At my home we have seen in the New Year in our particular way. A gathering on one of the larger barges toasted the hour. The small pugnacious bitch had been tranquilized against her terror of the explosions that quickly followed on the island between the two pubs and the lock. We emerged onto the bank to launch a few rockets – until, that is, the last one, which stuck to the ground. The implications dawned on us belatedly, when someone (it might have been me) yelled ‘run for it!’ and we made for the bushes, pursued by magnesium flares as in Apocalypse Now. From the cordite cloud the lights of the Cadbury’s chocolate factory across the flood plain slowly re-emerged – by next New Year they may have gone out for good, unless a campaign to stop its proposed closure (supported by the film director Ken Loach, among others) succeeds. On the roof of a boat moored by the pubs fire-eating Jeb juggled torches into figures of flame.
For no clear reason we have agreed that 2008 will be a good year. Hitherto, the ambition of the family that runs the mooring has been to establish some sort of independent medieval principality. However, there is a prospect of further development, down to and including the lock and its keeper’s house. This, the family believes, will require our collective democratic guile, despite the father’s conviction that democracy is corruption in disguise (he prefers it neat). My job will be to write cunning letters to the authorities, alerting them to the underhand moves that haunt all human dealings near water. We mean to be taken into account, since the road to the lock runs through our territory. However, I have doubts as to whether the credit crunch will permit a democratic outcome.
When it came to democracy, there was only one person worth listening to on the BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme discussion on the subject the other night, and he was African. The usual assortment of metropolitan pundits, confronted with violent chaos before an election in Pakistan and after an election in Kenya, casually concluded that democracy is just one means to a variety of other ends that can only be achieved after centuries of contemplation in places like the US – where we are, once again, about to see what it really looks like. Only the African raised the possibility that the idea of democracy might reside in the minds of most Kenyans, just like anyone else. I rather suspect he won’t be invited back.
Another pundit suggested recently that people in Britain are waiting for their government to give a lead on climate change, since we are unwilling to make changes to our personal liftestyles individually when they have also to be made collectively. If national governments saw this as their purpose then there might be some merit in the argument, but the evidence suggests that they don’t. Rather, it suggests that governments are unwilling to make changes nationally that have also to be made globally. This, of course, is the same argument made by those with heavy corporate investments in the status quo, for whom climate change is a price well worth paying for their own power – and to whom most national governments really do find themselves accountable in practice. So climate is the only change on offer, and any passive wait for a lead could be a very long one indeed.
There is nothing worse than being caught on the horns of a false dilemma. So next week I’m having a water turbine installed on my barge. Even as oil hits $100 a barrel, this doesn’t make orthodox economic sense. But my reasoning goes that the power of the river in flood will increase more or less in harmony with the price of oil, making nonsense of orthodox economics. If it weren’t for the coots and ducks, my winter companions for whom the river is their only home, I’d be content to think of this as at least one small reason why 2008 will be a better year.
Meanwhile, the coincidence the year ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the Beijing Olympics highlights what I argue, in the January/February double issue of New Internationalist magazine, is the lowest point in the Declaration’s history. For the most part this is because the ‘War on Terror’ has made human rights subservient to such things as ‘national security’, which in practice means the whims of ruling groups around the world. The absence of any official move to boycott the Beijing Olympics illustrates how central China has become to the process of corporate globalization - something else that now trumps human rights. What exactly is the point of a ‘War on Terror’ or corporate globalization if they destroy human rights? Answer comes there none, other than from the thousands of groups around the word who are defending human rights with their very lives. We’ve given ‘medals’ to just a few of them, in the belief that they are representative of very many more, and that they are far more worthy of recognition than any number of sponsored, doped-up athletes. Take a look at the magazine (you can subscribe to the paper or digital version from this website) and let us know what you think.