Category Archives: Protest/activism

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2021

Having directed the award-winning 2011 documentary about Gene Sharp, How To Start A Revolution, Ruaridh Arrow has now published an engrossing biography of the man who CNN once called ‘the father of nonviolent struggle’.

Sharp, who died in 2018 aged 90, led an extraordinary life.

He was sent to prison for refusing to be drafted at the time of the Korean War, worked as assistant editor at Peace News in the late 1950s, observed firsthand the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, and trained activists in Burma in the early 1990s.

Along the way he corresponded with Albert Einstein, argued with Frantz Fanon in Accra and tried to convert Yasser Arafat into adopting a nonviolent strategy.

This was crucial: Sharp saw strategic planning as essential if a nonviolent movement was to succeed. ‘No military commander would ever dream of putting 1,000 soldiers on a battlefield without a strategy for how to use them and so it was of nonviolent action’, Arrow summarises.

Moreover, Sharp’s argument for pursuing nonviolent struggle is not that it is moral but that it’s the most effective method to effect change – something confirmed by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works.

With his journalistic eye for a story and access to archival material, Arrow runs through a number of fascinating case studies, highlighting the impact Sharp’s thinking had on the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, as well as in Burma, the Baltic states (against the Soviet Union), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.

Arguably Sharp’s most spectacular influence was on the Otpor movement that played a central role in the overthrow of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević – described by Arrow as ‘the most advanced nonviolent campaign in history’.

Though he clearly admires Sharp, Arrow provides a rounded, very human portrait, noting how he could often be obstinate – it was Sharp who chose the Albert Einstein Institution as the confusing name of the organisation that he founded in 1983 – and how several close professional relationships eventually broke down.

Anti-imperialist activists will likely baulk at Sharp’s links with the US defence and state departments, as well as with organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute.

However, it’s Sharp’s huge, power-threatening body of work – something he argued could be used by anyone – that is most important to peace activists today. And there is much to do.

As Sharp told US activist George Lakey: ‘We are simply at the bow and arrow stage of the development of nonviolent struggle.’

For those hungry for more, Arrow provides good news – Jamila Raqib, Sharp’s colleague at the Albert Einstein Institution in his later years, is currently writing her own book about Sharp.

How To Start A Revolution is published by Big Inky Books, priced £14.99.

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 May 2021

RUPERT Read’s latest book on the climate crisis is underpinned by the realisation pretty much all of us are “in some form or another of climate denial” – about honestly facing up to the level of threat, and the speed and depth of change required to successfully deal with it.

On the former, Carbon Action Tracker estimates the current policies in place around the world will lead to 2.9oC of warming by 2100. Read believes it is “very likely” climate and ecological chaos will lead to civilisation disintegrating “within the lifetimes of some readers”.

For the latter, he argues the desperate situation we now find ourselves in cannot “be adequately addressed from within our current paradigm of politics and economics.” As the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warned in 2018, limiting warming to 1.5oC will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

A call to arms for everyone to step up to the challenge, Read’s thesis is, in many ways, very simple: if you care about your children (or other people’s children), then you should also care about their children, and their children’s children – “the whole human future.” And this means you should also care about the future of the planet all these future generations will live on.

He presents three core proposals for embedding this transformational thinking. First, the setting up of citizen’s assemblies that would be empowered to make the long-term proposals and decisions our fatally compromised and short-termist political system is unable to do. Second, the introduction of what he calls Guardians For Future Generations – a permanent “super-jury” that would sit above parliament and consider the interests of future generations in policymaking. And, finally, adherence to the Precautionary Principle – “when you lack full evidence and potential consequences [of a path of action or inaction] are grave, you need to err on the side of taking care.”

The book’s logical, essay-length polemic points to Read’s academic position as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Likewise, the clarity and urgency of his message also highlights the influence of his time as spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion in 2019.

Compelling and deeply challenging, it is often an uncomfortable argument (Read tells readers: “you… need, at a minimum, to devote either your time or the bulk of your financial resources to this cause”). Which, of course, is why it is such an essential read. Time to get busy.

Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse is published by UEA Publishing Project, priced £10.99

Book review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell

Book review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 April 2021

FROM Reagan-loving Republican Tom Clancy, to the Conservative Frederick Forsyth and Jonathan Freedland’s rose-tinted views of Democratic presidents, political thrillers are often underpinned by some unpleasant, power-friendly politics.

Which makes Steve Howell’s Collateral Damage a welcome addition to the genre.

The book’s politics are perhaps unsurprising when you consider the author’s position as Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership team during the 2017 UK general election.

However, more pertinent is Howell’s activism in the late 80s – along with being Secretary of UK Local Authorities Against Apartheid, in 1987 he attended a conference in Tripoli, Libya to mark the first anniversary of the US air strikes on the country.

