If you were waiting for a planetary wake up call, this is it

Why climate change deniers need to get real…

In case you missed the biggest news story of the decade last week, we´re all doomed. A long-awaited paper on global warming and its effects was published on Monday by the UN´s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and it makes for very grim reading. The message in the latest report gave humanity its starkest warning yet: we are facing a very dark and terrifying future, and the time for fixing it may have already passed.

Key findings

The report warns that melting sea ice and permafrost threaten to sink entire cities, ocean acidification is killing our precious coral reefs, and extreme weather patterns and mega disasters such as heat waves, droughts, floods, typhoons and wildfires will continue to worsen. When you throw into the mix dangerously high air pollution, the effects of fracking (sinkholes, earthquakes, groundwater contamination and even birth defects), and the ongoing mass extinction of wildlife due to human stupidity, we can conclude that things are not looking good for our grandchildren. “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” were the dark words of Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC.

ASomali woman flees drought. Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

A Somali woman flees drought. Reuters/Thomas Muko

Food shortages, riots and rising grocery bills

The report, released every six years since the panel was set up in 1988, was a joint effort by more than 300 scientists. By far the most alarming edition to date, it took three years to compile and runs to 2,600 pages and 32 volumes. It tells us that even if we´re lucky enough to escape death from natural disasters, the future of agriculture is so bleak that millions of people face starvation and displacement. Global wheat and corn stocks are in great danger, and even staple groceries like rice and soy could become expensive luxury items.

Other food sources are also under threat. Fish catches in some areas of the tropics are projected to fall by between 40% and 60%, affecting millions of people for whom seafood is a source of livelihood and survival- and this scarcity of food could also cause widespread political instability and rioting, as well as other related social problems.

In conclusion, the experts say that man-made climate change is no longer up for debate. As Richard Schiffman wrote in the Guardian : “There are few climate-change skeptics amongst those who grow the world’s food. Farmers don’t have to read UN reports to know how radically their weather is changing. And consumers don’t need academic studies or bullet points to know that food prices are steadily rising.”

The case for skepticism

This is true, but of course not everyone agrees with the IPCC´s findings. Skeptics point out that we have not been measuring and recording climate patterns for long enough to know for certain if humans are responsible for the earth changes we are currently experiencing. Others might argue that we can´t trust the UN, or point to evidence of weather control technology such as HAARP to explain climate change and even natural disasters. These are all valid points, but they ignore one simple, undeniable fact: humanity is raping and murdering this small blue planet at a rate which is unsustainable and psychopathic; to assume there is no price to pay for this ecocidal behavior is ignorant and foolish to say the least.

Consider this: the earth is 4.6 billion years old. Let´s scale that down to 46 years. Using this analogy, humans have been here on this planet just 4 hours. Our industrial revolution began just one minute ago. And in that meager 60 seconds, we have already destroyed more than 50% of the world´s forests. This is akin to ripping out one lung from a living organism and expecting it to be in the same good health it was beforehand.

Just days after the publication of the IPCC paper, Yellowstone Park suffered a 4.8 magnitude earthquake- something which should strike fear into all of us- and Chile was next, with a powerful 8.2 magnitude quake causing landslides and a tsunami. Also this year, the US was hit by a polar vortex in the east and wildfires in the west, as was Australia, while poor countries like the Philippines (whose low-lying Capital Manila is in a high-risk tropical region) have declared they “expect catastrophe” and called on the global community to help them. Volcanoes have erupted this year in Hawaii and Indonesia, and England was hit by the worst flooding on record, (followed by an unprecedented ´toxic´smog which is currently causing great concern). These examples are just a few, but they illustrate how climate change is being experienced by all of us around the world.

Mudslides caused by logging in the USA. Reuters/ Max Whittaker

Mudslides caused by logging in the USA. Reuters/ Max Whittaker

Energy lobbyists, puppet politicians and corporate media poodles

We can see the devastation, so why do so many of us refuse to wake up to the reality of climate change? Because people are paid good money to lull us back to sleep, that´s why. Here is an enlightening quote taken from a comment thread in the Guardian : “I study energy policy and I’ve more or less given up. The lobby groups working against mitigation are too strong and widespread: the oil and gas industry, the green lobby (who oppose nuclear power), nimbys (who oppose many local renewable projects), politicians who pander to the electorate by telling them we can have low carbon and lower prices, etc”. A recent Newsweek investigation backed up this point, claiming that scientists were offered financial rewards ($10,000 apparently) from oil company lobbyists in return for smearing the IPCC report and undermining its findings.

The magazine highlighted the consequences of this: ´Just last year, polls found that 64 percent of Americans thought there was “a lot” of scientific disagreement on climate change; only one third thought planetary warming was “mainly caused by things people do”.´ These figures are shocking because the reality is, an extremely small number of scientists deny human-caused climate change.

Meanwhile, another BP oil spill on Lake Michigan is being conveniently censored from our screens, the European Union has ordered Britain to end renewable energy subsidies, and the Spanish government have decided to tax people who use solar panels. But it´s not just dirty energy lobbyists and politicians who are causing, then denying, such blatant ecocide. A fantastic article by Media Lens highlights the role of the British press´s role in smearing the case for man-made climate change- and in the USA, anti-truth propaganda is even more prevalent. It may be too late to ensure our grandchildren grow up on a planet with fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink. But we have to keep on hoping: Bolivia´s ground-breaking decision to give legal rights to the Earth is something we must demand in our own countries. It´s time to wake up. It´s time to fight for Gaia.

First published here

Incredible Edible free food project replicated worldwide

Schoolchildren planting in an old boat

Schoolchildren planting in an old boat


In the small town of Todmorden in the north of England, fresh organic produce is growing everywhere. There are sweet-smelling herbs at the railway station, vegetables sprouting in the public car park, and an apothecary garden next to the local Health Centre. This is the Incredible Edible movement, a grassroots campaign to provide healthy fresh food to the whole community, while promoting local produce and educating people on the joys of cultivating veggies.

