Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Ireland and Oz

Ian Harris           Otago Daily Times             July 25, 2014

On the same day recently there surfaced two very different perspectives on a Christian presence in the life of modern communities, one full of promise, the other searing.

 The morning mail brought the magazine of St Mary’s-in-Exile in Brisbane, celebrating five years since two priests and their Catholic congregation marched out of their parish church to model an alternative way of being Christian in our 21st-century world. It is a story of courage, community and hope. In the evening the movie Calvary told of the excoriating experience of a priest in a remote village on Ireland’s Atlantic coast.

 The title, recalling the site of Jesus’ execution, suggested this could be another Hollywood blockbuster about the crucifixion, along the lines of Mel Gibson’s gratuitously violent The Passion of the Christ. Thankfully, not so. John Michael McDonagh’s screenplay is far subtler, and in its own way carries an even greater punch through its setting among people of today.

 In both Brisbane and the Irish village the priests are good men intent on living with integrity and compassion in the spirit of Christ. In Brisbane this led priests Peter Kennedy and Terry Fitzpatrick to move beyond the mildewed doctrine and ritual of another era to foster a communal experience that is truly shared and life-affirming.

“A spiritual bond of love and friendship, compassion and celebration has replaced traditional Catholic ritual,” says one layman. And another: “We have changed the liturgical expressions not to be different from those of the Catholic church, but to better reflect the 21st century and our continuing struggle to live the life of Jesus, in all our doubts, queries and limitations of understanding of ‘who – and where – is God.’ ”

In the Irish village, people are still reeling from the scandals of clerical sexual abuse that have shamed the Irish church. Yet all acknowledge that James Lavelle is a good priest – which puts him in striking contrast to everyone else. Indeed, it is his very goodness that leads one of his parishioners to tell the priest during confession that he intends to kill him one week hence. As a young boy he was sexually abused by a priest, his innocence destroyed. Now he wants revenge, which he misconstrues as justice. But there would be no point in killing a bad priest, he says. Only a good priest would do.

 This is obviously a distorted echo of the church’s traditional teaching that only the death of a divinely good man could ensure forgiveness for sinners. And sin, as estrangement from good, abounds in the village. Father James tries valiantly to stop the butcher beating his wife, to deter her from finding solace in adultery, to counsel the young man bent on either killing himself or joining the army so he can kill somebody else, to help the man of property detached from wealth, life and family and desolate in guilt.

 Quite beyond the priest’s reach are the cynical doctor motivated by “one part humanism, nine parts gallows-humour”, the blatantly promiscuous gay man, the arsonist who burns down the church, the Buddhist publican who takes to James with a baseball bat, the unknown who slits his dog’s throat.

 They all delight in mocking the priest’s faith and rubbing his nose in the church’s scandals, though he is innocent of them. He absorbs the derision, visits a serial killer in prison, cares for an elderly writer. He can also be sharp with a greenhorn fellow-priest, and at one point drinks too much when the burden of his role weighs him down. And over all the action lies the haunting threat of James’s murder with which the film opens.

There are softer moments, but even they have a darker tinge. Before becoming a priest, James was married, and his daughter is now a troubled teenager. She is resentful that when her mother died, he left her for the church. So now she says: “I belong to myself, not anybody else.” That is the polar opposite of any sense of community.

 Yet amidst the village’s trail of bleak and corrosive relationships, only James and his daughter find moments of warmth in each other’s company. As James says in another context, “Forgiveness is highly under-rated.”

 In the manner of a parable, Calvary holds up a mirror to a contemporary community living without the binding virtues of trust, hope and love. St Mary’s-in-Exile puts its effort into making those virtues central in in its common life, and projecting them into the surrounding community. Give me that option any day.

Eight hundred dead Palestinians. But Israel has impunity

Robert Fisk                             Independent/UK                                 25 July 2014

Impunity is the word that comes to mind. Eight hundred dead Palestinians. Eight hundred. That’s infinitely more than twice the total dead of flight MH17 over Ukraine. And if you refer only to the “innocent” dead – ie no Hamas fighters, young sympathisers or corrupt Hamas officials, with whom the Israelis will, in due course, have to talk – then the women and children and elderly who have been slaughtered in Gaza are still well over the total number of MH17 victims.

