Tuesday, 30 January 2007
So many thanks to you all. I got back to the UK this morning, after an overnight flight of joy, and still haven't slept so am in a slightly odd daze. Sometime in the next few days I'll post my summary and analysis of the WSF process and what the major social movements seem to be up to, coz I know you're all clamouring for it.
I probably wont be able to resist putting up some safari pictures as well. I saw lions, and baby cheetahs, and fed a giraffe (not to the lions and cheetahs). These things made me happy. This is a picture of an elephant that I saw:
Just in case you weren't sure what one looked like.
Best wishes to all,
Thursday, 25 January 2007
1) I can go back and intersperse all my previous blog postings with pictures, as I’d originally planned, hopefully making them a bit more interesting and fun to read;
2) There’s time to tell a few stories that I didn’t have time for earlier. Read on...if you dare! Or if you can be bothered.
Me, with People and Planet branding. It was a great organisation to be representing coz it gave me a reason to go to all the sessions with enthusiastic student activists, and also some of the Big Scary Issues (oil and gas extraxtion, HIV/AIDS, climate change) that P&P is working on.
Stupid White Man
Within the grounds of the WSF, I was just one more random nationality amongst hundreds. Out and about in Nairobi, however, I was very much Oh Look A White Guy, especially as most of the white residents rarely seem to walk anywhere. It made me realise just how unused I am to being a minority. It’s one thing to be stared at on the street if, say, you happen to be dressed as a wizard or an ostrich or something, but rather different to feel that you’re standing out just by being your normal self (assuming that you’re not actually a wizard or an ostrich, obviously). Of course, rather than being abused for being different, I instead get offered the finest, finest local deals by every hawker and taxi driver in the city, so I’m not complaining really.
Of course, this pales in comparison to the way all my natural awkwardness came to the fore the first few times I started chatting to people from less comfortable backgrounds than mine – which, here, is practically everyone. General conversation was fine, but as soon as things strayed into politics – which, again, is pretty much inevitable here – and it became clear just how soft and cosy my life was compared to theirs, and just how complicit my home country and my lifestyle was in so many of the things these people were struggling against, I started feeling guilty and stupid and stumbling over my words. Then, of course, I felt even worse because THAT meant I’d started seeing the person I’m talking to as an “activist” or, worse, a “victim” rather than a human being, at which point I generally collapsed into a bubbling heap of hopeless English embarrassment in front of their bemused faces.
Which of course is ridiculous. Here at the WSF, we are all working together to find ways to battle these problems as best we can, no matter where we’re from or why we’re involved. Luckily, I rapidly overcame this and was soon able to have entire conversations with people without going “Gosh, everything’s so CHEAP here, isn’t it! Oh, I mean, of course it is, compared to the UK, because oh yes, we were the ones who totally screwed over your economy and landed you with a load of dictators and corrupt leaders in the first place, and I probably sounded like I was gloating or something didn’t I, argh sorry oh hang on I think my friend’s calling me” and then running off to hide in a portaloo.
(The portaloos were amazing, by the way. They had people cleaning them constantly, and attendants to manage the queues, making them easily the nicest, freshest temporary toilets I’ve ever used. The WSF totally whups Glastonbury on this crucial point.)
This picture represents the exact, incredible amount of style and grace that I didn't display on many occasions during the World Social Forum
Anyway, the point is that even English awkwardness can be overcome if we all celebrate our common humanity by bonding over jokes about the boring speakers and giggling and eating overpriced food together. Or, perhaps, by not eating it…
I didn’t see this, but I wish I had.
It seems that one of the two highly priced food stalls inside the stadium perimeter – provided by The Windsor Hotel – was owned by the Kenyan Minister for Internal Security. This delightful fellow’s checquered past apparently includes various brutal incidents against Kenyan campaigners in different posts under previous administrations, and today he oversees a police force best known for their “shoot first, then shoot a bit more immediately afterwards” policy (thirteen “suspects” were gunned down in a local shopping centre just a few days previously).
With the same calm but determined self-organisation that got the gates open to all, a group of activists led by the People’s Parliament stormed the stall, routed the staff, and, in their own words, “nationalised the Windsor Hotel”. Apparently the street children had a good lunch that day.
Note to future WSF organisers: putting dodgy, wealthy companies in charge of the catering instead of small local operators is up there with corporate sponsorship and lack of signposting in the Brilliant Ideas Not To Do Again category.
