Life without the car

Living without the car

Living without a car. What a load of middle class clap-trap! Sure, cars may kill more people every year than all the world’s wars. And, yes, cars pump out nearly a fifth of the globe’s greenhouse gases each year. But having just finished one job and travelling to my next with rain falling heavy on my head, how can I – a mere mortal – fit the daily schedule of work, shopping and family commitments into one day without a car and still keep sane? 

Not possible, I think, as I’m stomping around the bus-stop. This is the third time I’ve tried to give up the car. During the first attempt – in November last year – I was running for election as a local government Councillor in Frankston in southeastern Australia. The campaign lasted two months; my car-free life two days. Lugging around boxes of pamphlets over 27 square kilometres on foot as I tried to canvass 30,000 homes turned out to be impractical. But as I talked with voters, a string of stories about speeding hoons1 in their streets reminded me why I should try again.

Internationally, road crashes now claim 1.2 million lives a year and injure 50 million more. The carnage affects every corner of the world. In Vietnam in 2007, 40 people were dying on the roads each day – 12 of them children. Another 25 children were ending up in hospital each day with brain trauma from a motor accident. As a consequence, the country loses an estimated 1.5 per cent of GDP to traffic accidents – $1 billion per year.2,3

Illustration by Kate charlesworth

Faced with the facts on such suffering and expense, who on earth would want a motor vehicle? Amazingly enough, nearly everyone. Despite the emergent recession, an estimated 52.9 million passenger cars were produced in the world last year. At this rate three new cars came into the world every two seconds – more than one car for every three babies born. From Asia through to Africa the transition for travellers in developing countries is from water-buffalo to bicycle, then from bicycle to motor-bike, before accelerating into cars. There are more than 20 million motor-bikes registered in Vietnam – one for every four people. They transport every possible passenger with every conceivable load, from beams of wood for building construction to stacks of containers of freshly hatched eggs. Carrying their cargoes to new markets and connecting their drivers with schools, hospitals, new opportunities and people, the mobility of a motor vehicle is so prized that nearly everyone everywhere ignores its potentially fatal consequences.

There are rational explanations as to why drivers treat cars in such an irrational way. Like love that is blind, author Katie Alvord describes the relationship as a bad marriage – an affair that should be destined for divorce. Randall Ghent from the World Carfree Network in England says cars are addictive, and has helped set up Autoholics Anonymous.3 How I feel about my car shares elements of both.

The car addict 

Just like a smoker who doesn’t take in the warnings of mutilated mouth and lungs on cigarette packs, I quickly learnt to disregard the fact that driving may be bad for my health. I had to – otherwise I would have never turned the ignition key. My grandfather died a protracted death after being run over by a car. I haven’t ever felt comfortable with the alternative of riding a bike since I was knocked off one by a car 30 years ago. Now the car and I are so close that – like an overly dependent lover – where I go, he goes. But after winning the election and becoming a local Councillor, it’s now my job to help plan safety in our streets. Feeling like a hypocrite, I try again to ditch my car.

I choose going cold turkey over a gradual withdrawal. After all, it worked when I gave up smoking. Without a bike, that means taking public transport and walking. Here in downtown Frankston, Victoria, in a city of 120,000 people, you’d reckon it would be easy. I have no children wanting a lift to school or soccer, basketball or ballet. Living on the beach, a kilometre from the city centre, everything should be within my reach. And it is – if you don’t want to travel anywhere other than on the direct public transport routes leading into the city centre.

Our level of dependency on the car determines nearly every aspect of life – the reach of our social activities and the extent of the places and people we experience

But my next car-free period lasts only four days. Frankston is directly linked to Victoria’s capital, Melbourne, by around 40 kilometres of rail. I make the rail trip regularly – it’s a much more relaxing journey as a passenger looking out the train window than as a driver in bumper-to-bumper traffic. But it had been a searing summer in which the sun burnt up bushes and branches before our eyes weeks before the bushfires raged through the country. The railway tracks buckled in the heat, leaving the train service in disarray. To complete my trip, I catch a taxi, which is (of course) a car! Speeding towards Melbourne, I groan and resolve to keep trying, reminding myself that I successfully gave up smoking by going cold turkey… 19 times.

It’s the next attempt – my third failure – that leaves me livid. Even if I rode a bike (which I can’t, and, by the way, neither can a whole host of others), it’s raining so hard that I’d be drenched by the time I arrived at my Council meeting. Turning my back on the bus-stop, I stride towards the garage. I am now among the ranks officially working ‘very long hours’ (which, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is 50 hours or more a week). It’s only a five-minute drive, traversing across town to where I need to go. But it will take an hour on public transport to get there, going into town by bus then out again on another route. It’s time I don’t have.

Driving the agenda

Daily to-do lists would be impossible without quick, easily accessible transport. In Australia, ‘very long hours’ of work have become more common for full-time workers over the years since 1985, particularly for men. By 2005, 30 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women were officially clocking up ‘very long hours’.4 A quick ride home will help these busy people face the additional work that home and family bring – for women 33 hours and 45 minutes on average, peaking at a whopping 53 hours per week for women under 45 with children under 15. Factoring in a modest seven-hour sleep each night, there are only 119 waking hours a week. In urban areas, where public transport is either unreliable or inaccessible, the car is not an option but a necessity. It is the only way to service overcrowded lives. The result is paradoxical: as community understanding of the need to reduce our carbon footprint increases, so does societies’ dependency on cars.

Rather than cars being our servants, many of us have become enslaved. Our level of dependency determines nearly every aspect of life – the reach of our social activities and the extent of the places and people we experience. Motor vehicles define where and how we shop. Who can carry home a trolley-load of goods from the local supermarket without some motorized transportation? Even health levels can be measured by the motor. Fresh food improves health: its consumers enjoy lower rates of diabetes, less cholesterol and fewer heart attacks than fast-food eaters. But, as the speakers explained at the first meeting of the Food in Frankston Forum, one of the top three barriers to a fresh food diet is physically getting to a fresh food outlet. It is a pressing issue of social policy that particularly affects the life expectancy of low income earners. There are only a handful of shops and markets selling locally produced fresh food in the Frankston region. Indeed, unless you have the luxury of two hours to spend on a bus, if you want food free of chemicals and genetic modification, you presently need a car to get it.

Illustration by Kate charlesworth

Urban design taken for a ride

Certainly cars help people to connect. But they also disconnect. Out on the open highway, severed from the natural world by speed and steel, drivers don’t identify themselves as part of the outside environment that’s whizzing past them and don’t see what they’re leaving behind. As a consequence, they let their cars pour out 1,000 known pollutants, contributing as much as a fifth of the globe’s carbon emissions, including more than 15 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Arriving in a garage at their destination, they may not have enjoyed a single encounter with the outside world.

Yet if they’d slowed down and looked, they could have seen how cars have captured public space and taken it for a very long ride. Cities have been constructed around the car, not the people who live there. As the radius of human journeys has increased so has the asphalt that has been rolled out to service them. Although once-thriving small retail traders were centred in cities within walking distance of homes, huge concrete shopping malls owned by property conglomerates have now been erected a car trip away on suburban outskirts. The resulting dysfunction is there for all to see. Standing in a shopping centre parking lot on the outskirts of our city, surrounded by mile upon mile of asphalt which gives no idea of what the landscape would have looked like before the car came here, it is easy to see why societies have become so out of touch with nature that they no longer understand how to preserve it.

What would this parking lot look like if it no longer serviced cars? The asphalt could be torn up, the soil regenerated, then gardens planted and fresh produce grown. As cars would no longer drive there, the shopping centre could be scaled-back and the space converted to a range of homes for a range of incomes. Throw in a school and medical centre, and village life could emerge. Such transformations are tantalizing. A pity, then, that our asphalt nations are more likely to expand than contract.

Car culture rules 

Around the globe, urban areas are facing population increases. Impoverished rural workers continue to leave their homes in search of paying jobs in the city – usually cleaning, factory and construction work. On an even larger scale, climate change is also forcing massive relocations. North Africans are escaping homelands that are becoming dry as deserts. Pacific people are sailing from sinking islands. Delta dwellers in Asia will soon be running from rising tides. Many will make long journeys to what they dream will be the relative safety of cities in the rich world. In urban Melbourne, a 36 per cent increase in inhabitants is expected within the next 28 years. Governments are scrambling to build homes for them. Estate after estate is being built on the urban fringe without supporting infrastructure in place to handle the extra load. Cars and trucks, say the planners,5 will remain the primary mode of transport. Fifty kilometres from major work centres, people will have limited choices: either drive to work or go on the dole. It is an abrogation of social planning responsibility, paying grossly inadequate regard to the need to cut greenhouse gases.

It is an abrogation for which I’m feeling acutely responsible every time I sit in the Frankston Council Chambers. Yes, absolutely, we need strong and decisive leadership to combat climate change. Let’s be brave and bold and discourage cars away from city streets – limit available car-parking spaces; narrow streets and widen pathways. It will send a strong message that in this city, it’s people – not cars – that have precedence. But then the business community points out that this will hurt local retailers – the main employers in the municipality. It’s not about cars, they say, it’s about customers being able to access their city streets comfortably. Without better transport alternatives in place that will quickly and efficiently get people into and out of the city, the transition away from the car won’t succeed – it will merely push business elsewhere, as customers drive away to other regions. Already 12 per cent of shop space is vacant in the main city area. This could make the problem worse. ‘What are you clowns doing! There’s a recession on – haven’t you heard?’

Even the bike store owner argues to keep car parks instead of building a bike lane in the street outside his store

As a new councillor, I am torn. I have campaigned to advocate for what my community wants. All over my ward, voters who shop in the city centre have argued for more parking and better traffic management. No-one has said anything about pedestrian-friendly streets. Even the bike store owner argues to keep car-parks instead of building a bike-lane in the street outside his store.

It’s about time

It will take years to break this car culture: this entrenched dependence. It will also take years to find the money for, then build, the additional infrastructure for the better public transport that must be put in place. At both a community and personal level, it will require working in the short term towards a long-term goal which can only be achieved through a radical transformation of people’s aspirations and lifestyle. It’s about time. Literally. For people to live successfully without the car, they will need to scale back their lives, minimizing travel time between work and play.

No more cold turkey attempts for me. I need to do this gradually. It has already meant a change in my employment to bring my work closer to where my ageing mother and our family are living. It has meant moving 25 kilometres to bring the place where I live closer to the work I’m doing. It will also mean slowing down by reducing my expectations of what I can achieve in an average day. Right now I’m arranging to cut back my working hours – a joy that will bring a fall in income. To supplement this loss, my partner and I are planning to grow more of our own organic food: a long-held dream that I will now have time to bring to life. This should mean we can eat good quality food without having to travel long distances to get it.

These things will reduce the need for travel but not remove it. Mobility will still be important. Where walking and public transport can’t get me, I’ll need a car substitute. Maybe that little red electric scooter with the shiny stainless steel trims I saw last week...?

Chris Richards has been the Australasian editor of the NI. She penned this article just before she resigned in order to make the changes in her working life she describes.

  1. Australian/New Zealand slang for louts or idiots.
  2. Greig Craft, the founder and President of Asia Injury Prevention Foundation based in Vietnam, quoting Asian Development Bank figures.
  3. Hear Greig Craft, Katie Alvord and Randall Ghent on the Radio New Internationalist programme ‘Life without the car’, at www.newint.org, number 29-2008 in the Radio archive.
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Social Trends, series number 4102.0, 2006.
  5. Department of Planning and Community Development, Melbourne @ 5 million, Victorian Government, Melbourne, December 2008.

Made in China

Ruth Kapi points to the devastation created by the Chinese-led Ramu Nickel mine project.

The mango tree spreads large and lush. Standing at the centre of this village, it has pride of place. Huts on stilts surround it. Under its branches, protected from the sun, the villagers of Lalok in Papua New Guinea (PNG) collect to talk and make decisions together. Like the tree, their community is strong – democracy is growing.

It looks like paradise here. Children run across the beach laughing to greet our six-metre dinghy after its sea-crossing. Tall palm trees swaying softly on the edge of the beach rim the rainforest. Yet living in paradise has its price.

The villagers miss the opportunities that education could bring. They want to increase their income by selling their cocoa and coconuts, bamboo and bananas, taro and yams. They want the longer life that doctors can offer. A road could provide the missing link to schools, hospitals and markets. It need not be long – it is only around 35 kilometres to Madang, the regional capital. And, says the Coastal Landowners Association Chairperson, John Yong Botti, the Chinese should pay to build it.

The other villagers, seated in a circle around the mango tree, nod in agreement. It is only fair. Over the next 20 years the Chinese plan to take significant resource wealth from this part of PNG. The $1.37 billion Ramu Nickel mine will produce 31,150 tonnes of nickel and 3,300 tonnes of cobalt each year for the next 20 years.1 From the mine-site in Kurumbukari, they will send the ore down a 135-kilometre pipeline to a processing plant on the coast, then load it on ships bound for China.

The route of the mine’s pipeline concerns John Yong Botti (top); PNG workers at Basamuk face menial work (middle) with strict camp rules (bottom).

