Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, December 26, 2005

Season's Greetings

Japan is approaching its major holiday, wherein we celebrate the closing of this year and the opening of next year. I've decided to start early, end late, and not post anything in between. I plan to resume posting late in the first week of January 2006. I wish you health and happiness during whatever you celebrate this time of year, the same even if you celebrate nothing now, and more of the same throughout the coming year. Bill Totten

Bill Totten

Abolish the Weapons Industry to Save Energy

by Bill Totten

Nihonkai Shimbun & Osaka Nichinichi Shimbun

(December 12 2005)

(I've written a weekly column for two Japanese newspapers for the past several years. Patrick Heaton prepared this English version from the Japanese original.)

I have spent the last couple of years researching the state of the world's oil supplies. The world's oil reserves are peaking; there is a decrease in the readily-available, cheap oil upon which our modern lifestyle has been built over the past several decades.

Explosive Population Growth

Life-spans have been extended through advances in technology, but the main impetus for this burgeoning population growth has been a change in lifestyle made possible by plentiful oil. Oil is a key component in plastics, for example, and has contributed to improved transportation and communications.

The result has been an explosive increase in the growth rate of the world's population over the past one hundred years compared with that of the previous century.

In 1800 the world's population stood at about one billion; in 1900 it was 1.65 billion. Today it is about 6.5 billion.

At the same time, global warming has also been increasing, creating many new problems. It is predicted that climate changes will cause flooding and other disasters, thus creating a crisis for our civilization within the next few decades.

The problem of peak oil is fairly well known in the English-speaking world. In Japan, however, only a few articles on diminishing oil resources can be found on the Internet, and few Japanese energy experts who issue warnings about peak oil are taken seriously. Lately, however, some major business magazines have carried articles by thoughtful writers such as John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, on the implications of declining oil reserves.

The Struggle to Corner Energy Resources

Gray, the author of several books on the questions of free trade and the laissez-faire market system, states that today the war over cornering the world's energy resources determines who controls international politics. We can see examples of this struggle by looking at American military diplomacy, especially recent US actions in the oil-producing Middle East. Gray quotes Matthew R Simmons, who is the founder and chairman of the world's largest energy investment banking company. Simmons, a frequent adviser to President Bush on energy matters, warns that Saudi Arabia probably has reached peak production levels. Saudi Arabia, as the world's largest oil-producing nation, is now facing a reduction of petroleum resources that is fundamentally different from the "oil shocks" of the 1970s. Estimates are that not only Saudi Arabian oil, but worldwide petroleum reserves in general, will last only about another forty years.

Cheap, abundant oil made globalization possible. The free market economic philosophy at the center of the globalization process now affects not only industrialized nations, but the entire world economic system. It has become apparent that globalization causes instability in that while the wealthy classes become richer, poorer citizens are driven deeper into poverty. Developed nations have been promoting globalization and dependence on oil to maintain their standard of living at the expense of poorer nations.

Increasingly affecting this situation is the rapid development of China, now the second-largest consumer of oil after the United States. To meet its energy needs, China has been strengthening relations with both of the world's largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia and Russia, and is involved in developing oil production from Canada's oil sands. It is not unreasonable to predict that in the coming decades, countries with rising oil demands will be competing over every last drop of oil with developed countries that are already completely dependent on oil.

Avoid Waste of Energy Resources

Given the coming worldwide energy shortage, to me the height of stupidity would be to consume energy by waging war over oil just as the world's energy is running out. To avoid such an absurd debacle, I firmly believe that all nations must stop producing weapons.

Countries should not only abolish weapons, but should cease operation of all businesses related to the war industry. It should not be difficult to convince citizens of the need for this policy. If weapons production were stopped, peace and a better standard of living would result for nations that currently become the world's energy battlefields, and for countries that now send soldiers to risk their lives attempting to corner energy reserves in oil-producing nations.

Realizing the Earth's Limits

Japan, as a developed nation, is highly dependent at present on imported oil for a variety of industries, including agriculture. The end of globalization would obviously have a tremendous impact on Japan. It is imperative, therefore, for the Japanese government to promote agricultural methods that do not depend on vast amounts of energy imports. As the peak oil situation becomes more severe, Japan will need to support regionally-based organic agriculture. Japanese will have to shift from a global economy that depends on importing oil and exporting manufactured goods to one that resembles that of the locally self-sufficient Edo period.

Being Frugal yet Remaining Optimistic

Of course, there is no reason that Japan should become isolationist. It is enough simply to recognize that over-consumption, over-efficiency, and a fast pace are not necessarily constructive or optimal lifestyles.

During the Cold War the world was on the brink of destruction many times. Maintaining a positive spirit in spite of shortages and in the face of danger helped Japanese citizens navigate through those difficult times. There is no reason to believe that the peak oil crisis cannot be managed the same way. The key is for sensible people to realize the folly and stupidity of wasting resources on weapons and wars that do nothing but consume those precious diminishing resources.

Bill Totten

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Medication Nation

Too fat, too thin, too sad, too happy ... Whatever the problem Biotech is developing a vaccine or a pill to cure us Mark White examines the consequences of a world where all our worries can be medicated away.

by Mark White

The Ecologist (December 2005 / January 2006)

It may be known as 'retail therapy', but the next edition of the American Psychiatric Association will recognise being a shopaholic as a clinical disorder. At Stanford University, trials held on the SSRI anti-depressant Citalopram concluded that the drug was a 'safe and effective treatment for Compulsive Shopping Disorder'.

The rise of compulsive spending mirrors the obesity time bomb slowly detonating in the richest countries of the world, according to psychologists. A recent study found that women in their twenties had gained an average of five kilograms in the last seven years.

In the last six months clinics to treat internet addiction have opened in the US and China. Meanwhile, a Scottish teenager was treated recently by an alcohol trust for addiction to electronic messaging. He spent GBP 4,500 on texting in a year, and quit his job after he was found to have sent 8,000 emails in one month. That's 400 a day, or about one a minute, every minute of the working day. 'It's kind of comforting when you get [a message]', he told the BBC. 'I like it, it's like a game of ping-pong, as you send one and get one back'.

So many new addictions, but the old ones remain. The hardcore smokers can't ditch their coffin nails. Alcoholics young and old litter streets and hospitals, and there's scarcely a pub toilet left in the land without a residue of cocaine smeared across the nearest flat surface. It's enough to make you stay in bed and stare at the ceiling, mind racing about climate change, that lifestyle you can't quite afford, and the next big terrorist attack.

Mind racing ... a Buddhist would tell you how to cure that by meditating on the impermanence of existence - and that the racing mind is the result of man's failure to achieve Enlightenment. But Big Pharma has a better idea: in the first week of May a $60 million advertising campaign began in the States for Lunesta, an insomnia drug to cure ... a racing mind. All you need is a prescription and a glass of water.

Swiss biotech company Cytos has 25 research programs underway, including its Immunodrug {tm} nicotine vaccine CYT002NicQb, along with vaccines for chronic diseases including obesity, hypertension, allergy, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. The company was granted a US patent in early 2005 for vaccines against different drugs of abuse, and hopes to release its nicotine vaccine in 2010. The vaccine antibodies prevent dopamine, the chemical that leads to a feeling of pleasure, from flooding the brain. They have a half-life of 50 to 100 days, meaning the response could be a boosted by a further injection. The rewards are huge: Decision Resources estimated the 'stop smoking' market in America alone will be $1.5 billion by 2007, and as China and India become richer, with more people smoking, eventually more people will want to stop smoking too.

Cystos' obesity vaccine works on a similar principle with an antibody against ghrelin, a small protein that regulates appetite. If you inject extra ghrelin into people it makes them hungrier. Fat people who lose weight develop extra ghrelin, leading to yo-yo dieting. The theory is that by stopping the uptake of ghrelin it will be easier to stick to a diet. Cytos is reported to be running trials with 112 obese volunteers on a six month treatment of the vaccine or a placebo, and at the same time counselling them about healthy eating and encouraging exercise. While obesity is a leading cause of preventable death in rich countries, it is also, in every sense, a growing problem, with rich nations becoming fatter and fatter, and less and less happy about it. A successful vaccine would be worth billions.

The military are in on the act, naturally, sponsoring research into drugs that will keep their soldiers awake without the jittery, glittery rush of adrenaline that follows amphetamine use. And then there are mood-enhancing drugs to combat the rise of depression, a disorder that the World Health Organisation estimates will be the biggest health problem in the industrialised world by 2020.

'Tomorrow's biotechnology offers us the chance to enrich our emotional, intellectual and, yes, spiritual capacities', says David Pearce, a leading transhumanist philosopher (transhumanists favour using science and technology to overcome human limitations). 'I think there's an overriding moral urgency to eradicating suffering. This ethical goal eclipses everything else.'

Zack Lynch, a leading expert on the biotech industry and publisher of several blogs and neurotechnological market reports, dismisses concerns about side effects: 'Future neurotechnologies will have the capacity to extend all aspects of what makes us human, from self-centredness to radical empathy'. Eradicate suffering? Making people less self-centred? Radical empathy? Sounds great. So why does the idea of pills that will eradicate angst give so many people, well, angst?

If people were satisfied they wouldn't need to try to improve themselves. But our societies are based on the concept of endless growth, so they rely on us never being satisfied. Alexis de Tocqueville made this observation in his 1848 classic Democracy in America. 'In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men, placed in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad even in their pleasures'. Maybe depression is the price you pay for living in a society based round not happiness per se, but its pursuit.

The notion of 'progress' has brought a million fresh hells trailing in its wake. As Lynch notes in an entry on his Corante blog from December 19 2003: 'Our extensive global connectedness has created new problems for modern humans. While many people question the uneven distribution of power that exists in today's world, others are disillusioned by the happiness that wealth was supposed to bring. In every culture, feelings of uncertainty, depression, anger and resentment have surfaced on a vast scale.'