On Tuesday, I went to a workshop called “Participatory Democracy in Brazil”, looking forward to a lively debate and critique of this form of decision-making, and presumably of the gap between theory and reality when it came to Brazil. Imagine my surprise (go on, just imagine) when it turned out that this session on Brazilian government policy was being run by…the Brazilian government (plus a few of their supporters). So rather than a discussion of the pros and cons of participatory democracy, where it had succeeded and where it had failed, we got two hours of “Brazilian democracy is great, kids!” with a little bit of “Viva Lula!”. Even watching the incredible skills of the Portuguese-to-English translator in action couldn’t quell my nagging feeling that all was Not Quite Right.
I wish I knew more about Brazil. I sort of knew that the supposedly left-wing government had sold out in some way and done some dodgy stuff, but I couldn’t remember what or why. Nonetheless, I was determined to challenge them somehow, so decided to ask them how locally-based participatory democracy could possibly tackle global issues (actually, this is something that really interests me anyway). So I raised my hand, got boldly to my feet, strode towards the front, fell over my sandal, and landed face first in front of the Brazilian Minister for Human Rights.
Left to right: Official translator, important Brazilian community leader from the City of God, Brazilian Minister for Human Rights. Not shown: me, flat on my face in front of the table.
Perhaps it’s just as well that I didn’t ask them anything too difficult and hard-hitting. My case may have been slightly undermined.
OK, that’s enough for now, but I still need to tell you about the whole Climate Change debacle, my battle with my personal demons that somehow led to my doing a speech in front of the whole Social Assembly, and, of course, How We Met Reverend Billy. I also need to give you my general overview and analysis of the whole WSF process, what I learned, and what was achieved (bet you can’t wait for that). So more to follow soon.
Not too soon, though. We’re going to the Maasai Mara tomorrow.
There’s going to be elephants.
Elephants and lions.
I’m a bit excited.
Best wishes to you all,
Wednesday, 24 January 2007
I've sneaked into the Media Centre by pretending to be Jess (don't ask) and so have a very short time in which to update you.
Amazing piece of street theatre to draw people into the "Extractive Industries" workshop, with one guy pretending to be a miner, and the other playing a brutal guard (with a large water-pistol)
Oh my word. Another extraordinary day. I've seen - and met - people from across the globe who are struggling against a huge range of challenges that often seem to have common roots in the current international economic system. I've sat in a room full of Africans declaring their desire to fight for independence from global aid in the fight against HIV/AIDS, calling instead for trade rules that make the treatments they need affordable, and an end to the corruption (in which Northern governments are frequently complicit) that is crippling their health systems. I've been involved in the most frustrating meeting on climate change I've ever been in, immersed myself in Brazilian propaganda, joined an international network of student activists even though I'm not a student, and somehow ended up making a speech in front of the entire Mass Assembly of Social Movements.
The whole place has become so much more lively since all the Kenyans were allowed in, and the place is buzzing with local hawkers, spontaneous singing, and groups of fascinated street children.
Obligatory picture of cute kid being political
Exhausted now. Going to be kicked out. WSF is over, but I will look for an internet cafe tomorrow so I have time to tell these stories properly and give you a proper flavour of the World Social Forum, Nairobi, and all the amazing things that are happening here.
Dammit, I wish I'd been there when the local Kenyans invaded the catering facilities coz they were being run by a dodgy government-linked company. It sounded fantastic.
General positive African vibes to you all,
I cannot fully explain why this picture makes me so happy.
However, I think I’ll start with a huge ARGH in relation to internet access here. I wasn’t expecting it to be easy to get online, but I thought it would at least be occasionally possible; however, the network is constantly down both here and at Jenny’s house; as the Forum runs from 8.30am to 8pm each day, we never have a chance to look for internet access anywhere else. It’s looking as though this blog is all going to come in a lump on Thursday – that’s the earliest that we’ll be able to look for an internet café or summat. Ho hum.
Anyway, back to the far-too-much-happening thing. This morning, a deputation of Kenyans who’d been unable to afford the $7 entry fee marched up to the Forum gates and demanded entry…just as Jess and I were arriving. They blocked the traffic on the entrance road until the guards opened the outer gates to let them in. Cheering and singing (African demonstrations beat UK ones hands down), the crowd marched into the complex, and I immediately realised that this was far more important and exciting than the workshop I was meant to be going to, and joined the procession (who were singing “This is wrong, this is wrong” in Kiswahili, with harmonies and ululations and, most importantly, without a megaphone or a bad rhyme for “Bush” or “Blair” to be heard or seen).
