Saturday, 31 March 2007

Of frogs and men

A sign by the road along the stream nearby warns drivers of frogs crossing in the breeding season. It was put up in the early 1990s when every year a large number of frogs headed towards the stream to spawn. But in the last few years the sign is largely redundant. The common frog (Rana temporaria) has become very uncommon indeed around these parts.

Changing land use, scarcity of ponds, sharply fluctuating ‘spring’ weather, have all cut down the survival rates of these amphibian creatures. Their decline may not be as visually dramatic as that of the polar bears, but it provides us with yet another reminder that the irresponsible use of resources is wreaking havoc with life on earth. There is no escape. However much large corporations commission researchers on their payroll to deny that there is any problem, the damages are everywhere to be seen.

So in spite of all the objective evidence piling up, can it be that the corporate sponsors of relentless pollution really believe nothing is going wrong with our planet? Or is it more likely that they take the view that when the proverbial hits the fan, they would as usual be able to buy their way out of trouble, and leave the poor to bear the brunt of it all. Isn’t that what happened when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, where the rich got themselves safely out of the city, leaving those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder to literally drown? Isn’t that what they expect that when tobacco induced illnesses push up the costs of healthcare for the state, they can rely on their private clinics to look after themselves? Or when dangerous waste is generated from their industrial plants, they simply ship them off to poor countries which see it as a means to make some desperately needed foreign currencies?

Yes, they are convinced that their harmful drive for profits will make them rich enough to enjoy themselves while the harm is all pushed down to the poor, powerless lot around the world. And what response to this aggressively greedy strategy is being developed? Those who are truly progressive minded would have expected perhaps a call for genuine solidarity – a commitment to share out the control and utilization of limited resources more equitably. After all, when the Second World War threatened all, rationing for all was the progressive strategy to unite people to fight the common threat together.

But rationing, solidarity, economic justice are not on the agenda it seems. What we are presented with are more variations of the rich man’s game – environmental protection through market mechanisms. Introduce tax incentives to shift people away from damaging activities. Establish carbon trading so the responsible can sell their shares to those willing to buy rather than behave more responsibly.

What will this bring? Those who are at the bottom of society already are penalised with taxes when they have little choice over their daily routines (whatever happened to the investment to improve their public transport system?), whereas the rich are assured that they can indeed buy their way out of any sticky situation. If they are rich enough, they can buy their way to legitimately pollute even more.

Life for those without a fat wallet, frogs or men, is looking more ominous by the day.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

What exactly is pro-family?

On the whole, children having to grow up in unstable, dysfunctional families tend to suffer more problems than children brought up by loving, dependable adults with a steady relationship. The more parental figures there are – biological, adoptive, grandparents, guardians – the more support there is likely to be compared with a single individual with no help. For the sake of all children, it is fairly obvious that we should all be in favour of strong, happy, caring families everywhere.

But if you think that means ‘pro-family’ ideas must be about identifying and countering what undermines flourishing families, you’d be in for a surprise. Many of the self-styled champions of the sacred, precious institution of family are actually fixated about the legal protection of heterosexual marriage as the respected norm in society. They want to give people in that form of relationship more rights, more tax benefits, more dignity than anyone else. Whatever causes them to think like that has very little to do with the parental capacity of different forms of family arrangements.

There is no evidence that married heterosexual couples raise children more effectively than an aunt and her companion, two devoted dads, a loving mother supported by her mother, or any other combination. The only constant factor is sufficient attention being paid to the needs of the children by adults who share a deep concern for the wellbeing of those children without being torn apart by stresses and strains placed on their own relationship.

So anyone whose real interest is in the upbringing of children would focus on the factors which prevent those with a parental role from carrying it out effectively. And it is here that we come upon the obstacles about which many ‘pro-family’ advocates are so resolutely silent. The long hour work culture that keeps parents from their children, the work pressures that spill into destructive stresses that pull apart parental partners, the diminishing job security that creates uncertainty at home, the expectations to uproot families or leave them behind to get work, the consumerist measure of parents’ ability to buy things for their children linked to their level of earnings, the substitution of time with one’s parents by the acquisition of status symbols (from toys through to cars) via their purchasing power.

These factors are of course inter-connected. They are all related to the socio-economic changes which have been accelerating since the second half of the twentieth century. It is not some mindless defiance against the moral duty of being good parents that suddenly erupted and destroyed the capacity of families to bring up intelligent and responsible children. The Anglo-American market model which values above all economic growth as an engine to drive the plutocratic concentration of wealth in the few has been growing in strength from the late 1970s, when its political sympathizers on both sides of the Atlantic won the power to roll back the checks and balances against corporate greed.

Now we see the consequences of this relentless expansion of the commercial hierarchy – the top rejecting taxation and regulations as fettering their golden ability to generate wealth (for themselves), the middle perpetually anxious that they would be ejected as inadequate and must therefore work harder than ever to prove themselves, and the bottom convinced that they (and their children) have no future, no respect from anyone else.

Anyone wanting to stand up and claim they are pro-family had better from now on start by explaining how they are going to tackle corporate irresponsibility.