Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Debt Crisis By John-Paul Flintoff

Usury: 1. the lending of money at interest, esp at an exorbitant or illegal rate of interest. 2. an exorbitant or illegal rate or amount of interest

I've had an overwhelming response to recent posts (on the Times blog) arguing that our debt-based economic system is fundamentally unsustainable.
There have been many objections to this premise, but as far as I can tell others have also seconded my argument (or rather, since it was their work which led me to that conclusion, I seconded theirs). At the same time, a lucid and convincing (to me) article on similar lines, "The money pit", has appeared in The Ecologist magazine. (It's
by James Bruges, author of the really, genuinely wonderful Big Earth Book.)

But the thing that I have found most fascinating about the debate is the way it is whisked away from any suggestion that this might be an ethical matter. It's much easier, I guess, to debate practicalities.

At the heart of the subject is lending at interest - known for centuries as usury and still understood that way by, among others, adherents to Islam. But in globalised societies where people exchange ideas online, nobody seems able to take usury seriously. Even glimpsing the word here, on the oh-so-modern Internet, evidently strikes many people as laughable. But what were the arguments against usury that prevailed for so many centuries? Were they based on mere superstition? Have key facts come to light since then, overturning them? In both cases, the answer is no.

The arguments are many and various. They've been around for a very long time. And they’re just as strong today as they ever were. Among the Ancient Greeks, Plato said that, ‘The best procedure of the state is to legalise the refusal to the usurer of principal and interest.’ Aristotle said that usury was ‘currency born from currency’ and therefore ‘entirely contrary to nature’. (Cows produce calves, he pointed out, but coins don't produce anything.) Plutarch pithily warned: ‘You have money? Do not borrow on usury for you do not need it. You have none? Do not borrow on usury for you will not pay it off.’

The Romans felt much the same. Convicted thieves, in Rome, were fined twice the extent of their theft, while usurers were fined four times the amount.

We work for years to pay off debts. This is why moneylenders were often described as bloodsuckers - draining life from borrowers - and why Cato wrote that usury was synonymous with killing.

Many people these days might flinch before any reference to scripture, but inasmuch as it conveys the wisdom of ages, it’s worth at least hearing what the Bible has to say. In the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus, for instance, lending at interest to the poor, and between Jews, is forbidden; in Deuteronomy it is forbidden without either distinction. In the Psalms, it is twice asserted that a loan should be free. Ezekiel counted all ‘increment from loans’ among the most serious crimes.

In the New Testament, Jesus specifically stated that when we lend we should ‘hope for nothing in return’. Usury, by contrast, turns private charity into a form of trafficking.

The present-day Anglican commentator on usury John Richardson explains it like this: “If somebody has a genuine need for assistance and you make money out of it then you’re exploiting their need. And if they don’t need it but you advance the money then you are exploiting their greed."

More generally, Christ called on us to treat others as we wish them to treat us - a Golden Rule that can be found in every other major religious tradition, as follows:
‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow men.’ The Talmud
‘Do nothing to others which, if done to you, would cause you pain.’ The Mahabharata
‘What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.’ Confucius
‘One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.’ The Dhammapada
‘That which you w ant for yourself, seek for mankind.’ The Qu’ran

Martin Luther, like the Catholic Church with which he disagreed on much else, vehemently opposed usury. Calvin too felt that, ‘usury is an ungenerous profit that is unworthy of a religious or honourable man. . . It is almost impossible for usuries to be exacted without hindering our brother.’

Calvin also argued that it might be possible to lend at interest to the rich, because they can afford to take a hit. But as Andrewes pointed out, the same argument could be put forward to justify burglary. And anyway, as Plutarch had long ago observed, the rich have no need to borrow at interest.

You might think that the lack of money lent at interest held back the trading and building aspirations of our medieval forebears. Not-at-all. Money could be made available where necessary. But lenders and borrowers went into true partnerships, sharing the risk of loss and the opportunity to make a profit.

Thus, even without money that had been lent at interest, our predecessors traded and built incredible monuments, from Westminster Abbey and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, to many hundreds of abbeys and nunneries and parish churches that are less well known, as well as castles and great public spaces such as St Stephen's Hall in Westminster and various guild halls, and innumerable homes of rich merchants and aristocrats. These may not feature on tourists' itineraries - indeed, many are no longer standing, though that's not the fault of the original builders.

So why was the doctrine of usury abandoned? How did a crime as bad as murder become not merely acceptable but central to our way of life? On what basis did governments and bankers take a look at the Golden Rule and decide to unsubscribe? And - for the sake of the planet - can usury ever be made taboo again?

Published in The Greenacre Times (November 2008)

Friday, 26 September 2008

Why Wasps? Not Such A Pest Says Clive S.M. Cohen

Wasps have a bad press. People inherently dislike wasps which are notorious and looked upon as the public enemy of the invertebrate species.
When a queen wasp emerges from hibernation, with the first rays of sun emerging in the early spring, queens seek the nectar of early flowering willow and a suitable nesting site in accordance with their species of which there are now 9, including hornets and 2 new species, Vespa Media and Saxonica. Then, unlike bees, they produce half a dozen hexagonal cells that (instead of being made out of wax), are made out of wood. They protect these cells by a layer of cone shaped fragile balsa wood covering, having produced this from chewing local fence or rotten tree. They then mix it with water in their saliva and produce the substance, as compared with bees from their wax glands.

Soon young wasps emerge and the nest is enlarged by the young wasps taking over from the queen who quickly becomes an egg-laying machine. As the number of cells enlarge, the protective covering is removed internally and replaced outside, in layers, causing the nest to develop in size. Eventually by the end of the season it becomes at least the size of a large watermelon, or larger.

During all this time, the wasps are feeding on aphid, caterpillars, maggots of various species and a vast variety of spiders and other invertebrate species, for which they are endlessly hunting. Without wasps our flora and many species of trees would undoubtedly be stripped of their leaves. Examples of this have occurred recently in West Hendon, where the Brown Tailed Moth has festooned many trees and denuded them of leaves, causing expensive canopy mist-spraying by Council staff.

The feeding habits of most species continue until August/September when their appetite changes with the advent of less invertebrates on which they so readily feast and the availability of apple, plum and pear on which their appetite then becomes focused. It is at this time of year that most people are aware of the presence of wasps that become drunk on the alcoholic content of the rotting fruit and can sting on impact. Colonies die in their entirety in October/November, and this year will be as late as December because of the wet weather. This is after the production of young queens and their mating, who then hibernate until the following spring.

There are however some species which are the exception in their habit and diet. The tree wasp for example can consume exclusively caterpillars and complete their life cycle as early as July/August, when most of the caterpillars have finished for the season.

Hornets which are massive and intimidating, in common with bumble bees, are not aggressive unless their nesting site is threatened. In recent years hornets have spread from East Barnet and are largely present throughout the Borough of Barnet. Currently, they can be seen hawking for honey bees at the entrance of beehives, or even a wasp colony and recently a further new species is spreading throughout the United Kingdom from Southampton, where it was first observed, and is called "the bee woolf". This species lines its nest specifically with honey bees!

There are also over 200 species of solitary wasps that feed entirely on other invertebrates, as well as a large yellow and black windhover which, while feeding on pollen, lays its eggs in the debris at the bottom of a wasp’s nest.
Wasps undoubtedly, much maligned as they are, contribute to the quality of our environment. Unfortunately because of their presence frequently close to human habitat, it is necessary for colonies to be destroyed in accordance with health and safety risks. But there is every reason to suppose that this should be done as selectively as possible, so that we do not succeed in destroying an entire species.

(From The Greenacre Times September 2008)

Thursday, 26 June 2008

UFO Sightings Over Barnet? Not From Where I'm Standing, Says Donald E Lyven

Recently the Ministry of Defence released once secret records of Unidentified Flying Object sightings over the UK with our local newspapers concentrating on several sightings seen over the Borough of Barnet. Imagine my surprise when I was rung by a journalist during May and asked: ‘of all the people I know, you are the obvious choice to comment on UFO sightings…’ Now that either makes me well informed on such matters, or a complete and utter nutter. However, as someone who has lived in the Borough of Barnet since it’s formation in the sixties, and with interests in Aviation, Astronomy and Ornithology, I can honestly say, that in over 40 years of looking skyward with eyes, binoculars, telescope and cameras, I have never seen anything I couldn’t explain.