The inner gates parted and the demonstration poured in. After some (well-managed) internal debate, the procession of disenfranchised Kenyans (plus various media types and other hangers-on) decided to march to the office of the organising committee. The committee weren’t there – they were in a press briefing downstairs. The march duly marched into the press briefing, and took it over.
At this point, there were some incredible speeches from representatives of the “People’s Parliament”, most of whom seem to live in the Nairobi slums. “How can you start this Forum with a march through the slums, and then deny those who live there a chance to attend? If you visit the slums, you see the worst of us – you see only our misery and our poverty. You do not see the best of us. We have come here to show you the best of us – our energy, our ideas, our experiences. We have so much to contribute to this Forum - how can you have a debate on the solutions to poverty and exclude the poor?”
Thus spoke one amazing young woman from Kibera (later identified as Wangui Mbatia) - or words to that effect. Jess and I tried to film some of it – we’ll try to put it up online (if we ever get online).
The organisers listened, and responded, and now Kenyans can get in for free, and free water and cheaper food is going to be available. The whole thing was utterly brilliant and inspiring and what the WSF is all about, even if it never should have had to happen in the first place.
Since then, I’ve linked up with students activists from across the world, as well as communities feeling the impact of oil and extractive mining projects…the accomplished missions are clocking up. Still LOADS to do here though, and so much to report, and too little time…
Hope to post again soon with more hot news,
A lot of people are talking about this being the most commercial WSF so far. In order to register, you have to hand over your fee to representatives of Celtel, the mobile phone company who are sponsoring the event. They then give you a SIM card, that you put into your phone and register via text message. Not quite what I expected from a mass gathering of grassroots movements… On the other hand, Celtel is the only visible sponsorship. They clearly got a very sweet deal, and probably didn’t pay enough for it, but that doesn’t mean that the WSF has suddenly gone corporate, as some people here seem to think. Although of course it is much more fun to leap to ludicrous conclusions from a small starting-point (someone’s set up a stall selling mangoes – that’s it, EVERYONE HERE IS A SELL-OUT).
For a more critical look at Celtel and the other WSF sponsors, have a look at Adam’s New Internationalist blog.
This is clearly the best stall at the WSF. Somehow, the fact that it's empty just adds to its appeal.
It’s true that things have been less than perfect on the organisational front . The programmes were late, incomplete and confusing; nothing is signposted; no transport has been arranged between central Nairobi and the venue (which is 15km out of town), meaning that everyone arrives in hordes of road-clogging (and polluting) taxis; the power and the internet connection keep going down; and, of course, thousands of local people are unable to attend as they can’t afford the entrance fee. Apparently, the central committee did arrange, in advance, for 6000 local people to get in for free, but this doesn’t seem to have been enough, and there is understandable anger as this anti-poverty event seems to be discriminating against the poor. This is something they need to find a solution for – and soon.
Despite all this, the event is still absolutely incredible and a credit to all involved. I cannot imagine what it takes to pull together something like this. Who cares about a bit of disorganisation when you can meet so many people that you’d never normally get the chance to meet, learn so much in such a short space of time, make extraordinary global connections and build new networks for positive change across the world?
A constant flow of different processions and demonstrations made their noisy, colourful way around the outside of the stadium every day, like this association of street traders.
I won’t go into details about the workshops here; since the last post, I’ve been to events on climate change, and extractive industries in Africa; I’m about to go to one on coffee and economic justice.
I’m a bit overexcited. Perhaps you can tell.
This is the main Chinese stall. People seemed quite interested, for some reason.
Top impenetrable jargon of the day: “I’m taking an eco-Marxist reading of that” (obligatory full-on ranty girl who won’t shut up in the climate change workshops)
Favourite slogan of the day: “Why This Incongruence???” (Banner of a coalition of small Indian farmers)
Painfully awkward chant I’d hoped never to hear again: “Who let the bombs out? Bush! Bush! And Blair!”, to the “tune” of “Who Let The Dogs Out?”. It wasn’t funny even when the song was around. It’s even less funny when a Stop The War activist decides to lead a procession around the stadium against US involvement in Somalia, and gets all the Somalians chanting it too. Excruciating stuff.
