As today is the first day of the #30DaysWild challenge set by The Wildlife Trusts, I thought I’d publish one of my poems for the first time online. It’s a poem about the wildlife in my village that I’ve come to love over the years. In particular, the nature that is to be found along Peelings Lane, the only country lane still left within the village.
It is an ancient lane, still rich in biodiversity, but under constant threat from a myriad of housing developments planned for the village. I and many others in the village successfully saw off a very inappropriate housing development for the lane back in 2014 when the local planning committee was persuaded by our well-developed arguments to refuse the development In the afterglow of that victory I wrote this poem:
Grandiloquent, ancient oaks, their sun-shot arches of greenery
echoing to the peals of evensong
calling vergers to their vespers,
framing my regal peramble down the ancient sunken lane
limned by verdant wildflower verges,
sweet-smelling in the salty sea breeze
rippling tall meadow grasses beyond ancient hedgerows,
riotous with rumbustious bees, birds, butterflies.
If ever I have felt a sense of place,
it is here, now, in this lane
down which the Roman legions marched into Pevensey,
down which the Saxons sought their Sussex shore,
down which the Normans claimed their spoils of war,
down which the smugglers stole along,
down which the drovers and their livestock plodded,
down which I follow forefathers of yore.
T.S.Eliot, speaking of another lane in another time,
trumpeted “History is now and England”.
I say it softly to myself now,
in this lane, in this village, in this, my England,
and I pray, in my own secular way,
“let this ancient byway stay a heritage highway,
free from the menace of brick and mortar,
saved from the sacrilege of slaughtered nature”.
This last weekend, there was a Stop the War rally in London on the Saturday to protest about the government’s plans to bomb Syria, which many members of Eastbourne People’s Assembly attended. Then on the Sunday, there was a People’s March for Climate, Jobs and Justice, also in London, to demand urgent action to deal with climate change, at which some members of the Eastbourne People’s Assembly, alongside members of Eastbourne Friends of the Earth, were also present. Why did so many Eastbourne people attend these protests? Because these two massive protests, back to back, at the heart of our parliamentary democracy, point to a subtler and deeper connection between war, climate change, and austerity in general: war, with all its fossil fuel guzzling weapons of death, has a massive carbon footprint, one which is, bizarrely, not taken into account in the emissions calculations upon which the UN climate negotiations depend, and bombing Syria only adds to that carbon footprint, piling stupidity onto the appalling barbarity of killing civilians through saturation, round-the-clock bombing of Syria already carried out by the US, France, and Russia, bombing which is creating ever more Syrian refugees, many of whom are trying to find sanctuary in Europe. The bombing in Syria is particularly bad because oilfields and oil trucks are often targeted, leading to huge increases in carbon emissions as those oil stocks explode.
So it is richly ironic that, at a time when the crucial UN climate talks in Paris are going on, the government is only focussed on its plans for bombing Syria rather than talking about the climate change that such bombing would exacerbate. The irony is heightened by the fact that at a time of supposed austerity and the need – according to the government – to reduce public spending (including reducing spending on the measures necessary to, for example, prevent homes from flooding due to climate change impacts), the government itself proposes increasing public spending massively by funding a hugely expensive bombing campaign that has no spending limits attached to it! In Eastbourne, which is in the front-line of climate change due to the rising sea levels and increasing severity of storm surges caused by global warming, we should be acutely aware of how important it is to prevent catastrophic climate change. So we should fight both the the austerity that will deprive Eastbourne of adequate funds for flood defences and climate change adaptation and the military spending that funds fossil fuel driven wars in the Middle East that only make climate change worse and reduces both our security from terrorism and our security from the impacts of climate change.
I and many of my friends and colleagues in the Eastbourne area are opposed to austerity in all its forms and that includes opposition to government proposals, such as the plans to bomb Syria, which are not only inhumane in their own right, but also contradict the basis of its own austerity principles as well as undermining it own public commitments to deal with climate change seriously. To talk of austerity for us taxpayers at home whilst urging unlimited spending on war abroad and ignoring the impacts of those policies upon the safety of our climate future both at home and abroad is deeply irresponsible and a dereliction of the government’s duty to protect its own citizens.
I don’t usually bump into reindeer herders. I don’t expect to. But I did bump into them last weekend at a Fossil Free UK workshop just before the Climate March in London on November 29th, a march of people that was over 70,000 strong. You couldn’t miss them. There they were, representatives of the Sami people, gloriously resplendent in their traditional folk dress. They looked young -the two women looked radiantly beautiful, and the two men stunningly handsome – making it hard to believe they came from such a remote and physically demanding corner of the world as the wilderness that is the Scandinavian Arctic.