Todmorden in bloom

Todmorden in bloom

Incredible Edible co-founder Pam Warhurst explained how she and her friends sat around a kitchen table six years ago, brainstorming ways to make positive change in the world. They began with a simple question: Can we find a unifying language that cuts across age, income and culture, that will help people themselves find a new way of living? Then came the thunderbolt. Food is a basic human need, but fresh, healthy organic food is a basic human right. “None of this is rocket science, but it is inclusive,” Pam says. Ultimately, this is a movement for everyone. We say, ´if you eat, you´re in´.”

What followed was a public meeting, where Pam and her associates received a standing ovation after presenting their plan. It was an ambitious, idealistic project which not only addressed the issue of what we eat, but where we spend our money and what we teach our children.

Pam and friend at a local food event

Pam and friend at a local food event

“I wondered if it was possible to take a town like Todmorden and focus on local food to re-engage people with the planet we live on, create the sort of shifts in behaviour we need to live within the resources we have, stop us thinking like disempowered victims, and to start taking responsibility for our own futures,” Pam explains.

Three key areas are covered: planting free food for the whole community, supporting and promoting farmers and other local food producers rather than supermarkets, and rolling out an extensive educational network to directly involve residents and students with the project.

Incredible Edible is run by unpaid volunteers and began with the planting of some small herb gardens and the launch of a local seed bank. Now, every school (and church) in the area is involved with the movement. They have provided chickens, planted orchards, and installed a fish farm at the local high school, which was such a success that a course in agriculture has since been launched. The group also offers free staff training for primary school teachers on issues of food awareness and cultivation, as well as adult learning schemes through ties with the college. All the children in Todmorden can now recognize a tomato plant, and have benefited greatly from getting their hands dirty in the community gardens.

Gardening expert Diarmuid Gavin with some Calderdale scouts

Gardening expert Diarmuid Gavin with some Calderdale scouts

The town, population 15,000, has attracted what Pam calls ´vegetable tourists. “People come from all over the world to poke around in our raised beds,” she laughs. There are fruit trees, bushes, herbs and veggies everywhere: outside the police station and the retirement home, on the towpaths of Todmorden´s canal, and even in the cemetery. Residents have embraced the project with gusto, and many private gardens and porches have been transformed into blooming oases of delicious fresh produce since the scheme launched in spring 2008.

“People are ready and respond to the story of food,” Pam points out. “They want positive action, and in their bones they know it´s their responsibility. We are all part of a local food jigsaw, and all part of the solution.”

The group define their work as ´propaganda gardening´, and they made a conscious decision not to ask permission from the local authority before planting. “We´re starting to build resilience; we´re starting to reinvent community, and we did it all without a strategy document,” Pam states. “We did not consult, we did not write a report; enough of all that!”

Despite this maverick attitude, the local council has been so impressed by Incredible Edible that it has donated land to the movement. Furthermore, politicians in the area have pledged to remove obstacles stopping the use of community land for growing, and to give guidance to other public bodies about how it can be done.

a happy local farmer

a happy local farmer

Various spin-off projects have been created since Incredible Edible´s early days, including the fantastic ´Every Egg Matters´campaign. Volunteers had the idea of encouraging people to buy and consume only fresh, local eggs from happy hens. A map of locations was drawn up and handed out to people, with great success. As a result, Todmorden farmers began to widen their produce range- making home-made pies, cheeses and other artisan products that were not in demand before.

Even local firefighters are in on it

Even local firefighters are in on it

Pam and her associates then decided to give all local food producers and market traders some of their signs and posters to use when selling their goods, and were amazed at the response. The Incredible Edible logo attracted new consumers and was a huge boost to the local economy. By building a system of mutual benefit and support, sales of local produce (cheese, eggs, beer, meat) soared, and consumers were inspired to start growing their own vegetables, keeping chickens, or simply boycotting supermarkets wherever possible.

Meetings and planting days are regularly organized through Incredible Edible, creating bonds between neighbors who would otherwise be strangers. A local history project has been launched, with the aim of teaching people about how food was cultivated in the area in the past. Pam and her co-creators also plan to publish a recipe book, and a wonderful story for children (which can be downloaded for free here) aims to teach youngsters about the Incredible Edible philosophy (by highlighting the nonsensical idea of buying New Zealand apples from a supermarket when trees growing nearby provide the same fruit for free).

Incredible Edible also runs courses on grafting, permaculture, bee-keeping, edible fungi, herbal medicine and more. Land, polytunnels and raised beds have been donated to the cause by a local store, while a community aqua garden was funded by the British National lottery. The movement is growing at a mind-boggling rate (there are now over 200 groups worldwide) and the Incredible Edible team even finds time to help other start-ups all over the world, in the USA and Japan, Australia and India, New Zealand and Europe to name a few!

the whole community is now green-fingered

the whole community is now green-fingered

The inspirational folk who dreamed up and executed such an awesome plan are normal people like you and I. They have no special training or qualifications; they have no money to invest in the project. Instead, they have achieved all of this with a simple desire to make a difference, a huge passion for creating alternatives, and a refusal to allow bureaucracy and red tape to stop them.

“We are not daunted by the sophisticated arguments that say small actions are meaningless in the face of tomorrow´s problems,” Pam says, “because we have seen the power of small actions and it is awesome. We are starting at last to believe in ourselves. In my book, that´s incredible.”

I grew up in a village very close to Todmorden (and visit regularly), so I can personally vouch for the awesome transformation detailed in this article! If you are feeling inspired and want to know more about replicating this project in your own community, click here or follow I.E on facebook. All images are credited to Incredible Edible, with an extra thank you to press officer Estelle Brown for all her help. This article was first published here.

