Sprats and mackerels

Are poverty alleviation and human rights work worth the carbon cost?

Just back from a return visit to Sierra Leone. I was working once again with MAPCO, the indigenous organisation engaged in poverty alleviation and human rights work that I spent time with in March. This time, I was helping them develop efficient monitoring and evaluation systems, to better enable them to track the impact of their work.

This feels like good and valuable work. And yet, how does this kind of activity sit with the whole carbon crisis? I pondered this on the flight out, while pouring over Mark Lynas’ excellent piece on the protest camp at Heathrow (In fact, when I had first seen the dates of my trip to Sierra Leone, I had been excited at the prospect of spending time at the camp. However, the more I read about the camp, the more difficult I realised it could be to move freely in and out – so, having signed a contract for the work, I prioritised the trip).

I have far more questions than answers on this whole question. Work like that I was up to in Sierra Leone is about building the capacity of pro-poor organisations and helping them develop tools for promoting the economic wellbeing and resilience of the poor through small enterprise development. I am one of many to have made a career out of this kind of work.

In addition, I am one of a number of people from within the global ecovillage family to have created a sustainability curriculum drawn from ecovillage experience – what we have called the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE). This training programme, that has been embraced by UNESCO as part of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, transfers life skills that will be of the essence as we head down the energy descent curve.

At present, the core EDE faculty finds itself doing a fair amount of international travel as we build the capacity of trainers in different places to deliver this educational programme. ‘Using a sprat to catch a mackerel’ is the analogy I have heard used to justify the use of carbon in this way to leverage a greater long-term benefit.

The issue of air travel poses a major dilemma to the ecovillage movement as a whole – certainly to the Findhorn ecovillage. On the one hand, a significant portion of our income derives from participants coming on our courses. The proportion of those coming from the UK has risen steadily over the years and now stands at about 50 percent. Sill, a good number of those continue to come through Inverness airport.

The sprat-mackerel analogy, however, still holds good here; many leave transformed, refreshed and better equipped to get stuck into good community development work of many shades and varieties when they get back home.

On the other hand, we are a highly international community. At any one time, between 15 and 25 nationalities are represented in our resident community. This generates a lot of what George Monbiot has memorably called ‘love miles’ – travel to meet up with friends and family on other continents. My wife is a New Yorker – I understand the dilemma.

The Findhorn community’s ecological footprint analysis gave us record low scores on most consumption categories (food 32 percent of the national average, home and heating 21 percent, car mileage six percent and so on). In one category alone, air travel, did we exceed the national average – by a factor of two and a half.

It is clear that government policy needs to change: a halt to new airport development; removal of taxes on aviation fuel and other externalities associated with flying; inclusion of air travel emissions in greenhouse gas emissions targets. Our top priority needs to be campaigns towards these ends. The time is rapidly approaching for us to decide where we want to call home and to sink our roots there.

In the meantime, as we effectively use our sprats to catch mackerels, is there not a case for continuing to undertake strategic international work – made possible by air travel – to strengthen the capacity, spread the skills and build the networks we will all need in the low-carbon world that is opening up before us?

The world of business shows little inclination to restrain its appetite for air travel. In this context, should those of us engaged in sustainability and global justice work unilaterally forgo the many advantages that continuing (at least in the short-term) access to air travel provides?

As I said at the beginning, more questions than answers.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity