Thursday, August 31, 2006
In the lawsuit, New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer argued that GSK had only published one of the five Paxil trials it ran. While the published test revealed mixed results, the four unpublished ones showed no benefits from the drug, and in fact suggested Paxil increased the risk of suicide. An internal gsk memo told the company to manage the release of the data effectively, “to minimize any potential negative commercial impact.”
That big pharma can tamper with the solid medical knowledge our doctors rely on is a terrifying wakeup call for patients – and it’s a story all too common, says Richard Smith, former head of the British Medical Journal. In an article in the Public Library of Science online journal, he said pharmaceutical companies routinely manipulate results to ensure favorable results, then get their trials published in the major medical journals to boost sales. Most of our information may be skewed, writes Smith, since industry sponsors two-thirds to three-quarters of trials found in the four major medical journals – Annals of Internal Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine.
The examples from recent years drive home the fact that profit – rather than our health – motivates the actions of pharmaceutical companies. That explains why drug salesmen with quotas to meet encourage doctors to prescribe Paxil to children (American sales: $2.6 billion in 2002), why drugs like Vioxx can stay on the market despite being known to increase heart attack and stroke (worldwide sales: $2.5 billion for Merck in 2003), and why drugs like Neurontin can be forcefully marketed to cure everything else alongside the epilepsy it is designed to treat (worldwide sales: $2.3 billion in 2002). US pharmaceutical companies spend about $6,000-7,000 per doctor on direct marketing alone, offering everything from mugs and pens to gourmet meals and luxury trips.
But while big pharma steps up the pressure, those on the front lines are drawing a line in the sand. The grassroots medical group No Free Lunch has had hundreds of American medical professionals sign on to its anti-marketing pledge. Forced by Spitzer’s lawsuit, GSK revealed all of its negative studies on Paxil and formed its own registry to display all of the clinical trials it has sponsored and will sponsor. And after facing up to their complicity in the drug-info sham, medical journals are changing the way they do business. In an article in Newsweek, Jeffrey M. Drazen, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine reiterates a call for an international registry of clinical trials – which would make all trial data available to the public, good or bad – and says that 11 major US medical journals have agreed not to publish any studies unless the trial is published in a similar public database. It’s voluntary, but it’s a step on the way to protecting our most precious resource – our health.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
The Real Terrorism Plot
And yet another menacing terror plot was thwarted 10 August, with the arrest of 24 suspects, all British Muslims. It was an ominous conspiracy aimed at committing “mass murder” on an “unimaginable” scale, British authorities quickly concluded. US authorities hastily joined the action, too claiming a decisive victory over the plotters, thanks in part to the quick thinking of and awesome coordination between US security and intelligence branches. Britain congratulated the US; the US thanked Britain; both saluted Pakistan and its ever-loyal leadership, itself conducting a brutal war against undefined, shadowy groups that emerge and vanish, all too conveniently, and too neatly.
Moments after the shocking announcement, as security threat levels reached their peak in the US and Britain, the debate commenced and it relentlessly continues: Why would a British Muslim choose such a destructive path while living in a democratic society, where change, at least theoretically, is possible through peaceful means?
The media also sprung into action. Ready-to-serve answers were deftly provided by all the usual experts, instantly infusing more conventional wisdom upon a vulnerable public. Attempts to contextualise terrorism within a political milieu were decidedly torpedoed. Despite years of war that seem to have achieved nothing but “mass murder” on an “unimaginable” scale, no one should dare explain the true roots of terrorism; one may explain why poor neighbourhoods in America yield greater crime rates than others, or why abused children become abusers themselves, or even why US soldiers in Iraq often “snap” and massacre entire families, but terrorism that involves Muslims should not in any way be discussed outside its useful parameters of a misguided generation with a radical interpretation of religion: the Islam that produces “Muslim fascists” as President George W Bush termed it.
Very few moderate, or sensible voices are consulted in such debates. British media proves no exception, examining the viewpoints of the utterly fundamentalist or the utterly liberal. The first wants a return to the Islamic caliphate, with London as its capital, and the latter dismisses as hogwash the attempt to examine the government’s foreign policy as a reason of radicalisation searing among an already embattled and alienated young Muslim generation.