For Lynch the solution is an extension of modernity, or our systems of control over the physical environment, inwards to our mental environment: 'We now need new tools to address the mental stress that arises from living in a highly connected urbanised world ... new tools [that] represent our best hope in a world seemingly out of control'. Those tools are new drugs that, for him, are a means towards sharing our emotions to create a more empathetic society.

There is an alternative view, explored by philosopher Carl Elliott in his essay Pursued by Happiness and Beaten Senseless: Prozac and the American Dream, that looks at alienation in societies - the 'mismatch between the way you are living a life and the structure of meaning that tells you how to live a life ... it makes some sense (though one could contest this) to say that sometimes a person should be alienated - that given certain circumstances, alienation is the proper response. Some external circumstances call for alienation.' He gives the example of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain. He may be happier on Prozac and his psychic well-being would be improved. But his predicament is not just a matter of the wellbeing of his mental health, but how he is living his life. If someone's life is making them sick, then you can make them well by either changing how they live their life or by making them fit in with what made them sick in the first place. It is, of course, a lot easier to give someone a pill and hope they'll adapt to their circumstances, just like housewives in the 1950s popped a valium, cleaned the house, cooked dinner and waited for their husband to come home from a hard day at the office.

Better than well

Not that the meticulous unravelling of human biology stops there. The real kicker is the class of experimental drugs eveloped by Cortex Pharmaceuticals, known as ampakines, that boost the levels of glutamate in the brain - a neurotransmitter implicated in the consolidation of memory. The drug's obvious therapeutic use is to treat people with Alzheimer's or dementia, but why stop there? A report in New Scientist earlier this year described the effects of the Cortex Pharmaceuticals ampakine CX717 on sixteen healthy male volunteers at the University of Surrey who were kept awake all night and then put through tests. Even the smallest doses of the drug improved their performance, and the more they took the more alert they became and the better their cognitive performance. The ampakine users remained alert and with none of the jitters associated with caffeine or amphetamines.

Psychologist Peter Kramer was one of the first professionals to discuss the implications of drugs that could 'change' personalities in his 1993 book Listening to Prozac. He became interested after prescribing Prozac to patients and seeing radical shifts in how they interacted with the world. Some said they had become the person they always wanted to be. Others felt that Prozac had robbed them a deeply valued sense of self. If the drug could cause such a shift in identity to people who needed therapy, said Kramer, what could it do as an enhancement tool to people who were basically fine? Could it make them 'better than well'?

This notion of being better than well causes unease in western societies, particularly ones with Protestant roots where the notion of getting something for nothing is thought to be a sin. It's being called 'cosmetic neurology', a phrase coined by Dr Anjan Chatterjee, from the University of Pennsylvania, in a paper for the September 2004 issue of Neurology. He argues from the slippery slope, saying that: yes, we are getting a boost without doing the work, but we already live in homes with central heating; yes, such drugs could change people's personalities, but steroids and mind-altering drugs do that already; yes, the rich will have better access to such drugs than the poor, but we already accept huge inequalities in society; and yes, government, religions and journalists will urge restraint, but they are likely to be overwhelmed by a 'relatively unrestrained market' and the military.

Patients, he says, will demand the right of access to a drug designed to raise their baseline level of happiness. 'If social pressures encourage wide use of medications to improve quality of life, then pharmaceutical companies stand to make substantial profits and they are likely to encourage such pressures', he says, '... it does not take much imagination to see how advertisements for better brains would affect an insecure public. Gingko Biloba, despite its minima] affects on cognition, is a billion dollar industry.'

There's certainly money to be made, as the following comments on about Cortex's CX717 show: 'Given that schizophrenia is the most clinically advanced program, we believe that this particular indication would be the most valuable in a licensing deal ... Cortex plus Organon's schizophrenia rights (throwing in depression as a sweetener) would look great in a Big Pharma's Christmas stocking'.

David Pearce poses a thorny question by email: 'Should people be compelled to stay the way they are? After all, the reason we're so discontented a lot of the time is because of the legacy of our evolutionary past - making their vehicles discontented helped out genes to leave more copies of themselves in the ancestra environment. Potentially, the new drug therapies and genetic interventions will be 'empowering' in the best sense of the term. A lot of people today just feel imprisoned in brains, bodies and personalities they didn't choose and aren't happy with it all ...'

This brings two competing notions of happiness to a head: the Eastern, which comes from accepting each moment as being neither good nor bad, but just as something that is, and the Western one, the pinnacle of consumerism and materialism, that of having your desires satisfied. I asked Pearce if he thought it was good for people to have their needs met at all times, and he replied that if those needs don't adversely affect the wellbeing of others, then yes.

The comment reminded me of a quote in Elliott's essay from Walker Percy's Signposts in a Strange Land. Writing of a Geriatrics Rehabilitation Unit where old folks grow inexplicably sad despite having all their needs met, he says: 'Though they may live in the pleasantest Senior Settlements where their every need is filled, every recreation provided, every sort of hobby encouraged, nevertheless many grow despondent in their happiness, sit slack and empty-eyed at shuffleboard and ceramic oven. Fishing poles fall from tanned and healthy hands. Golf clubs rust. Reader's Digests go unread. Many old folk pine away and even die from unknown causes like a voodoo curse.'

All technologies have mission creep and unintended consequences. Chatterjee dismisses concern about drug safety with the blithe phrase 'in general, newer medications will continue to be safer', despite little evidence to that end - and recent evidence with fen-phen, Vioxx and the hiding of negative SSRI drug data by Big Pharma pointing in the other direction. The debate is framed in such a way as to make cosmetic neurology sound like an extension of evolution, when it's about as natural as a GM tomato containing a fish gene. This kind of technological arrogance is what's dooming the ecosphere, not saving it. 'I'm not prepared to say they can't be a good thing', wrote Elliott, by email. 'They may well be. But I guess my feeling is that while the benefits are obvious, the possible drawbacks are not, and need to be thought about more carefully. There are also a lot of people out there with a financial interest in hyping the benefits and downplaying the risks.'

Take enhanced memory. Sounds great. We've all seen elderly relatives get lost in a fog of misfiring neurons, and it can be incredibly sad. But whether you believe in an intelligent designer or your starting point as the Big Bang, something has led the human brain to its present state of nature. 'We understand little about the design constraints that were being satisfied in the process of creating a modern human brain', says Martha Farah, from the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. 'Therefore we do not know which "limitations" are there for a good reason ... normal forgetting rates seem to be optimal for information retrieval. You could, in effect, remember too much: the hair colour of the person who sat in front of you in the cinema, the smell as you passed the bakery on your way to work, what you had for dinner every night of the last year - memory after memory too readily accessible.

A class of drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease gained the nickname 'the Las Vegas pill' after it was found to turn a small but significant number of its patients into compulsive gamblers - ironically by stimulating the dopamine-producing area of the brain that the addiction drugs are aimed at quietening down. The Doogie mice are another case in point. These smart rodents were genetically engineered to have enhanced memory and learning skills. They were better at recognising and locating objects and remembering painful experiences - but when pain was induced it lasted longer. They found it hurt to be made smart.

There's a wider point at stake here: if nature is something worthy of respect, then why not human nature? Our belief that we are set apart from the world has led us to treat our environment as a plaything for the fulfillment of our desires, though we forget that the demands of our egos are never-ending and monstrous. Can we ever be too happy? Too rich? Too thin? Too satisfied?

Zack Lynch believes that humans are social animals wired for social acceptance. 'I see no indication that the majority of individuals will not choose to enhance aspects of themselves to make them more giving, caring and empathetic towards each other and the rest of the biosphere' he writes, by email, choosing not to highlight the increasingly aggressive, competitive economic and social world that we are building for ourselves and future generations. Millions of people already alter their reality by taking mood-altering drugs like ecstasy, or sink a bottle of wine, or hammer a bong, and there's little evidence of an upsurge in love.

Rats exposed to cocaine will keep on self-administering the drug, to keep the pleasurable chemicals swirling around their brains, no matter what happens. That wiring for social acceptance is being rewired for social status, and you can see the results just by looking around you. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has named 2045 as the point at which humans reach Singularity, the moment when the barrier between our minds and computers disappears and the non-biological portion of our intelligence predominates.

And then? Author Michel Houellebecq, when not scandalising the French establishment, keeps returning to issues of identity and humanity. He did it in The Elementary Particles, and in his next book, The Possibility of an Island, he describes a cult that thinks of genetic engineering as a path to immortality. The main character's girlfriend explains: 'What we're trying to create is an artificial humanity, a frivolous one, that will never again be capable of seriousness or humour, that will spend its life in an ever more desperate quest for fun and sex - a generation of absolute kids'.

Pearce believes that drugs that make us happier will rip up most of philosophy: just think, no more Nietzsche or Camus. 'Most of the philosophical tradition is based on grief and suffering. The same is true of traditional "great" literature too', he wrote. I asked him if he thought art needed suffering to be created, and he wrote back with a link to a book called Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. It contains Lord Byron's famous quote: 'We of the craft are all crazy'.

Houellebecq's main character knows where the world is headed: 'Nothing was left now of those literary and artistic works that humanity had been so proud of; the themes that gave rise to them had lost all relevance, their emotional power had evaporated'. So, what an improvement the post-human will be. We will feed our desires and remove all the insecurities and blunt edges and pain and art, and as the sky boils and the ice caps melt and the fish all die and the land is fouled and the bombs keep exploding we will, at least, have a smile on our faces and a happy feeling in our hearts.