Not only did they talk movingly about how the Arctic climate has changed so much over the last few years that both reindeer and people are struggling to cope with the increasingly frequent extremes of weather and the flip-flopping from one extreme to another. They talked, for example, of both reindeer and their experienced hunters now drowning in lakes whose ice-cover is much thinner than it should be at the times of the year when the reindeer migrate to their new feeding grounds. They showed us a short film about how they live in the Arctic, a film that showed not only the harshness of living in the Arctic but also the inexpressible beauty of nature and wildlife in the unspoilt tundra and the natural rhythms and communal solidarity of the Sami way of life that has existed for thousands of years, long before the nations states of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia carved out their absurdly artificial borders across the reindeer migration routes.
Then they began singing. Oh how they sang! This was singing like I’ve never heard before. A singing that was part ululation, part chanting, but wholly authentic, wholly emanating from the heart’s deep core. It sang of the Sami love of nature, a love so deep that it cannot be expressed through normal speech. Which is why singing is central to the Sami way of life. I was lucky enough to talk personally with one of the Sami guys, who explained that he was taught to sing when just a toddler, like all Sami toddlers are. And he’s been singing ever since. The Sami love of Mother Earth made me sing inwardly of my own love for the wonders of the Sussex countryside that I have come to appreciate, and images appeared in my mind’s eye of the South Downs I can see from my front window and the ancient sunken lanes in my village that I walk along most days – all part of a landscape threatened imminently by rampant infrastructure developments, and industrial projects like fracking, that the obsession with climate-damaging economic growth keeps stoking.
I saw the Sami folk singers again at the end of the Climate March, outside Parliament. There they were again, in their folk dress, singing their hearts out and patting their chests with their palms to the rhythm of the heartbeat that both guides their singing and expresses the link we all have to the rhythm of Mother Earth, the rhythm of life itself. But this time the singing sounded, to my unmusical ears, too much like keening for Mother Earth, a keening for both the terrible loss of nature and the loss of future climate stability for all humanity. The keening didn’t come from the Sami but from deep inside me, a keening that wells up from the sadness I feel for the tragedy that is befalling humanity as catastrophic climate change gathers pace.
That is not to say that I have no optimism that the catastrophe can be limited in scope if we make the right calls now, if the UN climate talks taking place in Paris right now makes the urgent decisions needed to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible. But that optimism, reinforced by the rapidity of the global clean energy transition away from fossil fuels, co-exists with my inner knowing of what we have already lost, and are losing, day by day. The singing of the Sami resonates too closely with the sorrowful keening in my heart, creating a curiously harmonious discordance that is both awesome and awful, an awesome nightfall, a terrible beauty that echoes through my brain as I ruminate the dry pronouncements and technical analyses emanating from the COP21 talks in Paris. The bureaucrats and the diplomats, the politicians and the pundits, may prattle away, but for now all I hear is the plangent pathos of the plain singing of the Sami reindeer herders of the high Arctic, and all I see is the windswept wildness of the white, frozen tundra in all its stark, awe-inspiring, and fragile beauty.
I had the good fortune to meet up with many of my Green Party colleagues yesterday on a tour of a solar farm near Berwick, East Sussex, where over 30,000 solar panels of a commercial operation are delivering clean, green energy into the grid day in and day out, contributing to the clean energy revolution that is sweeping across the world even in the UK despite the best efforts of the Conservative government to destroy, sabotage, eviscerate, disembowel or just plain hang, draw and quarter the entire green energy sector! We were there not just to admire the solar panels but also to show support for the proposed new community solar farm by Cuckmere Community Solar which will be built next door to the commercially owned panels if planning permission is granted in a few weeks time.
Despite the pouring rain and the gloomy November weather, spirits were high amongst us all because we can see that the future is bright because the future belongs to green energy, especially solar, which is on course to become the world’s main source of electricity by 2050. We are in the dying days of the fossil fuel industry despite the best efforts of Big Oil and Big Gas to big up their future in the face of the inevitable popping of the carbon bubble as 80% of their booked fossil fuel reserves become stranded assets once the world decides at the forthcoming UN climate talks in Paris to send the signal that rapid transition from fossil fuels has to take place in order to keep global warming to within a 2 degrees Centrigrade rise since pre-industrial times. And no amount of cheerleading for a nuclear renaissance despite the eyewateringly high costs and risks of nuclear energy can stop or sow down the green energy revolution.
