Monday, 26 April 2010

Dirty oil, dirty money

Dirty Oil has come to Edinburgh and Glasgow. This is a film that explores the conflict between industry, government, local communities and environmentalists over the development of the tar sands ( a grainy mixture of bitumen, sand and water) in the wilderness of Alberta, Canada. Through the eyes of scientists, big oil officials, politicians, doctors, environmentalists and aboriginal citizens, the film examines the damage caused by our ongoing search for new sources of oil and accompanying financial profits. Tar sand extraction is a very profitable business. Joroen van der Veer Shells’ chief executive, reported to Terry Macalister from The Guardian that its tar sands oil operation had seen a 74% profit growth in the second quarter of 2008. High  levels of profits for the oil sands industry continue to be reported to this date.

Most developed economies are dependent on fossil fuel, and therefore it is good news that new sources of fuel have been found and are exploited until we can make the transition to cleaner sources of energy. The problem is that the extraction of oil from tar sands developments is extremely costly both on carbon footprint and of health and environmental terms. James Hansen from The Guardian reported that “the tar sands of Canada constitute one of our planet's greatest threats. They are a double-barrelled threat. First, producing oil from tar sands emits two-to-three times the global warming pollution of conventional oil. But the process also diminishes one of the best carbon-reduction tools on the planet: Canada's Boreal Forest which is being destroyed as collateral damage in this open air mining operation.

The oil sands development and its environmental effects has been documented in the case of bird-life by academics of the University of Saskatoon; increased incidence of different types of cancer amongst communities living in the vicinity of the development and gradual pollution of nearby fresh-water sources primarily through leakage from the Tailings Pond Dikes. Tar sands are found in 70 countries around the world, some of which are repositories of the world’s last remaining rain forests like the Orinoco River in Venezuela, and The Congo.

These developments leave me baffled. It seems that in spite of our growing awareness of the need to reduce our carbon footprint, corporations irresponsibly exploit our need for fossil fuel. It is particularly shocking that Scottish and British corporations are both involved in the financing (Royal Bank of Scotland), selling of financial instruments and development (BP) of this form of oil.

Irrespective of faith beliefs, is it acceptable for us in Scotland, that a bank which we bailed out pockets the profits and awards pay-rises and bonuses stemming from developments built on the callus disregard for the health of human beings and the rape of our planet?

Why go to see Avatar in glorious 3D? It is happening right now, in real life and we might have helped finance it.

New kind of Manifesto: The poverty truth commission

We have seen two of the three election debates on TV and I must confess that I have found them illuminating. Nobody has yet mentioned some of the appalling inequality statistics that poor people in our country and in Scotland have to face. This is why I am so much in favour of the work that Martin Johnston, of Faith Community Scotland, Jim Wallace and others of the Poverty Truth Commission are doing in highlighting these inequalities through their own alternative manifesto .

The Commission was set up in March 2009 by Church of Scotland  and Faith and Community Scotland, bringing together people with a direct experience of poverty and some of Scotland’s senior civic leaders. The Commission, co-chaired by former Scottish Lib Dem leader Lord Wallace of Tankerness and Tricia MacConalogue has brought together people with direct experience of poverty, and policy-makers who address poverty issues within their work. The result has been fabulous eye-opener information and conferences where the truth about what living in poverty in Scotland actually means, and the tremendous dignity, courage, resilience and determination of people who are set on ending the inherent discrimination and inequality of access to quality social, health and educational services brought about by their post-code.

The alternative manifesto is not just about statistics. This manifesto makes evident with faces and real life stories the life-choices that men and women of this country have to make when living in poverty. The numbers begin to have faces and names. Statistics are important. I do hope that truthful, meaningful statistics will be the backbone for decision-making for anyone of our candidates as they prepare for the third and last debate which will centre on economic issues. However, I would urge them to look at the real life stories behind the numbers. Some “prep” on the Poverty Truth Commission Manifesto might come-in handy during question time.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Digital Economy Bill

The Digital Economy Bill was rushed through Westminster a couple of days ago. The bill was announced in the 2009 Queen’s speech and its main aims were to stimulate the creation of new and innovative services via the Internet and make Britain more competitive within a digitally-based economy. Its other aim was to curtail internet piracy. Piracy is theft and should be condemned as it prevents artists, musicians, writers and anyone involved in the creative industries from receiving a just reward for their labour.

However the problem is that the law has been rushed through parliament without proper scrutiny taking advantage of parliament’s dissolution on Monday. According to George Kerevan writing in The Scotsman, only 35 MPs turned up for the second reading of the bill. As it stands, the bill gives ministers, not the courts, the power to order internet service providers to ban your household from the Internet if your connection consistently downloads and/or shares pirated files. Inevitably, this means that if you have a wi-fi connection, you might run the risk of being cut off, if a hacker accesses the Internet through your account and uses it illegally. Wi-fi connections need from now on to be “reasonably” secure. However, it is not entirely clear what “reasonable” means, beyond password protection etc.