* Mark White is a freelance journalist

ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo

Fanatical about Freshness!

Compiled by Claire Thomas

"We are obsessed with ensuring you get the freshest baguette around. that's why after three hours we throw them away. We believe we are the only people that do this. That's how fanatical we are!"

Number of children who die from hunger-related causes worldwide, every three hours: 2,160

Amount (in tonnes) of food wasted each year in Britain alone: 17 million

Cost of total food waste in Britain and the US each year (US dollars): $134.26 billion

Amount of money required to halve chronic hunger worldwide over nineteen years (US dollars): $24 billion

Estimate of the cost of the Iraq war to the US, per year: $108 billion

Average cost of an Uppercrust baguette: GBP 2.50

Percentage of people worldwide who earn less than GBP 1.15 a day: 53%

Number of people starving worldwide: 852 million

Number of people who are overweight worldwide: 1.2 billion

And If Current Trends Continue:

Number of people who will be overweight by 2015: 1.5 billion

Number of children under five who will continue to die from hunger related causes each year: six million

Bill Totten

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Mirage of Empire

by John Gray

New York Review of Books (January 12 2006)

Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
by Robert D Kaplan (Random House, 421 pages, $27.95)

The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's

Government in the 21st Century
by Michael Mandelbaum (PublicAffairs, 283 pages, $26.00)


Robert Kaplan was one of the few who did not share the complacent sense of triumph that accompanied the end of the cold war. In an article entitled "The Coming Anarchy", which he published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1994, Kaplan outlined a very different prospect from that anticipated by most other observers. He saw a world in which some states collapsed or rusted away, leaving their populations to scramble for survival, while powerful states acted ruthlessly to ensure their control of the world's dwindling resources. In many countries, he wrote, the struggle for resources would be intensified by ethnic and religious conflicts, and nationalist demagogues and fundamentalist prophets would come to power, imperiling what remained of order and security in the international system.

Kaplan's vision of a coming anarchy was widely rejected as being overly pessimistic. Yet his dark forebodings were closer to the emerging pattern of events than the received opinion of the time, and he went on to develop his brand of realist analysis in a string of successful books. His study of ethnic strife in southeast Europe, Balkan Ghosts (1993), may have influenced President Clinton in dealing with the Balkan conflict, while in The Ends of the Earth (1996) he envisioned a disjointed world that encompassed the Caucasus and Central Asia along with the Indian subcontinent and Indochina.

In Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2002) Kaplan moved away from reportage and presented a forceful statement of a realist view of international relations. Peace is a precondition of civilized life; but without the ability to deploy force, he argued, peace is in jeopardy, and along with it civilization. In my view rightly, Kaplan and other realist thinkers believe this connection between peace and the possible use of force to be a permanent feature of human affairs. However, at this point the question is who, if anyone, possesses the ability to use force effectively in global conflicts? In Warrior Politics, Kaplan answered that only the United States possesses this ability. America must accept that history has given it an imperial role:

"Despite our anti-imperial traditions, and despite the fact that imperialism is delegitimized in public discourse, an imperial reality already dominates our foreign policy".

Kaplan is not alone in arguing that America must embrace an imperial destiny. While they may not talk of empire, many neoconservative and some liberal commentators have presented a similar view of the US as the final guarantor of global security. Where Kaplan is distinctive is in claiming that America's imperial mission follows from a realist analysis of contemporary international relations, and asking how the sections of the American military that have the task of implementing this mission perceive their role. In Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, he reports on his travels to US military bases in every quarter of the globe. Kaplan enjoyed a degree of access to US military bases and personnel that is rare if not unique among contemporary journalists. The result has many weaknesses; but it is a consistently thought-provoking and vividly evocative book (the first of several he plans to write on the subject, he tells us) that challenges many preconceptions about the place of the military in American life and the world.

During Kaplan's travels he talked with (and came ardently to admire) middle-ranking commissioned and noncommissioned officers charged with a variety of demanding and dangerous operations. He seems especially enamored of those he met in Special Forces, "small light and lethal units of soldiers and marines", who are able to act with a speed and flexibility denied to "dinosauric, industrial age infantry divisions". For Kaplan, the special commando component of the US Marine Corps (SOCOM) is now the core of the American military. Operating on the front line of the "war on terror" in many far-flung countries, these elite fighters remind Kaplan of the volunteer cavalry and dragoons that fought the highly mobile guerrilla forces of North American Indians who resisted westward expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century:

"Just as the stirring poetry and novels of Rudyard Kipling celebrated the work of British imperialism in subduing the Pushtuns and Afridis of India's Northwest Frontier, a Kipling contemporary, the American artist Frederic Remington, in his bronze sculptures and oil paintings, would do likewise for the conquest of the Wild West".

This reference to the Wild West is not an insignificant detail. It is central to Kaplan's picture of American Empire. He writes: "'Welcome to Injun Country' was the refrain I heard from troops from Colombia to the Philippines, including Afghanistan and Iraq ... The War on Terrorism was really about taming the frontier".

The suggestion that there is an analogy between the American Indian wars and the global role of the United States today is striking, and so is the comparison between those wars and the construction of the British Raj. In each case the resemblance is tenuous or nonexistent. The British presence in India involved many savage conflicts such as those surrounding the Indian Mutiny - which posed a serious threat to British rule in the mid-nineteenth century - and the Raj was always tainted by racism. Even so, throughout most of the colonial period a few thousand British officers were able to rule the continent without the large-scale use of military force. The primary goal of the Raj was to exploit India's resources, and so long as this process was uninterrupted the local population and its rulers were left largely to their own devices. In contrast, the goal of the American Indian wars was the expulsion of indigenous peoples from their lands, which in some cases resulted in the destruction of their way of life. Whether or not this can be described as genocide (as some have claimed) it was conquest of a different order from that imposed by the British on India.

The comparison between British imperialism and America's role in the world is also wide of the mark. American bases span the globe, often serving goals similar in kind to those pursued by European colonial powers, but the US is nowhere engaged in colonial rule of the sort that Britain and other European powers established throughout much of the world. European imperialists made a long-term commitment to the territories they annexed. They spent large parts of their lives immersed in the cultures of the countries they had colonized, learning the languages and often forging enduring alliances with local rulers. As well as subjugating and exploiting their colonies they also ruled and lived in them. European imperialism involved many atrocities - in German Southwest Africa and the Belgian Congo large numbers died in conditions not far removed from slavery, and it was the British who began the use of air power against civilian populations in Afghanistan and Iraq in the Twenties, for example. Moreover, the views formed by European colonial elites of the countries they occupied were colored by a mix of racial prejudice and Orientalist myths. Nevertheless, the close familiarity of some of these colonial rulers with the languages, histories, and ruling classes of the colonies made possible a degree of political control over them that went far beyond anything that could be achieved by military force alone.

The truth is that America lacks most of the attributes that make an imperial power. It has a large number of countries over which it has varying degrees of influence - sometimes exercised by the threat of force, more often though a mix of economic sanctions and inducements. It does not govern any of these countries and it has little political control over them. Observing that "the American Empire emerged finally as more implicit than explicit", Kaplan notes that "America's imperium was without colonies" and goes on to compare it with the Roman and Persian empires.

However, America's relations with most of the countries in which it stations troops are not long-term relationships of the kind cultivated by the Romans and the Persians. America's presence is conditional on the shifting pattern of American interests and the contingencies of American politics. When any American overseas military involvement becomes too costly or unpopular it is likely to be abruptly terminated. As a result of this fact, which is taken as axiomatic in both Washington and the countries concerned, long-term alliances with local ruling classes of the kind that enabled empires to endure for centuries in the past are seldom possible.


The lack of any long-term commitment to the countries in which the US has military bases is mirrored in the military. A feature of Kaplan's account of America's "imperial grunts" is his celebration of their unabashed American nationalism. He writes approvingly: "The American troops I met saw themselves belonging to one country and one society only: that of the United States". It does not seem to occur to Kaplan that this fact might in any way interfere with the imperial mission on which he believes the US to have embarked. Yet the two are at odds at crucial points. The fervent, inward-looking nationalism he identifies and celebrates in the US military does not encourage any sustained interest in other societies. Kaplan writes of US forces in Afghanistan: "With few exceptions, even the counterintelligence officers I met barely spoke the language". In a "global war on terror", which relies on good intelligence, a lack of linguistic skills must count as a serious disability.

Kaplan thinks this defect can be remedied by better recruitment and training, but it is of a piece with attitudes and policies that are ingrained in the US military. Consider the doctrine of "force protection", which makes minimizing American casualties an overriding objective. Against the background of American losses in Vietnam and Somalia this may be an understandable policy, but the effect in countries where US forces are engaged in counterinsurgency warfare is that the population as a whole is perceived as potentially hostile. As may be seen in Iraq, this can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is a larger difference between the role of the American military today and that of European armed forces in the colonial era. European imperialism was an exercise in state-building, and the military forces of the colonial powers usually worked within guidelines framed with the aim of advancing long-term political objectives. In contrast, US forces view themselves and are seen by others as transients and they often act without well-defined political goals. Kaplan reports a National Guardsman in Afghanistan describing his tour of duty: "You get to see places tourists never do. We're like tourists with guns." The assumption is that US forces are charged with a one-time mission, and once it is completed they can move on or return home.