Right. Time to go swelter some more (is it hot in the UK too?)
This season, the South East Asian peasant hat is definitely in. Seriously, everyone is wearing these things.
I’m in the Oxfam Office here, and they seem to have internet access, so I might even be able to post some stuff – time to start the eyelash-fluttering.
Favourite slogan of the day: “Repudiate Now!” (from the Jubilee South anti-debt campaign):
Best impenetrable jargon of the day so far: “Let’s start dialoguing across these dilemmas”
Best product advertised (though not apparently on sale): Mecca-Cola
I’m sitting on the grass in the shade of a huge concrete stairwell leading up into the nearby stadium. Various people are drifting onto and away from the grass around me, but this is a fairly quiet corner to write a paragraph or two.
The Moi International Sports Stadium (in the background here) is essentially the big boss alien's base that you have to blow up at the end of the game. Moi himself was of course a particularly oppressive and corrupt President of Kenya, which probably just goes to show, or something.
It’s amazing here. I knew it would be, but, well, that doesn’t make it any less true. The sports complex where the main Forum events are being held is an extraordinary place, a huge concrete beast built in 1982 (by the Chinese) for the Pan-African Games, and then not been used since. Apparently the place was largely derelict, and several offices and corridors had to be cleared of rubble and debris in advance of the Forum.
This huge, immediately obsolete sports arena greatly improved President Moi's popularity throughout the 80s and 90s, and all the imprisoned anti-government protestors hailed it as a great use of their tax money.
The main stadium is the venue for most of the events, with stalls from different organisations arranged in a ring around the outside. There are literally hundreds of clashing events going on, from a bewildering array of organisations. The whole place has the feel of a festival, complete with that feeling of Festival Panic (“There’s just too much! I’ll never see it all! Argh!”). I’ve just been to my first proper workshop – a look at possible future global trends in technology, democracy and corporate power, with an amazing selection of speakers – Walden Bello, Vandana Shiva, and Larry Lohmann amongst others. Extremely interesting (and scary/inspiring) stuff, even if the audience was the whitest place I have been since arriving in Kenya…I managed to fight through the scrum of “independent media” that had clustered around Dr Shiva at the end, to ask “What should UK activists be doing to support grassroots movements in India?”. Her answer was simple: “Shell and BP are threatening to take our land to grow biofuels. They need to be challenged. That land is needed to grow food for the people of India.” She gave me some contacts to follow up…so yes, the missions have already begun.
Vandana Shiva listens, enthralled, to Larry Lohmann's speech
Anyway. I’m now being chatted up by some Kenyan girls so I’d better get to the next session before Jess spots me.
Plenty more to say later!
Yes! It's me! I'm actually here! And so is my good friend the huge cardboard crocodile!
PS Internet access is a real problem. Don’t know when I’ll be able to post this.
Sunday, 21 January 2007
The currency is called the “Kenyan Shilling”, or “bob” for short.
Everyone drinks tea instead of coffee, even though coffee’s one of Kenya’s main cash crops (of course, it isn’t roasted, processed or packaged in this country because those bits of the process actually make money).
All of the newspapers, adverts, TV etc. is in English, even though Kiswahili is a much cooler-sounding language (even a simple “hello” is “jambo”, which is such a great word that I think I’ll keep using it back in the UK).
The English premiership is everywhere. It’s far, far easier to find out the results of an Arsenal-Chelsea match than to find out about anything that’s happening on the WSF programme.
A British visitor with even just a guide-book level knowledge of Kenyan history will be completely overwhelmed by just how friendly everyone is, considering just how much we totally screwed their country up and abused their citizens just a few decades ago. Of course, a cynic might suggest that being obviously white and therefore (relatively) wealthy might have something to do with inspiring some of that friendliness, but I prefer to believe that everyone is just really nice. Dammit.
Today was a frantic whirl of registration, welcoming speeches, and overpriced bottles of water. While none of the speeches themselves contained anything of any great import (“Down with neo-liberalism! Viva Africa!”), there were some very interesting and slightly worrying things going on around the fringes. Jess and I met a guy called Charles from the local slums who wanted to go to the Forum but, having an income of less than $1 a day, couldn’t afford the $6 entry charge. In fact, a local movement called the “People’s Parliament” seems to have sprung up, offering a week of free workshops and meetings in direct competition to the WSF, for those without the money to attend the official gathering. Jess is planning to attend and write about it in her New Internationalist blog – in fact, she’s thinking of using her press credentials to at some point catch up with and challenge the WSF organisers directly on this very point. Should be very interesting, so keep an eye on her blog too.
