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It was particularly good to find new reasons for hope and practical suggestions for ways out of the mess in your issue on Green Economics (NI 278).
I’m ordering five extra copies to send to the leaders of our political parties who might be looking for alternatives to IMF/World Bank dependency.
José Lutzenberger tells us (Green Economics NI 278) that ‘Modern industrial society is based on an absurd worldview, a worldview that we have inherited from our Judaeo-Christian past.’ While I would agree that many Christians have misinterpreted texts in the Bible’s creation accounts to justify environmentally destructive behaviour, the book of Genesis depicts an initially harmonious relationship between human-kind, God and creation, and in numerous passages the Bible points to nature as a symbol of God’s creativity. Moreover, Christianity should act as an effective antidote to mindless consumerism in that it firmly places our ultimate satisfaction outside the purely material realm.
A footnote to your article on the withdrawal of welfare benefits from asylum seekers in the United Kingdom (Update NI 278). The British Government has stopped short of forcing the children of asylum-seekers to live on the streets, but it is requiring local government to pay the cost of providing for such children and their carers.
Fine so far, but this is likely to mean greatly increased expenditure by the local councils at a time when all are facing cutbacks due to central government pressure on budgets. In addition, such provision is of no comfort to adult asylum seekers without children.
Ironically, the alleged lifeblood of the system – competition – is being constantly diminished or destroyed by take-overs and mergers on an ever-increasing global scale. Democracy is rapidly becoming meaningless but how the trend is to be halted is a very complex question and, as far as I can see, the answer will only become apparent when the basic resources we are squandering seriously affect us directly.
F A Beal
Your ‘Facts’ map in the issue on nation-states (Bullets and Borders NI 277) marks only the Chechens and the Inuit as groups in Russia which have problems with their hosts. There are also over 30 indigenous peoples, of which almost every one struggles for their rights. There are over two million Finno-Ugrig peoples, of which Mordvins and Maris are the biggest groups, Khanties and Mansies the most threatened. In addition there are Yakuts, Evenks, Nenets and several others. Most of them have severe problems with oil-drilling and logging businesses. Unfortunately the indigenous peoples of Russia are all too frequently forgotten in Western publications.
I was moved by Alison Napier’s ‘The Angry Scot’ (NI 277) and understand perfectly well her sense and awareness of place.
I feel the same when I see my local authority invest huge sums of taxpayers’ money on projects covertly developed to attract tourists, not overtly aimed at the needs of the people who live and work here. Something similar happened in the Algarve in the 1970s, when local and national politicians favoured foreigners – and foreign investors – and they were treated better than locals. Ironically, now the politicians complain about their cement ghost towns – the fruit of the once-acclaimed anarchic tourist boom.
In your issue on the nation-state (NI 277), you failed to notice the importance of the national liberation struggle in combating imperialism – that is, monopoly capitalism.
You do not discriminate between the positive role of nationalists during the struggles for independence and the cynical manipulation of national sentiment to justify oppression of national minorities and other ethnic groups. Cuban ‘nationalism’ has been a positive force in history for the past several decades and the ‘nationalist’ struggle of the Zapatistas of Chiapas helped weaken the corrupt regime in Mexico.
What oppressed groups and nations want is the right to self-determination, and to deny that right is to support oppression.
Correspondent SJ Indran in a letter to the NI (Tibet NI 274) repeats the hoary myths of Tibet as a feudal hell, from which China kindly liberated it. These fantasies of Tibetan barbarism originate in the accounts of 19th-century European travellers, whose imperialist eyes construed the natives as lazy and treacherous, and the indigenous leaders, including the lamas, as corrupt and cruel. This was standard imperialist discourse, be it Tibet, Africa or the Balkans which was the object of Western ‘otherizing’. Tibet is a major civilization, a major contributor to the global and cultural heritage which is ruthlessly repressed by a China convinced of its superiority, in ways remarkably reminiscent of high Victorian England. SJ Indran may think of himself as a champion of the poor, yet clings to stale categories of thought which suggest very little contact with Tibetans as real people struggling to be heard in the real world.
