Tuesday, 5 July 2011

New blogging home

Hi lovelies,

I'm going to be pretty much leaving this blog right now.

It's been an exciting couple of years since I started blogging. It has catapulted me to do many great and fantastic things, such as give a talk at Science Online 2010.

Since I started this blog I have also been blogging at other sites, a bit like the neighbourhood cat that gets fed by everyone. You can read my various blog posts on the Guardian's Comment is Free, the Guardian's Environment site blog, Wired UK, The Frontline Club, New Scientist's Culturelab, and Scientific American's guest blog. Phew!

The big announcement is that: I'm engaged. No, not that one. It really is: I'm now blogging as part of the brand-spanking new Scientific American Blog Network.

I'll be writing regular posts (it's in my contract!) for the Creatology blog. It is "an experimental blog coupling science and creativity" and also a sandbox to try out different media. It's a group blog and my co-writers are Gozde Zorlu and Joseph Milton. You can also follow Creatology on Facebook and Twitter @creatologyblog.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Rant about activism, the 'greenest government ever' and some possible solutions

I have been reading a book called Do it Anyway, by the talented Courtney Martin, the founder of the world's most popular feminist site Feministing.com. The book is a portrait of eight community activists in the US, and the project was started to answer the question of how super-sensitive young things could face the overwhelming responsibilities they face to "save the world"; "We know that soup ladling isn't enough", she comments.

Julia Butterfly Hill spent 728 days in this 1,500 year-old redwood tree in California.  Will we see see scenes like this in the UK if our forests are under threat from unsustainable logging?

Martin thinks that our generation is commonly mislabeled apathetic, when in fact we suffer from a paralysis in the face of the quantity and urgency of issues. How on earth do you chose what to focus on? I totally feel the pain of this dilemma. I've often chewed off my boyfriend's ear down the phone, lamenting the financial crisis, homelessness, human trafficking, the need for political reform in this country, unjust wars, environmental destruction, climate change and development, gender inequality in the UK, and FGM, mass rape and the lack of human rights elsewhere.

However, the narratives in Martin's book reveal that a narrow focus is vitally important to achieving even the smallest things, and a devotion to your goal over time can yield real (although probably never perfect) results.

In her book, Martin tackles our moral imperative to deal with the issues and injustices on our doorsteps. And she also observes that from her journey to write the profiles for the book, it is the personal and deeply-rooted in the community that are a driver for actually doing the activism rather than just moping. She writes:
"It's time that our generation embraced our respective limitations, not as a sign of weakness but as valuable information as we pursue lives of meaning. We must resist exoticizing the suffering outside of our own circles."

I am far from an expert myself, but I am not sure if this zoom on the local is the key as I am grappling with where to focus my own energies. It seems unfortunate that of the activists sketched in the book, the only one working on international issues is Rachel Corrie, who died in the attempt to prevent a Palestinian home from being bulldozed (Although Martin emphasises that the book is not meant to be comprehensive, just a collection of inspirational stories).

There are surely other examples of people from the West who have done real, measurable good in addressing the issues of people living in dire need elsewhere in the world. One example is Harper McConnell, who has worked in the HEAL Africa hospital in the Congo, and created two programs - one teaching children waiting to be treated, and one to skill-up women waiting for operations. McConnell is described in Half the Sky by Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. In their book, they encourage readers to take up the gauntlet to help people in developing countries "who desperately need the assistance". (Sorry for using the term 'developing', Hans Rosling - it is one world but this is shorthand for now.)

Another slight quibble with Martin's book is that perhaps it does not follow that people should necessarily work on issues in their own communities as a way to finding their true path. It is clearly important to be passionate about your work as activism is challenging, and this is more likely if you are directly affected or involved with the issues. But I feel that we live in a global society now, more than ever before. Specifically, the actions of industrialised countries are setting up the whole world, but particularly poorer countries, to suffer from climate change on a catastrophic level. I would argue there is too much blindness of the historic harm we have done to other nations.