Expectedly, a letter that was signed by three Muslim MPs and 38 organisations accusing Prime Minister Tony Blair’s foreign policy in Iraq, and his support of the Israeli carnage in Lebanon, of “putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad” hardly changed anything. British Home Secretary John Reid found the mere suggestion of a link unacceptable. Many others followed suit. If anything, the terror plot will strengthen the argument of those eager to harden terror laws, widen the gap between peoples from different religions, but most dangerously give yet more leash to those who champion war as a solution to conflict.
One week before the alleged plot was impeded, 100,000 people in London marched in protest at the British government’s position—particularly that of Blair in support of Israel’s war of “self-defence” in Lebanon. Hundreds of protesters threw children’s shoes near the doorsteps of the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. They were meant to symbolise the number of children killed in this war, mostly by the Israeli army. I gazed at the impromptu memorial as I held Lebanese and Palestinian flags. Thinking of the tiny bodies of hundreds of children, mingled underneath tons of concrete in Lebanon and Gaza gave me that ever-familiar chill of dejection. Only the nudge of a police officer to my shoulder forced me to move along.
What is radicalisation but a culmination of bitterness, resentment and anger that lurk desperately inside, which often translate to despicable behaviour: terrorism? But if terrorism is killing innocent civilians to achieve political ends, then how else can one explain the American-British war on Iraq with a death toll that has long passed the 100,000 mark? Or the ongoing war in Afghanistan? Or Israel’s wars in Palestine and Lebanon, and the funding or abetting of these wars by the US and British governments?
Is it not rational to deduce that “mass murder” in the Middle East, happening at such an “unimaginable” scale, could lead to a culmination of bitterness, resentment, anger and radicalisation that would unavoidably yield terrorism? And since Muslims seem to be the primary target of this mass murder, is it not equally rational to expect that the perpetrators of such terrorist acts might mostly be Muslims?
The insistence on disallowing this argument as one imparted primarily by terror “apologists” is often induced with equal determination to prolong the terrorising wars, of which civilians are the primary victims. A change of course might be understood as bowing to terrorists, as Spain is often accused of doing. Thus the carnage in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan must continue. This seems to be the underlying logic in refusing to acknowledge the urgency of a fundamental shift in foreign policy, in Britain as well as in the United States.
Those who cautiously attempted to link the terrorist acts of 11 September to America’s political, financial and military support of the State of Israel were dismissed, even shunned, whenever they disseminated their logic. Only the drums of war were to be heard. Now, nearly five years later, are we any closer to global peace and tranquillity? How many more lives must be wasted, how much more blood must be shed, and how many more children’s shoes must be piled up on Downing Street to realise that cluster bombs don’t hold the keys to peace, nor do the torture camps of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay?
One must not accept the logic of those who believe that blowing up innocent travellers is a prudent response to blowing up Lebanese children seeking shelter in a half standing building in South Lebanon, however inhumane. But to continue to pretend that those who carry out acts of “mass murder” at an “unimaginable” scale in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are not perpetrators of terrorism themselves—whether directly or by inspiring a cycle terrorist responses—is to resign to doing nothing in defence of the innocent, British, Palestinian or Lebanese, which, I believe, is equally repugnant.
Monday, August 21, 2006
We Can Build A Healthy Global Society
By what name will future generations know our time?
Will they speak in anger and frustration of the time of the Great Unraveling, when profligate consumption exceeded Earth's capacity to sustain and led to an accelerating wave of collapsing environmental systems, violent competition for what remained of the planet's resources, and a dramatic dieback of the human population? Or will they look back in joyful celebration on the time of the Great Turning, when their forebears embraced the higher-order potential of their human nature, turned crisis into opportunity, and learned to live in creative partnership with one another and Earth?
We face a defining choice between two contrasting models for organizing human affairs. Give them the generic names Empire and Earth Community. Absent an understanding of the history and implications of this choice, we may squander valuable time and resources on efforts to preserve or mend cultures and institutions that cannot be fixed and must be replaced.