Australia Tibet Council, Melbourne, Australia
I would like to take up one point in Rosalind Riley’s letter (Letters NI 277). She suggests that randomly giving up material things is not going to help a tortured prisoner. That may be true, but every time a person gives things up so that they can instead donate money to help others, then someone somewhere will certainly be helped, often greatly.
I do not think rich people should believe that generosity is futile. If human beings can learn to be generous and to forego their materialistic aspirations, then there is hope for the future. After all, it is these greedy aspirations which continue to dictate the harmful policies of many Western nations.
The NI Quotes book
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|The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist|
Reaching for the stars
Olivia Ward meets a cosmonaut in Star City.
The rundown building says: ‘Cosmonauts Post Office’. But there are no visible signs of mail delivery. Nowadays it is used for earthlier pursuits – meetings, interviews, business deals. These are the basic necessities of the threadbare Russian space program and its cosmonaut training headquarters, named, in English, ‘Star City’.
I ignore my slightly shabby surroundings because the man sitting in front of me is a dazzling piece of living history. Boris Volinov, a silver-haired man with a grip of steel, is telling me with dry humour of his near-death experiences in space, as though he were a schoolteacher reviewing a particularly trying trek.
‘Both trips had problems,’ he says with magnificent understatement. ‘But of course nobody talked about them at the time.’
Volinov, a contemporary of space pioneer Yuri Gagarin, flew his first mission in 1989. At re-entry time, a set of massive solar batteries failed to separate from his landing craft, dragging him upside-down and unprotected into the earth’s scorching atmosphere. Only a freak explosion saved his life by blowing away the batteries and bringing him back to earth with a tooth-cracking jolt.
I listen like a child hearing a thrilling bedtime story for the first time, unable to imagine the terror, dedication and euphoria of those moments. As I lean forward so as not to miss a word, he launches into a second hair-raising tale.
Seven years after his first trip, Volinov and his flight engineer experienced the cosmonaut’s ultimate nightmare – power blackout in space. In a devastating silence they waited for the oxygen to run out and the spacecraft to become another inert object, whirling into the giant charnel-house of infinity.
By groping his way around the cabin, Volinov managed to restart the system and wrestle the ship back on course. His cabin-mate, in deep shock, was at the point of breakdown and the mission was cut short to 49 days. Even on the ground the near-tragedy of errors continued. Touching down hundreds of kilometres from their target area in Kazakhstan, the two cosmonauts were temporarily lost on the barren steppes.
These terrible and heroic stories are even more impressive within the peeling walls of Star City. In a nearby building the training centre’s cramped and tinny simulated spacecraft, like the ones from which Volinov barely returned alive, speak of a shoestring budget, but also of unconcern for the individuals inside them.
At the height of the space program’s fame, after Gagarin’s historic 1961 orbit of the earth, the same ethic prevailed. While Americans treated the fledgling astronauts with awe, the Soviets used them as instruments. Some even resented Gagarin’s fame, and tightened the net of secrecy to prevent others following him into the limelight.
As my thoughts wander, my guide Sergei is staring at his watch. Volinov apologizes with a smile, and prepares to depart. The $500 fee I’ve paid to rent a day of the training centre’s time is stretched to the limit.
Sergei is also apologetic, slightly shamefaced. He is a former space official who cannot retire because his pension is too small. Like Volinov, he lives in the heavily guarded enclave that is still a closed city, secure only in his hard-won apartment.
Now this very secrecy has become a commodity that can be sold to scientists, reporters or curiosity-seekers for an admission fee. Those who pay more than $3,000 can indulge in a Disney-style program that imitates an instant cosmonaut training program complete with a ‘weightless flight’. And real training for foreign cosmonauts costs more than a million dollars.
‘You see, we have to live,’ Sergei shrugs wryly. ‘We must invent new ways to survive all the time. That is what we have come to.’
My Western mind is balking at all this. At a man who has reached out to the stars and found only small change in his hands. At an official who once directed outer space missions and now acts as a tour guide to meet his inner needs. And at a system that created and abandoned them both without apology.
As though reading my mind, Volinov clasps my hand in his crushing grip. ‘We did all this, you know, for one reason,’ he says. ‘We were star-struck.’
He smiles broadly. ‘We still are. Whatever happens on earth, we are looking up at the cosmos.’
Then he is gone, only his footsteps remaining in the melting spring snow.
Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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