And there’s something very odd, isn’t there, about our reactions to these two outrageous death tolls. In Gaza, we plead for a ceasefire but let them bury their dead in the sweltering slums of Gaza and cannot even open a humanitarian route for the wounded. For the passengers on MH17, we demand – immediately – proper burial and care for the relatives of the dead. We curse those who left bodies lying in the fields of eastern Ukraine – as many bodies have been lying, for a shorter time, perhaps, but under an equally oven-like sky, in Gaza.

Because – and this has been creeping up on me for years – we don’t care so much about the Palestinians, do we? We care neither about Israeli culpability, which is far greater because of the larger number of civilians the Israeli army have killed. Nor, for that matter, Hamas’s capability. Of course, God forbid that the figures should have been the other way round. If 800 Israelis had died and only 35 Palestinians, I think I know our reaction.

We would call it – rightly – a slaughter, an atrocity, a crime for which the killers must be made accountable. Yes, Hamas should be made accountable, too. But why is it that the only criminals we are searching for today are the men who fired one – perhaps two – missiles at an airliner over Ukraine? If Israel’s dead equalled those of the Palestinians – and let me repeat, thank heavens this is not the case – I suspect that the Americans would be offering all military support to an Israel endangered by “Iranian-backed terrorists”. We would be demanding that Hamas hand over the monsters who fired rockets at Israel and who are, by the way, trying to hit aircraft at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. But we are not doing this. Because those who have died are mostly Palestinians.

More questions. What’s the limit for Palestinian deaths before we have a ceasefire? Eight hundred? Or 8,000? Could we have a scorecard? The exchange rate for dead? Or would we just wait until our gorge rises at the blood and say enough – even for Israel’s war, enough is enough. It’s not as if we have not been through all this before.

From the massacre of Arab villagers by Israel’s new army in 1948, as it is set down by Israeli historians, to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when Lebanese Christian allies of Israel murdered up to 1,700 people in 1982 while Israeli troops watched; from the Qana massacre of Lebanese Arabs at the UN base – yes, the UN again – in 1996, to another, smaller terrible killing at Qana (again) 10 years later. And so to the mass killing of civilians in the 2008-9 Gaza war. And after Sabra and Shatila, there were inquiries, and after Qana there was an inquiry and after Gaza in 2008-9, there was an inquiry and don’t we remember the weight of it, somewhat lightened of course when Judge Goldstone did his best to disown it, when – according to my Israeli friends – he came under intense personal pressure.

Nigerians seethe at the government’s failure to rescue abducted schoolgirls

Lola Okolosie                                     Guardian/UK                    22 July 2014

A hundred days ago, 276 school girls from Chibok were rounded up during their exams and spirited away into the forests of north-east Nigeria. The kidnappings threw the militant group Boko Haram, which opposes education and secularism, into the global spotlight.
For Nigerians, it was further evidence of how corruption and incompetence continue to wreak havoc in the lives of ordinary women, children and men. How could a once ragtag clutch of extremists reach this level of sophistication and coordination, completely unchecked by the state?

