Wednesday 31 March 2010

BOOK REVIEW: 'Anthology of Illustration' by Amelia Gregory

This book review also appears in the latest issue of Red Pepper magazine

Anyone who has argued with deniers knows that explaining the science of climate change is hard work. Its complexity can be baffling and scientific experts have an unfortunate tendency to misunderstand the importance of communicating their ideas, believing that their data and their authority are enough to merit public trust. That may explain why a simple slide show, accessibly presenting complex ideas and attempting to make an emotional connection with its audience, turned Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” into such an unlikely success. Images wield tremendous power to inspire.

But if the science can be tough, explaining how the potential technologies of renewable energy involve far more than solar panels and wind turbines is an even tougher sell, particularly as the carbon-consuming and nuclear industries have succeeded in portraying renewable as a marginal contributor to our overall energy consumption. That probably explains why the Anthology of Illustration, edited by designer and Climate Camp activist Amelia Gregory, is self-published – I can’t imagine a mainstream publisher having the slightest idea how to squeeze a profit from sales of the closest thing I’ve seen one of those ‘Bumper Books of Knowledge’ that I remember from childhood, but devoted to renewable technologies.

Gregory has commissioned forty artists and illustrators to try and creatively explain the range and diversity of ideas – from bio wave power to Gorlov’s Helical Turbine (a horizontal axis hydroelectric water turbine, which sounds insanely like a giant egg-whisk but has been deployed successfully by the Korean government) – through a series of ingenious and wonderful drawings and illustrations. Not everything works completely, a couple of contributions confuse more than they illuminate, but the book is a celebration too of the illustrator’s art – including interviews with each of the contributors and other examples of their work, including the artwork for last summer’s Climate Camp at Blackheath.

The ‘Anthology of Illustration’ tries to take technologies often seen as difficult, cold and utilitarian and make them seem colourful, emotional and inspiring. No-one else, as far as I know, has even considered this necessary or important and for that, this vibrant and strange book deserves a wider audience.

More information here

Rushed Electronic Health Record Scheme A Threat To Privacy

Everyone should have revived a a letter this month from their local Primary Care Trust explaining that their personal health information will soon be stored electronically in a 'Summary Care Record' (SCR), which will be available to 'authorised' NHS staff.

If GP practices have not heard objections from patients by the end of June, NHS Trusts intend to assume that individuals have provided implied consent for the creation of these care records over the next 18 months. However, the British Medical Association has warned that patients' rights are being ignored and that Connecting for Health, the NHS bureaucracy running the scheme, has made it as difficult as possible for patients to opt out.

Those who have actually opened their letter (itself a concern, as seven out of ten patients in the pilot areas for the scheme were unaware that an SCR was created for them and some patients have been sent other patients’ letters) will have discovered that there is no opt-out form. Connecting for Health has refused to make this a national requirement and instead, patients have to go out of their way to either ring a helpline to order one or download a copy from a website. GPs are unable to order bulk copies.

Why worry about this? Because although the initial records will be fairly simple, they inevitably will include more and more highly confidential health information in the future, including prescription details (for anti-retro-viral or psychotropic drugs, for instance) that could be potentially stigmatising if they fell into the wrong hands and the probable inclusion, considering government enthusiasm for databases, of personal DNA data.

There are huge privacy concerns about the sensitivity of the details that will be held on each of us and with tens of thousands of NHS staff having a swipe card to enter the system, any promises that information would never be passed on to other state agencies, leaked to unscrupulous tabloid journalists or examined by curious medical staff (as has happened in Scotland) simply lack credibility. They are about as believable as NHS claims that an SCR will “provide more effective care” in an emergency – having recently been a patient at the Royal London Hospital's Accident and Emergency department, where I was recorded as an unknown male of no fixed abode and given the name of a large Canadian province for a surname (despite plenty of identification in my wallet), I know that there’s no guarantee doctors will always identify emergency admissions accurately.

So rigid is the bureaucracy behind the SCR scheme that simply telling your GP that you want to opt out doesn't seem to work – my doctor insists that I have to provide a completed form, even though I explicitly expressed my dissent three years ago. Having discovered the NHS Confidentiality campaign's Big Opt Out website in 2007, I wrote to my GP insisting that his computer records includes the code “9C3CRefused consent to upload to national shared database.” But that apparently is not enough and I now feel I have little choice but to write and warn my doctor that he will have breached the Data Protection Act if a Summary Care Record is created in my name using details he provides.