I have heard various reports over the years, about mysterious moving light formations at night, in the sky; but as we in Barnet are under the flights paths into Heathrow, Northolt, Elstree, Luton and Stanstead, this is only to be expected. Aircraft landing lights are powerful and can be seen for tens of miles. For instance, the main runway at Stanstead points in the direction of the Borough, and so, despite being nearly 30 miles away, aircraft lined up on approach to the Essex airport, appear almost stationary low above the north-eastern horizon as they slowly descend into the airport, giving the impression of a hovering bright light that disappears into the gloom of the thickening atmosphere.

Additionally, the north London aircraft stacks for Heathrow in Hertfordshire and Essex, provide a constant stream of moving and altering patterns of light shapes at night, as up to half a dozen aircraft circle at different heights before starting their approach vectors. This causes an ever-changing pattern of squares and triangles to the casual viewer, unaware of the incidental aerial ballet being choreographed by air traffic controllers and pilots.

Balloons are another source of observational conundrums. Often I’ve seen strange shapes wandering curiously across the sky, only to view in binoculars a clutch of several balloons let loose from shops, or children; and once, a collection of expensive shinny animal shapes, that had escaped from its no-doubt angry balloon seller! But these local daytime sightings are nothing to do with a proper nighttime sighting of a lighted object moving about the heavens, something I’ve always wanted to see….

Space: once the final frontier, yet most of us now use 'space' in our everyday lives, whether relying on Sat-Nav in the car (or used menacingly to track the van I drive), watching Sky television, or making an international phone call with that irritating delay. All these marvels are due to the myriad of satellites Earthlings have launched during the past 50 years. Look out after dusk or before dawn up into a clear sky, and you should see several slow moving pinpoints of light passing steadily between the stars, denoting the passage of a satellite as the sun reflects off its metal surface. Some, like the International Space Station are extremely bright, and its predicted orbits overhead can be found on the NASA website, and watched as it steadily passes brilliantly above.

As regards alien life visiting Earth, the distances and maths involved simply don’t add up. While I’m sure life has evolved on many suitable planets across the universe, consider this: we’ve had life on Earth for billions of years - but as simple bacteria; then for millions of years as creature life forms; but only during the last few thousand years, have humans mastered technology to the point we have today, and yet we still couldn’t send people beyond our few closest planetary neighbours if we had to. And nor will we.

For too much of Earth’s scientific knowledge and finance has been swallowed up in either war or the vain pursuit of happiness, and the modern industrial base we in the rich world enjoy now, will go into steady decline as populations increase while the oil runs out – (that’s why it’s currently going up in price). As food becomes scarce, and global warming causes sea levels to rise rendering the world’s coastal cities, ports, oil refineries and nuclear power stations useless - our modern ‘world-market’ economy will collapse like a pack of cards. Only poor subsistence farming communities who have little to lose will be able to survive. In the future, what use is a 4x4 in London with no fuel available to run it, nothing in the shops to buy, and no electricity? Rioters and gangs will take whatever they want from whoever has it, and society as we know it will not exist. Starvation and disease will wipe out entire populations of countries whose economies were based on the cheap availability of oil as its power source. Our oil based economies are doomed.

Had our planet evolved correctly, we would be using renewable energy sources – wind, solar and tidal, while we still had the use of cheap oil to fund their development. Instead we have squandered it, polluted our soil, air and sea, and not shared the planet’s wealth and resources, preventing knowledge and technology globally that would have eventually got humans into deep space – but now it’s too late. As the few rich countries get richer, the vast majority of the planet’s nations will suffer terminal decline until the whole world is affected.

There is every reason to think all intelligent life forms on planets have only a limited window in their evolution of a few hundred years in which to contact other worlds; for like on Earth, their industrial age, pollution and lack of natural resources will end up destroying them. The odds of two intelligent civilisations on separate but close enough planetary systems, evolving to a point where their technology periods coincide and being able to contact each other in the same time frame, are phenomenal. This is the reason I believe we have not been contacted by aliens and hence no genuine UFO sightings.