But containing terrorism - which is supposed to be at the core of America's global military deployment today - requires political and economic initiatives implemented over long periods as well as an ongoing military engagement. The intervention that was mounted by the US and its allies in Afghanistan aimed to destroy the Taliban regime and in this it succeeded; but Taliban forces have since regrouped, and Kaplan's elite "small light and lethal units" have succeeded only in harrying, not disabling, them. The difficulties faced by US forces in Iraq do not come from any lack of prowess or firepower. They come from the deep mistrust of much of the population and the condition of near anarchy that prevails in most of the country. Overcoming these obstacles - assuming such a thing to be feasible and necessary - requires a labor that extends over decades or generations. There are few countries today with the capacity to sustain such a commitment, and it is manifestly lacking in the United States where impatience with "nation-building" runs deep. Yet without some such continuing engagement there cannot be any kind of American Empire. How can there be imperialism, when there are no imperialists?

The problem is starkly illustrated in Iraq. It has become conventional wisdom that the Bush administration had no plan for the country in the aftermath of the invasion, and many of those who criticize the administration's conduct of the war do so in the belief that better preparation would have enabled the policy of regime change to succeed. There can be no doubt that the war was launched without proper forethought, but it is questionable whether any degree of planning would have equipped American forces to cope with the anarchy of post-Saddam Iraq. While gross errors in policy such as the sudden disbanding of the Iraqi army by the chief American civilian administrator Paul Bremer contributed to the difficulties, the basic problem comes from the fragility of the state and the inability of American occupying forces to put anything enduring in its place.

First known as Mesopotamia when it was cobbled together by a British civil servant from provinces of the Ottoman Empire and established as a Hashemite kingdom in 1921, Iraq has always been a composite state with deep internal divisions. Saddam's regime - a Western-style secular dictatorship modeled on the Stalinist Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany - held Iraq together while inflicting severe repression on the Shia majority, the Kurds, and others. Overthrowing the regime emancipated these groups, and at the same time left the Iraqi state without power or legitimacy. American forces discovered they had destroyed a tyranny only to create a failed state.

The response of the Bush administration was to launch a program of "democratization", but the belief that democracy will bring stability is a delusion. When democracy spreads into countries containing populations that are long and deeply divided, the result is commonly that the state fragments. Iraq is divided not only by historic ethnic-religious enmities but also by rival claims to its oil reserves. In these conditions liberal democracy is a utopian project. A kind of democracy may be established, but it will be democracy Iranian-style - an Islamist version of Rousseau's illiberal dream.

Against this background a war over internal resources between the country's antagonistic communities is practically unavoidable, and in fact the process of disintegration seems already to have begun. Fundamentalist groups appear to have secured control of sections of key institutions such as the police and security forces and some cities are under de facto rule by Islamist militias. In these circumstances building up Iraqi forces that could replace those of the US and the UK in containing the insurgency - which is the basis of the administration's exit strategy - is impossible. Some critics of the administration see this situation as arising from an initial failure to deploy sufficient troops. Ralph Peters, a former army intelligence officer and well-known writer on strategic matters, blames "the apparatchiks of the Rumsfeld Pentagon", who "refused to allocate sufficient forces to mount a convincing occupation throughout Iraq". {1} No doubt modish theories that understand warfare as an exercise in managerial efficiency contributed to the debacle. However, if America is facing strategic defeat in Iraq the reason is not that its forces there are insufficiently numerous. It is that their operations have never served any political goal that could be realized.

The most likely legacy of the war appears to be a balkanized Iraq and the enhanced power of radical Islam throughout the region, with Iran being the main beneficiary. This is hardly what might be expected of an imperial grand strategy designed to advance American interests, and Kaplan seems conscious of the discrepancy between his large claims for America's imperial role and the chaotic blundering reality. Commenting on the assault on Fallujah, he writes: "To be sure, the decision to invest Al-Fallujah and then pull out just as victory was within reach demonstrated both the fecklessness and incoherence of the Bush administration". It would be hard to fault his judgment of the administration. A rational foreign policy cannot be compounded from a mix of oil-driven realpolitik and millenarian faith in the transforming power of democracy.

Yet Kaplan's view of America's imperial mission is no less incoherent. He is a devoted reader of Joseph Conrad - he wrote an enthusiastic introduction to an edition of two of Conrad's greatest novels - and shares Conrad's insight into the fragility of imperial power. {2} But he shows no sign of Conrad's understanding of the inescapable shabbiness and cruelty of such power. For Kaplan, empire is a grand adventure and to shrink from it is petty-minded and craven. In the book's prologue (titled "Injun Country") he declares:

"To be an American in the first decade of the twenty-first century was to be present at a grand and fleeting moment, a moment that even if it lasted for several more decades could constitute but a flicker among the long march of hegemons that had calmed broad swaths of the globe".

Writing in this vein, Kaplan is a Romantic elegist of an American imperium he suspects has already reached its prime. He eulogizes the simple piety and "unpretentious willingness to die" of his imperial grunts, castigates America's "more prosperous classes" whom he sees as being "in the process of forging a global, cosmopolitan elite", and berates the press and television for their sniping criticism of the military. It seems not to occur to him that if the press has reservations about the way military force is being currently used this may be because reporters are aware of the blowback it has produced throughout much of the world.

After all, it is not only journalists who have doubts about the way America's armed might is being deployed. There seems to have been serious concern about the wisdom of launching the Iraq war in some of the major branches of American government, including the State Department, the CIA, and (not least) senior echelons of the uniformed military in the Pentagon. Predictably, public support for overseas involvements is falling and the American public mood is once again turning inward. The limits of American military power in dealing with an intractable world have become painfully evident, and it cannot be long before the demand for large-scale troop withdrawals becomes extremely hard to resist.

America's political leadership has encouraged the belief that grandiose political goals can be realized through the use of streamlined forces in short, low-cost campaigns. In reality, while a strategy of "shock and awe" can destroy the armed forces of an enemy state, it cannot overcome the resistance of its population. Rupert Smith, the British general who commanded UN forces in Bosnia and served as NATO's deputy allied commander in the Kosovo war, has argued that a new type of conflict waged "among the people" has to a large extent replaced the old-style industrial warfare of the last century. The key to success in this new form of warfare, he writes, is that military force must be used in the service of feasible political objectives. {3}

Kaplan also recognizes that old-style industrial warfare is in some measure obsolete, but seems blind to this political requirement. More than once he cites with apparent approval the view of a retired US Army general, who told him that "policing the world [means] producing a product and setting it loose". However, if US forces are set loose without guidance they will not know what they are meant to be doing, or why. They may prevail in combat and inflict heavy casualties, but they will achieve nothing that is lasting aside from the enmity of the civilian population whose lives and cities are laid waste. Military operations conducted on this basis will be self-defeating, as in Iraq. Kaplan's description of US forces as fighting in "Injun Country" is repugnant and absurd; but even if the analogy were legitimate it would fall short of capturing the folly of a "global war on terror" in which undirected force is deployed in the service of indeterminate or utopian political goals.


For Michael Mandelbaum the preeminent characteristic of the United States at the start of the twenty-first century is its power: "What the United States is, first and foremost, is powerful, far more powerful after the Cold War than any other country". While he agrees with Kaplan that America has never been more powerful, Mandelbaum does not share Kaplan's belief in an American imperium: "The American global role differs dramatically from - indeed is the opposite of - imperial rule", he tells us, since "it is the United States that pays and the rest of the world that benefits without having to pay". As the only power in a position to supply global public goods, such as the military forces used in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, the US, he writes, acts as the world's government. He does not deny that America uses its power in its own national interests, but seems to see no possibility of conflict between these interests and those of other countries. For Mandelbaum America

"is not the lion of the international system, terrorizing and preying on smaller, weaker animals in order to survive itself. It is, rather, the elephant, which supports a wide variety of other creatures - smaller mammals, birds, and insects - by generating nourishment for them as it goes about the business of feeding itself".

The Case for Goliath is an eloquent statement of the vital role of America in twenty-first-century global security. Yet the picture it presents of America's unchallenged hegemony passes over some awkward facts. Unlike Britain in the nineteenth century, which was the world's largest exporter of capital, the United States is the world's largest debtor. In effect America's military adventures are paid for with borrowed money - notably that lent by China, whose purchases of American government debt have become crucial in underpinning the US economy. This dependency on China cannot easily be squared with the idea that the US is acting as the world's unpaid global enforcer. It is America's foreign creditors who fund this role, and if they come to perceive US foreign policy as dangerously threatening or irrational they are in a position to raise its costs to the point where they become prohibitive. As Emmanuel Todd, the French analyst who, in 1975, forecast the impending Soviet collapse, has noted:

"The United States is unable to live on its own economic activity and must be subsidized to maintain its current level of consumption - at present cruising speed that subsidy amounts to 1.4 billion dollars a day (as of April 2003). If its behavior continues to be disruptive, it is America that ought to fear an embargo." {4}

Given that it would also harm America's creditors the likelihood of such an embargo may be remote, but it is no longer unthinkable.

When the cold war ended there were some who expected that versions of fin-de-siecle America would be replicated across the globe and an era of global tranquillity would ensue. Mandelbaum has no such illusions, but like many others he imagines that the fall of communism enhanced American power, not realizing that its actual effect has been to reduce it. The cold war was not the kind of competition that could have a winner. It could have only one loser - the USSR, with its enormous military-industrial rustbelt, stagnant economy, and devastated environment. The true beneficiary is not America but Asia. The Soviet collapse quickened the pace of globalization, which is enabling China and India to become great powers whose interests may conflict with those of the United States. The era of Western primacy is coming to a close. It is this fact more than any other that precludes the formation of an American Empire and rules out any prospect of the United States being accepted as a de facto world government.

