Friday 30 March 2018

Will Labour’s climate policy rely on monstrous techno-fixes like BECCS?

Written by Gabriel Levy and first published at People and Nature

Will a future Labour government perpetuate myths about monstrous techno-fixes for climate change? Or advocate radical policies to deal with global warming that don’t heap the pain on the global south, and industrial strategies to hasten the transition away from a fossil-fuel-centred economy?

This question was raised – by implication, anyway – at the Campaign Against Climate Change conference in London on Saturday 10 March. The 200 people present heard essentially opposing answers from Barry Gardiner, Labour’s front-bench spokesman on climate change, and Asad Rehman, chief executive of War on Want.

The contrasting approaches were starkly evident when a question was asked from the floor about Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – an untried technology on which the world’s most powerful governments are relying heavily to claim they are on course to meet their climate targets.

Basically, BECCS would involve growing plants, burning them in power stations, and then capturing the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted and storing it somewhere. (See also “Quick technological catch-up” below).

Despite the fact that BECCS has never been used anywhere yet, the latest (fifth) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has included huge amounts of it in its scenarios that plot how the world economy could move away from dangerous global warming. To make the numbers add up, the IPCC has also assumed huge amounts of afforestation (because trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere). These dodgy scenarios underpinned the decisions of the 2015 Paris climate summit.

Scientists have spoken out vehemently against the IPCC scenarios, arguing that nothing has been said about where land would be found to grow the enormous number of crops needed, and where the water would be found to feed them. And not enough has been said about the logistical problems of storing vast quantities of captured CO2.

Development campaigners say that BECCS could easily become a way of heaping more suffering on the global south – by taking land and water that could be better used for farming – to protect the global north’s carbon-heavy economic life style.

But when the issue was raised at Saturday’s conference, Labour’s Barry Gardiner insisted that the 2015 Paris climate summit – that adopted plans for tackling global warming that rely heavily on BECCS and other untested “negative emissions” technologies – had shown the way forward.

He underlined the role of “negative emissions”, and particularly afforestation (an issue on which he has worked for many years) – and highlighted the danger of continuing deforestation in Brazil.

Gardiner also argued that the Paris summit, by abandoning the idea of legally-binding emissions reduction targets, and instead collecting (inadequate) voluntary targets from nations, was an important step forward. He claimed that at Paris the world’s governments had moved from a “top down” to a “bottom up” approach.

Asad Rehman of War on Want said that the Paris summit had reflected the unequal and exploitative relationship between rich countries and the global south.

“The global north didn’t want to do its fair share to reduce emissions”, he said. “This is the reality of weak, ineffectual economic architecture.” And it was “not about Trump [who was elected in 2016, after Paris] – it was about Obama”. (I agree that Paris solved nothing, and wrote about it in the run-up to the talks.)

Professor Joanna Haigh, co-director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, who was also on the panel, acknowledged that “negative emissions” technologies such as BECCS are used in all the IPCC’s scenarios that lead to zero carbon. 

She said she was “very worried” about the complex resources issues raised by BECCS.

Of all the discussions at the well-attended, well-organised conference, this was in my view the most revealing.

It made me wonder: if Labour is elected, is it going to support the rich-world fiction that the economy can trundle along, and massage the greenhouse gas emissions figures with “market mechanisms”? Is it going to join other rich country governments and focus on trying to protect themselves from the volatile weather, rising sea levels and other effects of climate change? Or is it going to tell the truth about the failure of the international climate talks to find a solution, and urge more radical strategies?

If Barry Gardiner’s approach – that the Paris agreement “really does change everything” and “negative emissions” technologies can help – prevails, the UK under Labour will remain in the ranks of the rich countries that keep pushing the global warming problem on to the backs of people in the global south.

If by contrast a future Labour government is to take seriously Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion that climate change is “the single most important issue facing humanity”, it would need strong action outside parliament, to push it further.

I am not expecting or asking that a future Labour government “solves” the climate crisis. That would be stupid. But there’s nothing to stop Labour politicians telling the truth to their supporters, and to people all over the world who stand to suffer due to global warming.

Would a Labour government adopt an uncritical attitude to the international climate agreements, their neoliberal underpinning, and the international climate agreements, and the “negative emissions” fiction at their centre? Throwing out these illusions might give some teeth to some of the more radical proposals for moving away from fossil fuels under discussion in the party. 

Discussions about curtailing billions of pounds worth of subsidies to fossil fuel industries, or nationalising the “big six” in electricity generation and starting the move towards a decentralised, renewables-centred system will not get far if they are mired in the context of a Paris-talks-type “green new deal”.

Let’s hope there are more scientists at future labour movement events on climate policy. Some of them would soon put Barry Gardiner straight about the Paris summit and its reliance on “negative emissions”. Warnings have been sounded, for example, by:

Philip Williamson of the University of East Anglia, science coordinator at the Natural Environment Research Council, who warns in an article in Nature that the IPCC’s five-thousand-page fifth assessment report relies heavily on BECCS in its climate policy scenarios, but says not a word about “the environmental impacts of large-scale CO2 removal”.

Planting the necessary number of trees could involve “more release than uptake of greenhouse gases, at least initially”, due to land clearance, fertiliser use and so on. It could take up a land area about half the size of the USA. Such a huge land-use change would “vastly accelerate the loss of primary forest and natural grassland”.

Williamson concludes: “For now, action should focus on urgent emissions reductions and not on an unproven ‘emit now, remove later’ strategy.”

The head of Oxford University’s geoengineering programme, and a couple of other high-flying colleagues, who – despite supporting the idea of “negative emissions” in principle – derided the Paris summit’s reliance on BECCS in its scenarios. It is “hazardous to rely on science fiction in the development of scenarios used to inform policymakers”, they argued. Scenarios that “employ entirely speculative approaches”, such as large-scale BECCS, seem “reckless in the extreme”.

