By any measure these are extraordinary times, revolutionary times in which a ‘new normal’ is evolving as existing systems and practices crumble. A clash of values and ideals is increasingly evident throughout the world, as we move deeper into this time of collective, planetary transition: a turning point from one chapter, age or civilization into another in which totally different ways of living are required to accommodate the new and allow healing to take place. As the past fights for survival and The New lights revolutionary fires in the hearts of men and women everywhere, humanity flounders, old certainties fracture, creating confusion and insecurity in how to live, challenging purpose and strongly held ideals.
Such a shift has occurred many times in our history, and if approached rationally, embraced whole-heartedly and not hindered, it could proceed with minimal upheaval. However, while huge numbers see the inadequacy of the existing methods and myths, and sense that something fundamental is taking place around and within, inhibiting habits of the past persist, attachment to the familiar and fear of change is strong, strengthening resistance, creating division and conflict: individually and collectively.
Crises gather apace, the most pressing of which is the interconnected environmental catastrophe; the Living Being upon which all life depends is chronically, some say terminally ill and virtually nothing is being done. It is a global catastrophe, vast and complex, one that demands the best of mankind, but is being met with two of the outstanding characteristics of the past – indifference and complacency. The ingrained tendency is to apply habitual problem solving strategies to the issues we face now; this is evident every day in the political sphere. And every day they not only fail, but, flowing from an outdated methodology and therefore having no relationship with the rhythm of the times, whatever the problem is, it is made more acute.
As the influence of the new increases in potency, contaminating characteristics of the past rise in defiance: tribal nationalism grows, material success and the importance of the individual over the group continue to be emphasized and encouraged. Such ideals have become institutionalized; they are imbedded into the socio-economic fabric, and have a certain innate momentum that keeps them afloat. Competition and commercialization are widely employed and have infiltrated all areas of life including education and health care; selfish patterns of behavior are proclaimed as natural tendencies, desire strengthened, exchanged for love, and pleasure adopted as the aim of life. It is from this perverse, but strongly held position that the demands of the times are being heard by many, particularly those in power – political and corporate – and from this bereft standpoint that response issues. Failure, and an intensification of suffering, then, is guaranteed.
Healing the planet, healing the socio-economic system(s), healing our communities and the individuals within them cannot be accomplished by the old ways – historic, habitual remedies rooted in division, manipulation and control. Not only are they the inflexible means that caused the chaos they are devoid of vitality, functioning as they do on nothing but the residue of the past. In contrast to the current predisposition to divide life up and see issues in isolation, a holistic approach to living and to the issues facing us is needed.
Total healing based upon recognition that the various centers of life and of communal living are interrelated is required. A pragmatic understanding that humanity, human society in all its diversity, man-made systems, the natural environment and the space between these constitute interrelated aspects, or expressions, within One Life. For there to be harmony within the whole, all division needs to come to an end; human exploitation of all aspects of life for profit, including the natural world and people, the desire to dominate and control have fuelled discord throughout all areas of life. Human beings are in a state of conflict within themselves, and by extension are out of synch with the whole; the result is discord, within and without.
Life is one integrated whole, but the patterns of the past, which echo so loudly through the present, are built on and promote division. For there to be harmony within the whole, including human beings, all division needs to come to an end. Ideas of separation have become normal, competition has become normal, selfishness and greed is seen as normal, natural even. Such attitudes and behavior may well be ‘normal’, i.e., commonplace, but they are far from natural: they are in fact completely unnatural, unhealthy, and are at the root of many of our problems. Separation runs contrary to the fact of our shared humanity and our inherent relationship with the Life within which we live. It sits at the poisonous core of our distrust and paranoia of the ‘other’, and has led to ecological vandalism on a global scale.
Separation is the product of a cultivated false way of thinking; life is a whole and humanity is one, we share a consciousness and a home, we are responsible for one another and we are all responsible for the natural world. Unity not division is the natural order of things, and is a thread of ‘the new’. We are part of that unity and if we are to facilitate total healing and act in harmony with purpose we need to design structures and ways of living, education systems, methods of governance, socio-economic models etc., that encourage trust, cultivates goodwill and bring people together.
Unity and sharing, cooperation, tolerance and understanding, these are the hallmarks of the times, the new ‘normal’. It is an approach and understanding that people all around the world share, particularly young people, many of whom quite naturally live in accordance with such principles, principles of goodness that have been carried in the heart of mankind for millennia, and now demand expression. This ‘new normal’ is a vision of life rooted in love, it is consistent with the rhythm of the day, which itself issues from love, and despite the resistance of what we might call the ‘old normal’, it is gathering pace and will become increasingly widespread.
The ‘old normal’ has had its day and is dying, the civilization that it built is collapsing, it cannot be adjusted, manipulated, remodeled to become anything other than what it is. The new will not emerge out of the old: the new is not the opposite of the old, it flows from an altogether different source, and as resistance gradually gives way to resignation, discord will begin to fade and the new will emerge in increasing potency.
This is an extraordinary time in Ethiopia’s history, a time of tremendous opportunity and hope. Long overdue reforms initiated by Prime-Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took office on 2nd April 2018, offer the prospect that democracy and social unity could at last become a reality in the country.
Before PM Ahmed took office Ethiopia was ruled by one of the most violent and repressive regimes in the world; freedom of the media, freedom of expression and assembly, political dissent and the judiciary, were all tightly controlled by the TPLF regime, which had been in power since 1991. Miraculously, all of this has now changed, and within a very short space of time, it offers hope not only for Ethiopia, but for the region and the wider world.
The new governments reform program has three main ‘pillars’ as they are called: 1. A vibrant democracy. 2. Economic vitality. 3. Regional integration and openness to the world. All very general and nothing extraordinary, but positive actions have followed and good will built. If democratic change can occur in Ethiopia it can take place anywhere, but, over and above the obvious elements, such as the observation of human rights, political pluralism, freedom of the media, independent judiciary etc., what should that change look like?
After undertaking a nationwide tour in which he stressed the need for forgiveness and reconciliation, PM Ahmed and his team swiftly began work. All exiled opposition parties were invited to return to Ethiopia and engage in dialogue, thousands of ‘political’ prisoners were released, including all journalists; the torture chamber known as Maekelawi Prison in Addis Ababa was closed, constitutional amendments were announced to limit the length of time anyone could hold the office of prime-minister, and the draconian state of emergency was lifted. The PM met the Eritrean president and began discussions to end the twenty-year conflict, and in a broader sign of how this cooperative approach is impacting on the region, the Djibouti and Somalia authorities have since held peace talks with Eritrea.
A series of historic actions followed: the military occupation of the Ogaden or Somali region has been brought to an end, all prisoners held in the notorious Jail Ogaden released and the prison closed down. A new regional president, Mustapha Omer, who was critical of the region’s authoritarian leadership, was appointed. A new cabinet was announced and gender parity established. Women now hold the two key security positions – defense and the Ministry of Peace, which oversees the police, the intelligence services and the information security agency. All this and more within months of assuming office. Remarkable by any standards. It shows what can be achieved if and when the political will exists.