Romanian farmers tell Chevron to Frack off

Credit: Sasha Y Kimel, Flickr

Credit: Sasha Y Kimel, Flickr

In the sleepy rural village of Pungesti, Romania, life has changed very little in generations. There is not a car in sight: birdsong is broken only by the clip-clop of horse´s hooves and the trundle of cart wheels, as farmers with weather-beaten faces drive their animals over rolling green pastures. Old women in headscarves and tattered long skirts cook simple meals of fried cabbage and meat inside dark concrete shacks, and the ultra-conservative village priests of the Orthodox church still play a vital role in these traditional, tight-knit communities.

These colorful characters may not look like your typical environmental protesters, but many of them have reinvented themselves as guerilla activists in the fight against fracking.

Last year, oil giant Chevron began scoping out fracking sites in the Eastern European country, bringing T-shirts and yoghurts in a cynical bid to win over the people. Romania, one of the poorest countries in the E.U, is sitting on an estimated 51 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. This means big bucks for companies like Chevron and the Romanian government, who have given the green light to fracking companies in three remote villages despite widespread public anger.

Last October, hundreds of protesters blocked a road and made a human chain to stop Chevron drilling in Pungesti. Police broke up the protest amid claims of brutality , but that didn´t deter campaigners in the capital Bucharest, who marched to a local television station banging drums and blowing whistles. An online resistance site was set up and more protests erupted in December, when Chevron was forced to suspend operations due to their equipment being destroyed by campaigners. Last month, Pungesti protesters ´exorcised´ Chevron´s demons from their village (one priest called their presence a ´satanic invasion´), while villagers chanted “We will die to save all of Romania!” and: “Out, you flea-ridden dirty dogs!”

Local mayors who have allowed fracking to take place have been ostracized by local communities, with one such official now under police protection. In some areas where drilling has already taken place, cracks have appeared in the earth. In one case, a sinkhole swallowed up half the room, not to mention a housekeeper (who later recovered). The situation is made worse by the shocking fact that under Romanian law, there is no financial compensation for these inevitable consequences of fracking; and not only that, but not a penny of the profits made from shale gas extraction will go to the poverty-stricken communities affected.


In many cases, fracking officials are trespassing on farmers´private property to lay cables for seismic testing without landowners´permission. The response of Romanian villagers is inspirational: refusing to go down without a fight, they sneak into fields in the dead of night to cut the cables, claiming it´s their “duty”. They chase away the 4×4 vehicles and trucks sent by Chevron and the government with sticks and screams of “traitors!”, and they have staged mass nationwide protests against Chevron´s shale gas extraction, as well as a Canadian corporation´s plan to use cyanide to extract gold in the northwest of the country.

While the battle is far from over, anti-fracking crusaders around the world can learn a lot from the dedication, passion and hands-on guerilla methods of these inspirational Romanian activists. It´s time every single one of us stood up, grabbed our cable-cutters, and shouted “Over my fracking dead body!” to the greedy corporations and corrupt politicians raping our earth and exploiting our communities.

First published here.

Organic urban gardening for beginners

Being self sufficient in a small space is much easier (and enjoyable) than you might think!

A few years ago, I knew nothing about gardening. It seemed like a useful but time-consuming hobby: too much hard work and too much information to take in. Then I moved to a small farming community in the mountains of southern Spain, where old men wearing flat caps still use mules to plough the earth, and everyone in the village has their own vegetable garden, or huerto.

Planting lettuce at home in Spain. This plant, and many more, can also be grown in window boxes and pots for urban gardening.

Planting lettuce at home in Spain. This plant, and many more, can also be grown in window boxes and pots for urban gardening.

Neighbours in the village would bring me gifts of fat orange carrots and juicy red tomatoes fresh from the earth, and I realized with horror that I had never tasted real food until then. Making a decision to grow my own produce was the next logical step, and I was surprised to discover it was much easier than I had ever imagined. Not only that, I found getting muddy in the garden was so relaxing it was almost zen-like, not to mention rewarding and fun. On top of the pleasure it brings and the knowledge that I´m contributing to a global back-to-basics food revolution, growing my own produce has saved me a lot of money and enabled me to provide a constant supply of delicious healthy food for my family.

Most people don´t have the luxury of a plot of land or big garden, but much of what I´ve learned can be applied to city center apartments with only a small balcony or yard. With food prices at an all time high and increased public concern over GMOs, growing what little you can in a small space is the best way to re-connect with nature while boycotting supermarkets in a pro-active way.

A balcony garden. Credit: generalamazo, Flickr

A balcony garden. Credit: generalamazo, Flickr

Please note that all the methods explained here were chosen for their simplicity, but there are various approaches to urban gardening and other people may use different methods (and different plants) than those I cover here. Gardening is a learning process: experimentation is essential to find out what works best for you and your plot. I´ve avoided using words like permaculture, bio-intensive, bio-dynamic, hydroponics and so on, because I think sometimes as a beginner these terms can only make things more confusing. I´m also a firm believer in grasping the bare basics and then learning through experimentation and getting your hands dirty! Also, I recommend that you do your own research for specific planting times for your climate. Spring in southern California or southern Spain comes earlier than spring in the UK or Canada for example, so it´s worth checking out guidelines for where you live.

Choosing suitable plants

Plants that grow upwards, rather than spilling out across the earth are the best ones to cultivate in a confined space. In spring (between March and May depending on climate), you can plant cucumbers, sweetcorn, tomatoes, climbing beans, aubergine and peppers, which don´t require much ground space and are all easy to grow. These plants will thrive with lots of sunlight, but many of them can survive even in a shady spot- here is some useful advice for gardeners who have this problem.

