Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Grover Norquist's dream comes true?

When the public sector has apparently been laid low to the point where it cannot even carry out its core function within the social contract, i.e. providing security for its citizens/subjects, and has to defer to corporations instead, it truly is in a position where it can be "drowned in the bathtub".

Key quote:

"We would question who is in a financially better position to police the likes of YouTube - those in the private sector, who are earning huge amounts of money, or police forces which are currently having to stretch budgets."

Great idea, because it's about as desirable for unaccountable corporations to be responsible for policing crime in the virtual world as it is for them to be responsible for policing crime in the physical one. Hmmm...

Of course, it may just be that the police actually do have the resources to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour but have other priorities instead. How much did hosting the G8 a couple of years ago cost the British taxpayer again? Or George Bush's pub lunch in Sedgefield? Or maintaining the massive surveillance state?

Information Landmine says that the real problem with the likes of the police, the security services and the military is that they don't exist to "serve and protect" the country but to defend wealth and privilege above all else. The fact that much of this remit is now being outsourced to private corporations, unaccountable to any nominally democratic processes, is merely a natural development given the Capitalism Gone Wild times in which we live.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

I've got the fear...

Thomas C. Greene has a three part article on selling the war on terror and journalistic irresponsibility. Great stuff.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Jackson 4

Permaculture: Beyond Crop Rotation

It has been argued that permaculture represents a solid sustainable approach to agriculture, and while I believe this is a vitally important part of the concept without which it would not be recognisable, but this is far from the limits of its applications. While wwoofing on permaculture farms I was struck by something far removed from the specifics of their farming practices – their approach to life, their attitude, positively and inspirational qualities. It is this view of modern life, of how it can be changed by individual action, which I intend to focus upon, as I believe it can help us to radically change the long-term direction of public policy away from the unsustainable, wasteful, non-humanist, statist model.

Permaculture simply asks people to put as much into life as they demand from it…use its principles in your everyday life. Teach your children, lobby your government…with the wisdom it contains.’ (Dr. David Bellamy – botanist)

Permaculture is not just about finding new ways to farm; it’s about creating sustainable human settlements by following nature’s patterns rather than working against them. Drawing heavily from Bill Mollision, one of the founders of the idea, I will now outline the core conceptions of how a permaculture settlement achieves this in terms of ‘structure’. From this discussion it will begin to become apparent how relevant the idea is to modern society.

Firstly permaculture has a novel way of looking at life, commonly refereed to as ‘maximum contemplation; minimum action’. Rather than measuring success in terms of speed of action and quantities of success it favours instead a strategy of long-term contemplation followed by the best, most effective action that uses the minimum of unnecessary energy. By doing so you find the best possible action and have a holistic approach to your life. Permaculture is about thinking before you act, it is not a set of rules; it is a process of design based around principles found in the natural world, of co-operation and mutually beneficial relationships, and translating these principles into actions. This action can range from choosing what you eat, how you travel, the type of work you do, and where you live, to working with others to create a community food-growing project. It's about making decisions that relate to all your other decisions; so one area of your life is not working against another. For example, if you are planning a journey, consider other tasks that can be completed on the way to your destination (combining a trip to the leisure centre with buying food on the way home, for example). In this sense you begin to think of your life or project, as a whole system, - working out the most effective way to do things that involves the least effort and the least damage to others, and looking for ways to make relationships more beneficial (