Much of the answer lies in the authorities’ slow response to any kind of crisis. Yesterday, the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, finally met parents and survivors. Spurred into action by last week’s visit from 17-year-old humanitarian, Malala Yousafzai, Jonathan felt it appropriate “to personally comfort ... and reassure them” that his government is doing “all within its powers to rescue their daughters”, a claim that might be more credible had it not taken three months for him to deliver it.
The facts speak for themselves: despite international support from Britain, China and the US, among others, Nigeria remains unable to unite the stolen girls with their families. Thankfully, 51 managed, without state help, to escape captivity and return home. But Boko Haram maintains the stranglehold on the region that it established long before the kidnappings. Indeed, killings, fear and destruction appear to have become the new normal in the north-east. In the first two months of 2014, at least 25 women and girls were abducted. In June, reports emerged that a further 60 women and girls, and as many as 30 boys had been taken.
It is particularly disturbing to note that Boko Haram’s tactics partly reflect those of the Nigerian state in its fight against terrorism. In 2012, in order to destabilise the organisation, the arrest of wives and children of militants became government practice. Intent on not being outdone, the group’s then leader, Abubakar Shekau, vowed that kidnapped women would become “servants”, their fate being conscription, rape and forced marriage.
The social media campaign to #BringBackOurGirls had Nigerians at home and abroad shaking their heads in continued disbelief at how little their government was able or willing to do. The government’s response – to hire a US PR firm, Levick – speaks volumes. A better solution would be the recovery of those taken by militants and serious measures to prevent it happening again.
At every step the president and his supporters have shown themselves to be disconnected from their citizens. It took Jonathan nearly three weeks to make a public statement about the kidnappings and even then, he criticised traumatised parents for not doing enough to aid search and rescue efforts.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the government appears to have been harassing key figures in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, most recently the former education minister, Obiageli Ezekwesili. Image seems to be the highest priority for an administration too incompetent to mount an effective rescue mission.
Frustrated campaigners have been portrayed as opposition party stooges. A presidential statement argued: “Those who would manipulate the victims of terrorism for their own benefit are engaging in a similar kind of evil: psychological terrorism.” Harsh words to level at activists merely demanding the government fulfil one of its most basic duties – protecting its citizens.

A functioning democracy should be transparent and its leaders accountable. These three sorry months have shown us how far Nigeria still has to go. There is heightened security, but the authorities have been vague about what is being done to secure the victims’ release.
Anger is an appropriate reaction to the somnolent response of Nigeria’s government. But in order for it to prompt meaningful action, the rage will have to be sustained and cannot be restricted to the desperate fate of the Chibok girls. So many more are suffering with them.

Britain will never be a champion of democracy while it sells arms to tyrants

Owen Jones                                Guardian/UK                       23 July 2014

Attention is focusing on British-made weapons being sent to Moscow, and understandably so. Vladimir Putin was once a friend of Britain, given cover by Tony Blair as he razed Chechnya to the ground, but now – in the typically Orwellian manner of British foreign policy – he has been transformed into enemy number one. And yet David Cameron's definitive claims that an absolute arms embargo has been put in place against Russia have been torpedoed: according to a cross-party group of MPs, there are more than 200 licences in place to sell arms to Putin's government.
If you have even a shaky belief in British foreign policy as a force for democracy, even a cursory glance at the list of destinations for British arms should swiftly lead you to part with your illusions. Israel has now killed close to 600 people in Gaza, including 149 children; its land-grabbing settlements place it in violation of international law. Other countries might be deemed pariah states for such actions, but not Israel, which Britain has supplied with parts for sniper rifles, military aircraft, unmanned drones and small arms.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive regimes on earth and bans political parties, trade unions and all forms of dissent; deprives women of many of their most basic rights; kills "witches"; has recently declared atheists to be terrorists; and persecutes LGBT people. And yet this is the biggest market for British arms, with our government approving £1.6bn worth of exports, ranging from equipment for machine guns to "components for military equipment for initiating explosives."
Bahrain's dictatorship doesn't just have Saudi Arabia's totalitarian despots to help defend it from democratic protesters; Britain's own arms sales to the regime are a crucial display of solidarity.

Egypt's junta has killed hundreds of protesters, sentenced many more to death and imprisoned journalists. And yet it is the proud recipient of British arms ranging from assault rifles to components for military aircraft.
The killing fields of Sri Lanka have received all too little attention in the British media, with up to 70,000 Tamil civilians massacred at the end of the 2009 civil war: but this does not serve as a deterrent for British arms sellers.  According to the British MPs, new Labour awarded five export licences to Syria for chemicals that could be used for weapons. They call it a "highly questionable" decision.