A trellis can be used for climbing plants. Credit: boboroshi, Flickr

A trellis can be used for climbing plants. Credit: boboroshi, Flickr

Sweetcorn can be planted directly in the ground, but the others will do better if they are first grown in seed trays and left indoors, only ´transplanted´ when the seedlings are sturdy and strong (around 10-15cm tall). Make sure the last frost of the year is well and truly over in your area before placing seedlings outside!

Potatoes are usually grown in the ground, but experimentation has taught me that they do just as well in sacks full of earth which you can place on a balcony. Recycled buckets, as used in this Dallas project, will also do fine. Simply save a few old (organic) potatoes, and when the shoots have grown to around 3cm, cut the potato into quarters and place each piece inside a sack, as done here.

Chili peppers, cooking herbs, lettuce, radishes, spinach and beet can also be planted soon for summer, and will thrive even in window-boxes and small pots. Hanging baskets can also be used to make the most of your space.

Other easy-grow crops are garlic (best to plant in autumn), onions, broccoli and pumpkins – the latter seem to take over the garden of their own accord, and require pretty much no maintenance whatsoever (they do need a little more ground space, though, so would only be suitable for a bigger plot).

The links provided for each crop will give you more detail about soil and sunlight conditions, as well as how and when to plant. As for where to find these seeds, I find the easiest thing to do wherever possible is to take seeds from an organic specimen and then dry them for a day or two on a piece of tissue paper. This works for any seed-based plant: cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, as well as strawberries (also great for small spaces) and other fruits. For seedless plants, you can buy organic seeds online or from an online seed bank; I would also recommend finding out if there are any free exchanges in your local area to save money (and connect with other green-fingered folk!)

Radish, beet and purslane growing in a small window box. Credit: Samantha cy-v, Flickr

Radish, beet and purslane growing in a small window box. Credit: Samantha cy-v, Flickr

Soil and fertilizers

As a beginner, even getting your head around the various different types of soil can be a headache. Of course different plants have their own requirements to thrive, but mostly it´s common sense: make use of what you have in the local area (where possible) and keep an eye on your seedlings as they grow, making sure the soil doesn´t become too dry and learning from observation what they need. If the earth in your area is too gritty or clay-based, you might need to purchase soil, but any gardening store should be able to advise you on this.

Organic fertilizers are a good idea, and if it´s not possible to get hold of any manure, you can use any plant-based waste to give nutrients and moisture to your soil (a process called mulching) . This could include wood chips, pine needles, bark, leaves, or compost mixes made from any leftover fruit and vegetable peelings. I usually dig a hole, fill a quarter of the hole with manure or mulch, then add a little more soil before placing the plant in the earth and repeating this process (mulch, then soil again to the top).

Lunar gardening

The waxing and waning of the moon doesn´t only affect the tides; it affects soil moisture, tree sap, and everything else (including the water in our bodies). The idea of using the moon´s cycles to plant, prune and harvest may sound crazy to some, but it´s a method that has been used in rural Spain (and hundreds of other cultures) for generations, with amazing results. I can personally testify that even if you are skeptical, starting your new hobby with a lunar gardening calendar to help you out will make the whole process much easier, and will pretty much guarantee you success (whether you believe in it or not!).

A beautiful summer harvest! Credit: Todd Heft. Flickr

A beautiful summer harvest! Credit: Todd Heft. Flickr

The best calendar I´ve found can be bought online from Lunar Organics* here. Unlike some other highly complex charts I´ve seen elsewhere, Lunar Organics´calendar divides plants into four basic categories: roots (anything that grows underground), fruits (including vegetables) that grow above ground), leaves (lettuce, herbs, spinach etc) and flowers. The calendar is very simple to use and is color-coded to show you when best to sow and harvest these ´families´, which is great for total beginners and disorganized gardeners alike! It also comes with a handy guide to planning your space and an introduction to companion planting (see below), which is an excellent way of repelling pests and being kind to the earth without using any chemicals.

* Please note, this is a UK company. It does ship to other countries, but you will have to adjust the GMT times given on the chart to your specific timezone.

Companion planting and pest control

One of the best organic methods of pest control I´ve found is to collect nettles, soak them in a compost bin half-full of water until they reach a mulch consistency, then simply apply the mixture around the base of the plants. The toxicity of the nettles seems to deter most garden pests, as well as acting as a great fertilizer. Beer placed in sunken cups around the base of the plants will trap any unwanted slugs, but if you don´t like this method you can also loop copper wire around the bases to deter them instead.

Companion planting has many benefits. Credit: Samuel Mann, Flickr

Companion planting has many benefits. Credit: Samuel Mann, Flickr

Companion planting is based on the idea that certain plants thrive best when they are grown together. Since different plants give and take different nutrients to and from the earth, and since some plants (such as sunflowers) offer shade to those which need it (such as tomatoes), this is a great way of avoiding chemicals and working in harmony with nature. Beans grow well with cucumbers and beets, for example, while tomatoes like being close to herbs, garlic and peppers. A handy list of all companions (and those which you should avoid grouping together) can be found here. Companion planting is also a great method of pest control. Marigolds, for example, repel a wide range of pests – I plant one flower next to every seedling and would swear by this method. Herbs and flowers can also repel or attract various insects, so it´s well worth checking this list out before deciding what to plant where. Tomato flies don´t like lettuce, so planting these around the vines will help increase your crop, while sunflowers (another great addition to a balcony garden) repel aphids. Finally, plant as many flowers as you can to attract bees: Lunar Organics sells a great seed mix with hardy, easy to grow flowers, chosen specifically to help our furry friends in their fight for survival.

First published here

Violent protests, civilian torture and shady agent provocateurs: What´s going on in Ukraine?

Ukrainian police face protesters

Ukrainian police face protesters. Credit: Flickr, Spoilt Exile

This week four protesters died in Ukraine, the country at the centre of a political tug-of-war between Russia and Europe. More have allegedly been tortured by the state during anti-government protests which are spinning dangerously out of control.