Empire organizes by domination at all levels, from relations among nations to relations among family members. Empire brings fortune to the few, condemns the majority to misery and servitude, suppresses the creative potential of all, and appropriates much of the wealth of human societies to maintain the institutions of domination.
Earth Community, by contrast, organizes by partnership, unleashes the human potential for creative co-operation, and shares resources and surpluses for the good of all. Supporting evidence for the possibilities of Earth Community comes from the findings of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, anthropology, archaeology, and religious mysticism. It was the human way before Empire; we must make a choice to re-learn how to live by its principles.
Developments distinctive to our time are telling us that Empire has reached the limits of the exploitation that people and Earth will sustain. A mounting perfect economic storm born of a convergence of peak oil, climate change, and an imbalanced U.S. economy dependent on debts it can never repay is poised to bring a dramatic restructuring of every aspect of modern life. We have the power to choose, however, whether the consequences play out as a terminal crisis or an epic opportunity. The Great Turning is not a prophecy. It is a possibility.
According to cultural historian Riane Eisler, early humans evolved within a cultural and institutional frame of Earth Community. They organized to meet their needs by cooperating with life rather than by dominating it. Then some 5,000 years ago, beginning in Mesopotamia, our ancestors made a tragic turn from Earth Community to Empire. They turned away from a reverence for the generative power of life -- represented by female gods or nature spirits -- to a reverence for hierarchy and the power of the sword -- represented by distant, usually male, gods. The wisdom of the elder and the priestess gave way to the arbitrary rule of the powerful, often ruthless, king.
The peoples of the dominant human societies lost their sense of attachment to the living earth, and societies became divided between the rulers and the ruled, exploiters and exploited. The brutal competition for power created a relentless play-or-die, rule-or-be-ruled dynamic of violence and oppression and served to elevate the most ruthless to the highest positions of power. Since the fateful turn, the major portion of the resources available to human societies has been diverted from meeting the needs of life to supporting the military forces, prisons, palaces, temples, and patronage for retainers and propagandists on which the system of domination in turn depends. Great civilizations built by ambitious rulers fell to successive waves of corruption and conquest.
The primary institutional form of Empire has morphed from the city-state to the nation-state to the global corporation, but the underlying pattern of domination remains. It is axiomatic: for a few to be on top, many must be on the bottom. The powerful control and institutionalize the processes by which it will be decided who enjoys the privilege and who pays the price, a choice that commonly results in arbitrarily excluding from power whole groups of persons based on race and gender.
Herein lies a crucial insight. If we look for the source of the social pathologies increasingly evident in our culture, we find they have a common origin in the dominator relations of Empire that have survived largely intact in spite of the democratic reforms of the past two centuries. The sexism, racism, economic injustice, violence, and environmental destruction that have plagued human societies for 5,000 years, and have now brought us to the brink of a potential terminal crisis, all flow from this common source. Freeing ourselves from these pathologies depends on a common solution -- replacing the underlying dominator cultures and institutions of Empire with the partnership cultures and institutions of Earth Community. Unfortunately, we cannot look to imperial powerholders to lead the way.
History shows that as empires crumble the ruling elites become ever more corrupt and ruthless in their drive to secure their own power -- a dynamic now playing out in the United States. We Americans base our identity in large measure on the myth that our nation has always embodied the highest principles of democracy, and is devoted to spreading peace and justice to the world.
But there has always been tension between America's high ideals and its reality as a modern version of Empire. The freedom promised by the Bill of Rights contrasts starkly with the enshrinement of slavery elsewhere in the original articles of the Constitution. The protection of property, an idea central to the American dream, stands in contradiction to the fact that our nation was built on land taken by force from Native Americans. Although we consider the vote to be the hallmark of our democracy, it took nearly 200 years before that right was extended to all citizens.
Americans acculturated to the ideals of America find it difficult to comprehend what our rulers are doing, most of which is at odds with notions of egalitarianism, justice, and democracy. Within the frame of historical reality, it is perfectly clear: they are playing out the endgame of Empire, seeking to consolidate power through increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic policies.