It is telling that nearly all classic ‘alien encounters’ are by lone individuals usually in the middle of nowhere. Wouldn’t a space ship making the effort of a thousand light-year mission land somewhere more public to make the trip worthwhile? It is also remarkable that nearly all images of aliens with their distinctive head shape, harp straight back to the 1950s Roswell incident in New Mexico; where shaven chimpanzees in silver insulating suits were discovered in the wreckage of a converted German V2 rocket that crashed near the desert town. Little did those who initially discovered the crash site realise how the legacy of that incident would have on sci-fi and popular culture for generations to follow.

Over Finchley one Sunday I once saw the proverbial weather balloon! These were released several times a day from Bracknell to collect data on wind direction, speed, air temperature and pressure, and the one I saw was a small white dot high in the sky with a box of data collecting instruments slung underneath, travelling northeast away from Bracknell’s direction. The only other sights I’ve seen over the borough are various aircraft - all identifiable - fascinating cloud shapes, spectacular lightning, and birds of all sorts. The most interesting was a high flight of swans at around two-thirty in the morning, their distinctive white shapes visible from reflective street lighting as their broad V formation rippled silently and eerily across a black velvet sky sparkling with stars. Truly breathtaking; but totally explainable.

From The Greenacre Times (June 2008)

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Camels in Cuba. By Lindsay Bamfield

To understand Cuba would take a lifetime, not the mere two weeks I was there, but one thing is evident, Cuba is a survivor. With two revolutions, one to rid itself of its Spanish rule in 1898, and sixty years later in 1959 to oust dictator Batista, Cuba knows about adjusting. With the fall of the USSR in 1989 Cuba had to re-adjust to yet more new circumstances. With the loss of its trade relationship and economic support from the USSR, Cuba entered what Fidel Castro termed the Special Period. That this started in 1990 is well documented but when it ended is rather vague with some reports claiming 1995 and others up to 2005. Perhaps it does not matter because Cubans are still living with the effects.

Cuban imports fell by 75% between 1989 and 1993, with fuel down by 76%, transport equipment by 86%, chemicals by 72%, food by 53% and consumer goods by 82%. This invariably impacted on Cubans by changing the way many led their lives, with food production and transport most affected, and this is still very much in evidence. With loss of fuel and spare parts, Havana’s buses reduced from 1200 to 500. Vehicles requiring less maintenance were brought into use hence the Cuban camel was born – El Camello. Made from lorries, these massive buses can carry 250 and more often than not mange to squeeze on 300. Lorries have been fitted out with basic seats and with steps or stairs bolted on the back are now the most prevalent and cheapest from of transport.

There are also different grades of buses in use, both in cities and between cities, with a scale charges depending on its degree of comfort. People travel in every way imaginable – private cars (yellow license plates) are often licensed taxis and the large 1950s American cars roar round Havana carrying up to 8 people. While some are in immaculate condition others are held together by rust and pieces of wire. Under their bonnets are makeshift bits and pieces from other machines but they somehow keep going. Pedicabs can carry two plus a child or two, and small motorized bike-cabs carry two. Eight people can ride on a cart pulled by a horse, while six can be squeezed onto a horse and trap. Bicycles are also used, especially in the rural areas and smaller towns. Farmers ride horses but this is not frequent.

On the motorway hundreds of people hitch lifts but expect to pay for their ride. They hold their money in a fan of notes; the larger the fan the longer the journey. Official government vehicles (blue license plates) are expected to carry people too, which explains why we saw an ambulance (hopefully minus patient) drop someone off at the shop he worked in. Fuel is rationed and everybody must be able to account for what they use. Tourist buses (luxury compared with locals' buses) are strictly regulated, with drivers accounting for every litre of fuel used and kilometre travelled.

In the country, tractors are most often used for transporting goods. A tractor with a couple of passengers aboard pulling two trailers full of sugar-cane was a frequent sight. Because the tractors are used for transport, ploughing is usually carried out by oxen. I saw only three tractors being used for land work. The benefits of oxen include natural fertilizer to replace the previously imported chemicals, and they do not compact the soil as tractors do.