So whilst squelching through the mud and huddling against the wind in a very autumnal landscape, I rejoiced at seeing the future in a field where I could see sheep munch happily underneath solar panels doubling up as umbrellas and wind breaks, and many of the newly sown wildflowers were still in blossom next to newly planted hedgerows. This is a future – visible here and now – where clean energy both keeps the lights switched on and enhances the countryside and traditional farming practices. It is a future, moreover, where community energy will be a crucial and ever growing part of the clean energy revolution, ensuring that many of the economic benefits of renewable energy flow back into local communities into projects they choose and control rather than into the hands of large financial investors and big corporations.
So am I being unduly optimistic about the clean energy revolution? I don’t think so, as even the CEO of National Grid says that the UK energy situation will change radically within the next few years as renewable energy becomes ever more important, creating the new baseload that will respond to new demand response and demand management strategies and technologies which put the individual consumer much more in control of their energy use and costs than ever before. This unstoppable trend is what the Green Party understands so well and realise could be the basis of future economic prosperity and well being for us all, especially if social justice measures guarantee that such prosperity is shared out fairly. Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, shows her sure grasp of the new realities of clean energy, and Green Member of the European Parliament, Keith Taylor’s new report on Taking Back the Power: Community Energy in the South East, is full of useful case studies and information that show how community energy groups can ride this clean energy revolution for the benefit of their local communities. I, for one, will be helping my local community energy group, Eastbourne Community Energy, to get stuck in to make smart, clean, green, affordable energy become part of the local landscape, quite literally!
I am reproducing here most of what I wrote recently for the local media on behalf of the Eastbourne People’s Assembly Against Austerity, as the media chose to ignore the main thrust of my argument that the proposed cuts to tax credits would do more than reduce drastically the income of ‘hard-working families’. The cuts would also take more than £8 million per year out of the local economy, drastically affecting many of our local businesses, especially the small, independent businesses that Eastbourne is rightfully so proud of. Given the emphasis placed by most local politicians upon the need for economic growth and increased support for local businesses, then the local media silence about the impact of tax credit cuts upon local businesses is not only unacceptable, but revealing of just how embarassing and sensitive an issue the tax credit cuts are for the political establishment. Even some Conservative MPs have woken up to the political damage to the Tories that the potential economic damage of the cuts for businesses. Here is what I wrote for the local media, slightly edited:
The cuts in tax credits proposed by George Osborne have created a political firestorm as the implications emerge of the impacts of those cuts for the household incomes of millions of families. The consensus of independent analysts is that most households affected by the cuts will see a dramatic drop in their net incomes, a drop that won’t be compensated for in any significant way by the proposed increase in the minimum wage next year. The House of Commons Library estimated that the changes will lead to an average £1,300 cut in the annual income of around 3.2 million families, including 2.7 million families with 5.2 million children in them, if they come into effect as planned in April 2016
Figures released by the House of Commons Library show that the total number of families in Eastbourne receiving tax credits is 6,800, including 12,600 children. Multiply 6,800 families by the £1,300 average loss and you get the staggering figure of £8,840,000! That’s £8.8 million per year taken away not just from local families but from the local economy, as most of that money would have been spent on local goods and services offered by local businesses. Families on low incomes generally save very little and have to spend most of their money locally as they can’t afford to travel out of area much. This is where the gross inequality created by government policies leads to gross unfairness for everybody, local businesses included! Increasing poverty in Eastbourne is not a route to local prosperity, but the exact opposite.
The tax credit cuts will hit single parents hardest, especially as single parents make up 56% of those receiving both working tax credits and child tax credits. The Eastbourne People’s Assembly was contacted by Della Bentham, a single parent and an Eastbourne resident, who told us how the cuts would affect her:
“I will be worse off by £1200 a year once the cuts come into place. I am a single mum with two young children (3 & 6). I could easily claim benefits and not work since my son is below school age but I choose not to as I want to set a good example for them. I cannot hold down a normal job because both my children have a genetic condition and have constant hospital appointments, therefore the only way around it was to work for myself. I don’t want to be reliant on tax credits but while I grow my business and wait for my son to start school I simply can’t. Tax credit top up my low earnings I am not lazy I work more hours a day than most people that are conventionally employed while I try to grow a business which I hope one day will support me without the need for government top ups.
