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That petrol emotion: BP’s ‘cleanup’ of the Gulf of Mexico

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Originally published in Issue 437 of New Internationalist Magazine.

There are two kinds of cleanup operations in the Gulf of Mexico: the real one and the one that allows us to continue indulging in fossil fuel fantasy. Both are problematic, argues Adam Ma’anit.

In the days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and unleashing the pent-up hydrocarbon reservoir of Miocene rage it was tapping, the full impacts of the disaster were largely unknown. Nearly a month on, there were still doubts about the degree of devastation that would ultimately ensue. BP CEO at the time, Tony Hayward, infamously asserted in late May that ‘the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.’

BP already had an atrocious health and safety record in the US – even by industry standards. The company was still being rapped for continuing violations at its Texas City refinery – the site of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured over 100. It was facing record fines over leaks and poor maintenance in Alaska where two major spills in 2006 led to widespread concern about the expansion of oil exploration in the fragile Arctic. In 2006, Senior Group Vice President John Mogford said of Texas City: ‘If we’ve learned one thing from this tragedy, it’s the need for humility.’ How the company has operated since, however, reeks of corporate hubris. Continue Reading →

A world wide web of change

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First published in Issue 435 of New Internationalist Magazine.

The fundamentals of digital activism are little different from its analogue ancestry, argues Adam Ma’anit.

I can remember clearly the first time I ever used the internet. It was on my Commodore 64 – one of the earliest mass-market consumer PCs – and I had just received my shiny new whizz-bang modem. It was a beastly thing – one of those old-fashioned devices that you had to physically put the telephone receiver into like in the 1983 Hollywood film WarGames. After what took an age of bee-ooh-wee ssshrzzkkk dialling noises, I would finally be connected to what we might now think of as more like the British television-based Teletext information system than the modern Web. In fact, back then there was no such thing as the Web and in order to move between ‘sites’ in a world without internet routers you had to redial a new computer. Pages filled with monochromatic text and graphics made using carefully positioned letters were the order of the day. Download speeds were glacial, and often times you would be paying for long-distance calls if you wanted to connect to anything of interest. But it was from these humble roots that the Web began to take shape.

I was too young to really understand the significance of what I was participating in. Like the lead character in WarGames (played by a young Matthew Broderick), all I was really interested in at the time was to find cool games to play – though, perhaps fortunately, I didn’t have the skills to hack in to the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s mainframe and virtually nuke my hometown of Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. No doubt some budding hackers there are still trying… Continue Reading →

Taking development to the cleaners

First published in Just Change Issue 13, October 2008.

Adam Ma’anit thinks it’s time to confront the myth of ‘clean development’.

It is rare these days to encounter any international development agencies or charities that fail to mention their own organisation’s credentials in the field of climate change. The sector is awash with donor-driven funding for climate initiatives and many are now diving head-first into ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’ initiatives across the develop- ing world promising ‘win-win’ results.

The focus of much of this development-centred activity is in relation to the burgeoning carbon markets, worth NZ$96 billion in 2007, which promise new sources of finance for ‘clean development’ projects and developing country growth trajectories. Continue Reading →

Costing the earth

First published in New Internationalist – Issue 413 – July 2008.

Shortly after Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s declaration of the Yasuní proposal, some of its official backers – such as the Clinton Global Initiative, the Wallace Global Fund and the World Resources Institute – started making noises about possibly generating carbon revenue by selling offsets and through controversial ‘debt-for-nature’ swaps.1 Former US under-secretary and lead climate negotiator Stuart Eizenstat (currently a director for greenhouse gas trading proponents Chicago Climate Exchange) began singing Yasuní’s praises.2 If the funds don’t materialize from other sources, the Correa Government may well find the lure of carbon financing too shiny to ignore. But the record of the carbon market to date has been less than sparkling.

Carbonworld

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, the principal city of Ankh-Morpork developed an innovative approach for dealing with crime and other antisocial phenomena. The city’s budding thieves and assassins were issued licenses and tasked with the dutiful management of theft and murder, replete with annual budgets, forward planning, quotas and quarterly targets. They were permitted to carry on looting and garrotting the citizenry, provided they could produce the necessary paperwork upon request. Continue Reading →

On the flying debate…

First published in New Internationalist – Issue 409 – March 2008.

‘Lifestyle politics may be a hit with the hairshirt crowd, but it’s small fry compared to the huge socio-political changes needed to avert the worst excesses of climate change.’

Of course I agree with the need to deal with aviation’s impact on climate change. My worry is about the focus on individual consumption, on individuals taking flights. I think the emphasis needs to go back towards political, economic and environmental policies. Too much of the flying debate is about individual one-upmanship and not about real substantive change. It’s natural for the environmental movement to go down that path because it’s easier to appeal to their base – environmentally minded folk who will accept the wisdom of flying less and peer-pressure each other – but the movement shouldn’t shy away from the difficult questions.