With the US warplanes taking off from UK bases – the first US combat operation launched from British soil since the Second World War – Howell believes the attacks mark the beginning of the era of regime-change wars.

Accordingly, the novel begins with the death of British peace activist and journalist Tom Carver while attending a conference in Tripoli in 1987. Suspecting foul play, Carver’s partner Ayesha, a Palestinian exile, works with young London School of Economics lecturer Hannah and lawyer Jed to uncover the truth.

Fast-paced and carefully-plotted, it’s a short and punchy read, which I devoured in a couple of sittings. While Clancy and Freedland fantasise about grand presidential politics in Washington D.C., Howell’s canvas is much more modest. The action does shift to Libya at one point, but most of the events occur in and around London. He provides some authentic period detail, including passing mentions of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Spycatcher and the unsolved murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan. Of course, there were no mobile phones in the late 80s, with the characters making copious use of phone boxes on the street.

And while the novel’s central twist is very much of its time, unfortunately it continues to have painful relevance today.

Echoing films from the period like 1986’s Defence of the Realm and Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda from 1990, there is a foreboding sense of the British secret state working to protect the powerful in the name of “national security”.

With former Head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove branding Corbyn a “present danger to our country” just before the December 2019 general election, the struggle between the general public and established power continues, it seems.

Collateral Damage is published by Quaero Publishing, priced £8.99 https://www.steve-howell.com/collateral-damage/

Where is the Left on Zero Covid?

Where is the Left on Zero Covid?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 April 2021

“There is… no credible route to a zero covid Britain or indeed a zero covid world”, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on 22 February. “We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life chances of our children”.

To confirm, a zero covid strategy aims for the total elimination of covid. Many people may be confused, thinking “Isn’t this exactly what the government has been trying to do since the start of the pandemic?” Unfortunately, the answer is no. The UK has followed what science writer Laura Spinney recently described in the Guardian as “a mitigation and suppression strategy, according to which we will have to live with Covid-19 and therefore we must learn to manage it – aiming for herd immunity by the most painless route possible.”

The Prime Minister’s dismissal of zero covid puts him at odds with a large body of scientific expertise. In early July 2020 Independent SAGE published a report calling on the government to “fundamentally change its approach” and follow a “new overarching strategic objective of achieving a Zero COVIDUK, i.e. the elimination of the virus from the UK”.

Individual members of the group – including ex-Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King and Professors Anthony Costello, Christina Pagel and Susan Michie from UCL – have continued to push for zero covid since then.

And there is some support amongst the government’s own scientific advisers, including Professor Robert West from University College London and Professor Stephen Reicher from University of St Andrews – both member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).

In addition, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, Professor Devi Sridhar from the University of Edinburgh and clinical epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani from Queen Mary have also voiced support.

In parliament, zero covid is backed by the Socialist Campaign Group of more than 30 MPs, and in August 2020 Layla Moran MP, as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus (consisting of 60 MPs and Peers), wrote to the Prime Minister pushing for a zero covid strategy.

Turning to the national press, the Morning Star was, as far as I can tell, the first UK national newspaper to support zero covid, while the Guardian backed it in a December 2020 editorial.

Speaking on BBC’s Politics Live in February, Pagel summarised the key reasons for pursuing an elimination strategy: “Keeping cases low is by far the best for keeping the economy open, and for saving lives, and for reducing the chances of a new variant, and for preventing Long Covid”.

In short, it would mean less people getting seriously ill, and less people dying.  

However, while there is significant support for zero covid, there is also considerable opposition, often based on a number of evidence-light assertions:

Zero covid is not possible.

New Zealand and Taiwan have both successfully pursued an elimination strategy. New Zealand has had 26 deaths from covid. Taiwan, which has a population of 23.4 million and a population density of 652 people per square kilometre (the UK’s population density is around 275 people per square kilometre), has limited its death toll from covid to just ten people. The UK has recorded over 125,000 deaths from covid.

Speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “I’m puzzled by this, because it’s not just Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan (adopting zero-Covid tactics), which are islands, but it’s also Vietnam, and there are other parts of the world that have been very successful even if they do have challenges, like Uruguay or Rwanda or Finland or Norway… So there are plenty of places that are trying to do this [achieve zero-Covid status].”

Zero covid is not possible at this point in time as the UK has such a high number of cases across the nation.

China is pursuing an elimination strategy, and according to a January CNBC report on Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, “Life has largely returned to normal in the city of 11 million, even as the rest of the world grapples with the spread of the virus’ more contagious variants.”

Similarly, the Australian state of Victoria (population 6.7 million), recorded 723 new cases on one day in July 2020. On the same day the UK recorded 763 new cases. However, on 4 November 2020, Hassan Vally, Associate Professor in Public Health at La Trobe University, noted in the Guardian, “Victoria is recording no new cases, while the UK has 18,950.”

“The goal was not just to slow Covid-19 down. It was to eradicate the virus”, Vox reported in December about Victoria’s success.

However, even if it is not possible to completely eliminate new cases in UK right now, a government committed to zero covid would significantly reduce cases, and therefore significantly reduce deaths. As Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago, and McKee, noted in the Guardian in January: “Aiming for zero-Covid” produces “more positive results than trying to ‘live with the virus’”.

Zero covid would mean more, perhaps endless, restrictions and lockdowns.

In fact the exact opposite is true. “A zero covid strategy (which means zero tolerance of any level of infection) is the antithesis of lockdown. It is the failure to implement such a strategy – and hence the loss of control over infection – which leads to lockdown”, Reicher tweeted in February.

Thus, sporting events have been held in packed stadiums in New Zealand, and the country’s Prime Minister Jacina Ardern has been posting videos of herself at community BBQs. To date Taiwan has not had any national lockdowns.

Zero covid is redundant now we have the vaccine.

In March the Guardian reported “Experts on the modelling subgroup of SAGE calculate that even under the most optimistic scenario, at least 30,000 more Covid deaths could occur in the UK.” This testimony points to an uncomfortable fact – the vaccination programme, while very important, will not prevent a large number of deaths over the next few months. Moreover, “We have to prevent new variants arising that put our entire vaccination programme at risk, and potentially set us back to the beginning again”, Pagel explained on BBC Newsnight in February. “The more opportunities it [the virus] has to infect people, the more chance it has to mutate. So the lower cases are, the less chance it is going to have.”

Frustratingly much of the left has failed to back a zero covid strategy. Where are the unions – the TUC, Unison, Unite, GMB? Where is the Labour Party? Where is Momentum?

Key left-wing figures have dismissed or questioned zero covid. In September, Tribune Culture Editor Owen Hatherley tweeted “’it’s just like the flu, calm down’ and ‘we must have zero covid’ are both bad takes”. Elsewhere, Richard Seymour recently tweeted he was “still unsure about zero covid”, while Novara Media’s Michael Walker has argued an elimination strategy was the right course of action in summer 2020 but with the introduction of the vaccine he no longer supports it.

There is still lots of work to do to persuade the broad left – and wider society – to back a zero covid strategy. One thing every reader can do is contact their MP and ask them to sign Early Day Motion 1450, which “calls on the UK Government urgently to adopt a zero covid plan that seeks the maximum suppression of the virus as the best way to save lives and allow our communities and the economy to safely reopen.” So far 42 MPs have put their names to the EDM, including SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Lib Dem Tim Farron and Plaid Cymru MPs.

More broadly, a campaign strategy of pressuring members of the SAGE group advising government to publicly support zero covid could well be the best way to apply pressure on the government itself.

As McKee noted in a letter published in the BMJ in October: “No one pretends that achieving zero covid is easy, but in the long term the alternative is far worse.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance by Helen Beynon with Chris Gillham
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
23 February 2021

IN 1989 the Thatcher government announced the “biggest road-building programme since the Romans”. One of the new schemes was the M3 extension past Winchester across Twyford Down.

With local groups having fought the planned road for decades with little success, in the early 1990s there was a shift to direct action. Concerned about the proposed road’s impact on the land, the so-called Dongas Tribe – named after the ancient trackways in the area – set up camp on the Down.

Skilfully using original interviews, letters, memoirs, photos and poems, the authors paint a vivid picture of outdoor living, with many people recalling a deep, spiritual connection to the land.

The Dongas were soon joined by members of radical environment network Earth First!, while local residents, such as ex-Tory Councillor David Croker, continued to lobby against the road through more conventional methods (some also participated in actions too).

There were tensions between the different groups, of course, but from summer 1992 onwards they were able to carry out regular nonviolent direct action, often forcing a stop to work on the site. In 1993 the Department of Transport claimed the protests were adding £20,000 a day to the costs of the road.

The crunch came on 9 December 1992 – known as “Yellow Wednesday” – when the camp was violently evicted by a small army of private security guards. The authors painfully highlight just how traumatic the clearance was for those who experienced it. Activist Becca records “Female protesters were sexually assaulted and had their clothes ripped off.”

With the camp forced off the Down, people continued organising, with large rallies and mass trespasses taking place at the work site in 1993 and 1994, including one in which Kinder Scout trespasser Benny Rothman spoke at.

The road was eventually built but not before the resistance at Twyford Down had lit the touch paper for the wider anti-roads movement. There were protests against the M11 Link Road in east London, Fairmile in Devon, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle and, most famously, the Newbury Bypass. Like Twyford, these hard fought battles ended in defeat for the protesters, though arguably they won the war.

“When we began campaigning there were 600 proposed schemes in the Government’s roads programme”, John Stewart, then chair of the anti-roads group ALARM UK, noted in 1998. “Now there are 150 and we expect that number to be cut further… we have done our job.”

