Sunday, 25 August 2013

Elysium Now: One Planet, Two Worlds

So it is Hollywood not arthouse, but the movie "Elysium", from the Director of the powerful "District 9" provides a thought-provoking as well as action-packed story, in the best traditions of science fiction. Similarly, as with all good sci fi, it is as much about today as it is about any future.

The premise is that by 2154, the world has become so overpopulated and over polluted and, by implication, so dangerously unequal, that the richest have literally fled the Earth to a gigantic orbital space station known as Elysium (the name of heaven in Greek mythology). Now we know what the bankers mean when they say they will go somewhere else if we make them pay their taxes.

There, in a santised world of great mansions and green gardens, the wealthy truly live in a bubble, their every need met by the resources sucked up from the poor on Terra Firma below. It's a sort of Stepford in Space, or maybe an off world Kensington, populated by smug people  who can live in ignorance of the unwashed below - on a rare visit to a factory on the surface, the Elysium-dwelling owner rebukes his foreman for not covering his mouth when he speaks to him. This revolting elite is able to live for a highly extended lifespan thanks to medical technology that they only allow to be available to themselves - a simple scan can wipe out cancer and apparently even exploded skulls can be mended in a few minutes. In sharp contrast, down on Earth, queues form at rare public health centres where the simplest medical treatment is rationed and staff have to work shifts lasting several days at a time.

The parallels are strikingly and clearly deliberate - in our current austerity driven western societies, at the very time scientific advances are creating all sorts of terrifyingly amazing possibilities for medical advance (including huge expansion of life expectancy), the economics of inequality are ensuring that even basic medical treatment is gradually becoming less readily available to many, even in the wealthiest societies on Earth. And it is medical need that drives the film's main protagonist, Max da Costa, played by Matt Damon. After a work accident caused by punishing schedules and faulty equipment, he is dying of radiation poisoning, while his former girlfriend's daughter is in the final stages of leukaemia. On Elysium, technology could save them in moments, but on the surface of the Earth, living in a planet-wide slum, their only prospect is death.

And so the adventure begins: with a strong performance from Damon and an all too brief role for Jody Foster as the pugnacious Defence Chief of Elysium, a struggle commences for control of the celestial Pleasuredome. The scripting is elegant and amusing by turns and the characterisation strong - and the denouement, without spoiling anything, will make you believe again in the great potential of humanity.

Keeping true to original American film tradition, there are themes around insurrection and injustice, but perhaps one unsurprising fault is the almost inevitable central premise that just one person can make all the difference - though to be fair Matt does get a bit of help from his friends.

But then it wouldn't be Hollywood if, instead of the hero's dash into space, there had to be a committee meeting followed by a card vote and an impartial selection process for a balanced team of co-insurrectionists.

Nor would it be half as enjoyable to watch.

Lib Dems & Fracking - Having It Both Ways

The fracking controversy in the UK is driven by one key factor - after some years of refusal or at least prevaricating on a decision, late last year the Government decided to permit it to go ahead, and it has increasingly featured as a key component of planning for future enrgy supplies. As blogged before, the Coalition's claim to seek to be the "greenest Government in history" has long since fallen by the wayside as it cut the renewable energy feed-in tariff and virtually abolished community-owned clean energy schemes. Using vast quantities of water to force shale gas and oil out of the ground beneath our feet has become a major objective of Government energy policy as we follow the United States in seeking out yet more carbon fuel, seemingly oblivious to the environmental impact.

To date, the only significant UK-wide political party to oppose fracking has been the Greens - the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, was arrested for blocking the road during a peaceful protest at the Balcombe test site earlier this week. Green leader, Natalie Bennett, has also spoken at the site and Greens across the country have been involved in arguing against fracking. By contrast, with a few, largely self-interested local exceptions, Tories, Labour and UKIP have welcomed the process, awed by the massive development of it in the USA and dismissive of the impact of both extraction and use of yet more global warming gases.

And as for the once supposedly "greener-than-the-Greens" Liberal Democrats?

Well, today, as a poll shows massive public opposition to fracking (with three times as many preferring wind farms to those supporting fracking), the Lib Dems have finally issued a statement condemning fracking. It turns out that, although they are part of the Coalition, they are opposed to this particular policy.

Now, at least. They didn't say anything earlier, perhaps waiting to see which way the wind blew in terms of popular opinion.

As for tomorrow, who knows where they will stand? Presumably, we will get a clearer idea of what they actually think after they have expelled the Energy Secretary Ed Davey from their party. After all, it was Mr Ed (Lib Dem) who gave the go-ahead for fracking, just as his predecessor, Chris Huhne (Lib Dem), approved new nuclear power stations after years of saying they didn't work, were too expensive and too dangerous. Mr Davey sees fracking as "useful" and thinks it it is "fantastic for energy security...and the climate." Although he has said the environment should be protected, it isn't clear how and he has signed up to trying to bribe local communities with a share of fracking revenues to try to stymie opposition.

What, they aren't going to expel Mr Davey? And they're not going to change the Government's policy? No, because, in spite of the rhetoric, the Lib Dems continue to support "limited" fracking - but of course, do nothing to explain what limited means. Watch this space, depending on where you are in the country.