Wise choices necessarily rest on a foundation of truth. The Great Turning depends on awakening to deep truths long denied.
Empire's true believers maintain that the inherent flaws in our human nature lead to a natural propensity to greed, violence, and lust for power. Social order and material progress depend, therefore, on imposing elite rule and market discipline to channel these dark tendencies to positive ends. Psychologists who study the developmental pathways of the individual consciousness observe a more complex reality. Just as we grow up in our physical capacities and potential given proper physical nourishment and exercise, we also grow up in the capacities and potential of our consciousness, given proper social and emotional nourishment and exercise.
Over a lifetime, those who enjoy the requisite emotional support traverse a pathway from the narcissistic, undifferentiated magical consciousness of the newborn to the fully mature, inclusive, and multidimensional spiritual consciousness of the wise elder. The lower, more narcissistic, orders of consciousness are perfectly normal for young children, but become sociopathic in adults and are easily encouraged and manipulated by advertisers and demagogues. The higher orders of consciousness are a necessary foundation of mature democracy. Perhaps Empire's greatest tragedy is that its cultures and institutions systematically suppress our progress to the higher orders of consciousness.
Given that Empire has prevailed for 5,000 years, a turn from Empire to Earth Community might seem a hopeless fantasy if not for the evidence from values surveys that a global awakening to the higher levels of human consciousness is already underway. This awakening is driven in part by a communications revolution that defies elite censorship and is breaking down the geographical barriers to intercultural exchange.
The consequences of the awakening are manifest in the civil rights, women's, environmental, peace, and other social movements. These movements in turn gain energy from the growing leadership of women, communities of color, and indigenous peoples, and from a shift in the demographic balance in favor of older age groups more likely to have achieved the higher-order consciousness of the wise elder.
It is fortuitous that we humans have achieved the means to make a collective choice as a species to free ourselves from Empire's seemingly inexorable compete-or-die logic at the precise moment we face the imperative to do so. The speed at which institutional and technological advances have created possibilities wholly new to the human experience is stunning.
Just over 60 years ago, we created the United Nations, which, for all its imperfections, made it possible for the first time for representatives of all the world's nations and people to meet in a neutral space to resolve differences through dialogue rather than force of arms.
Less than 50 years ago, our species ventured into space to look back and see ourselves as one people sharing a common destiny on a living space ship.
In little more than 10 years our communications technologies have given us the ability, should we choose to use it, to link every human on the planet into a seamless web of nearly costless communication and cooperation.
Already our new technological capability has made possible the interconnection of the millions of people who are learning to work as a dynamic, self--directing social organism that transcends boundaries of race, class, religion, and nationality and functions as a shared conscience of the species. We call this social or-ganism global civil society. On February 15, 2003, it brought more than 10 million people to the streets of the world's cities, towns, and villages to call for peace in the face of the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They accomplished this monumental collective action without a central organization, budget, or charismatic leader through social processes never before possible on such a scale. This was but a foretaste of the possibilities for radically new forms of partnership organization now within our reach.
We humans live by stories. The key to making a choice for Earth Community is recognizing that the foundation of Empire's power does not lie in its instruments of physical violence. It lies in Empire's ability to control the stories by which we define ourselves and our possibilities in order to perpetuate the myths on which the legitimacy of the dominator relations of Empire depend. To change the human future, we must change our defining stories.
For 5,000 years, the ruling class has cultivated, rewarded, and amplified the voices of those storytellers whose stories affirm the righteousness of Empire and deny the higher-order potentials of our nature that would allow us to live with one another in peace and cooperation. There have always been those among us who sense the possibilities of Earth Community, but their stories have been marginalized or silenced by Empire's instruments of intimidation. The stories endlessly repeated by the scribes of Empire become the stories most believed. Stories of more hopeful possibilities go unheard or unheeded and those who discern the truth are unable to identify and support one another in the common cause of truth telling. Fortunately, the new communications technologies are breaking this pattern. As truth-tellers reach a wider audience, the myths of Empire become harder to maintain.
