Saturday, July 28, 2018

Video: "One of Europe's last primeval forests crumbles in the hands of the Polish government"

"For two and a half years, environmentalists have waged a war with the Polish authorities for Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Europe's last and largest remaining patches of Europe's original primeval forest.

In April 2018, the European Court of Justice, the EU's highest court, ruled that Poland violated EU laws by logging in the forest, imposing fines of a minimum of 4.3 million euros (five million US dollars), potentially rising to 100,000 euros a day, if the felling doesn't stop.
In March 2016, former Polish Environment Minister Jan Szyzko, a member of the [right-wing] Law and Justice party who's backed by forester lobbies, approved tripling the amount of wood that could be harvested from Białowieża, allegedly to combat  an infestation by the bark beetle. 
In July, a handful of Polish environmental organizations filed a formal complaint to the European Commission, which then sued Poland in the EU Court of Justice.
Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, Białowieża includes extensive undisturbed areas and is home to a rich wildlife of which 59 mammal species, including the European bison. 
But while on the Belarussian side over 80 percent of its extension is circumscribed under a national park, only 17 percent of Poland's forest enjoys a similar level of protection.
Watchdog environmental organizations say at least 160,000-180,000 trees have been felled since Szyzko's 2016 new management plan.
Neglect for the environment is an issue touching all corners of Eastern Europe. In Romania, Greenpeace estimates that three hectares of trees are lost every hour in the Carpathian mountains, also home to one of Europe's last patches of primeval forest. In Slovakia, official declarations that forests are growing undermined by aerial photography.
In Poland, Szyzko was eventually sacked in January 2017, only days after another controversial bill which he had sponsored was approved in parliament. The bill removes the obligation for private landowners to apply for permission to cut down trees or to inform local authorities that trees have been or will be removed.
The new environment minister, Henryk Kowalczyk, agreed to comply with the EU’s decision, but controversy still surrounds his administration. In May, he established a team to envision a long-term plan for the forest, including plans to replant the logged areas, which environmentalists claim could do more harm than good.

The protests

In May 2017, protestors established a permanent camp in the forest, often chaining themselves to harvest machines. The settlement, organized on a bottom-up basis, encouraged the development of online petitions and international awareness.
The situation detonated when some protestors were forcibly removed from the area, in handcuffs, by the Forestry Corps, and a legal ban was put in place to forbid entry to certain parts of the land. By the height of 2017 Summer, the Environment Ministry had declared any opposition to logging would be seen as political opposition.
As Poland’s state media, which had been increasingly subject of intervention by the government of the conservative Law and Justice party, began to attack these protests with vitriol, campaigners decided to season their message with patriotic sentiment, promoting a message of national heritage that is in line with the party's ideas.
A digital 3D model of the forest, produced by a collaboration between Greenpeace and Minecraft, allows players to explore Białowieża complete with biodiversity and weather patterns. Called “To the Last Tree Standing”, the game eventually removes the trees from players’ sight without warning, leaving them scrambling to find the last one."
Source at Global Voices here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

"The summer of Trump"

[Image: Lluis Romero]
Author and journalist Matthew Tree gives one of the most accurate and damning round-ups of Donald Trump's actions in the highest public office...

"This summer, whether you be hiking in mountainous areas, lolling about in a sea or visiting the foreign capital of your choice, one thing is certain: you’ll be hearing about Donald Trump. 

