Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

It’s not just Darwin’s nightmare – it’s ours

March 13, 2009


I posted the following today in response to a thoughtful article in the Guardian on the Madoff story:

I would say one thing for Madoff and that is that he had the balls to fess up and do the time. There are plenty who haven’t and won’t. We all have our inner capitalists, greed overcoming our inherent decency, that great deal that draws us in. We shouldn’t laugh too loud at either Madoff or his hapless clients.

Last night I watched a DVD called Darwin’s Nightmare, a film about the life of the Tanzanian fishing communities that survive in a society based around the Nile perch, an alien invasive species that has screwed Lake Victoria’s ecology. I’m getting to the point, I promise. The film featured prostitutes paid $10/night for the sometimes deadly job of satisfying the air crews freighting out the processed fish. It featured a security guard paid $1/night to watch over a fish research compound, carrying poison-tipped spears that he’d use to repel anyone trying to raid the place. it had street kids sniffing high from melted polystyrene, scrapping over what food they could get, dodging paedophiles. A real comedy, I tell you. It was, however, a very sympathethically piece which showed great respect and unusual empathy with its subjects. My point is this – the same driver was all pervasive in that film as is evident in the Madoff scandal. That driver is our money-driven global society.

We need to get to the heart of this issue because that’s where our problems are coming from. The way we allow money to be created, and by whom, defines who holds all power over our lives. From there grow our lack of liberty, democracy and justice and the apparent hopelessness of our planet.

These are all useful links talking about money:

Here is a link to a whole series of explainers on the financial crisis:

My own, pathetic response to the mayhem we face is to read, watch, talk, and share this stuff. I am staging a free screening of the Darwin’s Nightmare film tonight where I live in SW France. The screenings are a monthly event to which people bring food, eat together, watch and discuss political stuff without killing each other. It’s a great way to understand stuff better, to meet people around about who are as confused and bewildered by it all as I am. And it’s hopeful. We can’t wait for Dan Roberts or anyone else to do it for us.

Details of the screening can be found here

Ooopps, adendum post here:

Object lesson in engaging thoughtful brain before acting withless-than-thoughful fingers on keyboard.

There are some very damning criticisms around the film Darwin’s Nightmare, in French for example here and an English one here. I was going to look them up before tonight’s screening. I should have done so before posting here. Oops, my apologies. What I thought was a searing example of global capitalism is probably more like a rather tawdry example of dishonest film making – not quite such a momentous subject.

The points about money, I would still recommend.


Things can’t only get better

October 31, 2007


"Help me, I can't breathe"

I have spent the best part of the last two months (total blog posts = 2, including this one) renovating my house, a project that is likely to continue into mid next year. In the meantime, writing my book and doing the journalism necessary to support its creation are among the activities that are suffering. I don’t fool myself that that is in the least bit consequential to anything beyond the immediate arena of my family, friends and bank balance but it is personally and professionally frustrating.

From the furtive moments spent browsing the news in its various internet-based forms, I can’t see much in the way of hopeful signs of solutions to our growing global mess.

The coronation of Gordon Brown in place of Tony Blair as British Prime Minister can be fairly encapsulated in this piece from the Observer’s Henry Porter, a neat dissection of Brown’s sleight of hand when it comes to Britons’ rights. Brown’s will-he-won’t-he election shoe shuffle was also illuminating both for its cynicism and for the voluminous media coverage it engendered at the expense of more pressing subjects.

Those subjects would include the global rate of species loss and a welter of other measures of planetary health.

They would also include our near-total immersion in commercial messages, a process identified and attacked by the doughty warriors at adbusters. I at least managed to find the short amount of time required to sign up to their media carta.

Alternet’s summary of some things being done worldwide to try to reverse our environmental self destruction process was also worth the read.

From my rooftop slinging tiles, hunched under a stairwell hacking out old wood or emptying the site’s composting bog, these glints of light are encouraging.

Talking sh**te

August 31, 2007


Talking about politics is arguably easier than blogging, while both are much easier than doing something concrete. Shame that really. So it proved with Sabbar 2007, the second edition of a political festival of resistance organised in my local village of Montbrun-Bocage here in southwest France.