The struggle to define the prevailing cultural stories largely defines contemporary cultural politics in the United States. A far-right alliance of elitist corporate plutocrats and religious theocrats has gained control of the political discourse in the United States not by force of their numbers, which are relatively small, but by controlling the stories by which the prevailing culture defines the pathway to prosperity, security, and meaning. In each instance, the far right's favored versions of these stories affirm the dominator relations of Empire.
The imperial prosperity story says that an eternally growing economy benefits everyone. To grow the economy, we need wealthy people who can invest in enterprises that create jobs. Thus, we must support the wealthy by cutting their taxes and eliminating regulations that create barriers to accumulating wealth. We must also eliminate welfare programs in order to teach the poor the value of working hard at whatever wages the market offers.
The imperial security story tells of a dangerous world, filled with criminals, terrorists, and enemies. The only way to insure our safety is through major expenditures on the military and the police to maintain order by physical force.
The imperial meaning story reinforces the other two, featuring a God who rewards righteousness with wealth and power and mandates that they rule over the poor who justly suffer divine punishment for their sins.
These stories all serve to alienate us from the community of life and deny the positive potentials of our nature, while affirming the legitimacy of economic inequality, the use of physical force to maintain imperial order, and the special righteousness of those in power.
It is not enough, as many in the United States are doing, to debate the details of tax and education policies, budgets, war, and trade agreements in search of a positive political agenda. Nor is it enough to craft slogans with broad mass appeal aimed at winning the next election or policy debate. We must infuse the mainstream culture with stories of Earth Community. As the stories of Empire nurture a culture of domination, the stories of Earth Community nurture a culture of partnership. They affirm the positive potentials of our human nature and show that realizing true prosperity, security, and meaning depends on creating vibrant, caring, interlinked communities that support all persons in realizing their full humanity. Sharing the joyful news of our human possibilities through word and action is perhaps the most important aspect of the Great Work of our time.
Changing the prevailing stories in the United States may be easier to accomplish than we might think. The apparent political divisions notwithstanding, U.S. polling data reveal a startling degree of consensus on key issues. Eighty-three percent of Americans believe that as a society the United States is focused on the wrong priorities. Supermajorities want to see greater priority given to children, family, community, and a healthy environment. Americans also want a world that puts people ahead of profits, spiritual values ahead of financial values, and international cooperation ahead of international domination. These Earth Community values are in fact widely shared by both conservatives and liberals.
Our nation is on the wrong course not because Americans have the wrong values. It is on the wrong course because of remnant imperial institutions that give unaccountable power to a small alliance of right-wing extremists who call themselves conservative and claim to support family and community values, but whose preferred economic and social policies constitute a ruthless war against children, families, communities, and the environment.
The distinctive human capacity for reflection and intentional choice carries a corresponding moral responsibility to care for one another and the planet. Indeed, our deepest desire is to live in loving relationships with one another. The hunger for loving families and communities is a powerful, but latent, unifying force and the potential foundation of a winning political coalition dedicated to creating societies that support every person in actualizing his or her highest potential.
In these turbulent and often frightening times, it is important to remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting moment in the whole of the human experience. We have the opportunity to turn away from Empire and to embrace Earth Community as a conscious collective choice. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
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Saturday, August 19, 2006
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Lebanon and the London Terror Scare
When my electricity returned at around 3am yesterday, I turned on the BBC World Service television. There were a series of powerful explosions which shook the house—just as they vibrated across all of Beirut—as the latest Israeli air raids blasted over the city. And then up came the World Service headline: “Terror Plot”. Terror what, I asked myself? And there was my favorite cop, Paul Stephenson, explaining how my favorite police force—the ones who bravely executed an innocent young Brazilian on the Tube, taking 30 seconds to fire six bullets into him—had saved the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians from suicide bombers on airliners.
I’m sure our readers will join me in watching how many of the suspects—or “British-born Muslims” as the BBC defined them in its special form of “soft” racism (they are surely Muslim Britons or British Muslims, are they not?)—are still in custody in a couple of weeks’ time.