Unbalanced trade

This is China’s largest investment in the South Pacific, just one in a global empire of mining ventures feeding its appetite for growth. As the world’s biggest consumer of stainless steel (using more than the US and Japan combined) nickel alloy is critical. Nickel is also a key component of rechargeable battery systems used in electronics, power tools and transport – important as the share of China’s exports shift from textiles, clothes and shoes to more profitable hi-tech products.

For Papua New Guinea, the Ramu Nickel venture is its biggest construction project, adding an estimated eight to ten per cent to the national economy every year.2

But for the people of Lalok it’s hard to see the benefits. The pipeline passes over their land, cutting through fruit trees and vegetable crops. Each clan has been paid up to 400 kina ($146), but it is not enough. ‘How much compensation should be given for this?’ asks John Yong Botti as he points to the mango tree. ‘They are giving a lousy 10 to 20 kina ($3.66 to $7.32). If the mango tree is there, we will continue to sell the fruit and get the money. But if the tree goes, that income goes with it.’

As they talk in the sunshine, it is clear that they have been left in the dark. When they raise their concerns with the mining companies, they are told to ask the Government. But the Government isn’t answering.

Then there are the environmental concerns. I’m no expert but the waste disposal method proposed by the project’s managers sounds laughable. After the nickel and cobalt are processed, five million tonnes of tailing waste each year will be siphoned into pristine Astrolabe Bay. Sinking to a depth of 150 metres, the exposed waste will lie in a deep ocean basin. A report commissioned by the Mineral Policy Institute in Sydney, Australia, concluded: ‘While it is remotely possible that the discharge of 100 million tonnes of mine tailings into Astrolabe Bay may have no impact at all, this is exceedingly unlikely.’ Following public outcry, governments have commissioned another study to make this system safer. But in an area prone to earthquakes and high seas, locals fear that whatever improvements are made the waste will find its way to their shores. The impact on marine life – and therefore on human health – could be catastrophic; fish are a major source of protein for more than 80,000 Papua New Guineans whose lives depend on the sea.3

Come with me and see, says Letani Robin, a community facilitator for Lalok village.

The route of the mine’s pipeline.

Red smiles

Letani takes me by boat to the end of the pipeline at Basamuk, where the processing plants are being built. As we walk up the road from the once beautiful coastline, the dirt road disappears under a curtain of limestone dust each time a truck goes by. Coughing, Letani worries for the workers and local residents. By 2002, an estimated one million Chinese were suffering pneumoconiosis – the debilitating work-related lung disease caused by the inhalation of dusts.4 This problem is being exported to Basamuk’s shores.

Cultures are colliding here. To the outrage of the people of PNG, media and locals report that Chinese workers for the Ramu project have been brought into the country illegally in shipping containers along with ‘comfort women’ to service them. Standing at the main gate of the workers’ compound, we read the sign of ‘welcome’– the company rules for all those who pass through its gates. No alcohol. No drugs. No women. No families. No littering. No removing company property. No betelnut. Betelnut is a staple for PNG people. Once the green nut is peeled and chewed it turns the mouth, lips and teeth red. ‘It makes us feel happy and tell stories,’ explains Letani.

Red is the colour of health, happiness and prosperity in China. I wonder what the Chinese here make of the red smiles of welcome from people like Ruth Kapi. Ruth is a storeholder at the Basamuk market. She’s married to a landowner but her relatives work here, building the factories for the nickel to be processed. When I ask her about the benefits of the plant, she strides off, waving me to follow. ‘They employ our people doing menial work for 170 kina ($61.90) a fortnight,’ she scoffs. And – despite promises to the contrary2 – these locals have not been hired to do the more lucrative contract work. The equipment, materials and pipelines used on the site are all stamped ‘Made in China’.

Ruth points to the sides of what looks like a pit and explains that it used to be a mountain. She takes us to the flats where the mountain’s rocks are now being crushed to make concrete blocks for factory walls. It gives the phrase ‘taking their land’ new meaning. Ruth points to the crusher and explains how the machine has eaten the leg of one of her relatives. He now has a stump below the knee. The company paid him 500 kina ($182) compensation.

Then she shows us the factory foundations – acres and acres of steel frames. The Chinese workers are uniformed and hard-hatted. The PNG workers mix concrete by hand to bolster a steep retaining wall. They wear no protective gear. When I ask Ruth why, she starts laughing with the workers below, throwing betelnuts at them in a makeshift game of catch.

‘So what is in all this for the people of PNG?’ I ask Letani. He says that in exchange for its riches, PNG wants tangible returns – roads, bridges, infrastructure. Instead he points to the local workers’ housing, row upon row of pre-fabricated dormitories, easily disassembled to take away. The only economic opportunity that remains for the people is to be paid a reasonable price for their land and resources. There’s no sign of this happening.

Mining through paradise: Truck after truck of Chinese workers build the processing plant on Basamuk’s coastline

Collateral damage

Clan leaders from Kunumbukari – where the resources will be prised from the ground – stand to lose everything to this mine: their land; the drinking water, fish, prawns and turtles in the river; and the birds of paradise, wild boar and vast source of natural medicines in the rainforest surrounding it. Yet the Land Titles Commissioner – appointed four years ago by the Government to validate and prioritize claims – has just started to hear evidence from the seven clans claiming ownership of the land where the mine is situated.

Only a handful of landowners have been given access to the Memorandum of Agreement signed in 2000, which sets out their rights. They are to receive 65 per cent of all government royalties.5 But 65 per cent of nothing is still nothing. China Metallurgical Construction Corporation (MCC), one of the largest and most profitable of China’s state-owned enterprises – together with three Chinese steel companies – effectively own 85 per cent of Ramu Nickel. Rather than sell the minerals on the market, the owners may simply absorb them into their own production. No revenues means no royalties.

Letani Robin and Uaya Bodick point out the path of the pipeline through the rainforests linking Basamuk to the mine, which – like so much of the equipment used for the mining development – is stamped ‘Made in China’.

Government sell-out

The Memorandum of Agreement commits the Chinese to contributing an astonishingly low $731,000 to local infrastructure. While the companies say publicly they will spend $2.93 million2, this is still a pittance considering the 20-year lifespan of the project. How many schools and hospitals can be built with an amount like this? Taxing the Ramu Nickel project could have produced a firm support for infrastructure funding. But in addition to receiving a 10-year income tax holiday, the project is exempt from a range of other taxes – even the excise on fuel has been waived.6 And what will local landowners think when they read that the PNG Government – not Ramu Nickel – has signed up to build the all-important road from Basamuk to Madang? With no taxes from the mine, how will the Government fund the route?

Could corruption have been sitting at the negotiating table during the Ramu Nickel deal? That’s what the locals are saying. Why else would any government strike such a bad deal, they ask? They are good questions.

Outcomes like this are not new. They have surrounded the mines built by Western corporations in developing countries with weak governments for decades. In this, China is acting like any good capitalist. Sixty years ago China proclaimed itself communist. Thirty years ago the country opened its economy to world trade. Today, its ‘capi-communist’ approach combines strong influences of both.

China is driven by naked self-interest – the hallmark of capitalism. One only needs to look at the balance sheet to see China’s phenomenal economic success. The country holds $1.9 trillion in other countries’ currencies. It exports much more than it imports. And it owes no significant debt. Western Europe and North America – traditionally leaders of the capitalist world – look pale in comparison.

China is not interested in expanding the land boundaries of its empire. Having learnt the rules of globalization, its primary takeover targets are corporate. Like a classic capitalist it has neglected the rights of its workforce in pursuing profit. Like a communist its justification is that the rights of an individual must bow to the collective whole – a decision made by the government in the interest of the people.

The results are mixed. China’s meteoric economic growth has pulled an estimated 300 million people out of poverty – a remarkable achievement. But to get there China seems to have abandoned the welfare of an entire generation of rural workers. Many of the 140 million people who have migrated to cities to work in factories and on construction sites have faced appalling conditions. Shrinking incomes, high taxes and corrupt local governments have hardened the lives of those that remain in the countryside.7

The pipeline through the rainforests - like so much of the equipment used for the mining development - is stamped ‘Made in China’.

In China’s image

On the international stage, China’s approach initially sounds refreshing. Unlike the interventionist stance of the United States, China does not judge the actions of other governments, and urges others to do the same. Where Western donors often tie their aid to demands for human rights and political reforms, China gives with no strings. The country’s December 2005 ‘White Paper’ stipulates aid ‘with no conditions attached’.8 Its largesse is now being felt in every corner of the world.

China adopts the pure capitalist notion that it does not make a moral judgement about where to invest – business is business. Ironically, Western capitalists have been criticized for the same amoral approach. But in China’s case, communism adds a powerful new dimension. The pages of this magazine describe a country governed by autocrats in a system wracked by corruption. Its leaders feel comfortable with despots and dictators who wield power from the top, and provide them with support.

Over the past decade regimes violating the human rights of their citizens have increasingly attracted international condemnation, and have lost diplomatic and trade opportunities as a result. China’s aid and overseas arms sales will undermine this progress. It will invigorate governments that are corrupt and autocratic by providing new legitimacy and fresh foundations on which they can grow. It will stimulate government in China’s image. Individual human rights will be the cost.

These influences have arrived on the shores of Papua New Guinea. With the Ramu Nickel mine, China is also exporting its attitudes and values: dangerous work standards; support for a system of unaccountable decision-making that undermines PNG’s interests; and an uncritical approach to a government dismissive of its people.

I experience the results when two Papuan New Guineans take me back to Madang around 30 kilometres away via the Bismarck Sea. Our boat is a six-metre fibreglass dinghy powered by a small outboard motor. Daylight is fading. I am anxious. By the time we are on the sea, the wind has changed. The further we go, the higher the waves become. As the fibreglass shell slaps against the sea, I wonder what it would take to snap it. Thunk, thunk, thunk. My bottom slaps the wooden palings. Only a sliver of a moon now lights our way. The waves are two metres high. They strap me in with a rope. I will need to slide my leg out from under it if the boat capsizes. Thunk, thunk, thunk. We are all saturated. Snot runs from our noses unchecked. The stinging salt from the water pounding my face has reduced my eyes to slits. Is that a light? Is that where I should swim when the boat capsizes?

We pitch around at all angles for two hours. Then, suddenly, the water flattens. We have arrived on the other side.

Later I ask my fellow travellers whether this has been their worst crossing. They laugh. From the village where we departed, the nearest hospital is a six-hour walk along a dirt road, wading across rivers. And if you can’t walk, you die. Without a road, these people must continue to risk their lives on the sea.

It is as if their lives do not matter. And that is the most dangerous attitude China can export.

Special thanks to all those from Madang to Basamuk who offered friendship, hospitality and information during the writing of this story – in particular Yat Paol, Uaya Bodick, Letani Robin, Martha Mabb and Barry Lalley.

  1. ‘Highlands reports Ramu is making good progress’, PNG Resources, Issue 3, 2008.
  2. Ramu NiCo Management Ltd, Ramu Nickel Project, paper presented to the 10th Papua New Guinea Mining and Petroleum Investment Conference, 1 December 2008.
  3. PNG’s Lutheran Churches Head Bishop, Dr Wesley Kigasung (deceased).
  4. Alexandra Harney, The China Price – The true cost of Chinese competitive advantage, Penguin Press, New York, 2008.
  5. Clause 3.
  6. John Garnaut, ‘A very public privacy issue’, The Diplomat, Dec-Jan 2007.
  7. Read more in Chen Guidi & Wu Chuntao, Will the boat sink the water? HarperCollins, New York, 2006.
  8. Mark Leonard, What does China Think? Fourth Estate, London, 2008.

Cool Change 3 -- Get energized

Cool Change logo

Radical changes are already here

In both the North and the South, communities are converting to more locally-based, sustainable lives. Lucia Ortiz – from Friends of the Earth in Brazil – reports on a cooperative of 6,000 families who already produce half of their energy without a bill in sight. With similar examples from the United States, Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, explains the indigenous knowledge that can help us make this transition. (17’40”)

To listen to this episode of Cool Change, simply click on the play button in the audio player just above.

The full transcript with Lucia Ortiz and Tom Goldtooth follows:


Cool Change -- an audio adventure to discover how combating climate change can create a fairer world. Progressive people from Europe, Asia, Latin America, North America and Australia offer us successful strategies to confront climate change as well as some radical changes that are already taking place around the world.


Chris Richards:  Hello and welcome to Cool Change – progressive perspectives about climate change.  I’m Chris Richards and if you've been listening to other Cool Change interviews in these series you’ll have heard some exciting predictions already… how combating climate change can actually build more sustainable communities and start closing that canyon between the incomes of the rich and the poor.  Sounds great doesn’t it?  But how does it work in practice?  Well, let’s find out. Lucia Ortiz is a geologist who’s been working on biofuel issues with Friends of the Earth in Brazil.  And Tom Goldtooth is Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a coalition of environmentalists from more that 250 Native American communities in the United States.  Tom, what examples are inspiring you at the moment?