I start with this characteristic of permaculture because, for me at least, it is one of the most important elements to this essay and to the movement. I mentioned earlier that permaculturalists I have meet all had a common sense of purpose, which was a very refreshing change to the defeatist – ‘But what can I do?’ – attitude in the UK. At first I thought these people where happier because they had discovered ‘the solution’ the way to change the world, but later realised that in terms of physical actions many where doing little more than I – they were just a lot happier about it! That was when I realised they were happier because they put themselves on the path to a solution, removed conflict from their lives as much as possible and accepted that some conflicts would persist. It only truly matters that you know you consider every aspect of your life, and do everything you can in a co-ordinated and thoughtful way. From such an approach we can gain a step in the right direction for every aspect of our lives now, without excuses, and put society and ourselves on the path to sustainability. This is where I think permaculture has a lot to offer public policy on sustainability issues. All political parties, media and government departments now accept the need for a policy focus on ecology and climate change, but very few people are offering real solutions. Why does the government look, for the solution to limited food production in the third world, to genetic modification? Why are tax credits and low wage jobs Gordon Brown’s solution to everything? Why does the government want to stop climate change with targets and a congestion charge? Why is the first answer to increased energy needs nuclear power as opposed to energy reduction? If the government accepts the argument that we need to live in a more sustainable way, why are their solutions to these issues not more radical? Governments of course are not known for their radical nature, but there is a far more important reason, they lack the co-ordination that a holistic approach would bring. If we want to do something about the way we live, about the problems that have cause climate change, we need to make this the number one issue of government and society and start to challenge the conventional wisdom about the basic of modern economics and conceptions of human development.

Capitalist theory teaches us that the cheapest way is the best way, that the easiest route to increased growth is the correct one. In reality, of course, government and society put limits on this idea it is not seen as acceptable for a business venture, however profitable, to result in people’s death for example. This does however happen all the time, people die every day in the name of profit, the question is, if that is logically considered unacceptable, why does it happen? It happened in large part because conventional academic, governmental and media logic puts the economy before society and environment, rather than considering it just a means to and end. If we consider the economy to be more important than ourselves and the planet we live on, then it is little wonder that the political economic system has resulted in ecological disaster. Permaculture’s second main element is an understanding of and solution to, this problem.

"If we want to move on and create sustainability and a more fulfilling quality of life, the best way to do this is to understand the nature of the world and to live harmoniously and creatively with it - to understand that we are a part of the web of life, not separate from it."


Permaculture embodies a system of ethics and principles that it aims to put into practice, and by doing so to return some form of clarity to their lives. These focus around sustainability and fairness, and are generally divided into three main categories:

Earth Care - Permaculture as a design system is based on natural systems. It is about working with nature, not against it - not using natural resources unnecessarily or at a rate at which they cannot be replaced. It also means using outputs from one system as inputs for another (vegetable peelings as compost, for example), and so minimising wastage.

People Care - People care is about looking after us as people, not just the world we live in. It works on both an individual and a community level. Self-reliance, co-operation and support of each other should be encouraged. It is, however, important to look after us on an individual level too. Our skills are of no use to anyone if we are too tired to do anything useful! People care is also about our legacy to future generations.

Fair Shares - The fair shares part of the permaculture ethic brings earth care and people care together. We only have one earth, and we have to share it - with each other, with other living things, and with future generations. This means limiting our consumption, especially of natural resources, and working for everyone to have access to the fundamental needs of life - clean water, clean air, food, shelter, meaningful employment, and social contact.

Permaculture does not provide prescriptive solutions to the problems facing the world - nobody is going to demand that you put an herb spiral in the bottom left corner of your garden, or wear only hand knitted recycled non-bleached organic fair trade clothes. It is about allowing you the freedom to observe your surroundings, and make decisions that will work for you, in your situation, using the resources you have.

Self-Reliance and Community Sufficiency

"We try to empower people to take control of their own lives. If you can see something needs doing, then give yourself permission to do it"

Permaculture seeks to foster the skills, confidence and imagination to enable people to become self-reliant, and to seek creative solutions to problems on a global or local scale. While the individual has a part to play, in most places it is not realistic for an individual household to provide for all of their own needs in terms of food, clothing, work etc, and the emphasis is more on self-reliance and increased sufficiency within the community, rather than individual self-sufficiency. In practice, this does not mean each person growing enough food to feed themselves in their back garden; it means that as many as possible of the inputs for a community (food, skills etc) come from within that community - perhaps in the form of community food growing schemes, Local Exchange and Trading Systems to exchange skills and produce etc. Permaculture means different things to different people. One person may interpret it in a practical sense in terms of growing food, perhaps, while another will focus on a more spiritual side. This diversity is important; it helps to keep a sense of balance, and encourages people to share their resources and knowledge with others. Working together is the key - it takes a lot of strain off the individual. It also is important to be well informed and if you can help others, spread your knowledge in return.