And I’m sure it’s quite by chance that the lads in blue chose yesterday—with anger at Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara’s shameful failure over Lebanon at its peak—to save the world. After all, it’s scarcely three years since the other great Terror Plot had British armored vehicles surrounding Heathrow on the very day—again quite by chance, of course—that hundreds of thousands of Britons were demonstrating against Lord Blair’s intended invasion of Iraq.
So I sat on the carpet in my living room and watched all these heavily armed chaps at Heathrow protecting the British people from annihilation and then on came President George Bush to tell us that we were all fighting “Islamic fascism”. There were more thumps in the darkness across Beirut where an awful lot of people are suffering from terror—although I can assure George W that while the pilots of the aircraft dropping bombs across the city in which I have lived for 30 years may or may not be fascists, they are definitely not Islamic.
And there, of course, was the same old problem. To protect the British people—and the American people—from “Islamic terror”, we must have lots and lots of heavily armed policemen and soldiers and plainclothes police and endless departments of anti-terrorism, homeland security and other more sordid folk like the American torturers—some of them sadistic women—at Abu Ghraib and Baghram and Guantanamo. Yet the only way to protect ourselves from the real violence which may—and probably will—be visited upon us, is to deal, morally, with courage and with justice, with the tragedy of Lebanon and “Palestine” and Iraq and Afghanistan. And this we will not do.
I would, frankly, love to have Paul Stephenson out in Beirut to counter a little terror in my part of the world—Hizbollah terror and Israeli terror. But this, of course, is something that Paul and his lads don’t have the spittle for. It’s one thing to sound off about the alleged iniquities of alleged suspects of an alleged plot to create alleged terror—quite another to deal with the causes of that terror and to do so in the face of great danger.
I was amused to see that Bush—just before my electricity was cut off again—still mendaciously tells us that the “terrorists” hate us because of “our freedoms”. Not because we support the Israelis who have massacred refugee columns, fired into Red Cross ambulances and slaughtered more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians—here indeed are crimes for Paul Stephenson to investigate—but because they hate our “freedoms”.
And I notice with despair that our journalists again suck on the hind tit of authority, quoting endless (and anonymous) “security sources” without once challenging their information or the timing of Paul’s “terror plot” discoveries or the nature of the details—somehow, “fizzy drinks bottles” doesn’t quite work for me—nor the reasons why, if this whole panjandrum is correct, anyone would want to carry out such atrocities. We are told that the arrested men are Muslims. Now isn’t that interesting? Muslims. This means that many of them—or their families—originally come from south-west Asia and the Middle East, from the area that encompasses Afghanistan, Iraq, “Palestine” and Lebanon.
In the old days, chaps like Paul used to pull out a map when faced with folk of different origins or religion or indeed different names. Indeed, if Paul Stephenson takes a school atlas, he’ll notice that there are an awful lot of violent problems and injustice and suffering and—a speciality, it seems, of the Metropolitan Police—of death in the area from which the families of these “Muslims” come.
Could there be a connection, I wonder? Dare we look for a motive for the crime, or rather the “alleged crime”? The Met used to be pretty good at looking for motives. But not, of course, in the “war on terror”, where—if he really searched for real motives—my favorite policeman would swiftly be back on the beat as Constable Paul Stephenson.
Take yesterday morning. On day 31of the Israeli version of the “war on terror”—a conflict to which Paul and the lads in blue apparently subscribe by proxy—an Israeli aircraft blew up the only remaining bridge to the Syrian frontier in northern Lebanon, in the mountainous and beautiful Akka district above the Mediterranean. With their usual sensitivity, the pilots who bombed the bridge—no terrorists they, mark you—chose to destroy the bridge when ordinary cars were crossing. So they massacred the 12 civilians who happened to be on the bridge. In the real world, we call that a war crime. Indeed, it’s a crime worthy of the attention of Paul and his lads. But alas, Stephenson’s job is to frighten the British people, not to stop the crimes that are the real reason for the British to be frightened.