I’m not yet sure what to think of the WSF process as a whole. Registration took place at the Kenyatta National Conference Centre, and was kind of like registration for any major event – forms, queues, being sent back and forth between places – except that in most registration queues I don’t find myself standing between a group of youth activists from a Finnish left-wing coalition, and an Indian church campaigner. It was all a bit chaotic but then, with 150,000 people expected at the Forum, how could it realistically be any other way? The only major problem has been the lack of programmes – they ran out before we (and a lot of other slightly frustrated people) could get hold of one. Luckily, those well-known defenders of social justice Group 4 were providing security at the Conference Centre and soon calmed everyone down (actually, everyone was very well-behaved apart from a few raised voices).
Registration at the Kenyatta Conference Centre. Not shown: programmes. Because there weren't any.
After registration was the opening ceremony in Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park. This involved lots of passionate speeches from the organising committee which, to be frank, were high on unifying slogans and low on actual content. Still, the atmosphere was fantastic, the park filled with an incredible cross-section of people, and the speeches soon gave way to music, dancing, and processions of cycle taxis (obviously). When they played “La Bamba”, Jess and I couldn’t help recalling that we’d once seen the guy who wrote that song, in a bar in Paris. At least, the barman said that he was the guy who wrote La Bamba, and as he was providing us with cheap mojitos we decided to believe him.
Anyway. Lovely and unifying as the ceremony was, we couldn’t help feeling it was a bit of a lost opportunity to put things into clearer context – perhaps to frame what some of the great challenges facing us are (e.g. climate change, trade rules, HIV/AIDS), and point out how the Forum is meant to discuss alternatives to the current economic system and find positive ways forward. No-one said anything about any of the events coming up in the Forum, it was just lots of cheering everyone on and talking about solidarity. Which is fine, and important, but we came away with the impression that the Forum is principally a gathering-place for different activists and movements to link up and share ideas around their specific, individual issues and campaigns, rather than a place to bring all of these different issues together, discuss where they interrelate, and decide what sort of joint campaigning is needed to help to resolve them all. Still, maybe it’ll all make more sense when we get hold of a programme (although having looked at other people’s programmes, the whole thing mainly looks utterly overwhelming).
"Uhuru" means "Freedom". However, even in Uhuru Park, freedom must have its limits.
That night, we ended up in a bar that was rather too upmarket for my tastes, and notable in two ways. One, it sold mojitos that were more expensive than in a certain bar in Paris, and two, they played “Africa” by Toto. In Africa. I never imagined that would ever actually happen.
Saturday, 20 January 2007
It’s all been a bit like that so far. Between sleeping, travelling, and dashing frantically about like a loon I haven’t had much time to take in the full reality of where I am and what’s going on. The fun began on Thursday afternoon. I was at the bus stop on St Clements, Oxford, waiting for the direct coach to Heathrow, when Jess arrived in a taxi. She informed me that apparently the traffic out of Oxford was hideous, and that the taxi driver reckoned we’d have a much better chance of getting to the airport if he took us, and he wouldn’t charge much more than the coach. But then, he would say that, wouldn’t he…? There was a moment of dithering (taxi or coach?) that seemed minor at the time but which I now look back on wryly - little did we know that our entire trip was hanging in the balance. Because, yes, some wind had been blowing somewhere near the M40 and so most of the lanes were closed and we sat in the back of the taxi in hideous traffic, chattering away with a cheerfulness that was gradually growing more brittle as the clock ticked closer to the 6pm deadline when the check-in desk would close, and I found myself dreaming blissfully of what a proper, affordable, reliable national public transport system would look like…
We tumbled into the airport with five minutes to spare. If we’d waited for the coach instead of taking Mr Taxi up on his offer we’d have missed the plane. Luckily, we still got on the plane in time to persuade someone to swap seats so we could sit together and peer out of the window as we swept through the darkness and I lamented the fact that aeroplanes are far too exciting and incredible to ride in when they do so much damage to the climate. I wish I could say that I hated the actual experience of flying, but there’s just something so awe-inspiring about taking a huge metal thing and chucking it into the sky in such a way that it actually stays there and moves along at incredible speeds without suddenly falling into the sea (usually). You can see clouds from above! The lights of cities! The stars! Dawn breaking over Kilimanjaro! Pirates of the Caribbean II on the back of someone else's seat!