More broadly, Twyford “begat a hundred campaigns”, activist Shane Collins notes, including Reclaim The Streets and the anti-GM movement of the late 90s. Key figures also assisted Plane Stupid with their campaign against airport expansion, and there is a clear link between the anti-roads movement and the climate camps of the 2000s and Extinction Rebellion.

Hugely inspiring, Twyford Rising is an engrossing account of one of the most important protests in recent British history. As the authors conclude: “Twyford richly deserves to be part of the legends of these Islands, for it is a lost land now, which once was filled with beauty and hope.”

To order Twyford Rising visit https://twyfordrising.org/.

Book review. In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. Vicky Osterweil

Book review. In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. Vicky Osterweil
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News

March 2021

Written in the wake of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Vicky Osterweil’s central argument is that looting and rioting are positive actions, which ‘in most instances… transform and build a nascent moment into a movement’. She maintains looting makes ‘day-to-day life easier by changing the price of goods to zero’, redistributes wealth and ‘reinforces bonds of solidarity’, concluding ‘we need to argue for and defend every tactic that might overturn white supremacy, capitalism, empire and property. [my emphasis added]

A significant part of the book is devoted to criticising nonviolent struggle which, at one point, she claims ‘is structured around victim blaming and anti-Blackness.’

Centred on the US, there are, to be sure, interesting sections – on the racial roots of property, the slavery origins of the police, and the Black-led resistance to these oppressive historical forces. There is a reliance on secondary sources, which wouldn’t be a problem if all the provocative arguments were referenced adequately. Instead, one can go pages without any citations, rendering assertions like Black riots formed ‘a central part of the [1960s civil rights] movement’s power and effectiveness’ largely meaningless.

I’m often attracted to polemical writing, but Osterweil is maddingly simplistic. One chapter is titled ‘All cops are bastards’. Elsewhere, she claims FDR’s New Deal ‘did nothing more than strangle a revolutionary movement in its cradle’ [my emphasis added], and seems to think pointing out Martin Luther King travelled with an armed entourage fatally undermines the case for nonviolence (there is no reference for this, of course, though a 2016 Associated Press report I found suggests this only applies to King’s early activism in the mid-50s).

Tellingly, Osterweil fails to engage with any of the academic or historical literature highlighting the efficacy of nonviolence, with no mention of the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, researchers in the orbit of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Gene Sharp or George Lakey.

She is also blasé about the fact looting and rioting often leads to people being injured, and sometimes killed – either by state repression or the rioters and looters themselves – and shows little interest in evidence confirming nonviolence engenders more support from the public and media. For example, a June 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll of Americans about the Black Lives Matter protests found 73% of respondents supported ‘peaceful protest and demonstrations’, but only 22% backed violent protests. A recent peer-reviewed article in the American Political Science Review by Omar Wasow came to similar conclusions, as well as finding violent protest caused a rightward shift amongst voters.

Unserious and incurious, this book won’t change the minds of seasoned peace activists though, worryingly, it might influence those who are in the process of forming their views on protest and political change.

In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action is published by Bold Type Books, priced £16.99.

“There is no acceptable level of transmission”: Zero Covid campaign interview

“There is no acceptable level of transmission”: Zero Covid campaign interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 January 2021

On 13 January official figures showed a record daily 1,564 new covid fatalities in the UK, shamefully taking the total number of deaths from covid in the country to over 100,000.

In response to this ongoing government-made national catastrophe, the Zero Covid campaign was established in October 2020, supported by trade unions, academics and health experts.

Ian Sinclair asked Roy Wilkes from the campaign to explain what ‘Zero Covid’ actually means, whether other nations have had success following this strategy and what concerned citizens can do to support the campaign. 

Ian Sinclair: What, exactly, does ‘Zero Covid’ mean? The total suppression of the virus?

Roy Wilkes: Zero Covid is an aspiration, based on the premise that there is no acceptable level of transmission. There are two alternatives to a Zero Covid strategy: herd immunity, and containment.  Several governments flirted with the herd immunity strategy – allowing the virus to circulate unhindered, while supposedly protecting the most clinically vulnerable as far as possible – in the early stages of the pandemic; but they soon realised that the resultant mass death tolls would be politically untenable. So they moved on to a containment strategy, of allowing the virus to circulate until health services were at risk of being overwhelmed, and then taking partial suppression measures until transmission (and hospitalisation) rates are reduced. 

The containment strategy is motivated by a desire to maintain normal economic for as long as possible. But even on its own terms it has failed miserably. At £380bn, the UK has suffered an 80% higher state deficit than the G7 average. We have also experienced a 90% greater decline in economic output, and a 60% higher death toll.