Also, this kind of argument that actions should be local above all disenfranchises the privileged middle classes to some extent. If we have been blessed and don't feel we have been affected by injustice ourselves, does this mean we have nothing to contribute? Should I be a feminist activist because I was called a slut in secondary school? Although I would definitely describe myself as a feminist and I think feminism is important, I struggle to see that feminism as the only area I could make a difference in my life.

If the root of activism is suffering or empathy, perhaps empathy directs us to places of pain - regardless of their location. It seems definitely worth thinking about acting locally, or volunteering, but I wonder if it would be worth thinking strategically about where we can make the most impact. Is it making a difference in our own, fairly well-off communities that we socialise with, or to communities that are scarcely subsisting, or that are that are under attack?

In other words, the personal is the political, but does the political have to be rooted in the personal? Or should we just direct our compassion and empathy and resources where we know they are most needed?

It seems there has never been a period of time where politics have been so at odds with the data , and on a global scale. As physicist Brian Cox said in a recent G2 article:
“I do not believe that we currently run our world according to evidence-based principles. If we did, we would be investing in an energy Manhattan project to quickly develop and deploy clean energy technologies.”

It's an age-old utilitarian moral philosophy dilemma that we discussed in my university classrooms: if children out there are starving, or lacking an education, how could we justify our flashy watches or sneakers? How much should we give? How much should we expect others to give? What are our priorities? But funnily enough, asceticism is one thing that has not really caught on. I was recently shocked by William Dalrymple's description of a Jain nun plucking out her own hair in his most recent book Nine Lives. And in a similar way, pure environmentalism is has become almost unthinkable and shocking - most campaigns tend to focus on keeping creature comforts such as flying and driving but also 'doing your bit' for mitigation. How many of us are willing to follow the example of Julia Hill, for example, who spent two years up a tree to get protected status of an ancient redwood forest?

I don't have the answers yet about how far we should go or have my personal priorities in immaculate order. But I am inspired by role models such as Harvey Milk and movements such as the gay civil rights movement of the 1970s America, captured in the wonderful eponymous film Milk.

Even though the coalition government is so far not succeeding to live up to their touchstone pledge of being the 'greenest government ever' according to the excellent Johann Hari, I hope that this might galvanise activists and breathe some much needed life into the green movement in this country. Will people come out onto the streets to start protesting the wholesale offloading of their forests? Or the new offshore oil drilling operation near Shetland? (Or will they be so confused and overwhelmed by the complexity of the climate change and ecological issues that they do nothing?)

Hari writes:
"The Prime Minister has said the forest sell-off "empowers local communities" to take over the forests for themselves as part of a "Big Society". Yet sources within the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs say that, unsurprisingly, only about 1 per cent of the sales are anticipated to go to local co-operatives or green groups. The "Big Society" is a fluffy fig leaf for dismantling and demolition."

Perhaps it is time to re-cast the Big Society as a force for political activism and representation to fight the co-alition's broken promises? Or even take the name to fight back against the government on the political platform?

One way to fight the government's cuts right now is to join the False Economy campaign. They’ve got a clever video that makes the point rather well, see below.

Why cuts are the wrong cure from False Economy on Vimeo.

What has this got to do with climate change? At the end of the video, the actor Sam West describes a vision of sustainable economic growth: “...putting the emphasis on green growth and investment. This not only deals with the deficit, but the unemployment and the poverty, and it also deals with the many environmental challenges that the cuts will make worse.”

A spokesperson for False Econony tells me that they are crowdsourcing the consequences of the cuts and they want environmentalist to get stuck in:
“The coalition government has adopted a very deliberate strategy of 'devolving' its cuts down to local government - passing them down for councils to implement, away from the glare of the national media. It's only by collating information on what is being cut, locality by locality, that all of us can see the true impact of the cuts agenda.”

With more data on the site, environmentalists can consider whether the government has chosen the environment as the target of an ‘easy cut’ - without a significant media or public backlash. False Economy say: “Trying to grab a slice of an ever-shrinking pie is not a road the environmental movement should go down; instead, we need to ask why it is shrinking and whether it needs to shrink. These are the questions the government doesn't want people to ask.”