I have spent quite a bit of time this last year helping with the organisation of this event, going to meetings when I could have been with my family and friends, setting up the site and taking part in the event itself. My hope was that it would help to give concrete form to my thoughts about democracy and journalism and allow me to be involved in something local dealing with those issues. The result? Mixed at best.

On the downside, there weren’t that many people who came, the debates were a bit all over the place and their timing and organisation were pretty messy, many people who took part couldn’t do much more than the jobs they were assigned or chose and so got little out of the event. Given how much I’d hoped would come out of it, the outcome was disappointing.

I say that and then the optimist in me kicks in, I see the couple of debates which did seem to go well, one on alternative media another on alternatives to capitalism, I see the few people that I met that I would hope to work with and stay in touch with over the next year, I see my first internet-generated meeting, with a musical group who contacted me having watched my YouTube films. I hear and see a fantastic rap group from the “Mirail”, one of Toulouse’s rougher suburbs which gets plenty of predictablly negative media coverage. I see these things and think Sabbar wasn’t as rubbish as all that. As a novice activist, I have yet to get used to the ups and downs of all this.

One, small success, hence the headline of this piece – the composting toilets. Last year, the Sabbar bogs were a disaster, a septic tank designed for a village of three inhabitants and their chickens swept away in a sea of crap. This year, composting toilets, the inspiration of a militant plumber friend of mind – the Didier mentioned in the photo above – which worked well, which didn’t smell nearly as bad as I feared and which meant that while we might have been talking some unrecyclable stuff at times… well, you get the idea. Composting bogs as militancy – you be surprised.

Some useful climate change material

June 22, 2007


I was surprised the other day by a good friend who expressed his doubts about carbon dioxide being the cause of climate change, a phenomenon which he accepted as happening but only because of variations in the Earth’s orbit in relation to the Sun.

He believed humankind should plan for climate change but without bothering overmuch about CO2 as such. He’s a smart fellow so I bit my customarily active lip and directed my energy into some web research instead.

This New Scientist piece did for the solar wobble phenomenon, saying it is an influence but not always and never to the extent that would explain global temperature changes through history.

On the subject of climate change, and whether taxes, technology or individual actions will sort things out, this article, from the excellent openDemocracy, explained why none of the above might be our escape route. The solutions themselves, on their own or together, are too entrenched in liberal capitalism and its emphasis on markets and individual choices.

So what might work? As the article says:

More social-science research suggests that collectivist, social-welfare societies are a better incubator of pro-environmental behaviour than individualist ones where welfare is looked on with suspicion.

It suggests a sense of community with others may be as important as concern over the biosphere in generating environmentalism, and adds:

If this is true, then any community that is subjected to a near-thirty-year experiment designed to prove that “there is no such thing as society” – as Britain under successive prime ministers has effectively been since 1979 – will be in poor shape to deal with the pro-social policy demands of a problem like climate change.

Can’t disagree with that.

All that being said, we have to deal with what we’ve got, which is why, as hotairhead, I posted a couple of times on the Guardian’s Comment is free site the other day on the subject of whether Al Gore should run again for the U.S. presidency. I reckon he should.

Parts of the U.S. political world are moving, as evidenced by this week’s Economist.

Finally, while on the subject of climate change, I can’t recommend enough the work of George Monbiot and his latest book “Heat”.

Frontline World – another journalism model?

March 30, 2007


I came across a short film called “Seeds of Suicide” today while researching Indian farmer deaths from the effects of trying to make a living by cultivating genetically modified cotton. GMOs are a big part of chapter 2 of my book, talking about a revolution, serving as a thread to explain the global justice movement’s anger towards multinational corporations and capital.

The film is a clean, 13-minute take on the problem of farmer suicide, explaining how they buy the technology without knowing about the necessary extra investment required to make the crops thrive and then run into big money problems when they fail. The filmmaker, Chad Heeter, also provides an in-depth background interview on the project, which is interesting and useful.

The film is part of an initiative, called Frontline World, by PBS in the United States. This is the private, non-profit corporation founded in 1969 whose members are the country’s public TV stations. Judging by their front page, Frontline has some excellent films that we don’t generally get on our TVs, not that I watch mine much here in France anyway.

My only concern is that there is a large ad by Shell on the front page, something that at the very least does not inspire my confidence in the robustness of its model.