They added: “For a technology to be deployable it needs not only to work, but also to possess a social licence to operate.” The use of land for BECCS would “restrict agriculture” and drive up food prices. “Politically, the issue seems so toxic that the Paris Agreement carefully avoided mentioning negative emissions at all.”

A team at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research that tested the IPCC’s scenarios and concluded that planting trees or grasses “on a grand scale” for BECCS “would push the planet beyond ecological limits in other dimensions”, and specifically, stresses on “biodiversity, biogeochemical flows, water resources and land use”.

Dieter Garten, one of the researchers, said: “Our work substantiates that it would be highly risky to play only this card as a strategy for achieving the climate targets”. Vera Heck, who led the research, warned that if all-round “ecological guidelines”, including those for land and water use, are taken into account, “the potential for biomass and CCS is very small”.

How many different ways do they have to say it before some politicians get the message?

Quick technological catch-up

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) works like this: crops grown for the purpose are burned in power stations to provide energy, and the carbon dioxide produced is captured for secure long-term storage.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) can also (supposedly) be used on power stations burning coal, oil or gas.

CCS has yet to be operated at scale anywhere. Power companies regard it as “uneconomic” and say they will fit it when the numbers add up. Meanwhile they are building hundreds of coal-fired stations without the CCS fig-leaf.

According to the Global CCS Institute, an industry association, at the end of 2017 there were 17 CCS facilities in existence. The Institute described these as “large scale”, but the power stations at which they are deployed are smaller than average.

The Institute says that CCS is removing 37 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year, i.e. about one-thousandth of the quantity emitted by fossil fuel use.

If CCS was ever to be operated at large scale, one of the big technological headaches would be finding places to store the CO2. (Trade Unions for Energy Democracy made a strong case for rethinking union support for CCS. Highly recommended.)

On top of these problems that apply to all CCS, the big additional problem for BECCS is the vast quantities of land and water that would have to be used.

If you haven’t heard of BECCS until now, don’t worry, it’s not you. Not long ago, no-one had heard of it. Carbon Brief have published a fascinating history of the concept, showing that it went from being floated as an untested hypothesis in 2001 to being included in climate scientists’ scenarios for the future a few years later.

From 2005 onwards, climate policy forecasters started to include it in scenarios, “often to the point that they grew reliant on it”, Leo Hickman of Carbon Brief writes. “In little more than a decade, BECCS had gone from being a highly theoretical proposal for Sweden’s paper mills to earn carbon credits, to being a key negative emissions technology underpinning the modelling, promoted by the IPCC, showing how the world could avoid dangerous climate change this century.”

Michael Obersteiner, who wrote the first scientific paper on BECCS, told Carbon Brief that some people have misinterpreted his work. The concept was “unfortunately misused for regular [emissions pathway] scenarios and not in a risk management sense”. His argument had been to use BECCS “as a backstop technology in case we got bad news from the climate system”, not as a substitute for a strategy “to plan climate mitigation”.

Philip Williamson’s article in Nature is a good primer for non-scientists on some of the controversies around BECCS. A primer from Biofuelwatch is useful too.

Thursday 29 March 2018

Council Tax Rise is a Sticking Plaster for Local Service Cuts

The Council Tax levels set by local authorities in 2018-19, in England, was released yesterday and has been published on the government’s website here. The main headlines are:

The average Band D council tax set by local authorities in England for 2018-19 will be £1,671 which is an increase of £81 or 5.1% on the 2017-18 figure of £1,591.

In 2018-19, 148 out of 152 adult social care authorities will utilise some or all of the 3% adult social care precept flexibility when setting their council tax. This additional flexibility accounts for £30 of the average Band D council tax bill.

The average area Band D council tax will be £1,405 in London (an increase of £55 when compared to 2017-18), £1,658 in metropolitan areas (+£83), £1,728 (+£88) in unitary areas and £1,749 (+£86) in shire areas.

The council tax requirement in 2018-19 is £29.6 billion, of which £538 million (1.8%) will be raised through the adult social care precept, and £518 million (1.8%) will be raised through parish precepts.

The biggest year-on-year rises of £86 are found in predominantly Conservative-run county councils.

The rise is the biggest annual increase for thirteen years.

Since the Tories came to power (in coalition with the Lib Dems) in 2010, local government has borne the brunt of public spending cuts. On average local authorities have had their funding from central government cut by more than half. Things like, libraries, leisure centres, community centres, local bus services, women’s refuges, children’s and adult social care services have been reduced or closed down completely.

Local authorities are by law required to produce balanced budgets each year, and inevitably with less money to spend, services need to be cut back. This is the reality these days in local government, it is all about reducing public expenditure, not providing the local services that their residents rely on. A library, a community centre or local bus service are competing for a reduced pot of money. Hard choices are being made by local politicians, there is no avoiding it.

Until last year, council tax rises were capped at below 2%, unless a local referendum voted in favour of a higher percentage increase. Few of these have been held, and none have been endorsed by the voters, unsurprisingly. People rarely vote to pay more in tax, and even those in favour of a rise, tend to be less motivated to vote than those opposed to a rise.

From last year, in addition to the 2% general rise in council tax, councils have been allowed to raise 3% more, which is ringfenced for spending on adult social care, without recourse to a referendum. This year the general rate can be raised by up to 3%, without a referendum. Local authorities have been quick to make use of the higher rates, as the government’s release confirms.

A National Audit Office report earlier this month said the finances of many local authorities  were unsustainable in the long term, with one in ten councils providing social care responsibilities vulnerable to insolvency because of rising demand and shrinking financial resources. Northamptonshire County Council has already gone bust, with local Tory MPs blaming the local Tory council and the council blaming central government cuts.