While the new government attempts to build unity and social harmony, there are others, bitter remnants of the past that continue to work to aggravate ethnic divisions and ferment violence. As a result of inter-communal conflict there are estimated to be over two million internally displaced people in the country. Other than providing some humanitarian aid, the federal government has done nothing to relocate these people, whose homes have been destroyed. This is a national emergency and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
What kind of democracy?
Despite a decade of economic growth averaging 10% per annum, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world and ranks 173rd out of 186 countries on the UN Human Development Index. Around 26% of the population lives in extreme poverty (less than $2 a day), and a much larger percentage struggle to survive on under $5 a day. While the government claims that 50% of the population has been lifted out of dire poverty in recent years, the principle beneficiaries of growth have been those in high office and the already comfortable few. With growth the cost of living has rocketed, food, accommodation and transport prices have all increased dramatically, impacting on the poorest sections of society.
Whether in Ethiopia or elsewhere in the world, sharing is key to overcoming poverty and establishing social justice; sharing wealth, resources, skills and knowledge based on need. Sharing also cultivates trust, encourages cooperation and helps to build peaceful communities. Participation is a form of sharing and a cornerstone of democracy.
In addition to poverty, within the catalogue of challenges facing the new government, health care and education stand out, as well as environmental issues – Addis Ababa e.g. is the third most polluted city in Africa, after Cairo and Casablanca.
As Ethiopia enters into what Prime-Minister Ahmed describes as a ‘political renaissance’, the opportunity to discuss what kind of nation it wishes to become presents itself; what values and ideals should be pursued, what methods employed? In the demonstrations that brought down the previous regime protesters cried out for democracy, for freedom and justice. In response the government’s first reform ‘pillar’ calls for the creation of a ‘vibrant democracy’. What form should that democracy take?
The corporate state democracy of the west, in which political power is married to economic wealth, is a far cry from true democracy. While a level of freedom exists and, in some countries, civil society is strong, there is no social justice and participation by employees in the workplace, students in education and the general public in politics is weak or non-existent. Western democracy has been conditioned by government’s ideological devotion to an economic system rooted in competition and commercialization. It is a model that has failed the vast majority of people and poisoned the planet. True democratic values such as tolerance, sharing, understanding of others, cooperation and kindness, are incompatible with the ideals of the market – profit at any cost – human or environmental, separation, personal success, greed.
So, what type of democratic country do the people of Ethiopia and their government want to create, and, given the international pressure to conform to the economic stereotype, do they have any choice? Listening to the PM’s speech at the World Economic Forum it would appear not. He made clear his government’s intention to embrace the Neoliberal circus; he sounded more like the CEO of a medium-size electronics company looking for investors, rather than a national leader. Perhaps the audience conditioned his remarks, but there was no real vision, other than the usual economic ambitions; it was all disappointingly familiar.
Like all of sub-Saharan Africa the population of Ethiopia is young, the median age is just 18, around 60% of the country are under 25. More children are attending schools than ever and although Internet connectivity is poor and until recently access was heavily restricted, young people are in touch with the wider world in a way that was not possible for previous generations. Hundreds of thousands of under 25 year olds took part in public protests, which began in November 2015 and led to the collapse of the government. They risked their lives for change, they deserve more than a market led democracy.
This is a truly historic time for Ethiopia, general elections are scheduled to take place in 2020, between now and then the opportunity exists for a national debate to take place. For too long the people were silenced, now their voices must be heard. Platforms within the media – state and independent – in universities, schools and within the church, need to be established that allow the community as a whole and young people in particular, to express their views and share their aspirations for the future of their country and indeed the wider region.
We are living amongst the largest generation of young people in history; young people who are better educated, better informed and more widely connected than ever before. Around 42% of the world’s population is under 25 years of age, 25% are under 15 – that’s 1.8 billion. The largest group is in South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where the median age is only 19, compared to 38 in America, and an ageing 45 in Germany, Italy and other parts of Europe.
This huge army of young people is cause for great optimism; they are more politically and socially engaged and certainly more environmentally aware than previous generations, are less conditioned by ideologies, and despite the widespread notion that anyone under 35 is self-obsessed and uncaring, in many cases they are the ones leading the global charge for change. They abhor dishonesty, don’t trust politicians and rightly believe that unity and tolerance of others are essential to right relationships and social harmony.
Many feel frustrated at the state of the world they have been born into, are angry with inept politicians and unaccountable international institutions, and enraged at the environmental vandalism that is taking place throughout the world. Anger and disillusionment has led to committed engagement among large numbers of young people throughout the world; they swell the ranks of the global protest movement forming the vanguard at demonstrations for action on climate change, demanding social justice and freedom, rational changes in US gun law and an end to austerity and economic injustice.
They formed the driving force behind what were arguably the two most significant social/political movements in recent years: the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, and whereas in the past young people have been less engaged than older generations in voting and party activism, this too is changing – in Britain, for example, the Labour party, with an overall membership of 504,000 – the largest in Europe, has over 100,000 members under 25, and they are extremely active.
As well as demonstrating, working on environmental campaigns and human rights issues the impulse to contribute to the local community is strong, and many act upon it: a survey made by the Royal Society of Arts in Britain found that a staggering “84 percent of young people want to help others,” and that “68 percent of young people have participated in volunteering or other forms of social action.” These statistics reflect the high level of social responsibility that exists in countries throughout the world amongst this generation. The study also revealed that whilst there is a strong desire to bring about large scale change, working locally to support someone in need – befriending, or helping an elderly person with their shopping for example – is recognized to be of enormous value.
It is a generation brought up with social media and, according to The Millennial Impact Project, they use it alongside traditional forms of participation. Millennial’s “interest in the greater good is driving their cause engagement today, and their activism (or whatever you want to call it) is increasing.”
Inspired and Inspiring
Appalled by the level of inaction and the scale of the crisis, large numbers of young people have committed themselves to the environmental cause. One of the most inspirational forms of climate change activism is the Schools Strike for the Climate initiated by 15-year-old Greta Thunberg. Following a record-breaking summer, in August 2018 Greta began a solo protest for climate change outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm. Every Friday since, instead of going to school she sits outside her country’s parliament: she has vowed to “continue to do so until [world] leaders come into line with the Paris agreement [on climate change].”
Apathy is often disguised by arguments of individual inadequacy in the face of the scale of the problems confronting humanity. Well, a loud answer to such feeble excuses is Greta Thunberg’s one-girl protest; following her example hundreds of thousands of school children around the world have staged their own School Strike for the Climate. Although all teaching bodies should support the actions, some don’t, and whilst disappointing, their view is largely irrelevant, what matters is that teachers, along with politicians, big business and the general public pays attention to what these young people are saying: keep fossil fuels in the ground, invest in renewables, live environmentally conscientious lives; it is our future you are destroying, act now before it’s too late.