I’m still going to stop doing it though. Knowing what we know about the climate, the majority of flights just can’t be justified any more. I’m sure I’d get bored of it anyway if I kept doing it (this is the 6th trip I’ve taken by plane) and the more I think about taking serious time off one day to do proper slow travel, the more I like the sound of it.
Anyway. We landed in Nairobi airport (most of which seemed to be a building site) at 6.30am on Friday morning after a night of overexcited star-gazing and small amounts of sleep during the boring bits of the in-flight movies (i.e. through nearly all of “The Devil Wears Prada”). I decided to try to annoy Jess by bouncing up and down going “Where are the lions I want to see a giraffe is that a hippo?” whilst pointing at baggage trolleys, landing lights etc. in a state of sleep-deprived deliria. Half an hour later, zooming into the city in the care of our new taxi-driving friend Peter, we saw some giraffes wandering around at the side of the road. That shut me up.
The Mombasa road from JKI airport into Nairobi is long, straight, and an eye-opening introduction to the city. Unlike the UK, space is not at a premium and so the buildings are spaced far apart from each other, set back from the road and surrounded by trees and scrubland. We saw gleaming luxury hotels interspersed with dilapidated apartment blocks, and enormous billboards filled with all the usual leering advertising images (but featuring African people) loomed over us from either side of the road. We crawled through the traffic into the industrial part of the city. It was rush hour, and the road was full of brightly and individually-painted matatus (the minibus taxis that are one of the main forms of transport here), whilst hundreds of people made their way on foot along the dry verges either side of the road, heading for the factories that now surrounded us. Many of these workers had walked from the Kibera slums, which we got a brief glimpse of as we went past and which I know I’ll write about more in a later post. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth side-by-side is something I have to admit that I’m still not used to seeing. As we drove past a huge variety of ramshackle market stalls and headed into a different section of the city, characterised by leafy avenues, pristine blocks of flats, high walls topped with friendly-looking razorwire and smiling guards, some with large guns, I couldn’t help reflecting on how screwed up so much of the world is, and how the things that screw it up the most are usually the things that allow us in the North to be comfortable and wealthy and to hide behind various types of wall and pretend that all the bad things in the world are somehow nothing to do with us and not our fault.
This week, for me, is a chance to better understand some of these links and connections and realities, not in the academic, look-at-me-and-my-shiny-Masters-degree kind of way that I’m used to, but through meeting real people who live utterly different lives to my own and who have achieved amazing and inspiring things. A chance to make links with campaigners from around the world who are actually feeling the impacts of all of the issues that my friends and I spend our time going on about. A chance to learn and feel inspired and get a radically different perspective on things. Plus, I’m going to see LIONS.
So we got to where we were staying – Jess’s friend Jenny is kindly putting us up – and found ourselves in a lovely three-bed apartment that filled me with equal amounts of middle-class guilt and relief at having a flushing toilet. I then had a massive internal battle between a desperate desire to go out and explore Nairobi, and my total and utter exhaustion, which I managed to resolve by passing out for four hours. We spent the evening drinking Tusker beer (it tastes even better when it’s local) in a nearby bar, watching Kenyan TV and drowning ourselves in angst over our privileged positions in the world. The only sensible way to look at it seems to be that our good fortune in being born into middle-class families in the UK gives us a serious responsibility to do all we can to tackle the enormous social and environmental injustices in the world that we’ve ended up benefitting from. This was all a bit too much for me and so I decided to pass out from exhaustion again.
So now it’s Saturday, a.k.a. Day One of the WSF and no-one seems to know what’s going on, so we’re going to head over to the Kenyata Conference Centre to register and hopefully get a programme and a clue.
Next time I post I should actually have some useful/interesting things to report rather than all of this pointless rambling. Maybe some pictures too.
Hope you’re all well, wherever you are,
Thursday, 18 January 2007
We’re flying tonight.
It hasn’t really sunk in yet. The last couple of weeks have been filled with the inevitable dashing-around-getting-stuff-sorted that precedes any major trip (as well as a few other small things like a full-time job, trips to London, local climate change action meetings and joining a rock band), and so I haven’t really had time to think about it, but - yes, I’m going to Africa tonight.