The fastest rising cost to local authorities is in the area of adult social care, which is why the government has allowed extra specific council tax rises to try to plug the funding gap. The £538 million that will be raised this year from the extra 3% rate rise is a fraction of what is needed though. The Local Government Association (LGA) called on the chancellor, prior to last Autumn’s budget, to fund what they say is a £5.3 billion funding shortfall in adult social care provision.

Lord Porter, the Tory chair of the LGA commented on the government figures:

“The need for adequate funding for local government is urgent. We have repeatedly warned of the serious consequences of funding pressures facing services caring for the elderly and disabled, protecting children and tackling homelessness for the people that rely on them and the financial sustainability of other services councils provide.”

That sums up the situation pretty well, and the government’s only response is to say that a Green Paper on the issue will be published in the summer. A Green Paper is basically a government consultation whereby views are sought from all those concerned with a particular policy area. They are often used to kick a thorny issue into the long grass, so it is to be hoped that this is a serious attempt to find a way forward by the government.

If we want to live in a civilised country, which provides for those in need, public services, both locally provided and nationally, will have to be funded properly. The only fair way to do this is through centralised taxation, but as we know, the Tories are ideologically opposed to this, especially for the most able to afford to pay it, the wealthy. I’m not too confident that this is a serious attempt to resolve social care funding, but maybe I will be proved wrong? 

Tuesday 27 March 2018

Theresa May’s Response to Outing Gay People is Cynical and Irresponsible

Defending her political secretary, Stephen Parkinson, in Parliament on Monday, the prime minister, when asked about the Brexit whistle-blower Shahmir Sanni, being outed as gay, by Parkinson, trotted out the most trite of replies.

Sanni, who is of Pakistani origin told the Guardian he had the “most awful weekends” after revealing details of the Vote Leave campaign getting around spending limits at the 2016 EU referendum. Money was channelled through a separate campaigning group BeLeave, who have links to Cambridge Analytica, the company accused of misusing personal data gathered by Facebook, for the referendum campaign. Sanni was forced to admit to his family still living in Pakistan that he is gay.

Being gay in Pakistan is a much bigger deal than in Britain, and this news could well endanger Sanni’s family. Why Parkinson decided to make public the fact he and Sanni had had an eighteen month relationship, is not entirely clear, but it certainly looks like an attempt to smear Sanni’s revelations in some way as unreliable.

In response to a question from Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who highlighted the danger posed to Sanni and his family and concluded by saying:

“It’s a disgrace, prime minister, you need to do something about it.”

The prime minister intends to do nothing about it, it appears:

May said: “I of course recognise the importance of ensuring that we do recognise that for some being outed as gay is difficult because of their family circumstances. What I want to see is a world where everybody is able to be confident in their sexuality and doesn’t have to worry about such things.”

Well we all want to see that, but how is this going to be achieved? Not by mere wishful thinking that is for sure, or outing gay people with family connections outside the UK. Surely May bears some responsibility for what her political secretary puts into the public domain, especially on such a sensitive and potentially life threatening issue like this?

May seems completely incapable of thinking on her feet, and has become infamous for her robotic standard line responses to questions in Parliament and from journalists alike. I can’t ever really remember her giving a straight answer to a straight question, preferring instead to say something which is vacuous, often baffling and seemingly designed to put her audience to sleep.

I expect May’s defence of Parkinson, who worked at the Vote Leave campaign, where he met Sanni, like everything else May does, is designed to appease the hard Brexiters in her Cabinet and Parliamentary party. To sack Parkinson would likely stir unrest, amongst an increasingly worried Eurosceptic faction in the Tory party.

The accusations of breaking electoral law by Vote Leave and its association with the dubious behaviour, to say the least, of Cambridge Analytica threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the referendum result, and so to make it less likely that we will leave the EU. It does seem that almost everyday some news comes out that is unsupportive at best, and often quite damning about Brexit itself.

The wheels appear to be falling off the Brexit wagon, one by one, and there aren’t too many left now. Maybe, the momentum is with remaining in the EU now, or to take the softest of Brexits, anyway. Time will tell.

For this slide in public perception on Brexit to be used as a motive for possibly putting lives in danger is truly outrageous and disgraceful. What was the purpose of Parkinson outing Sanni? I can see no other motivation, other than to try and muddy the waters around the actions of the Vote Leave campaign. The fact we haven’t been offered a suitable explanation, from the prime minister or anyone else does lead people to draw their own conclusions.

Will you give us a straight answer to the question of why Sanni was outed for being gay, Mrs May? I won’t hold my breath, I don’t think May is likely to change the habit of a political lifetime, so you will have to make your own minds up.  

Sunday 25 March 2018

Book Review - Time for Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth

Written by Allan Todd

You just never know what to expect! Keswick’s annual literary festival, Words By The Water, has previously thrown up some ‘interesting’ events: including the appearance of a war criminal in 2013 (Jack Straw) and, this year, of a neoliberal now desperately trying to claim that, despite voting FOR the Bedroom Tax, he was always against austerity (Vince Cable)!

This year’s festival has just ended. Whilst I expected to be buying several books connected to the various interesting talks for which I’d booked tickets, I never expected to come away convinced of the need for a doughnut! But that is exactly what happened!

However, the ‘doughnut’ in question isn’t one of those delightful sugary & fatty ones that, sadly, aren’t that good for you: instead it’s one that is VITAL for the health of the planet! It’s a ‘doughnut’ that we all really need - but one that is especially needed by the world’s current crop of politicians and economists. Though it’s not one neoliberals will be keen on. Maybe, like the women who went on hunger strike 100 years ago, as part of their struggle to gain the vote, we shall just have to force feed these particular economists and politicians!

The essence of the Doughnut: a social foundation of well-being that no one should fall below, and an ecological ceiling of planetary pressure that we should not go beyond. Between the two lies a safe and just space for all.
Kate Raworth, 2017.

Early Eco-Socialism and the planet

In early 1848, The Communist Manifesto - written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels - was published. While it is widely known that Marx and Engels wanted social and economic justice, these two - until recently - have not been seen as having been very concerned about environmental issues.