Concluding Comments

Permaculture then offers a flexible, dynamic and highly individual set of moral, ethical and practical guidelines for living with rather than against nature. It offers a way of living your life that views the planet and its inhabitants as co-dependent delicate systems that we all need to work with not against if we are to survive. It is my opinion that the present capitalist system will eventually, without doubt, lead to great pain and suffering for the mass population and to the earth itself, indeed it not only already does, but also has for over 5,000 years. The present ecological crisis will never be solved, by David Cameron riding his bike to work, or even by Hilary Clinton singing the Kyoto mark II protocols, because the problem is not the amount of carbon dioxide, it’s the way we live. If we accept this we need to have a new framework for an alternative to capitalism that puts society and ecology before economy and does so in a holistic way. I for one believe permaculture ethics, attitudes and principles are the answer.

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Jackson 3

Moving with an ideology?

Central to my presentation of Wwoof is that it is first and foremost a movement. Unencumbered by rules, structures and leaders Wwoof aims for long-term, multifaceted, sustainable socio-economic change rather than specific policies or even a specific ‘vision’ of the future. For me, this is the critical difference between an ‘organisation’ and a ‘movement’. While the former aims to gain acceptance of specific micro policies with a wider structured programme in mind, framed by a common ideology, the latter aims to group like minded people together in fluid, dynamic social and cultural bonds and aim to change the way we live, not just the rules we live by. A movement by definition is constantly changing, adapting, and evolving to reality but always moving in a certain cultural, if not political, direction. Can a movement then have an ideology in any meaningful sense?

As the term is commonly used in contemporary political and sociological literature ‘ideology’ means, a set of beliefs, concepts and ideas that can easily be codified into a logical, non-contradictory epistemological view. By this definition, Wwoof does not have an ideology and neither do most other ‘movements’ as they defy the idea of a codified programme. If we loosen the definition just slightly to remove the condition of codification I think we can easily make the case of a movement being able to have ideology, albeit a fluid ideology. In the case of Wwoof, while there is a very lose overall worldview; there are also several complementary ideologies, or a ‘multitude of ideologies’ (ref? Hardt). While I believe that its overall worldview, its way-of-life, has much to teach us, I will focus instead on the benefits of one of its many ideologies. I will argue that this ideology, or agenda could have very obvious and practical applications to more mainstream, ‘codified’ western organisation and their policy formulations.

Fittingly considering the discussion of the variety of Wwoof hosts earlier, the movement has a very wide range of opinions, views, approaches and overarching ‘ideologies’. The two most prominent of these common ideologies within the movement are biodynamics and permaculture. Both have been primarily associated with farming, with way of viewing mans relationship with the earth and developing this into more sustainable fashion. I will briefly address the farming side of these ideologies before moving onto the more socio-political aspects.

In 1924 a number of German farmers (most famously Philosopher and scientist Dr Rudolf Steiner) concerned with the signs of agriculture in decline of quality in favour of quantity developed the concept of biodynamics. Biodynamics (‘biological-dynamics) is a method of organic agriculture, which can be applied to any farm or horticultural enterprise, by following a series of practical steps. Aiming to build sustainable soil fertility biodynamic farming carefully tailors its approach and ideas to the particular property, in general however six steps would always be taken.

  1. Widening of the range of pasture species, and the planting of trees for multiple purposes. Pasture species and trees take varied and specific role within a particular eco-system, unlike in traditional farming systems a tree can be planted for increased soil fertility or shade, as well as for the production of fruit.

  2. The rotation of crops is thus planned to enhance soil fertility and to naturally control the spread of weeds and plant pests.

  3. Recycling of organic wastes where possible, by large scale composting.

  4. Changing from chemical pest control to prevention strategies based on good plant and animal nutrition.

  5. The use of biodynamic sprays to stimulate biological activity in the soil and improve the retention of nutrients, such as animal wastes.