This is what happens when governments with little discernible interest in privacy and civil liberties ploughs ahead with rushed IT projects. Sadly, with an election approaching and the media more concerned with how fragrant the party leaders' wives are, millions of people may not even notice that a severe threat to the confidentiality of their health records has been introduced on the sly.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

MPA Useless As Ever On G20 Protests

Crime and policing will inevitably be important issues at the general election but listening to Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, debating on Radio 4's Today programme this morning and holding up the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) as an positive example of police accountability, was a reminder how out of touch politicians so often are. Huhne said:

"What we do need is for local communities to be properly represented on police authorities with the vast majority of police authorities being directly elected through a system that represents the proper balance of ethnic minorities in the area and so forth. And that's what you get in London, for example, where we have already got a Metropolitan Police Authority that's been elected by proportional representation. That seems to me the right compromise. You get the local accountability but you don't get the sort of populist concerns and Robocop style of policing that you would get with a Conservative proposal to elect just one person as elected commissioner who would represent quite a complex area."

Let's leave aside the impressive ability of all senior Lib Dems to lever proportional representation into any discussion and also acknowledge in passing that the MPA is more ethnically diverse than many other police authorities. Huhne's claim that the MPA represents local accountability still remains a serious case of wishful thinking – at best, it represents a pale imitation of accountability. In spite of its supposed role in holding senior officers to account, the MPA's track record of offering nothing more than a meaningless promise that “lessons will be learnt” is now almost legendary. That was its message in its ‘scrutiny’ of the Met’s conduct in the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and its feeble investigation of media manipulation in the aftermath of the 2006 shooting of an unarmed man during anti-terrorism raids in Forest Gate.

Now, almost a year since the G20 protests in London, its Civil Liberties Panel will finally report on Thursday – and once again, the calibre of its investigation is extraordinarily poor, The problem, as I argued in July last year, is that the MPA simply lacks the will to step beyond the narrow confines of what it has decided ‘accountability’ means.

What exactly has Chris Huhne's 'model' MPA come up with after twelve months? More promises, of course, that 'lessons will be learnt', that goes without saying. There is a set of recommendations that do little more than back up last year's Inspectorate of Constabulary report on G20, plus some banalities about the need for better training and equipment, a call for a 'wider debate' about policing protests and the usual arguments about the challenges the police face “during violent demonstrations such as G20”. There is absolutely no acknowledgement that much of the “violent” behaviour came from the police themselves and therefore little attempt to address “ongoing understanding of civil liberties and human rights and the consequences this has for policing”, as set out in the Panel's terms of reference. And no mention of the death of Ian Tomlinson, which is astonishing.

Everyone who turned up at a public event at City Hall on 5 November last year might as well not have bothered.

I'm not convinced about the Tory argument for elected police commissioners, especially after the experience of living under the ruthless megalomania of a directly elected mayor in Newham. But holding up the Metropolitan Police Authority as an example of good practice, when it seems to exist solely to provide political cover to the Met, is a woefully inadequate position to maintain. No amount of ethnic diversity can make up for its utterly supine approach to actually holding the police to account. And, considering the years of argument about the need for a police authority for London, the sad fact is that if it was abolished, no-one would even notice the difference.

The draft Civil Liberties Panel report is available here

Monday 22 March 2010

Police Monitoring Training - Sunday 18th April

Police Monitoring and Legal Observation Training
Sunday 18th April
10:30am - 4:30pm

Friends Meeting House
173 Euston Road
London NW1 2BJ

Are you worried about abuse of police powers at protests and in your community? Ever moaned about an ever increasing police state but haven't known what to do?

Come to the Network for Police Monitoring training and start holding them to account for their actions. Everyone welcome, whether you have experience to share, want to brush up on skills or have no experience whatsoever.

Many abuses of police powers occur because we let them. Legal observation and police monitoring are effective tools in tackling such abuses and can make a real difference from collating the data necessary for effective legal challenges to providing and collecting witness statements for those arrested. These actions have both challenged the way protest and the streets are policed and kept innocent people out of prison.

Sessions will include police powers, stop and search and surveillance, as well as workshops on legal observation and police monitoring.

Network for Police Monitoring is a new organisation made up of individuals involved in Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, Climate Camp Legal Team, Fitwatch and Newham Monitoring Project. This is the first time so many groups have come together to offer training and it should be an interesting day. However, it also the first time we have offered this training, and feedback will be very welcome.

Although participants do not have to commit to doing legal observation/monitoring, it is hoped you will want to use your skills and we will be inviting people to join us for the next major protest on May 1st in Central London.

Whilst there is no registration, please email to let us know if your planning to come so we have an idea of numbers.

Saturday 6 March 2010

Thanks For All The Messages Of Support

So as you may already have heard, on Tuesday evening I became a statistic, one of six cyclists who is seriously injured every day on Britain's streets. Rather than making it home after the east London Climate Camp meeting and my first introduction to their somewhat confusing process of consensual decision-making, I've instead spent this week in the Royal London Hospital, where I has an operation to repair the shattered bones of my shoulder and has a fair amount of morphine.