However, it is now increasingly recognised that they were, in fact, early Eco-Socialists who were fully aware of how the capitalist Industrial Revolution of the 19th. C. was threatening the environment, and of the need for economic development to be in harmony with the natural world and thus sustainable. 

Their short 1848 book began with this famous short sentence:

‘A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism.’ 

Now, 170 years since their book was first published, a new spectre is haunting planet Earth - the spectre of catastrophic climate breakdown as a result of global warming. This spectre is now threatening the very stable conditions of the Holocene epoch which have lasted for about 12,000 years. These are the climatic conditions which have enabled the human species to thrive via agriculture.

The Anthropocene

In fact, the growing threats to, and mounting pressures on, planet Earth have led most Earth scientists to conclude that the geological epoch known as the Holocene has already been left behind. Instead, they argue that, since about 1950, we have been living in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

In the Anthropocene - unlike previous in previous geological epochs and ages - the overwhelming majority of factors now affecting the global climate are the result of human activities, NOT the usual natural changes. Most of those human-led changes are down to the great increases in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels - mostly since the start of the ‘Great Acceleration’ in economic growth that began after the end of the Second World War.  

The Doughnut

A previous article - Living in the Anthropocene, August 2017:

- dwelt on the various causes of current climate breakdown.  However, as in medicine, the point is to move on from diagnosis of a particular problem to the cure of that problem. And this is where that ‘doughnut’ comes in!   That ‘doughnut’ - an economic and ecological one - has been ‘cooked’ by Kate Raworth, currently a Senior Visiting Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, and a Senior Associate of the Ambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Previously, she has worked as Senior Researcher at Oxfam, as a Fellow of the Overseas Development Institute, and was a co-author of the UN’s Development Programme. In addition, she has been named by the Guardian as ‘one of the top ten tweeters on economic transformation.’ For those interested in these issues - and perhaps wanting to contribute to on-line discussions - here is a useful link:  

What makes her book, Doughnut Economics (2017), so valuable at this present time is that she goes beyond identifying problems to mapping out, in a very accessible way, how we can go about dealing with these problems - before it is too late. If her book is read widely and purposefully, it has the potential to be much more influential than Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto. 

A picture IS worth a thousand words!

Her book is especially accessible for non-economists because her points are usually made - deliberately - via interesting illustrations. Particularly important is her whole concept of the ‘Doughnut’ -

that ‘safe and just space for humanity’, between the social foundation and the ecological ceiling:

Now IS the time!

This whole concept is based on the need to develop a ‘new economics’ for the 21st C. and its current problems, which is focussed on regeneration and redistribution. However, the point of this book is not just to read it - it is to act on it. This is especially true as she, like most Earth system scientists, is fully aware that four key planetary boundaries (out of the nine which have been identified) have already been breached - as a direct result of human economic activities:

These breaches have thus already gone beyond the ecological ceiling that Kate Raworth has identified as the upper limit for a ‘safe and just space’. Hence the importance of what she has termed

‘The twenty-first-century challenge’: to get into, and stay in, the space in which ‘we can meet the needs of all within the means of the planet.’

The Seven Ways

The bulk of the book deals with the seven main ways she has identified as essential to getting people to think like 21st. C economists:

1. Change the Goal (from continuously chasing after ever-rising GDP)

2. See the Big Picture (recognise the contribution of the home and the commons to a genuinely socially-embedded economy)

3. Nurture Human Nature (moving from individualistic economic goals to focussing on the nurturing of social adaptable humans)

4. Get Savvy with Systems (by developing economic systems that are based on dynamic complexity)

5. Design to Distribute (ensuring that economies are distributive by design, in order to create social and economic justice, rather than leaving it to the market)

6. Create to Regenerate (instead of leaving it up to growth and the market to ‘solve’ problems of pollution, economies are deliberately designed to be regenerative)

7. Be Agnostic about Growth (moving to a situation where ‘growth’ per se becomes less important - putting quality of life above continuous growth in products) 

Hopefully, there’s enough outlined above to get you running to your local bookshop - and then you can put into practice what Gandhi said:

               ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’

Allan Todd is a member of Allerdale & Copeland Green Party, an anti-fracking activist and a Green Left supporter

Saturday 24 March 2018

The Cambridge Analytica Scandal Is a Drop of Water Trickling Down the Visible Top of an Iceberg

Written by Juan Ortiz Freuler and first published at Common Dreams

Cambridge Analytica is on the cover of every newspaper. The company managed to get hold of millions of data points of very sensitive data from Facebook users. Most reporters focus on the meaning of consent in the digital age and Facebook's inability to enforce it. Most reporters covering the Cambridge Analytica story are missing out on the big picture. 

The scale of the operation was only possible because Facebook has too much data about too many people. Cambridge Analytica is a cautionary tale about the risks of centralizing data and control over the flows of information. The internet and the web were designed to decentralize data and power. Cambridge Analytica's use of Facebook is an example of what a system with a single point of failure leads to.

Many claim the internet is broken. As I’ve argued in these articles – here and here – these claims are often examples of misdirected anger. The social contract is broken. Inequality is rising, and the tensions associated with injustice are spilling into online space. Since the internet facilitates the collection of structured data and statistical analysis, it allows us to measure and reveal the overarching social tensions as never before. Media and unsavvy researchers often take a narrow focus that places the blame on the messenger, instead of talking about the broader problems that underpin the symptoms of the sick society their investigations reveal. Many claim the internet is broken… The social contract is broken.

The internet, with its capacity to facilitate communication, aggregate opinion, and coordinate by the thousands in real time, is arguably the most powerful tool at our disposal to solve the social issues at hand. The internet has made it easier for women to coordinate around the #MeToo movement, as it has enabled the growth of Black Lives Matter, to mention two recent examples. Rape, misogyny and racially targeted police violence are not new issues, but the internet provided a platform for these covered-up conversations to take place.

