared global environment) me travelling around having a good time is.

To give you an idea of why I think this is important, have a look at my recent article that details how the world’s politicians have failed us when it comes to combatting climate change, and how we are, unfortunately to say the least, heading for an all-out global catastrophe.

I’ve worked out a very approximate answer in terms of a “carbon footprint”, measured in metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (* see note 1).

But rather than first list a bunch of figures I want to look back on exactly how far I’ve come, compare that to my “carbon budget”, and consider the choices I made and what I got out of it.

I arrived in New York City at the beginning of January on a ship from Southampton, England. After visiting Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal by long-distance bus and train, in April I moved to Chicago (by train) and spent 3 nice weeks there. I then hired a car (a hybrid electric Toyota Prius) and drove 5000 miles across the West through Seattle and down through Portland and Eugene to San Francisco, where I left the car.

13 000 miles around the USA

13 000 miles around the USA

I then got a train to L.A., took a campervan around wine country for a few days, and then took a 3-night train ride to New Orleans (these are big distances…). I then took bus and car (with my parents) to Florida, and then finally visited New York City by train again very briefly for the 4th of July before returning by train to Florida. Up against my visa time limit, I flew out of the country to Nassau, The Bahamas, where I stayed for a month and a half. I then flew (there is no other option) to Cuba, and then from Cuba to Cancun (the closest exit). I only took buses after that.

Just taking the carbon cost of the first 6 months in the USA, the obvious big costs are the ship to the Americas, the private car road-trip across the West, the campervan (surprisingly bad) and the flight out of the country. The ship accounts for a huge 1816.1kg of CO2 (nearly two tonnes… although I calculated at the time, marginally less than a transatlantic flight (* see note 2). Continue Reading »

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capitalism, climate change, politics, society

12 Dec 2010

Climate Change and Cancún – The politicians have failed. Now it’s up to us

The outcome this week of the climate change conference in Cancún can be read two ways. Yes, multilateralism (although not the role of the UN) has been saved, and as one minister timidly put it “people are still talking to each other”. But as Greenpeace have commented, “The conference may have saved the multilateral process after last year’s abject failure in Copenhagen, but we have not yet been saved from climate change.”

Green MP Caroline Lucas used very similar wording: “It’s a very weak deal – enough to keep the ongoing negotiation process alive, but not enough to save the climate.”

And although both organisations have given encouragement to governments for the little that has been done, when it comes down to it, all that matters is the bottom line, and the bottom line is “What kind of world will this agreement create?”

Unfortunately, according to scientific commentators such as those at Climate Tracker Action, the agreement will deliver 3.2 degrees Celsius of overall global warming. The Bolivian government was more pessimistic, estimating 4 degrees. While the difference between 2 or 4 degrees on a summer’s day doesn’t mean much, averaged out all over the world, it’s disastrous. Continue Reading »

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climate change, society

23 Nov 2010

What’s the big deal with Climate Change?

I didn’t think I’d have to ask myself that question, but I do find that questioning one’s own beliefs is the first step towards being able to communicate them to others. And here in Guatemala it’s become obvious to me that I need to have a good answer to the question “what’s the big deal with Climate Change?”, just as I’ve had to refine my answer to the question “why are you vegetarian?“.

Not that most people of course have even asked me that question. Normally I’ll realise the need to explain myself simply by a sceptical look or a blank stare or a feeling that I’m being humoured in a conversation. And in case you think this is something to do with Guatemalans, it’s a situation I’ve encountered with Brits, Europeans and Americans when I’ve mentioned climate change, even casually or in passing.

Part of my failure to always communicate effectively with people is no doubt due to my own beliefs and convinctions. I do understand that almost Continue Reading »

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society, travel, vegetarianism

05 Sep 2010

Why am I vegetarian?