The trauma ward may have been as stifling as a sauna (not helped by my bad reaction to the painkillers, which sent my temperature sky-rocketing). There was a severe shortage of staff on Thursday evening and the food was astonishingly terrible, but the A&E staff were great and one staff nurse, who went out of her way to track down my missing valuables (including my flat keys), was yet another reminder why I'd always want to be treated by the NHS. Many thanks too to the many, many people who rang, sent me a text, tweeted, dropped by and visited and even blogged (thanks Louise). I promise you, it really helped - especially as I'd been desperately trying to avoid reliving the moment when I realised the car hurtling towards me wasn't going to stop, or the moment I hit the Whitechapel Road and thought, "shit, I'm not wearing a helmet".

At the moment, I feel like I've had my life placed on hold, unable to even make the simplest of plans, and I really wish I could just rewind to Tuesday evening, sit through the meeting at London Action Resource Centre all over again and this time accept the offer of a quick visit to the pub. I know it will take me around six weeks before I have significantly recovered and typing with one hand is slow-going. I also feel like I'm carrying around a five kilo deadweight of upper-arm elephantitas, which is inredibly tiring. Daily blogging seems unlikely - but it's about all I can manage for the time being, so bear with me.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Boris Urged to Review Newham's Decision On Increased City Airport Flights

The 25 members of the London Assembly have called on London Mayor Boris Johnson to urgently review Newham council's decision to give permission for a fifty percent increase in flights at London City Airport in the Royal Docks.

The Assembly unanimously agreed that the growing concern that increased flight numbers and changing flight paths will add to existing nuisance from overflights experienced by residents in eight neighbouring boroughs. Assembly Members stressed that the airport’s economic role must be balanced against the problems it causes.

Labour member Murad Qureshi, Chair of the Assembly's Environment Committee and the proposer of the motion last Wednesday, said:

"While we accept that City Airport has an important role to play in London’s transport infrastructure, and makes a significant contribution to the economy of East London, it cannot be allowed to expand at a rate which threatens the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of Londoners. As well as the increased numbers of flights, the type of aircraft used and their flight paths have an impact on the residents living far beyond the boundaries of the airports home borough. This is clearly a strategic issues that the Mayor can and should offer leadership on."

The full text of the motion says:

This Assembly calls upon the Mayor to acknowledge the growing concern, particularly in adjoining Boroughs, with Newham Council's decision as a planning authority to agree the application for increased flights at City Airport (from 80,000 to 120,000 movements a year). This concern is also related to recently altered flight paths.

The increased number of flights that would result from this permission would add to the existing nuisance from overflights experienced by residents across several London boroughs, notably Greenwich, Redbridge, Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets, Barking & Dagenham, Bexley, Hackney and Havering. We also note that concerns are being expressed that recently altered flight paths, which we understand are subject to review by the Civil Aviation Authority, have exacerbated the problems caused.

While the airport clearly performs an economic role, this must be balanced against the problems it causes. We therefore believe that a review of this expansion and the flight paths is needed and that this is a matter for the Mayor's oversight and leadership. We therefore request that the Mayor, with appropriate Assembly scrutiny, urgently initiates a review and offers leadership on this matter.

Newham council's Development Control Committee voted to allow extra flights at its meeting in July 2009.

Photo: Plane Stupid

Monday 1 March 2010

Protesters Demand End To Control Orders

It's great to see that Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), an organisation I have supported for twenty years now, organised a protest outside Parliament this morning to coincide with today's parliamentary vote renewing anti-terrorism 'control order' powers. Unfortunately I couldn't make it but NMP activists were joined by ex-control order detainee Cerie Bullivant [pictured holding the letter T of 'Trial']. When his control order was quashed in March 2008, the High Court judge said there were no reasonable grounds to suspect he was involved in terrorism.

I'm also pleased to see that NMP is willing to work alongside Cageprisoners on an issue of shared concern, especially after the campaign of abuse and smears that its director Moazzam Begg has faced over the last month.

Control orders made by the Home Secretary to restrict an individual's liberty for the purpose of "protecting members of the public from a risk of terrorism" have placed a number of people under effective house-arrest for years on end, based on secret evidence that neither they nor their legal representatives are allowed to see. One man I know personally who has a control order imposed against him has never faced a proper trial or been charged with an offence. In a comment for the press, a spokeswoman for NMP said:

"We have seen the devastating impact of control orders on people's lives at a community level. The use of control orders by the British Government is shameful and represents a huge erosion of civil liberties. It is simply unjust to punish people based on secret evidence and without allowing them to defend themselves against allegations."

