Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Bridport Carnival: Common Sense 1400 - Red Tape and Bureaucracy 0.

Last week I attended the Bridport Carnival and torchlight procession. After all the floats with dinosaurs on and majorettes had paraded past, over 1400 people wound their way down increasingly narrow roads to the beach half an hours walk away. The vast majority of people, whether aged five or eighty five carried foot long ‘torches’ which would have made more than ample flame throwers. In an era where putting on any kind of public attraction requires a hefty tome of insurance policies, health and safety assessments and permits I was amazed that the event had been allowed to happen. The list of authorities (District Council, County Council, Fire brigade, police etc) who could have objected on safety grounds would have as long as a fully lit torch. But even as the streets narrowed and became more crowded common sense prevailed. One stupid ten year old boy did throw his still flaming torch into the hedge, but almost immediately a member of the public went over to extinguish it. Numerous lads had to drop their torch in an amusing hurry after encouraging their light to flame rather too extravagantly, but no damage was done.

Of course the event was well planned and there was an ambulance on hand, but marshals kept a low profile and the success and safety of the event was dependent on the community’s common sense as a whole. People not only took responsibility for their own actions, but also kept an eye on others and were prepared to intervene if necessary. Health and safety rules and regulations are in part a response to the breakdown in communal common sense. If enough people aren’t prepared to take responsibility for those around them then, yes, ‘there will always be one that spoils it for everyone’. The Bridport Carnival showed that it doesn’t have to be like that, but that it’s in everybody’s hands to ensure that risky public events aren’t extinguished under the weight of bureaucracy and red tape.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Warming up the crystal ball: climate change predictions

On Tuesday the National Academy of Sciences released ‘the most detailed report yet’ outlining the effect that a rise in global temperatures of less than 2, 2-3 or over 3 degrees Celsius would have on the planet’s plant life, sea levels and rainfall.

The main scientist, Dr. Scholze reckons that at least a two degree rise in global temperatures is inevitable which he believes will cause a world wide loss of forests, increased flooding and a significant reduction in fresh water supplies. The UK Hadley centre, a leader in climate change research estimates that a 3 degree rise would put 400m people at risk of hunger, and half the world population at risk of flooding.

These studies stick to changes in the natural world, but I thought it would be an interesting exercise to make an educated guess on what changes of a 2-3 degree rise by the middle of the century would mean for us living in the UK. I’ve tried to steer clear of being alarmist and these are just guesses so I’d be interested in your predictions.

In 2050 I think that:

1) We will live in fortress Britain. Climate change is going to create numbers of refugees unprecedented in world history. Millions will be forced to leave land that has become inhabitable because of drought, salination of water supplies or wars over ever more limited fresh water. In constant fear of tens of millions coming to the UK we will close our borders to all but the luckiest of refugees and enforce military defence measures to put off would be illegal entrants.

2) Thousands of older people will have died in summer heat waves. In the summer of 2003 in France, tens of thousands of older people died as a direct result of the heat wave. By 2050 thousands will of older people will die in more frequent and more intense heat waves in the UK.

3) Hundreds of thousands of homes in the south and east will be uninsurable and unsellable. A 3 degree rise would increase risk of flooding by 17 times in South and East and the Thames Barrier is already being raised significantly more often than 10 years ago. Nobody (or very few people) would die, but dealing with flood damage will be a reoccurring problem.

4) Progress in the developing economies will have been wiped out. Developing economies will struggle to maintain growth went hit by more frequent and intense problems. Our ability to promote sustainable development will vanish as we try to deal with crisis after crisis.

5) Our financial affluence will have been severely dented. The economy won’t have crashed into unending depression – no one individual shock would be big enough to precipitate this. Our economic patterns will adapt and evolve and there will still be plenty of work around to deal with the effects of climate change. Some jobs may have moved back to the UK because the world will be a more dangerous and uncertain place. Supply of goods to our kitchens and living rooms from around the world will be inconsistent and regularly disrupted.

I'm in my mid 20s: I don’t expect to witness the worst of the effects of climate change. I believe I will see extremely serious flooding, drought that will kill hundreds of thousands and create millions of environmental refugees, but not on the scale of the second half of the 21st century could produce. It will be the next generation that has to deal with those catastrophes – something that’s worth bearing in mind for those of us considering having children.