It’s something I get asked often enough. I’ve been travelling for nearly eight months now and it’s a daily question: if not from other people but for myself. Even in the USA, finding vegetarian food was not the easiest thing. Finding vegan food was harder again, and, yes, I quite often ate vegetarian instead of vegan simply in order to have some variety and to be able to participate in at least some of the culture. And after eleven years of being vegetarian, and ten years of being essentially vegan, I wanted to re-examine the reasons for my choice in the first place. Certainly now that I’ve arrived in Cuba I have a feeling that vegetarianism is going to become harder and harder as I travel down into Central and South America. I’ve only been here one night and already I’ve had three occasions where the words “Soy vegetariano” have been greeted with the same mix of incredulous surprise and pity. I’ve not had any scary experiences so far on my eight month travels, but then until yesterday in the Bahamas I’d been living with a vegetarian and a vegan. Looking ahead to Mexico I watched a YouTube video online that showed the making of a typical flour tortilla. The standard ingredients are flour, water and pork fat. And even if I was to ask for just some healthy steamed vegetables wrapped in a flour tortilla, apparently the done thing to do is to smear some more pork fat onto the tortilla to provide that all-important basting.

      It’s obvious that I will need to know very clearly why and how I am vegetarian if I am to have any hope of making clear food choices in Latin America that don’t stress me out on a daily basis. I had a great chance to re-examine my commitment to being vegetarian when a friend in New York City lent me the new book “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Safran Foer is a youngish Jewish novelist, living in Brooklyn with his wife and young son. He says he began researching the book as a way to explore his own on-off dabbling with vegetarianism and to discover what would be the best way to raise his new baby. Safran Foer begins the book as a meat-eater, and a fairly committed one at that, listing many good reasons why everyday human connections contribute to us sharing a culture of meat eating. Continue Reading »

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capitalism, colonialism, politics, slavery, society, travel

02 Aug 2010

The Bahamas – sun, sea, sand & slavery

Today is Emancipation Day, not just in the Bahamas, but all across the former British empire. 176 years ago – in 1834 – my nation, Britain, finally abolished slavery. The Bahamas as a nation, however, is only five years older than me… not until 1973 did the Bahamas became independent from Britain – they celebrated the birthday the weekend I arrived.

This island and its family islands of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas share alot of history in common with the Caribbean as whole; the region was home to several million peaceful native Americans, who were almost completely wiped out by the Spanish and then by the English, through slavery, outright murder and disease. Both countries then imported black slaves stolen from Africa, depopulating some areas by between 60 and 90 per cent. For a time in the 17th century the Bahamas was administered from the Carolinas, and from 1718 directly by the British. These are young cultures, with their populations all from somewhere else – most of them moved here by force.

Sacred Space by Antonious RobertsOne of the most moving things I’ve experienced on the island so far is an artwork “Sacred Space” by Bahamian artist Antonious Roberts; figures of slave women carved out of casuarina trees, still rooted in the ground; they look out over the ocean, towards Africa. Even more moving, a few yards away are the “Pirate Steps”, more accurately called the Slave Steps because up them from about 1785 onwards were marched thousands of African slaves who were brought here to work for the ruling white people on the island. At the bottom of the steps I found a young white American couple from the South, larking about and taking photos of eachother on the rocks, unaware or uncaring of how their predecessors had driven thousands of other human beings across those rocks like cattle. A few yards further along, the same harbour that berthed the slave ships now accommodates Esso oil and gas tankers.

So most people in these countries like the Bahamas have been the working class, working for someone else’s benefit, for not just decades but centuries. Since I’ve been here I’ve met black Bahamians who are film-makers, business people, university staff and professors, poets and authors. People who are well-travelled, highly intelligent, thoughtful, conscientious and considerate. But black society in Continue Reading »

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politics, society, the Right, USA

13 Jul 2010

The Day I Met Some Conservatives

I am completely aware there are lots of conservatives in America. I’ve been bracing myself for meeting them, as I made my way out West. I just didn’t expect to meet them in the form of young people in their early twenties, certainly not college students, and certainly not on public transport in Obama’s home town, the Democratic lock down that is Chicago.

So I accepted a generous invitation of visiting cultural sights such as architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Chicago home & studio with gratitude, not realising that my hosts for the day (which involved a lot of being trapped in their car) were pretty much Tea Partiers, only young, stylish and attractive. Which, let’s face it, is not the image that normally comes to mind.