We sold Muammar Gaddafi weapons, both before 1985 and then again when Blair befriended him, even signing a defence co-operation agreement in 2007. When British leftwingers like the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn were lonely voices against Saddam Hussein's murderous regime in the 1980s, our government was happily flogging it weapons.
This dictator-arming industry is heavily propped up by our government; while other industries were told to sink-or-swim with disastrous consequences, each defence export job in Britain receives a de facto £13,000 subsidy. But Britain has a shortage of engineers. Instead of promoting an industry that arms murderers and torturers, we should surely be promoting the renewable energies of the future and reskilling army industry workers to help save the planet.

In the meantime, our arms trade serves as a reminder that Britain's claim to be a promoter of democracy is a myth. As long as it is promoted and sanctioned by the government, our country will remain the trusted ally and friend of tyrants. Doesn't it make you proud to be British?     [Abbrev.]

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

My wife knew she was dying – but she chose life

John Inge                                    Guardian/UK                                  17 July 2014

Assisted dying is an emotive subject for me. My wife, Denise, died on Easter Day after a year’s battle with cancer, leaving behind two daughters aged 15 and 10. She was 51. We could hardly believe the words of the surgeon who told us, in May of 2013, that her abdominal sarcoma was inoperable. The prognosis was about as bleak as it could have been. She was in terrible discomfort and was offered palliative chemotherapy which, we were told, had a one-in-four chance of having any benefit at all. The next three months were hell for all of us as she succumbed to the appalling side-effects of the strongest chemo the medics had in their arsenal, not knowing whether it was going to do anything other than cause terrible sickness.

How easy it would also have been to succumb to despair when the diagnosis was given. It looked as though she had only days, or weeks at most, to live. If assisted dying had been legal, how tempting it would have been for me at that stage, or later as the dreadful effects of chemo took their toll and I became more and more worn out with caring for my wife and two children and distressed at seeing her in such pain and discomfort. How tempting it would have been for me to have suggested to her that it would be “for the best” for her to end it all there and then.

Many, including former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, argue that it would have been the “compassionate” and “caring” thing to do. How difficult it would have been for Denise to argue with me if she was made to feel that she was a “burden” to myself and others. Had assisted dying been legal, I daresay the medics might have agreed with me, and the pressure on her, though subtle, would have been unbearable.

That is one of the many reasons I believe Lord Carey’s arguments to be so profoundly misguided and dangerous. He quotes a dying woman parishioner of his who whispered in his ear before she died that, “It is quality of life that counts, not length of days”. Well, maybe – but who is to decide, when, and on what grounds?

Denise’s quality of life at the time of her prognosis and following it was poor by any standards. However, against the odds the chemo did have an effect and the tumour shrank for a while. Had assisted dying been legal, we might never have had the opportunity to enjoy the precious months together that we were given as the more debilitating effects of the treatment wore off. The despair of the moment would have determined our actions. What a tragedy that would have been.

My former colleague in the Church of England, the Rev Christopher Jones, summarised my own feelings very well as he was dying from cancer. “My experience has reinforced my conviction that the law prohibiting assisted suicide is an essential bulwark against well-meaning but unwarranted judgments about the value of life and the desirability of ending it in order to minimise or eliminate suffering,” he said. “In my view, suffering is inescapable in this situation, and ought not to be allowed to trump all other considerations, especially when palliative care is taken into account.”

As it was, Denise, like Christopher, was able to emerge from the darkness of the initial diagnosis and the trauma of the treatment which followed to enjoy some precious time. As she wrote shortly before she died: “Contemplating mortality is not about being prepared to die, it is about being prepared to live. And that is what I am doing now, more freely and more fully than I have since childhood. The cancer has not made life more precious – that would make it seem like something fragile to lock away in the cupboard. No, it has made it more delicious.”

I, like the overwhelming majority of those who work in palliative care, am opposed to this bill – not on religious grounds, but out of concern for the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. My wife was one of them. I hope that as they debate assisted dying, everyone in the House of Lords will understand the effects legalisation could have on them.


Sunday, 13 July 2014

Where Did God Go?

