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Don’t forget about Heathrow

On Monday 13th July, thirteen Plane Stupid activists staged a protest on London Heathrow’s northern runway. The message was simple: there is a choice between preventing climate change and building new runways – we cannot do both. Aviation is incredibly damaging to the climate and its unfettered growth will jeopardise the UK’s chance of meeting its ambitious and legally binding climate targets. The 2008 Climate Change Act stipulates that an emissions reduction of 80% from 1990 levels must be made by 2050. This will not be possible if airports are actively expanded. Together with many other groups, Plane Stupid has been part of the movement campaigning against the third runway at Heathrow since it was first proposed. We have prevented the third runway from being built before, and we will do it again. What is more, we will oppose the expansion of airports everywhere, not just at Heathrow. Put simply, we’re in it for the long haul. And finally: this is about the affluent frequent fliers who fly multiple times a year for short leisure trips. There is sufficient existing capacity to support business flights and family holidays; we just do not need another runway to facilitate the very wealthy jetting off every other weekend to holiday homes and on shopping trips. We have a choice to make, and we want to make sure that that choice is the right one.

credit: Plane Stupid

credit: Plane Stupid

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A radical response to world events

Also posted on Concrete.

Faced with the barrage of distressing news from around the world, reporting endlessly on shocking events and atrocities committed by those in power, it is tempting to curl up into a ball and cry, or attempt to smash everything – y’know, banks, parliament, corporations, police cars, police… However, neither of these are constructive outlets for one’s rage. Formulating a radical response to world events such as the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, or the bombing and killing of innocent civilians in Gaza, or the illicit invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops is as difficult as it is critical.

The ballooning in popularity of the ice bucket challenge is one response to the wrong in the world – but it’s a misguided one. Giving to charity is in principle a great thing to do – in practice, however, it is important which one you give your money to. Some charities plough the majority of their funding into on-the-ground activities such as research or aid work, and some… don’t. Take the ALS foundation, which has been mistakenly wedded to the ice bucket challenge, for instance – their tax returns reveal that they spend a paltry 27% of their revenue on research, and pay their 11 executives over $100,000 apiece each year. Giving to grassroots foundations and organisations that do truly amazing work or fund highly effective campaigns should be prioritised; I’m thinking something along the lines of local foodbanks, Skateistan or Greenpeace. It’s great to donate to charity – but it’s unnecessary to dump ice on your head to do so. The main problem with the craze is that it seems like some bizarre publicity stunt – a self-congratulatory ego trip for celebrities and facebook sensations that achieves very little and trivialises the act of charity. If you give to charity: great, keep doing it… in private. We don’t need to congratulate you on every £3 a month you give to Oxfam.

A radical response to the problems of the world recognises that many are about abuses of power and the oppression of vulnerable and subjugated groups. All three of the examples given above concern the exercising of authority and power. Palestine has been historically screwed over by the state of Israel and international institutions since the early 20th century, with the aggression ramping up considerably post-‘67. Operation Cast Lead 2008-09 (AKA the Gaza War) killed 1,400 Palestinians by the UN’s count, and three Israelis. Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 killed hundreds of people too, and both sides were accused of committing war crimes. The most recent conflict is yet another expression of the unequal power dynamic between the two states: although Hamas is of course responsible for violence against Israel, its existence is in retaliation against the systematic structural violence that Israel submits Palestine to every day. The state of Israel systematically oppresses Palestinian civilians, by refusing to grant entry and exit visas to those in the Gaza strip – not to visit dying relatives, not to work, not to go to the market and buy food. Gaza’s borders are more restrictive than some of our prisons. Hell, we let a man called Skull Cracker waltz out of HMP Standford Hill on a whim. Israel denies Palestinians the right to a livelihood – they destroy key infrastructure such as water wells, and do not allow Palestinians to abstract drinking water. More than 80% of the water in the shared Israel/Palestine aquifer is extracted by Israel. 95% of Gaza’s water supply is too contaminated to drink due to over-abstraction. Palestinians have no access to water to irrigate crops, and so their economy is stunted, thereby preventing people from earning a living and improving their lives. Israeli troops frequently destroy olive groves full of trees centuries old, either in ‘punishment’ for supposed crimes against Israel, or as a deterrent. Houses are destroyed, schools are destroyed, wells are destroyed, people’s livelihoods are destroyed. It is a systematic abuse of power by one group over another, and the most recent events are another manifestation of that. Israel holds de facto power through force, and de jure power through legislation. The UN and powerful countries like the USA and UK support Israel, and even arm them, condoning the atrocities committed by the state. The Oslo Accords for instance unashamedly prejudice in favour of Israel, allocating more than half of water resources there, and building in institutional obstacles to Palestine obtaining their fair share – Israel has much better representation at the negotiating table.