The huge new Trump Tower in Chicago's downtown

The huge new Trump Tower in Chicago's downtown

In fact the boyfriend and girlfriend couple were nothing but generous, kind and thoughtful to me. I’m just pretty sure that wouldn’t have been the case if I’d been Hispanic. Which was funny, because the girl was half Hispanic – her dad from Peru – and she speaks decent Spanish. But Hispanics, blacks and women drivers came up in the first five minutes (women drivers were actually what started it all off….) and from then on in I knew there’d be trouble (at least if I didn’t keep my mouth shut).
I could have ignored the quip about women drivers – we used to humour him when Grandad started – but that led quickly to a conversation, all the while trapped in the car of course, about how Obama is not culturally black. This is an argument I have realised is fairly valid: Obama is completely atypical of black people in the US, and, dare one mention, is of course half white. Furthermore his family was not an enslaved family, unlike the history of most black families in America. And, unlike almost all black people, he has had a white person’s education at the very best schools and colleges that America has to offer, and money has to buy. Of course, this is a controversial if not offensive argument amongst most progressive Democrats, and understandably so. But at this stage I was still not sure what side of the fence they were falling down on, and I was finding some common ground. I started to become sceptical however after being told that blacks have had 50 years since the Jim Crow laws to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that this went for Hispanics too, and that Obama was socialising all the banks because he is on a mission to make everything owned by the government.

I was still naive enough at this point to answer frankly the question they put to me about how Obama is perceived in Europe. I gave an answer which I am pretty sure 85% of Europeans would be happy with, that Europeans in general and the British in particular still perceive Obama to be a blessed relief after that “moron” George W Bush.

The silence in the car around me was palpable.
I backtracked, clarifying that W was probably “not the sharpest tool in the box”, and I mumbled something about him being perceived by many in my country to be a puppet of other forces (of which, I did not elaborate). That’s about as two-way as the conversation got the entire day, which we were about ten minutes into. After that, I learned to listen with curiosity, fascination, and, it has to be said, a little each of respect and horror.

The conversation took the form of “you see the thing is Matt, there’s something happening in this country right now that you need to know about, something terrible”. Continue Reading »

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fuel, politics, USA

30 Jun 2010

Oil disaster in the Gulf – a failure of government

I’ve been in New Orleans and Florida the last few weeks and there is genuine anger that the oil disaster in the gulf is still going on. The government, and the corporations responsible for building, operating and mitigating the disastrous impact of the drilling operation have all been fairly useless in doing anything real about it. And everybody knows it.

My friends Stella and Mitch in New Orleans were kind enough to let me video them briefly about their perspective. They give heartfelt testimony to just how important this stuff is, and how hugely it is affecting the tourism, fishing and oil industries in Louisiana and further afield that are the mainstay of most people’s livelihoods.

Needless to say, BP has come in for an awful lot of stick. Signs attached to New Orleans lamp-posts insult BP. I saw a woman dancing with her partner at a Zydeco music festival sporting an “FU BP” poster pinned to her back. But the shocking thing to me is not that a multinational corporation should externalise its costs and risks, and screw people and the environment in the process. It has been the almost utter inability of the US government to do anything effective about it.

Yet many people – on the left and right of the political spectrum – have fallen into what I see as a trap of blaming BP, as if BP is a “bad apple” and all other oil corporations are fine, a piece of “framing” that hides the larger systematic issues and abuses. Certainly the right-wing old fogies here in Florida are clinging to this narrative: “BP is some corrupt British corporation, coming over here and colonising American resources. Corporations in general (including and especially American corporations) are OK; it is this errant and colonialist, elitist, distant British corporation – operated by some posh English dude – that is purely at fault”. While BP are obviously guilty of massive and criminal negligence, to understand the situation blame must be levelled at the other corporations involved, at the federal regulator (which Obama has now taken to task because it was hand-in-glove with the oil industry), and at the federal government itself. But moreover, America’s laws and political culture are exacerbating the situation: the government is hamstrung (partly legally) from effectively responding to the crisis because it is not an act of God but the actions of a corporation, for which they are legally responsible. The federal government has not been able to (and/or willing to) step in and mitigate the situation in the way they morally should have. Republicans, for all their rhetoric, have only made the situation worse and prolonged the crisis.

Last week’s decision by a federal judge to overturn the Obama-administration imposed moratorium on drilling just shows how uncaring the Republicans are about the real issues involved, and how much they have bought into (and are propagating) the shallow “bad apple” frame, without looking at the obvious danger of this happening again. Judge Martin Feldman’s decision also, of course, shows up the blatant and chilling partisanship of the US judicial system.

As it happens, and as my friend Mitch from New Orleans mentions in his video, the moratorium is an imperfect solution that itself is damaging ordinary people’s livelihoods. But when a federal judge and the corporations responsible for criminal negligence are singing from the same hymn sheet, I get the chills.