Look, I can hear all you well-travelled types sniggering to yourselves, but this is a big deal for me, OK? I’ve only been out of Europe twice in my life (once to
That is, of course, assuming that I can actually get into the Forum. It seems that my registration (which I sent off back in November) has somehow gone astray, which probably means I can look forward to lots of hilarious confusion, waiting in 1000-person long queues, and desperate pleading with harassed Forum volunteers once I get to Nairobi. Luckily, we’ve arranged to arrive a day in advance, which should give me the leeway to sort things out. Assuming that our flight isn’t delayed tonight, what with all the gales and all. But of course, that would be ridiculous and couldn’t possibly happen.
Still, there’s nothing like minor disasters, stress and panic to make a blog more interesting to read, eh? I’ll keep you all updated.
Several people have now asked me whether I’ll be offsetting my flights. At the risk of launching into rant mode – and with apologies to quite a few lovely people I know who work in the offsetting trade – no, I won’t.
Large numbers of offsetting schemes – particularly those based on tree-planting – are dubious at best, reliant on wobbly science, and in the worse cases actually involve damage to soils, livelihoods, and the potential release of more greenhouse gases than the trees could ever absorb. The simple answer to this, of course, is: look for a reputable offsetting scheme rather than the first dodgy offer that comes along. This is the kind of discerning attitude that the Government is presumably trying to foster with today’s announcement of a new offsetting “Gold Standard”, to sort the good schemes from the bad.
All very nice. But I still won’t be offsetting.
Some of the offsetting schemes out there clearly do good things. Providing more efficient and less polluting technologies to people in poorer countries – if done properly, in cooperation with the communities involved – can have many knock-on benefits for health, income, and food production in areas that desperately need these things.
I’m still not going to offset.
1) Every offsetting scheme is based on the idea that by reducing emissions somewhere else, we can make up for, or “neutralise”, our own greenhouse gas emissions. This relies on being able to calculate, with certainty, how much CO2 we’re “saving” by supporting a low-carbon scheme somewhere. But to work out how much carbon will be “saved” by say, installing some low-energy technology in a village in Bangladesh, requires somehow working out how much carbon would have been produced by that community if the technology hadn’t been installed, which is far from straightforward. How can we possibly be sure that the greenhouse gas reduction over there is equal to the amount of greenhouse gas emitted over here? Also, offsetting in this way only reduces emissions sometime in the future – but we need enormous cuts in CO2 now if we’re going to have any hope of preventing climate catastrophe.
2) There aren’t enough offsetting opportunities out there to cancel out the huge volumes of greenhouse gases we produce in the rich world. Even if we provided every developing country on the planet with low carbon technologies, without massive reductions in the industrialised nations we’d still all be screwed. It isn’t the poorer nations who are emitting all the carbon dioxide. To be fair, few serious offsetting advocates are suggesting that we could somehow magic all of our carbon away in this fashion, but my fear is that this industry is acting as a huge distraction from the real action that we need. As people get the idea that they can buy off their guilt by giving a few quid to an offsetting company or charity, they are more likely to keep on driving, flying and ramping up the thermostat with a lovely warm glow in their hearts, rather than a (far more useful and appropriate) nasty sick feeling in their bellies. They are also less likely to take all-important political action if they think that some nice companies are somehow going to “sort it all out”.
3) Offsetting lets the Government off the hook as well. There needs to be a massive transfer of low-carbon technology to poorer nations and communities, to give them a chance to develop within a global carbon limit that prevents the worst ravages of climate change. We in the wealthy nations have got rich from carbon. It’s our rampant burning of fossil fuels over the last 150 years that has got us into this environmental crisis – a crisis which will hit poorer nations on a far greater scale than it’ll hit us. This makes it our responsibility to provide the tools – and the money - to help the people of the Global South find a low-carbon route out of poverty. This needs to be happen on a massive scale as part of a binding international agreement. One reason the Government likes offsetting is that it draws attention away from this idea and suggests that we can achieve the same thing through piecemeal projects funded by voluntary donations from businesses and the public. We can’t.
For a better-referenced (and, let’s face it, better-written) explanation of all this, check out: http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2006/10/19/selling-indulgences/
I don’t want to appease my guilt at flying today. I need that guilt. That guilt is part of the fuel that’s going to keep me campaigning furiously for the massive changes we need in the
Here’s how I’m going to make up for the carbon emitted by this flight:
I’m going to admit that none of the following things take any of the greenhouse gases from my flight out of the air, but are all things I should be doing anyway as a privileged citizen of the rich world. This flight has just focused my attention on them and reminded me of my responsibilities.