More troublesome is the onus placed on Internet service providers to report on the on-line activities of service users. This amounts to an invasion of civil liberties. Under which criteria would  internet service providers (ISPs) be allowed to “spy” on service users and begin to report activities? It is worrisome that commercial pressures have been placed above the right to privacy, and right of courts to sanction unlawful behaviours. The Internet is now an everyday part of most people’s lives in Scotland. We use it for education, entertainment, shopping and work. What will be the implication of the bill to libraries, internet cafes, schools, universities, church-halls? Some advice on protecting your connections has been given by Department for Business Innovation and Skills . However, the social implications of such measures are not discussed at all. Will such draconian measures curtail access to people who do not have an internet connection at home and therefore increase the divide between the digitally poor and the digitally rich? What are the implication of commercial companies (ISPs) having the obligation to observe and report on-line user activities? Who will oversee that those powers are not abused?

I am all for the defence of intellectual property rights, but I do not understand why the bill had to be passed without due scrutiny. Whose interests have been served by proceeding with such speed?

Friday, 9 April 2010

Suicide is everyone's business

Suicide is one of the principal causes of death for young people in industrialized countries, including Scotland. An advertisement will be aired in prime time television highlighting the need for everyone to support individuals contemplating suicide. The ad mentions that help might be as close as your nearest cabbie or your hairdresser and goes on to propose that people from all walks of life can be trained in providing help to potentially suicidal people. The ad is part of the Scottish Government’s Choose Life Programme, which is a 10 year plan aimed at reducing suicides in Scotland by 20% by 2013.

It is commendable that help is being provided to train ordinary people to spot suicidal tendencies, and it is very good that a problem that is affecting young people in Scotland, particularly young men, is highlighted. While such a complex issue as suicide can be most effectively tackled by professionals such as counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists who undergo years of training for their help to be effective by evidence-based standards, it is also true that hairdressers are privy to many a confession, and in many cases just having someone to talk to can help- at least initially.

Research suggests that suicide is a response to a number of factors affecting an individual’s life. Unemployment, divorce, mental health difficulties (particularly depression) and addictive behaviours are just some of the reasons why young people contemplate suicide. According to a study by the University of Aberdeen and NHS Scotland, although Scotland at the turn of the 20th century had lower rates of suicide than England and Wales, suicide rates for young men in Scotland have increased every decade since, while they have progressively decreased in the rest of the UK. In times of economic crisis, with high levels of unemployment and a gradual disintegration of family values and community life in favour of the cult of individualism anything that can be done to help in tackling the social and economic causes that make life so difficult for our young people is to be welcomed. And perhaps we in the church need to learn to listen a bit more, as well as talking.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

An Easter Message from Church Leaders in Scotland

At Easter, Christians of all traditions express their shared belief that God so loved the world that he sent his son Jesus Christ to suffer and die as a man. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead demonstrates that security comes from faith in the vulnerability of God in Christ and not in any human creation.

Christian moral reasoning leads us away from violence towards loving relationships with others. Violence is expressed in threat as well as in deed. The indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons makes it impossible to justify them as weapons of war as their effect cannot be considered as either limited or proportionate. Therefore, the very possession of nuclear weapons is unjust and thus wrong. Churches have often expressed this concern.

Christ came for the whole world and the security of the whole world is Christ’s concern. Nuclear weapons by their very existence undermine the security of the whole world and are inconsistent with the traditional theories of just war. We believe that tackling injustice, poverty and inequality would lead to a safer world for all. At a political level that transformation means choosing to spend money on changing the lives of the poor and oppressed and not on nuclear weapons.

All of us have a political choice in the next few weeks. We call upon all people of goodwill to make it clear to candidates of all parties that we should choose life over death and the alleviation of poverty over the replacement of Trident."

1)“Authentic peace is characterised by the transformation of relationships emanating from the ongoing presence of God in the world”

2)Submission to the Defence Committee in relation to the inquiry into the White Paper “The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent” by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church
3) Pope Benedict XVI has said, “The foundations of authentic peace rest on the truth about God and man”
Pope Benedict XVI for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2006


The Most Revd David Chillingworth
Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church

The Right Rev William Hewitt
Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

Rev John Ll Humphreys
Moderator, The National Synod of Scotland, United Reformed Church

Rev Martin C Keane
Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Free Church of Scotland

Rev Malcolm T. Muir
Chair of Congregational Federation in Scotland

Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien
Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Archdiocese St Andrews and Edinburgh, President of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland

Leslie Stevenson
Religious Society of Friends

Rev Lily P. Twist
Chair, Methodist Church Scotland District