So for me the issue is far FAR bigger than “is BP a bad apple?”. The frame needs to be: oil exploitation is inherently suicidal, all these corporations are out to screw over people and the environment and animals for a quick profit, American political culture is actually set up to HELP them do that and not to prevent or mitigate the likely disastrous results, and there needs to be a wholesale reform of not only energy policy but a culture and legal structure of corporate welfare that goes to the heart of what America is today.

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Green Party, society, travel, USA

15 Apr 2010

Canada… versus the USA

ottawa's war memorial

Ottawa's war memorial

I’ve spent less than a week in Canada, to my sadness.

After a day, the differences between here and the US were tangible. After nearly a week, the differences are overwhelming.

As a young English guy from Guildford told me at a bar in Toronto, Canada has all the advantages of the US (which for him were late licenses and plentiful weed) with none of the drawbacks. To drugs and alcohol I might also add: liveable human-scale cities, cosmopolitan cultures, a national respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity, a relaxed and positive sense of national identity, decent public transport, a progressive political system that publicly funds political parties and outlaws all corporate donations, a largely non-psychopathic government, great outdoors (although so far I’ve seen a lot of low-grade grassland (it’s not prairie – that was killed that long ago)), plenty of space and natural resources (a mixed blessing), good comedians (apparently) and surprisingly good beer.

In Ottawa and Toronto (although not Montreal) I saw a very low level of homelessness. In fact I saw almost nothing but healthy happy people, in good houses, with a very nice quality of life.

Frankly, its surprising any Americans still live in the US.

Did I mention, Canada also has universal health care?

Canada’s health care bill argument had some of the same elements of people crying “communist” as we’ve just seen in the US; but that debate was concluded 50 years ago, and unlike the US, not only did the best side win, but it achieved a genuinely-progressive result: single-payer healthcare, similar to Britain’s National Health Service.

Continue Reading »

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22 Mar 2010

Two new books in the pipeline

Fresh from the intellectual stimulation this weekend of the Left Forum in Manhattan where I attended talks by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Joel Kovel, I’ve decided to lay on the line that I’ve starting writing two books, one with Rupert Read, a philosophy reader at the University of East Anglia and a Green Party councillor in Norwich.

Eco-socialist Joel Kovel at the Left Forum

Eco-socialist Joel Kovel at the Left Forum

Mine and Rupert’s book – in which publishers have already expressed an interest – will be an extrapolation of what we have started on the Green Words Workshop and will include the latest research about how to popularise and “reframe” green political messages. The other book will be a solo self-published project probably to be called 50 Things Greens Do That Work, and has been inspired by my meeting greens from the US. It’ll be a compendium of best practice from both sides of the Atlantic: how to campaign, organise and succeed as a green (something that greens could always clearly use more of). And as I travel in the US I’m going to be asking greens what their best tips for success are. Watch this space!

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politics, racism, USA

27 Feb 2010

American justice?

An American citizen, brought up and college-educated here in Brooklyn, is being held against his will, alone in a windowless room. He has been there for the last two years. He has not been convicted of any crime.

Before that, he was held in another windowless room for a year. He is not allowed to watch the news or to speak to anyone, except one family member at a time every few weeks, and even then only through the medium of a translator who will edit out anything he “should not” hear or say. His every move is watched by his captors on CCTV. He is allowed out of his cell for one hour a day, but not into the sunlight or fresh air: instead his jailers allow him to exercise inside a cage.

His case has attracted the interest and criticism of many American lawyers and groups such as Theatre Against the War, including such celebrities as Wallace Shawn.

He is charged with nothing more than allowing a duffel bag of waterproof socks and raincoats to be stored at his apartment in London. The only witness to this “crime” was a houseguest, who it turns out was in fact a government informer, and has a vested interest in testifying against him.

This American citizen is not being held by the Taliban, or by Al Qaida. He’s not being detained in Guantanamo Bay. He’s imprisoned in his own home town, in the centre of New York, by his own government; the American government.

Syed Fahad Hashmi is a young Muslim man in his twenties; a star of his class at Brooklyn College where he studied political science, and a masters graduate of international relations at the London Metropolitan University in England.

His teachers recall an eloquent and sincere man who would often act as a bridge and sympathetic negotiator between people with differing political views; a peacemaker and a diplomat.