If American power has limits Mandelbaum fails to recognize, it also has an imperial dimension he denies. Mandelbaum represents the Iraq war as a justifiable response to the prospect of Saddam's developing weapons of mass destruction, and criticizes the Bush administration for not making clear that this was a preventive war rather than one based on reliable information that Saddam already possessed such weapons. However, a different casus belli would not have enabled US forces to quell the anarchy of post-Saddam Iraq. After the initial, highly successful military campaign, the country would still be ungovernable and US forces would still face an uncontrollable insurgency just as is the case today. Above all, American-backed regime change would still be widely perceived - in Iraq and throughout the region and much of the world - as illegitimate.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq may not have produced anything resembling a colonial administration, but it has allowed the expropriation of the country's oil reserves. There are many in Iraq and elsewhere who see regime change as a pretext for securing American control over Iraq's natural resources, and while this may be an oversimplified view it identifies a crucial factor in American policies. America remains critically dependent on the depleting oil reserves of the Gulf at a time when demand is rising inexorably in China and India. Faced with this situation the US has reverted to classical geopolitics. Its forces are in central Asia, in such countries as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, to secure American interests in the current rerun of the Great Game in which it is in competition with other countries for the region's energy resources. American forces serve the same strategy in the Gulf.

However, it is far from clear that this exercise in geopolitics can succeed. Because of the anarchy that prevails in much of the country, multinational companies are unable to operate in Iraq. Oil production has failed to reach the levels it achieved under Saddam, and if oil facilities elsewhere in the Gulf come under persistent attack it may not be possible to ensure their security. The underlying political reality in the region is pervasive hostility to American power. As a result of its oil dependency America has committed itself to a neoimperial strategy of military intervention that can only aggravate that enmity. It is doubtful whether the US has the capacity to sustain the indefinite period of war that could result, and more than doubtful that the task is worth attempting.

Toward the end of Imperial Grunts, Kaplan writes:

"The American Empire of the early twenty-first century depended upon a tissue of intangibles that was threatened, rather than invigorated, by the naked use of power".

It is a sagacious observation, but the damage is already done. As a result of the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq the dissolution of America's global hegemony that is an integral part of the process of globalization has been accelerated, perhaps by a generation. The United States will continue to be pivotal, but it cannot expect its interests or its values to be accepted as paramount. We are moving into a world in which peace will depend on concerted action by several great powers. In these circumstances a revival of realist thinking is overdue. Global security is not served by launching messianic campaigns to export democracy. Nor is it advanced by pursuing a mirage of empire, which even now is melting away.


{1} Ralph Peters, New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy (Penguin/Sentinel, 2005), page 69.

{2} Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim and Nostromo (Random House, 1999).

{3} Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2005).

{4} Emmmanuel Todd, After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order (Columbia University Press, 2003), page 197.

NYR Books Copyright c 1963-2005 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.

John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. Among his books are False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, and Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern.

Bill Totten

Friday, December 23, 2005

Avian Flu: The Ecology of an Epidemic

Bird flu has been raging through Asia for more than a decade. But it is only recently that most of us have started to pay attention to the story. Pat Thomas separates fact from fiction and asks whether this is a random act of nature or yet another man-made disaster.

by Pat Thomas

The Ecologist (December 2005 / January 2006)

The words 'bird flu' strike terror into many hearts for many different reasons. As the story of Avian influenza H5N1 gains momentum, the panic induced by the possibility of a virulent strain of influenza that not only jumps national borders but might also jump species has galvanised several influential sectors of society into action.

Farmers, fearful for their economic survival, are slaughtering hundreds of millions of birds in order to control the virus. Doctors, seeing an opportunity to save humanity from a potential pandemic and get published at the same time, are busy studying this and other related viruses. Drug companies, spying an unprecedented opportunity for profit, are busy attempting to produce experimental vaccines and anti-viral medicines for both animals and humans. The media, hungry for a good scare story, have been able to generate a more or less daily flow of such tales. Politicians looking for political capital are talking about quarantines, closing borders and waging war on a microscopic enemy.

But think about it. After several years of intense analysis and debate, how much do you really know about H5N1? If you are like most people you have probably, at some point in the narrative, confused the actual bird disease with the theoretical human one. Like many people you may have been distracted from the process of examining the origins of the outbreak among poultry by predictions of the imminent annihilation of the human race. Yet it is only by examining the ecology of avian influenza that we can begin to understand where we are now and where the disease might be going in the future.

Avian influenza is a generic term for any number of influenzas that can arise in and infect birds. There are sixteen known types of avian influenza of which type-A H5N1 is just one.

While it is widely assumed that the first outbreak of H5N1, more commonly known as 'bird flu', occurred in South Korea in December 2003, this unusually virulent virus has been with us for a long time. Retrospective data from the World Health Organisation shows that in the last 45 years or so, H5N1 has accounted for four of the 21 known outbreaks of avian influenza in commercial poultry throughout the world. The first occurred in 1959 in Scottish chickens. It emerged again in 1991 in English turkeys, and then in 1997 and again in 2002 among chickens in Hong Kong.

In the last ten years or so the virus has made gains in virulence and transmissibility among birds and once conventionally reared poultry become infected, outbreaks can be difficult to control and often cause major economic damage to poultry farmers in affected countries.

Kentucky Fried Flu

There is good reason to believe, however that it is not the virus, but the inhumane conditions in which the birds are reared that is most deadly. Rearing animals in crowded conditions, feeding them unnatural diets, and exposing them to unimaginable stress during their short lifetimes creates a breeding ground for illness, infection and eventually epidemics.

Such appalling conditions arise from our general apathy and inaction as regards the importance of animal welfare, but also from our evolving belief that cheap food in general and cheap chicken in particular is some kind of human birthright.

The average chicken you buy in the supermarket may be 'British' (a loose definition that can include a chicken that was grown and packaged in this country or one that was shipped in from somewhere else and packaged here), but the vast majority of chicken 'products' - nuggets, goujons, kievs, pizzas, pies, sandwiches, ready meals and airline, school, hospital and pub meals - are generally made from chicken imported from abroad. Likewise, the proliferation of fast food restaurants on British high streets rely on a steady supply of cheap imported chicken to sustain them.

Consumers, of course, rarely know where their chicken has come from. Before the outbreak, few knew that the Asian region affected by the spread of avian flu is home to around seven billion chickens, approximately forty percent of all the world's poultry. After the US, Brazil, and the EU, Thailand is the fourth largest exporter of poultry in the world.

The amount of chicken imported from Thailand into the UK has grown considerably over the last few years. In 2000, more than 23,420 tonnes of prepared chicken was imported into the UK from Thailand. By 2003 and 2004, when avian influenza was in full swing, this figure had risen to 45,073 and 44,316 tonnes respectively. So even at the height of the outbreak it's a fair bet that you have eaten Asian chicken in some form over the last year or two. To meet our increasing demand for cheap chicken Asian farmers (indeed poultry farmers everywhere), are encouraged to produce lots of birds quickly and cheaply. Inevitably corners - in hygiene and animal welfare - get cut.

While news reports have focused on heartbreaking stories of family farmers whose small flocks have been devastated by avian flu, this does not give a true picture of the Asian poultry business, which is home to many vast battery farms (indeed Tesco is the majority share owner in one of Thailand's largest battery farms). One of these farms is rumoured to house as many as five million birds. Under these conditions a farmer is nothing more than an impotent guardian, unable to spot disease when it first emerges and unable to stop its spread once it takes hold.

Killing with kindness

Since mortality rates are high with H5N1, infected birds are generally destroyed, or 'culled', in order to prevent the spread of the disease within the flock and to neighbouring farms. To date, the current outbreak in Asia and the more remote corners of the EU has resulted in the culling of more than 100 million birds.

Culling, however, is a crude and ineffective method of disease control. When H5N1 first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997 some forty million birds were culled. This did not stop the disease emerging more strongly than ever in 2002. Nor did it prevent it crossing national borders or infecting human beings.

Culling wild birds in the hope of stopping the international spread of the virus is an equally violent and futile act. InJuly 2004, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) cautioned that doing so was ineffective and 'will not help to prevent or control avian influenza outbreaks'.

Wild birds are natural reservoirs for many types of virus and most of the time they are immune to illness. While local authorities panic at every dead duck found in a pond lake, it is worth remembering that the spread of avian influenza through wild birds is limited by the simple fact that sick birds do not fly far, and dead birds don't fly at all. It is hardly surprising then that, to date, there is no scientific evidence that wildlife spreads the disease to domestic or commercially reared birds, or that it is the major factor in the resurgence of the disease in Asia or of isolated outbreaks in countries such as Turkey, Greece and Romania.

Other proposed solutions such as hunting wild birds, some of which are listed as endangered, or cutting down trees to destroy roosting sites, are more likely to disperse wild birds into new areas, stress them further and make them more susceptible to avian influenza and/ or other diseases.

Furthermore, the FAO has emphasised that wildfowl are also an important element of the biologically complex wetlands ecosystem, acting as herbivores, predators and prey, as well as facilitating plant dispersal. Killing them on a just-incase basis would have profound ecological impacts.

Culture of death

The 'culture of death' that surrounds sick animals is not new. One needs only to look back as far as 2001 and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain to find significant examples of the tendency to wage war on nature every time our manipulation of it threatens the global economy.

Like avian flu, foot and mouth is caused by a virus. The characteristic sores on the mouths, gums, teats and other parts of infected animals are little more than large cold sores. If they are well cared for, afflicted animals usually recover within a week or two, just like humans with the flu. Yet in 2001, rather than waiting for the animals to get better, millions of sheep and cows in the UK were culled in an effort to keep the disease under control. This slaughter occurred in spite of the fact that there was no threat tohumans from the meat of infected animals.

The fact is that animals, like humans, get sick. For example, figures from the US Department of Agriculture show that since 1997 more than sixteen outbreaks of H5 and H7 influenza have occurred among poultry in the US. From the birds' perspective such outbreaks usually result in either no illness or mild illness and low levels of mortality. To date there has been no evidence that the virus is transmitted through the meat or eggs from infected birds.