Alternative journalism or same-old, same-old?

March 16, 2007


I have been half-chasing French activist José Bové around for a few months to interview him about the global justice movement and the links he draws between his own actions and those of other movements around the world. My intention is to use his remarks to kick off chapter 2 of “talking about a revolution”, which I’ve mostly written, tackling what the global justice movement is about. He’s a busy man, mixing GMO direct action protests with related court appearances and, now, a bid to become French president.

I myself have to juggle my book writing, which is unpaid and more like a personal research project, with being a father, husband, house-husband and sometime, I hope, money earner. That means my timetable can often seem as impossible to manage as that of Monsieur Bové, to me at least. So I jumped at the chance of a definite sighting of the Asterix-look-alike in court on March 7th, 2007, where he was due to appear along with four others accused of preventing Monsanto employees from going about their business.

This was the film, in French, that ensued.

It was interesting to go on a reporting assignment pretty much for the first time since I left Reuters in April 2005. Going as a video journalist was one thing, I’d done some TV work with them but had been mainly in print, going as an independent, without an agency deadline or editorial instructions, was another.

My loose objective was to meet Bové and to set up a future TV interview, sort of insane given that he is trying to run a presidential election campaign. I went with Corentin Charpentier from Tv Bruits, an independent TV association from Toulouse, who brought a camera and sound equipment.

The practicalities of this unpaid journalism work were a 280km-round trip by car, road toll costs of €7.80 each way and probably €25 in petrol. The time reporting was 12ish hours twice, plus editing and internet work of another 12 hours or so, say 36 person hours in total. We re-used an old DV tape and paid nothing in equipment rental.

We arrived at the Carcassonne court house without much in the way of a plan, just as Bové and the four other accused climbed the steps to the entrance. I didn’t know Corentin that well, had never worked with him before, and decided that I’d leave him to film the crowd while I disappeared into the court to see what was happening. I had my NUJ press card to blag my way past the police cordon and to allow passage of my basic digital camera into court to grab a few still pictures.

French courts, like British ones, don’t allow filming once the sitting judge is present though they do seem to give some freedom to take shots before and after proceedings. It would have been good to have known this in advance, or to have had two film cameras, as the courtroom and its surrounds proved the best place to get Bové for spot interviews. What we lost in courtroom footage we gained in protest shots, as Corentin captured all that as I sat in court.

I followed proceedings without any certainty as to what I would get – a news agency-style spot report, a feature article, nothing? The formality of the process struck me more than anything. The accused, all grown men, were called before the judge like so many naughty schoolboys to identify themselves and declare their monthly incomes and assets. The officious style would probably be intimidating to ordinary people but these ones are probably pretty used to it, having used non-violent direct action many times before.

I needn’t have worried about the story, which told itself in the end. Bové’s defence lawyer, François Roux, got up and laid into the prosecution for what seemed to be a fairly cut-and-dried case of a dodgy police report (we didn’t get to see it). He said it cited various people as having been at the Monsanto action on April 13, 2006 – whom he said hadn’t been there at all – and listed the presence of eight vehicles belonging to Bové, some of which had been scrapped years back. The prosecutor complained of not having been told of this earlier but said nothing as to the substance of Roux’s complaints, and proceedings adjourned. When the judge returned, he postponed ruling until March 21, ending the trial business for the day.

The basic story was that five people, part of a group of a few dozen who had conducted a “citizen’s inspection” of Monsanto’s Trèbes facility in southwest France, were accused of having prevented Monsanto employees from going about their daily work. This was a highly unusual use of a law forbidding interference with people doing their jobs, which generally relates to picketing activities. The penalty they risked included fines and possible prison terms. The five are all leading figures in the French “faucheurs volontaires” movement, who symbolically destroy GMO crops and seeds in protest against their cultivation in France. Bové, the best-known of the five, is also running for president, though as yet he lacks the necessary political support to stand as a candidate.