But rather than furthering his career as a political scientist, it was Fahad’s fate to gain the distinction of being the first person to ever be extradited from Britain to the US under novel anti-terrorist legislation: it was in London’s notorious Belmarsh prison where he was first held for a year. Now imprisoned in New York, he is the subject of a community campaign led, not least, by his old college teachers, his parents, and his childhood friends & neighbours, to have him tried promptly and fairly, and for the US government to account for the treatment he has received.

His trial, which has been repeatedly postponed and now scheduled for the end of April, centres around the government informer who was Fahad’s house guest. This informer however is on trial separately himself, and will receive a reduced sentence for testifying against Fahad – one of the many causes of concern about the fairness of the prosecution’s case

Last month I attended a vigil for Fahad outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Downtown Manhattan: about 150 people were in attendance, and the event, featuring an impromptu theatre performance about the history of sedition in America, was broadcast live on internet “Radio Free Fahad”.

Prof Jeanne Theoharis, Fahads old teacher, address the vigil

Prof Jeanne Theoharis, Fahads old teacher, address the vigil

I met his old school teacher, an impressive woman and knowledgeable powerful speaker. I watched his best friend from high school, a sensitive and tender young man, grieve over the torture his friend is going through. I can’t help feeling that if the most powerful nation on earth, and one that is ostensibly committed to the rule of law, freedom, justice, legal due process, democracy and human rights, can act like this towards its own citizens, then what hope does it have of setting an example of how a civilised nation should act?

The Facebook Group

Please help spread the word about Fahad Hashmi, and the way America and Britain have treated him.

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society, USA

27 Feb 2010


It’s snowing again. It’s falling softly tonight, in big gentle flakes. Everything in the yard has a little snowy hat on nearly two feet tall. The snow’s piled up in the streets. With the cold, cars were conking out in the road, and walking home last night it was impossible to tell where the pavement ended and the road began.

Something happens though when it snows that I’ve never really seen in Britain: instead of just leaving the snow in the street, householders come out of their homes and shovel it, making the sidewalk snow-free and much safer to walk on.

I told a New Yorker friend how I felt this seems a touching gesture of community spirit; she replied that’s what she had thought, for a long time. Needless to say I like the idea of people each playing their small part in achieving a larger communal goal of the common good.

And it’s impressive! It’s impressive to see that people have all got out and pitched-in and cleared the sidewalks. As my housemate commented, you want to say “Well done Bushwick, well done Ridgewood!”.

But in fact, and this is even more surprising to me (coming from Britain), New Yorkers are legally obliged to shovel snow that lands on the sidewalk outside their house (and I’m sure the shovel manufacturers love that!). This makes sense of course, but it just takes away some of the sentimental appeal…

old man shovelling snow in residential Queens

Incredibly, according to the New York Times, they’re legally obliged to do this during daytime “within 4 hours” of the snowfall ending! Which would seem to put some pressure on people, especially older people. Equally I can’t imagine many students getting it together to get out of bed and shovel before the snow police come round! I saw one old man (pictured) who was obviously behind in his shovelling efforts. I stepped around him, saying hello. If I had known he was being legally obliged to shovel his sidewalk and wasn’t just doing it to be community-spirited, I would have taken the shovel off of him and asked him to put the kettle on while I did it myself.

America – and I dare say Americans – have a strange mix of impulses; in this case, the desire to be community-spirited, tied to a legal obligation to be so. It makes sense that mobilising the person-power of every householder to shovel snow makes sidewalks clear a lot quicker than any army of city workers that could be realistically mustered; so in this sense an “individualistic” solution works. But the way the individualistic effort is socially and communally enforced intrigued me. In a country where a large number of people strongly reject government obliging them to do things and insist on individual voluntary action instead, I wonder whether this city statute doesn’t in some ways manage to appeal to both an individualistic sensibility and a community one.

Individualists are unlikely to challenge it because what could be more obviously selfish and un-community-spirited than refusing to pull one’s own weight?

People more used to collective government action can hardly fault it either; it gets the job done. And neither they nor the individualists need worry about a burden on the tax-payer, because there isn’t one! Not to their wallet anyway (initial capital purchase of shovel aside….).

There are problems of course; not least the “equality” issue that the old man had; his ability to complete the task was not the same as other’s.

But could this be a template for collective action on other issues? Litter? Homelessness? Climate change??