  6. Stocking with several different species to vary grazing patterns and reduce pasture borne parasites.

Biodynamics is a systems based approach to farming, as the above points demonstrate it views the farm (or horticultural enterprise) as a living whole, in which each farm activity affects the others. Management is thus based on the farmer’s own careful observation of the particular land and its eco system, sometimes over several years before planting at all, as well as the results of tests and analyses. This leads to a modern approach to farming in which traditional long forgotten farming practices and knowledge experience a long over due renewal. The advantages of this approach to the farmer are numerous, because biodynamics uses very limited external inputs, and reuses most on farm waste; it has a low impact on the environment. It provides an economical way of farming in which most of the costs are met at the time they are incurred, arguably offering a solution to the conflict between economics and the environment. Flavour and keeping quality of the foods, lustre and comfort of fibres provoke favourable comments from consumers, looking out for the internationally famous trademark DEMETER, assuring the buyer that the produce is originally grown. (NZ Wwoof book). This approach has obvious advantages to the small-scale farmer, local community group, or Wwoof family, both in terms of economics and sustainability of the venture. The claim to have solved the conflict between economics and environment, simplistic as it may seems, points to some of the wider possible applications of the logic behind these to the wider public policy. It will be further argued later that an approach emphasising long-term observation, dynamic and practical consideration of specific issues, and retention of resources within the local system goes a long way to practical explaining how we can choose to put the environment first while still having a thriving economically.

It is the second main ideological group, permaculture, which is of most interest to this discussion. As its name suggests permaculture is all about making things that are permanent rather than temporary, long-term and sustainable. Permaculture aims to bring about a form of ‘permanent agriculture’, using many of the same traditional farming methods as biodynamics, such as the systems approach, economical view of resources and recycling. The main distinctive feature of permaculture’s approach to farming techniques is planning and design on a wide range of scales. Further to the ideology of biodynamics, permaculturalists believe that mainstream farming’s central mistake has been a lack of design as expansion of society has developed the necessity of mass farming. While permaculture has thus far been mostly associated with small scale ‘communities’, it is not limited to these. Permaculture does not represent a simple zero-sum decision between main steam society and withdrawing to a simpler, rural life. Far from it permaculture has aimed from the beginning to influence and inform mass agriculture.

'Civilised man has marched across the face of the earth and left a desert in his footprints.' (Carter and Dale, Topsoil and Civilization, p.6)

Permaculture was originally based on the idea that today, worldwide, on land once rich with natural vegetation, we see deserts denuded of their topsoil, deserts of salt-encrusted soil from years of irrigation, deserts due to widespread deforestation having altered the regional climate (Permaculture website). Agriculture, from its invention and reinvention from some 10,000 years ago onwards, has generally involved a crude process of clearing the wilderness and establishing a cycle of digging or ploughing, then seeding with a few useful species, primarily grasses, then harvesting the crop to feed humans and livestock - and the cycle begins again year on year until the land is exhausted - after which a new area of wilderness is cleared. Perhaps humans devised this system after surviving for a million years or so by hunting and gathering, and learning that regular firing of the undergrowth encouraged fresh sprouting pioneer species which were more nutritious for people and the grazing herds we hunted than did the stable, mature forest.

The solution to this critical flaw, from a permaculture perspective, is to introduce design into agriculture in order to create permanent high-yielding agricultural ecosystems, so that humans can thrive on as little land as possible, thus leaving as much land as possible as wilderness, if necessary helping the wilderness re-establish itself. In order to implement this global vision, we need local solutions, because every place on earth is different in local climate, landform, soils, and the combinations of species, which will thrive. Not only does the land and its potential vary from place to place, but also so do the people vary in their needs and preferences and their capacities. Every place and community requires its own particular design. A permaculture-designed farm will take the practical operations of the day-to-day runnings of the farm into account by planning the farm into zones of activity. In Zone A, for example, you would have things you need every day access to, such as your house, water supply and chickens and so on then in Zone B you might have fruit trees and seasonal crops that you need to visit ant much less frequent intervals. In this way the farm is set up to work with a positive time-motion balance, maximising the energy you have to put into your daily work. This is but one example of a feature of permaculture that plans a system to be sustainable. Hence at the local level, permaculture designers often refer to permaculture as being about designing for 'permanent culture'. This is not all about local farming however and the global vision can be lost sight of in the nitty-gritty of 'permanent culture' designing for local sustainability. But the vision is vital and can inspire us to keep going in the face of obstruction and apathy (

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jackson 2

I think you can see where I'm going with this. Anyway, this is the first installment of Pete Jackson's Wwoofing article. More to come soon:

“Revolution disguised as organic gardening…”1

In 2006 I was a ‘Wwoofer’. I lived for 10 months in New Zealand, on organic farms, with families, with self-sustainable communities and with everything in between. The experience was amazing and enlightening for a number of reasons, but the two things I was most struck by were a unique worldview and the sense of personal and collective purpose. This is something that’s incredibly difficult to describe, to adequately explain, to those who haven’t experienced it personally. Infused with a sense that change is possible, that human agency really isn’t dead after all, I shouted the benefits of Wwoofing from the rooftops. Cries of, ‘Wwoofing is the way forwards’, were more often than not meet with blank looks, but this got me to thinking I should write it all down! My intention here then is not to just answer your first question, ‘What the hell does Wwoof stand for?’, but also to attempt to explain what it was that got me so excited about it in the first place. I am going to argue that Wwoofing, and my favourite of its ‘ideologies’; Permaculture, represents not merely a much better way of farming and a healthy way of life but also provides us with a framework of how to radically change the long-term direction of public policy away from the unsustainable, wasteful statist model.

So what the hell is Wwoofing?

There are a million different ways this question could be answered, because they are that many different versions of what wwoofing is. I will start as broadly as possible to set the scene before moving onto the different types of farms and theories behind the ‘movement’. I refer to wwoof as a movement, and not an organisation, because as will be argued it’s novelty lies in process, not design2.

There is however something of an organisation to Wwoof, and I’ll now give you a brief organisational history. The present full title of the organisation is, ‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’, though this is only the latest incarnation, of an idea that first appeared in the UK in Autumn 1971, when a London secretary, Sue Coppard, recognised the need to provide access to the countryside for people like herself who did not otherwise have the means or the opportunity, and who were keen to support the organic movement. Her idea started with a trial working weekend, which she arranged for four people at the bio-dynamic farm at Emerson College in Sussex through a contact in the Soil Association ( This first weekend was a great success and similar events and groups soon began springing up through the region showing a great interest in learning about organics and rural lifestyles.

Wwoof has since grown into an international phenomenon with autonomous ‘organisations’ offering a massively wide variety of opportunities for similar experiences, such as those Sue Coppard’s weekend first discovered, across over 15 countries. Before outlining the practical basics of Wwoof it is worth explaining, why I’ve a reluctance to call it a fully-fledged ‘organisation’. Wwoof prides itself on being highly flexible, adaptive and immediately responsive to inputs from its members. It achieves this by having very little formal ‘organisation’ above the level of the direct relationship between the host and Wwoofer, if they want to make the arrangement work in a different way, then most people would say why not let them. It is more useful to describe Wwoof as a movement, whose main focus is above all to provide enthusiastic grassroots inputs and feedbacks into the organic movement via exchange, contact, and practical education. There are very few actual rules or basic standards, or ideology within such a movement based more on unifying concepts than structure. To wwoof, a willingness to learn, develop and constantly renew yourself and society is the only required criteria.

WWOOF’s ethos is definitely one of constant improvement.’ (

There are however some very basic ‘structures’ in place. While Wwoof groups are normally totally autonomous national entities, often with smaller regional / local subsections, there is communication and support between groups, and of course most Wwoofers themselves tend to volunteer in a different country to their nationality forming international grassroots links. After outlining this basic structure I will seek to argue that this a positive benefit of the style of movement rather than structure.

Most national Wwoof organisations offer very little to Wwoofers and hosts beyond updating and distributing ‘The Wwoof Book’ (a list of wwoof hosts with brief description and contact details) once a year, occasional newsletters to hosts and the maintenance of the national website. Organisers of national wwoof groups are commonly volunteers more like club secretaries. At it’s most basic the idea of Wwoof is merely that those attempting to live their lives along organic (or other similar alternative) principles can get a regular supply of help in the form of volunteers interested in similar topics (the Wwoofers). Wwoofers get to experience rural life, learn about organics and a range of other topics, as well as gaining vital life skills by working 4 – 5 hours a day in exchange for food and board. On of the many reasons that Wwoof is flexible and works better than ‘gap year exchanges’ is that this arrangement, a few hours work for food and board, means no money changes hands. Both parties are freed from modern life’s constrains. Periods stay vary from weeks to years though a week or two is more common and the actual type of work you do varies massively. Personally, as a wwoofer, I was a gardener, dog walker, puppy minder, child minder, house cleaner, mulcher (feeding trees with organic materials), roof painter, builder, trench digger, kitchen hand and hostel worker. At points I performed almost all of these jobs at a single farm. Everything from the type of work, living conditions and who the hosts are remains very vague until you arrive and there is a wide range of possible ‘types’ of Wwoof host and ‘farm’.