The man-made environmental crisis is the result of a certain way of life, an approach to living that places enormous value on material wealth, on image, pleasure and success. It is, we are told, a ‘dog eat dog’ world in which only the ‘strong’ survive. This fear inducing view has polluted life, fuelling social division and widespread mental health conditions, particularly amongst under 25 year olds. In November 2017 the World Youth Parliament met in Beijing to discuss, ‘Interpersonal Relationships: Keys for a new Civilization’.
In their conference report they call for the creation of a kinder, friendlier society. They extol forgiveness, which they describe as the “most sublime and integral form of love” and make clear their view that the current “competitive culture (which places our goals against the goals of others) and the wrong use of technology” is detrimental to human well being. And they should know: as a result of the ‘competitive culture’ and the pressure to ‘achieve’ – in education, in a career and socially – unprecedented numbers of young people are suffering from anxiety and stress, panic attacks and depression, leading some to self-harm and suicide.
Despite being conditioned into competition by an outdated education system, which is designed to train compliant workers, not free-thinking creative individuals, young people instinctively recognize that cooperation, not competition is an integral part of human nature, and that working collectively for the common good is the best way of dealing with the many challenges facing humanity. It is in fact the only way we will overcome the various crises confronting us; unity is the way forward and young people know this.
The future belongs to the 3 billion or so under 25 year olds of the world, many of whom are inspired and inspiring. If we are to collectively overcome the challenges facing humanity we need to listen to what young people have to say, to draw on their energy and dynamism; they are in tune with the times, are overflowing with creativity and are a powerful voice for change.
With each day that passes the conflict and animosity between the conservative reactionary forces and the global movement for progressive change becomes more acute, uglier and increasingly dangerous; wherever one looks in the world the battleground between groups on either side of the divide rages. In essence it is a battle of values and ideas, of what kind of society we want to live in, but as the extremes, particularly those on what is commonly called the ‘right’, assert themselves, the space for rational, open debate is being crushed and a febrile intolerant atmosphere fueled.
Decades of systemic failure, environmental vandalism and social injustice have caused widespread discontent and anger among people in many countries, injustice made more severe by policies of crippling austerity following the 2008 banking crash. Among the 38 members of the wealthy OECD nations it is said that 50% of the population feel disenchanted with the political-economic system.
Consistent with the times we are living in – times in which the forces of the past are receding and the energies of the new are increasing in potency, the reaction to such discontent has been polarized. While large numbers of people recognize systemic change is needed and are calling for greater levels of cooperation between people and nations, others, in many cases equally great in numbers, blame external forces and immigration, and retreat into a narrow form of nationalism, seeking security.
Antagonisms have been enflamed by politicians who either fail to understand the impact of their poisonous rhetoric or simply don’t care what effect they have. The resulting political divisions are acute and, in many cases, compromise between groups on either side of the debate appears impossible as, for example, the government shut down in America and the Brexit deadlock demonstrate. Brexit has become the burning issue of conflict in the UK, fueling fractious, volatile political debate and entrenched national divisions. As one pro-EU protestor told The Observer, “this is civil war without the muskets…it is appalling.”
Throughout Europe and America a huge increase in hate crimes against immigrants and other groups is one of the consequences of these tensions, as is distrust of the mainstream media and the abuse of MPs, particularly of women: a report (surveying 55 female MPs from 39 countries) from the Inter-Parliamentary Union reveals that 44.4% of all women elected to office have received threats of either “death, rape, beatings and/or abductions.” In Britain, the BBC relates that, “Labour MP Jess Phillips said in one night she received 600 rape threats and was threatened with violence and aggression every day.” Other female members of parliament in the UK, especially those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, have consistently been the victims of such disturbing attacks, and on the 7th January online abuse spilled on to the streets when MP Anna Soubry, a pro-Europe member of the Conservative party, was verbally attacked and physically intimidated by a group of far right activists who support the UK leaving the European Union. The men surrounded her outside the House of Commons, called her a ‘Fascist’ and a ‘Nazi’, and blocked her way as she tried to enter Parliament; these men are “not protestors” said Soubry, “they are thugs.” And, as the murder of the MP Jo Cox on 16th June 2016 so tragically showed, in the hands of such people, vile words can easily become violent actions.
Such intolerance and hate flows from fear and ignorance, both of which are constantly agitated by misinformation. People increasingly live in like-minded bubbles, their views – no matter how extreme – are constantly reinforced by what they choose to read and watch and who they listen to; alternative positions remain unheard, balance denied. As one right-wing protestor, who supports a plethora of conspiracy theories, told the Observer, “I find news the way I need to find it…if I can get it from a family member then that’s it…The country should prepare for riots,” he says. “They can’t expect the people to be law-abiding citizens when government is as corrupt as it is. All them people in here [inside Parliament] are getting paid backhanders all the way through the system.”
This level of suspicion makes discussion, cooperation and compromise impossible, divisions inevitable, leading potentially to conflict. Walls are erected, some constructed from steel or concrete, others, perhaps even more dangerous, made up of prejudice and distrust. Both strengthen isolation and deepen divisions, nationally and globally, which makes dealing with any type of global crisis, e.g. a pandemic or economic crash, a greater risk than would otherwise be the case.
The polarization of politics and large numbers of the public has come about as a result of the enormous resistance to fundamental change that has been consistently shown by weak politicians of all colors; this inability to respond to the demands of the times has created great uncertainty. The longer change is resisted, and the ways of the past are perpetuated, the more intense the divisions and insecurities will become.
It is the conservative-leaning political parties, institutions and corporations of the world that are most firmly attached to the existing systems and modes of living. And despite the fact that the prevailing socio-economic order has fueled unprecedented levels of inequality, concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population and trapped working class people in economic uncertainty and in many cases poverty, it is this very demographic that is energizing the reactionary groups that are working to maintain the status-quo.
The toxic movement towards isolation, intolerance and division is a crystallized fearful response to the unstoppable current of change that is sweeping the world, and the determination by those who have benefited from the current systems to resist change at all costs.
Every age has its own specific qualities; the last two thousand years or so have seen the emergence of individuality on a mass scale, of which tribal nationalism is an extreme and negative form of expression. Individuality is a most valuable and positive quality, but when, as is often the case, it is expressed as selfishness, and self-centered activity it becomes destructive. In order to breach the prevailing divisions and overcome the various crises facing humanity the strengths of the individual, the diversity and beauty of people and nations needs to be placed at the service of the wider community, and not simply used for the benefit of the individual or the particular country.
Building on from the achievement of mass individuality the key ideals of this time and the age that stretches before us are unity, cooperation and tolerance; such qualities necessitate and encourage a shift away from a narrow ‘me first’ approach to living to an awareness and responsibility for society more broadly and the natural world. Sharing is the essential element in the manifestation of such Principles of Goodness, by it expression trust is cultivated, and where trust exists barriers break down.