What happened in Ferguson is another example of those in authority – the police – abusing that power. The USA is famously unequal, particularly along race lines in certain areas. Black students are three times as likely to be expelled from school as their white counterparts, and young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college. The US justice system is institutionally racist, and the shooting of Michael Brown in early August is yet another tragic reminder of the role the police play in perpetuating a racist status quo. The police are essentially the guard dogs of the elites, and the strong arm of the state – they are sworn to protect life and property, and in so doing criminalise and discriminate against those in poverty who do not have property. Institutionalised racism means that many black communities are poor, which results in higher levels of unemployment, violence and crime as people are forced into situations by necessity and lack of opportunities. Thus, when significant protest erupts against an unlawful killing, the state labels it ‘rioting’ and sends in the riot police. Ring any bells? This exact same thing happened in London in 2011 following the killing in Tottenham of Mark Duggan, an unarmed black man, in a community that has traditionally been relatively deprived, like Ferguson. Police violence is the ultimate abuse of power over socially and economically vulnerable or oppressed groups, and it is tolerated by the state because the state is run by elites, for elites. The shooting of innocent civilians, regardless of whether it is by a foreign government or your own, is a systematic waging of class warfare against the poorest members of society.

The situation in Ukraine is more complicated, but still involves the assertion of Russian authority over Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. No matter how much Vladimir Putin tries to convince us that the thousands of Russian troops that have reportedly joined separatist rebels have done so whilst off duty, it is clear that what world leaders, including Obama, are calling an “incursion” is almost certainly an underhand invasion. Russia’s combative stance speaks volumes; a territorial standoff and geopolitical wrangling whereby Russia re-asserts its waning power, reminding the West that the might and influence of the USSR has not diminished entirely.

All of the above represent an assertion of dominance by the powerful over the weak. ‘Weakness’ is here engendered by institutions, geopolitics or both. The prejudice of American law against young black men, and non-white communities in general, represents institutional oppression and structural violence committed against communities that are typecast, stereotyped and brutalised by an unrepresentative and largely white police force, whose job is to protect the state and elites. Post-curtain geopolitical dynamics, corruption and the erosion of Ukrainian institutions by ‘revolution’ have created a vulnerable state susceptible to meddling by power-hungry Tsars. The situation in Israel/Palestine is a combination of the two: institutionalised structural violence continues to oppress citizens, while international geopolitical institutions stand idly by and condone the situation. Israel is granted the green light by nations like the USA and UK who do not condemn their acts of barbarism, which evidently violate international law. Beyond that, they actively arm Israel, providing firearms, aircraft components and drones that are used to wage war against Gaza. Not only is this behaviour contemptible, it makes the leaders of such countries complicit in genocide.

Of course other sides are causing trouble too; Hamas fire deadly rockets, there is violence in black communities, and there is conflict on both sides in Ukraine. However, there is clear inequality between sides: Hamas have greatly inferior weaponry, and Israel has the backing of many international powers. The police in Ferguson have the weight of the state behind them. The disparity is apparent and it is clear that abuses of power are creating these problems. Not only do we need to redistribute resources, but also address the power imbalance at local, national and international levels.

Congo’s New Gold Rush

This is a feature piece I’ve written for the Global Section of Concrete this edition. I’m not looking forward to having to edit it down to fit in the paper.