He has never failed to make daily headlines, right from the start of his campaign (the racist slurs about Mexicans being rapists, neatly counterbalanced by his own recorded comments about seizing vulvas as a recommended method of seduction) through to almost everything he’s done since he’s been president: banning immigration from Muslim countries where he has no business interests, but hob-nobbing and sword dancing in Muslim countries where he does; lying about paying wads of hush money to a porn star with whom he had sex just days after the birth of Donald Jr.; slashing the size of national parks to allow mining; defending outspokenly racist demonstrators; imposing immigration restrictions that allow police to seize small children from Latin American mothers trying to cross the border; imposing metal tariffs that could plunge the world – including the US – into another economic recession; praising an unpredictable Korean dictator who runs the world’s deadliest labour camps, keeps a large part of his own population at or below starvation level and murders members of his own family, in exchange for a handshake photo with said tyrant; and, last but not least, planning to ban abortion completely (the only other country which did this was Romania under the Ceausescus, with tragic results for hundreds of thousands of unwanted orphans) and promoting sexual abstinence in schools as the only acceptable method of contraception (this is not only odd, coming as it does from a serial adulterer, but research done on existing Christian pro-abstinence schools has revealed a marked increase in anal sex among their teenage pupils). And as for Trump’s ties to Russia, let’s not even go there (Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel for the Department of Justice, is doing that for us).
The source of the fascination which Trump exercises on so many of us – we tend to gawp at his latest blunders like people passing a car crash – probably has something to do with the disjunction between what he proclaims to be the truth, and the reality which gives him the lie. 

In Catalonia, we know the feeling well: the previous Spanish government – and, at the time of writing, the current one – persist in accusing a cultural activist and 15 elected politicians (eight in distant jail, seven in even more distant exile) of violent rebellion for organising a referendum in which the violence was all but monopolised by imported Spanish police. 

The reaction of many people here to this is similar to that of many Americans towards Trump: there is some outrage, some frustration, but the topmost feeling is one of sheer incredulity. Having said which, there is an important difference: the judges and politicians responsible for the unlikely charges against Catalan leaders are professionals who got where they are because they wanted to be there. 

According to the journalist Michael Wolff in his book ‘Fire And Fury’, the key to Trump’s incompetence is that he never expected to be president: he ran for the post to raise his profile sky-high in order to launch a TV network. He even guaranteed that he wouldn’t win to his wife (who didn’t want him to). 

It makes you wonder which is worse: an accidental president who does nothing but create accidents? Or a government and judiciary that knowingly and deliberately creates a situation which is patently absurd?"

Source: here at Catalonia Today magazine.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

"Work, money, machines" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

My twin brother is a poet. Usually when I tell my adult English students this they ask me how he is able to survive economically.

They are always surprised when I say that Australia has an unemployment benefit paid monthly by the government and that this benefit does not stop after six months, as it does in Spain.

Of course my brother, just like all the other recipients of 'the dole,' as it's called there, have to jump through bureaucratic hoops and many have recently been victims of all sorts of horrific stuff ups by a system that is being privatised.

Yes. Soon the payments the poorest live on will be controlled by businesses that put making a profit from their 'clients' as their biggest interest. In Australia these unemployment benefits are only just enough to live on if they are combined with other government payments such as rent assistance.

I have a friend living in Barcelona who is a very talented graphic artist and is also a photographer with a unique eye. Like me, he teaches to pay the bills because his creative work does not get him and his family consistent income. Also like me, he enjoys his classes but would ideally like to be spending more time on using his talents to make new 'products' as our consumer society would insist on calling them.

But there is a wider question for every society here. Is a form of guaranteed basic income a good idea?

Some people argue that the public purse should not pay people to do what non-creatives believe to be just hobbies but this is missing a vital point. Practically every industry is now using greater numbers of robots  and other types of automation and mechanisation.

When I was leaving university in the early 1990's a guaranteed job for life was working in a bank. We now know this rapidly became not the case and branch closures across the world have meant the loss of most banking jobs.

Mainly this has been because machines now do the jobs that people used to do and the finance sector is only one place where this type of change is marching on. At Amazon for example, every job that can be done by a mechanical device is being done by one.

The people who work there have to keep up with the productivity of machines (even if it costs them their nervous systems) or they are simply fired and replaced with another very low paid worker who works long, long shifts almost exactly as a robot does.

Not long ago, I myself once worked in a full-time job for one of the world's largest smartphone companies (sitting at a computer) until one day my right arm completely froze-up after months of tendinitis problems caused by using a mouse at a high speed.