I lived in family homes were I was the first Wwoofer in months, in a separate house with six other Wwoofers where we cooked our own meals separately and interacted with the family as required, and totally alone in a bird sanctuary. Even a quick flip through the Wwoof book would demonstrate the movement’s broad nature, including everything from everyday families to far out hippies on communes, fundamentalist Christians and Wicca worshippers. I stayed with a university lecturer who believed in wicca and sang to her trees (she could also her them ‘cry’ when mistreated by Wwoofers), a young family of Rudolf Steiner followers who didn’t believe in injections, planted by a lunar cycle and where very strict vegetarians, a very down to earth farmer type who had me skinning a wild bore on the first day, a women who thought alcohol was evil and three gay men in a three way relationship who got me drunk every night. Thankfully this was not all at once! Morality, lifestyle, outlook and basic beliefs can vary greatly then within the movement but the basic framework – work for food and board – remains. This is the critical point were many people misunderstand what Wwoofing can truly represent, we shouldn’t stop here and believe Wwoof to be an assortment of people using this idea.

Some see Wwoof hosts as trying to escape reality to live in a world without watches and traffic jams that they can only remain in via the exploitation of young travellers, and view Wwoofers as just cheap gap year students. It is worth noting at this point that, in New Zealand at least as the idea has gained popularity, those wanting cheap labour that know nothing about the movement have exploited it. It is very common to arrive at hostel and see signs advertising for ‘Wwoofers’, when what they really mean is that you can work cleaning the hostel for a few hours in exchange for accommodation. There is even a ‘rival’ organisation, called ‘Help Exchange’ that operates in this way. How then do you tell the difference between a Wwoof and a copy-Wwoof? This a complex, yet important, question. In every Wwoof home I found a certain something most easily described as a hopeful, productive, positive energy. It did not matter what Wwoof hosts focused their attention on as the negative points of modern life (urbanisation, modern medicine, climate change, mass food production, global political games and so on) their defining common feature was that every single one believed in forming genuine democratic co-operation between well informed citizens as a way to fundamentally change their lives. Someone who wants to take control of their live, get involved and change as much as they can about their part in the system without being defeatist, or negative, about their efforts is the best example of a Wwoof member. Most in the Wwoof movement recognises that they can not be perfect, be separated from the mainstream of society in a meaningful way, nor would they really want to be – more often than not they simple want to change as much as possible and serve as an example to others. The movement is once again all about education and inspiration. Far from being hippy wasters and rejectionist Wwoof supports those who want to do rather than just complain.

To the perspective of someone who spent most of his time at university reading (and writing myself) about the politics of why we could not save the world in this way, or that way, and why the latest co-opted charity fad was just that, it is my opinion that Wwoof provides a rather refreshing worldview.

1 The title to this piece is a quote from ‘Permaculture: A Beginner’s Guide’, (Burnett, G. 2000, 4)

2 It is this fundamentally ‘non-statist’ approach that gives Wwoof a novel perspective. Without the common institutional bias towards grand, industrial solution it begins to provide a different set of local and sustainable solutions.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Jackson 1

Peter Jackson, rotund director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and sometime civil servant, has very kindly sent me a few of his writings to put up. Eventually we'll sort out logging him on properly, but for now, I'm posting on his behalf. First up is a review of James Lovelock's Gaia:

Lovelock, J. (1979) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

James Lovelock presents an intelligently, well researched and fascinating view of the self-regulating systems of the Earth, presented not as a group of complementary processes but rather as one single system, or entity, that he calls Gaia. What I find very interesting about Lovelock’s theory is that I find myself agreeing with every word until the conclusion at the end of the chapter where I find myself wondering if he is totally insane! This is quite a feat of excellent writing.