In December 2018 David Runciman, Head of Politics at Cambridge University, made the radical proposal that children as young as six should be allowed to vote in elections to deal with the age bias in contemporary democracies. Allowing children to vote he said, would give a ‘jolt of energy’ to democracy. While the thought of six year olds voting sounds extreme and will no doubt be broadly dismissed, there is a strong democratic argument for lowering the eligible age from 18, which is the standard voting age in most countries and allowing children to vote.
In response to Professor Runciman’s suggestion The Guardian newspaper asked a group of children “aged 6-12 what [political] policies would get their vote.” Their intelligent, straightforward answers are inspiring and in accord with the views of many of us. Freed from ideology and party politics these children see the issues clearly and speak in an unencumbered way, direct from the heart.
Thomas Atkinson is 10 and lives in Belfast. “The other day I saw someone sitting on the pavement. He looked about 20. Why is that happening? He needs a job and a home – and there are so many jobs that need doing. Like, for example, the environmental problems. There is plastic on the beaches all around Bangor. We need people to clear that.” Petra Pekarik is 11 and lives in London. She is a Hungarian citizen – “it doesn’t make sense to me that Britain is putting up barriers. I feel the opposite should be happening, and we should be taking barriers away.” She says that in school they talk a lot about fairness, but in society “there are some people who are so special, and other people who don’t even have a home. Sometimes I see people living on the street and I think, why are they there? It’s important because we are all the same: these people aren’t different, they’re people. We are all people.” And Tom Ashworth, who is 9 and lives in Ambleside: “Climate change is the big issue politicians need to work on…. We can’t just let this happen and do nothing – it’s got to be stopped. We have to stop doing the things that cause climate change. It’s really important right now…. We need to stop wasting food and everything else we’re wasting.” The only six-year-old spoken to, Wilfie Tudor-Wills from London, said that, “there should be more houses in London. There are a lot of people in this city and they need places to live…. there should be less pollution, because it’s bad for your lungs.” And, given the chance to speak to the UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, he would “tell her to get more people to have electric cars because they’re better for the world. And also I’d like there to be more parks.”
The other children who were questioned gave answers that are just as insightful, but the views of these children, like all children their age go largely unheard. Children under 18 are commonly, and as these children’s comments demonstrate, mistakenly, thought to lack the understanding to participate in current affairs and as a result are denied the most basic democratic right, that of voting in an election; be it local or national. But at 18, everything changes; it is apparently the age when adulthood begins and with it full citizenship. Previously it was 21.
The arguments for excluding children from voting echo those trotted out in the past to ban other groups – women and people of color e.g. They are usually based on the idea that children are intellectually incapable of understanding the issues, are politically apathetic, and that, lacking a mind of their own, they will simply vote for the same candidate/party as their parents. This facile point was used to justify denying women the vote, only in that particular statement of prejudice, it was husbands not parents who it was said would determine the woman’s choice, because, like children, women cannot, or could not, think for themselves! Even if a child does vote in the same way as their parents, as indeed many over 18s do, it does not invalidate the ‘one person one vote’ system and is not a reason to deny him or her the opportunity to participate.
In countries or cities where 16 year-olds have been allowed to vote these justifications of exclusion have proven to be hollow.. Multiple studies show the younger first-time voters are, the greater their participation: The Washington Postrelated the example of Takoma Park, the first city in America to lower the voting age to 16 (in 2013), where “16 – 17 year olds voted at twice the rate of the voting population.” In the 2016 Scottish Independence referendum 16 year olds were given the vote; they were actively involved in debates and 75% of those eligible to vote actually did so, 20% higher than 18 – 24 year olds. Support for early enfranchisement among the population at large also increased after the referendum – from around a third to 60%. The voting age in Scotland has since been lowered to 16 for all elections.
Whether 16 year olds, or anyone else for that matter, who are given the right to vote actually do so or not, however, should not be regarded as a reason to grant or withhold that right. In most general elections in the UK for example, an average of only 65% of those on the electoral register actually vote, and this is broadly the case in other western democracies.
Young people overwhelmingly support progressive liberal parties; they reject nationalism, embrace people from other countries and are often in the forefront of the environmental movement and calls for social justice. I suggest it is this knowledge that motivates conservative leaning groups of all kinds to resist lowering the voting age.
If representative democracy is to become truly reflective the maximum level of participation by the largest number and broadest range of people needs to be facilitated and encouraged, and this not just in the political sphere, but in all areas of contemporary life. In countries where the voting age has been kept at 18, a huge percentage of the population has no voice of their own; in Britain, which has an ageing population that’s approximately 17 million young people. This is wholly un-democratic and needs to change.
The concerns and views of young people must be heard, acknowledged and acted upon and they should be granted that most rudimentary of democratic rights – the right to vote. The discussion should be focused on what level to lower the voting age to, not whether it should be reduced. The suggestion by Prof David Runciman that children as young as six should be allowed to vote does indeed seem extreme, particularly in a single step, the age most widely proposed is 16; a process of incremental changes, which can be reviewed, may be most fruitful and children themselves should be engaged in the debate.
Democracy is participation: not only should children be allowed to vote in elections of all kinds, they should have an active role in the management of schools and colleges and the composition of the educational curriculum. Facilitating such participation would not only encourage broader social responsibility amongst young people, it would enrich and strengthen democracy itself.
Ask any reasonably well-informed person what the cause of climate change is and the chances are they will say greenhouse gas emissions (GGE’s), but they would only be partially correct. While it is true that man-made GGE’s are clogging Earth’s lower atmosphere, trapping heat and resulting in widespread climate change, the underlying 21st century cause, in contrast to the 19th and early 20th century when information was scarce, is something much more personal and lethal: complacency. Widespread complacency among politicians, big business and to a lesser degree, the general public, is the reason why, despite the various cries for restraint, global GGE’s continue to increase.
Complacency is why air pollution is getting worse in cities and towns across the world, leading to a range of health problems and premature deaths; complacency has caused the destruction of the planet’s rain forests, 85% of which have been lost through human activity, and it’s why the oceans have been poisoned and robbed of fish. Complacency is fueling the greatest extinction of animal and plant species in our history, it’s setting forests alight, filling the oceans and rivers with plastics and other pollutants, and is the reason why the ice mass in the North Pole is melting at unprecedented rates, leading to rising sea levels, flooding and the erosion of land, destroying homes and natural habitats, taking lives, displacing people – potentially millions.
It is complacency, which a wise man once described as the root of all evil, that is causing all of this and more – the ‘I’m all right Jack’ mentality’. And no matter how many reports are published and forecasts made, or how often someone speaks or writes about what is the greatest crisis in human history, few listen, even fewer act and nothing substantive changes, certainly nothing that matches the scale of the catastrophe. Do people even know there is a crisis, really? The level of apathy amongst governments and corporate power beggars belief, as does the lack of coverage in mainstream media, such as the BBC. Environmental issues should be headline news every single day, but scan the websites and publications of the mass media and the environment is barely mentioned.
