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Archive for June, 2008

book cover

The latest offering from one of Britain’s best known social and environmental activists is a compilation of over 50 of his newspaper articles written over the last few years. As such, for avid Monbiot fans there isn’t really any new material here, however for those seeking an easy to read introduction which demonstrates the breadth of Monbiot’s research and consequent opinions Bring on the Apocalypse summarises the main areas Monbiot cas campaigned around.

While Monbiot is best known (at least in the UK) for his campaigning around climate change, and his previous book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, where he aims to illustrate how Britain could implement a 90% cut in carbon dioxide emissions without reverting to a pre-industrial society, Bring on the Apocalypse covers a broad range of topic, with the book being divided into six parts, each of which contains a selection of arguments dealing with the topic. In order, these sections are

1. Arguments with God: In which Monbiot addresses religious fundamentalism, particularly American Evangelical Christianity

2. Arguments with Nature: In which Monbiot addresses environmental issues, particularly anthropogenic climate change

3. Arguments with War: In which Monbiot addresses the War on Terror, especially the War in Iraq

4. Arguments with Power: Which deals with corporate exploitation, transnational non-democratic institutions such as the IMF and issues surrounding neoliberal globalization

5. Arguments with Money: Which investigates various ways in which corporations and the super rich elite who benefit from their prominence avoid paying taxes, and have generally attempted to avoid participating in welfare state styled socialist democracies, preferring a cut throat privatised state whereby the rich get richer and look after themselves while the poor are left to their own devices

6. Arguments with Culture: Wherein Monbiot examines aspects of contemporary British culture, such as anti-speed camera organizations and drivers associations groups whose individualistic values concur with neoliberal ideology, but conflict with Monbiot’s preference for a society based on free people rather than free markets.

In general I found myself nodding along to the vast majority of what Monbiot has to say across a broad range of topics. His knowledge on a vast array of topics is exemplary, and he consistently puts forwards logical and well-reasoned arguments. Part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much was the way that it addresses so many topics, giving a holistic perspective on many of the key areas where social struggles can create a beneficial impact on other people’s lives. It is rare to find a book which is accessible, enjoyable and manages to cover environmental activism, the anti war movement, a critique of aspects of contemporary culture allied with a rejection of religious fundamentalism.

A general criticism of the book would be that on each issue covered, there is far more left out than left in, however given the form of the book this is entirely to be expected, and Monbiot has indeed published far more comprehensively on Climate Change (Heat: How to Stop the Planet Buring), the rise of Corporatism (Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Great Britain), and the anti-democratic nature of the international capitalist institutions and some thoughts as to how to replace them with democratic, transparent and publicly accountable replacements (The Age of Consent).

My favourite quote from this book is contained in the Arguments with God section, where Monbiot addresses reincarnation/the afterlife and gives a materialist perspective not dissimilar to my own:

‘I like the idea of literal reincarnation: that the molecules of which I am composed will, once I have rotted, be incorporated into other organisms. Bits of me will be pushing through the growing tips of trees, will creep over them as caterpillars, will hunt those catepillars as birds. When I die I would like to be buried in a fashion that ensures that no part of me is wasted. Then I can claim to have some use after all.

Is this not better than the awful lottery of judgment? Is a future we can predict not more comforting than the whims of inscrutable authority? Is eternal death not a happier prospect than eternal life? The atoms of which we are composed, which we have borrowed momentarily from the ecosphere, will be recycled until the universe collapses. This is our continuity, our eternity. Why should anyone want more.’

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Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek’s latest offering is a look at the way in which western societies understand, and importantly misunderstand violence.

Zizek’s central thesis is that the liberal conception of violence is limited to subjective forms of violence, violence which is performed by a clearly identifiable human agent. Zizek claims that what is required to understand the logic and motives behind contemporary acts of subjective violence is to step back from the visible violence which often appears spontaneous and inexplicable, allowing us to ‘perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts.’ (p1) What lurks behind the easily perceptible forms of subjective violence according to Zizick are forms of objective or systemic violence.