I was sacked the same day I came back to the office after being on medical leave for this problem. My body just would not work as a machine does.

The question that has to be asked and answered is what do our societies do to deal with increasingly significant numbers of people who don’t have enough paid work or even any paid work.

Economic survival can be close to impossible. In much of Mediterranean Europe the family unit has typically helped out, as have charities but this has created an uneven coverage of the basics of life for many people.

The obvious solution is a universal basic income for every individual in society. Europe’s newest progressive political party DiEM25 believes that the funding for this “should come from a dividend, financed from the returns on all capital; a 'public' percentage of companies’ profits, especially for companies that commercialise technology developed from public funding.”

In other words, “Technological progress should not simply serve capitalism.”

The great benefit from this is that it would allow creativity to flourish and people who prefer paid work at a higher income can do that too.

No automatic alt text available.
[Image: Nacho Diaz]

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, July 2018.]

Friday, July 6, 2018

Civil war in Poland?

[Protesters demonstrate in support of the sacked Supreme Court judges.Photo: Getty] Photo: Getty
 "On Monday, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, referred the case to Europe’s highest court, but Poland has a month to respond, and any ruling might come too late to stop the overhaul.
When [the] Law and Justice [party] came to power, it campaigned against what it saw as a corrupt bureaucracy, calling for Poland to “get up from its knees”. But for Mr Kaczynski, transforming the courts was always a central goal.
When his party was in power from 2005 to 2007, many of its legislative efforts were blocked by judges. He came to believe that the transition to democracy that started in 1989 was flawed because many former communists were allowed to hold on to their positions. Although the number of people from the communist era still in judicial positions has dwindled, the party says that communist thinking still infects the system.
So when the party returned to power in 2015, it moved swiftly to rebuild the judicial system. It stacked the Constitutional Court, which decides if legislation violates the constitution. Once that court was under the party’s control, its lawmakers passed a series of measures aimed at other parts of the court system.
But their first effort to reshape the Supreme Court, a year ago, was met with widespread protests. The government backed down.
Last winter, it proposed new measures, slightly watered down, that critics said would have the same effect — turning the Supreme Court into an instrument of the party.
In December, after a devastating report by the Venice Commission, which monitors rule-of-law issues for the European Union, the bloc of nations invoked Article 7 of its founding treaty to take action against Poland. It became the first country in the history of the union to be threatened with losing its voting rights.
This time, however, the government would not be deterred.
Under the legislation, Mr Duda can grant exemptions to the mandatory retirement age, but judges must ask him to do so. The president did so for Mr Iwulski on Tuesday.
Ms Gersdorf and many colleagues refused, setting the stage for the standoff on Wednesday morning.
The country’s deputy minister of justice, Michal Wojcik, told the Polish Press Agency that Ms Gersdorf had been allowed into the court because no citizen is barred entry, but he said she would not be allowed to rule on cases."
– New York Times  [sourced from The New Daily here.]

Sunday, July 1, 2018

"In western democracies, is reading a political act?"

[Azar Nafisi. Photo: SJ Staniski]
 Azar Nafisi is an academic and writer, who left her native Iran for the US in 1997. 

Her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, was an international bestseller. Her new book, The Republic of Imagination, looks at the importance of fiction to democracy. It is published by Heinemann.