Tom Goldtooth:  Well, we’ve been working on climate solutions for the past seven years, making a much-needed transition away from a fossil-fuel economy to a clean energy system.  What we’ve done as indigenous people is start to look at what we could do utilizing our traditional knowledge, our youth, our communities and our families to start addressing this issue of cutting back our use of energy and also pursuing clean energy development. One of the things that we are promoting is the right and ability of our indigenous tribes in North America to develop utility scale wind turbines in the prairie lands of the United States.  There are 300 to 600 gigawatts of wind power that is available and in these areas many of our indigenous tribes are located. So intertribal council on utility policy – who we call Intertribal Coup – has been able to work with the Rosebud Sioux Lakota Reservation in South Dakota to build the first utility scale Native American 750-kilowatt wind turbine.  This was in 2003 and they started this initiative in 1995.  The power from this 750-kilowatt turbine does have enough electricity to serve about 300 to 350 houses and is expected to produce more than 2 million kilowatt hours per year for this indigenous tribe in a very rural and remote area. 

In addition to that, we’ve been also working on small scale, off-the-grid systems where there’s remote indigenous homes that in some areas don’t have connections to the utility grids, and don’t have electricity.  But through solar panels and small wind turbines we’ve been able to get some homes retrofitted to be able to have some electricity.

Chris Richards:  Let me bring Lucia Ortiz into our conversation now.  Lucia you’ve got a great example of a community that’s lifted itself up through building energy connections like Tom’s been talking about.  Tell us about that.

Lucia Ortiz:  Well in Friends of the Earth when we are talking about energy transition we always consider these examples within a political framework of energy sovereignty.  That means the sovereignty of the people living on their territories to decide on models of energy and local sources of energy and participatory and social management of these resources. So in the rural areas we have here in the south of Brazil a very, very nice example that is based in the Uruguay River Basin.  That is the river that makes the border with Uruguay and Argentina.  So in the south of Brazil it’s a river full of dams already built and being planned, and also with some conflicts between Argentina and Uruguay, and more conflicts involving Brazil also, related to pulp and paper industry. In the upper part of this river basin, the majority are small farmers.  And these farmers were depending on rural electrification cooperatives to have access to electricity since the 60’s and the 70’s.  But these kind of cooperatives were working just like any other private company.  So around the middle of the 90’s this associated members of this cooperative, the great majority of them being small farmers… they got organized through the trade union of rural workers and demanded social control.  They got appropriated of the cooperative because of their own mobilization.  It was a time that the privatization of energy service was starting in Brazil. So in the end, they saw that they could try to manage the cooperative and the energy services and they would get to know much more about electricity, technology, energy markets and so on.  They took up the challenge.  They decided not to sell and not to go for the privatization of the cooperatives.  And some years later, they decided that instead of buying energy that they could also produce their own renewable energy using the local resources they had. So now, they have two mini hydro-dams in the region and they can provide more than a half of electricity for the small farmers there.  And they are also researching how to produce biogas and electricity from waste in the region. And finally, with this big fever of agrofuels and large scale monocultures for energy in Brazil, they started to fear that this region could also be dominated by large scale monocultures.  So they decided to make an alternative and to produce themselves their fuel.  20 years ago, they were cultivating sugar cane to feed the animals during the winter.  So they started to use the same small sugar cane plantations that they had in a diversified way of agriculture to produce ethanol in micro-distilleries for their own use and for the use of the associated members of the cooperative. Now they can produce their own energy for electricity supply and they can also produce their own fuel to distribute the products and the foods that they produce in the region.  And they are now very much empowered political actor and also discussing energy policies at the national level.  And it’s a very, very inspiring example that we have.

Chris Richards:  Wow!  That’s a great story you’ve just told.  I’m wondering how many farmers are we talking about here?  How many people involved?

Lucia Ortiz:  The associated members are 6,000 families. Ninety per cent of them are small farmers.  And a few members are living in urban areas of very small towns that recently got electrification.  And also they have three communities of indigenous people, Guaranis and Cainguangues, that are tribes here.

Tom Goldtooth:  You know, world leaders are starting to look at indigenous people for guidance on how to make it through this convergence of a crisis related to climate – the peak of oil and depletion of natural resources.  There’s been such a race to exploit natural resources we’re starting to find that mother earth does have limits.  It’s indigenous people that through thousands and thousands of years that have developed a way of life, a philosophy, a lifestyle and values of how to survive on this mother earth.  And I believe that what we have to offer is a value system of respect. There’s a saying that my elders told me – in the work that I do within the Indigenous Environmental Network, I have to remind human beings to re-evaluate what their relationship is to the sacredness of mother earth.  Because somewhere in the past people that have been born and reborn within what we call an industrialized mind-set and they have forgotten their identification; they have forgotten their face as far as the relationship to the sacred. So if people don’t have that understanding of what their relationship is to mother earth, then they will start to disrespect that relationship.  They won’t have a sense of community or even family and they will end up exploiting the sacredness of mother earth. 

What we call indigenous knowledge is that here in the United States as well as throughout the world, we’re starting to tell people that we have to look at sustainable alternative economic models that’s based upon indigenous knowledge and agricultural societies that maintain our people since time immemorial. 

So this definitely challenges a commodity-oriented economic system that promotes consumerism.  One of the challenges that we have is to really evaluate these rapid economic growth systems and this quest for corporate and individual: to re-evaluate the waste that we generate.  The challenge is to look at green energy, green chemistry, clean production, and these are all overlaid when we talk about climate change, because it’s really requiring is to re-evaluate who we are as a society.

Chris Richards:  Yes.  It’s an interesting prism that’s you’ve just given us and one that isn’t being discussed enough on the global stage.  I’m wondering, Tom, one of the principles if you like of this new economic democracy that Susan George and Walden Bello were talking to us about, involves bottom-up change.  In other words, the people taking control of the situation themselves and doing it.  Do you see that in the projects that are inspiring you at the moment?

Tom Goldtooth:  Definitely.  You know the focus will be on providing integrated systems in societies whether it’s urban, suburban or rural systems in both the North and South: to look at methods and values that build upon self-sufficiency, equity, local and regional control even in governance structures.  So it’s going to challenge the way that governance has been developed over time.

Chris Richards:  Lucia, you said that that was one of the foundation stones of successful projects within Brazil at the moment… of communities making this transition.  Can you tell us how that works on a practical level, because it is difficult to get 6,000 families to agree on a direction?

Lucia Ortiz:  Yes, they told us that before this transition to social control of the cooperative, the general assembly of the cooperative used to be six people deciding on something. But when they got back the social control of the cooperatives, more than 1,000 came for the general assembly.  But before that they have these meetings between their communities. They go to the communities one by one – more than 30 different municipalities – and talk to the people there.  And they consult them about the priorities on how to use the income generated in that year with each kind of project. And everybody has a say about that. And they bring this to the general assembly.

So they also make a very participatory and democratic way of decision-making and this makes the community much more involved.  And also they have this practice that they don’t charge people from the energy bill.  They ask for each community to say what they are consuming of energy, so each one in the community has his or her own word about what is being consumed.  So it’s also based on trust.  So they don’t spend a lot of money like in a fiscalization, or a policy of the meters of kilowatts spent.  They really share this with the community and also this trust. I can see that they feel very much empowered and they also tell us about improvements in the production of food because of the access of electricity. And also the improvement in the quality of supply of electricity that is much more dependable and then they can also run small agro-industries in the regions, improving the income of the people.  And one thing that they really made up is to appropriate the issue of energy because they knew how to produce food, how to deal with local markets of food.  And suddenly, they were very much involved on energy policies, not only in the local level but also in the national level.

Chris Richards:  And have they succeeded in moving government policy in a national level?

Lucia Ortiz:  Yes because in the S outh, we have other cooperatives and they started to follow their example to produce their own energy with local resources.  Also in this process of making cooperative of consumption and production, they’ve shorten the distances between the production and consumption.  And it’s also a way to localize economies.  And you know that when you’re consumption is based on local production, you know who are getting the benefits.

Chris Richards:  Local production is going to become a real issue in urban environments where before they were relying on oil and gas through transportation to get all their goods into their cities.  And we’re seeing shifts in that now where people are talking about growing their own stuff close to the perimeters of their cities.  What examples do you have for us about that urban transition?

Lucia Ortiz:  Well, we think that the whole issue of peak oil can be a blessing in a way.  That can be very, very difficult for people in the city to know how to live.  We have big, big cities and more than 80% of people are living in towns.  And we have the example of São Paulo, the biggest city in South America is surrounded by monocultures and needs a lot of food and products that have to come from abroad, from miles and miles away.  This is going to be a problem for this city when the energy and the special oil that makes all this logistic available is going to be more and more expensive.

So in Porto Alegre – the city where I live in the south of Brazil – we are living in a movement that we call How to live in the city in times of climate chaos and peak oil.  We are very much inspired by other in the international initiatives like the Transition Towns movement and we work a lot with permaculturist and also with bio-architecture. The way that people get organized in the city, when they rethink about where all the things that they need comes from food especially, but also mobilization of people in the city… how they move from the places that they work to the places they live and how they can do it in a collective way without using any fuels, like using bicycles.  So these people in the movement that we call How to live in the city – we get together once a month to discuss and also to exchange knowledge about urban agriculture that is something that few of us know about because we are very urban people without this knowledge.

Chris Richards:  Yes, yes!

Lucia Ortiz:  So we try to share with people living in the rural area of the city and we also are very lucky because we have several settlements even from the Landless Movement in Brazil.  We have around the city of Porto Alegre many settlements with people already doing a lot in terms of agro-ecology and producing a lot of food that provides food for people living in the city.  And with this exchange and with these dialogues among people in the city and in the rural areas, it’s a process where everybody is learning more and rethinking the way that we can be organized in the city to be less energy demanding.

Chris Richards:  That was Lucia Ortiz, a geologist who’s been working on biofuel issues with Friends of the Earth in Brazil.  And before her, Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. 

You’ve been listening to Cool Change produced by me, Chris Richards, for New Internationalist Publications.  The music that’s just coming up now as I’m waving goodbye, comes from that wonderful CD Dig Dig performed by Bob Brozman and René Lacaille from the World of Music Network’s wonderful collection of music from around the world.  Check it out at www.worldmusic.net …. and talk with you soon.

Cool Change 2 -- Democracy meets the market

Cool Change logo

Climate change can change the world

Adjusting to climate change means many changes: cutting back on oil and consumption; getting the globe to agree on a direction that will benefit everyone and adopting a creed other than greed. Suddenly changes for which rebels and radicals have rallied for years may now actually become a reality – not through revolution but rather as necessities needed to address global warming. Two super-stars on the social justice stage – Walden Bello from the Thai-based NGO Focus on the Global South and Susan George from the Transnational Institute – lay the foundations for a new economic order that will effectively respond to climate change: an economy of the people, by the people, for the people.  
(27’47”)

To listen to this episode of Cool Change, simply click on the play button in the audio player just above.

The full transcript with Susan George and Walden Bellow follows:


Cool Change -- an audio adventure to discover how combating climate change can create a fairer world. Progressive people from Europe, Asia, Latin America, North America and Australia offer us successful strategies to confront climate change as well as some radical changes that are already taking place around the world.


Chris Richards: Hello and welcome to Cool Change, progressive prospectus about climate change. I’m Chris Richards and today I’m delighted to be talking to be talking to two superstars on the social justice stage whose many books and articles continue to enrich international thought and debate: Walden Bello, who’s a Senior Analyst with a Thai-based NGO Focus on the Global South and Susan George, Chair of the Transnational Institute.

Adjusting to climate change means many changes – cutting back on oil and unsustainable consumption; adopting a creed other than greed; and getting the globe to agree on a direction that will benefit everyone. Suddenly changes for which rebels and radicals have rallied for years may now actually become a reality – not through revolution but rather as necessities needed to address global warming. So combating climate change may actually offer us opportunities to build a fairer world. Susan George, you’ve just given a prestigious Schumacher Lecture. In your lecture you refer to the growing income gap between the rich and the poor that’s plagued almost every country in the world. You say that bridging that gap will actually help address climate change. How so?

Susan George: Well actually, what I tried to do was to show that we were in the midst of simultaneous crisis. So you have the social crisis. It’s a poor-rich crisis of increasing poverty and inequalities. You have the financial crisis which needs no introduction; everybody can see that. It’s the only thing in the news at the moment. And we have of course the ecological crisis which in my view is the most serious of all. And I think that these different crises interact and they reinforce each other because if you have a billion poor people, they are going to begin to destroy their environment, not through their own fault but because they have no other choice than to overuse the environment. But the rich are even worse on the environment because they have much larger ecological footprints. And the financial crisis is aggravating also the social crisis, etc., etc. So I think if we look at these three major crises which include of course energy and food, we can see that they are all structurally linked and that their solution can also be structurally linked. And that’s the important point which I’m sure we shall get too.

Chris Richards: Walden Bello, what do you see as the common causes driving, on the one hand, climate change and the other hand, the financial meltdown we’re presently experiencing?

Walden Bello: I basically see the same connections that Susan has seen here. Let me just say that I think we do have to confront the fact that this goes to the heart of the system that is dominant globally which is capitalism – global capitalism. The dynamics of climate change and the dynamics of the financial crisis really stems to the tremendous drive of the system to create tremendous wealth as well as tremendous inequality, especially over the last 25 years in the form of neoliberalism that has spurned regulation that would have pushed more equality among countries and within countries as well a greater and a more sane equilibrium between the environment and society. And what we’ve seen is this unregulated mode of production and consumption that has basically led to the dead end that we’re in now.