By Ian Harris         Otago Daily Times     July 11, 2014

“WHERE did God go?” asked a Time magazine cover a few years ago, signposting an article about the decline of traditional Christianity in Europe. It’s a searching question, though not as provocative as the one Time posed back in 1966: “Is God dead?” If the answer then had proved to be “yes”, of course, there would have been no ground to ask the new question decades later, which at least assumes that God is still around to go somewhere.

Dramatic as the questions are, the answer to both has to be: “It depends what you mean by God.” Here are five possible responses to that later question, all confining themselves (as does Time) to Christianity: other faiths and their followers would have their own take on it.

God has not gone anywhere. Even in Europe, where church attendance has dwindled and people’s general knowledge of Christianity has shrivelled, God remains in this view the creator and sustainer of the universe, the source of all that is good, and our surest hope for the future.
Though people may have abandoned God in their millions, traditionalists would say, it does not follow that God has abandoned them – if he had, he would not be the Christian God. So it is business as usual . . . except that everyone in the church and out of it knows it is not.

God has given up on the old established churches and is to be found among newer, less hidebound groups. Time notes a religious vibrancy in informal gatherings, many of them small. This is especially so where people find it safe to explore their thoughts and doubts without being dumped on, where they are free to develop more intimate and reflective styles of worship and, among immigrant groups, where they can be themselves among their own people.

God has gone south. American history and religious studies professor Philip Jenkins sees Christianity as far from moribund, but a huge shift has occurred in its presence around the world – a shift that has gone largely unnoticed in the West. There are, for example, more practising Anglicans in Nigeria than in England, and the disparity is growing. However, the kind of Christianity rooted among the billion-plus Christians in Latin America, Asia and Africa is not as liberal or open as in much of the West. It is generally orthodox in outlook, supernatural and often pentecostal in emphasis, conservative in morality, and authoritarian in style. So God as traditionally understood is alive and well on what were once the missionary continents.

The question is invalid: there never was “a” God (understood as a being apart from the world and humanity) to go anywhere. However, there will always be concepts of God (or Godness), developed in response to the deepest human experiences. These have proved enormously valuable over the centuries – and they have of necessity evolved as knowledge has expanded, society has developed, and people’s worldview and life experience have changed. New times repeatedly bring forth new concepts and/or new emphases about God. English scholar of religions Karen Armstrong puts it this way: “Ever since the prophets of Israel started to ascribe their own feelings and experiences to God, monotheists have in some sense created a God for themselves . . . Today many people seem to have lost the will to make this imaginative effort. “This need not be a catastrophe. When religious ideas have lost their validity, they have usually faded away painlessly: if the human idea of God no longer works for us in the empirical age, it will be discarded.” And, I would add, new human ideas about God can then slowly take shape. In other words, while the old theistic God has moved right out of the minds of many westerners, that spells doom for the churches only if they lack the ability – or the nerve – to think and feel their way through to a new understanding of what the word God can mean for secular people in a secular world.

One such prospect is:
God is being re-imagined in a non-realist way. That is, for many people God is no longer understood as a real or objective being existing beyond the world and periodically intervening in it, but as a subjective, life-orienting force in human experience. “Non-realist” because while not real in the usual sense of the word, God is still very much “for real”, still capable of being re-imagined (or re-created) and experienced in our brave new world.

Japanese plant experts produce 10,000 lettuce heads a day in indoor farm

Natasha Culzac                           Independent/UK                             12 July 2014

Could this be the future of agriculture?

A physiologist has turned a former semiconductor factory into one of the world’s largest indoor farm, cultivating lettuces with LED lights. At almost half the size of a football pitch, the farm, which opened in Japan in July, is already churning out 10,000 lettuce heads a day, the brains behind it say.

Plant physiologist Shigeharu Shimamura wanted to explore ways that man could keep up with the ever-increasing food demand while bypassing the risks brought on by drought, crop disease and natural disasters.

“I knew how to grow good vegetables biologically and I wanted to integrate that knowledge with hardware to make things happen,” Mr Shimamura said.