Coltan. Tantalum. Cobalt. Sounds like things relevant to nobody except Walter White. Guess again; these precious minerals are in virtually every electronic device you can imagine – tantalum extracted from coltan is used to manufacture the capacitors that have mostly replaced platinum for use in smartphones, and cobalt is widely used in rechargeable lithium batteries. Most people in the UK probably use a device containing one of these minerals 20 times or more every day.

One of the largest deposits of cobalt is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and estimates of the coltan resource range between 64% and 80% of the global total. This has prompted a recent mining boom in DRC which has financed serious ethnic conflict and war.

Fighting in the so-called “coltan belt” dramatically increased at the beginning of the noughties, and metal mining has been linked to the Ituri conflict in 2002, when 3,000 civilians were massacred and virtually no international media outlets even reported on it. The profits from lucrative mines are seized by the militias and local warlords who control them, and the money is then used to finance military exercises, spurring violence and destruction across Congo. The government has been fighting the armed rebels for years, with new groups rising out of the woodwork whenever successful attempts are made to hold off conflict. The M23 rebels surrendered to a government offensive this month, signing a deal that will put an end to insurgency in the East that has continued since the end of the Second Congo War in 2003, and has included the widespread perpetration of war crimes. It is unlikely that this will have to be the last such deal.

Children are forcibly assimilated into these armies, becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol, and committing horrendous atrocities as a result of their desensitised attitudes towards other human beings. What is perhaps more alarming is that the horrors in Congo go largely unreported; 5.4 million people died during the war from 1998 to 2007, out of a total population of 69 million – that’s nearly 8% of all the people in the country. Fighting also displaces millions of people – 300,000 (equivalent to the population of Venice) fled the M23 army last April, and an estimated 2.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes since the Lord’s Resistance Army first surfaced in the late 1980s.

Congo is often called the “rape capital of the world”, following reports from NGOs like Human Rights Watch documenting the use of rape as a weapon of war; more recently a 2007 study estimated more than a million Congolese women have been raped once or more during their lifetime. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has seen an increasing number of sexual attacks committed on children between the ages of 8 and 17, with 13.3% under the age of 10 – girls are most at risk, while boys are in danger of recruitment into the ranks of rebel armies.

The situation can be traced back through Congo’s tumultuous colonial past, following Belgium’s land grab during the “scramble for Africa” from the late 1880s up until the outbreak of World War One. Belgian Congo was simply a source of raw materials for Belgium, and the plentiful natural resources there have been rapaciously exploited ever since colonisation. Insurrection following independence in 1960 carved out Congo’s military trajectory – Mobutu seized power by force, ruling for more than 30 years, until he was ousted following the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, and replaced by the puppet of Rwanda and Uganda, Laurent Kabila. The resulting war when they grew tired of their proxy and attempted to remove him is referred to as Africa’s First World War. Since then, the resulting free-for-all has allowed armed groups to seize control of mines in order to facilitate the mayhem with blood money from the sale of diamonds, gold, tin, tantalum and cobalt.

It is widely documented that corrupt government officials profit from the illegal spoils alongside the warring factions with de facto control over the mines. The slow progress in cleaning them up is having an effect on this illicit trade agreement, whereby government and rebel armies alike fund horrific brutality with appropriated minerals, growing fat off the profits while ordinary Congolese people die. The situation is perpetuated by underhand government funding to the rebels, providing them with weapons whilst visibly fighting them in the anarchic eastern provinces.

Recent attempts to disconnect the supply of essential minerals from warfare, such as the “no blood on my cell phone” campaign, leg by NGOs and religious institutions, called for a trade embargo on “blood tantalum”, drawing parallels with the successful campaign to raise awareness about blood diamonds. The phrase refers to diamonds mined in conflict areas and often used to finance the activities of warlords or insurgency, as was seen in the late 90s and early 00s in countries in West Africa, like Sierra Leone and Angola. So successful was the campaign to eradicate the sale of blood diamonds in the West that it prompted the creation of the film by the same name about the Sierra Leonian civil war from 1996 to 2001. However, the glamour of diamonds is not easily transferrable to a campaign about the sale of component materials present in items that are so extensively used in industrialised countries. Trying to get people to give up items which have become so firmly entrenched in our everyday lives as to make it unthinkable to live without them is going to be a hard-sell.

