Notes in the Margin: Free the word

Radical publishers need to become more responsive to the pace of modern protest.

In the week before Christmas, I had the pleasure of calling the most 21st-century of publishing meetings. With Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, the New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny and other members of the "editorial kettle", I spent over an hour on Google's instant messenger service Google Chat, engaged in a frenetic, six-way, typed debate about the merits and demerits of different articles on the student occupations.

The product of two months of debates such as this was Fight Back! - a 350-page reader on the winter of student occupations, demonstrations and anti-cuts actions, published as a free, Creative Commons-licensed e-book on 1 February. It has been a success already. More than 5,000 copies were downloaded in its first five days online. Felix Cohen, our tech supremo, is repurposing the 80,000 words of writing into any software he can get his hands on and, for those who love things with spines, the physical book launches on 24 March at a non-profit, print-on-demand price.

Information wants to be free, or so the theory goes. Our role is to liberate it from the sometimes musty corners of the blogosphere. Freeness is a recurring theme. Fight Back! was produced by a talented team of writers (43 in all), editors and designers working pro bono, moving stray commas and crunching HTML into the small hours of the morning.

With events unfolding at breakneck speed on Twitter, radical publishing needs to become quicker to keep up. Others, such as Verso, whose protest book Springtime arrives in March, and Random House, which is planning its own e-book series called The Summer of Unrest, are being similarly responsive.

The power of the student movement lies in its rejection of conventional leaders and party hierarchies. The online tools for modern protest are available to anyone. We are taking the same attitude to its documentation. Perhaps it is not a wildly sustainable model to give away books for free - but let's worry about monetising it after we've brought down the government, shall we?

Dan Hancox, editor of "Fight Back!" Download the book for free here

"Notes in the Margin" is a new weekly arts diary column in the NS Critics pages

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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