"Why did the Tottenham riots happen?" Let's all guess

Discussion of the riots is dominated by guesswork, and coloured by the same old agendas.

There's been a riot, I understand. A riot or two. Some local shop-smashing and this and that. And for some dripping wet liberal idiocy reasons -- call me a fool for ever trying to understand things, rather than just shout about them at the top of my voice -- I want to try and work out why it happened. I am just a person, sitting in a not uncomfortable chair, many miles from the sound of breaking glass and the smell of burning car. I know nothing of these things, having grown up in (relatively) leafy suburbia. But I'd like to know.

Is it wrong to want to understand? I can't see rioters from my window, but I should like to get some idea of why this is happening. I can guess. We can all make guesses. But I feel sufficiently distant from these events, in so many ways, that I don't think my guess could be anywhere close to the truth. Yet all I seem to read, and see, and hear, is guesswork. They did it because of this. They did it because of that. They did it because of this, and that. I wonder how many of the guesses are close, and how many are just long-range salvoes to drive the same old agendas.

I'm not going to make the mistake of having an opinion about these things. Having an opinion about these things invariably leads to arguments. If you're on the political left, as I am (although I wonder sometimes), you always run the risk of getting into trouble with others on the left if you try and have an opinion about these things. Particularly if you're not the right kind of person to have an opinion.

You're not allowed to have an opinion if you are one of the educated liberal metropolitan elite, for example. And even though I live on a council estate and am currently on Job Seekers Allowance, I am still very much doomed to be seen as a horrible elitist who patronises the working class, whom I don't understand, whose struggles I shall forever be detached from, in my lofty elitist perch. How dare I try and think about things? And so I try to look as embarrassed as possible when discussing these matters.

If I were on the political right, of course, I have a feeling it'd be absolutely acceptable for me to have a bash at trying to guess these things out. I could quite chirpily make a hundred and a half assumptions, despite not knowing anything about it, and no-one would bat an eyelid. Look at those people, I could say, with a nudge-nudge here and a wink-wink there about their ethnicity, look at those criminals, being criminal because they're criminals. I could point and laugh and say "silly old leftists trying to defend them", cleverly pretending that "try to work out why something is happening, while not condoning it" is exactly the same as "defending". I could even staple on a hasty "Well of course I was brought up in a plastic bag underneath Blackfriars Bridge but I never robbed a pair of trainers from Foot Locker, so I'm just better than them", and it'd be game, set and match.

For me, though, it's the usual hand-wringing struggle. I have no idea why people are rioting. I couldn't possibly tell you, and a great deal of the coverage I'm reading enlightens me so little that I'm often left with more questions than answers. Perhaps the answer is that no-one knows. Perhaps there are some people who know, but we don't hear enough from them to find out for ourselves. It might be something to do with the economy, or something to do with it being August and relatively warm outdoors, or something to do with a feeling of disconnect between young people and their government, or just criminality for criminality's sake -- or it might be none of these things. I can certainly find people telling me what I might want to hear, depending on what that might be.

But as someone who actually wants to be informed, who really wants to know, I am left as ignorant as ever.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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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