Objective violence is precisely the violence inherent to the ‘normal’ state of things. Objective violence is invisible since is sustains the very zero level standard against which we perceive things as subjectively violent. Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious dark matter of physics, the counterpart to an all to visible subjective violence. It may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be ‘irrational’ explosions of subjective violence (p2)

Thus Zizek urges reader to reject the fascination shown by the western media for various forms of subjective violence and instead to analyse the systemic violence which creates the social conditions and actors required for the outbursts of subjective violence. To this end Zizek examines a number of prominent exemplars of recent subjective violence; the reactions to the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed, the Parisian riots of 2005, the violence involved on both sides of the War on Terror and the violence in the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and explores the ways in which material inequalities, poverty, cultural imperialism and liguistic/symbolic violence can be understood as the underlying causes of the subjective violence which dominates media discourse on the topics.

Applying such thought to a local level, how do we make sense of the recent attacks along the Easton cyclepath or the near daily outbursts of road rage on our heavily congested streets? Do we demonise the people who committed this violence, treating it as evidence of their wrongheadedness and ‘evil’ as subjects, or do we examine and act to change the structures surrounding those people and the systemic violence they suffer; coming from disadvantaged backgrounds in a society whose rich are growing rapidly richer while the poor go nowhere, where class mobility is far less than a generation ago, living in a community that lacks youth centres and other activities for young people to enjoy, questioning Bristol City Council’s bizarre urge to fill the inadequate roads with ever increasing volumes of traffic (see the new Cabot Circus Car Park) and the lack of affordable and reliable public transport (its current guise of First Great Western providing private profits allied with extortionate prices and atrocious service)? Do we seek ways to effect and change the ideology of competitive individualism which sees young people growing up in a society which urges them to look out for themselves and no one else or do we simply label them little bastards, wrongful creatures who have exercised their free will to be irrationally evil?

Critiquing the liberal concept of pacifism as the rejection of all forms of subjective violence, Zizek instead implores the endorsement of forms of emancipatory violence, as ‘To chastise violence outright, to condemn it as ‘bad’ is an ideological operation par excellence, a mystification which collaborates in rendering invisible the fundamental forms of social violence.’ (p174) The argument here is that by colluding with the social, economic and political conditions of massive inequality and extreme poverty, people are perpetrating forms of systemic violence which breeds the necessary qualities of resentment and anger which cause the subjective violence abhorred by pacifists. What Zizek claims is necessary then, is a systemic transformation to eliminate or at least minimise the systemic violence endemic to globalised capitalism.

Consequently, Zizek argues that ‘Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.’ (p183) In situations where everyday life perpetuates a cycle of poverty and misery for others – often those who have laboured to produce goods consumed in the first world, but also marginalised groups within western nations – the most violent thing a person can do is to simply ignore this systemic violence and lead an uneventful life, claiming to hate violence while creating the conditions of a society which produce it.

Where I feel Zizek falls down somewhat is his lack of meaningful discussion as to what activities he feels are necessary for a massive reduction of systemic violence. Drawing on Che Guevara, Zizek argues that love is an essential component of revolutionary thought and action, as out of love for others alongside solidarity, the desire for the overthrow of repressive socio-economic systemic machinery is born. This emphasis on love as an essential component of opposition to global capitalism is something Zizek shares with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the authors of Emprire and Multitude, whose writings maintain that the information revolution is in the process of creating radical social formations capable of challenging the system of global capitalism. Zizek however critiqes Hardt and Negri, somewhat unfairly contending that ‘Negri himself, the guru of the postmodern left, praises digital capitalism as containing in nuce all the elements of communism – one only has to drop the capitalist form and the revolutionary goal is acheived.’ (p14) Such a grossly oversimplified account of Negri’s search for revolutionary potentiality within emergent technologies and contemporary activism sees Zizek align Negri with the likes of Bill Gates and the CEO’s of Shell Intel and Google, allowing him to ridicule them all as the faces of liberal communism; those who fight subjective violence while perpetrating acts of systemic violence.

While Hardt and Negri stress their support for new activist movements such as the Zapatistas, Indymedia and the anti- War G8 and WTO protests, Zizek is somewhat less forthcoming about where he sees hope and potential in contemporary activism. While his elaboration of systemic violence and how this effects subjective violence is a practically useful one for activist movements and critical thought, his claims that the Porto Alegre movement has failed, and furthermore that while ‘Leftist political movements are like banks of rage. They collect rage investments from people and and promise them large-scale revenge, the re-establishment of global justice,’ (p158 ) the current situation according to Zizek sees a reality in which ‘There is no longer a global rage potential.’ (p159 ) If there no longer exists the potential for the coming together of the worlds people to fight for global justice, freedom and democracy, then how does one go about effecting large scale changes to the systems which inflict violence on so many peoples and their environments? Zizek offers no real answer here beyond the adoption of emancipatory violence, another concept he shares with Hardt and Negri.