I find it amazing that the city has got away with people tolerating this prescriptive and burdensome ordinance, and presumably they do so because the problem is undeniable, pressing, universal, immediately obvious and tangible, and everyone has a degree of shared interest in its resolution.

Sadly the same cannot be said for homelessness and certainly not for climate change. Not because they are not important – but because people just don’t feel aware of them in the same way. Litter almost gets up there, but most people are clearly able to tolerate a lot of litter (certainly around here in Bushwick) before being provoked into individual action.

If only awareness of important pressing issues could be as obvious as the weather……. Oh, wait: it will be as obvious as the weather – literally – when climate change really bites. It will be the weather! And it will not only bring storms and floods and droughts and hurricanes to America but global economic infra-structural breakdown. But by then, of course, without a massive change in awareness, prevention will be too late.

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Green Party, politics, USA

03 Feb 2010

The Green Party in the US

Recently I was lucky enough to attend and speak at a State Committee meeting for the New York state Green Party. The gathering was a managable size and well-defined, with delegates having been elected from various areas, some holding proxies for absent colleagues; it shared similarities with – I imagine – Green Party meetings around the globe: a chair valiantly maintaining order against some members’ tendencies to talk too much, an imposingly long agenda and a tasty shared lunch.

I was impressed however by the members’ attempts to keep a sense of discipline in the face of what is a state-imposed uphill struggle: they’re not even on the ballot paper.

To get on the ballot paper in the UK in a general election it costs £500 to stand in each seat (which is returned by winning 5% of the vote or more) and the European Elections require a £5000 deposit for each regional constituency (which is returned by winning 2.5% of the vote or more). In most constituencies in the UK Greens find it fairly difficult to win 5% in the first-past-the-post General Election, but easy to win more than 2.5% in the pseudo-proportional regional European Elections.

For all the strategy and political debates the US Greens might want to have, they acknowledge that this one thing comes before all that: they need to get on the ballot paper, and no amount of ideology, or money for that matter, can get them there. In NY state, they need to first collect 15 000 valid signatures from registered voters to appear on the ballot paper for the governor race. And doing this opens up the other races for them. In order to get 15 000 valid signatures they will collect 30 000: so, a big job ahead of them in the next few months. If they then go on to win over 50 000 votes in the gubernatorial race, they win “ballot status” which means they don’t have to collect the 15 000 signatures the next time, and energies can go into campaigning, not meeting the starting requirements. Needless to say this is not something that the Republican or Democratic parties have to worry about, and it represents a large step between the bottom and first rungs of the ladder for new parties hoping to chip away at the two-party duopoly.

One of the things that shocked me most is the desperate underdevelopment of any national or federal party: state parties seem fairly self-contained, and if anything members regard “national” activity – when it happens – as interfering with state autonomy. Of course this is arguably a “green” attitude and, dare I say, an American attitude. But when I learned that the national party has literally a handful of staff members, that there is no nationally-used Green Party “brand”, no logo, no strapline, no message, and no national figurehead or even mandated public figures, my reaction was one of horror.

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anti-racism, crime, politics, society, USA

21 Jan 2010

White fear in gentle Brooklyn

So, my first experience of living in America is sharing an apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York with a fellow “hipster” in his 30s (i.e. young, recently-settled, urban, arty and middle class). I’ve been in New York for over a week now and in the last few days have just started to relax into the neighbourhood of Bushwick. I’ll be frank. It’s not what I’m used to. Coming from a leafy middle-class arty small-town backwater like Lancaster in northern England, the urban, impoverished, dirty, jumbled and to my mind mean streets of Bushwick Brooklyn somewhat make me feel as if I’ve jumped in at the deep end.

Bushwick is undoubtedly poor, with over 75% of children in the neighborhood born in poverty.

But there is another aspect of Bushwick that is having an effect on my middle-class psyche, an effect that should not be overlooked, especially not by progressives. Bushwick just isn’t white.

As an anti-racist I struggle, as I think we all do, to talk about questions of race while trying to always maintain the right balance of respect, political-correctness and honesty. Political correctness has never been my strong point, so I think I’ll major on the respect and the honesty. Although my worry about walking these streets has lessened with familiarity, it’s still there, and although the streets are much dirtier than I’m used to – the occasional rat scurries by, and the atmosphere is sometimes silently infused with the smell of pot – my fear is – let’s face it – of people. Specifically of being mugged, and especially of being knifed. Is this a valid fear?