There is a letter condemning the control order regime in the Guardian today too - a number of its signatories are old friends and comrades, including Estelle from NMP and two of the organisation's former workers who are now in the legal profession. You can find the letter online here.

REVIEW: Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich

What could possibly be wrong with having an optimistic outlook on life? Surely positive feelings are always better than negative ones? Not necessarily, says the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of the excellent Nickel and Dimed, whose new book Smile or Die I’ve been reading over the weekend. Not if it also means ignoring reality and abandoning critical thinking.

Conventional wisdom in the US may demand that Americans remain vigilantly upbeat – in the words of the old Bing Crosby song, that they ‘accentuate the positive’ and ‘eliminate the negative’ – but as Ehrenreich’s investigation of the phenomenal growth of the multi-million dollar US “positive thinking” industry argues, the same conventional wisdom is deeply conservative, profoundly self-absorbed and stifles realistic warnings about risk, often with calamitous consequences. Indeed, the message of the torrent of self-help books, life coaches, ‘prosperity gospel’ churches and motivational speakers may have been an important contributory factor in the global economic crisis triggered by the collapse of America’s sub-prime housing market in 2008.

Ehrenreich critique of “positive thinking” begins with the diagnosis of breast cancer she received ten years ago. Searching for information about the disease, she discovered “very little anger, no mention of the possible environmental causes and few comments about the fact that, in all but the more advanced, metastasized cases, it is the ‘treatments’, not the disease, that causes the immediate illness and pain.” Instead, “the cheerfulness of breast cancer culture goes beyond mere absence of anger to what looks, all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease” – an embrace where “dissent is a kind of treason”.

Urging patients to ‘stay positive’ went far beyond usefully helping patients to cope with the stress of their illness. Instead it placed an expectation and additional burden on them to constantly monitor their emotions, based on a completely unscientific belief that survival itself hinges on ‘attitude’. If the cancer spreads or treatment is less than completely successful, “the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place.”

Ehrenreich traces the roots of ‘positive thinking’ to a rejection of the harsh Protestantism of the nineteenth century and charts its rebirth in the growing consumer culture in the 1950s. However, its ideas have taken off as an industry in itself with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, where the notion that disease, poverty or unemployment are the essentially the result of personal ‘negativity’ is, of course, incredibly helpful to corporate America. This explains why companies often bulk-purchase copies of the self-help guides and DVDs to give to their staff, particularly to those who have either suffered or survived the latest round of redundancies. The message of the motivational ideologues is always good news, no matter how terrifying the circumstances: embrace ‘change’, see unemployment as an opportunity.

What is fascinating about Ehrenreich’s argument, however, is how all encompassing this has become. The efforts of corporations offering consumer products and easy credit matched (and often overlapped with) the huge growth of mega churches, where a message that ‘God wants you to have a new house or car’ and would provide as long as people believed enough was a powerful incentive for the poorest to become woefully indebted. The emergence of ‘positive psychology’ provided pseudo-scientific foundation to the movement. With the quarterly share price becoming the only measure of corporate success, the same blind optimism amongst senior executives created a culture of complete denial at all levels of the possibility that bad things could happen, to the extent that anyone raising questions or expressing doubts faced the possibility of losing their job. There had, of course, been downturns before, like the dot com crash, but to even consider the possibility that house prices would collapse led to the firing in 2006 of Lehman Brothers’ Mike Gelband, the head of its real estate division.

Within two years, as we now know, Lehman Brothers itself no longer existed.

Even after the near collapse of the banking system, ‘positive thinking’ remains deeply embedded. The message has been so culturally ingrained that the motivational speakers have continued to make a fortune from the disaster and there are plenty who are prepared to condemn critics of the banks for ‘talking down the economy’ (and failing, presumably, to maintain sufficient ‘positivity’). Ehrenreich’s book argues that the alternative to positive thinking is not despair, but realism and critical consideration of risk, something that is clearly lacking in the growing reluctance in America to accept the evidence for the impact of climate change. The instinct to remain upbeat and deny that bad things may happen, this time on a global level, isn’t likely to disappear overnight.

Brilliant though the book is, if I have one criticism of Smile or Die, it is the complete absence of arguably the most powerful motivational speaker of them all. Ehrenreich supported President Barack Obama’s election campaign, one built around a message of hope, change and individual responsibility that encouraged blind optimism (“Yes we can!”) in spite of the lack of any detail about how 'change' might actually be achieved. To have excluded him from a book that so thoroughly and accurately excoriates the Republican right seems like a deliberately partisan lack of critical thinking.

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World is published by Granta.

Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink campaign raises concern about the number of pink ribbon products on the market and calls for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.