The name Cuba means fertile land, and I saw evidence of this everywhere. Apart from the main export crop of sugarcane - some cut by combine harvester, some by hand - I saw dozens of plantations of banana – used only for the domestic market – paddy fields of rice, and smaller fields of sweetcorn, cabbage, tomatoes, lettuce and sweet potatoes. Mango trees dripped with fruit, which would ripen in May. Pineapples, melons, guavas, papayas, coconuts and fruits whose names I never discovered all grow in the lush countryside. A little wheat is grown and a few potatoes but neither is a big crop. There are however thousands of hectares of uncultivated land, that looks as if it had never been used. I have read that some of Cuba’s soil is salinated but this was far from the sea and adjoined lush crops.

Sea food – fish, large shrimps and lobster all feature on tourist menus, as does pork, chicken and to a lesser extent beef. It is surely possible for Cuba to feed not only its own population but export food too, but many foods remain rationed for Cubans, and while no one starves, queues in Cuban shops for very little are reminiscent of Soviet communist days.

It seems that a fair amount of food is produced for the second largest source of Cuba’s income – the tourists. Even so it wasn’t uncommon to find restaurants that had run out of bread. Still, this was a small price to pay for the joy of being in the perhaps the only country in the world without a McDonalds. The only thing in never ending supply was rum. In the north-west grows the famed Cuban tobacco. The sweet heady smell of it drying in barns thatched with palms makes it hard to associate with a cancerous drug.

Cuban food is a curious mixture of delicious basic ingredients and total lack of imagination. The spit-roasted pork we had one evening was the best I have ever tasted, closely followed by some of the most delicious chicken – no water plumped supermarket fayre here - but their use of vegetables remains uninspired. Vegetables apparently did not feature highly in the Cuban diet before the Special Period. Now they are grown not only in the country, but also in the urban gardens. I saw several of these but only one in Havana, contrary to expectation. I was told most of them were about 15 kilometres away. They are more prevalent on the outskirts of the smaller towns, and provide an intensive way of growing fresh produce.

The farmer’s market in Camaguey demonstrated what Cuba can produce. In a riot of colour, trade was brisk: the quality of the fruit and vegetables looked wonderful. People were buying, among other things, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, pineapples, coconuts, bananas, meat, fish and plant medicines, which have also increased as medication is also in limited supply. However, I noted that none of the buyers left with large bulging shopping bags; everyone’s purchases were limited, as their pesos do not go far.

That Cuba survived the Special period is evident but it would be a mistake to consider these measures as a triumph or as permanent. In spite of the almost constant atmosphere of carnival that the many musicians create, life in Cuba for the majority is meagre. While health care and education is free and housing virtually so, homes are frequently in poor condition and overcrowded. Many lack necessities let alone luxuries. The down side of the socialist/communist regime is the lack of room for enterprise. Why would a farmer work hard to cultivate more land when the crop must be sold to the government with very little profit for himself? Better to do the work you must and sit outside your house enjoying the sunset, a glass or two of rum and perhaps a cigar.

In the last few years the government has allowed some people to run private restaurants – paladars - that can cater for tourists, but the owners pay high tariffs to the government whether they have many customers or not. One young man in Santiago de Cuba has honed his skills in charming tourists and won over our group of nine to dine on his roof terrace. His step-mother cooked while his father waited on us and 24 year old Marlon, whose day job is teaching chess, entertained us in his street-cool white jeans and shirt and dark shades. If ever there was a youngster with entrepreneurial skills it is Marlon, but he feels his hands are tied. They are limited to the number they may serve, as are those who rent rooms. If anyone is tempted to do extra unofficial trade they can fall foul of the authorities and pay heavy fines.

The Special Period measures were an answer to economic breakdown, but are not necessarily long-term solutions. Cuba is looking to Venezuela, Mexico and Canada as sources of oil so as imports increase it will be interesting to see whether Cuba’s mechanization increases or whether it invests in sustainable living.

There seems to be very little evidence of sustainable sources of energy such as solar power in spite of the climate – I saw only two establishments using solar panels. Cuba is yet again poised for change, but only time will tell what form this will take.

Published in The Greenacre Times (April 2008)