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12 Jan 2010

The power of the ocean

written 5th January 2010

It’s the first proper day of my voyage across the Atlantic and according to “Captain’s Log” – the only onboard TV channel on offer that I’ve much interest in – we’re passing underneath Ireland. It’s blowing a “fresh gale” outside: 47 miles per hour, hitting the ship abeam, but it’s only causing a slight judder as I lay typing in bed. If this were an ordinary hotel one would think the couple next door were engaged in some particularly energetic love-making, but alas it’s just the sea, and besides I suspect my neighbours are well past it in advanced years.

It was like Christmas Day this morning to wake up knowing I was feet from the ocean. With long coat hanging down to meet some very long socks I was covered enough to open the curtains and simultaneously turn the lock of my balcony door, stepping outside in one motion as if opening a Christmas present.

I wasn’t disappointed. If the new Doctor Who’s catchphrase is going to be “Geronimo!”, mine on these travels is obviously going to be “wow”, which is what I said to myself out loud when I saw the Atlantic ocean stretching out in front of me. No land now, no chance of the mobile signal I was desperately trying to hang on to last night, just sea – ocean, everywhere. The day is pretty – equal amounts of blue, white and grey in the sky; the clouds fluffy. When I change TV channels to the “Bridge Cam”, more ocean, the same as the perpendicular view from my windows. I kept saying “wow” in fact as I realised that this wasn’t just being close to the Atlantic ocean… being on the beach in Cornwall is being close to the Atlantic ocean. This was being IN the Atlantic ocean, on the Atlantic ocean… completely surrounded by the Atlantic ocean. Five hundred feet below us and at least 100 miles in any direction. Interestingly the Captain has just made a ship-wide announcement – obviously a daily thing: we have sailed 324 nautical miles so far and we’re equidistant from the tip of Ireland and the tip of England…100 miles from both and soon to be leaving both behind on our way to Newfoundland. Tomorrow we’ll have also left behind the continental shelf of Europe, and will be in even deeper water: two miles deep.

But wow. That ocean. I just have to keep going outside to the balcony and looking at it. I’ve seen the Atlantic ocean before. Its edges. But now I’m going to get all of it. Its whole breadth. For seven days solid we’re going to be crossing this vast expanse of ocean and it’s now, now we’re out of port, that the sheer majesty and size of it hits me. There’s also the thought in the back of my mind that we are imposters here, interlopers. If it really wanted to the sea could swallow us up, and why would they ever find us? The ship is big, but the sea is so so much bigger, and that’s apparent once you’re on it. Respect is healthy.

This adds a different dimension to my travels: most trans-Atlantic travellers – by airplane – scarcely have any commerce with the Atlantic itself (let alone the history of traveling this ocean and its consequences for the world). But here I can hear it, smell it and feel its spray on my face, spit in its spume if I wanted and add an infinitesimal amount of my own life-giving water to be assimilated into its own ample and unimpressed massiveness. To me this further illustrates what small creatures we – me and the boat – are compared to the huge sea.

For all the Cunard line’s laudable but politically-correct talk about environmental stewardship of the sea, it is not dependent on us. We are dependent on and beholden to the sea. And this has implications for how we think of ourselves on this planet mainly covered in oceans. Even my brief time spent regarding the ocean has warned me off – and nothing untoward has even happened yet. But I am innately cautious of such a big and unruly creature. I think we should all be, for the oceans are so powerful that if there were to give us any trouble – including in the case of catastrophic sea levels rises brought on by runaway climate change – we would certainly come off the worse.

– – –

Flickr video: Braving the Atlantic Ocean in winter.

This video shows a particularly dramatic and exciting day on the ocean!