Campaigners took to the streets in the capital Kiev in November, after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided not to go ahead with a planned treaty with the European Union. Many Ukrainians were hopeful that a new alliance with the great Western power would open up new trade deals, boost the economy and give them the benefit of free travel and work opportunities within the E.U once their membership was secured.

But Russia didn´t like this proposed alliance, putting pressure on Yanukovych to think twice about it. These two neighboring countries have a long intertwined history, allied to each other and inextricably linked through the Soviet Union until its eventual collapse in 1991. Ukraine is a fertile country with a strong agricultural industry, often known as ´the breadbasket of Europe´. As the third largest grain exporter in the world, it´s not surprising that both Europe and Russia are in fierce competition to benefit from cheap trade deals. In the end though, Russia´s blackmailing of Ukraine over the E.U treaty- even offering them cheaper gas imports as a reward for continued loyalty to Moscow- worked well. Yanukovych bowed to Russian demands and declared he wouldn´t go ahead with the proposals (for now, at least).

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Everything you think you know about animals is wrong

How science is forcing us to reconsider the twin myths of human superiority and dumb creatures

Human beings are the most intelligent, and therefore important, of all the world´s species, right? We deserve our superior status over other animals because of the following scientific truths: that only humans are self-aware and feel empathy, that we are unique in our abilities to use language and tools, that only we can recognize ourselves in a mirror and understand the passing of time.

But advances in cognitive ethology (the scientific study of animal intelligence, emotions, behaviors, and social life) have now disproved these ´truths´, showing that many other creatures also display a complex range of emotions, highly evolved communication skills, compassion for others, and even intelligence that rivals- or surpasses- our own. These ground-breaking studies force us to ask some uncomfortable questions about our place in the world, and have caused leading experts to call for a radical rethink of the way we treat other animals.

Communicative mice, kindly rats and compassionate chickens

Among the findings are that yes, fish do feel pain , and not only that but acidic water actually makes them nervous. Chickens are not only very intelligent, they can also feel each other´s pain and demonstrate physiological signs of concern and distress at the suffering of their young.

Similar conclusions were drawn in a cruel study of mice who were doused in acid. Not only were the empathic rodents more sensitive to the pain of their peers than to their own agony, but researchers also suggested they “might be talking to each other” about their pain, too. Take a moment to let that sink in….

And while rats don´t have the best of reputations, there is much research to suggest they too are compassionate, communicative and highly intelligent. One group of scientists found that, given the choice, rats prefer to free others from a cage rather than help themselves to candy. What´s more, the rats had not been taught to open the cages in advance. Researcher Peggy Mason noted: “That was very compelling … It said to us that essentially helping their cagemate is on a par with chocolate. He can hog the entire chocolate stash if he wanted to, and he does not. We were shocked.”

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First they came for the Roma: is history repeating itself for the forgotten victims of the Holocaust?

´Gypsy scum. Thieving tinkers. Workshy beggars. Child stealers´. A worrying program of ethnic cleansing is being carried out by governments across Europe. But while six centuries of negative stereotyping persists, who will defend Roma from further persecution?

Roma women and their babies are escorted from their camp by a policeman in France

Roma women and their babies are escorted from their camp by a policeman in France

In what looks increasingly like a pre-planned ´clean-up operation´, thousands of European Roma – usually referred to by the derogatory ´gypsies´- are being subjected to terrible treatment at the hands of the state, not to mention many vigilante mobs. But with so many deeply-entrenched negative feelings about this ethnic minority in the collective European mind, most people don´t care very much.

In Italy, violent evictions of Roma camps have been taking place since 2008, despite a ruling by Italy’s high court that these government crackdowns are unlawful. In France, Roma camp evictions began last year.70% of camps were razed in 2012, displacing over 12,000 Roma, and in one city locals took matters into their own hands and set fire to a settlement.

Thousands more Roma families have been displaced this year, and the trend looks set to continue- even French media are printing headlines about a ´Roma overdose´, and a facebook page called ´adopt a gypsy´ was at the center of another row about Roma rights in August, with one blogger speaking of ´eliminating´ the ethnic minority.

A Romany girl after a French camp eviction

A Romany girl after a French camp eviction

In October, French students took to the streets to demand the return of a 15 year-old Romany schoolgirl who was detained and deported during a school trip. Leonarda Dibrani, of Kosovan heritage, had been studying in France while her family awaited news of their asylum claim It was rejected, so police stormed Leonarda´s school bus on a field trip, forcibly removing and arresting her. The handling of the case caused unnecessary public humiliation and trauma for everyone involved – even Leonarda´s teachers were distressed and crying.

The incident, and subsequent violent clashes on the streets between police and students (video) came after one French politician said that most of France´s 20,000 Roma do not want to integrate, and should go home.

Students protest against Dibrani´s deportation

Students protest against deportation

But how can they integrate when they are hated- and where is home anyway? As Leonarda told a Kosovan news agency (in French) after deportation: “I’m frightened, I don’t speak Albanian. My life is in France. I don’t want to go to school here because I don’t speak any of the local languages.”

The European financial crisis has fuelled racism and given rise to neo-fascism across the continent, providing governments with a convenient reason (amid widespread public support) for the toughening-up of immigration laws. Roma are an easy first target: by many, they are feared (and therefore hated). As a result, too many people lack the empathy and understanding to recognize how unjust the current wave of anti-Roma policies really are- or to ask themselves why Roma are living in camps in the first place.