The basic premise of the book – that the planet has many complex and amazing systems in place that help to regulate atmospheric and planetary conditions for life – is beyond dispute and Lovelock’s explanations are both insightful and a fascinating read. When you think of all the other planets humanity is aware of and their inability to support life – its fairly obvious that something special has happened on Earth. The search for this special factor has been the goal of human philosophy since the beginning of time in one form or another, and is the basis of most modern religions; our inability to accept the randomness of the universe. I don’t mean to dismiss Lovelock’s work, as many other have suggested he is a genius, he has an ability to establish in very simple terms the complicated scientific evidence that proves the Earth long been self-regulated to ensure its continued ability to support life. He is his deduction of what this fact means that I disagree with.

The entire surface of the Earth including life is a superorganism and this is what I mean by Gaia.’ (p vii)

Firstly, the overarching argument is that a system of planetary self-regulation must signify some kind of meta-life, planetary life if you will. This does not mean consciousness, merely life – in the same way a plant is alive; it takes actions to ensure its survival by instinct rather than conscious thought. Lovelock is not explicitly saying that the Earth is a life form that created us and is some sort of God (Mother Earth) that we should worship this of course would be ridiculous and he states explicitly this is not his intent.

I did leave his book however concerned that his desire to name his discover – Gaia, after an ancient goddess – and empower it with a implicit identity betrays an age old human desire to bring humanity, and order, to every form of life. I don’t think that we should reject his idea just because it has something spiritual about it, I’m not even sold that it does, but I do feel that this approach masks a theory that is otherwise a statement of the blatantly obvious. Has it not been common knowledge for hundreds of years that life adjusts to change and even its most basic forms aim for self-preservation above all else? Is the idea of an eco-system a new one? Is it a revelation to anyone that these eco-systems interlink and complement each other across the whole world? Some how I feel Lovelock has done little more here than express very commonly held beliefs into a coherent whole and given it a name. This isn’t itself a problem, some of the most brilliant theories of history have been very obvious in retrospect, I’m not claiming I would have thought of it, but as I will now argue his applications of his theory are not only ill thought out, they are actually quite dangerous.

Like any living creature the Earth is subject to the laws of Darwinian evolution, that is it does not only rigidly maintain its current condition, but also evolves to take account of environmental changes in its eco-system. If, for example, someone comes along and dumps carbon dioxide in the system, the system is capable of adjusting, or redressing the balance. Carbon dioxide, and almost every other chemical we consider to be ‘pollution’, might be alien to the system we are entering it into, but it is not alien to Gaia – most pollution originally come from somewhere on Earth. Gaia has a pre existing system to redress too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and in the mean time – while this is kicking in – if the temperature does increase to levels comfortable for today’s creatures she has methods for cooling the planet. If some species do not survive their functions in the eco-system will be replaced – in the long term. This is Lovelock’s theory of why global warming is not really as big a problem has people make out, life is not threatened by it at all, we might have stared the process, but its natural and Gaia will only let it upset the balance for so long. The problem with this view is that it overlooks a major problem with the timescales involved here. Gaia and humanity operate to very, very different timetables. When Lovelock says, the planet will naturally adjust to increased in carbon dioxide he is talking about hundreds of years. He means Gaia will adjust in the way she adjust to an ice age. Now it might just be me but I think that’s a tad too long for most of us!

In the current times, a clear and unquestioned consensus about global warming is vital if we are to avoid the tipping point of critical levels of green house gases in the atmosphere beyond which the only solution will be to wait for generations while Gaia catches up. In the mean time millions of people will be made into refugees, thousands will die and many more will suffer, the global economy will likely take a nosedive as a result and regional wars will be a near certainty. This is why I call Lovelock dangerous. It is of course necessary to be truthful with the pubic about global warming and to have healthy debate about the unknown consequences and many possible solutions. With all the misinformation flying around on the subject, Lovelock’s clear explanation of the actual problem is helpful. The fact that he doesn’t clearly spell out the irrelevance of his argument to the very real short to medium term problem we will face is however highly irresponsible.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Fourth Reich is a product of the Third

Not exactly a new one, coming as it does from back in 2003, but this article from the always-excellent Counterpunch gives some background and insight into some of the connections between key figures in today's GOP and Germany's Nazi regime of 1933-45.