Chris Richards: You’ve been writing that the driver of the financial meltdown is overconsumption and the motivation is profit and capital accumulation – capitalism in essence. Many progressive people would say that that’s what drives global warming. Must capitalism be killed to effectively combat climate change do you think?

Walden Bello: Well I think that this is a time that we have to combine principle with pragmatism and go beyond the old “isms” over here. You know the system that should come out of this should be various from government regulation backed up by electoral coalitions that are pro-environment and pro-equity coalitions in power that in fact impose the regulations that would ensure that a market is constrained, is disciplined and is forced the channels that work for the common good and for the good of the environment so that the market does not go wild as it has both ecologically as well as financially. So that’s really what we’re talking about.

Chris Richards: Yes, indeed. Susan George, as a result of the current collapse of global financial systems, the public is more demanding of government regulation of the market and wants the greed of the very rich reigned in. Could the financial crisis as well as climate change help bridge the gap between the rich and the poor?

Susan George: That is what I am trying to push because I think that we have to look at the financial crisis as an opportunity. It was very hard to get the ear of the powerful. So long as the prices were all going up, everybody was happy. The bankers were making billions. The profit rate in the UK for the banks was 20% a year, etc., etc. You couldn’t tell people: ‘This is going to collapse – the world’s biggest casino – and you’re going come to grief” because they simply wouldn’t listen even though we’ve been saying this, people like Walden and me, for years. But now, they’ve got to listen. And what I am proposing is that we use this crisis to get the banks under control. That is the first step obviously. But then, that we get something in return for the trillions of dollars that they are in process of receiving. And what we can get are commitments that they must devote a certain proportion of their loans to green projects. The object is to transform the economy using a kind of green Keynesianism. You know, taxation redistribution, and use the banks: making them conform to a certain number of rules so that we can invest in research and development in clean energy; in construction which is energy neutral; in retrofitting homes that people can get loans at below market interest rates or no interest rate at all in order to refit their houses, put in solar panels, etc., etc. A whole range of ecological activities that we could force the banks to help finance. And then also, I believe it’s the moment to talk about international taxation of currency transactions of any purchase of shares. And also of corporate profits and of closing down tax havens, of getting rid of the debt of the south once and for all. All of these things have been proposed for about a decade by the organization in France and Europe I’m honorary President of, which is called ATTAC. And I think that it’s time to push it home and to try to unite people around such a solution because we could really get rid of both the poverty and equality crisis, the social crisis, and the ecological crisis by using the financial crisis.

Chris Richards: Do you have any figures for us, Susan, about how much that financial tax is likely net and how it could be applied?

Susan George: If you’re speaking about the currency transaction tax, it’s fairly easy to work out. At least until a couple of months ago, about $3.2 trillion was being traded everyday. So if you could tax all of the different currencies being traded but you wouldn’t even have to start by using all of them. You could tax just transactions involving the Euro for instance. But if you tax them at one-tenth of 1% right… nobody is asking for the moon here… you would have hundreds of billions. When I worked it out once I came to about $700 billion a year. You could even do it at a smaller rate than that.

Now we’re not, in this case, trying to use a tax that would discourage financial transactions. People sometimes say: ‘Well you have to charge a higher tax.’ I think that it’s better to charge a lower one, not interfere with the flows because the problem we have at the moment is one of flows and that hurts ordinary people as well as the larger companies. So, I would say one-tenth of 1%, one basis point in other words, and this would produce hundreds of billions.

Taxation now stops at national borders and so much finance is international that we’re missing the biggest field of all. Also, tax havens protect about 250 billion per annum from governments who otherwise would receive it in tax revenues.

Chris Richards: And is the idea then to apply those funds to acclimatizing countries – to protect them from the climate change catastrophes that they’re likely to face in the future?

Susan George: Yes, exactly. Not only that but also large Keynesian redistribution programs, exactly what was done in the Second World War, in the New Deal, which pulled the United States out of the depression.

Chris Richards: Yes, absolutely. I’d like to speak quite a bit about that just a little bit later down the track. But before we get on to that, Susan…Walden Bello, what new models of economic production and consumption would you like to see that can be cultivated at the present time because of the backdrop that we’ve just been describing?

Walden Bello: A private sector that’s decorporatized and relies on small and medium industries instead of these big gigantic transnational corporations – both financial and industrial corporations – that I think need to be dismantled. And then you really need, both at the national and the global level, a very active civil society that monitors and impacts on both government and the private sector. And I think the third actor, you know civil society, is really in my view the key actor because civil society is the force for democratization, both for politics and for the economy.

Now, what do we call this? Do we call this ‘economic democracy’? Basically, I don’t think the title or the name is what is important. It is the essence of it which is that production is made for the public good. Production and consumption basically are regulated so as to serve both the public good and the good of the environment. And basically, we bring citizens in to very active day-to-day decision making over not only politics but over key decisions affecting the economy. And we’re now entering unchartered territory with all the negative consequences that could stem from this coincidence of crisis.

But I agree with Susan that it is also an opportunity. And I think what we’re going to need – both in the advanced industrial world as well as in the south – electoral coalitions that in fact bring into power people supported groups and coalitions that would undertake this new agenda. So this is the task to build up the coalitions that would bring together this agenda for the transformation of both social and political relations.

Chris Richards: What you’ve just described sounds really exciting. Susan George, I know that you’ve been talking and thinking about equitable economic models that we can start introducing to combat climate change. What are some of those models in your view?

Susan George: Well I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t really have models because I think that those emerge from democratic practice. You mentioned the word ‘revolution’ a moment ago and I think that that has too many connotations.

Chris Richards: Indeed.

Susan George: It’s sort of… everyone immediately thinks 1919. My take on that is please tell me who the Tzar is that we’d have to overthrow and please tell me where the Winter Palace is (Footnote: Saint Petersburg home to Russian Tzars, which was a pivotal front during the 1917 Russian Revolutions) and I’ll go with you. But I really don’t see where that is and I certainly don’t want some command economy. Life is much too complex for that. So I think that’s a word that we can get rid off. What we are going to do is a progressive revolution. But let me introduce here a word of caution because let’s not forget that the last financial crisis in 1929, eventually led to fascism and to war. And unless the left is bold, gets its act together and as Walden says, forms broad alliances and coalitions, we don’t know what’s going to happen. This really is unchartered territory which is why I think that we’ve got to provide win-win scenarios. So that’s what I’m trying to do with this idea of green Keynesianism. Now purists who have “isms” on their agenda will not like this because they will say this is giving capitalism a new lease on life. And I plead guilty because that’s what it would do. But it would be regulated capitalism and it would be a model of taxation of redistribution. It would be a universal welfare state. We have to think much more seriously about the market. The market can provide useful services. I don’t want to have an argument every time I go out and buy a loaf of bread as to what the price of it is.

Chris Richards: Yes, indeed.

Susan George: But we can also decide democratically that some things simply aren’t in the market. And some of those I believe are health, education, water and probably pharmaceutical research and a certain number of things which now are considered to be sources of profit for very few individuals and a very few major corporations. And that’s got to be completely rethought because the market can do some things very well indeed. But there’s other things that it shouldn’t be asked to do because the market is unable to think about the future in any long term way. That’s one of our problems right now. Housing prices could only go up; stock market prices could only go up, etc. That’s classical bubble thinking and that’s what’s put us in the mess that we’re in now with bankers innovating and so on. So we have to get them under control. I think the banks should be considered as public servants and public services. And the stock of credit has got to be regulated so that ordinary people can get credit for homes and for home conversion as I mentioned earlier. I mean there’s dozens of things that could be done. But my main point is let’s not have preconceived models but let’s have a lot of economic democracy. So that out of our interactions and out of people’s interaction inside their own enterprises, in their towns, in their regions, etc., we come up with a model which would probably be very different from one place to another. I’m not at all sure that in the Philippines you should have exactly the same models that you have in France, to take our two countries. And so it takes a bit of time. Democracy is messy and it can be long. But for me, it’s the only way to go.

Chris Richards: In the Schumacher Lecture you just gave, you looked back and looked favourably at the Second World War economy. What were the features of that that attract you?

Susan George: Well you know I was born before the Second World War. I remember very well when I was with my father and we were going out to get an ice cream on Sunday. And he heard on the radio the bombing of Pearl Harbor and he went absolutely white. And this is really my first historical memory. And so after that, kids were very much engaged in what was happening. We could perfectly well see because everyone in the society was targeted. Kids were buying war stamps to finance the military effort. And the conversion took place in less than two years. It was absolutely astonishing.

Chris Richards: So everybody was part of the economy almost? Everybody was part of the economic…

Susan George: Well I lived in an industrial town which produced rubber goods and automobile tires. And within a year they had completely converted to producing for the military at Detroit; converted to producing vehicles. I mean the lipstick factory would become a cartridge factory, that sort of thing. It was amazing and it was done through a kind of social solidarity that the US hasn’t seen since and probably had never seen before. But it was also the New Deal that contributed to this solidarity between people.

Now, of course society wasn’t perfect. There were still worker-management conflicts. But on the whole, people got better jobs. The men were off to war. The women were working. Minorities got better jobs. The unions got stronger. And it was, on the whole, an experience which showed that rapid conversion is possible. And that’s why I wanted to speak about that conversion because I believe that to reign in climate change we need something on a similar scale. To me this is the big challenge.

The financial crisis is a huge challenge but that is something where you can go back and you can fix it you know. I mean you’re smart enough, you can start at point A and remodel the financial system but you can’t do that with nature. If nature is going off the track then it’s off the track and humans have absolutely nothing to say about that. So I think that’s the most urgent thing we must do and that’s why I keep talking about using the financial crisis in order to get the ecological crisis under control and that we do have an opening there.

I don’t say it’s going to work. Very often things that are obvious and should be done don’t happen because certain interests get in the way. And of course, the banks are already saying: ‘But no, but no. Don’t regulate us. We can do it. The market will do it.’ You know, the same old mantras. But I still have hope and I think that through publications like yours and these sorts of opportunities, little by little we can make this the obvious solution.

Chris Richards: I’m going to bring Walden back into our conversation now.

Susan George: Please, yes.

Chris Richards: Walden, I’m just wondering, is this the type of economic democracy that you would like to see?

Walden Bello: Yes, yes, definitely. What we’re saying here is that not only the public goods that Susan talks about but also energy industries, aircraft industries, car industries – the kind of industries which are very central to the economy. The decisions on whether to have those industries as well, their systems of control, should really be democratically decided. As much as possible bring into the arena of popular decision-making more and more areas of economic activity, and do not just leave this to the market.

I agree with Susan that there are certain things that the market is very good at, and that there are certain areas as economic life in which market forces would continue to reign. But I think what we’re talking about is more and more popular control over many different aspects of the economy. And I would also agree that the kind of mix between government civil society and the private sector that you would have would probably be different in different countries.

So there will be, in this world that we’re moving in to, a great deal of diversity, and diversity is good. And it’s precisely the kind of ‘one shoe fits all’ mentality that brought us both the centralized socialism that collapsed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and the free market model that has just collapsed after so many years of crisis.

Chris Richards: Walden, just going back to what you were saying about people around the world coming forward and saying, “Well this is the type of industry we would like to participate in.” You’re working from Thailand at the moment and in the Philippines. I know you’ve just been to China. Do you see that happening?

Walden Bello: Not in the scale that we would want at this point in time. You have embryonic coalitions for popular economic democracy. And I think that the formation of those coalitions does need to be really speeded up at this time. The thing is this, I think in addition to the crisis that had been mentioned by Susan, you have a tremendous crisis of legitimacy now among the elite in both the north and the south and especially here.

I’m in the United States right now. You can just see the way that both Wall Street and Washington had blundered. That is creating a great deal of distress among people of the traditional elites that have ruled in this country. So I think here is an opportunity at this time for more popular coalitions to emerge. But as Susan said, points of crisis like this can either lead to the left or they can lead to the right.

Susan George: Let me point to a very tiny point of disagreement with Walden. It’s really very minor and it’s a question of degree. I don’t know how far economic democracy can go and to what level of detail. Like having ordinary people decide do we need a car industry and what it should produce and that sort of thing. I don’t want to be facetious because we’re talking about very serious things. But remember Oscar Wilde who said: ‘Socialism is all very well but it takes too many evenings.’ And sometimes I wonder if people would really be prepared to go to all of the meetings that would be required for them to take a serious interest in everything that they ought normally under that system take a serious interest in. Or would this not become a sort of specialized ‘your organization does this and mine does that’? That’s fine. And maybe we could have that kind of participation but universal participation in everything; I don’t think so because it would simply take too many evenings.

Chris Richards: Walden, would you like to join in there?

Walden Bello: I think that we’ve just got to right the balance at this point in time. My point was that people have been excluded from the whole economic sphere. That has all been left to what they call the market.

Susan George: Exactly.

Walden Bello: What I’m basically trying to say here is that there are so many areas of economic life in which in fact people should be intervening democratically at this point in time. People in the area of the economy, they have been forced into the role of just consumers. Just like in the area of politics they’ve been forced right into the role of cast your votes and leave it to your elected representatives after that.

Chris Richards: Absolutely.

Walden Bello: But I think we’ve got to reverse that process at this point in time. That really was the point that I was making.