The corporations that benefit from the production of cheap blood tantalum know this only too well. Although some companies, like Motorola, HP and Intel, which manufacture everything from phones to computer microchips, have started to wean themselves off the habit, there are many who still profit from it, relying on our addiction to technology and our unwillingness to pay more for it.

New regulations to certify non-conflict minerals cost companies a significant amount above what it costs to buy whatever raw materials they can, at the lowest price. Intel employee Chuck Mulloy recently outlined in the National Geographic why the company has sacrificed some of their profits in the name of clean minerals: “we don’t want to support people who are raping, pillaging, and killing. It’s as simple as that”.

However, what seems simple on the surface may involve a much more complex array of factors – a six-month ban on mining and trading activities in Eastern Congo, imposed by the government towards the end of 2010, had devastating effects on the livelihoods of miners in the region. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, signed by Obama in summer 2010, was criticised for the same reasons – that it would force companies like Intel to boycott all mines and smelters that could not prove their conflict-free, or “green” credentials, thereby removing the livelihoods of tens of thousands of poor miners. This was the case for some time, although the growth of certified green mines and smelters, with a rubber-stamping guarantee system, has led to a resurgence in the mining of precious minerals, this time without the bloodstains.

Heightened awareness and some degree of consumer pressure has obviously led to some companies developing a conscience with regards to precious metals. The Fairphone is the first smartphone in which every component in the supply chain is guaranteed to be conflict-free, and aims to be environmentally and socially responsible in every aspect of its manufacture. 25,000 have already been sold, indicative of a growing concern among citizens of developed countries about atrocities committed in the name of technological progress in countries like Congo. Hopefully it will be soon that every phone you buy will be untainted with the blood and pain of Congo’s war.

America’s first climate refugees

Watch out America, this is only the beginning…

Grist

Sabrina Warner keeps having the same nightmare: a huge wave rearing up out of the water and crashing over her home, forcing her to swim for her life with her toddler son.

“I dream about the water coming in,” she said. The landscape in winter on the Bering Sea coast seems peaceful, the tidal wave of Warner’s nightmare trapped by snow and several feet of ice. But the calm is deceptive. Spring break-up will soon restore the Ninglick River to its full violent force.

In the dream, Warner climbs on to the roof of her small house. As the waters rise, she swims for higher ground: the village school which sits on 20-foot pilings.

Even that isn’t high enough. By the time Warner wakes, she is clinging to the roof of the school, desperate to be saved.

Warner’s vision is not far removed from a reality written by climate change…

View original post 2,395 more words

This is my attempt at being objective and diplomatic.

May first is symbolic in many ways. As well as representing the beginning of spring, it is International Workers’ Day, prompting demonstrations of solidarity across the world every year. This week was no different, with demonstrations taking place in the North America, Asia and Europe. Thousands of people took to the streets of cities like Bologna, Napoli and Madrid to protest against austerity measures and record levels of unemployment throughout Europe, which stands at 27% in Spain. Some demonstrations ended with frustration turning to violence, such as in Istanbul, where police used teargas and watercannon against protesters, who were said to have thrown stones and Molotov cocktails at police lines. Public and private sector strikes were called in Athens, bringing services like hospitals and banks to a standstill, and causing major disruption to transport services.

Similar scenes were seen in Seattle, the location of the 1999 ‘Battle of Seattle’ anti-globalisation demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation. Peaceful rallies of trades unions, students and labour activists marched throughout the day, but a small “non-permitted” demonstration caused damage to property during the evening, after the march. Police were quick to dispel the situation, with mayor Mike McGinn justifying their response by connecting the situation to the Boston bombings earlier this month, which is still fresh in the minds of many Americans.

The collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh earlier this week sparked May Day protests in Dhaka, where demonstrators demanded factory owners be held to account for the disaster which killed 402 people and injured around 2500.

May Day is a celebration of the strength and solidarity of workers all over the world, and many marches showed exactly that. The sporadic violence that erupted illustrated the anger and frustration felt by workers in exploitative situations such as in Dhaka, where workers were paid just £32 a month.