From the development of written language to the printing press; from the telegraph to the web, accessing and sharing knowledge has fuelled humankind’s progress and development.  Much of what was considered revolutionary only decades ago is mistakenly taken for granted today.

The problem with misdirected anger is that it leads to misdirected policies that could undermine the internet’s capacity to catalyze much-needed social change. We need to ensure that when we think about internet policy we think about it with a political lens: how can we ensure the internet will enable us as citizens to share ideas freely, coordinate around common interests, and act in defense of our rights and interests? 

How can we ensure that people are afforded these conversations as a right today and in the future? How can we ensure these protections even in scenarios where the powers-that-be feel profoundly challenged by people’s capacity to coordinate? How can we ensure these protections even in scenarios where the powers-that-be feel profoundly challenged by people’s capacity to coordinate?

If we accept that the internet has become a key tool for politics in this broad sense of the term, we can see the internet is indeed facing a problem. A problem that is often neglected for being less tangible, but that underlies much of what concerns the public about the internet. A problem that not only reflects but can reinforce current social problems, and frustrate the goal of ensuring meaningful political participation: centralization.

Centralization and decentralization

Centralization is the process through which intermediaries have reshaped the internet and the web, placing themselves as gatekeepers of information. In the context of an increasingly centralized web the ethos of “move fast and break things” that promoted and spurred bold innovations a decade ago has become deeply problematic. Each ‘mistake’ on the centralized internet of today causes harm to thousands if not millions.  And technological developments are increasing the powers intermediation affords the corporations that now employ what used to be a crowd of free-coders.

We the people cannot afford the risks this entails to the internet of tomorrow, and its ability to deliver social change. Decentralization is about creating architectural barricades to this process so that power remains distributed across the network.

The battle for the net takes place today and everyday. There are no straightforward solutions. Every turn implies hard choices. It is therefore time to involve as many people as possible in this process about thinking about solutions. Unsurprisingly, we need to be aware not only of the power these intermediaries exercise over politics, academia, and the private sector, but how delving into certain of these topics havs become interestingly and unacceptably taboo. Decentralization is about creating architectural barricades to this process so that power remains distributed across the network.

If we hope to protect the citizens of tomorrow from expected and unexpected scenarios we need to get creative and bold today. And we need the mass of netizens on board. We need open and robust debates. We cannot afford anything less than this. Too much is at stake.

If the reason for much of the misdirected anger is that the centralization process is less tangible than the symptoms it might trigger, perhaps a first step must be to make this underlying layer more visible and part of our public discourse.

The closed environments in which technology is being developed by private companies, and its metaphors – such as “the Cloud”– which have been used to over-simplify the internet’s architecture, have done nothing but obscure the key political battleground of this century. The intermediaries have the upper hand unless we can shed some light over this structure.

The Neutrality Pyramid

The pyramid below has the humble purpose of re-stating the physical existence of intermediaries, and their power. It shows some of the distinctive layers in which gatekeeping is being exercised today, and which could affect users’ ability to share ideas and produce meaningful change tomorrow.

The pyramidal structure suggests that, from a user perspective, different actors exercise various types of control over our ability to deliver a message.  Re-aligning incentives for these intermediaries to work in favour of society’s goals might require developing a multi-pronged strategy, with tailored and targeted approaches for each level of the pyramid.

If an ISP decides that no data packets containing certain keywords should be delivered, then it doesn’t matter what device we have, or what platform we rely on: the message will not be delivered. If a device does not allow the use of certain apps, then certain tools may become unavailable, and so on. The lower an actor is placed on the pyramid, the greater the risk that they pose to the open internet and the open web as tools for social change.

1.    Seeing the pyramid: As users and responsible consumers we need to be aware of exactly who each of these intermediaries are and how they manage their role as intermediaries. If they do not respect our rights, we should shift to more decent providers or services.

2.    Observing behaviors within each layer: As a community we need to promote enforceable rules to ensure that each level of the pyramid will be kept from abusing its intermediary powers. Public committees should be set up to assess the degree of horizontal integration and its impact on innovation and competition. Control over personal data and public discourse is increasingly in the hands of a few private companies, and this tendency unchecked leads towards an even bleaker future.

3.    Observing dynamics between layers: As a community we need to ensure each intermediary stays within its segment of the pyramid, ruling out any further vertical integration, and promoting the re-fragmentation of companies that have integrated across these layers over the past decades. Public committees should be set up to assess the degree of horizontal integration and its impact on innovation and competition.
This is not a new fight. A handful of avant-garde activists and innovators are already onto it. But it is ultimately up to us (the mass of citizens, users, and consumers) to signal to representatives and markets alike that we want change.

Personal control over personal data

On the one hand, new blockchain-based platforms like Filecoin, Sia, Storj and MaidSafe seek to decentralize data storage by offering crypto-coins for players who put their latent storage capacity on the market. On the other hand, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, is developing Solid (Social Linked Data), through which he seeks to complete the original web ideal by decoupling data from the applications that silo it today. Data will be owned and stored by the people, and applications will compete on how they visualize the data, and enhance user experience. An effective implementation would automatically create cross-platform interoperability, making platform neutrality less of a problem.

Think about how you can send emails from a Gmail account to an Outlook one, but you can’t tweet to a Facebook user. Silos are socially inefficient but continue to exist because they allow big companies to ensure we don’t leave their walled gardens. You social graph should be yours to keep.

Platform neutrality

Last year the EU fined Google for giving unfair and prominent placement of their own comparison shopping services. India has recently followed this decision, and fined Google based on the same behaviour.

Device neutrality

Whereas in Russia Android was fined for continuing to pre-install its associated Google Apps, in 2014 South Korea ruled pre-installed apps should be removable, and the EU started studying the effects of pre-installed apps in 2016.