Susan George: I agree completely with that. And I would simply add that many of our basic necessities, we should be getting from much closer to home wherever we live. And there are movements that are going in that direction. Getting much more of our food and of our dwellings and probably of our energy. There’s no reason energy couldn’t be decentralized very much closer to home which would knit communities closer and allow that kind of participation because it wouldn’t involve such an enormous scale. But I think we are going to witness the revenge of Cain because governments are going to have to do more for social welfare. And the past 25 years have been the biggest period in history of the creation of inequalities. It’s absolutely staggering. I mean there are really now inexcusable disparities between huge wealth and grinding poverty. And we’ve got plenty of money to right those wrongs as well. We need the opportunity to change the world here.

Walden Bello: Let me just add to that because I think this is a very fruitful area of discussion. I think that I would agree with Susan that what we need would be a revival of Keynesianism, one of the things we will need. But it will be, unlike the Keynesianism of the past, a democratic Keynesianism, a participatory one in fact.

Susan George: OK, fine. A participatory Keynesianism it is.

Walden Bello: Yes.

Susan George: Participatory Keynesianism is new and fresh.

Walden Bello: Keynesianism is a focus on putting purchasing power in the hands of people and that’s really what’s been taken away in the last few years.

Susan George: Yes.

Chris Richards: That was Walden Bello, Senior Analyst with the Thai-based NGO Focus on the Global South and before him, Susan George, the Chair of the Board of the Transnational Institute. Excellent! Look, it was great talking with you both. Thank you so much for being with us.

Walden Bello: OK. Thanks there, Susan.

Susan George: Nice to talk to you, Walden. What are you doing in New York? Let’s use Chris’ nickel to find out what you’re doing in New York. 

Walden Bello: I’m teaching for six weeks at Binghamton University.

Susan George: Oh, lucky you!

Walden Bello: And then I’ll interview some people who have been crushed by the financial crisis in New York. This is like ground zero.

Susan George: Right, I’m sure. Well enjoy yourself and build from ground zero.

Walden Bello: You too, Susan.

Susan George: Bye-bye.

Chris Richards: Bye-bye.

You’ve been listening to Cool Change produced by me, Chris Richards for New Internationalist Publications. The music that’s just coming up now as I’m waving goodbye, comes from that wonderful CD Dig Dig performed by Bob Brozman and René Lacaille from the World of Music Network’s wonderful collection of music from around the world. Check it out at www.worldmusic.net. And check out the rest of this series on the New International site which you’re on at the moment. Bye for now. Speak to you soon.

Cool Change -- Degrees of neglect

Cool Change logo

Welcome to Cool Change -- an audio adventure to discover how combating climate change can create a fairer world. Progressive people from Europe, Asia, Latin America, North America and Australia offer us successful strategies to confront climate change as well as some radical changes that are already taking place around the world.

Politicians hold back solutions to global warming

The science is telling us that a two degree increase in global temperature will be catastrophic. Why then are extremely well respected policy reports recommending countries set their thresholds much higher than that – for instance, a three degree increase in Australia and four degrees in the United Kingdom? Australian author David Spratt and climate and energy campaign manager from Greenpeace in China, Yang Ailun, expose the reasons why politicians and policy makers in both the East and the West aren’t taking immediate action to address global warming.
(25’46”)

To listen to this episode of Cool Change, simply click on the play button in the audio player just above.

The full with David Spratt and Ailun Yang follows:

Chris Richards: Hello and welcome to Cool Change – progressive perspectives about climate change. I’m Chris Richards and east is about to meet west as we welcome two prominent climate change advocates onto our airwaves. David Spratt, sitting in Melbourne, Australia, is co-author of the book ‘Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action’. Yang Ailun, sitting in China’s capital Beijing, is the Climate and Energy Campaign Manager from Greenpeace China. And the very fertile ground that we will be tilling today is why world politicians aren’t taking climate change seriously enough. 

Davit Spratt, let’s start with you. The science is telling us that a two-degree increase in global temperature will be catastrophic. Why then, in the western world, are extremely well respected policy reports recommending countries set their thresholds much higher than that – for instance, a three-degree increase in Australia and a four-degree increase in the United Kingdom?

David Spratt: I think the sad truth is that western governments’ view of climate is largely delusional. That is, that they don’t understand the evidence base of the issue. And in many cases they don’t understand that they don’t understand. That is, there is a profound ignorance.In terms of the reports, one of the issues that we have identified is that both from some, and I must say not all, but from some of the climate advocacy groups and from some of the scientists, there has been a view that what they should say is what they think is politically possible; a sense of pragmatism rather than what is scientifically necessary. And given that there is now a large gap between the scientific evidence base and political pragmatism, we are seeing a discussion which will produce targets and results that will not solve the problem.

Chris Richards: Well let’s go into what these thresholds mean in a very brief and practical sense. What will it mean for the globe, for the people in it and for other species, if the global climate increases by two degrees?

David Spratt: Many of the climate scientists say that at two degrees, we’ll actually go over the tipping points. And we’ve seen that in the evidence now that in the Arctic North, the sea ice is disappearing very fast and some 80% by volume of it is gone. The scientists say in five years it may be gone all together. There isn’t a serious scientist in the world who will tell you that without Arctic sea ice in summer, Greenland can other than melt and Greenland is five to seven meters of sea level rise.

So what we have in place now at less than one degree is already dangerous because it will trigger large sea level rises. At two degrees, it will just be much worse than that. We know the Arctic sea ice will be gone; Greenland will be melting. We may be on the edge of starting to trigger permafrost. We know that the climate systems will have changed. We can talk about China where the northern monsoon is already changing. The monsoon patterns are changing very quickly. If we get to two degrees by mid century, much of the Himalayan ice sheet will be gone and the melt water that keeps more than a billion people alive.

So at two degrees, which seems like a small figure, because people go to the beach in the summer when its just two degrees warmer, they don’t think it’s anything. But two degrees… our planet has not been two degrees warmer since modern humans walked this planet. That’s the essential issue.

Chris Richards: I’m going to go up to three degrees now. What will we lose?

David Spratt: If we get to three degrees, we will have certainly triggered the melting of the Siberian permafrost. There is more carbon in that permafrost than in the atmosphere now. That means that the climate will just sweep out of all human control, all capacity for humans to bring it back to a safe level. It would mean that the CO2 level will double from what we’ve already done.

That means four or five degrees and (this is Jim Lovelock’s view) once you get above four degrees you kill the algae and the seas become half-dead that they’re so acidic. This is a planet not suitable for most people and most species.

Chris Richards: And so in terms of species, what kind of loss are we looking at?

David Spratt: Probably 80% to 90%.

Chris Richards: And four degrees, very briefly, what kind of thresholds are we looking at there?

David Spratt: Four degrees… our planet, we wouldn’t recognize – no rain forest, no ice sheets, most species dead. Lovelocks says once you get to four degrees you’ll get to six or seven because you’ll lose the algae in the upper layer of the ocean which draws down carbon. And he says you get to six and seven and the only part of this planet that will be habitable for humans would be from Melbourne, south and London, north.

Chris Richards: So Yang Ailun, can I bring you into our conversation now. China is governed by one party, the Chinese Communist Party. What is the CCP – the Chinese Communist Party – telling your people about how much the global temperature can safely rise?

Yang Ailun: I think there isn’t really a debate about whether it should be two, three or four degrees. However, I think that the government now is fully aware of the problem of climate change and also we have seen that climate change is already hitting China very hard. And so with all these climate change impacts going on in China, the climate discussion is very much in the context of sustainable development.

Government is quite clear about the kind of climate change impacts that China is already suffering. However, it does quite openly deny whether two degrees should be the objective. The excuse that the government is giving people right now is the Chinese scientists themselves haven’t looked into this scenario enough to say that two degrees is the right target for China or for the world. I think that the deeper reason behind that is, obviously, if the world accepts the two-degree objective, it means a very dramatic change of the way that we live. And I think that the government is concerned about what that would mean for the development of China; how that would limit the growth of China.

David Spratt: Can I ask one question? Just in my reading …the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its report last year, said it could be reasonably expected that the ice sheet on the Himalayas would be gone by the middle of this century, which obviously has devastating impacts on China amongst the rest of Asia, given that half the population of China live in the two main valleys who depend on glacial melt for water, particularly in the dry season. Is that understood and being talked about at all?

Yang Ailun: Yes. Actually, Greenpeace China led three expeditions to the Himalayan region in the last two years. And we try to witness the impacts there with our own eyes. We were really shocked by what we saw there. We took a picture with us, which was taken 30 years ago and the ice there was simply gone.

David Spratt: Oh yes, this is a very famous photo. I use it in my PowerPoints in Australia these days, you’ll be pleased to hear.

Yang Ailun: Thank you for that. When we showed this to the Chinese people, they were really concerned.

David Spratt: It just seems to me that China will probably suffer as much or more than any of the large nation on earth. Is this understood in policy circles? I mean even if it’s not on the front page of the newspaper, do you perceive that amongst policy makers and opinion makers these problems are part of their conversation?

Yang Ailun: We do see a very dramatic change in the last two years. I think that for a long time people started to feel that something is going wrong with our climate but then they might not link it directly to climate change. However, they talk very much now on Chinese media and people start to make this link. And I think that policy makers on different levels in this country, no matter whether they are on a national level or on a more local level…they start to know how climate change is going to really affect the people.

But on the other hand, there is such a large population of China that’s still below the poverty line. And when you [talk about] how these people are going to be affected by climate change, that means that all the economic achievements made in the pat 20 or 30 years are going to be gone very soon.

Chris Richards: This is a very important point you’ve raised because we’re talking about the god of growth here. And I’m wondering, first of all before we jump into that particular debate… in terms of what’s being said in China at the moment there’s no question that growth in China has brought, in the view of the Chinese Communist Party, 200 million people out of poverty. So growth is something that is very much chased in the capo-communist environment of China at the moment. Is that an incentive for the Chinese government to effectively ignore climate change; to actually play it down so that people will still support very high levels of growth in China. And what does Greenpeace think will happen if that is the reason?

Yang Ailun:  While people are celebrating the achievements we’ve made in economic development, people are also increasingly aware of the environmental consequences that we are paying for this kind of destructive economic growth. So across the country there’s a lot of talk about environmental protection and the very key question being asked right now is: is this the right way for us to develop? And obviously not, because for the last 20 years it’s very much only about economic development and the environmental protection has been so neglected. So how to correct it is really what’s higher up on the agenda. The government officials, on different levels… they are also the ones who are currently benefiting from our current development model. So it’s also about a struggle of how to break this tie and I think that the government, in order to still stay in power – it’s also in their interest to see that environmental damage is not just something that’s nice to talk about; it’s really threatening local development and, in some areas, starting to create social instability. So this is really something that they start to pay a lot of attention to, and try to correct.

Chris Richards: Can I go to David Spratt now about the god of growth. Back in the Western World, leaving aside what’s happening in China at the moment, David… you mentioned before that environmental organizations have been looking for a pragmatic approach just as politicians have been doing. One expects politicians to be taking a less panicked approached so that they won’t disrupt the global economy, particularly at a time when markets are crashing. I’m wondering what you see as the impact on the god of growth if we respond properly to climate change?

David Spratt: I think the Australian Government and western governments view growth as the determining policy and everything else falls around it. So environmental and climate change issues have not been integrated into policy, they sit on one side. And combined with that has been – particularly in the English speaking countries – an absolute belief in the unfettered role of the market. So all environmental policy must be expressed through free market mechanisms.

There’s a fetish, for example, with carbon trading rather than the state going, building, and doing what is necessary. And that of course has come up against the financial crash where the whole ideological basis for modern government… get government out of the market… has now been turned on its head. So there’s an opportunity now to try and turn that around, but they haven’t thought through this question at all.

I think the essential problem is that politics, in the West at least, is incremental, short-term, and pragmatic. It’s about getting to the next election: the next news cycle. If there’s a deep-seated problem, it’s about solving 10% of it, putting it off or blaming the opposition or somebody else for it. The political process does not come to grips with solving fundamental problems anymore.

Chris Richards: But this is crucial, isn’t it? I mean what you’ve just described before is this.

David Spratt: Yes. But they don’t know that their policies are death sentences. They don’t know that they don’t know.

Chris Richards: Surely, they must. I mean in Australia, the Garnaut Report is telling them this, the Stern Report in England was telling them that. We have very high-level advisors to government saying this is catastrophic.

David Spratt: I think there’s a disjuncture. I mean we’ve seen it in the Stern Report and the Garnaut Report where both of them said: ‘Here’s the science. It’s really severe. Here’s what we should do but that’s too economically difficult so let’s do something that’s really weak and won’t work.’ And that’s accepted. And that contradiction between the science and the policy runs right through it. It’s as if these people have had a lobotomy.

Chris Richards: But what you’ve just said is the market is always more important than the environment, the people in it and the species.

David Spratt: Absolutely. And we even have environment groups in this country (not Greenpeace but others) who say: ‘We will not say anything on climate unless we have an economic argument in our favour.’ So we even find environmental groups trying to frame climate issues within an economic rationalist context, which means they’ve actually fallen for the three-card trick.

Chris Richards: So does that mean that governments in the Western World effectively won’t apply the brakes?