Personally, I’m all for arresting criminals, be they of the “Islamic fascist” variety or the Bin Laden variety or the Israeli variety—their warriors of the air really should be arrested next time they drop into Heathrow—or the American variety (Abu Ghraib cum laude) and indeed of the kind that blow out the brains of Tube train passengers. But I don’t think Paul Stephenson is. I think he huffs and he puffs but I do not think he stands for law and order. He works for the Ministry of Fear which, by its very nature, is not interested in motives or injustice. And I have to say, watching his performance before the next power cut last night, I thought he was doing a pretty good job for his masters.
Robert Fisk is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk’s new book is The Conquest of the Middle East.
Saturday, August 05, 2006
From The New Statesman Late every summer, large areas of central Borneo become invisible. There’s no magic involved – most of the densely forested island simply gets covered with a pall of thick smoke. Huge areas of forest burn, while beneath the ground peat many metres thick smoulders on for months. These trees are burning in a good cause, however. They are burning to help save the world from global warming.
Here is how the logic goes. As the natural forest is cleared, land opens up for lucrative palm-oil plantations. Palm oil is a feedstock for biodiesel, the “carbon-neutral” fuel that the European Union is trying to encourage by converting its vehicle fleet. By reducing use of fossil fuels for its cars and trucks, the EU believes it can reduce its carbon emissions and thereby help mitigate global warming. Everyone is happy. (Except the orang-utan. It gets to go extinct.)
It’s a con, of course. In 1997, the single worst year of Indonesian forest- and peat-burning, 2.67 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide were released by the fires, equivalent to 40 per cent of the year’s entire emissions from burning fossil fuels. That was a particularly bad year: most summers, the emissions are only a billion or so tonnes, or about 15 per cent of total human emissions. The biggest Indonesian fires, in 1997 and 1998, took place on plantation company land, while in neighbouring Malaysia 87 per cent of recent deforestation has occurred to make way for palm-oil plantations. It is stretching credulity to argue that biofuels produced through this destructive process are helping combat climate change.
The EU is undaunted (though it has undertaken a public consultation), and persists with a target that 5.75 per cent of its vehicle fuels should be “renewable” by the year 2010. Not all of this will come from tropical sources such as palm oil – but nor can their importation be restricted on environmental grounds. The campaigning journalist George Monbiot has discovered that world trade rules would prevent the EU taking any measures to restrict imports of palm oil produced on deforested lands. Free trade comes first.
Some of this “deforestation diesel” will be processed and refined in the UK. A company called Biofuels Corporation has just finished building a biodiesel plant at Seal Sands, near Middlesbrough, and supplies fuel throughout the UK. With an annual production capacity of 284 million litres of biodiesel, it is strategically located next to a deep-water port to ease its access to imports of palm and other vegetable oils. A spokesman confirmed that imported palm oil from Malaysia is being used as feedstock, and that the source cannot at present be guaranteed as “rainforest-free”. A second company, Greenergy Biofuels, is putting up a £13.5m plant at Immingham on Humberside, and plans another. Palm oil is again expected to be one of the main feedstocks imported.
As the promise of profits increases, the big players are beginning to get involved. The two largest external stakes in Greenergy Biofuels are held by Tesco and Cargill. Tesco will shift the product on its petrol forecourts, while Cargill – one of two giants that dominate the world food market – will supply the feedstock. Gone are the days when biofuels meant bearded hippies running their clapped-out vans on recycled chip fat.
Even the oil majors are sniffing around this new market. BP has teamed up with DuPont to develop a liquid fuel called biobutanol, derived from sugar cane or corn starch, which they aim to launch in the UK next year as an additive to petrol. In the meantime, the oil giant is ploughing half a billion dollars into biofuels research at a new academic laboratory called the Energy Biosciences Institute. Indeed, “biosciences” are what it’s all about. Speak to anyone in the corporate energy or agricultural sectors and they will probably go dewy-eyed about the technological “convergence” of energy, food, genetics – in fact, just about everything. In the biotechnology industry the atmosphere is reminiscent of the heady days of genetic modification, before the companies realised that consumers didn’t want to eat “Frankenstein foods”. Frankenstein fuels, however, might prove an easier sell.