The repeated cycle of on-off lockdowns has damaged both lives and livelihoods. The death tolls (and long term health damage) have been considerably worse in deprived communities, among disabled people and among black and ethnic minority people. It is those same communities who have been most impoverished by the government’s handling of Covid. Those who live in the leafy suburbs on the other hand, can more easily avoid the risks of contagion. Billionaires have seen their wealth rise at an astonishing rate, stock markets have boomed, and the corporate privatisation vultures like Serco have gorged profusely on the state coffers.

The alternative to this is an elimination strategy, a Zero Covid strategy. Some experts have argued that total elimination is now impossible, that the virus is endemic. That may or may not be the case.  However, by pursuing the aspiration of Zero Covid we will put ourselves in the strongest position to successfully contain small outbreaks as and when they occur. We will also give the vaccines a much better chance of working effectively. 

Pandemics are becoming more frequent, almost certainly as a result of ecological degradation. There will be further pandemics, and the next one might be considerably more dangerous than Covid.  Pursuing a Zero Covid strategy will help us to build the infrastructure and the expertise that we will need to deal with those future pandemics as and when they arise. 

IS: What policies does the Zero Covid campaign believe the UK government should be implementing to achieve Zero Covid?

RW: The Zero Covid strategy is very simple. We need to close all non-essential workplaces until community transmission is close to zero. That will necessitate the state paying workers to stay at home. Can we afford it? Yes. To pay 20 million workers £400 per week for five weeks would cost the exchequer £40bn. A lot of money, but a tiny fraction of the £380bn deficit the Johnson government squandered in 2020. Independent Sage estimates that by closing schools and non-essential workplaces we can halve community transmission each week.

While we are driving down transmission we need to build the second strand of the Zero Covid strategy: a locally based, public sector system of Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support. That means first and foremost closing down the failed Serco operation and transferring those resources to local health authorities, so they can recruit local contact tracers who know the areas they work in. The ‘support’ part of the package is in many ways the most important. We found in Liverpool that mass testing is useless if people don’t take the tests; and in the most deprived boroughs less than 10% took the tests because they feared a positive result, knowing that they couldn’t afford to self isolate should they receive one. Again, the state must pay people to stay at home if they or their dependents need to self isolate, and there must also be a full package of community social and mental health support available too. And finally, we need a proper system of public health screening at all ports of entry, with adequate quarantine where necessary. 

IS: Have any countries around the world successfully implemented a Zero Covid strategy?

RW: New Zealand has now lifted all restrictions, having reduced community transmission to zero.  Vietnam, with a population of over 90 million and long land borders with several other countries, has suffered 35 deaths in total. Vietnam’s locally based public sector test, trace, isolate and support system really is world beating. Taiwan, with a population density higher than ours, has had a total of 7 deaths. Australia is an important example that we should study carefully, since it shows that even from a poor starting point it is possible to shift towards a successful elimination strategy. Transmission rates in Australia were as high as they were in the UK a few months ago. On 13 January 2021 Australia only had 8 new recorded cases. China was widely mocked for their Wuhan lockdown at the outset of this pandemic; no one is laughing at them now. All of these countries have shown that a Zero Covid strategy is both feasible and effective.

IS: The Morning Star has provided extensive coverage of the Zero Covid campaign. Can you give an idea of the level of support the campaign has in the wider media, in parliament and in the expert community?

RW: The scientists and medics of Independent Sage have consistently advocated an elimination strategy. Other scientists on the other hand, are happy to serve the interests of capital. Patrick Vallance was until recently President, R&D at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, and shares the same corporate world view as Boris Johnson. The Great Barrington Declaration was funded by the same billionaires who have previously promoted climate change denial and skepticism over the links between tobacco and cancer. 

The Morning Star has provided exemplary coverage of this crisis. The wider mainstream media have played a far less salutary role. The worst coverage has come from the BBC, which has been little better than a propaganda mouthpiece for government policy. Most of the media gleefully parrot the false government narrative that the current catastrophe is the fault of irresponsible members of the public. 

The front bench of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has been almost as bad. This is all the more astonishing when we consider that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus has acknowledged the failure of containment and the need for a more serious elimination strategy. However, a handful of MPs, notably Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott, have swum against the stream and consistently advocated a principled Zero Covid strategy.

IS: Regular lockdowns and restrictions on movement and socialising have negatively impacted people’s ability to organise and take action. What can concerned individuals do to support your campaign?

RW: Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, we have over the past year learned new ways to organise and take action. Who among us had heard of Zoom this time last year? We are now able to meet regularly with others not only in different cities of the UK, but also globally. This new and enhanced capacity to communicate and organise will stand us in good stead for the future. We are also finding new ways to organise for safety in the workplace. The National Education Union has played an exemplary role in this regard. Their action last week was instrumental in forcing the government to close the schools as part of the current lockdown. The NEU was motivated not only by concerns for the health and safety of its members in the workplace, but more importantly by the needs of the wider community. That is the scale of solidarity we want to encourage. 