David Spratt: I think they don’t want to. I don’t think they understand how to. I don’t think they’re getting the right bureaucratic advice because the public administration is run through and through with free marketeers. The scientific advice they get is heavily filtered. The media commentary is very poor. The IPCC is too conservative and if you want to cherry-pick the minimal things you can do, you can find enough people to keep you happy with a minimalist position, and that’s what they’re doing.

Chris Richards: One of the reasons why they might not be telling the people how bad it is, is that it might cause panic. And that panic might be bad for everybody, not just markets but the quality of life and the way in which people respond to climate change. Is that, do you think, a possible reason?

David Spratt: I think one of the problems is that the major conservation groups sometime ago, perhaps because some of them are involved in corporate cuddling and that sort of thing… (laughter) well they are!… decided that you should have a rosy, positive picture of what you can do on climate change because that will empower the politicians. And we’ll all feel good about it and we’re marching under the renewable banner and all these sorts of thing. And the consequence was that they played down the goals in order to have that sort of feel-good thing.

And as Ken Ward, who used to be Deputy Director of Greenpeace in America said: ‘The fact is that if we’re on the road to cataclysm and we need transformational action, then we’ve got to stop celebrating dinky achievements.’. There’s too much of that going on. Because it’s so late in the climate day, we only have one chance to do this right. A trial run is not an option. We can’t try a set of policies for 10 years, if they don’t work, then adjust them. This is not incremental politics. This is not like any other form of politics where an incremental improvement is an improvement.

In this it’s like the war. If you don’t win, you lose. You’ve got to do enough at once to win or it’s all over. You’re dead. And that is not understood sufficiently.

Panic is not a good thing. We need a careful, rational response based on a brutal assessment of the truth. Pessimism in fact; optimism of the spirit. You can’t play fancy with the facts because that’s delusory: ‘No, we’re doing really well. The economy is great! Whoops! It’s all broke.’ I mean, that sort of thing is not helpful. What is helpful is carefully analyzing where you are, working at what needs to be done and understanding that transformational action is possible.

Whatever the challenge, it can be done if there’s the social and political will because the Second World War countries spent between 40% and 70% of their economy solving one emergency problem. We have now a problem, which even Stern says is much greater than any war, depression or all of them put together. And we have these ridiculous debate about spending 1%.

There’s Churchill who said: ‘If you’ve got a big problem, in the end, you have to deal with it; not hope and pray that it will go away.’ And as he said in dealing with the question of the preparations for war: ‘When you have a really large problem you’ve got to be brutally honest about it.’ Spin works well with minor problems. With life and death problems, not being honest with people is in itself a death sentence and we need an honest public conversation. And if we had one, that will be the first sign that we’re on the right track.

Chris Richards: Yang Ailun, can I bring you back into the conversation now. Are you being brutally honest with the Chinese Communist party and if so, what are you saying to them and how are they reacting?

Yang Ailun: Greenpeace keeps a global line on what we think should be done to protect our climate here. So two degrees is definitely our task. The Chinese government actually… it’s very much exactly like what David has just described. This whole pragmatism about what is actually feasible for the economic development and what could be possibly done. But added on to that is an additional concern for the Chinese government which is the equity issue in solving this climate problem. So if we all agree that the whole world should do something to tackle the climate change problem, how much should the developed world do because they’re still responsible for the majority of the CO2’s already emitted. But then how much should a developing country … being the one that’s lacking of technical and the financial capacity… how much should a developing country do.

So I think that the fear we might not get an equitable deal and also the fact that after so many years of talk, developed countries haven’t really shown how much they are really committed to solving this problem, that thing doesn’t help. It’s also the fear about we don’t really want to be at the full front of this whole fight because if we would do that then actually we’re not going to make it fair for our own people. It’s this part that makes it especially difficult.

And I think if the government is sacrificing the interest of the environment, then I think it’s easier for environmental groups to come out and say that. But whenever there’s this equity issue between the developed countries and developing countries that come out, that’s actually what makes it very difficult for environmental organizations like Greenpeace.

Chris Richards: I’m wondering though, irrespective of the equity issue (and the equity issue is vitally important – what the minority world needs to do to compensate the majority world… countries like China… for the disaster that they’ve created)…. but I’m wondering irrespective of that equity issue whether there is adherence within China to an understanding that they can’t go beyond two per cent global warming and they have to keep their carbon footprint low to ensure that that’s the case? Or is there a feeling that they can go above that because the West really has to fix this problem itself?

Yang Ailun: I think there is the feeling that the country needs to, first of all, develop its own capacity to protect its own people. Whether it should be the responsibility of China to accept the two-degree objective, that’s something that we can put aside. It’s more about how to strike the best balance between development and protection – climate protection – for China itself. But this is a very selfish point of view because if every country thinks like that then obviously stronger or richer countries will be better able to protect themselves from climate disasters. But how about countries in Africa? How about countries in the Pacific Island? Those countries will be gone. This is really the mentality we need to stop, a country only acts in their own interests.

Chris Richards: Indeed.

David Spratt: What you’ve pointed to is a certain selfishness and given that the West owes the rest of the world a large carbon debt for what its done in developing its economies over the last 200 years, I suspect in the cases of China and India, those Governments are saying: ‘If we develop really quickly now and build those coal-fired power stations now, we can pull our people out of poverty before the carbon issue gets really, really serious.’. So it’s an attempt to jump on the train while it’s still at the station which, as you say, doesn’t work for the really poor parts of Africa for example. But I think there is a: ‘Let’s grab hold of this chance because it’s going to be more difficult later on’.

And the other issue I think which swirls around and around this question of the global agreement is that everybody is looking and waiting for everybody else. And everybody has got an excuse to wait. Everybody has a reason not to act. It’s the tragedy of the commons where if every farmer puts their sheep on the commons, there’s no grass for anybody but nobody wants to be the first to take themselves out of that situation. And it’s led me to the conclusion that we really need to argue strongly in our own countries that there is a moral reason for each country to act even if the others don’t.

Chris Richards: Ailun, is the Chinese Communist Party saying to the people of China: ‘We have to be careful. We have to conserve energy at the moment’? And if so, what is it saying?

Yang Ailun: The Chinese Government has actually introduced some very progressive policies. For example, it has set a target that by the year 2010, China wants to improve its energy efficiency by 20%. That’s actually a very ambitious target. And also, China has announced a target that by the year 2020, they want to have 15% of energy coming from renewable energy. And so China really wants to see itself as the global leader in renewable energy nowadays. These are very progressive developments and I have to say, for all those developed countries who are saying that two degrees is not possible, actually that is very much neglecting what’s already happening in big developing countries like China.

David Spratt: The thing we should not forget, as I understand it, is that China has more renewable energy installed capacity than Australia has total electricity capacity. So we in Australia should not look at China and point the finger because they’re doing a lot more on renewables than we are being a much richer country.

Chris Richards: Yes. Can you tell us about that debate in China between, say for instance, coal versus renewables and what is actually being done, Ailun?

Yang Ailun: Well the problem is obviously that China depends way too much on coal. We depend 70% on coal and we are developing so fast. So part of the reason why China’s renewable energy industry also developed so fast is also because there’s a huge demand. So it’s not like closing down something and replacing them with renewable energy, it’s just a big space for everything to grow. The newly installed capacity of coal-fired plants is also scary in China. And when you think about it, these things are going to emit CO2’s for the next 30 years.

David Spratt: Ken Ward who was a Deputy Director of Greenpeace in America made the point. He said: ‘When the global deal comes, the West will transform their energy systems and that will pave for the rest of the world to transform theirs as well.’ I mean if the United States can put $700 billion in one day into solving a market problem, that sort of money spent in China or India would go a long way towards solving the coal and energy problems. So I think the deal that nobody wants to talk about at the global level is that those with the capacity will pay for everybody to make the transition.

Chris Richards: Well that has been talked about at a global level. Whether or not it happens is the question. I’m just wondering, Ailun, on what you talked before… about the need for the world to see itself globally; for this to be an international debate where compromises are negotiated and made on all sides. This would be a turnaround for the Chinese Communist Part if they adopted that attitude. They have very much taken an attitude on the international front of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, and that a country should make its own decision and not question another country for making its decision.

Yang Ailun: Well, China understands that nowadays there is no way for China to escape and just pretend that we’re not there. Those kind of responsibilities have to be really taken on by the Chinese government and they have already shown willingness to do that. However, when they are doing that, they also always make sure that they bring up the equity principles.

Chris Richards: David Spratt, I’m wondering what you see as life being like in the developed world as a result of the changes we need to make to our lives to respond effectively to climate change.

David Spratt: I think the principle point to make is that the obstacles are not technological or economic. Solar energy, solar thermal, geothermal, even electric cars, limited use of biofuels, recycling carbon through the agriculture system, foot tracks where you can’t do electric cars and so on. These are not rocket science issues. These are questions of political and social will. I think the problem is that we actually have to transform and rebuild our economies and our societies in the West – how we move, the pace at which we move, how we live, our relationship, the size of our cities, the fact that we have to electrify our transport systems, our train systems wherein all the money goes in the cars and freeways. It requires the rebuilding of our economies.

Chris Richards: And our expectations.

David Spratt: And our expectations. I think a lot of it will be good. I think the principle problem is that what is required is transformational and this is outside of the political possibilities as conceived by narrowly concerned, narrow-minded political elites.

Chris Richards: That was David Spratt in Melbourne, Australia, who’s the co-author of the book ‘Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action’, which should be mandatory reading…it’s just a fantastic book… and Yang Ailun in Beijing, the Climate and Energy Campaign Manager for Greenpeace China. Thank you both so much for being with us today. That was illuminating!

David Spratt: Thank you.

Chris Richards: Bye for now!

Yang Ailun: Bye-bye!

Chris Richards: You’ve been listening to Cool Change produced by me, Chris Richards, for New Internationalist Publications.

The music that’s just coming up now as we’re saying goodbye, comes from that wonderful CD Dig Dig performed by Bob Brozman and René Lacaille from the World of Music Network’s wonderful collection of music from around the world. Check it out at www.worldmusic.net and talk with you soon. And check out the chats in these series at the New Internationalist website… www.newint.org. Bye for now and speak to you soon.

The War on Terror Boardgame

The War on Terror Boardgame

Andy Tompkins and Andy Sheerin talked with Chris Richards

Sitting on the couch watching TV, you hear the news that your country is about to invade another. Horror and amazement mixes with frustration as you realize how absolutely powerless you are to stop it. ‘Hang on a minute,’ said Andy Sheerin to Andy Tomkins as they watched the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. ‘Let’s make a game of it.’ And so War on Terror – The Boardgame was born.

Holding a mirror to the Middle East, the game is all about empire. You start with an empire, build it up through development, fight other empires; and liberate countries from the clutches of empire. Just as in the boardroom, the more oil you have on the board-game, the more money you make. The more money you make, the more countries you can develop and control. And if you don’t like the rate your empire is expanding, then you can always buy terrorists, or turn terrorists yourself.

People love the viciousness of it, say the two TerrorBulls: ‘Bill Gilman, a liberal leftie in the States, organized a War on Terror tournament. He says: “I’m a big fan of this game as it allows me to feel what George Bush feels in the war on terror – rewarding short-sighted policies by giving profits for oil and development even though these aims may help bring an empire down.”’ 

Spin the Axis of Evil to decide whose empire gets special privileges to terrorist tricks. That player then wears the black balaclava with the word EVIL sewn in red onto the forehead. ‘People buy the game just for the balaclava. Not the Kent police though. [In August this year they confiscated the board-game from protestors at a climate change camp.] The police said that it could be used to conceal your identity during a criminal act. Our balaclava actually labels the evil-doers. The police should thank us!’

Making a game of it: engaging in the War on Terror.

Image:

The two Andys – friends from school who had run a web-site company together – invented and designed the game, and invited Tom Morgan-Jones into their TerrorBull team to help publish and illustrate it. So far, over 12,000 of the games have been sold. Whilst the main market is in North America and Europe, it is presently being sold in 38 countries from Iceland to Ireland. Then there’s the odd order from Iraq and Afghanistan, where some serving soldiers are playing the game in Afghanistan and Iraq, including battlefield trainer Major Tom Mouat: ‘It is part of my job to be on the look out for novel, insightful, informed and up-to-date simulations that could help in the training of British Soldiers. I have looked at ‘The War on Terror’ and can safely say that it is pretty useless for any sort of military training. It is, however, a damn good game.’

But its popularity has not hit Britain’s High Streets where the retailers have refused to take it. ‘The big one was Virgin MegaStores. We got onto the right person there straight away. He said: “It sounds brilliant. We’ve got our Christmas-stocking meeting in a couple of days. Can you send us a game and a power-point presentation?” He told us to include a bit about market share, but we didn’t even know what that was. Instead our power-point presentation had rapid-fire gunshots with Country Joe and the Fish singing [their song lampooning the Vietnam war] “ain’t no time to wonder why. Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.”’

And to the TerrorBulls great surprise, the Virgin MegaStores ordered 5,000 games. ‘They got the first 2,000 and distributed them to 230 stores. But in the first day, a managing director saw it, and cancelled the contract. We had borrowed money to get them made. We were stuck with 3,000 games. We hadn’t been paid for any of it. If it wasn’t for the very kind interference of an investor, we would have gone bankrupt.’