Complacency is reinforced by greed and ignorance, greed for limitless profits, short-term gain and material comfort and ignorance of the scale, range and urgency of the crisis, and of the connection between lifestyle and environmental ruin. The fact that animal agriculture is responsible for more GGE’s than any other sector, for example, is not common knowledge, and when it is known, changes in behavior, where they occur at all, are slow. Cutting out meat, fish and dairy reduces a person’s individual GGE’s more than any other single factor. In a positive sign, and for a range of reasons, more people than ever are adopting a vegan diet, particularly in Europe and America. But globally 90% of the population continues to eat animal produce, and this needs to dramatically change. Dissipating ignorance and cultivating greater awareness is badly needed; to this end, a coordinated public information program is needed throughout the world; this is a worldwide crisis and, as all those working in the area know, it requires a unified ‘Environment First’ response.
S.O.P.: Save Our Planet
Restoring the planet to health is the major need of the time; together with a shift in lifestyles, this requires economic systemic change and a reorientation of political priorities. Knowing there is an environmental crisis, claiming to be concerned but doing little or nothing is pure hypocrisy; to their utter shame the vast majority of politicians are environmental hypocrites; weak and devoid of vision, they constitute the very embodiment of complacency; they are indebted to big business and have repeatedly shown that they cannot be relied on to initiate the radical policies needed to keep fossil fuels in the ground and repair the environmental carnage mankind has caused.
The number one priority of governments around the world is ‘the economy’. This is the sacred cow around which they tiptoe and to whom they make their reverential offerings in the hope of being blessed by limitless economic growth, no matter the environmental cost. Where they exist at all, Government policies to reduce GGE’s are designed and limited by the impact they will have on economic development; as such they remain totally inadequate.
Development takes place within the constructs of an unjust system that is dependent on constant consumption, encourages greed, produces huge quantities of waste, and is maintained by the relentless agitation of desire. These thoroughly negative elements work to the detriment of human beings and are the driving impulses behind behavior that has led to and is perpetuating the environmental crisis. The system demands that irresponsible consumption not only continues, but deepens and expands into areas of the world hitherto relatively untouched by its poison; it obstructs environmentally responsible policies and lacks the flexibility required to face the challenges, certainly within the time-scale needed if the planet is to be restored to health. Given these facts, the only sane, rational solution is to change the system to one that allows for an urgent meaningful response: a sustainable and just system based on altogether different principles and reasons for being. Neo-liberalism is not a living organism without alternatives, as some devotees of mammon would have us believe: it is a man-made structure and can therefore be redesigned to meet the urgent social and environmental needs of the time.
Systemic change and shifts in government policy will not just happen by themselves, it is up to all of us to demand that the environment becomes the number one priority for governments across the world. At the same time, we all need to examine how we live and ensure that we do so in a way that is determined, first and foremost, by environmental considerations – not by pleasure, convenience and comfort, as is often the case, but by love, for living in an environmentally responsible way is an act of love.
The decisions we make today and in the coming years will affect life on Earth for thousands of years to come. Sacrifices and the breaking of habits are required and within the spirit of collective individual responsibility these should be gladly accepted. Every political, business and lifestyle decision needs to be taken with an understanding of how it affects the environment, and a simple question posed: ‘will this action add to or reduce GGE’s’? If it will increase them, then don’t do it.
Consider how you get around: do you really need that fossil-fueled car (private ownership of cars needs to be drastically reduced, particularly in cities)? What you buy and who you shop with, who supplies your energy and does it come from renewable sources? Where you go on holiday and can you avoid flying and go by train or bus? If not, go somewhere else. What do you eat? If your diet is based on animal produce then reduce your intake. Shop based on need, buy secondhand, limit how often you wash clothing, reduce waste, boycott environmentally abusive companies, write to your political representatives, call for a national public information program; live responsibly and encourage family and friends to do likewise.
Complacency, apathy and hypocrisy coalesce to form the most noxious causes of climate change and environmental vandalism, and until this Trinity of Destruction is overcome, and the crisis is taken seriously by the political class, corporations and the public at large, nothing substantive will take place; and unless fundamental change occurs, and urgently, life on Earth will become increasingly uncomfortable, ecosystems will continue to collapse, and one dark day, in the very near future, it will be too late. The Shroud of Complacency needs to be thrown off now, today, and widespread action rooted in environmental awareness initiated; where there is concerted, sustained action therein lies hope.
“I started carrying a knife aged 12…when I’ve got this [samurai sword] with me I feel safe, scare tactics init – the bigger [the knife] the better…No one breaks the cycle round here – the cycle never breaks.” A teenager in Liverpool made these statements to the BBC. ‘The cycle’ is an ugly pattern of petty disputes, escalation, violence and revenge, a brutal cycle that is destroying the lives of thousands of young people in Britain.
There is something fundamentally wrong with a society when children feel they have to carry deadly weapons in order to protect themselves.
In the year ending March 2018, according to Government figures, there were 40,100 “offences involving a knife or sharp object” in England and Wales, including 285 deaths – a record number. London has seen the highest levels of knife crime in the country; there were 14,700 attacks and half of all homicides by knife took place in the capital.
Such shocking statistics highlight the crisis, suggest patterns and correlations, but reveal little of the root causes; generalizations are riddled with errors and all too often strategies focus on the effects rather than the impelling causes, which pertain to the psychological environment and the collective atmosphere within which people are living, as well as circumstantial conditions.
Trivial disputes, fatal consequences
Victims and perpetrators of knife crime are overwhelmingly young men under 25, many are children, some as young as 12; they come from disadvantaged, poor backgrounds, with few opportunities and little support; absent Fathers are common and drugs are a factor, selling and using. It is a social issue relating more to class than race, although in London the victims are overwhelmingly black, further muddying the waters for those looking for answers within the sea of statistics.
What makes anyone, let alone a child, carry a knife; what leads him to use it and how can it be stopped?
Fear is it seems a major factor, fear of being attacked and the need, or perceived need for protection; the danger is if you’re carrying a weapon and you’re confronted, there is a temptation to use it. Awez Khan, 17, the Birmingham representative of the youth parliament, part of the British Youth Council, toldThe Guardian, “I know a lot of people who carry knives. A lot of it is paranoia and fear for their life…they don’t know when they might die and they have to defend themselves. It’s a kill-or-be-killed situation.” In the past knife crime was often a gang-related issue, but while this persists to a degree, police estimate that now “75% of those caught have no connection to gangs.”
Some attacks are unprovoked random acts of violence, which occasionally lead to death or life changing injuries, lives destroyed, families shattered. In other cases, perhaps the highest percentage, petty arguments escalate and quickly become violent feuds, with neither individual backing down for fear of being seen to be weak, and, whereas in days gone by the result might have been a fist fight, now it can lead to a stabbing. Within this category, “social media plays the biggest part”; insults are posted, taunting, denigrating friends, girlfriends or family members; images of weapons, filmed footage of violence, sometimes as it happens, is shared with friends of the victim; cyber bullying that spills over onto the streets within minutes, leading in some cases to loss of life. “A febrile online atmosphere was among factors responsible for rising knife crime, states Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick in The Times newspaper …“social media sites are driving children to commit violence and murders, within minutes…trivial disputes between young people were escalating into murder and stabbings at unprecedented rates.”