The entire thing angers me as those worst affected will be single mothers who are trying to work and do the right thing and families where one parent works on low incomes. These are people that aren’t sitting there claiming handouts for nothing. We are people that are trying to earn a living but with the cost of living today. It’s just not viable to pay rent and bills and food let alone all the other living expenses on a low or even ‘normal’ wage. The country will be a mess by the time the conservatives have finished with them making ridiculous and ill thought out cuts left right and centre. It almost makes you wonder if you would actually be better off not working, so where is the sense in that?”
71 Tory MPs, including 23 new members of parliament in marginal seats, have more families who are set to lose substantial sums than was the size of their majority last May. Eastbourne’s MP, Caroline Ansell is one of those 71 MPs. She has so far always voted in favour of the tax credit cuts in Parliament despite recently having expressed “serious concern” about the tax credits. Stephen Lloyd has, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, expressed his opposition to the tax credit cuts, and the Eastbourne People’s Assembly would welcome working with him and his colleagues to help build an effective opposition across all political parties to such brutal and inhumane cuts to local people’s incomes as George Osborne is proposing. I do hope that politicians from whatever background or political party will choose to affiliate with the Eastbourne People’s Assembly if they agree on the basic unfairness, and ultimate unworkablity, of austerity.
The Eastbourne People’s Assembly will campaign against these tax credit cuts, which threaten – like many other austerity cuts – to push even more families and children into poverty, push more of them into dependence upon charities like Eastbourne Foodbank, and create additional pressures upon social services which are themselves experiencing the effects of devastating local government cuts. Eastbourne families reliant upon tax credits can’t wait until a general election to get these tax credit cuts reversed. The cuts are an existential threat to the financial viability of too many of these households. These cuts in tax credits were not in the Conservative manifesto upon which the general election last May was fought, and David Cameron himself promised during the election that there would be no cuts to tax credits.
The Eastbourne People’s Assembly hopes that local politicians and local people from all backgrounds will unite in condemnation of what are clearly punitive cuts in the basic income of many local families, harming children’s life chances and causing extra stress to hard-pressed public services. The tax credit cuts are, in effect, a work penalty, which is ironic and perverse in view of the government’s wish to make work a route out of poverty! Now that the House of Lords has forced the government to think again about the cuts, we all have another chance to make our voices heard on this issue. If anybody wishes to be involved with Eastbourne People’s Assembly campaigns, please contact:email@example.com
So another Green Party conference ends as another glorious sunset of this glorious Indian summer reddens the sky over the sands of Bournemouth. Being at a conference by the sea is always very meaningful for me as such close contact with the untameable wildness of the sea and the vast expanses stretching to the horizon helps to keep me grounded and connected to a nature that defies all human projections and constructions, especially those that are tossed around with abandon in the hurley-burley of conference debates. Walking two miles from my B&B each morning along the promenade to the conference centre in the radiant sunshine, and walking back two miles in the evening under a brilliant moon, helped put all the intense events of the day in perspective as well as keeping me healthy and free from cobwebs!
But what was poignant about this conference was the acute awareness felt by pretty much all present about the urgency of the existential crisis posed by the imminence of catastrophic climate change, of a natural world so polluted by human endeavours that it is about to inflict damaging impacts upon us all that may well undermine the very ability of humanity to cope effectively with such dramatic environmental change. Time and again all policy discussions had to be placed in the context of ever-worsening climate impacts across the globe. The UN Paris climate talks in December is the next opportunity for the world to take decisive action and again civil society has to step in to help pressurise governments to go further that just protecting their own national interests and to genuinely act together to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible.
It was so strange to relax in between conference sessions in the pleasantly warm sunshine, looking out upon the calm seas and the crowds enjoying the beach life yet knowing deep down how damaged our natural world is in so many ways and how out of equilibrium it is as a result of humanity’s collective actions during the industrial age of fossil fuel powered growth. It takes a certain inner mental strength acquired over years of personal struggle and maturation to be able to hold the paradox of both enjoying the pleasant conditions experienced right now and the existential pain of knowing what the future holds for those vulnerable to climate change now and for those future generations who will be even more vulnerable to climate change. That inner work is ongoing for me, and perhaps never-ending, just as supporting others in that same inner work is also never-ending as well as being such an important part of compassionately helping others to cope constructively with the climate change issue.