An eight month legal stoush followed, which ended with the TerrorBulls being paid in full. And the fate of the 3,000 games? ‘Since Virgin (now operating as Zavvi) had paid for the games, we thought it would be a nice gesture to hand out the games in front of their flagship store. There was a queue around the corner when we arrived. As we handed out 100, the crowd cheered: “Thanks Zavvi!”’

The TerrorBulls have three more games actively in development: ‘You really can use board games to explore very complex issues. They a fertile field for satirical ambitions.’

And good fun. But can they shift political debate and public understanding? Says Andy Sherrin: ‘The more important terrorism became, the more taboo it became to talk it about it critically. We wanted to challenge people’s opinion about what terrorism is. As soon as you are able to start talking about what defines terrorism and why terrorists do what they do, then that’s thought provoking – it reopens the ground for debate. Day to day there’s many more people who are becoming more savvy to the political rhetoric. That gives me hope.’

Available from the NI shops on-line from: Australia, UK, Canada, US

Breathing again

Wali Wunungmurra (second from right) and other traditional owners of Blue Mud Bay celebrate their win in Australia’s High Court.

Photo: Todd Condie – courtesy of NLC

In 1963 a sheet of bark was presented in the Australian Federal Parliament. On it, 12 signatories from Australia’s Northern Territory objected to a number of pieces of paper that would have a great impact on indigenous lands – leases granting a giant bauxite company power to mine. The bark petition asked Parliamentarians to recognize what the mining leases did not – that the affected land and seas belonged to Aboriginal people: the Yirrkala clans. Wali Wunungmurra was one of those signatories.

Thirteen years later – following legal battles, an inquiry and a Royal Commission – Federal Parliament handed Aboriginal land reserves in the Northern Territory back to their traditional owners. But not their sea country. For decade after decade Wali and his people continued to frown as they watched the steady stream of recreational and commercial fishers in indigenous waterways rich in crab, shellfish, fish, turtle and dugong.

Until now. On 30 July this year, Wali Wunungmurra, now Chair of the Northern Land Council, walked into the High Court Registry in Darwin (Northern Territory’s capital) to collect a copy of the court judgment that returned the sea country to his people – the decision in the Blue Mud Bay case. He heard how, by a majority of five judges to two, the Australian High Court had finally recognized that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have exclusive rights to that column of sea between the high and low watermarks. ‘I felt that I could breathe again,’ he said.

The effect of this decision is massive. It applies to 5,670 kilometres of coastline – over 80 per cent of the total Northern Territory coast. While Aboriginal people have always fished these waters, this judgment delivers them control over whose boats come into their waters and what is taken out of the sea. Finally they will have a seat at the negotiating table on all coastal management issues affecting their sea country, from commercial deals on fishing rights to the coastal surveillance of refugees.

The judgment comes at a time when Australia’s new Labour Government is acknowledging what the conservative Howard Administration covered up for 12 years: that on almost every standard-of-living indicator – access to accommodation, health, education, security and income opportunities – Australian Aboriginal people fall tragically short of the national average. In health outcomes comparable to the poorest countries of the developing world, 45 per cent of indigenous males and 34 per cent of indigenous females die before the age of 45. Inquiry after inquiry and report after report have stressed that these appalling outcomes will only be reversed when Aboriginal rights and dignity are restored.

The Blue Mud Bay decision delivers a massive leap forward on that road to restoration. Even so, Wali Wunungmurra is looking forward to the next step. ‘To this day, indigenous people are not recognized in the Australian Constitution,’ he says. ‘Constitutional recognition will close the chapter in our struggle that was opened when we petitioned the Government back in 1963.’

Chris Richards

On the people's account

The People

Ask questions:

*Have you been down to your bank recently and asked the manager where your money goes once you hand it over the counter? You can read about one such encounter in Australia on page 18. Recent reports about the British high street banks allege that:*

• HSBC and Barclays have been funding aluminium plants in the pristine wilderness of Patagonia and controversial mega-dams in China and India respectively;

• Lloyds TSB have funded the Angolan Government for arms purchases; and

• NatWest together with HSBC, Barclays and Lloyds TSB have helped fund Asia Pulp and Paper, which has cleared over 280,000 hectares of Indonesian rainforest in the last 10 years.

Elsewhere, the Bank of New Zealand and Westpac have jointly won New Zealand’s prestigious Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporations in 2006 for ‘tax avoidance, profiteering, bullying of the Government and banking authorities, blatant attempts to lure Kiwis into debt and treatment of their workers’. Many of these practices also apply to the ANZ and ASB banking group operations in New Zealand, said the judges. In Canada, both the Royal Bank and the Bank of Nova Scotia have been accused of money laundering in the Caribbean.

So what is your bank funding – oil pipelines, nuclear energy, genetically modified agriculture, weapons of war? Imagine what would happen if thousands of customers went and asked about their bank’s investment policy. If you ask and don’t like the answers, then here are some ways to get more up-close-and-personal with your money...

Participate in decisions:

Banks usually have shareholders who get dividends, but rarely have enough shares to influence decision-making. Credit unions and co-ops offer much greater participation in the future direction of business, from membership through to opportunities to make decisions as a Director. Or, better still, start from scratch. Australia’s Bendigo Bank group supports communities wanting to own and operate their own bank in a way that both rewards local shareholders and ploughs profits back into building local enterprises and social infrastructure. www.bendigobank.com.au

Understand the policies:

Banks usually have unclear and ineffective lending policies. Some are breaking that mould. Triodos – which opened in The Netherlands in 1980 and now has branches in Britain and Belgium – has zero tolerance for companies that produce or distribute nuclear energy or environmentally hazardous chemicals. Companies in which fur products, gambling, pornography or tobacco provide more than five per cent of revenue, are strictly excluded from their investment list, as are those that follow unethical business processes, engage in animal testing or deal with genetically engineered products. www.triodos.com

The Co-operative Bank, based in Britain, markets itself as an ethical operator and performs a leadership role by supporting campaigns with NGOs – most recently ‘Combating Climate Change’ in partnership with Friends of the Earth. Read more at www.co-operativebank.co.uk

Reject products that discriminate against the poor:

Those who owe the most on credit cards are the least able to repay. Yet they are required to make repayments at interest far above the rates paid by those with sufficient security to take out a personal loan. Caps are needed on credit to keep interest rates in single digits. There are credit cards with single-digit interest rates – when you find one that suits you, don’t forget to tell your present credit card provider why you want to change.

Take control:

Suggesting to someone who’s in debt to cut up their credit card is pretty useless – it means that they won’t spend more on credit but they’ll still be saddled with (often large) debts. Those who wish to reduce the interest rates on their loans can obtain advice from community organizations that advocate for debtors (such as citizens’ advice bureaux or consumer credit legal services – the best ones can help to structure loan consolidations). Card debtors can also consider rotating their credit card debt through companies that offer new customers interest-free periods of between six and nine months – when the free period is over, move onto the next. You can read about the many ways to beat financial institutions at their own game at the Money Saving Expert website (www.moneysavingexpert.com) – although it’s British-based, many of its ideas can be applied around the world.

Act locally – shake convention:

For those wanting a more collective response, there is a brave new world of alternative banking that believes wealth is about more than just money. As a group, you might not get a 30-per-cent return on your investment, but you’ll be building community spirit and infrastructure.

Solari Investment Circles are local clubs that invest in their neighbours and neighbourhoods. In addition to pooling resources and developing local projects, these groups can also bring individual debtors into contact with neighbours who have money to invest and allow them to structure loans at less than commercial rates in a way that benefits both. Read more at www.solari.com

Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS). Groups of people (predominantly small business people) pool their talents and get rewarded for the services that they provide to other group members through a currency that can be traded for other services. The easy-to-follow LETS website – www.lets-linkup.com – contains details of 1,500 groups operating in 39 countries.

Think globally – rev up the resources:

The following organizations can keep you in contact with what banks are up to around the globe:

BankTrack – an international network of civil society organizations and individuals with a secretariat based in the Netherlands – has a revealing collection of research, publications and pictures about unethical projects that the banking sector supports, in addition to straightforward explanations of what banks do. tel: +31 30 233 4343; email: [email protected]; web: www.banktrack.org

Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) – New Zealand-based international network of activists who lobby, campaign and network to expose and oppose all aspects of the galloping takeover of New Zealand/Aotearoa by transnational corporations. Their annual Roger Award – throwing the spotlight on the worst transnational practices in New Zealand – was this year won by banks. Read the illuminating report accompanying the award. web: http://canterbury.cyberplace.org.nz/community/CAFCA PO Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand; email: [email protected]

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – an independent research organization concerned with issues of social and economic justice that reports on current macro and micro bank issues. tel: +1 613 563 1341; email: [email protected]; web: www.policyalternatives.ca

Inner City Press/Community on the Move (ICP) – a non-profit community organization based in the Bronx, New York City, which reports and organizes around such issues as banking accountability, community reinvesting and fair access to credit. email: [email protected]; web: www.innercitypress.org

Netwerk Vlaanderen – promotes an environmentally and socially responsible approach to money. It is running the campaign ‘My Money. Clear Conscience?’ to encourage banks not to support human rights abusers. tel: +32 2 201 0770; email: [email protected]; web: www.netwerkvlaanderen.be/en/

Tax Justice Network – a non-aligned international coalition of researchers and activists with a shared concern about the harmful impacts of tax avoidance and tax havens facilitated internationally by banks. email: [email protected]; web: www.taxjustice.net

The *NI* campaigners brainstorm group consisted of: *Oli Renton*, *James Clark*, *Paul Butland* and *James Robertson* with *Chris Richards*.

The kingdom of capital

Satire with sting: the activist organization, Billionaires for Bush, lampoons the values behind the current US administration and its support for the money makers and wealth takers.

Fred Askew

There are three things that I really hate. First, getting whacked with a parking ticket (well – don’t most people?). Second, semi-automatic washing machines (they know I hate them, so they eat my clothes). And third, banks. My dislike for banks borders on the irrational. I’ll bridle at paying even a dollar in fees – demand to see the branch manager to argue the toss. Never mind that the dollar I save loses me a much more precious hour of time. Of course there are many routine ways that banks drain my time. Their branch closures and reduced workforces over the last decade have helped banks’ bottom lines, but for me they’ve meant bigger queues. Nevertheless, there I am, still in the queue every month, holding my Visa Card, waiting to make my payment. When I’m still not at the counter after 15 minutes, I’ll start talking to the other people in the line – first normally, then quite loudly – about how the banks wouldn’t keep us waiting this long in one of the nearby richer suburbs. ‘They must think we don’t have anything better to do with our money than stand in line waiting for them to take it!’ It’s a silly statement really. Because that’s exactly what they think. And I guess, in the case of the overwhelming majority of customers, they’re right. I don’t know about you, but my understanding of how to make money is pretty limited. Sure, I work and get paid a salary for doing so. But other than that, it’s a bit of a blank. It all seems too complex. Reading the stories in the financial pages is hard work. In fact until I started working on this magazine, I had no idea what hedge funds and derivatives did. I thought that ‘parking money’ was what you put in a meter. The most obvious excuse is that I was never taught. But that’s usually never an impediment to me. The best part about being a journalist is that people don’t think twice when you ask lots of questions. Then again, in many communities, I’d be regarded as rude to ask questions that give a greater understanding about money-making: questions about how someone came by it or what they’ve done with it. It’s simply not my business. Bankers have stood careful guard in front of such attitudes for decades. After all, if you’re a dealer in money, it’s a great place to be. If people don’t understand, they don’t ask questions. And no questions asked means no dirt exposed. As a consequence, those Swiss bankers – who are portrayed as the epitome of banking professionalism because of their ‘discretion’ and their refusal to divulge any information about the accounts of their clients – have been able to hide the dirty proceeds of Nazi thefts and the syphoned funds of Africa’s corrupt officials for decades. Just last year, $500 million was returned to Nigeria – plunder that military dictator Abacha had stashed away in Swiss accounts. It might now be redirected into the infrastructure and health systems so badly needed in that country. Yet despite the need, the Swiss authorities gave up the money only after a protracted legal fight from Nigeria and only because the way the money got to Switzerland was so clearly criminal.

Manufacturing money

Under the shroud of secrecy, bankers everywhere – with their crisp white shirts and expensive-looking suits that say ‘you can trust me’ – have been left to get on with the business of making money.

They do it really well. British-based bank HSBC is making a million pounds ($1.84 million) an hour.^1^ Even the inner circles of banking are surprised by just how much money they are making at the moment. ‘Banks across the globe have not only achieved record levels of profit, yet again,’ trumpets _*The Banker*_, ‘but in fiscal 2004 they reached their highest levels ever of profitability’ with the top 1,000 delivering a massive 30 per cent growth in profits and ‘an almost unthinkable’ return on capital of 20 per cent. _*The Banker*_’s annual award for Global Bank in 2005 went to HSBC. It got the gong for successfully expanding its networks through 77 countries and territories. Its ‘strong presence in growing emerging markets worldwide’ has made it ‘well placed to take advantage of opportunities’. That’s a polite way of saying that trade liberalization has opened the door for HSBC to stroll in and make mega-bucks in developing countries – a growth in pre-tax profits of a whopping 50 per cent in Argentina, Indonesia, the Middle East and Turkey, and a five-fold increase in China.