More recently, a Member of the Italian Parliament, Stefano Quintarelli, has been promoting a bill since 2015 that would grant users the right to use any software they like, from sources other than the official – vertically integrated – store. Now the French telecom regulator seems to be picking up that idea as well.

Net Neutrality

Perhaps the most well known of all the layers of the pyramid. Regulators in India, EU and elsewhere have effectively pushed against the pressure exerted by ISPs to keep the owners of the infrastructure from discriminating between the content that travels through the network. As the basis of the pyramid, failure to ensure neutrality of the net would arguably collapse the rest of the layers.

Silos are socially inefficient but continue to exist because they allow big companies to ensure we don’t leave their walled gardens.

The battle to ensure the internet remains a tool for citizens to create a more just society will be our constant companion throughout the next decade. The battle is uphill. With each day that goes by without a thorough debate on our rights, the odds of winning the battle get slimmer.

The sketch outlined here, and elsewhere this series, suggests difficult trade-offs. Many questions remain. Yet we should not feel paralyzed by the grave asymmetry of information between us and the intermediaries. Intermediaries rely on the opacity of their systems strategically, and continuously leverage it, to stall conversations about the risk they represent to us and our political system. I hope these pieces illuminate a space around which we can gather and think out loud.

Friday 23 March 2018

Boris Johnson is a National and International Embarrassment

Has Britain ever had a foreign secretary anything like Boris Johnson? Foreign secretaries are normally very guarded about what they say in public, because first and foremost, the job is the most senior UK diplomat handling international issues. That is the way diplomacy works, and to do anything else is likely to be counterproductive. The art of diplomacy is to get agreements where everyone can claim some sort of victory.

As reported in the Guardian, the latest embarrassing remarks to emanate from the lips of Johnson are his almost casual comparison of the current Russian government as similar to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany of the 1930s. This was the exchange:

Johnson made the Hitler comparison while speaking before the all-party foreign affairs select committee and responding to remarks from the Labour MP Ian Austin, who called for England to pull out of the World Cup altogether. “Putin is going to use it in the way Hitler used the 1936 Olympics,” Austin said.

Johnson replied: “I think that your characterisation of what is going to happen in Moscow, the World Cup, in all the venues – yes, I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right. It is an emetic prospect of Putin glorying in this sporting event.”

The rule of thumb when debating issues is that the first one to mention Hitler has lost the argument, thank you foreign secretary! Whatever you think of Putin and the Russian government, it is crass to compare it to the Nazis. Even more so, given the history of the loss of millions of Russian lives sacrificed fighting Hitler’s army.

This though is just the latest example of Johnson’s complete unsuitability for his job. Of course, he is only in the job because the Tories need to keep a pro and anti Brexit balance in the Cabinet, but foreign secretary is definitely not the role for Boris. Come to think of it, I can’t imagine what Cabinet job he would do well at? Transport maybe? Although he did nothing for transport in London when he was Mayor, except inheriting those bikes and hiking the fares on tube and buses.

This is the man who has failed so spectacularly to get British national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe released from an Iranian prison on a highly dubious espionage conviction. Going so far as to risk getting her a longer sentence, by using loose, flippant language about the case in public. He told a Parliamentary committee that Ratcliffe had been training journalists in the region, and she was promptly hauled in front of an Iranian court and told her sentence may be doubled to ten years.

At the Tory party conference last year, Johnson said that he knew businessmen who “have got a brilliant vision to turn Sirte (in worn torn Libya) into the next Dubai. The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away.” The remark was rightly, roundly condemned, and certainly not anywhere near diplomatic language.

Johnson also got into a row with the Italian economic minister Carlo Calenda, when Johnson claimed  it was “bollocks” that free movement of people is one of the European Union’s founding principles. Calenda is quoted as saying “he basically said: ‘I don’t want free movement of people but I want the single market,’” Mr Calenda told Bloomberg. “I said: ‘No way.’ He said: ‘You’ll sell less prosecco.’ I said: ‘OK, you’ll sell less fish and chips, but I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.’ Putting things on this level is a bit insulting.”

And so to Johnson’s part in the EU referendum. He had a reputation for being from the liberal wing of the Tory party, and despite some opportunistic journalism for the Telegraph and Spectator, was never really that animated by the EU. Indeed, his father and sister have gone on record as saying that Johnson had never shown any interest in leaving the EU, prior to the referendum being called.

Naked ambition got the better of him, as he calculated that whichever way the referendum went, there would soon be a vacancy for Tory leader (and prime minister), with party members being given final say between two MPs selected by their peers. The membership of the Tory party, aging, white, middle to upper class, are overwhelmingly anti-EU. Hey presto!

When David Cameron resigned as prime minister after the referendum, Johnson was quickly out of the blocks submitting his candidacy, only to later withdraw after being stabbed in the back by his colleague, Michael Gove. It did earn him his present job as foreign secretary though, and there may well be vacancy at the top again soon.

Johnson’s comment about the EU can “go whistle” for a divorce payment when we leave the organisation, has in fact turned out to be “bollocks” as UK has now agreed to pay around £40 billion. His claim that we can make Brexit a “Titanic success” betrays his schooling in the classics, and that he is completely out of touch with common parlance. Most people associate any reference to Titanic to mean the ship that sank after hitting an iceberg. Not what Johnson was trying to express at all.

We are enough of a laughing stock globally at the moment, why make matters infinitely much worse by having a national representative to the world who is such self seeking prat?     

Tuesday 20 March 2018

The New Brexit Battle – Europe Wants Our Fish

Something fishy is going on with the Brexit negotiations between the European Union (EU) and the UK. News came yesterday that the transitional deal, whereby the UK stays effectively within the EU after we officially leave the organisation in March next year, will see the country adhering to all EU rules, but without having any say in what those rules are.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that this is the case, as the EU has said as much all along, but this has sparked controversy all the same. Yes, the fact that EU nationals settling in the UK during the transition will have the same rights as those already here has caused a stir, but it seems to be issue of fishing that has most animated the most argent Brexiters the most.