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fuel, travel

12 Jan 2010

Travelling by ocean liner – a green alternative…?

written 9th Jan

For the last few days I’ve been enjoying the luxuries of the Cunard White Star Line ocean liner “Queen Victoria“, as it makes its way across the North Atlantic from Southampton England to New York. We’re currently just entering the shipping lanes of the East coast of America, above the island of Nantucket, and I’m watching the container ships gather on the horizon from the luxury “Commodore Lounge” at the top of the ship. I say luxury because I’ve sadly found that these cruise liners aren’t really built for travelling across oceans: they’re built for “cruising”. By and large, my fellow guests are retired, well-off and in couples; whereas I am a single young man: one of only two that I have met on board. Most guests seemed to have “cruised” before – one retired English couple blaisely spoke to me about their 10th world cruise. Clearly I have very different motivations from almost everyone on board: my motivation has been Slow Travel and minimising the damaging greenhouse gas emissions that flying to New York would have caused. My young friend – a philosophy lecturer in his late 30s – shares my motivation about slow travel, but his main motivation is fear of flying. Unfortunately, because of the social scene these cruises don’t seem to lend themselves to be enjoyed by youngsters (under 50). And, perhaps because the motivation for most guests is not to ease pressure on our shared global environment, the effect is not particularly environmentally friendly either.

Personally I could do without the grand “Royal Court Theatre” that occupies the forward parts of decks one to three. And as much as I’ve personally welcomed the small onboard gym I could probably manage with just the one swimming pool (not three). But with a casino, a ballroom, a disco, four restaurants and many more cafes and bars, the Queen Victoria sets itself up to be a high “consumer” of energy and resources.

In fact, before booking the journey I was pained to find that ocean liners typically use 120 kWh of energy for every “100 passenger kilometres”. That’s in fact more than an Boing 747 airliner, at – depending on fullness – between 30 and 53 kwH per 100 passenger kilometres [according to David MacKay’s very useful “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” (p.128)]).

By Cunard’s own calculations the ship emits about 0.53070307 kg of CO2 per passenger mile. Multiplied by what I estimate as a rough distance for the trip of 3422 miles, that is a total of 1816.1 kg of CO2. That is alot of CO2, whichever way you look at it; more than most people in the world are responsible for in a year.
By contrast according to the calculator at Choose Climate the same distance by plane would create only 650kg of CO2. So, what on earth am I, as a green, doing taking a form of transport that emits more CO2 than a plane…?? The answer is two-fold: the first is that the plane’s CO2 emissions are not the whole story. We know these days that due to the total warming effect of CO2 plus H2O (contrails) plus Nitrous Dioxide in the upper atmosphere, the damage from an aeroplane at 40 000 feet is effectively tripled, so that the original 209 kg of fuel which burns with twice the amount of oxygen to create 650 kg CO2… creates 1949 kg of CO2-equivalent warming effect, delivered direct to the upper atmosphere, where it does instant damage.

So already, with this amendment, even the ship’s vast CO2 emissions per passenger just narrowly beat the plane’s.

The Queen Victoria's extravagance is a barrier to mainstreaming ocean travel

Secondly, however, I wanted to travel by sea for a different reason: I was simply damned if I was going to fly.
Apart from anything else, if there is no viable alternative to taking the plane, where is the consumer choice in that, and what does that say about our society’s one-track version of progress? It seemed obvious to me that surface travel by ship should be less environmentally-damaging than air travel, and when I was unable to find a suitable passenger-carrying container-ship, I turned to ocean liners as the next most environmentally-friendly way to get across the Atlantic (needless to say, if I had been able to find a container ship on which to travel then the environmental impact of my presence on board it would have been truly negligible, as MacKay’s book discusses).
Aside from the aesthetic slow travel aspect (which has been wonderful), the high figure of the ship emitting 1816.1kg of CO2 on my behalf on the journey also accounts for my being put up in 4 star hotel luxury for seven days with a la carte meals three times a day (it’s a battle to get out of the restaurant at any point during the day and do something to work off the calories), entertainment, shops, and a support team of 1000 staff (one for every two guests).
Herein lies part of the hope I feel for ocean travel as a (more) sustainable alternative than plane travel. Plane staff could barely be pared back. But (labour considerations aside) downscaling a ship’s staff complement/guest experience by a third would reduce the experience to a mere 3 star luxury, which would be quite enough for me. Because the Queen Victoria with all its luxury already manages a lower overall level of climate-damage than an aeroplane, just think what could be achieved by trading in some of the luxury and adding some more environmentally-inclined processes to the ship’s layout and systems. A ship that was truly designed for moving people across oceans rather than being a floating hotel for well-off retireees could I’m sure give the aeroplane a run for its money in terms of environmental credentials. With the right investment and market conditions, a new era of ocean-going travel could provide a viable and more-environmentally-friendly alternative to transatlantic flights.

And lower prices might allow a greater diversity of people to enjoy the experience of slower, more environmentally friendly travel.

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