So I should be paying more attention to how banks are making their money... and not just because they’re getting away with things that would land us mere mortals in jail. It could be to my personal advantage to do so. On those rare occasions when I’m holding a surplus, I usually put it into a term-deposit. Between 1 April 2005 and 2006, term-deposits with one of my country’s largest banks, the National Australia Bank (NAB), were attracting less than six per-cent interest. During that time NAB shares shot up in value by 31 per cent. Comparing returns on a possible $10,000 investment, the term-deposit would have delivered around $600, and the bank shares $3,100. A shareholding would therefore have delivered more than 500 per cent more profit. No wonder the banks are all investing in each other. Why, then, don’t I engage more with money-making? In a financial sense, I’m the only one who’s losing.

The Social Scrooge

Maybe my lack of interest in money-making has something to do with the aura surrounding banking’s bread and butter – lending. By reputation it’s always been a bit grubby. On the surface, it hardly seems moral to take one person’s money and temporarily lend it to another, making a profit from the arrangement. But that’s exactly what can happen each time I deposit money with my bank. They loan, they profit, and then they give me a share of their action as ‘interest’. More worrying is where my deposit might end up. For there’s no guarantee that, after I pass the money across the counter, it won’t be financing some environmental vandal or weapons manufacturer. For instance, Belgian-based NGO Netwerk Vlaanderen estimates that just five financial groups^2^ have invested more than $8 billion in companies that are involved in human rights violations. But when I ask where my deposit is likely to go, the bank employees look at me as if I’m wearing a pink hat with waving white elephants on it (– read more on The bang in the buck). What I want to hear is that my deposit will perform a critical social function: helping a family to buy a home; providing for an operation or an education; allowing a great business idea to become a reality. For cash-starved people in both the Rich and Poor Worlds, just one loan can pave the path from unending poverty to building a better life. Ninety per cent of the world’s self-employed poor – more than a billion people – lack access to basic financial services.^3^ By redistributing money for a profit from those who have it to those who need it, the business of banking can change these people’s lives. It used to be that simple. But these days there isn’t as much profit in doing business at a local level, channelling the community’s savings into loans for small business and homes – at least not when you compare it with what’s on offer in the world of high finance. At a global level, banks have transformed themselves into financial engineers creating a dazzling and ever-changing array of new investment products. Billion-dollar book-runners for transnationals and governments, they float enterprises, launch securities, trade shares and bake bonds. Now banks call themselves ‘wealth managers’. ‘Live Richly’, commands Citigroup. It’s advice worth following... if you’ve actually got some money. Savings – previously encouraged by banks as a source for their lending – are passé. The conservative bank manager keeping tight rein on the purse strings to ensure that we didn’t over-extend ourselves has been replaced by PR gurus sending us credit cards and urging us to buy! buy! buy! The result is life lived permanently on loan – at rates which, two decades ago, were the sole province of charlatans and loan sharks (see facts and Give them credit). The simple function of redistributing funds through money transfers is also being neglected. Across Africa, Asia and Latin America immigrants to the Rich World are sending large parts of their wages home to family and friends. This practice – called remittance – is so widespread that the World Bank’s official data holds a startling discovery. Total remittances sent through official channels – $232 billion in 2005 – are now more than double the total size of world aid. Remittances are making a staggering contribution to Majority World economies, accounting for more than a quarter of the GDP of countries like Tonga, Moldova and Lesotho, and more than a fifth of the GDP of Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina (read more on Transfer the problem). Yet banks have had to be pressured into transferring them. By comparison, they’re more than ready, willing and able to send the wealth of the super-rich speeding around the globe like a bullet.

Martin Adler / Panos

The clout from the castle

_*World Wealth Reports*_^4^ since 1998 estimate that around a third of the wealth of the world’s high net-worth individuals is transferred out of their home countries and held offshore. That amounts to around $11.5 trillion of assets that would – if not hidden away from the hands of tax authorities – accrue a conservative $860 billion in income (from interest and investment), which in turn should produce $255 billion in tax every year. These figures are so large it’s difficult to comprehend them. They mean that an estimated $255 billion – an amount comparable to the Gross National Product of Hong Kong or Greece – is being lost every year to the international community in unpaid tax.

While this might not be illegal, in moral terms it is international theft on a grand scale. Developing countries can’t stand on their own two feet unless they have a viable tax system to pay for their roads, hospitals and schools. Yet in 2003 more than half of Latin America’s cash deposits and securities was estimated to be held offshore, away from the reach of tax authorities.^4^ From 1970 to 1996 an estimated 30 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s potential GDP has been sucked out of the region through capital flight – most of it to offshore centres and tax havens.^5^ The $255 billion lost to the international community in tax each year should be enough to pay for the implementation of the Millennium Goals four times over.^6^ These goals include halving the number of people who suffer from hunger and have no access to water; reducing the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds; and ensuring that children everywhere have a primary-school education. International banks are at the centre of this scandal. They advise the clients. They arrange the transfers. They hold the money offshore. And – most importantly – they give the practice respectability and a legitimacy that is not deserved. But what’s to stop them? After all, they pretty much regulate themselves. One of the main standard setters for international banking, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), is made up of international bankers meeting behind closed doors – unaccountable and unexposed. You’ve heard of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but when was the last time you read about the Bank for International Settlements? Yet they make crucial decisions about the business of banking.^7^

Monopoly money

As banks’ sphere of influence grows, so does their influence. A string of mergers means that banks now hold more assets and capital than entire countries. They are now so big that governments cannot afford to ignore their wishes. In the US, the ten biggest commercial banks control 49 per cent of the country’s banking assets. The biggest Dutch bank, ING, has capital equivalent to 6.5 per cent of Dutch GDP, while Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse each have about 13 per cent of Swiss GDP. Even conservative magazines like _*The Economist*_ are asking whether there should be a cap on their size past which mergers should not be allowed.^8^ Add to this the fact that all over the world the main shareholders in the major banks are other major banks, and – voilà! – you’ve got an unaccountable industry that’s closed to outsiders. The National Australia Bank in my country is typical. Its top five shareholders in 2005 – holding nearly 40 per cent of total shares^7^ – were all nominee companies for other large banks from Australia and overseas. While it may be an act of incest, it isn’t criminal. It means that when these banks say that they’re trading in the best interest of their shareholders, what they really mean is that they’re acting in the best interest of themselves. Never mind if a bank makes a series of imprudent speculative loans that jeopardize the savings of its small depositors; if present industry standards encourage it, then it’s the right thing to do. When it turns out not to be, governments must pick up the pieces. After all, when tens of thousands of bank customers can’t withdraw their money, the angst rubs off on a non-responsive government. The Korean Government has spent nearly $4 billion on bailing out a single credit card company (see Plastic smiles). For 20 years the Malaysian Government has been rescuing banks that are owned by the well-connected and used by the well-heeled: making loans for speculative ventures that they’d laugh at us for suggesting (see Banks against the wall).

The Emperor’s new clothes

Then there’s that secrecy thing. Only last year the Swiss agreed to tax income earned on accounts held by overseas residents and send most of this tax back to the residents’ country (see Confessions of a banker). On its surface it’s a positive move. However, it was done to evade the alternative, which was to hand over to other countries information about the offshore accounts within its borders. Never mind the inconvenience and expense. Secrecy is the gold card worth protecting. It’s these systems of secrecy that need to be challenged. But while I’m standing at the counter of my bank – asking where the money in my hand is about to go as the bank staff still look at me as if I’m from outer space – questioning systems seems like an uncomfortable thing to be doing. As the queue of customers behind me continues to grow, I become patently aware of how little I truly know about how this place operates. I start to apologize, feeling embarrassed. Then I realize that the staff don’t know either – people who work within the system every day. Neither does the branch manager. Nor do the politicians. And suddenly it feels like asking questions is a very political thing to be doing. By asking questions, the right to answers is claimed – answers that reveal how systems operate and what can be changed. In each international banking transaction, how much money is being transferred? Where is it going, and why? These kinds of questions can help expose the lenders to human rights and environmental abusers; the assistants and advisors to tax avoiders and evaders – and dispel the appearance in international banking that there is anything like a code of honour among thieves.

  1. BBC, 28 February 2005.
  2. AXA, ING, Fortis, Dexia and KBC.
  3. G Howe, Chief Development Strategist, International Fund for Agricultural Development in a press release dated 16 November 2004.
  4. Prepared by Merrill Lynch/Cap Gemini, and analysed in Tax Research Ltd’s _*Briefing Paper – The Price of Offshore*_, Tax Justice Network, , March 2005.
  5. JK Boyce & L Ndikumana, ‘Africa’s Debt: Who Owes Whom?’ in _*Political Economy Research Institute Working Paper*_ no. 48, University of Massachusetts, 2002.
  6. The World Bank estimates that even if countries improve their aid, between $40 and $60 billion will still be needed each year until 2015 to achieve the Millennium Goals.
  7. For instance, a major international agreement that the BIS has drafted – called the International Convergence of Capital Measurement and Capital Standards (or Basel 2) – will relax the rules about capital reserves: the cash that banks must keep in reserve to meet their obligations to us depositors. This accord – which is now being implemented internationally – will allow big banks to decide for themselves how much money to put aside based on their own assessments of risk.
  8. R Cottrell, ‘Thinking big: A survey of international banking’ in _*The Economist*_, 20-26 May 2006.

Interview with Annie Kajir about stopping international logging in Papua New Guinea's rainforests

*The order came from a woman: a person you couldn’t ignore.* Energy seemed to flow from her – the type of energy that could mobilize people and stop bulldozers. ‘You follow me. I want you to see something,’ she said. So the law student obeyed. Following the woman on to her land in Wawoi Guavi in Papuan New Guinea’s Western Province, the fledgling advocate – Annie Kajir – was shocked by what she saw. River waters had been sullied by both soil loosened by logging and chemicals used to preserve the felled trees. Logs had been ploughed into the earth and now stuck out of the denuded surface. This was sacred ground – a sago-making area. But it looked like the aftermath of a volcano. ‘The way that they are logging my land, I won’t have anything to feed my children,’ explained the woman. Annie Kajir felt helpless. She explained that she was still a university student with not one law case before a court. But Annie’s protestations fell on deaf ears. ‘The woman turned to me and said: “You’re a lawyer. You stop the logging.”’ So Annie did as she was told. Back in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the lawyers told her that the case was too difficult for them to take on. Undaunted, she sent the brief to senior barristers in Brisbane who said she had a case. On behalf of the traditional landowners, she filed a claim. There was a technicality. The case was withdrawn. Annie persisted. By the end of her first year as a lawyer, she’d successfully defended a precedent-setting appeal in the Supreme Court of PNG, forcing the logging industry to pay damages to the traditional landowners in another part of the country (Warangoi in East New Britain province). Nine years later, the Wawoi Guavi claims are still before the courts. Of the woman who started her on this journey for justice, Annie says simply: ‘I can’t walk away from her. I see her all the time.’ Consequently, Annie is now the CEO of the Environmental Law Centre that she helped to establish. It’s work that regularly brings her into contact with her uncle, Patrick Pruaitch, the PNG Minister of both Finance and Forest – but in courtrooms, not kitchens. Through a stream of cases run by the Centre, she is successfully challenging the corruption of government officials who have for over two decades continued to concede PNG’s rainforests to the ‘robber barons’ in the timber industry. Around the world, forest the size of a football field is lost every second. In PNG – where illegal logging is nurtured by governments’ long-standing lucrative relationships with sections of the timber industry – as much as 46 per cent of the forests have already been sold as concessions to the logging industry. The Malaysian timber company Rimbunan Hijau dominates: through some 60 separate companies, it controls timber rights in an estimated three million hectares of PNG forest. The company figures prominently in the cases being brought by Annie and the Environmental Law Centre – cases that challenge licences on the grounds that they have been given to the company unlawfully and bring trespass claims for illegally logging indigenous land. At first glance it’s the dream of every progressive young lawyer who is straining to right the mountain of wrongs so efficiently bypassed by the legal system. Yet it has required the stamina of a championship boxer. Annie has been threatened many times. Having her boarding pass ripped up by a stranger at an airport is comparatively mild. She has been kidnapped, for which she’s received therapy. (‘I can’t talk about it. It’s under police investigation.’) She has had her laptop computer and bag removed from her dining-room table and stacked neatly on the balcony of her home as she slept. She’s got the message: ‘They’re saying: “Who do you think you are? There’s nowhere you’re going to hide!” That’s why my children don’t live with me. They are living with my parents. [But] their threats will not stop me. If that means they will take my life, then so be it.’ No wonder her bravery has been acknowledged this year with a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. As persistence builds her credibility, the doors to international politicians are opening so that she can put her present case: ‘A lot of the illegal timber is bought by China and Japan, then converted to products that are sold in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. It’s coming from areas that are destroying livelihoods – destroying people. So by buying these products you are buying into genocide.’ The Europeans are paying attention. After steady campaigning by Greenpeace, there’s been a significant drop in the EU market for products made from illegally obtained PNG wood. Now Annie is off to China to deliver the message. Just how difficult will it be for a woman from PNG to get an audience within the Chinese Communist Party? Annie’s response is typical: ‘I have no idea yet, but I’m going to try.’

Annie Kajir talked with Chris Richards

Pages