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Miriam Carey is dead, and you could be next. America, we worry about you

Miriam Carey, killed by cops and then smeared by the press

Miriam Carey, killed by cops and then smeared by the press

To those of us outside the USA, the no-questions-asked execution of Miriam Carey exposed two chilling American anomalies: trigger-happy cops and corporate journalists who refuse to ask tough questions

Last Thursday, a respectable 34 year-old dental hygienist was gunned down in front of her baby for failing to stop at a security checkpoint in Washington during the government shutdown. Her reasons for doing so remain unclear, but rather than opening a debate on unchecked federal power, mainstream media has instead focused only on allegations that Carey was mentally ill.

But there are two aspects of this tragic incident that are far more worrying than Carey´s emotional health. One is the shocking ´shoot first, ask questions later´ attitude of US police officers, the other is mainstream media´s complicity to hide facts and divert attention when these abuses of power occur.

In Britain, my home country, police serve the people, not the state, and they don´t routinely carry guns. Assuming Miriam Carey made an honest mistake, the conversation across the pond might have gone something like this:
“Excuse me madam, you can´t pass that barrier, please turn around.”
“Oh, sorry officer, I was a little confused.”
“No problems, have a nice day.”

Instead, cops were given a standing ovation by Congress and immediately lauded as ´heroes´ by the press for killing a woman who could quite easily have been dealt with another way- had those ´brave´ police officers simply employed a few basic social skills. Sadly, I guess American cops don´t get training on how to effectively diffuse situations through old-school communication techniques.

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Waking the giant: Examining the legacy of a global uprising

In December 2010, a desperate Tunisian man set himself on fire after he was denied the right to sell fruit and vegetables in the street.  This hopeless, tragic act sparked nationwide protests against the government that were to send president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing in exile from Tunisia. The people´s uprising gathered momentum overnight, spreading like wildfire across Northern Africa through Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, to name a few. The Arab Spring continued to make headlines throughout 2011, but the global revolution didn´t end there.

In Southern Europe, the crippling financial crisis and anger over a deeply entrenched culture of political corruption set in motion a tidal wave of anti-government protests. Portuguese youths took to the streets in March 2011 demanding labor rights and an end to crushing austerity measures. Violent riots broke out in bankrupt Greece and Italy, where the European Union under IMF instruction had suspended democracy and installed former bankers in place of elected leaders. And in Spain, a small group of anti-capitalists calling themselves the indignados  set up camp in Madrid´s Puerta del Sol square on May 15, vowing to stay there until their cry for ´Real Democracy Now!´had been heard by the country´s duplicitous leaders.

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The Chelsea Manning bombshell: be careful what you fall for


Imagine you´re Bradley Manning, the whistle-blowing soldier with worldwide fame, a hero to many and an enemy of the state to those in the highest echelons of power. You´ve spent over three years awaiting trial in an army prison, with conditions described as ´cruel, inhumane and degrading´. You have been denied visits, shackled and made to strip naked, held in solitary confinement for 11 months, and subject to treatment which most civilized countries classify as torture. Finally, your trial begins. It is conducted in secret and widely criticized for not being fair. After almost three months of court proceedings, a guilty verdict is given. You face 35 years in prison, and even your lawyer is inconsolable.

The world is waiting for your reaction. What message would you like to give the people? If the official story is to be believed, Manning decided that rather than wax lyrical about the Orwellian nightmare we are living through, the hellish conditions of army prison, the urgent need to balance freedom with security, it´s far more important to announce to the world´s media: “Call me Chelsea”. Suddenly, Manning´s shocking leaks are forgotten. The injustice of such a harsh sentence is forgotten. Amid the revelations, the urgent campaign for a pardon from Obama is half-forgotten too. Manning´s wikipedia page is hastily re-written to include paragraphs on her lifelong struggle as a woman in a man´s body, her depression, her messed up childhood, anything that discredits her mental health and diverts attention away from the police state´s terrifying treatment of its critics.

And, wait a minute- hasn´t this happened before?

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10 ways you can save the world

Gandhi_MinimizedHow can I make a positive difference in the world? Where do I start? Which of the overwhelming number of urgent global issues should I focus my attention on first? These are questions most of us have asked ourselves at some point. But although being an active citizen can sometimes feel hopeless, just remember: you can only be responsible for your own actions- and major changes start at the grassroots level (just look at the Occupy movement!). So maybe you can’t save the world, but you can save your backyard. And imagine what would happen if we all did the same? With that in mind, here are 10 things you can do to get those green shoots growing in your own communities, expanding outwards like ripples in a pond to inspire others and make changes on a big scale. As anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small, committed group of citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The following list could be longer- things like recycling, buying fair trade and avoiding plastic wherever possible are taken as given, for example.

1. Join or launch a gift economy

Gift economies enable people to exchange goods, services and favours without any need for cash payment. One of the best initiatives is freecycle, a global online gifting website based on the idea that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Why throw things into landfill sites when other people in your local area could make use of them? The chances are there is already a group in your town, but if not, creating a new group is quick and easy. Simply check the site’s homepage, join the mailing list for your area, and see how many people you can help by gifting your unwanted goods and receiving whatever you need in return. Books, toys, furniture, electrical appliances and even cars are up for grabs. Another idea is to launch a skill swapping or time bank initiative in your community.  These models allow for people to find painters, carpenters, gardeners, babysitters, and any other services we all need occasionally, without worrying about payment in cash. After all, isn’t time the most precious thing we have? Get a group of like-minded people together and start keeping a record of the skills they can offer and what they would like to receive in exchange. Then simply match users, updating how many hours they have spent helping others and how many they are owed in return. In places like crisis-hit Greece, bartering systems have enabled people living in poverty to continue life as normal, as this inspiring video shows.

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The real problem with that Rolling Stone cover

r1188cover-306x-1374073020In the wake of public outrage over the Boston bomb suspect´s Rolling Stone cover, aren´t we forgetting people used to be innocent until proven guilty?