If and when the government lifts the current lockdown, we will once again return to the streets in safe, masked, socially distanced protest action. We know now that the public overwhelmingly supports measures to bring this pandemic under control. Our job as a campaign is to mobilise that opinion into an unstoppable movement, through both online and safe outdoor protest action.

Find out more at https://zerocovid.uk/

How Advertising Fuels the Climate Crisis: Interview with Tim Kasser

How Advertising Fuels the Climate Crisis: Interview with Tim Kasser
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 January 2021

With the climate crisis likely to be high on the political agenda this year – the UK is hosting the next round of United Nations climate talks in November 2021 – a new publication from the New Weather Institute think tank and the climate action charity Possible is well timed.

The report, Advertising’s Role in Climate and Ecological Destruction: What Does the Scientific Research Have to Say?, is written by Tim Kasser, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Knox College in the United States, and author of books such as Hypercapitalism (2018) and The High Price of Materialism (2002).

Ian Sinclair asked Kasser about the connection between advertising and climate change, the role of television and what governments and citizens can do to address the issue.

Ian Sinclair: How does advertising contribute to the climate and ecological crises we are now experiencing? 

Tim Kasser: Some industries have direct effects on climate and ecological crises. For example, the auto, oil, airlines, and many other industries release CO2 and pollution, and industries like agribusiness destroy habitat. Other industries have indirect effects on climate and ecological crises. For example, some banks provide financing to the auto, oil, airlines, and agribusiness industries. So, while the banks themselves don’t have a big direct effect on the climate or ecology, their actions support those industries that do have big direct effects. Our recent report suggests that advertising has similar indirect effects on the environment. 

The report presents scientific evidence for four pathways through which advertising indirectly causes climate and ecological damage. These four pathways include two products, beef and tobacco, that research shows are both damaging to the environment and whose consumption is increased as a result of advertising. The two other pathways we examine are materialistic values and “the work & spend cycle.” I’ll say more about those in a moment, but the main point for now is that research shows that both materialism and the work & spend cycle are increased by advertising and that both are associated with negative environmental outcomes. 

We suspect that there are other pathways through which advertising has indirect negative effects on the environment, but these were the four pathways that had the most solid scientific evidence behind them, and so they were the ones that we wrote about.    

IS: The report highlights the important role played by television in this process. What does the evidence show? 

TK: In many nations the biggest television channels are owned by for-profit companies whose revenue depends upon selling advertisements. The vast majority of those advertisements are designed to encourage viewers to spend their money on certain products (like pizza), services (like automobile repair), or experiences (like trips on a cruise ship). These advertisements almost inevitably suggest that a viewer’s life would be happier, safer, or better in any number of ways if the viewer would buy what is advertised. 

When people are exposed to these messages thousands of times per day, day after day, year after year from early childhood onward, the research shows that they come to prioritize the acquisition of money and possessions, or what researchers call “materialism.” Many studies show that the more that people watch television, the more materialistic they are. Further, experimental studies show that people become more materialistic after being exposed to the kinds of advertising messages they see on television, compared to being exposed to more neutral messages. 

Research studies with people of many ages and from many nations also show that when people are more materialistic, they care less about environmental damage, are less likely to behave in ways that help the environment (e.g., by recycling), and are more likely to behave in ways that hurt the environment (e.g., by owning petrol-guzzling autos and living in large homes). 

In sum, this body of research suggests that advertising on television (and elsewhere) has an indirect effect on climate and ecological degradation through encouraging materialistic values and goals. 

IS: The report also argues there is a link between advertising, a long hours work culture and the environment. Can you explain this? 

TK: As I said earlier, the primary goal of most advertisements is to convince people to spend their money on the advertised product, service, or experience. In order to spend money, one either has to go into debt or to earn money, and the way that most people can earn money is by working. Some studies document that the more that people see advertisements, the more hours they work. Researchers think that when people see a lot of ads they decide that working in order to earn money to buy stuff is more important than other options for one’s time, like relaxing, spending time with friends and family, or volunteering. 

The problem is that the research also shows that working long work is associated with more climate and ecological damage. There are two explanations for this. One is that when a lot of people work a lot of hours and make a lot of money which they use to consume stuff, that all “scales up” and creates a lot of ecological damage. The second explanation is that when people work long hours, they have less time to pursue more sustainable ways of life – it takes more time to ride one’s bike or take public transport than to hop in one’s car and drive somewhere.  Both of these explanations are probably valid. 

IS: Though the report doesn’t look at it, how do you think governments and citizens might reduce the negative effects advertising has on the climate and our ecology? 

TK: There are many governmental actions that could reduce advertising’s negative effects. I’ll mention just four that some governments have already tried. 