According to the Met Commissioner, many children carrying knives had been excluded from school, and “are people who have suffered some kind of adverse experience of a significant sort when they are young, and/or have limited or problematic family lives and parenting – all things that can lead to other negative outcomes, not just serious violence.” The lack of a positive male role model was a consistent factor; many young men, she said, were simply “looking to be loved”.
The risk of a custodial sentence (average four years) is not a deterrent; the majority don’t get caught and as 15 year old Dontae, from south-east London related to the BBC, “people are not scared of jail, [they] would rather risk it than actually get hurt by the weapon itself.” The police are viewed with suspicion or outright hostility and it’s rare that someone will share information relating to an attack with the police: they don’t trust the authorities, don’t want to be seen as a snitch and have no faith in the judicial system. Justice is seen as payback: “My justice is revenge,” a balaclava wearing teenager in south-east London told Channel 4 documentary, On a Knifes’ Edge. Anger, hate, retribution is the pattern of the streets, and underlying this madness is fear and mistrust.
Stop and Search tactics are used by the Police to take knives off the streets; figures suggest this approach can be effective, but most weapons go undetected and there are not enough police on the streets. Under the government’s austerity program, which is a cruel ideological attack on the poor, police budgets have been cut by 20% since 2010, resulting in the loss of around 21,000 officers. Adult and child social care has also been dramatically reduced, benefits have been effected and according to the Department of Education spending on youth services, clubs, community centers after-school facilities etc. has been slashed by a third since 2016. Such savage cuts inevitably have the biggest impact on the most disadvantaged families: it is not by chance that increases in knife crime have coincided with the reduction in services.
‘When there is fear there is no love’
Violence of all kinds is a social problem – a ‘public health’ issue, not simply a criminal activity; it demands early intervention, identifying children who are potentially at risk of falling into crime and providing them with the support they need to ensure they don’t go down a destructive path, and a unified ‘joined-up’ approach with all services cooperating.
This entails sensitive understanding of a person’s life, his/her home environment, mental health, community and education as well as drug/alcohol use/dependency. “We are all committed to the notion that prevention is better than enforcement,” says Commissioner Dick, “which is, after all, the public health approach.” For such an approach to succeed though, it needs investment, not reductions, in social services, education, housing and health care.
A holistic methodology is essential if knife crime in Britain, like violent crime everywhere, is to be reduced and stopped, but if we are to create lasting harmony within society, nationally and globally, underlying causes and the interconnected nature of life need to be better understood.
Violence is the external expression of internal conflict; the key therefore to establishing peace within our world lies in identifying and removing the factors that feed discord – the psychological/sociological conditioning, false values and divisive ideologies.
Harmony within society rests upon there being a degree of inner contentment within those that make up any given community; ‘peace of mind’, according to the Dalai Lama “comes from warm heartedness, this reduces ill-feeling towards others, and reduces distrust.” ‘Warm heartedness’ is a feeling of affection towards others; like cooperation and tolerance, it is a natural part of our shared humanity and spontaneously arises when we move away from self-centered thinking and concern ourselves with the needs of others. When you “help others you get happiness, inner strength and purpose of life.”
Within the construct of contemporary society there are a variety of elements that work against our innate inclinations for the good, and serve to aggravate adverse tendencies like discontent, greed and fear. There is tremendous social injustice: wealth and income inequality, as well as inequality of opportunity, access to culture and influence. Comparison and competition have infiltrated all areas of society and are major negative factors; as His Holiness says, “society based on competition and material satisfaction cultivates fear, and when there is fear there is no love,” and without love the door is open to all that corrupts and poisons a human being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, love is the key to peace of mind and harmonious living; not sentimental or romantic love, but love as that most vibrant force for good, love expressed as sharing, as tolerance, as cooperation, as friendship; “friendship is essential, with friendship comes trust” and where there is trust community can be built, fear dispelled and peace made manifest.
Change, discontent and uncertainty are some of the most prominent characteristics of the times. These interconnected terms are routinely used to describe global affairs and are key factors animating the global protest movement as well as the growing tide of nationalism. Both movements arise from the same seed, one is progressive and in harmony with the new, the other is of the past and seeks to obstruct and divide.
These are transitional times, as humanity moves out of one civilization imbued with certain ideals, values and beliefs to a new way of living based on altogether different principles; times of unease and insecurity certainly, but also times of great hope and opportunity.
If humanity is to progress and the natural environment is to survive, fundamental change in the way life is lived is essential; systemic change as well as an accelerated shift in attitudes and values. Many people throughout the world recognize this and are advocating such a shift; those in power – political and corporate – reject such demands and do all they can to maintain the status quo and perpetuate the existing unjust systems. Despite this entrenched resistance, the new cannot be held at bay for much longer: change is coming, the question is when, how and with what impact it will occur, not if.
Widespread uncertainty is in part the result of this sustained intransigence, coupled with the instability within the socio-economic systems, which are in a state of terminal decay; fuelled by the past, they are carcasses – forms without life. The pervading uncertainty is being exploited by the reactionary forces of the world; powerful forces using fear to manipulate people and drum-up what we might call tribal nationalism, as opposed to civic nationalism, in order to assert themselves, and in many countries they appear to be in the ascendency.
The current explosion of tribal nationalism or right-wing populism is a crude response to worries about immigration and national identity, coupled with genuine social injustices including economic hardship and unemployment. Throughout the world right-wing groups with protectionist economic policies and anti-immigration views continue to gain support and in some cases win power. The loudest sign of this regressive trend wasthe election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. His nationalistic, ‘America First’ message fuels intolerance and division and encourages national or self- interest. It casts a shadow of suspicion over foreigners, particularly those that think, live and pray differently, and it is by nature inward looking and brittle.
Strengthened by Trump’s election, far right and ultra conservative politicians in other countries have flourished.Throughout Europe right-wing and far right parties have been empowered: Prime-Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary (who has repeatedly called for an end to ‘liberal democracies’ in Europe); President Recep Erdoğan in Turkey who has attacked the media, centralized power and is pursuing a form of Islamic nationalism; the Law and Justice government in Poland; Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister; The Freedom Party in Austria; Jair Bolsonaro the newly elected President of Brazil and Prime-Minister Narendra Modi of India. And in Russia, accordingto a series of studies conducted by the Research Council of Norway, “nationalism has been growing since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1990-1991), along with attempts by the regime to commandeer it.