The climate controlled room is powered by LED fixtures that emit light at wavelengths – the most ideal for plant growth – while also giving the ‘farmers’ power to control the night and day cycles. The lights were built by American multinational General Electric (GE), which detailed the farm within a self-produced publication.

The farm reportedly produces lettuces 2.5 times faster than outdoor fields “What we need to do is not just setting (sic) up more days and nights,” Mr Shimamura added. “We want to achieve the best combination of photosynthesis during the day and breathing at night by controlling the lighting and the environment.”

The lights give them the ability to control temperature, humidity and irrigation, allowing it to cut its water usage to 1 per cent of that needed by outdoor fields, while also growing lettuces two-and-a-half times faster, the experts claim.

The farm comprises of 17,500 LED lights on “18 cultivation racks reaching 15 levels high,” GE says.

The Japan arm of the corporation said it hopes that indoor farms such as this one in the Miyagi Prefecture, which was badly damaged by the powerful earthquake and tsunami in 2011, could solve food shortages in the world.

“Finally, we are about to start the real agricultural industrialization,” Mr Shimamura said.

GE isn’t the only electrical firm trialling the new method. Philips has partnered with Green Sense Farms, an Indiana-based vertical farm which produces herbs, leafy greens and lettuces using LED lights.


Desmond Tutu plea for 'assisted dying' before historic Lords

David Smith and Daniel Boffey            Observer/UK                      12 July 2014

Archbishop calls for 'mind shift' on right to die and condemns as 'disgraceful' the treatment of the dying Nelson Mandela

Desmond Tutu, one of the world's most eminent religious leaders, has made an extraordinary intervention in the debate over assisted death, by backing the right of the terminally ill to end their lives in dignity.
Tutu, who calls for a "mind shift" in the right to die debate, writes: "I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying. I revere the sanctity of life – but not at any cost."

On Saturday the former archbishop of Canterbury Lord (George) Carey spoke out in favour of the bill. But in an article in the Times, Justin Welby, the current archbishop and head of the Church of England, reaffirmed the church's traditional hostility to any move that would endanger the principle of the sanctity of life. Tutu notes that Falconer's bill will be debated on Mandela Day, which would have been the 96th birthday of South Africa's first black president. He calls for his own country to follow Britain's lead in examining a change in the law.

"On Mandela Day we will be thinking of a great man," he writes. "On the same day, on 18 July 2014 in London, the House of Lords will be holding a second hearing on Lord Falconer's bill on assisted dying. Oregon, Washington, Quebec, Holland, Switzerland have already taken this step. South Africa has a hard-won constitution that we are proud of that should provide a basis to guide changes to be made on the legal status of end-of-life wishes to support the dignity of the dying."

Falconer's proposals are being fiercely opposed by key figures such as Welby, and campaigners for the rights of disabled people. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said he feared the bill would put some people under pressure to end their lives. He said: "Why is it that when people who are not disabled want to commit suicide, we try to talk them out of it, but when a disabled person wants to commit suicide, we focus on how we can make that possible?"

In his article for the Observer, Tutu says that he has been moved by the case of a 28-year-old South African, Craig Schonegevel, who suffered from neurofibromatosis and felt forced to end his life by swallowing 12 sleeping pills and tying two plastic bags around his head with elastic bands because doctors could not help him.

Tutu writes: "Some say that palliative care, including the giving of sedation to ensure freedom from pain, should be enough for the journeying towards an easeful death. Some people opine that with good palliative care there is no need for assisted dying, no need for people to request to be legally given a lethal dose of medication. That was not the case for Craig Schonegevel. Others assert their right to autonomy and consciousness – why exit in the fog of sedation when there's the alternative of being alert and truly present with loved ones?"

He also discloses that he has now had a conversation with his family about his own death. "I have come to realise that I do not want my life to be prolonged artificially," he writes. "I think when you need machines to help you breathe then you have to ask questions about the quality of life being experienced and about the way money is being spent. This may be hard for some people to consider.