First, cities like Sao Paulo, Brazil and Grenoble, France place limits on where advertisements are allowed. Other cities could develop similar policies that only allow ads in commercial locations and that remove ads from public locations like highways, buses and subways, schools, parks, etc. 

Second, the nations of Sweden, Norway, and Brazil have each banned advertising to children. Other nations could develop similar policies to help the next generation from being socialized into the consumerist mindset.

Third, the nation of Hungary and the US state of Maryland have attempted to remove the tax breaks that advertisers currently enjoy. These attempts have received substantial push-back. But if other governments developed similar policies, they would not only obtain needed revenue, but they would make advertising more expensive and therefore potentially less desirable for companies. 

Finally, governments all over the world have banned certain types of advertisements for cigarettes, in the recognition that this product is extremely unhealthy. Similar policies could be put in place to ban ads that encourage consumption of environmentally-damaging products, like SUVs, and services, like airline flights.

Citizens can become involved by voting for representatives who support such policies and by petitioning their local governments to enact such policies. In their personal lives, citizens can use ad block apps on the Internet and unsubscribe from media that are replete with advertisements. 

Advertising’s Role in Climate and Ecological Destruction is free to download from http://www.badverts.org/reports-and-publications.

Book review: The Media Manifesto

Book review: The Media Manifesto by Natalie Fenton, Des Freedman, Justin Schlosberg and Lina Dencik
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2020

A product of the Media Reform Coalition – a group of academics, activists and journalists working for progressive media reform in the UK – The Media Manifesto is a tightly-argued, inspiring call to action.

One of the book’s central arguments is that the misinformation underpinning developments like the rise of Trump, and the media’s failure to adequately challenge power, shouldn’t – as many liberals would have you believe – be blamed solely on fringe ‘fake news’ elements and the right-wing press. All this actually ‘reflects the insulation, complacency and commercial interests of our major legacy news organisations’.

The authors note that ‘levels of concentration of press power are actually increasing’ in the UK.

In 2015, three companies controlled 71 per cent of national newspaper readership. By 2018 it was 83 per cent.

The authors also have little time for the idea that social media and the internet have disrupted and fragmented traditional media power. Instead, they argue that established news organisations dominate the online space, ‘reproducing and intensifying existing patterns of agenda-setting power’.

This has huge repercussions for how journalism addresses our most pressing problems.

Frameworks and solutions that run counter to the establishment will likely be marginalised – see the pro-City coverage of the financial crisis and the ferocious press assault on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party – while the existential threat of climate change is rarely seriously grappled with.

In its current form, Freedman argues, the BBC is part of the problem: ‘far too implicated in and attached to existing elite networks of power to be able to offer an effective challenge to them’.

However, in the last chapter, the authors highlight the importance of independent and devolved public service media, alongside other proposals, including laws to reduce concentration of ownership and alternative ownership models, such as the pioneering media co-op, The Bristol Cable.

Indeed, there are many brilliant media organisations in the UK today – Declassified UK, Novara Media, Media Lens and, yes, Peace News among them.

Historically, though, Left media have been very weak. Arguably, the independent media were incapable of defending the most anti-imperialist leader of a mainstream party since the Second World War from an entirely predictable media onslaught, let alone able to go on the offensive and decisively shift the national conversation on key issues such as climate change, nuclear weapons or UK foreign policy.

There is much work to be done, then. With its unashamedly socialist politics, The Media Manifesto will no doubt become an important primer, perhaps even a foundational text, in the struggle for media justice.

Why the government’s 2050 net zero carbon target is not fit for purpose

Why the government’s 2050 net zero carbon target is not fit for purpose
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 September 2020

2019 was an extraordinary year for UK activism on the climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion’s April 2019 rebellion, the school strikes and David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Climate Change: The Facts all helped to radically shift public opinion. June 2019 polling from YouGov found “the public is more concerned about the environment than ever before.”

“The sudden surge in concern is undoubtedly boosted by the publicity raised for the environmental cause by Extinction Rebellion… and activism from Greta Thunberg during the same period”, Matthew Smith, YouGov’s lead data journalist, explained.

More concretely, the House of Commons declared a climate emergency in May 2019. Introducing the motion, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the recent climate activism had been “a massive and necessary wake-up call. Today we have the opportunity to say ‘We hear you’”.

The motion – one of the first in the world – showed the will of parliament but didn’t legally compel the government to act.

Then, in June 2019, following a recommendation from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Tory government committed the country to reducing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. This move made the UK the first major economy in the world to pass a law to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.

Be in no doubt: parliament declaring a climate emergency and the government implementing a 2050 net zero target are huge wins for the UK environmental movement. However, speaking to the Morning Star in June 2019, Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Rupert Read called the CCC report which recommended the 2050 net zero target, “essentially dead on arrival”. And in September 2019 Ed Miliband said “2050 isn’t the radical position and now it’s seen as a conservative ‘small c’ position.”