The day’s proceedings didn’t add much in concrete terms to the broad story of GMOs and would not, probably, have made the grade as far a Reuters TV news piece was concerned. The story elements that motivate Reuters generally relate to politics, or rather political risk from an investment perspective, in this instance the French presidential elections. Another would be the involvement of Monsanto, a publicly listed company. There might also be some general news mileage in the fact that Bové is a media personality in his own right and also in the GMO story itself. None of these would be particularly compelling for Reuters editors, though, or certainly not sufficiently so to hire a crew locally or to send one down from Paris. The same would be true, for a variety of reasons, of Reuters’s opposition outlets Bloomberg, AP and the rest of the international media with a presence in France.

That leaves the field to the national, francophone media, the newspapers, radio and TV outlets, even just the regional and local ones. Their focus, however, would tend to be on the narrow politics of the case in a French context rather than the broader global story of GMOs, which is the kernel of this story. So what is lacking in all this is the richer, subtler, contextualised coverage of proceedings. That is where alternative journalists and alternative journalism can shine and where it is sorely needed.

These subtler elements, routinely missed or ignored by conventional media, are what interest me. I can hear the Reuters editorial grunts about a story such as this, essentially justified by reference to a core target audience of investors and financial markets. These are the drivers of Reuters resource allocation decisions, which govern what gets covered.

Do these editors and others like them also ignore these questions because of censorship, conscious or unconscious? Is there an unseen hand, a hidden conspiracy among those in the mainstream media to shield us from reality? Who knows and, frankly, why would we be surprised if there were? I am more interested in thinking about how we can fill the information vacuums they and others manage to leave unfilled despite their prodigious daily outpourings.

The questions I wanted to answer this day in Carcassonne were: Who were the accused? Why were they doing what they were doing? What did that say about the state of French democracy and about GMOs in Europe? Why had they bypassed conventional political means to achieve their ends? What was the nature of the French justice system that examined their actions? What was a presidential candidate doing in a junior French court on such charges? The way I chose to address these questions was by using an extended interview with one of the accused, Michel David and excerpts from various other actors.

The film I produced was my first, imperfect stab at alternative news. As described above, it was done pretty much on the fly. It comes without a commentary, mainly because I believe people can speak for themselves. What interests me is having them explain why they do what they do and showing the heavily policed context in which they do so. It is about showing the old grannies, the mothers with children marching in the rain on a weekday to protest against something that most French people don’t want.

From a practical perspective, the film mixes shots and still pictures taken on the day with some archive digital photos I took at a Monsanto demonstration at the same site in December 2005, something I clearly flag on the film itself. I edited it on Final Cut Pro, exported the result to Quicktime and then out to the wider world as a compressed .mov file which I loaded onto YouTube.

I wondered about including a response from Monsanto but decided against it for two reasons. The first was that they get plenty of mileage for their views already, via mainstream political support, conventional media “balance”, broad industry front groups such as Europabio and the rest. The second is that, despite being a multi-billion-dollar multinational, their French website publishes no email address or telephone number for media contacts, inviting the curious to write by conventional mail instead. Right! Very 21st century. If you’re interested, this was their press release on the day of the trial.

Finally, the film is in French. I’m a native English speaker without the facility to write fluently in French, so that’s the way it has to be with my journalism for now. I could subtitle the thing but I feel there are more important things to do with my time.

José and friends in French legal farce

March 13, 2007

I spent an eye-opening day in court the other day at the trial of five rebel reapers charged with hindering Monsanto employees from going about their work of spreading GMOs across France from their base in the southwest French town of Trèbes.

Presidential candidate José Bové, Michel David et Olivier Keller of the French small farmers’ union Confédération Paysanne, Arnaud Apoteker of Greenpeace, and Jean-Baptiste Libouban, founder of the rebel reaper group “faucheurs volontaires”, were accused of the offence in relation to an action they undertook on April 13th in 2006.

Bové’s lawyer François Roux came out firing at the trial in Carcassonne, accusing police of having made up their evidence, a charge the presiding judge will rule on on March 21. Among the contested elements was the little matter of the police assertion that there had been eight vehicles owned by Bové at a car park near the Monsanto site on the day, when more than half of those listed had been scrapped years ago.

This film, in French, wraps up the events of the day. In due course, I hope to write in more detail about the mechanics of reporting as an independent journalist as opposed to covering the news for an organisation such as Reuters, my former employers. Practical stuff about how much it cost, the time it took and the value of still having a UK press card to hand.

I worked with Corentin Charpentier, who did the filming and who is a member of the alternative TV association Tv Bruits in Toulouse.