“He was a charming kid with a bright future. But no-one saw the pain he was hiding or the monster he would become.” So begins Rolling Stone magazine´s controversial portrait of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the kid who allegedly planted bombs that killed 3 and injured 264  in Boston last April. Rolling Stone follows this dramatic introduction with a short note from the editor, gently assuring any readers who are rabid with fury that the story ´falls within the traditions of journalism´.

If they mean the tradition of using shock tactics in a cynical bid to generate publicity and sell more copies of their magazine then I agree; sadly that´s nothing new. But in every other way, the Rolling Stone story breaks not only ´traditions of journalism´, but several media laws and ethical boundaries that are crucial in a fair, free, democratic society.  Cast your mind back, if you can, to that sunny and carefree pre-9/11 world, where intelligent people didn´t have panic attacks over dark-skinned men on buses carrying electronic cigarettes (it would have been impossible to believe, right?). Back then, the Rolling Stone article would have caused outrage for a very different reason- it assumes the guilt of a man who is still awaiting trial.

Yes, we should be angry. And very concerned. We should be looking very closely at the emotive and dehumanizing ´monster´ label Rolling Stone have pinned to the alleged terrorist and we should be asking: What happens when the trial begins? Will there even be a trial? How can we expect the jurors not to be influenced by mainstream media´s premature guilty verdict? And what if- just what if- Dzhokhar and his brother are innocent?

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Land of the real-life Robin Hood: proof that direct democracy works for all

This was first published in Salon and an edited version with hyperlinks can be read on their website here.

A wall mural declares ´Sovereignty and socialism´

A wall mural declares ´Sovereignty and socialism´

With virtually no police, crime, or unemployment, the Spanish town of Marinaleda has gained celebrity status in Europe. Can we learn something from this democratic ´utopia´, and the maverick mayor who advocates shoplifting?

On the face of it, the Spanish town of Marinaleda is indistinguishable from any other.  Nestled in the picturesque Campiña valley, the surrounding countryside is made up of rolling green hills, miles of olive plantations and golden meadows of wheat stretching as far as the eye can see. The town is pretty, tranquil, and typical of those found in Andalusia, Spain´s poorest and most southerly province.

Flowers tumble from white-washed buildings as old men while away the summer´s afternoon on shaded benches, silently watching the world go by. Families take their evening paseo in the rose-filled municipal park, while shouts and thuds can be heard as boys play soccer in the schoolyard.

But on Avenida de Libertad (Liberty Avenue), Marinaleda´s main street, dozens of colourful wall murals quite literally paint a new picture.
´War on Capitalism´, one reads. ´Peace and social justice´.
´Turn off the TV, turn on your mind´, says another.

Anti-fascist slogans depict stickmen throwing swastikas in the trash, while paintings of doves- an image also used in the town´s flag and logo are pitched against military tanks with the message:´Don´t stop searching for peace´.

This street art, along with a metal sign outside the town´s commonly-owned bar declaring ´Another world is possible´, are small clues to Marinaleda´s identity as a self-styled ´Utopia for peace´.

Since the financial crisis began in 2008, Marinaleda has shot to fame- and so has its maverick mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, who earned the nickname ´The Spanish Robin Hood´ after organizing and carrying out a series of supermarket raids in a direct action protest last August. Basic groceries such as oil, rice and beans were loaded into carts, wheeled from the store and taken to a local food bank to help the poor as helpless cashiers looked on, some crying.

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Catch-22: How Spain´s tax laws are unfit for purpose

Spanish tax laws are changing- and it´s about time. If Rajoy is serious about easing unemployment, he needs to stimulate growth through a complete system overhaul 

Every day, my neighbour Alfredo sits under the fig tree outside the village bar, cutting off the plastic from used electricity cables with care and attention. They pay 1.50eu per kilo for the copper wire inside, he tells me earnestly.

I moved to a sleepy hamlet in rural Andalusia, Spain, two years ago. Back then, the recession was not yet a social catastrophe and most still had jobs. Now, crippling austerity measures and tax increases have deepened the crisis to such an extent that only a handful of this tiny village´s 274 residents are working. Official figures show 42% of the active population here (and 65% of young people) are registered unemployed, compared to national figures of 27% and 57% respectively.  But real figures could be much higher, since many families are no longer (or never were) entitled to social security.

Alfredo is one of thousands of others who can´t claim government help because was always paid cash-in-hand. He has a three year-old son and a partner who lost her job as a care assistant during Rajoy´s brutal public sector cuts, and theirs is one of two million Spanish households without a breadwinner. The middle class is shopping in Lidl while those who fell off the bottom rung of the social ladder a long time ago are scavenging in the dustbins outside. His story is typical: a recent report showed  Spain´s black economy is worth 20% of its GDP.  But why is tax-free work so widespread, even among expats who would never do ´this sort of thing´at home?

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“La Matanza”, Spain: is killing our own food the only way to eat ethically?

A pig is killed and skinned at a traditional Matanza in Southern Spain

A pig is killed and skinned at a traditional Matanza in Southern Spain

Just 40 kilometres inland from the hotels and souvenir shops of the Costa del Sol lies the Genal Valley, where tiny white villages forgotten by the march of time cling to pine-fringed mountains. These picturesque pueblos blancos, their crumbling houses brightened by red geraniums, are a quaint reminder of a rustic bygone age.

Here, self-sufficiency is not an alternative buzzword but rather the default way of life. Men in battered flat caps use mules to plough the earth, firewood is collected from the surrounding forest to heat homes in winter, and the majority of people in these villages- some with populations of under 200- have smallholdings, growing organic produce and rearing animals for meat all year round.

Sheep, goats, chickens and pigs are kept by most families, and the latter are killed at the end of the long winter in an event known as La Matanza – literally ´the slaughter´. Relatives and friends lend a hand, preparing meat products to be stored for the coming year. Perishable meat is eaten immediately and washed down with copious amounts of alcohol. Like everything else in Andalusia, La Matanza is as good a reason as any for a fiesta.