To read about how I think we can alleviate climate change see my post from late June here.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Israel fights Hezbollah: An attempt to understand

I have found the last month's news very depressing. I simply can’t understand what Israel think that they are going to achieve by attacking Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Every day I get more and more angry about the destruction wrought in a recovering and increasingly vibrant Lebanon. The Middle East is an entangled spiral of complex problems which defy clear analysis, but in an attempt to understand Israel’s reasonaing and mentality in this conflict I have identified three possible underlying causes, one geopolitical, one psychological and one religious cause for the Israeli Government’s actions. Hopefully I will end at least being able to empathise with the Israeli position.

1. Geopolitical. To fight Hezbollah is to fight Iran. The links between the two since Hezbollah’s formation in 1982 are irrefutable. These are not purely funding links (although these are substantial), but also command and strategy links, which mean that all important decisions are made in conjunction with the highest members of the Iranian government. In addition the two share similar interpretations of Sh’ia ideology. Iran are the other major power alongside Israel in the Middle East. Iran is a rich, well educated country, with a much greater sense of national identity than any Arab nation. Since the 1920s Iran and Iraq have always acted as counter-balances to each other in the region, but the power vacuum in Iraq means that Iran are firmly in control of that see-saw at the moment. From Iran’s point of view the time is right to extend their economy, political and military hegemony. Until now Israel have always had two trump cards to counter the hegemony – American support and the bomb. They must be scared stiff that they’re about to lose the second. For Israel, any chance to show pre-bomb Iran that they are not to be cowed looks attractive.

2. Psychological. It is a natural instinct to want to obtain security by doing whatever is necessary to remove an enemy. The attraction of an offensive into Southern Lebanon must be considerable to the Israeli electorate. The idea of a buffer zone from Katusha rockets looks great on paper and no-one else was going to go and create it for the Israelis. One British journalist asked an Israeli in Haifa how many Hezbollah rockets had ever landed in his town in the 13 years he’d lived there before the current conflict. Answer: zero. But that’s not the point. No one wants to live in the constant fear of the front line – much better if you can to move the no man’s land into someone else’s back yard and let them deal with the consequences.

3. Religious. Long standing underlying attitudes reduce Israel's options.The Tanakh (laws, prophets and other writings that make up what Christians know as the Old Testament) is ambivalent at best about the right of other nations to exist in ‘the promised land’. Judaism has an honourable and living tradition embodied in the Tanakh of caring for the alien in the land. However, although the vast majority of Jews are not Zionists most have some belief that God grants Israel an inalienable right to eventually possess territory in the region at least partly at the expense of other people groups. For instance, the traditional orthodox stance is that Israel will not gain political control of the region until the Messiah comes. So although this view does not explicitly rule out a Palestinian land it colours the mindset and attitude which makes negotiation on land issues with neighbours interminably difficult. Therefore arguments continue not just with the Palestians, but with Syria and Lebanon over the Golan Heights and the Sheeba Farms, which have an underlying influence on the current crisis.

None of the three explanations above excuse what the Israeli government are doing, which is not only morally reprehensible, but politically pointless. Indeed its political futility makes it more morally outrageous for the deaths are utterly futile. Like other guerrilla forces Hezbollah will not be beaten by a conventional army. As all parties know without political progress we will be in the same situation in a few years. Both sides are fighting for a better negotiating position - to invert the aphorism politics will be the war continued by other means. But in all probability in a few years Israel will fight a renewed Hezbollah, guided and funded by an Iran with nuclear capability. Longer range missiles and suicide bombers will still penetrate into the day to day lives of Israelis. They will be no more secure. There is a growing movement among younger Israelis especially (witness the Israeli soldier protest petition 2002 and the grass roots movement that led to the founding of Kadima) which may challenge the underlying religious attitudes around right to land. (The Kadima's 2006 election statement is an interesting read in this regard). However, until this enters the mainstream Israelis will not live in a land of peace and justice, milk and honey.

It is obvious that Israel has been much wronged in its 60 year history. However as one of the few fully formed democratic nation state backed by the most powerful country in the world it has the responsibility to make moves towards peace and begin to unravel the knots in the Middle East. It must start by addressing the focal point of the Middle East web by recognising the majority of the pre-1967 borders and declaring its intention not to retaliate to suicide bombers and missile attacks. This is an extremely difficult, complex and risky thing to do and I did not write this entry to delve into possible solutions. It will not stop attacks on Israel immediately or even for years, but it will start to drain the poison at the centre of the boil and allow the region to address some of its other myriad problems. It is Israel’s only chance of the long term peace and security that it desires.