When problems such as foot and mouth or avian flu arise, out-of-proportion publicity about the risks to human health are often used to obscure more pressing issues such as the way these hard to control, but otherwise natural and cyclical occurrences threaten to expose the economic reality of intensive farming.

From a modern farmer's perspective sick animals are unproductive animals. In farmed birds catching the flu is undesirable due to the way it temporarily slows down growth and reduces the number of eggs a bird will lay. The unspoken and unanswered question is: is it cheaper (or even more profitable given the carrot of government subsidies for culling) to kill them than to sit out a period of decreased productivity that naturally accompanies any period of illness?

Farmers argue that culling is kinder to the birds since up to ninety percent of birds infected with avian flu will die anyway. If kindness and animal welfare were really on the top of farmers' agendas, however, we would be looking seriously at the contribution of modern intensive farming practices to the emergence of highly pathogenic H5N1.

Should bird flu spread widely beyond Asia, its impact on human health may be much less destructive than feared (see "How Deadly is Deadly?" below), but it will certainly devastate a multi-billion pound poultry industry. While it's hard not to feel some sympathy for farmers, there is good reason to believe that when our animals get sick we are being hoist by our own petard.


Worry about a human pandemic, coupled with acceptance of the idea that drugs will save us all, has allowed pharmaceutical companies to set the agenda for how we respond to the threat of bird flu. It could be argued, however, that this quick-fix solution is of greater benefit to the pharmaceutical industry than it is to most average people. Last year Roche's profits were in the region of GBP 144 million. This year, thanks to the antiviral Tamiflu, this figure is expected to soar to GBP 500 million, and next year GBP 1 billion.

In preparation for a potential pandemic caused by a human mutation of H5N1, governments throughout the world are stocking up on vaccines and anti-viral medicines. Off the back of a potential crisis, many governments have cynically promoted this year's flu vaccine as a way to stop H5NT mutating - without a shred of evidence that this is so. Indeed, as a general rule vaccines force rather than prevent viral mutations. Equally cynical was the recent PR campaign by Roche, which at the height of people's fears over a potential human variant of H5N1, painted their antiviral Tamiflu as a near natural remedy derived from the Asian herb Star Anise, when in fact only a single constituent of the herb is used at the beginning of a ten-stage, year-long manufacturing process that results in a synthetic substance very different from the natural herb.

Step away from the hype and the truth is that Roche has developed a method for producing Tamiflu without using Star Anise, so stories about scarce supplies of Star Anise leading to Tamiflu shortages can only be viewed as an attempt to drive the price of the remedy up - and it's worked. Last year Tamiflu was retailing at around GBP 16 for ten pills. Today on the open market people are paying GBP 100 or more for the same five-day supply.

While several pharmaceutical companies are now racing to develop a vaccine against H5N1, the likelihood is that the virus will have mutated significantly in the time between the development of the vaccine and any future outbreak, epidemic or pandemic, making a vaccine based on the virus's current genetic incarnation useless.

Consider also the unintended consequences of vaccination. In 1976 in the US an outbreak of swine flu among soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, was found to be related to the 1918 influenza strain. One soldier died and fifty million Americans were vaccinated against an epidemic that never happened. In the end the vaccine, which triggered Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder similar to polio, killed more people (32 in all) than the flu itself.

Vaccinating entire flocks of birds against the current strain of avian flu has also been put forward as a solution. But given the poor effectiveness of the human flu vaccine, it is hard to see this as a viable alternative. It may even make things worse.

In poultry, as in people, a vaccine may prevent some animals from falling ill, but it can also foster a 'silent epidemic' where the birds still carry low numbers of the virus which can still replicate and mutate inside their bodies, often at an unprecedented rate, and with unpredictable consequences. Scientists reporting on Mexico's experience of H5N1 in the Journal of Virology in 2004 say that these silent epidemics can easily force the evolution of new and more virulent strains of influenza that more easily jump from birds to people.

In the same way that antibiotics can force super resistant strains of bacteria, antivirals can also produce stronger, more virulent viruses. Studies show that the avian virus is now resistant to most antiviral medicines including the Tamiflu, which the UK government has recently purchased in great quantities. Even if resistance was not a problem, Tamiflu is of uncertain benefit. It must be taken within 24 to 48 hours of the appearance of symptoms and even then it is not a cure or a 'temporary vaccine' as some of the newspapers have called it. Summaries of scientific literature show that Tamiflu will only reduce the duration of the flu by an average 1.3 days. In some individuals it may reduce severity of symptoms but taking it over the long term, as many will be tempted to do, can reduce its overall effectiveness, has never been proven safe, and may have unintended and as yet unstudied interactions with other medications.

Another antiviral, GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza, has not shown any resistant strains - yet - and reduces the duration and severity of flu to the same degree as Tamiflu. But as it is inhaled rather than coming in capsule form it is not for everyone (for instance the very young), and it can also cause severe breathing difficulties in people with asthma and/or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

If a pandemic does occur, and if it proves deadly, it will not be because our drugs were not strong enough, but because our immune systems were not. In this way things may have not changed very much from 1918. Only now it's not world war, but the chemical warfare waged on our bodies by a constant barrage of toxic chemicals, poor quality food, and increasing levels of stress that makes us sitting ducks for the next pandemic.

While there is still time, while H5N1 remains a bird rather than a human epidemic, while tens of billions are being made available in preparation for a potential pandemic, a commitment to improving diets, lifestyles and living conditions of the population as a whole, and the most vulnerable in particular, and to improved education about hygiene and the nature of viruses, would be our best medicine. Terrifyingly, this has yet to be put on any government agenda.

ooooo ooooo


by Pat Thomas

How real is the threat of a human flu pandemic caused by H5N1? Nobody knows - and this provides scope for often wild speculation based on sketchy science.

The most pressing concern about bird flu is that it will mutate into a variety that will easily infect humans. To date this has not happened; the people in Asia who have become ill or died from H5N1 have been infected with the bird virus, rather than a mutated human virus.

Most avian influenza viruses remain unique to their hosts and pose no threat to human health. However, under the right circumstances, some can 'jump' from animals to humans. In this respect H5N1 is not unique.

Of the sixteen known types of avian influenza, three subtypes - H5, H7 and H9 - are known to be capable of crossing the species barrier. Since 1997 types H5N1, H7N2, H7N3, H7N7, and H9N2 have all caused small, confirmed outbreaks in humans throughout the world. The fact that a virus can cross the species barrier, however, does not mean that it is dangerous.

For instance, just because H5N1 is lethal in chickens doesn't necessarily mean that it will be so in humans - the virus could just as easily mutate into a less virulent form as it can a more virulent one, and the direction of its mutation is difficult to predict. Likewise few humans live in the crowded conditions common to battery chickens and, for this reason, even if the virus were to jump species, it may not necessarily spread as quickly through the human population as it has with chickens.

While scientists suspect that H5N1 may have been spread between one mother and daughter in Thailand, this remains unconfirmed. To date there is no unequivocal evidence of person-to-person transmission. Instead, the handful of human cases can be traced back to direct contact with the faeces and blood of infected birds. Likewise there has been no evidence that the virus is transmitted through the meat or eggs of infected birds.

It is also worth remembering that since the 2002 outbreak of H5N1 there have been literally billions of interactions between chickens and humans. Yet, according to the FAO's Technical Task Force on Avian Influenza, the number of humans who have been infected with avian influenza over the last two years totals just 118, and these cases are largely confined to Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

Nevertheless, viruses can mutate rapidly and many molecular virologists are concerned that it would take little more than a chance mutation to turn H5N1 into a deadly, easily transmissible human disaster. Such mutations, however, don't occur out of context.

If a host becomes infected with two or more viruses simultaneously, these can easily swap genetic material and mutate into new and never-before seen strains. If one virus happens to be extremely communicable and the other extremely lethal, a mixing and matching of their genes could produce a lethal hybrid. If one virus is from an animal such as a bird or a pig, and the other is from a human, the result may be a virus that can easily infect humans. However, in a virus that is largely contained among birds, such as H5N1, the chance of swapping genetic material with an easily communicable human virus is low.

Likewise for the virus to spread easily among humans it would have to produce specific symptoms, such as coughing and sneezing, and lodge itself in easily accessible major airways. The few autopsies performed on human victims of H5N1 have revealed that the virus lodges deep in the crevasses of the lung tissue, not in the major airways as would be the case in an infectious flu.

No one can predict when or if the virus will mutate into the 'potential doomsday virus' described in a recent edition of The Sunday Times, but clearly it is still more than a random mutation away.


Forecasts of how deadly the virus will be should the pandemic occur are prone to vast disparities. Consider the predictions for the UK. While a figure of around 50,000 deaths in the UK is widely quoted, eminent scientists such as Professor Hugh Pennington, president of the Society for General Microbiology, have suggested a figure of two million. Waving the shroud ofthe 1918 pandemic, a medical correspondent for the BBC recently put the figure at 11 million.

Early reports suggested that avian influenza killed about ninety percent of its human victims. Available figures suggest a lower rate of around fifty percent - among the 118 known cases of avian flu there have been sixty deaths. But even this figure may be misleading.

First of all, we simply don't know how many people in the world have genuinely been infected with avian flu, nor do we know how many may have had mild or asymptomatic flu as was the case in a handful of Japanese workers. We don't know how many people are naturally carrying antibodies to H5N1, though such studies as exist suggest that as many as 38 per cent of the population may already be immune.