The Future of Food

February 28, 2007

I went to a screening to this The Future of Food last night and invited a big-time local farmer friend to come along too. France is inching its way towards large-scale commercial growing of GMOs and has the experiences of neighbour Spain to draw on with regard to what happens to conventional and organic varieties once this happens. (Not good, see this Greenpeace report for details). I hope the farmer might have a think on the issues raised and tell his friends.

It’s not a bad film, giving a comprehensive synopsis of the massive problems presented by GMOs and their supporters, not least of which is of course due to the good people of Monsanto, backed by their investors. My main complaint was that the film slipped into propaganda mode a couple of times, overdoing its messages with images of WW1 tanks followed by tractors (nerve gas was modified for use as a chemical spray for farming, dontcha know?) and others of a farm worker covered head to foot in protective clothing while spraying strawberry plants followed immediately by a boy eating a strawberry. Fair enough points in themselves but a bit clunkily made.

Farmer friend thought pretty much the same thing, and questioned the overall balance of the thing. Again, a fair point, though any journalist who has ever tried to put questions to a company like Monsanto, and Syngenta too for that matter, knows that the exercise is a frustrating and fruitless waste of time. Dispassionate facts are hard to find when it comes to GMOs, as Arpad Pusztai found out at the cost of his career. I hope to get the farmer to agree to show the film to some of his fellow muck rakers.

There is a more in-depth review of the film here.

As for GMOs in France, or OGMs as they call them here, José Bové and four of his fellow travellers will be in court in Carcassonne on March 7 for the latest legal round of one of his many direct actions. I hope to catch up with him for an interview about GMOs in the context of democracy, locally, nationally and globally.

The Economist – a dangerous smarty pants

December 14, 2006

You could do this pretty much every week with The Economist, though you would need a lot of spare time. The “this” I’m talking about is to demolish their slick but intellectually dishonest arguments.

The December 9-15 edition is a classic, featuring the cover headline “Good food? Why ethical shopping harms the world”. Guaranteed to grab readers’ attention? Yes. Provocative? Yes. Backed up by solid arguments inside? Do me a favour.

Why should we care? Just the little matter of a million-plus copies sold weekly to the world’s richest and most powerful people (and to me, I see it as an essential exercise to rebut their arguments, if only to myself).

Let’s look at the editorial, which I’ve pasted below, along with my numbered, notes. This post is long, the notes break up its flow, but I hope you find it’s worth the effort.

Article starts here:
If you think you can make the planet better by clever shopping, think again. You might make it worse (1 – already the front cover claim “Why ethical shopping harms the world” is toned down. Not feeling so confident now?)

“You don’t have to wait for government to move… the really fantastic thing about Fairtrade is that you can go shopping!” So said a representative of the Fairtrade movement in a British newspaper this year. Similarly Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at New York University, argues that “when you choose organics, you are voting for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil and cleaner water supplies.” (2 – Except it’s not similarly at all, it’s three totally separate points to the first one, none of which you address at all in this leader article)

The idea that shopping is the new politics is certainly seductive. Never mind the ballot box: vote with your supermarket trolley instead. (3 – This is The Economist’s summary of what Fairtrade is about, backed by one fragmented quote from an unnamed Fairtrade “representative”: ignore politics and just shop.) Elections occur relatively rarely, but you probably go shopping several times a month, providing yourself with lots of opportunities to express your opinions. If you are worried about the environment, you might buy organic food; if you want to help poor farmers, you can do your bit by buying Fairtrade products; or you can express a dislike of evil multinational companies (4 – So belittle the argument by characterizing its proponents as naive attackers of “evil” multinationals, again this is The Economist’s summary. This editorial technique is called the “straw man” – you build up an absurd argument that you can then tear down) and rampant globalisation by buying only local produce. And the best bit is that shopping, unlike voting, is fun; so you can do good and enjoy yourself at the same time. (5 – Again, summarise your opponent’s argument but only so as to infantilise it)

Sadly, it’s not that easy. (6 – Oh really? And who was it that said it was?) There are good reasons to doubt the claims made about three of the most popular varieties of “ethical” food: organic food, Fairtrade food and local food. People who want to make the world a better place cannot do so by shifting their shopping habits: transforming the planet requires duller disciplines, like politics (7 – So these naïve shoppers will have to think for themselves, do you think they’ll be OK? No one said people can’t do both, other than you, that is).