The GM industry now plans to reinvent itself, following the example of the nuclear industry, on the back of climate change. “Producing genetically modified crops for non-food purposes, as a renewable source of alternative fuels, may provide the basis for a more rational and balanced consideration of the technology and its potential benefits, away from the disproportionate hysteria which has so often accompanied the debate over GM foods,” suggests the Agricultural Bio technology Council, an umbrella organisation for the biggest biotech companies. The Swiss corporation Syngenta is already marketing a variety of GM corn – one not approved for human consumption or animal feed – specifically inten ded for ethanol biofuels. It has just applied, with support from the UK, for an EU import licence – even though it admits it “cannot exclude” the possibility that some of this corn will find its way into the normal supply chain. The European biotech association EuropaBio is delighted with the EU’s biofuels initiative. “Biotechnology will help to meet Europe’s carbon-dioxide emission reduction targets, reduce our dependence on oil imports and provide another useful income stream for our farmers,” enthuses its secretary general, Johan Vanhemelrijck.
In the United States, biofuels are welcomed as a way to help wean the country off its dependence on oil produced by shady, Allah-obsessed Arabs. “Every gallon of renewable, domestically produced fuel we use is a gallon we don’t have to get from other countries,” beams Congressman Kenny Hulshof, a Republican sponsor of the Renewable Fuels and Energy Independence Promotion Act being considered by Congress. Not surprisingly, the American Soybean Association is also a supporter. “ASA is urging all soybean growers to contact their members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor this legislation,” says its president, Bob Metz, in a press release. “The toll-free number for the Congress operator is 1-888-355-3588.”
In America, biofuels combine patriotism with economic self-interest in a seamless match. Farmers love it because biodiesel and ethanol are brewed from agricultural commodities, helping drive up farm-gate prices. Red-state senators love it because federal tax subsidies keep Republican-voting farmers happy. Even George W Bush loves it: “I like the idea of a policy that combines agriculture and modern science with the energy needs of the American people,” the president told the Renewable Fuels Association in April.
Democrats and Republicans are united in touting ethanol. “All incumbents and challen gers in Midwestern farm country are by definition ethanolics,” the agricultural policy adviser Ken Cook told the New York Times. There are 40 ethanol plants under construction, and the US is poised to overtake Brazil (which uses sugar cane on a large scale to make the fuel) as the world’s largest producer within a year. Cargill’s CEO compares the transformation to “a gold rush”.
But not everybody loves biofuels. David Pimentel, professor of insect ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, hates them. “There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel,” he complains. Pimentel’s own studies have concluded that making ethanol from corn uses 30 per cent more energy than the finished fuel produces, because fossil fuels are used at every stage in the production process, from cultivation (in fertilisers) to transportation. “Abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuel amounts to unsustainable, subsidised food burning,” he fumes.
Pimentel is not alone in thinking that burning food in cars while global harvests decline is not necessarily a good idea. China, with its enormous population, is already having second thoughts about going down the biofuels path. “Basically this country has such a large population that the top priority for land use is food crops,” says Dr Sergio Trindade, an expert on biofuels. The same problem will doubtless hamper the biofuels revolution in Europe. According to one study, meeting the EU’s 5.75 per cent target for its vehicles will require about a quarter of Europe’s agricultural land. For the even more car-dependent US, it would take 1.8 billion acres of farmland – four times the country’s total arable area – to produce enough soya biodiesel to cover annual petrol consumption.
So which gets priority: cars or people? A very simple answer to this land/fuel conundrum would be for people to use their cars less, and to cycle and walk more. But discouraging car use is not at the top of any politician’s agenda, either in Europe or the US. Meanwhile, our leaders must be seen to be doing something about the rising greenhouse-gas emissions from road tran sport, so biofuels are the perfect technofix.
The dilemma might bring to mind Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the alien Ford Prefect took the name of a car because – looking down from above at all the busy roads and motorways – he had mistaken them for the dominant life form. If cars chug happily around between massed ranks of starving people in our biofuelled future, then perhaps Ford Prefect won’t have got it so wrong after all.