Surveillance in many parts of Asia is far from comprehensive. Keeping track of people who have died is relatively simple, keeping track of those who carry the virus and either do not become infected or only have minor symptoms is much more difficult. In many poorer regions the combination of a lack of good roads and express mail systems, too few trained technicians and inadequate laboratory facilities makes it impossible to establish reliable data. In addition, establishing a true death rate depends on governments' honesty in overcoming fears about losses from decreased tourism and trade, and reporting all known cases. This honesty cannot be taken for granted.

Secondly, it is worth remembering that to this day scientists cannot agree on how many people actually died in the 1918 pandemic. Estimates range from 20 to 100 million - an absurd margin of error. On the whole it is accepted that the 1918 pandemic had an average death rate of around two percent of those infected - with mortality significantly higher among the poverty stricken and undernourished and lower among the healthiest people. The last two pandemics, in 1959 and 1967, killed one and two million respectively - a trend that is a far cry from the fifty percent death rate predicted for a potential avian flu pandemic.

Scientists are currently studying the 1918 pandemic in order to better understand the potential threat posed by H5N1. Unfortunately the 1918 virus was never isolated in its entirety so, in an act of Jurassic Park science, US researchers working with the military have spliced together incomplete pieces of the virus with those from another strain, and have created an entirely unique strain of human super-virus that they say will help them understand the structure, virulence and transmissibility of H5N1. However, It's hard to see what this flashy genetic hocus pocus, akin to studying bananas in order to better understand tomatoes, will achieve.

Looking for links between the putative 1918 human virus and the current avian virus also distracts us from the fact that the unusual virulence of the 1918 virus had more to do with the fact that it evolved amid the unique mayhem of World War I. Crowded, unhygienic conditions - tens of thousands of troops stuffed into transport ships, trenches and military hospitals - favoured the mutation and spread of the highly virulent, easily transmissible virus.

Most of us are asking: 'What if the experts are right?' The other equally relevant question, 'What if the experts are wrong?', hasn't attracted much serious attention. Can we say with any certainty that the pandemic is on its way? And if it is, can we say with any certainty that H5N1 will be the cause? All the available evidence suggests that we cannot. In the meantime, governments throughout the world are investing hundred of millions in drug stockpiles and waging an ongoing and totally ineffective war against nature - a war that ignores the value of the human immune system in fighting disease and which may, in the end, bring us closer to the pandemic we fear so much.

ooooo ooooo

Goose? Or propaganda?

by Malcolm Tait

Christmas is a-coming
The geese are getting flu
Please to have a jab
Or it's the end of you

When governments try to reassure the public with announcements about how much they are doing to solve problems like bird flu or globa warming, it just avoids the real question - how did we get into this mess in the first place?

At the beginning of November, US President George Bush unveiled his plan to protect the people of his country against the possible threat of bird flu. It was a simple plan: he called for $7.1 billion to be set aside to stockpile drugs, vaccines, and develop new technology to combat the disease. That's an awful lot of money to combat a viral form that, as far as we know, doesn't even exist yet. (See article above wherein Pat Thomas discusses at length the likelihood of the virus mutating into a form that can be transmitted by the human population.) So if we don't yet have anything to cure, shouldn't much of the effort go towards preventing an outbreak in the first place? Towards finding ways of containing the virus before it mutates? Towards compensating those many farmers around the world whose livelihoods will be lost through the slaughtering of their stock?

Of that $7.1 billion, a mere $250 million has been set aside for containment of the disease outside America. That's about 3.5 percent of the overall package: 3.5 percent for prevention of a disease that doesn't yet exist, 96.5 percent for a cure should it happen.

These are Bushian principles at their very best and, global warmongering apart, are what will characterise his presidency once these frightful eight years are over. Ignore a drama until it turns into a media crisis, then throw big bucks at it to show what a great fire fighter you are. He did nothing to prepare when warned that a hurricane might ravage his country's east coast; he ignored warnings that NASA's space shuttle programme was under-funded and unsafe until the Columbia disaster occurred in 2003; he has repeatedly pooh-poohed scientific insistence that the world is under threat from global warming. This is what happens when you hire a man with no vision to assume a preeminent role in a changing world. Incapable of genuine reform and constructive action, those intangible betterments that take years to bear fruit, he will seek quick-fix victories to temporary, often self-made battles in order to maintain his standing.

Meanwhile, as Bush fiddles with the so-called threat of terrorism, the threats of true natural disasters continue to burn. Bush might like to think of himself as the Arnie Schwarzenegger of international politics - storming into town with guns blazing and shooting all the bad guys - but this isn't Hollywood, this is the real world, and life continues well after the closing credits roll.

Even Arnie gets that. In California, the muscle-bound governor is taking action of his own. He has set a target of forcing car manufacturers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by a third over the next decade. There will be legal challenges of course, and he's a long way from getting the legislation through, but it's a bold step. And he's not alone. No fewer than nine states, including New York, have declared that they will set legal limits on emissions from power stations, while a consortium of mayors, representing forty million people across the country, have announced that they intend to adopt Kyoto targets to reduce harmful emissions.

This isn't just based on a desire simply to do the right thing, of course. Many American multinational companies are realising that as the world moves towards a low-carbon rating, they'll get left behind in the international marketplace. The Bush administration might not be listening, but the federal network is beginning to.

Ten states have already pledged to try to make a difference and, without doubt, others will follow. Suddenly, the scientific and popular concern about global warming has mutated into a political concern in America, and is spreading very rapidly, infecting more and more of the political population of the nation's federal structure, undermining national government in the process.

This will be a remarkable test of Bush and his Republican administration. They will not be able to ignore the spread of ideological change through their nation, and neither, for fear of isolating themselves, will they be able to fight it.

Right now, they must be feeling pretty sick.

Bill Totten

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Neighbourless Hoods

Place matters: it's time we acknowledged it.

by Paul Kingsnorth

The Ecologist (December 2005)

Today was the first true winter day of the year. It was cold and crisp, the sky was ice blue, and yellow leaves were skimming in gusts around the pavement. I felt an urgent need to procrastinate before I began writing this article, so I decided to go for a walk along the canal.

I've always loved the Oxford Canal. In the ten years I've known it, it's had a glamorously down-at-heel character. It's a place of ramshackle factories, teetering, palatial Victorian houses - all dark-red brick and long thin gardens - old arched bridges and dozens of scruffy residential narrowboats, lined up bow to stern along the banks, their mooring ropes tangled together, their chimneys belching the sweet smell of coal smoke into the cold air. The canal runs right through my neighbourhood, and it makes that neighbourhood what it is. It has a nature, a character, a personality of its own.

Or it did have. That character is rapidly being erased, in the name of those two trusty old soldiers, progress and economic rationalism. Up and down the towpath, their marks can be seen. Where once was a long strip of 'waste' ground is now a building site, on which high, tall new flats have risen in less than a year, like sunflowers on a prairie. Where only recently was a working boatyard is now an empty acre of concrete and unused sheds, where more executive flats will soon rise. Where once was a line of moored residential narrowboats is now a line of worried boaters, recently informed that their mooring fees will be more than doubling, and that if they don't like it they can, well, buy one of the new flats. As if they could afford it.

And today, the old factory is breathing its last. All along the waterfront, its walls and windows are shuttered with the scaffolding of demolition crews, here to tear down what remains of its old shell. Of everything that has happened to the canal, somehow, and for some reason, it's the last gasp of this industrial relic - this wonderful and strangely disturbing old landmark - that affects me the most.

W Lucy and Co began operating the Eagle Ironworks, on the edge of the Oxford Canal, in 1812. For nearly two centuries they designed and cast whatever the city needed, and stamped it with their name. Drain covers, palings, church gates, street lamps and a hundred odd, small, necessary, unnoticed things came daily from the works, through the cast-iron gates crowned with their Eagle-Head Logo. Their great skulking, redbrick factory has towered over the canal for two centuries, its cracked and smeared windows, florid gates, cobbled yard and asymmetrical buildings a curious, wonderful and slightly disturbing presence.

Not any more. The Lucy ironworks, so cobwebbed and intriguing, so distinctive and apparently timeless, is to become yet another gated complex of luxury flats. This quirky, entirely unique old building is to be replaced by one that could be mistaken for any building, anywhere: spruced up, divided, polished, sucked clean of all dirt, danger and character and made fit for commuters in silver cars who work in London. As the factory dies, so too does a part of the canal, the boatyard, the neighbourhood and the wider city.

Something is happening here, and nobody seems to want to talk about it.

Who cares about any of this, and why should it matter? It's easy, after all, to lament change, and easy too to forget that change is the only constant. The old Lucy factory was polluting, messy and, finally, uneconomic. New housing is urgently needed, and it surely has to be better to build it on old industrial sites than in the green belt. Had I been walking along the canal when the factory and boatyard were being built, I would no doubt have lamented that too. If there's one thing the English have always been good at, it's lamenting.

Maybe. But this is not the real story, for what is happening just around the corner from me is probably also happening just around the corner from you. It's not isolated, it's not irrelevant and it's not to be dismissed. It is part of something wider - a larger, and more significant trend, which is sold to us as 'progress' but is actually something very different.

Put simply, the things that make our towns, villages, cities and landscapes different, distinctive or special are being eroded, and replaced by things which would be familiar anywhere. It is happening all over the country - you can probably see at least one example of it from where you're sitting right now. The same chains in every high street; the same bricks in every new housing estate; the same signs on every road; the same menu in every pub.

What these changes have in common is this: in each case, something distinctive is replaced by something bland; something organic by something manufactured; something definably local with something emptily placeless; something human-scale with something impersonal. The result is stark, simple and brutal: everywhere is becoming the same as everywhere else.

The small, the ancient, the indefinable, the unprofitable, the meaningful, the interesting and the quirky are being scoured out and bulldozed to make way for the clean, the sophisticated, the alien, the progressive, the corporate. It feels, to me, like a great loss - a hard-to-define but biting loss, which seems to suck the meaning from the places I care for or feel I belong to. It matters.