Buy organic, destroy the rainforest
(8 – Should read “Eat soya-fed factory farmed meat, destroy the rainforest”. More in the vein of ridiculous, provocative and unsubstantiated)

Organic food, which is grown without man-made pesticides and fertilisers, is generally assumed to be more environmentally friendly than conventional intensive farming, which is heavily reliant on chemical inputs. But it all depends what you mean by “environmentally friendly”. Farming is inherently bad for the environment: since humans took it up around 11,000 years ago, the result has been deforestation on a massive scale. But following the “green revolution” of the 1960s greater use of chemical fertiliser has tripled grain yields with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation (9 – Let’s forget, shall we, the uncharted health effects of the chemicals released into the environment and left behind in foods, let’s forget the topsoil loss, let’s forget the unsustainable use of water, let’s forget the destruction of soil life and farmland species, let’s forget the unsustainable use of hydrocarbons used in industrial food production and their attendant climate change effects. Is that enough to be started with? Much of the “green revolution’s” output has been to raise more animals for meat). Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertiliser, are far less intensive. So producing the world’s current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn’t be much room left for the rainforest (10 – That’s your justification for the sub heading? You guys are a complete joke. How about eating less meat?).

Fairtrade food is designed to raise poor farmers’ incomes. It is sold at a higher price than ordinary food, with a subsidy passed back to the farmer. But prices of agricultural commodities are low because of overproduction (11 – Have we got time to get into this one? Agricultural overproduction, from the aforementioned “green revolution”, occurs mainly in Europe and the United States. To use this as an argument against Fairtrade is facile. Where there is overproduction in fair-traded products is usually due to the unpayable debts poor countries have built up due to The Economist’s friends in the IMF etc. and which they have to service by pumping out whatever they have to earn foreign currency. It’s complicated but you started this) By propping up the price, the Fairtrade system encourages farmers to produce more of these commodities rather than diversifying into other crops and so depresses prices—thus achieving, for most farmers, exactly the opposite of what the initiative is intended to do. And since only a small fraction of the mark-up on Fairtrade foods actually goes to the farmer—most goes to the retailer—the system gives rich consumers an inflated impression of their largesse and makes alleviating poverty seem too easy (12 – Inflated impressions are hardly uncommon, and it’s you saying they exist whereas consumers aren’t necessarily that naïve. The argument doesn’t detract from the benefits that fairtrade farmers do indeed reap, by for example having floors under prices that relate to the cost of subsistence).

Surely the case for local food, produced as close as possible to the consumer in order to minimise “food miles” and, by extension, carbon emissions, is clear? Surprisingly, it is not. A study of Britain’s food system found that nearly half of food-vehicle miles (ie, miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) were driven by cars going to and from the shops. Most people live closer to a supermarket than a farmer’s market, so more local food could mean more food-vehicle miles. Moving food around in big, carefully packed lorries, as supermarkets do, may in fact be the most efficient way to transport the stuff (13 – Or, it may not. Most people in Britain (share of world population, maybe 1%) may live closer to a supermarket than a farmer’s market, or rather maybe most people in southeast England. You have chosen one example here, heavily conditional, and extrapolated it to the entire local food argument. Let me do the same. What, for example, should we make of a “free” market that has Scottish prawns airfreighted to China for processing and airfreighted back to bathe in the thousand island sauces of European consumers? What headline might The Economist put on that? Prawn destroys glacier maybe or Prawn-induced tornado tears down London house).

What’s more, once the energy used in production as well as transport is taken into account, local food may turn out to be even less green. Producing lamb in New Zealand and shipping it to Britain uses less energy than producing British lamb, because farming in New Zealand is less energy-intensive (14 – Yes, if it’s shipped with full account taken of the externalities of the transport mode, particularly the bunker fuel’s CO2 emissions and other pollutants, then why not? But when will that happen?). And the local-food movement’s aims, of course, contradict those of the Fairtrade movement, by discouraging rich-country consumers from buying poor-country produce (15 – No they don’t silly, when did you last see coffee growing in Kent? Or cocoa pods in Slough. Get serious, I’m thinking a very low mark for you at present). But since the local-food movement looks suspiciously like old-fashioned protectionism masquerading as concern for the environment, helping poor countries is presumably not the point (16 – It might look that way to you, I suspect that’s your free-trade mania talking and a million food miles away from what the average Joe or Jill Public is thinking. You just lost one of your few remaining marks).