What made you write your new book?
Saul Bellow posed the question of how those who survived the ordeal of the Holocaust would survive the ordeal of freedom. When I came to America, I felt there was an evasion of this ordeal of freedom. The idea I had of America was replaced by an efficient and ideologically polarised attitude. I had to fight it here as I did in Iran.
The book argues that fiction can be a solution to the loss of freedom. How? 
A democratic society is supposed to be based on plurality of voices. What is happening here – and I’m sure in Britain – is that this is being replaced by greed and utilitarianism, where we educate our children not to have a meaningful life, but to become efficient worker-bees. The philosophy that education exists to orient you towards careers was horrifying to me. American fiction is a reminder of American morality – that aspect of the American dream which brings with it the question of individual responsibility. It is always written from the point of view of the outsider. I wanted to recall this voice of conscience. The denigration of ideas and imagination is also a denigration of reality.
Is arts education too easily dismissed in the US?
This utilitarian attitude has always been part of American thinking. It has now gained dominance. Right now, people talk as if being a teacher, a museum curator, a librarian – things essential to any vital society – are barely jobs, because they make less money. I relate it to the reality we live in, to poverty. There is monopoly of both money and ideas. It is very dangerous.
Why do you feel so strongly about this?
I came from a society where an absolutist religious ideology took away all our rights as human beings. It wasn’t just about torture and political repression; it was about robbing individuals of their humanity. So I am very sensitive to the same thing happening in the US, through the seductions of money and the encouragement of greed. In a democratic society, individuals can only survive if they make choices freely. To make free choices in a society where everything from your toothpaste to your candidates is packaged, you must be able to reflect, to be critical and self-critical.
How does technology affect personal freedom?
The access to information and the fact that if something happens in Iran or China, people can tell the world – that is a good aspect. But we have turned technology into a god, and developed intellectual laziness and sclerosis. We are using technology not to think harder, but to evade obstacles and questions. The owners of technology can manage our private lives and live with us in our homes. How can you talk about democracy without privacy?
Reading Lolita in Tehran portrayed reading as a deeply political act in a repressive society. Is it the same in western democracies?
It is a political act [but] not in the obvious manner. It questions the basic tenets of authoritarian thinking. That is why this plurality of ideas and voices which fiction represents becomes dangerous to tyrants. In fiction, there is no status. In the realm of ideas and imagination, the only thing that is sacred is to allow the profanities to come in. Every great revolution starts with an idea. America is based on an idea – Enlightenment. Once you take that away, all that is left is a different kind of tyrannical mind-set. Great 
fiction always questions us and brings to the foreground the essential human questions.
You ask the same serious questions of the US as of Iran. Is there a comparison?
In the west we say, “It is their culture” and think we are being supportive. But this is condescending, because the worst aspects of culture – like the treatment of women – should be rejected, in the same manner that women in the west fought for their rights even though society said women should stay at home because it’s in the Bible. While I see the complete differences between Iran and America, and appreciate the freedoms I have in America, having lived in Iran I realised that I have to use those freedoms to fight for freedom. Freedom is not something static that you gain and have for ever. People who come from repressive societies are blessed with alternative eyes. We become sensitive to the signs of tyranny, even if they are sugar-coated.
Were you surprised by the success of Reading Lolita in Tehran?
I was absolutely flabbergasted. I didn’t expect it, especially because I was so discouraged by so many people. But I had no choice. It is like falling in love – everybody tells you this man is not good for you, but there you go, you follow him. So I followed it, with utter despair.
You left Iran many years ago. What’s your view of the political situation there?
Living in the Islamic Republic is like living in the month of April – there are a lot of thunderstorms with periods of sunshine in between. I’m both pessimistic and hopeful. My hope is in Iran’s civil society. The way minorities, journalists, women and various strata have been putting up a fight. I hope that change comes from within, through open democratic means.
In the West, debate on Iran is often polarised.
I had hoped to continue the discussions we were having underground in Iran among the Iranian diaspora in the US. But I discovered that inside Iran, this debate around who we are, what we want, what we used to be, was far more vital. Despite the dangers, we talked. Unfortunately, over here I discovered a soulless, partisan debate that is very disgusting.
Does this matter?
Iran was the first country in the 20th century to overthrow a secular regime and create a theocracy. With 1979, everything changed. Iran formulated this theory about Islam invading the rest of the world, the internationalism. The defeat of that ideology is so important – but nobody is paying attention. Everybody wants me to tell them whether the US should talk to Iran. In a democracy, diplomacy is the first thing. But you have to know who you are talking to, and you should not compromise on the principles."
Read at source, New Humanist here.