Why? Because in the name of economic efficiency, the things that really matter in life - the texture, the colour, the detail, the complex web of intimate relationships between people and communities and the landscape they inhabit - are being dismantled, with nobody's permission. Because our landscape is being rapidly and thoughtlessly remoulded to meet the short-term needs of a global economy that is built on sand. And because what we are losing, in the name of progress, is being replaced, in most cases, with things which are not better, but worse.

What we are losing is something which is uniquely, exquisitely small, local and impossible-to-define: a sense of place. It is a sense of place that binds healthy communities together, and distinguishes living cultures from dead ones. It is a sense of place which makes the difference between a country that is worth living in and one that isn't. And the paradox is that this galloping destruction of local distinctiveness has very global roots - for it is primarily the ever-expanding global economy which is responsible.

Put crudely, a global market requires a global identity; not just goods, but landscapes themselves must be branded and made safe for the universal act of consumption. A global market requires global tastes - we all have to want the same things, feel the same things, like or dislike the same things. Only that way can markets cross cultural boundaries. At the same time, an advanced industrial economy requires economies of scale - which means mass production, the smoothing-out of edges, uniform and characterless development; the standardised manufacture of entire landscapes.

In order for the consumer economy to progress, we must cease to be people who belong to neighbourhoods, communities, localities. We must cease to value the distinctiveness of where we are. We must become consumers, bargain-hunters, dealers on a faceless, placeless international trading floor. We must cease to identify with place, or to care about it. We must cease, finally and forever, to belong to the land.

This loss of a sense of place - this loss of place itself - is both widely-felt and largely unmentioned. While very large numbers of us of us can see this happening, and are concerned about it, few people join the dots - or feel they are allowed to. In every local paper, in every local pub, in every community centre, every week of the year, people will be discussing these issues - at a very local level. This new housing development, that new megastore, this street market closing down. People know something is wrong; they just don't know quite what, or why, or what to do about it. And if they complain, they are told by the political classes, and often by the media and its associated pundits, that none of this really matters.

They are told that these are small, insignificant local issues, of no import in the grand scheme of things. They are told to think about something more important: economic growth, perhaps, or the War on Terror. And if they persist, they are called 'nimbys', and pigeonholed as reactionaries or nostalgic idealists. No-one, runs the subtext, has the right to take up arms in defence of their place, their sense of belonging, their attachment to a locality. We should all have better things to do.

But there are surely few better things to do. And the good news is that an increasing number of people seem to know it; and are starting to say it, loud and clear.

Some of this good news is on show back on the Oxford Canal. A few hundred yards down from the shivering shell of the old ironworks lies Castlemill Boatyard. Owned, like the canal itself, by the government body British Waterways, Castlemill has been the site of a fierce local battle for over a year.

British Waterways, against the will of the local community and virtually all the boaters on the Oxford canal, has closed Castlemill, which operated vital repair and maintenance services for canal boats, and wants to sell the site for - yes, you guessed it - luxury housing, and a slick waterfront restaurant. It had already struck a deal with a housing developer, Bellway Homes, before it closed the yard down. Planning permission was to be just a formality. British Waterways, supposed guardians of the canal network, would pocket GBP 2 million, and the last publicly-accessible working boatyard in the city would be no more.

But the locals and the boaters fought back, mounting a fierce campaign to save the boatyard. It led to planning permission being turned down by the city council. British Waterways appealed, and a long planning inquiry was held, which BW and Bellway Homes stuffed with expensive taxpayer-funded lawyers - and lost again. Undeterred, BW moved in and ejected the boatyard's tenant, whose lease with them had run out - only to have the yard occupied by the boaters themselves, who are still there, refusing to leave and vowing to take British Waterways all the way to the high court.

'What they are, is asset-strippers', says Matt Morton, an ecologist and former boater who is now leading the fight to save the boatyard. 'British Waterways are supposed to be guardians of the network. They're nothing of the sort - they're scouring the canals, looking for land they can flog off for expensive housing, to cover a hole in their finances caused by a government funding cut. In the process, they're destroying the character of the whole network. They're more interested in shareholders than boaters.'

British Waterways and Bellway, say the Castlemill boaters, want to take this very distinctive place - with its scruffy narrowboats, bounding dogs, welding gear and random piles of wood and metal - and replace it with a non-place; the kind of 'executive development' that could be seen in any town, anywhere in Britain. They are prepared to stand up for this place - and the nomadic, slow, low-impact lifestyle that springs from it - because they believe it matters. In this case, almost everyone else, from the local community centre to the city council, seems to agree with them.

It is just one example - but when you start to look around you see it is one of many, and that the forces ranged against each other are always similar. On one side some sprawling government bureaucracy or corporation - or often, as in the case of Castlemill, both. On the other, a small but determined gaggle of locals, specialist interest groups and people who believe, simply, that something unique is worth fighting for. Often that is all they have in common; but they add up to something.

All over the UK, for example, you will find communities and individuals working to save their local pubs. You don't get much more of a distinctive marker of place than a local boozer, but thanks to corporate consolidation and dubious legislation, the traditional local is under threat as never before; according to the Campaign for Real Ale, 26 pubs close every month; virtually one a day.

Giant, ever-expanding Pub Corporations, with names like the Spirit Group and Enterprise Inns, who long ago took over ownership of pubs from brewers, are selling them off for housing or converting them into hip bars, identikit chains or eateries.

In response, communities all over the country have been banding together to fight closures, and in some cases even buy pubs themselves, to protect them from the asset-strippers. Groups like the Community Pubs Association and Freedom for Pubs are growing larger as the Pub Companies do. The local pub means too much to people to allow it to be homogenised into history.

Pubs, boatyards, crumbling factories ... people will put up a fight for any number of weird and wonderful local landmarks if they mean enough to them. In London's Chinatown, a coalition of locals calling themselves the Save Chinatown Campaign are currently crossing swords with yet another developer, the Rosewheel corporation, which is busy ejecting small Chinese shopkeepers from the area and threatening to knock down the famous pagoda. In Herefordshire and Somerset, campaigners are fighting to protect ancient orchards, bulging with rare and traditional varieties of fruit, from being grubbed up by farmers who can't sell their wares to the ever-dominant superstores.

In Birmingham, urban black communities are working to save their street markets from demolition and replacement by office blocks. In Brighton, locals are fighting to prevent the creation of yet another Starbucks. And in Bury St Edmunds, the fight is becoming something literal, with the formation of a group of anonymous vigilantes, the Knights of St Edmund, who have sworn to defend their town against a new development spearheaded by Debenhams. The company has 18 days to withdraw a plan to redevelop the town centre, say the knights, or they will unleash an ancient curse on the sleepy Suffolk town.

Not everyone is prepared to go this far; but plenty of people, nationally, are prepared to take a stand - it is a long, long list, and it seems a growing one. Place, belonging, distinctiveness, character - in a rapidly homogenising world, these things seem to become more and more important in peoples' lives. Valuing common things, defending detail, understanding culture and landscape and fighting for its integrity in the face of an onrush of standardisation; suddenly, the small things seem terribly important after all.

Perhaps what we are witnessing here is the shy emergence of something newly self-aware: a politics of belonging. All over the country, the extinction of that sense of place is resisted by those on the margins of political debate and economic influence. They are people who refuse to lie down before the juggernaut of a spurious progress, or to sacrifice the landscapes and cultures that matter to them for the benefit of a global economy which is beyond their control.

Standing up for our places - fighting for them, refusing to let them be steamrollered by the consumer juggernaut; making them live again - is something which should be able to unite left and right and everyone in-between. It something which will annoy politicians of all stripes, and get right up the nose of a global money machine which wants us all to stop moaning, give up and go shopping.

In an age of global consumerism, corporate power and the dominance of a homogenising, placeless, economic ideology, it could be that the one truly radical thing to do is to belong.


The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
'Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do'

The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth would say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon
'It is done'.
People did not like it here.

- Kurt Vonnegut


In 2001 the new economics foundation (nef) produced a report called Ghost Town Britain. It showed the continuing trend of community decline - thousands of local post offices, newsagents, bank branches, butchers, bakers and grocers closing as well as green space development, village and community centres all desperate for basic funding.

The Local Works campaign was launched with the aim of reversing the trend. It was soon decided that, due to the gravity and wide reaching impacts of the problem - increased traffic and pollution, social exclusion, less democratic participation and community involvement - that a change in the law was needed so that local people themselves had the power to conserve or develop their communities. So, a collection of civic and environmental organisations joined nef and drafted the Sustainable Communities Bill.

Since then the campaign has been growing, with more organisations joining the Local Works coalition for the Bill, as well as individual supporters. Public meetings began to be held across the country and supporter numbers increased. It was decided that this grass roots approach was the only way that the Bill would have a chance at being successfully taken up and passed through Parliament and made law. Citizens lobbying their MPs was the answer.

But How Will the Bill Work?

The Sustainable Communities Bill will turn society upside down. It will enable communities and councils to draw up their own ideas to end community decline and promote local sustainability.

Government will then be required to assist in promoting local sustainability in ways suggested by councils and communities (NOT dictated by civil servants in Whitehall). In short, it is central government having a duty to say "tell us what you need in order to make your communities more sustainable" rather than "this is what you must do".

Your support needed too

The campaign now has 8,000 supporters and each public meeting is addressed by the local MP, making a statement of support for the Bill. But in order to succeed Local Works needs to double its numbers - they need your help!

Please join the 8,000 individuals and 62 national organisations - including the Ecologist - who support the Local Works campaign by signing up free on their website:

Bill Totten