Appetite for change
The aims of much of the ethical-food movement—to protect the environment, to encourage development and to redress the distortions in global trade—are admirable. The problems lie in the means, not the ends. No amount of Fairtrade coffee will eliminate poverty, and all the organic asparagus in the world will not save the planet. (17 – That’s true. Now, I can’t remember who claimed it would. Err, oh yes, it’s coming back to me, it was you.) Some of the stuff sold under an ethical label may even leave the world in a worse state and its poor farmers poorer than they otherwise would be (18 – Though you haven’t shown a shred of evidence that that is the case. All you’ve done is to extrapolate some suppositions from one example to damn an entire movement).

So what should the ethically minded consumer do? Things that are less fun than shopping, alas. Real change will require action by governments (19 – Oh right, and so in the meantime we should stop eating completely? Or should we blindly consume the factory farmed stuff instead. Free trade not free range, ra ra ra?), in the form of a global carbon tax; reform of the world trade system; and the abolition of agricultural tariffs and subsidies, notably Europe’s monstrous common agricultural policy, which coddles rich farmers and prices those in the poor world out of the European market (20 – I agree with all of this but sadly it is you who are getting into “when pigs fly territory”. All of this is what governments should do whereas most of this leader has been about consumers. See point 19). Proper free trade would be by far the best way to help poor farmers (21 – Which brings us to The Economist’s undefined nirvana of “proper free trade”. You need a book to answer this one. My short point is what about externalities? Don’t kid yourself that accounting for these is possible). Taxing carbon would price the cost of emissions into the price of goods, and retailers would then have an incentive to source locally if it saved energy. But these changes will come about only through difficult, international, political deals that the world’s governments have so far failed to do. (22 – And show no sign of ever doing)

The best thing about the spread of the ethical-food movement is that it offers grounds for hope. It sends a signal that there is an enormous appetite for change and widespread frustration that governments are not doing enough to preserve the environment, reform world trade or encourage development. Which suggests that, if politicians put these options on the political menu, people might support them. The idea of changing the world by voting with your trolley may be beguiling. But if consumers really want to make a difference, it is at the ballot box that they need to vote. (23 – A facile conclusion that no one can dispute. Shame that our political systems are so rotten that our governments can go to war in Iraq, renew nuclear missile systems, privatize everything etc. etc. without us getting a look in. If this is an argument, I’m a fairtrade banana)

Who said the mainstream media were rubbish? II

October 20, 2006

A major driver of my journalism is my concern for the environment and the damage that we are doing to it. A big part of that draws on my rural roots in the north of Scotland, where I spent the first 20 years of my life. I shot, fished and occasionally helped out on farms during that time, meaning that in one way or another I was in direct contact with nature.

I gave up shooting in my 20s, deciding I no longer wanted to exercise the hunting instinct I believe is deep inside all of us. I did not turn anti-blood sports though, which would have been hypocritical given that I’d enjoyed all the times I’d gone shooting and had friends and family who still went. I also always accepted the arguments of shooting friends who ate what they killed – that the animals on their plates had led much less environmentally damaging lives than your average factory-farmed pig or chicken.

When still with Reuters, I volunteered to cover the implementation of a hunting ban in England and Wales, going on two hunts, on foot and on four wheels. I wrote this piece before the ban became law and this one the day it came into force. The absurdity of the eventual law did nothing for nature and served only to convince me of how poor our political system has become.

The pro- and anti-camps – be it on hunting, shooting or fishing – share much in common in their love and respect for nature yet most are too busy slagging off their opponents to realise.

The arguments spill over into vegetarianism, as I know only too well having recently been on the end of a withering from Agnes, a nine-year-old, aspiring vegan who was appalled to learn of my occasional meat eating.

And so to the point of this post. I don’t intend this blog to become a plug fest for the Guardian unlimited news site, and yet this excellent article was too good to resist.