These political parties, and others, have adopted what The Economist statesis “a pessimistic view that foreign affairs are often a zero-sum game in which global interests compete with national ones. It is a big change that makes for a more dangerous world.” The Brexit vote (52% voted leave, 48% remain in the 2016 referendum) in the UK was another example of how right-wing politicians manipulated a disgruntled populous by inflaming nationalistic sentiment and intolerance. The vote to leave was in many ways a protest vote – a negative vote – largely against freedom of movement of people from Europe, i.e. against immigration. Duplicitous advocates of leaving the European Union, mainly from the Conservative and UKIP parties, used slogans like ‘taking back control’ and taking ‘our country back’ to win support for their campaign. Consistent with the response in other countries many who were won over by the nationalists agenda and voted to leave where over 60 years of age; young people (those under 30) who will feel the impact of leaving most, commonly see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ and overwhelmingly voted to remain part of the EU.
Tribal nationalism plays on notions of identity, encouraging allegiance to a national and in some cases racial ideal; national bonds of belonging and personal identity rooted in the nation state are fostered, and in a world in which many people, particularly older individuals, experience a fragmented sense of self and a national feeling of loss, such ideals appear comforting, offering a sense of belonging. But far from creating security this type of nationalism (like all forms of conditioned constructs) isolates and excludes, strengthening false notions of superiority and inferiority, creating an atmosphere of distrust, and establishing a climate in which fear can flourish.
Images of self which are rooted in any form of ideology (religious, political, racial, etc.), imprison and divide, feeding intolerance and division. All of which is in opposition to the movement and tone of the time, which is towards greater levels of cooperation, tolerance and understanding of others. Within the paradigm of Tribal Nationalism ‘the other’, other nations as well as people from other nations, are seen as a threat, as rivals, and are viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. When outsiders are described in inflammatory terms , such as ‘murderers’, ‘rapists’ and people who ‘infest’ the pristine nation, fear and anger is facilitated, violence legitimised and a process of dehumanisation of ‘the other’ set in motion. And, as history shows when this takes place unbridled atrocities are perpetuated.
Civic nationalism on the other hand brings the people of a particular nation together around common values to work for the good of the community. It encourages cooperation, tolerance and sharing and can serve as a stepping stone to global responsibility; collective action in which the skills, gifts and abilities of the individual nations of the world are used for the benefit and enrichment of all, and not just for the nation state. Conversely, tribal nationalism is tied to the old ways of competition and suspicion, it is a dangerous ideology which is being cynically employed by right-wing politicians, who see widespread public discontent as an opportunity to manipulate the argument and gain power. It is of the past, is detrimental to human development and has no place in our world.
As any child will tell you, beyond national constructs, beyond racial and tribal identities, humanity is one, diverse but part of a single unity. We are moving into a time when this essential fact will be the guiding principle of human affairs.
Under the suffocating shadow of economic austerity, homelessness in Britain is increasing, poverty and inequality deepening. Since the Conservative party came to power via a coalition government in 2010, then as a minority government in 2015, homelessness has risen exponentially.
Whilst it is impossible to collect precise statistics on homelessness, these widely available figures, which exclude the ‘hidden homeless’, paint a stark picture of the growing crisis: In 2010 1,768 people were recorded as sleeping rough, whilst 48,000 households were living in temporary accommodation. By December 2017, according to A Public Accounts Committee report, there were almost 9,000 rough sleepers, and, The Guardian states, “nearly 76,000 households were living in emergency temporary accommodation such as bed and breakfasts, of which 60,000 were families with children or pregnant mothers” – an increase of 58% on the 2010 figures.
Whilst someone rough sleeping in a doorway is a loud and painful declaration of homelessness, a person is also regarded as homeless if they are staying with family or friends or ‘sofa surfing’ (the ‘hidden homeless’), as well those living in temporary accommodation provided by a local authority. Councils have a legal duty to house certain people – such as pregnant women, parents with dependent children and people considered vulnerable (single people rarely qualify). If, after investigating a case, the council concludes they do not have a legal duty to provide housing, nothing permanent is offered and the temporary accommodation is withdrawn. The only option then is to find somewhere in the private sector, which is becoming increasingly difficult in many parts of the country, including rural towns as well as London and other major cities. Rents (and deposits) are high and landlords are more and more demanding, refusing to rent to people on state benefits, often asking for a guarantor and only offering Assured Shorthold Tenancies (AST).
The Thatcher government introduced AST’s as part of the Housing Act of 1988, prior to which fair rents (as opposed to market rents) and protected tenancies existed, providing a high level of security of tenure. The Thatcher legislation changed all that; AST’s (usually six months) provide virtually no security to the tenant and, in line with the maxim of the market, set no limit on the level of the rent. Consequentially most landlords charge as much as they can get, many do not properly maintain the property, and are within their rights to raise rents and take possession of the property whenever they feel like it. The ending of an AST is now one of the most common causes of homelessness.
Austerity and Homelessness
Those in receipt of state benefits or on a low income can claim housing benefit (HB), which is paid by local authorities to help with rent payments. In 2010, shocked by the national HB bill, the coalition government initiated reforms to the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) for tenants in ‘the deregulated private rented sector’ – the key word here is deregulated. Within broader public spending cuts the policy changes set a cap on the level of housing benefit that can be paid. LHA levels are fixed well below market rents, which results in shortfalls in rent payments leading to arrears, subsequent evictions and homelessness; according to the homeless charity Crisis, “all available evidence points to Local Housing Allowance reforms as a major driver of [the] association between loss of private tenancies and homelessness”
Instead of taking measures to regulate the private housing market and deal with the extortionate rents charged by greedy landlords, the policy penalized the tenant and set in motion a system which, coupled with benefit freezes and the dire lack of social housing, has caused homelessness to grow at an alarming rate; Another example of government incompetence or social hardship by design? If the HB freeze remains in place until 2020 as planned by the government, the charity, Shelter says that “more than a million households, including 375,000 with at least one person in work, could be forced out of their homes.”
The cap on HB is one aspect of the government’s austere economic programme. Through the implementation of economic austeritythe Conservative governmentis waging a violent assault on the poorest members of British societyand ripping the heart out of the community. The justification for such brutality is the need to ‘balancethe books’, however, the national debt is greater now that is was in 2010, The Office for National Statistics statesthat “UK government gross debt as of December 2017 was £1.7 trillion – equivalent to 87.7% of gross domestic product (GDP),” – compared to 60%of GDP in 2010. Austerity is anideological choice not an economic necessity. Financial cuts have been applied in the most severe manner; budgets to local authorities, schools, the NHS (National Health Service), the Police and to the benefit system, among other areas. The consequences are homelessness and widespread economic hardship.
Nationwide food-banks run by the Trussell Trust provided 1.3 million food parcels last year, up 13% on 2016 – before the financial crash in 2008/9 the concept of “food banks” was virtually unknown in Britain. Shelter estimatesthat more than 130,000 homeless children will be living in temporary accommodation over Christmas, almost 10,000 of who will be in hostels or hotels “where in many cases their family will have been put up in a single room, sharing bathrooms and kitchens with other residents. Overall, 50,000 more children in England, Wales and Scotland are homeless compared with five years ago, a rise of 59%.” The government is doing nothing to alleviate the homeless crisis, on the contrary their policies are fuelling it; Labour MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, says the government’s approach to tackling the problem of homelessness has been an “abject failure”.