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Our approach to paedophilia and sexual offences isn´t working- responses

Last week I had an article on paedophilia (or pedophilia, if you are on the other side of the pond) published in Salon, a digital magazine based in the USA. Since then, I have received many emails from readers who felt that the article resonated with them. Some confided heartbreaking stories of abuse and thanked me for my conclusions, while others admitted to feeling attracted to children and were angry that my article did not treat paedophilia as a sexual orientation like any other. With that in mind, I´d like to clarify a few things.

Not all paedophiles are predatory and not all sex offenders are paedophiles. To be attracted to children does not necessarily mean you are a danger to society- but unlike being gay, straight or bisexual, it does mean that you cannot fulfill your sexual urges without breaking the law and damaging a child, whether physically or mentally.

The keyword here is consent. My personal belief is that the age of consent should be lowered: it seems ridiculous that a 17 year-old could end up on the sex offenders´register for a perfectly natural ´roll in the hay´ with his 15 year-old girlfriend, for example. But we cannot apply that argument to a pre-pubescent child, and they must be protected at any cost.

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Blood money? Shock revelations and media half truths on South African mine violence


Last month, violence erupted at a South African platinum mine when at least 13 men were wounded by security guards who fired rubber bullets and hacked at workers with machetes, allegedly to end a confrontation between two rival unions.

Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) is the world´s largest platinum producer, located in the Rustenburg area 70 miles from Johannesburg. The corporation accounts for over 80% of global platinum production and has been at the centre of clashes between security forces and miners since workers went on strike in mid-January over Amplat´s announcement to cut 14,000 jobs and sell union mines, in a bid to save $4.2bn.

It´s not the first time bloody protests have put South Africa´s mining sector in the spotlight. In August last year a mine owned by Lonmin Plc in Marikana, also in the Rustenburg region, was the scene of the worst violence the country has seen since the end of apartheid. On August 10, three thousand workers walked out after Lonmin´s management refused to negotiate over pay. The first incidents of violence were reported to have started the following day, when National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leaders opened fire on striking miners. In the next three days, another eight workers, two police and two security guards were killed. On August 16, which marked the 25th anniversary of a nationwide South African miner´s strike, riot police arrived to disperse the miners. This culminated in the death of over 50 people, including 34 striking miners shot dead by police. A further 78 were injured. The incident, dubbed the Marikana massacre, was the single most lethal use of force by South African security forces against civilians since 1960.

But despite this, corporate media again blamed the bloodshed on rivalry between the NUM and its rival, the Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union (AMCU).

This ongoing vicious struggle, which has seen the two battling it out for membership and control over union offices, was no doubt instrumental in the tragic events at both Lonmin and Amplats. But there´s a much bigger story that is being overlooked by focusing on a fight between two groups of underpaid, desperate miners. It´s the story of multinational corporations exploiting human beings for the sake of profit. It´s a story which hints at possible connections between the mining industry and the police sent to kill those who dare to demand fair pay and safe working conditions. And it´s the story of mainstream media, for the most part, covering up and misreporting these injustices.

Capitalismo Mafioso? You decide.

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5 reasons to be glad you´re single this Valentine´s day


It´s Valentine´s Day again folks, a time of year when I always spare a thought for those lonely lovelorn singles who have to endure being bombarded with images of cupids,  red roses and vomit-inducing teddy bears – making them feel like they failed somehow. I say let´s reclaim the day and celebrate singledom- and freedom-  in style! Here are 5 reasons you can be grateful you´re all on your lonesome…………

1. You won´t have to spend the night in a restaurant (or gastropub if he´s a cheap date) with crap service, mediocre food and hiked-up prices to sit crammed like sardines in a noisy and understaffed dining area surrounded by gloomy looking I´m-obliged-to-be-here couples who ran out of things to say to each other 10 years ago and now derive most of their entertainment from eavesdropping on your conversation.

2. You won´t have to stand in a ridiculously long queue in Clinton cards behind huddles of teenage girls in the throes of first love and those infuriating people who insist on buying Valentine cards for their daughter/sister/aunt/dog. Being single also means you are no longer responsible for remembering his mum´s birthday….double bonus.

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An alternative list of things you should have learned by the age of 30

What have you learned by the age of 30?

In 1997, an article listing 30 things women ´should have and should know by the age of 30´ was published in Glamour magazine. ´The List´ struck a chord with thousands of women and was an internet sensation, and its ongoing popularity sees it published 15 years later as a book, complete with commentary from iconic ladies such as Maya Angelou and (er….) Taylor Swift.

So, while I agree with certain things- having a few juicy stories to tell the grandchildren and how to fall in love without losing yourself, for example- the majority of points on the list are geared towards a specific demographic: the career-orientated city-dwelling sexpuss, none of which I am.

The other day, when frantically rummaging through my wardrobe for something to wear for a TV interview, I suddenly realized I should have heeded numbers three and four of the list: ´Something perfect to wear if the employer or man of your dreams wants to see you in an hour´ and ´a purse, a suitcase and an umbrella you’re not ashamed to be seen carrying.´ Let´s add to that two more small pieces of advice: Get your roots done before appearing on television, and make sure you have a friend within running distance of your house who doesn´t mind lending you something appropriate at the last minute.

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5 reasons to be globally cheerful on ´Blue Monday´

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According to a rather dubious equation, today is Blue Monday: the most depressing day of the year. The glitter baubles are back in the attic, the new years resolutions are out of the window, it´s dark when you go to work and darker when you return, and while the waistline may have increased, the bank balance certainly hasn´t.  When you throw into the mix the fact that most breakups happen in January, it´s easy to see why millions of us are feeling low.

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