"But why is a life that is ending being prolonged? Why is money being spent in this way? It could be better spent on a mother giving birth to a baby, or an organ transplant needed by a young person. Money should be spent on those that are at the beginning or in full flow of their life. Of course, these are my personal opinions and not of my church."

"People should die a decent death," he continues. "For me that means having had the conversations with those I have crossed with in life and being at peace. It means being able to say goodbye to loved ones – if possible, at home." He adds: "I can see I would probably incline towards the quality of life argument, whereas others will be more comfortable with palliative care. Yes, I think a lot of people would be upset if I said I wanted assisted dying. I would say I wouldn't mind, actually."


Friday, 11 July 2014

Blair embodies corruption and war. He must be sacked

Now he's advising the Egyptian dictatorship, his removal as Middle East peace envoy is a moral and democratic necessity

Seumas Milne                  Guardian/UK                     2 July 2014
Since Egypt's first democratically elected president was overthrown in a military coup a year ago, the country has been gripped by brutal and sustained repression. Well over 2,500 protesters – the true figure is likely to be much higher – have been killed on the streets in cold blood by the security forces. At least 20,000 have been jailed. More than 1,000 political activists have been sentenced to death. Torture is rampant, basic freedoms suppressed. Three al-Jazeera journalists were last month imprisoned for "spreading false news". The Egyptian coup-maker, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, is now president courtesy of a 96% endorsement in a sham election after his predecessor Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood was banned.
Now the one-time New Labour star is giving "whatever help he can" to win international financial support for the Egyptian dictatorship. Naturally, the man whose views on everything from Europe to Islam are regularly sought by the western media is not in this for "personal gain" and plans to "make no money out of Egypt". The clue, however, is in the "business opportunities" that his staff have privately referred to, in both the Gulf and Egypt, as available for those who get involved in bolstering the Sisi regime. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are keeping Egypt afloat because they regard the Muslim Brotherhood as a mortal threat to the survival of their autocracies.
Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund is already paying Blair more than £1m a year. Of course Blair has made money out of plenty of other repressive regimes since he left office, from Kazakhstan and Kuwait to Colombia – as well as from banks and corporations. His work for Nursultan Nazarbayev, dictator of oil-rich Kazakhstan, made him $13m as the regime cracked down on civil liberties. But shilling for Sisi on behalf of Gulf rulers who are themselves harshly repressive breaks new ground. The Egyptian regime isn't just autocratic. Its president overthrew an elected government Pinochet-style, with a bloodletting of Chilean proportions.
Egypt is also central to the Middle East conflict, and its government is in effect an Israeli ally. The conflict of interest between Blair's work for regional dictators and his role as Middle East peace envoy verges on the surreal. This is a politician who spearheaded the invasion of Iraq on the basis of entirely false claims at the cost of at least half a million dead, brought al-Qaida into the country and incubated the sectarian virus that is again ripping it apart, while colluding with torture and kidnapping – and who not only continues to champion setting the region on fire but calls for that fire to be spread in new wars and interventions. To this day, Blair defends the Iraq invasion on the basis that at least the dictator Saddam Hussein was removed from power, while using his international position to hawk himself around to other dictators and swell an income now estimated at around £20m a year.

The west's support for Arab tyrannies was a crucial factor in the rise of al-Qaida-style terrorism in the first place, just as its collusion with the overthrow of a democratic Islamist government in Egypt is giving it a new lease of life across the region, including in Iraq. Backed by the heart of reaction in the Gulf , Blair is now the leading international spokesman for western imperial swagger and the suppression of democracy in the Middle East, dressed up as a fight against Islamism.

He has also come to epitomise the corruption at the heart of British public life. That's not to say he's done anything illegal. And it's not just about the vast income, the seven houses, the £2m retainer with JP Morgan or the trading of influence and advocacy with corrupt authoritarian governments – all based on the contacts he built up as an elected British political leader.

Tony Blair embodies the revolving door on a global scale. Once prime ministers know they can become rich if they play ball with the right companies and states in office, it will become a habit. The "economic reform" Blair will be pressing on Egypt will doubtless involve the kind of privatisation and deregulation that stands to enrich his sponsors but which proved so disastrous at home.