Don't say us lefties didn't warn you. Now if we could find the goods on a Tony Blair - Benito Mussolini connection (well, aside from the philosophical ones on authoritarianism and the corporate state), the circle would well and truly be complete.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Republican Party Reptiles

"Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking Republicans on this motherfucking cruise ship!"

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Friday, July 20, 2007

The Latest Illustration of Tiarks' Law...

... can be found here.

(For the benefit of newer readers or those with short memories: more on Tiarks' Law can be found here.)

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Enjoying the small things

Nice to hear that some people in the technology press have kept a modicum of sanity.

The internet, amateur journalism and MMA

The Geekier parts of the blogosphere have been all-a-twitter about Andrew Keen's book, The Cult of the Amateur. For those who've not heard, this is essentially a rant about how the internet is destroying the cultural industries, fragmenting public discourse and generally heralding the end of civilisation as we know it. The argument is that, between piracy and user-generated content, the market for big-budget, mainstream culture like big-budget films, popular hits and broadcast news are getting muscled out the market. For some reason he thinks this is a bad thing. So, to re-cap, this is a man who thinks that the big problem for the movie industry in the future is that it films won't have big enough budgets, the big problem for music is that people will listen to too much different stuff, and the big problem with the news media will be that we're hearing too many different opinions (I'm exaggerating slightly, but not much).

Many people far smarter than me have already written about how laughably bad the book is: equal parts economic illiteracy and touching faith in the status quo. In a brilliant combination of style and substance, Lessig put together a wiki in which a bunch of internet "amateurs" have come together to offer some fairly penetrating analysis of the faults of Keen's mass-media approved expertise - so I don't really need to go on about it.

What made me think of it was this article on the BBC News Site, all about how "politicians, religious leaders and senior police officers have condemned the staging of Scotland's first major cage fighting event." There's nothing particularly remarkable about the story. Every so often some member of the moral majority notices a cage event for the first time, and presents their shocking revelation as though it were news. Each time, you get the same tired analogies to gladiatorial combat and cockfighting and the same airy speculations about some connection to street violence. This happened when the UFC first came to England, and will probably continue to happen to smaller shows to no particular effect, because, on closer inspection, MMA always turns out to be a pretty safe sport and most of the people doing it turn out to be pretty decent citizens. What's interesting is that it didn't seem to happen the last time the the UFC hit these shores, presumably because it's now big business and so was accompanied by Dana White and his small army of publicists and trigger-happy lawyers.

All the stories really do is confirm what most of us knew anyway: if you know anything about a local story that's in the national news, you're going to find that most of what's being written about it is bollocks. The "filters" that Keen thinks keep us safe from slanderous journalism only work for those who have the resources to take serious legal action against major news organisations.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Triumph of Consumerism, Part 954,875,463,572

Monday, July 02, 2007

Bomb attacks fail...

...government decides there's really no need for more legislation.

In a sane world, those would have been the headlines. Or, more properly, that would have been the title of a one-page domestic news article on page four, while the front pages dealt with the massive floods in which more people died and incalculably more stuff was damaged. When even MSNBC commentators are suggesting that we may be over-reacting to the supposed terrorist threat, you've gotta think it may all be a little overblown.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Triumph of Consumerism, Part 954,875,463,571

Why is this man, apparently a Californian named Scott Bourne, so very, very happy? Did he win the lottery? Evict Bush from the White House? Discover a cure for cancer? Win the Super Bowl, perhaps?

No, he bought an iPhone.

Admittedly it's probably a pretty cool gadget, but the word "loser" comes to mind whenever stories - or, better yet, photos - are published of consumers spending days queued up for the chance to buy something that everyone else will have purchased over the next several months (possibly in an improved, upgraded second-generation form) anyway.

It ain't worth it. And it's a shame that those with the time and energy to do something like that don't put it into more productive and socially-worthy activities instead... like evicting Bush from the White House, discovering a cure for cancer or, indeed, winning the Super Bowl.

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