Surely the Lib Dems aren't trying to have it both ways by pretending to be in Government and in Opposition at the same time?

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Fracking Greed and Money

Don't drink the water! - from "Gasland" - view trailer here.

"It's two factors - greed and money."

The words of a resident of a Texan town that ran out of water, partly from drought but also because of the huge quantities of water drawn from the local aquifer by an oil company undertaking fracking in the area.

Pollution of water supplies by fracking - highlighted most dramatically by flaring kitchen sink taps in the film "Gasland" - is often cited as a major fear of those opposed to fracking for gas. But the process of hydraulic fracturing itself uses massive quantities of water, pumped into the shale to force gas out. In any scenario where there is pressure on water supply, fracking can only compound it. And with global warming leading to warmer and warmer summers, even countries with traditionally moderate climates like the UK will likely face fracking-induced droughts - with the additional threat that the water that is still available might be poisoned in any case.

This video, from The Guardian Newspaper, tells the story of the Texan town that ran dry...

Originally published in The Guardian 11 August 2013:   Texan drought sets residents against fracking 
Next video: Fracking explained in 2 minutes. 

Monday, 5 August 2013

Enterprise Britain

The Coalition's supposedly "red-tape free flexible economy" has been exposed for what it is this week - exploitative and seedy in turn; yet at the very moment the torchlight is shone into some of the darker corners of the British workplace, new employment tribunal rules and the near destruction of legal aid will make it harder still for anyone to obtain justice in the workplace.

First has come the revelation that a number of prestigious and highly profitable organisations operate zero-hours contracts where staff are guaranteed no work or pay at all, but have to be available at short notice at the whim of the employer and in many cases need to obtain permission to work for anyone else. The Royal Household, never a paragon of good employment practice, heads this list of shame, followed by Cineworld and a string of retailers. This morning, the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development released the results of a survey of employers which suggests one million people in Britain are on such precarious contracts - five times the official government figure but almost certainly a substantial underestimate of the real picture. The voluntary and public sectors, reflecting (in many, though not all cases) the impact of austerity, use such arrangements far more frequently than the private sector - almost twice as often.

Some, including the Green Party leader Nathalie Bennett, have called for zero hours - or casual contracts - to be abolished. A total ban could be misjudged - there are, occasionally, circumstances where a casual arrangement can be to the benefit of both parties, as long as it is genuinely one where there is no mutual obligation on either side and it is for truly occasional work. However, many of those on zero hours arrangements in fact report being used pretty much on a full time basis with their employers demanding their presence when needed with no real opportunity to decline the "offer" of work.

It is dubious practice - where someone is used regularly, contrary to what the media and many campaigners have been saying, the law in fact applies similar and in many respects identical rights as it does to those on more regular contracts. Pro rata to time worked, a casual employee accrues the same rights to holiday pay, sick pay and employment protection as anyone on a more regularised contract - in law. But in reality, their employers often don't recognise these rights and, in the absence of unionised workplaces, the only way someone can seek to assert their rights is to go to an employment tribunal.

And, as of this week, it is now much harder for anyone to do so - to take a case, you will now need to pay a deposit of up to £1,200 - a tall order if you are on a zero hours contract or have just been dismissed. If you lose your case, which most people do (contrary to media myth), you forfeit the money - on the other hand, even if you win, with the average payout for losing your livelihood hovering around £7,000, it's not exactly the most effective process for realising justice. Moreover, legal aid has now been withdrawn from nearly all employment cases, so aside from your deposit, you will now either have to fight your case by yourself, go to a no-win, no-fee lawyer or hire a solicitor with the near certainty that even if you win hands down, you are likely to end up out of pocket.

The Tories and Lib Dems claim that this will stop vexatious claims - well, it might, but surely there would have been an easier way of filtering these out. What the combined impact of the legal changes and the ever-growing casualisation of employment and insecurity of employment means is that even the most shocking abuses of employment law will now increasingly go unchallenged - which is the true agenda behind these changes (Vince Cable, the Cabinet Minister for business, has already doubled the probation period for one to two years before employees gain any employee protection, as well as making it easier for employers to "suggest" to staff they should leave via "protected conversations" where there is little effective comeback). More and more, bad employment practices and greedy owners and shareholders will slice their pounds of flesh from their workforce knowing that they are virtually unassailable. Collective rights were destroyed twenty years ago with the defeat of the unions by the last Tory Government; now this one is wiping out the rights of individual employees too.

But no worries, as they keep telling us, there is always work for the willing. Just this week, in spite of David Cameron railing about the need to curb internet pornography last week, it seems live porn is ok - a Government Jobmatch website has been advertising jobs for lap dancers in contravention of their own rules. This includes vacancies at the "Sugar & Spice" American Style Table Dancing Club, which offers topless and naked dancers.

How long before "Gentlemen's Clubs" are sponsoring apprenticeship pole dancers? How long before someone turning down such a "career opportunity" has her benefits cut? It seems only a matter of time and yet more breath-taking flexibility on the part of our enterprising Ministers.

Coming next: the wiping out of workplace safety. Welcome to the New Victorian Age.

There's always moonlight and music, and lap-dancing. (source- "The Independent")