Lifestyle politics may be a hit with the hairshirt crowd, but it’s small fry compared to the huge socio-political changes needed to avert the worst excesses of climate change. Just as telling people to eat better won’t solve the obesity crisis, so too will the ‘you fly, we die’ message fall on deaf ears. And let’s not forget the importance of building up the alternatives. Telling people to fly less and travel by train instead when the rail system in many countries is so mind-boggingly expensive, over-crowded and unreliable is hardly a convincing argument. Rather than solely appealing to people’s better consciences, let’s focus our energies on the big wins that can be made with modest political will. Continue Reading →

Guilt complex

First published in New Internationalist – Issue 406 – November 2007.

It’s time to dismantle the guilt industry, argues Adam Ma’anit – or else be smothered by its monopoly on our lives.

In his thought-provoking essay The Happiness Conspiracy (NI 391), John F Schumaker described the damaging psychological and social effects of a society single-mindedly fixated on the pursuit of personal happiness above all other concerns. ‘No-one is less able to sustain happiness than someone obsessed with feeling only happiness,’ he observed.

By chance, Schumaker’s essay appeared in the NI special issue on carbon offsets (CO2nned), in which I alluded to guilt as one of the possible motivating factors behind people’s desire to ‘neutralize’ their ‘carbon footprints’. The implication was that the drive to offset was partially fuelled by people’s guilt feelings about their individual environmental impacts and/or lifestyle. This seemed to chime with Schumaker’s characterization of ‘happichondriacs’ obsessed with personal satisfaction.

Thankfully, offsets have had a lot of bad press since that magazine came out, being criticized as a voluntary ‘guilt tax’ or a ‘modern-day indulgence’. But despite this, the industry still grows, with major deals having been announced with the likes of Land Rover and Qantas. With regular negative publicity on the ecological impacts of SUVs and air travel now common, people are turning to the palliative of offsets in droves. This made me think about the nature of guilt. Is there substance to allegations of liberal guilt? If guilt is a factor in an ethical person’s psyche, are our efforts to get rid of it compromising our ability to effect lasting and positive social change? Continue Reading →

A death in Durban

First published in New Internationalist – Issue 404 – September 2007.

South African environmental activist Sajida Khan sadly passed away on 12 July after a long struggle with cancer. Khan campaigned for over a decade against the Bisasar Road waste dump in Durban – one of the largest municipal dumps in the Southern Hemisphere – which she was forced to see, hear and smell every day outside the window of her Clare Estate home.

The dump came to international attention when it was revealed that the World Bank was planning to invest in so-called ‘clean development’ financing of a landfill gas capture project on the site. Khan quickly realized that the dump would need to stay open even longer than originally planned in order for the project to generate the desired number of ‘carbon credits’ – which Northern countries would then purchase, and put towards meeting their Kyoto Protocol commitments. As she put it: ‘The poor countries are so poor they will accept crumbs. The World Bank know this and they are taking advantage of it.’ Continue Reading →

Another forum is possible

Originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus, 7 May 2007.

The conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues about the WSF seem eerily similar to the kinds of things we’d say about some of the large music festivals we’ve attended in our lives. In this age of mega-concerts, we hark back to a golden age when you could still actually see the stage without the aid of a television screen the size of a small country; there weren’t any cash machines or mobile phone top-up kiosks around; and you didn’t need to know some concert promoter’s cousin’s dentist to get a ticket that sells out in three nanoseconds on the net.

But you know the story… over time, they get more and more popular, bigger and/or blander bands headline, corporate sponsors shout from all directions, the portaloos get fancier and now you can watch it all live on pay-per-view at home. Those of us who were ‘there from the beginning’ bemoan the loss of our cherished spaces that have lost their soul or sold-out totally, and then we look for some more obscure event to fill the void so we can “keep it real.”

This is a bit like how it feels with some of the conversations about the World Social Forum at the moment.

It started out on a relative high-point for the global justice movement. It was a festival of anticapitalism, if you will, when those critical of corporate globalization, neoliberalism, militarism and the destruction of the environment were building stronger links with each other and uniting around some key issues facing people and planet. The World Social Forum captured the imagination of people within that movement. The now somewhat trite slogan of “another world is possible” sounded fresh and exciting back then. A real sense of alternatives and possibilities emerged, if not directly from the WSF itself, than certainly from the “WSF process” in which people met and exchanged knowledge and wisdom, shared ideas and developed a sense of common purpose. None of this was particularly new. But the emerging “global justice movement” was clearly seeking out opportunities to come together and draw strength from our diversity. The WSF has been one of the more successful expressions of that particular desire.