For the rest of us, Blair's self-enrichment from corporations and dictatorships has degraded the office of prime minister. To undo the damage will require a profound change of political direction. Blair himself will never shake off demands that he be held to account for war crimes. But his continuing role as Middle East peace envoy is a scandal and an insult to the people of the region. He must be stripped of any remaining public authority.   Twitter: @SeumasMilne  [Abridged]close

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Solar has won. Even if coal were free to burn, power stations couldn't compete

As early as 2018, solar could be economically viable to power big cities. By 2040 over half of all electricity may be generated in the same place it's used. Centralised, coal-fired power is over.

Giles Parkinson                                Guardian/UK                                       7 July 2014

Last week, for the first time in memory, the wholesale price of electricity in Queensland fell into negative territory – in the middle of the day. For several days the price, normally around $40-$50 a megawatt hour, hovered in and around zero. Prices were deflated throughout the week, largely because of the influence of one of the newest, biggest power stations in the state – rooftop solar.

“Negative pricing” moves, as they are known, are not uncommon. But they are only supposed to happen at night, when most of the population is mostly asleep, demand is down, and operators of coal fired generators are reluctant to switch off. So they pay others to pick up their output. That's not supposed to happen at lunchtime. Daytime prices are supposed to reflect higher demand, when people are awake, office building are in use, factories are in production. That's when fossil fuel generators would normally be making most of their money.

The influx of rooftop solar has turned this model on its head. There is 1,100MW of it on more than 350,000 buildings in Queensland alone (3,400MW on 1.2m buildings across the country). It is producing electricity just at the time that coal generators used to make hay (while the sun shines). The impact has been so profound, and wholesale prices pushed down so low, that few coal generators in Australia made a profit last year. Hardly any are making a profit this year. State-owned generators like Stanwell are
specifically blaming rooftop solar.

Tony Abbott, the prime minister, likes to say that Australia is a land of cheap energy and he’s half right. It doesn’t cost much to shovel a tonne of coal into a boiler and generate steam and put that into a turbine to generate electricity. The problem for Australian consumers (and voters) comes in the cost of delivery of those electrons – through the transmission and distribution networks, and from retail costs and taxes.

This is the cost which is driving households to take up rooftop solar, in such proportions that the level of rooftop solar is forecast by the
government’s own modellers, and by private groups such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance, to rise sixfold over the next decade. Households are tipped to spend up to $30bn on rooftop modules.

Last week, the WA Independent market Operator forecast that
75% of detached and semi detached dwellings, and 90% of commercial businesses could have rooftop solar by 2023/24. The impact on Queensland’s markets last week is one of the reasons why utilities, generators and electricity retailers in particular want to slow down the rollout of solar.
The gyrations of wholesale power prices are rarely reflected in consumer power bills. But let’s imagine that the wholesale price of electricity fell to zero and stayed there, and that the benefits were passed on to consumers. In effect, that coal-fired energy suddenly became free. Could it then compete with rooftop solar?

The answer is no. Just the network charges and the retailer charges alone add up to more than 19c/kWh, according to estimates by the Australian energy market commissioner. According to industry estimates, solar ranges from 12c/kWh to 18c/kWh, depending on solar resources of the area, Those costs are forecast to come down even further, to around 10c/kWh and lower. The truly scary prospect for coal generators, however, is that this equation will become economically viable in the big cities. Investment bank UBS says this could happen as early as 2018.

The CSIRO, in
its Future Grid report, says that more than half of electricity by 2040 may be generated, and stored, by “prosumers” at the point of consumption. But they warn that unless the incumbent utilities can adapt their business models to embrace this change, then 40% of consumers will quit the grid.

Even if the network operators and retailers do learn how to compete – from telecommunication companies, data and software specialists like
Google and Apple, and energy management experts – it is not clear how centralised, fossil-fuel generation can adapt. In an energy democracy, even free coal has no value. [Abridged]http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/07/solar-has-won-even-if-coal-were-free-to-burn-power-stations-couldnt-compete