I’m going to communicate my experiences of the World Social Forum to as many people as possible, to make this trip as worthwhile as I can.
I’m going to give as large a donation as my bank balance allows to People and Planet, to support student activists all over the country in the campaign against climate change.
I’m going to join my voice to (no doubt) the voices of others at the WSF to try to find a way to reduce the travel impacts of this kind of global gathering.
I’m going to devote myself to a mass national grassroots campaign to challenge our Government to set binding carbon reduction targets (based on science, not politics), and take the radical action needed to meet them.
And most of all, I’m going to stop flying.
This is the last one.
You know what? I think I actually mean that.
Wednesday, 10 January 2007
Just a week and a half to go before the World Social Forum! This is your final opportunity to give me your requests for anything you’d like me to find out there (for more information on the WSF, see the posting called "The Plan", further down this page, and the latest programme at www.wsf2007.org/program).
Here’s my current list of missions:
- Make contact with youth and student movements from around the world, and find out if they’d like to make links with UK student activists via People and Planet (www.peopleandplanet.org);
- Similarly, look out for anyone working on the environmental performance of higher education;
- Learn more about the perspectives of activists and social movements from the Global South in relation to climate change issues. How do different Southern activists view the international climate negotiations and the efforts of campaigners in wealthier countries who are trying to tackle these issues?
- Make links with people who are fighting against polluting, oppressive and unfair practices by British companies around the world (probably with a particular focus on oil companies). How can UK campaigners (especially members of the People and Planet network) best support their struggles?
…as well as trying to do some sort of analysis of the whole WSF process and keeping you all updated via the miracle of bloggery. But just in case that isn’t enough to keep me busy, do let me know if there’s anything I can find out for your own campaigns/research/random pointless whims.
Have you ever wished you could rule over Europe with an iron fist, issuing continent-wide dictats on everything from trade to agriculture to household appliances? Well now you can, thanks to the BBC’s new climate change policy game! YOU are the President of the “European Nations”, and have to try to meet carbon reduction targets whilst still pursuing the impossible myth of endless economic growth. Will YOU choose the right policy options to tackle climate change without losing public support or threatening the overarching market-based economic paradigm? Will you win over the rest of the world with your ground-breaking eco-policies, or just screw the planet and try to stage the Olympics on the moon? YOU decide, at:
Is it a useful awareness-raising tool, a massive oversimplification based on dubious assumptions and unrealistic scenarios, or just a bit of fun? I’d be interested in your thoughts. In any case, I do have to admit that I enjoyed playing it, partly for the catharsis (“Yes! Yes! Ban stand-by mode! Invest in wind farms! Tax aviation fuel! Hahahaaaa!”) and partly for the sheer megalomaniacal joy of serving a seventy-year term of office (“Why, yes, I think I WILL stand for another decade in power; the people need me and my bizarre policies on nuclear fusion and retirement at 80”). Plus, I do like the way that, as a world leader, you can only persuade the rest of the world to set carbon reduction targets if you’re willing to set – and meet – targets of your own. Rather than, for example, stating that climate change is the greatest challenge facing the planet and then declining to do much about it because, you know, people like cheap flights and big cars so what can you do? Hey, don’t worry, it’ll mostly be poor people that die, plus some pointless plants and animals that were just cluttering the place up anyway, and there’ll still be enough of the USA above water for me to do some really great highly-paid speaker tours about international diplomacy and peacekeeping. Look at my big legacy! Wheeeeeeeeeee!
Sorry, not sure where that came from.
I’ll try to do another entry (hopefully with fewer rambling tangents) before I set off next week.
Have fun everyone,
Hope you all had a good holiday (if you had one). I had a nice, quiet, Christmas with my brother – pink and purple sparkly cowboy hats, dancing round the kitchen to Nik Kershaw at 5am, making up songs about our Maths teacher from 1993 – you know, a proper traditional Christmas like in the olden days and that.
The other significant event occurred at a family Christmas gathering, when my Mum unwittingly used Uncle Geoffrey’s special Weetabix bowl to serve up some trifle. Pretty major stuff, as I’m sure you can imagine.
I’ll leave you with these delightful festive images of me and Ben getting into the spirit of things, and return soon with a proper posting.