The struggle to tame the dragon of climate change is the greatest struggle of our times because, as was noted several times at this conference amidst much impassioned debate, it is central to all other struggles to gain social, economic, and environmental justice too. It also challenges us to deepen our own personal development, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, so as to generate, and maintain, the strength, courage, and creativity needed to stay engaged with the climate change issue and constructively work with others to both mitigate climate change and adapt to its inevitable impacts.
It was an immense privilege to listen to so many inspirational and well-informed speakers at this Green Party conference, and it makes me so proud to belong to a political party and social movement that not only takes climate change more seriously than any other UK political party but also sees clearly how everything needs to change in order to not only deal with climate change effectively but also to ensure such change creates opportunities to build a fairer, greener, healthier, more democratic society that is better than the present one, addicted as it is to an outdated model of unsustainable economic growth that ignores the limits imposed by nature.
Last night I wombled along with a few friends to a public meeting in the People’s Republic of Brighton & Hove, where refugees from the surrounding area are welcome if they want to escape from the terrifying wilderness that is the sea of Tory blue throughout South-East England. The meeting was a rally against austerity, with a star-studded line of speakers that included Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP, and Yanis Varoufakis, the ex-Finance Minister of Greece, ‘rock star’ of the economics world, and himself a refugee from the terrrifying autocracy that is the Troika devastating Greece with an excruciating programme of austerity by fiat.
The meeting was the best political rally I’ve ever attended, with Caroline Lucas explaining that there is already a Green New Deal ready to go to provide the investment in green infrastructure that would create well-paid jobs and increase tax receipts to the extent that public services could easily be paid for and welfare benefits could be reduced, whilst ensuring we all still have a safe, livable climate too. She also expressed her horror of the Trade Union Bill about to be unleashed by the Tories, which would destroy so many valuable workers rights and seriously undermine their ability to secure fair pay and working conditions. Caroline pledged to even take direct action if necessary to defend the rights of trade unionists. And when Caroline says ‘direct action’, she means it, as her record in opposing fracking at Balcombe demonstrates! Now that’s my kind of opposition MP!
Yanis stepped up the plate and demolished austerity in one fell swoop: “austerity doesn’t work, so an alternative to austerity is not needed because austerity itself is not an option”. Yanis went on to say that Quantitative Easing (QE) could easily be adjusted so that instead of the Bank of England buying bonds from financial institutions and just creating asset bubbles with minimal stimulus of the real economy, a new publicly-owned investment bank could be created that would issue bonds for public investment projects (especially projects as identified in the green economy within the Green New Deal) and these bonds could be sold to financial institutions in the City of London and elsewhere. This would enable investment in jobs and services that benefit everybody whilst still giving opportunities for financial markets to make safe, valuable investments in a non-inflationary way. QE under democratic control is not printing money, but using money for what it should be used for, supporting the real economy and creating the infrastructure that both public and private sectors need. Instead, as Yanis explained, we are increasingly stifled by austerity cuts that in effect turn us all into refugees, desperately searching for ways out of the austerity that makes our lives increasingly insecure and unsafe.
Then up stepped John McDonnell MP, campaign manager for Jeremy Corbyn in his successful Labour leadership campaign (and speaking just hours away from being appointed as shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer in Corbyn’s new Shadow Cabinet), explained how the budget deficit could be eliminated, and public services paid for, with plenty of money to spare on top of all that, if enough tax inspectors were employed by HMRC in order to claw back the £120 billion of tax avoided, evaded, or simply uncollected from big corporations and rich individuals. Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS Union weighed in with a clarion call not only to fight austerity but also to transform our failed electoral system by bringing in proportional representation so that never again do we get a majority government like this present Tory one that was voted in by only 24% of the electorate entitled to vote.
All the speakers got standing ovations in a hall packed to the rafters by a crowd given fresh determination, courage and inspiration to fight austerity and win, not only in the UK but across the world in solidarity with anti-austerity activists everywhere, creating a fairer, kinder, more compassionate society in the process. For me, this rally was the perfect preparation and curtain-raiser for the public launch of the Eastbourne People’s Assembly that will take place on Saturday 19th September, a launch which I’ve been privileged to play a part in setting up. I now look forward to it eagerly, knowing that we who will be attending the launch are not alone but are part of a rapidly growing grass-roots mass movement against austerity that so helped the Green Party and the SNP in the general election and which has now helped sweep Jeremy Corbyn to victory in the Labour leadership election, and which has led to People’s Assemblies mushrooming across the UK. We may all be refugees now in one way or another, but there’s enough of us now to start turning our country back into a place of safety, a true refuge!