Such sentiments appear to offer little hope in the way of emerging movements to challenge the systemic violence present in the current global order, and so in my estimation take the sheen of what otherwise is an excellent exposition of the violence which often appears invisible but thoroughly permeates the fabric of neoliberal culture.

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Bracken Hill Garden, located in Leigh Woods, Bristol, is under threat from development. Once the site of the Univ. of Bristol’s Botanical Gardens, much of the flora and fauna remains. The house and gardens contain many species of plants, and houses horseshoe bats, crested newts, foxes, birds and other wildlife. If the developers get their way this will all be gone.

Bracken Hill Gardens is situated in the woodland conservation area of Leigh Woods, adjacent to the Nightingale Valley and fifteen mins walk from the Clifton Suspension bridge.

flowers in Bracken Hill

A Building application has been sent to North Somerset Council to Build luxury houses on this mature grade II listed historic garden.

If the application is successful, a large area of the beautiful garden will be destroyed. Also under threat are the Victorian red brick garden buildings and botanical glasshouses which will all be demolished.

The proposed building plan is for two large luxury houses and four semi detatched houses to be built over the garden, with another luxury detatched house to be built over the walled inner flower garden.

There will be substantial conversions made to the exisiting Victorian buildings, turning them into further detached luxury houses and luxury apartments.

Bracken Hill house

Bracken Hill was the home of the University of Bristol’s botanic gardens for nearly fifty years, during this time the University welcomed thousands of people from all walks of life to learn about the plants and to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the gardens.

Most people wrongly beleive that when the University sold Bracken Hill they removed all the plants from the botanic garden. This is far from the truth. A major part of the botanical diversity survives, with many of the original and rare plants, trees, shrubs and flowers still growing and thriving behind the gates of Bracken Hill.

There are many species of wildlife in the garden, including the protected crested newts and horseshoe bats. Many woodland and song birds regularly visit the garden to feed on the lawns and in the trees.

If the integrity of this Victorian estate is destroyed for profit, the public will never see beyond the locked gates again

A planning application has been submitted to the Council. The time limit for you to review and comment on the building proposal on Bracken Hill Gardens has been extended to June 10th. Please review the information in the previous post and make your feelings clear to the Council. THIS IS ONLY A TEMPORARY REPREIVE, time is still running out for the gardens, act now to avoid this historic landmark being lost from Bristol forever.

To inspect copies of the application, the plans and other documents, to build houses on the GRADE II LISTED GARDEN at BRACKEN HILL, North Road, Leigh Woods. Go to:

http://www.n-somerset.gov.uk/search&submit

LL COMMENTS ABOUT THIS BUILDING PROPOSAL MUST BE SENT TO NORTH SOMERSET BY 20th MAY 2008.

YOU MUST INCLUDE THE APPLICATION NUMBER: 08/P/0970/E AT THE TOP OF ANY LETTER AND SEND IT TO:

DEVELOPMENT AND ENVIRONMENT DIRECTORATE,

SOMERSET HOUSE,

OXFORD STREET,

WESTON-SUPER-MARE,

SOMERSET,

BS23 1TG.

IT IS ALSO QUICKER AND CHEAPER TO EMAIL COMMENTS DIRECT TO THE COUNCIL AT dccomments@n-somerset.gov.uk WITH THE APPLICATION NUMBER: 08/P/0970/E

COMMENTS CAN ALSO BE SUBMITTED ONLINE VIA THE COUNCILS WEBSITE.

IMPORTANT: Please check the Council’s guide lines for submitting comments. Under access to information legislation all correspondence is made available for public inspection on the council’s Website. ANONYMOUS comments cannot be taken into account.

If anyone wishes to contact Mr LEE BOWERING, PRINCIPAL OFFICER, directly, Tel: 01934 426683. Please quote the application number 08/P/0970/E.

All comments will be taken into account.

The clock is ticking fast for Bracken Hill, please don’t delay.

Thank you!

To read more about the gardens and the campaign to save them from development go to

http://www.brackenhillgarden.org/

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