The UK joined the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 2007 as part of the Treaty of Lisbon, and it came into force in 2009. Basically, the CFP allows all member states to fish in each others waters. It has always been controversial in the British fishing industry and did contribute towards dwindling stocks of fish like cod in UK coastal waters. However, part of the CPF deals with conservation and stocks of cod have now recovered to some extent, enough to be declared ‘sustainable’ again.

Coastal towns in the UK, including those particularly associated with the fishing industry, were areas that voted strongly for leaving the EU, so they surely had in mind ‘taking back control’ of fishing in British coastal waters, many of them Labour held constituencies.

As I say, it was to be expected that the transitional deal on offer from the EU would be one of maintaining the status quo, with Britain losing any influence over any changes to EU policies. But last week, the EU revealed its draft arrangements for the EU/UK relationship when the transition period ends, and EU access to British coastal waters was specified as a price of a free trade deal in manufacturing goods, which again caused controversy amongst Brexiters.

It is kind of ironic that Norway, not in the EU, but in the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), has control of its fish stocks (and farming), but is of course in the single market and customs union for other goods and services, and free movement of people. It looks as though the UK’s terms will be worse in some regards than Norway’s.

It’s not just Brexiters that are unhappy with not getting back control of fisheries. The 13 Scottish Tory MPs, all remainers, have been quick to lay claim to ‘Scottish fish’ and it is my understanding that the Scottish National Party (SNP), also pro-remain, wants this issue devolved to the Scottish government.

The Labour party, or its leave supporters anyway, is also taking a belated look at fisheries. Brendan Chilton, general secretary of Labour Leave, writing on Labour List, extolls the virtues of regaining control over fisheries, as a way of making big electoral gains in Scotland from the SNP, and holding onto English coastal towns that were heavily in favour of Brexit.

Chilton says this is an, ‘opportunity for Labour to appeal to its core vote, which strongly supported leave, and to go on the attack against the Tories and the SNP, particularly in Scotland and along the east coast of England.’

He concludes his piece by saying, ‘The party should also guarantee that the next Labour government will restore the integrity of those territorial waters for the British fishing industry and work to ensure their sustainability for the long term.‘

The UK does of course have substantial coastal waters, being (the mainland) an island, whereas most of continental Europe doesn’t have so much in the way territorial waters, so you can see why they want access to our fish, especially the Spanish, who are partial to a bit of cod.

Personally, I’m not interested in trade deals with the US, Australia etc, and of all the leave the EU options, the Norway model is by far the best. Control of fisheries and farming, single market and customs union members, but still no influence over EU policies. Norway of course accepts free movement, but that has never bothered me anyway.

All the talk surrounding Brexit has been of free trade deals, but it is beginning to look like fisheries could well be the major sticking point. The UK may pursue what may be termed a ‘dolphin policy’ here casting the EU as the dolphins, named after the passage in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, where the dolphins depart planet earth. ‘So long and thanks for all the fish.’ 

Sunday 18 March 2018

Marx's essential contribution to Ecosocialism

Review of Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy By Kohei Saito written by Hannah Holleman and first published at International Socialist Review

“Ecosocialism needs Marx,” Kohei Saito once wrote. In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, Saito shows why. Saito is associate professor of political economy at Osaka City University in Japan. In 2015, he earned a PhD in philosophy from Humboldt University in Berlin and spent time as a guest researcher at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities where he contributes to the editing of Marx’s natural science notebooks. This work and Saito’s familiarity with a range of international debates regarding Marxist theory and practice make possible his beautiful analysis of Marx’s ecosocialism, an analysis that should inform our struggle for revolutionary socioecological change.

In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, Saito traces the development (through published works, draft manuscripts, correspondence, and natural science notebooks) of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism and of his vision of a new society emancipated from capital and therefore capable of establishing a wholly different relationship to the rest of nature. Building on the work of Marxist scholars such as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Paul Burkett among others, Saito re-embeds Marx’s ecological critique within a broader political and intellectual project that deepened over decades.

Against readings that downplay or deny Marx’s contributions to ecological thinking, Saito shows that powerful ecological insight and analysis gained through intensive study of the natural sciences became central not only to Marx’s political economy and sociology, but also to his political project—what we now call ecosocialism.

One of the many exciting aspects of Saito’s book is that he takes what we learn from previous work on Marx’s ecology and adds a completely new chapter, literally and figuratively. In the chapter “Marx’s Ecology after 1868,” Saito reveals the extensive nature of Marx’s natural science studies after the publication of the first volume of Capital. Saito constructs his analysis based on previously unpublished notebooks made available by the important and ongoing work to compile a completed version of Marx and Engels’s collected works, called the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). 

The 1868 notebooks reveal Marx’s extensive engagement with scientific debates and developments in his time, especially the critical reception of Justus von Liebig’s provocative thesis that “the law of replenishment” was violated by modern transformation of how people lived and farmed. Liebig predicted that the consequent soil exhaustion would “threaten all of European civilization.” Marx integrated Liebig’s insight into his own analysis of capitalist agriculture as a system of robbery and spoliation.

This chapter is useful for many reasons. It provides new material on Marx’s broad engagement with intellectual and scientific developments across continents and demonstrates his extraordinary ability to put these in conversation with one another in order to arrive at his own critical understanding of what exists, as well as what is possible. In this we see Marx’s methodology for studying the world in order to change it. 

As Saito writes, rather than develop a philosophical program based on abstract conceptions of what is and what ought to be, Marx “emphasizes the significance of a social and historical investigation with regard to how and why the objectively inverted world beyond human control emerges out of social practice, so that the material conditions for its transcendence can be understood.”