So what are the problems with the 2050 net zero target?

First, the CCC’s 2050 target is derived from the October 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5C – the maximum increase in temperature the 189 signatories of the 2016 UN Paris climate agreement pledged to limit global warming to.

However, as many climate experts have noted, the IPCC tends to be conservative in its predictions. “This is simply due to its structure”, Dr Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam University noted in 2014. “The IPCC report will contain only things that a whole group of scientists have agreed upon on a kind of consensus process. This kind of agreement tends to be the lowest common denominator.” He noted that sea level rise in the last two decades “has overtaken the speed of the upper range of previous projections of sea level of the IPCC”. Writing in Business Green in May 2019, Will Dawson from Forum For The Future, explained the ramifications of this: “The CCC is therefore using scenarios that are likely far too optimistic. Emissions have to be cut much faster than they assumed to keep to 1.5C.”

Second, the CCC admits the 2050 target, “if replicated across the world”, would deliver only a greater than 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C – reckless odds when you are talking about the fate of hundreds of millions of people.

Indeed, Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, recently stated “The problem is the framing the CCC has for net zero is already far removed from what is needed to meet our Paris commitments.” Anderson has co-authored new research, published in the peer-reviewed Climate Policy journal, highlighting this disconnect. The Guardian summarised the article’s key finding: “The UK’s planned reductions in emissions, even if it hits net zero by 2050, would be two or three times greater than its fair share of emissions under the landmark 2015 Paris agreement.”

Finally, the CCC report on 2050 is based on various questionable political assumptions. For example, the CCC admits the target date is partly informed by what is “feasible” and “politically acceptable” – and what is “credibly deliverable alongside other government objectives”.

The CCC also has a very conservative view about the possibility of large-scale behavioural change, with Chris Stark, the CCC’s Chief Executive, stating the 2050 target “is technically possible with known technologies and without major changes to consumer behaviours.” The report recommends a hardly radical “20% reduction in consumption of beef, lamb, and dairy” (to be “replaced by an increase in consumption of pork, poultry, and plant-based products”), and predicts a 60% growth in demand for air travel by 2050. They advise the government to curtail this surge rather than cut demand overall.

In short, the 2050 target date is not simply following the science but is underpinned by conservative assumptions about the likelihood of change, and intangible and changeable factors like public opinion and government priorities.

Worryingly, like a Russian doll the serious problems with the 2050 target sit within an even more concerning national and international policy context.

In its June 2020 progress report the CCC confirmed the steps the UK government has taken “do not yet measure up to meet the size of the Net Zero challenge and we are not making adequate progress in preparing for climate change.” A new report from the Institute for Government is similarly critical of the government’s lack of action. “There is… little evidence that the government, and the politicians who waved the new target through with little debate, have confronted the enormous scale of the task ahead”, it notes.

Internationally, one of the most frightening facts I have ever read was effectively hidden in paragraph 13 of 19 of a page 27 report in the Guardian in July. “According to the Climate Action Tracker, only Morocco [out of 189 signatories] is acting consistently with the [2016] Paris agreement’s goals, with the global temperature rise on course to exceed 3C by the end of the century even if the current pledges are met.”

Meanwhile the mercury keeps rising. Earlier this month the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation warned the world could exceed the key threshold of 1.5C by 2024, climate experts Pep Canadell and Rob Jackson noted on The Conversation website.

According to a leaked January 2020 report from US multinational investment bank JP Morgan, the earth is on track for a temperature increase of 3.5C by 2100. “Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory”, the paper notes. “Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive”.

We need, then, to massively increase the level of ambition and action of the UK’s response to the climate crisis. Professor Anderson argues the scale and timeframe of the transformation required needs to be larger and faster than Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe after World War Two.

A positive step would be the adoption of an earlier net zero target date. Both Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, and Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, back a net zero target of 2030. Under Corbyn’s leadership a Green New Deal with a target date of 2030 was approved at the 2019 annual Labour Party conference (though didn’t fully make it into the party’s December 2019 general election manifesto). Impressively, in July Ed Miliband, now the Shadow Business and Energy Secretary, confirmed he backs the 2030 target date.

The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill recently tabled by Green MP Caroline Lucas and co-sponsored by a group of 11 cross-party MPs is another ray of light, encapsulating many of the concerns about the UK’s lack of ambition set out above. Co-drafted by Professor Anderson and Professor Jackson – and already backed by 52 other MPs – the Bill pushes for a strengthening of the UK’s response the climate crisis, ensuring UK emissions are consistent with limiting average global temperatures to 1.5C.

Asked at Davos in January what she would like to see happen in the next year and a half, climate activist Greta Thunberg gave a typically wise answer: “That we start listening to the science and that we actually start treating the crisis as the crisis it is” because “without treating this as a real crisis we cannot solve it.”

Ian Sinclair tweets @IanSinclair.