The right to a home
Homelessness is one of the most destabilizing and painful experiences anyone can go through. It fuels psychological and physiological insecurity, places a person in situations of physical danger, erodes any positive sense of self and causes physical and mental health illness; Crisis recordsthat 46% of homeless people suffer from a mental health illness compared to 25% of the general public. However, while this figure is itself extremely high, when asked, a staggering 86% of people who are homeless report suffering from one or other mental health illness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows “that as a person’s housing becomes more stable the rate of serious mental illness decreases.”
Rough sleepers and people begging for money are routinely ignored and treated with disdain, police are instructed to move beggars on and so erase images of social hardship from the gentrified streets – it’s bad for the cities image – and hostile architecture makes even rough sleeping difficult. Shelter relatethat the three main reasons for becoming homeless are: “parents, friends or relatives unwilling or unable to continue to accommodate them; relationship breakdown, including domestic violence and loss of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy.” These are causes that anyone could be the victim of, they should not result in homelessness, indeed within a healthy, compassionately organized socio-economic order, homelessness would not exist at all.
Housing, like education and health care, should be safeguarded from the Madness of the Market; limits should be placed on the rents that private landlords can charge, and a nationwide building program of social housing initiated under the stewardship of local councils, not housing associations. At the same time tenancies need to be lengthened, tenants’ rights strengthened, and fair rents re-introduced.
A house or flat is a home, and a home is a basic human right – enshrined as such within that triumph of humanity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: it is not and should not be regarded as a financial investment. At the root of the ‘housing crisis’ in Britain and elsewhere is the poison of commodification; whether it be a house or a forest, a school playground, library building or a public park, all are regarded in monetary terms, how much is it ‘worth’ – meaning how much is anyone willing to pay for it. The result is the commercialization of all areas of life including housing, and the promotion of an ugly way of life rooted in material greed and financial profit, no matter the impact on people or the natural environment.
This ideologically rooted approach to life is at the heart of many if not all of our problems, including the most pressing issue of the time, the environmental catastrophe. Government policies consistently add fuel to the fires, politicians lack vision and imagination, but it is the socio-economic ideology that underlies and fashions policy that is the problem; the system and the values it promotes need to be fundamentally changed, and a new order introduced that cultivates social justice, cooperation and tolerance.
Burning fossil fuels is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions (GGE), and, greenhouse gas emissions (water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O)) are the principle cause of man-made climate change. Given this fact, governments throughout the world should be moving away from fossil fuels and investing in, and designing policies that encourage development of, renewable sources of energy. But the British Conservative government, despite public opinion to the contrary, has all but banned the construction of onshore wind turbines and is encouraging fracking in England. The Tories are the only UK political party to offer support for this regressive form of energy production, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens having all promised fracking bans should they gain political office at the next general election.
Hydraulic fracking is the process of releasing gas and oil from shale rock: huge quantities of water, proppant (usually sand) and chemicals are injected at high-pressure into hydrocarbon-bearing rocks, rocks that can be up to a mile down and were once thought to be impermeable. This process of fracturing (or cracking) forces the rocks to crack open, and gas held inside is released and allowed to flow to the surface.
Shale gas is a fossil fuel, and when combusted produces GGE, albeit at around 50% less than coal or oil, but GGE nevertheless. The leading fracking company in Britain is the energy firm Cuadrilla. An organization that accordingto its website, aims “to be a model company for exploring and developing shale gas in the UK,” they state that they are “acutely aware of the responsibilities this brings, particularly with regard to safety, environmental protection and working with local communities.” Really?
After protests by the local community and various court cases (Lancashire County Council had refused drilling rights, but the Secretary of State ignored community voices and approved the company’s request on appeal), Cuadrilla recently commenced fracking at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire. However, as in 2011 when the company was forced to abandondrilling, work was suspended for two days out of four because of earthquakes. Tremors measured 0.5 on the Richter scale, which breached the seismic threshold established following the 2011 earth tremors. Instead of abandoning the project as the local community and environmental groups are demanding, the firm’s chief executive, Francis Egan, wants the Government to raise the threshold.
Another Regressive Step
America is home to hydraulic fracturing, where it’s been taking place for decades. Greenpeace statethat as of 2012 the “fracking industry [in USA] has drilled around 1.2 million wells and is slated to add at least 35,000 new wells every year.”Fracking has led to US oil production increasing faster than anytime in its history, resulting in lower domestic gas prices. The US Energy Information Administration recordthat around two thirds of gas is now produced by fracking and almost half the countries crude oil.
Shale gas is spoken of as a positive alternative to coal, but it’s just another filthy fossil fuel that is adding to GGE, which in turn are driving climate change. Fracking has a substantive impact on the natural environment and the health of those living within the surrounding area. Earthquakes, air pollution, soil pollution, carcinogenic chemical leakage and contaminated groundwater are the primary risks.
An enormous amount of water, which needs to be transported to the site incurring significant environmental costs, is required in the fracking process. The amount of water used varies per well: between 1.5 and 10 million gallons is required every time a well is fractured. Greenpeace relatethat, “in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water were used to fracture just 35,000 wells in the United States.”The water is mixed with various chemicals to make fracking fluid, a toxic cocktail that can be further contaminatedby “heavy metals and radioactive elements that exist naturally in the shale.”A significant portion of the frack fluid returns to the surface “where it can spill or be dumped into rivers and streams…frackingfluids and waste have made their wayinto our drinking water and aquifers. Groundwater can be contaminated through fracking fluid and methane leakage and the energy companies have “no idea what to do with the massive amount of contaminated water it’s creating,”
In addition to water and soil pollution, fracking adds to existing levels of air pollution as methane gas is released into the atmosphere through leaks and venting, a study conducted by Cornell University found that “over a wells lifetime, 3.6 to 7.9 percent of methane gas escapes” in this way. Unlike CO2, which sits in the atmosphere for centuries or millennia, methane only lasts for decades, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts that it warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2 before then degrading to become CO2.
Many countries recognize the retrogressive nature of fracking and have passed legislative bans or moratoriums; England is the only country within the UK where it is currently allowed. More than 100 fracking licenses have been awarded by the government, but in order to start fracking they need permission from the local council.Fracking is universally unpopular amongst the communities where sites are located or proposed; on 13th October the Gasdown-Frackdown action saw thousands of people from six continents take to the streets demanding an end to fracking and calling for long-term investment in renewable sources of energy. Fracking is not an environmentally sane way to meet the energy needs of a country, it is part of the problem not the solution and it should be rejected totally. What is required is a global energy strategy rooted in environmental sustainability. As Friends of the Earth rightly say, “a 21st Century energy revolution based on efficiency and renewables, not more fossil fuels that will add to climate change.”