Saito documents Marx’s systematic study of scientists such as James F. W. Johnston, Liebig, and Carl Fraas, historians such as Georg Ludwig von Maurer, and political economists such as Henry Carey and Julius Au. He also draws on Marx’s correspondence with his contemporaries to show how his thinking changed over time with respect to Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion and expanded to include a sophisticated historical understanding of an array of ecological issues—from desertification to climate change—that now dot the syllabi of environmental studies courses around the world.

Marx linked these issues to a broader social analysis in a fashion far more advanced than anyone in his time. He produced one of the first explorations of ecological imperialism, ecological injustice, and what we now call “sustainability,” or how society may, as Saito summarizes, “consciously regulate the metabolic interaction between humans and [the rest of] nature.”

In other chapters, Saito brilliantly presents several key themes and innovations at the heart of Marx’s ecology. He begins the book with a discussion of Marx’s earlier understanding of the alienation of nature as marking the emergence of the modern, and how his thinking came to diverge from more romantic notions as well as from other popular philosophical and political currents of his day. He moves on to explain and contextualize Marx’s theory of the metabolism of political economy, as well as his own perspective on Marx’s Capital as a theory of metabolism.

Other chapters fill out our understanding of Marx’s study of Liebig and his broader concern with the ahistorical conceptions of soil fertility and ground rent in nineteenth-century bourgeois political economy. All of this is important reading, even for those familiar with earlier work on the same subjects. The way the book is written, from beginning to end, helps lay out the lines of analysis from seed to fruit, offering a way to think about how we might structure our own study and engage with current scientific and political developments in a deeper way in the service of advancing our social change efforts.

Altogether, Saito offers something fresh for readers for whom these topics are familiar, as well as a clear, accessible analysis for readers unfamiliar with Marx or Marx’s ecological insights, but serious about socioecological change. The book also explains and intervenes in central debates in Marxian theory. All of this is truly wonderful to read.

But the reason I decided to write this review is not only for the book’s intellectual and scholarly merit. This work also helps address urgent questions confronting our movements at a time when we have no time to waste. In 2016 an international group of scientists published a paper in Nature Climate Change entitled “Consequences of Twenty-First Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change.” The article’s most breathtaking statement was that “policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems, and human societies—not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”

New reports emerge every day documenting the advance of climate change, the mass extinction of species, the death of millions of human beings each year due to ecological degradation—234 times more deaths than those occurring in all violent conflicts around the world annually. 

In spite of international environmental agreements, the unprecedented sophistication of science and technology, the emergence of the so-called green economy, and the miserable, well-documented consequences for life on the planet, the rate of degradation is not slowing, it is increasing. Every earth system is in decline and many of us can agree that capitalism is the problem—so why can’t we agree to get rid of it?

The critique of capitalism from the standpoint of ecology and social justice is mainstream enough. Influential scientists long ago, even before Marx, warned of the dangers posed to life on earth by this economic system geared toward infinite accumulation. Contemporary scholars and scientists continue to build on the vast body of research documenting the social and ecological harms of prioritizing profit over people and the planet.

More recently, large environmental NGOs and environmental movement organizations published statements recognizing capitalism as the source of our ecological crises. Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was an international bestseller translated into about twenty-five languages. The New York Times even ran an opinion piece entitled, “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid,” in which the author calls for a democratic socialist alternative.

Internalizing the widespread critique of capitalism, activists are offered many ways to think about change. First and foremost, elite reformers propose changing capitalism. From the World Bank to the UN, “inclusive green growth” and the “green economy” now supplement the “sustainable development” lexicon. While many activists and political groups condemn projects under these banners as maintaining the status quo, they adopt their own version of “green capitalism” as a result of their ideological commitments or calculations about political pragmatism.

As sociologist and activist Herbert Docena writes, many organizations (like, for example) have “gone on to amplify the reformist discourse by echoing their lines that the climate crisis is primarily caused by the lack of global regulation of capitalism; that it can be solved by enhancing such regulation; and that the ‘enemies’ are primarily, if not only, the fossil fuel companies or the ‘bad capitalists’ and the ‘bad elites opposing global regulation.”1

Law professor and social scientist Paddy Ireland notes, “It used to be the left who emphasized the limits to capitalism and the right who told us of its adaptability. Now, however, it is the right, believing themselves liberated from the credible threat of class struggle worldwide, who candidly stress the incompatibility of workers’ rights, [environmental regulations,] and welfare states with the elementary laws of capital (presented, of course, as “natural”), while the (erstwhile) left is reduced to insisting on the malleability and improvability of both capitalism and its corporations.”2

What becomes so clear in Saito’s rendition of nineteenth century debates and Marx’s own writing is that we have had all of these debates before. We have known about these problems for a very long time. Movements have tried making deals with the “good capitalists.” And where are we now?

Separating issues like climate change from the broader system that creates them, that immiserates lives and cannot stand still to take stock of the depletion of the earth’s life support systems, leads to a naive and Pollyannaish politics that can never confront the drivers of ecological harm or lead to a world that is more socially and ecologically sustainable and just. All of our historical experience affirms the truth of this statement.

Even if we were not confronting such an emergency with respect to life on earth, there are so many reasons to fight for a radically democratic, ecologically sane alternative to a racist, patriarchal, imperialist, winner-take-all system that concentrates wealth at the top, at the expense of the vast majority of the global population’s basic humanity. 

Saito provides a way of seeing the broader picture Marx offers, which will help activists in this critical moment make the case that “there must be a radical change, with reified social relations replaced by conscious production realized through the association of free producers. Only this emancipation from the reified power of capital will allow humans to construct a different relationship to nature.”

1.    Herbert Docena, “The Politics of Climate Change,” Global Dialogue 6, no. 1 (February  2016),
2.    Paddy Ireland, “Corporations and Citizenship,” Monthly Review 49, no.1 (May1997),