Archive for the 'society' Category

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

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.
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capitalism, climate change, society, travel, water

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!

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

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.

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

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 »

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

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 »

capitalism, society, USA

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 »

climate change, fuel, society, travel, USA

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 »

capitalism, climate change, politics, society

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 »

climate change, society

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 »

society, travel, vegetarianism

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 »

capitalism, colonialism, politics, slavery, society, travel

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 »

politics, society, the Right, USA

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 »

Green Party, society, travel, USA

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.

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society, USA


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.

anti-racism, crime, politics, society, USA

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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