Six years on, quite a few low points were reached at the Nairobi WSF in January, aspects of which have manifested similarly in other world and regional social fora over the years. Corporate sponsorship (by the likes of mobile phone operator Celtel, Kenya Airways, and Brazilian oil giant Petrobras) literally put paid to the notions articulated in the Forum’s Charter of Principles that: “The alternatives proposed at the World Social Forum stand in opposition to a process of globalization commanded by the large multinational corporations and by the governments and international institutions at the service of those corporations interests…” The patrols of red-bereted soldiers toting AK-47s hardly jived with the anti-militarist ethos of the peacenik participants. Worse still, the exclusion of the Kenyan poor unable to afford the hefty entrance fees and even more preposterous food and drink prices in the venue, kept out with razor wire and police trailing menacing Alsatians on leads. WSF or WTF?

Fortunately, local Kenyan activists forced these issues to the fore and, with support from other participants, helped open spaces for these obvious contradictions to be challenged. In many respects the WSF itself is serving as the very laboratory in which we examine some of the highfalutin’ maxims we claim to hold so dear.

Few of us are so deluded as to believe that the WSF should be a perfect utopian reflection of the world we want to create. We expect it to have flaws and imperfections, things that need to be improved upon and modified as circumstances change. This is, after all, what democracy looks like. But if people begin to feel that WSF is moving too far away from its core, that some voices are excluded in favor of others, then the WSF will lose its most important asset – the people. And that is what the World Social Forum is all about.

This therefore should be the benchmark by which the success or failure of the WSF should be measured. The primary metric: the degree to which activists from around the world feel that the WSF provides an inclusive, participatory, and democratic space for creating and nurturing alternatives. If it doesn’t, if it continues down the path of music festival turned corporate hootenanny, then movements will discard it and seek out other spaces. Another forum is possible… and you won’t find it on pay-per-view.

A very social affair

First published in guardian.co.uk – 28 January 2007.

Things were looking a bit grim at the World Social Forum to begin with – but then they started serving ‘anti-capitalist curry’.

The first time I approached the Kasarani stadium complex on the outskirts of Nairobi, I just thought it couldn’t be the right place. It being my first World Social Forum, I didn’t know what to expect, but somehow the sight of lorry-loads of red-bereted soldiers toting Kalashnikovs and trailing leads tied to menacing alsatians didn’t quite fit the picture I had. They weren’t even handing out flower garlands …

It became clear to me quite quickly that this event was not as “open” as the WSF organisers pretended it to be. The fact that it was held at a razorwire-ringed white elephant of a stadium named after Kenya’s former despot, Daniel Arap Moi, seemed hardly apropos at that. But we’re here to “make life better”, I tell myself. Oh wait – did I think that myself, or is that not the mobile phone company and official sponsor of the WSF, Celtel’s corporate motto ubiquitously displayed all around the complex?

Hang on a minute; I need to sit down – this is all a bit much. Seven years of World Social Forums has brought us to this? Anti-war yet surrounded by soldiers? Anti-corporate yet brought to you by Celtel and Kenya Airways? Anti-capitalist yet food and water too expensive for most Kenyans and southerners to afford? WSF or WTF? In this context, the forum’s theme this year of “people’s struggles, people’s alternatives” seemed to ring hollowly off the crumbling walls of the Moi International Sports Complex. Continue Reading →

Flights of fancy

First published in guardian.co.uk – 10 January 2007.

Carbon offsetting may make us feel better about flying, but anyone who thinks it will save the planet – as the prime minister does – is dreaming.

Tony Blair has made a lot of noises of late about his government’s “leadership” on the issue of climate change both at home and globally. This high-profile posturing may have served him well at diplomatic dinners and G8 after-parties, but few environmentalists take him seriously. Nowhere has this become more apparent than on Monday’s news that Mr Blair views environmentalists’ calls to reduce his personal flights as being “impractical”. Just one day, and a few dozen negative press reports later, however, Blair is now saying he’ll cough up the 90 quid or so to offset his recent jaunt to Miami with the wife and kids.

The Guardian describes this sudden shift as a “backtrack”. An admission of error and commitment to demonstrate genuine environmental responsibility by reducing personal and official flights, taxing aviation fuel, ending fossil fuel subsidies, ramping up investments in renewables and public transport would be a backtrack for me. Agreeing to carry on with business as usual and paying some venture capitalists in Oxford a small conscience fee is more like a “moonwalk” than a backtrack. It might look good, but environmentally responsible it ain’t. Continue Reading →