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 Roots for Living Column - Apr/May 2002

Roots for Living


A Fortnightly Column in The Big Issue in Scotland


by Vérène Nicolas & Alastair McIntosh



Please click here for the Roots for Living Index to read other postings of this column






No. 9, Issue 377, 30 May 2002, p. 2, "Eco centre lives to fight against  earth's betrayal".



We write this as we’re heading off to the Isle of Eigg. It’s the annual field trip of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology – the CHE. Both of us teach courses there in community empowerment.


Human ecology studies communities in relation to their environment. This year we’ve got about 35 postgraduate students. These folks are all self-funded through loans or part-time jobs. They’re passionate about social and environmental justice.


Eigg won its celebrated freedom from landlordism back in 1997. The CHE played a significant role, but paid a heavy price.


We had been part of the University of Edinburgh’s prestigious Faculty of Science and Engineering. But then, biotechnology became all the rage. The university, for reasons it would never explain, deemed to shut us down.


At a conference in the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University last week, world-class academics warned that biotechnology everywhere is pushing agriculture and forestry out of universities. Speaking truth to power about it has become risky. Environmental education is seen as subversive. It threatens corporate profits!


This betrayal of the Earth needs exposing. That’s why Edinburgh’s suppression of the CHE must not be forgotten.


Privately, some of the professors in power suits managing Edinburgh University admitted that the CHE was too radical for comfort. We actually worked alongside oppressed people. We refused merely to study their misery from a safe distance.


Indeed, we were getting up the establishment’s nose in all sorts of ways.  Writing in New Scientist, we attacked the government’s 1993 White Paper on science policy.


This obnoxious document said that universities must bow down to industry. It paved the way for the corporate-led GM revolution and even said that civilian research should “spin in” benefit to Britain’s lucrative arms trade!


A professor of ship design wrote in complaining: “You really will have to gag people like Alastair McIntosh. His hard hitting article in the Glasgow Herald debunking the Government’s Science and Technology White Paper will alienate most, if not all, wealth creators…. The sooner people like Alastair accept this the better for your future.”


Well, that same month, yours faithfully had his P45 and was signing on for fifty quid a week. But there was a silver lining. It enabled the writing of Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, the paperback of which came out last week. It’s a book that gets to the guts of the domination system - the colonisation of land, knowledge, and even the soul.


Meanwhile, former students and courageous academics refused to let the CHE die. We won Open University validation and are now one of Britain’s smallest colleges – penniless, but free.


Before sailing off to Eigg, we’re holding a graduation ceremony for the first group of students. Once on Eigg, we’ll be studying what freedom from landlordism has meant. Islanders now enjoy security of tenure, thriving small businesses, the return of the corncrake and full employment.


There’s just one drawback. The island’s men started their own construction company. When Eigg’s inimitable Wes Fyffe told the Fort William dole office that he now had a job, the woman said, “It must be very nice, Mr Fyffe, to have got back into work after all these years of having to sit around doing nothing.”


“Alas,” Wes replied, “The scourge of full employment has returned to Eigg!”




No. 8, Issue 375, 16 May 2002, "A cautious welcome for the winds of change".



“Do you remember birlers?” said Tom Forsyth, a West Highland crofter of Fife mining stock.


He’d just checked the Scots dictionary. To birl is to have a bevy, or a dance, or a grace note in piping.


“But when we were kids, birlers were those coloured plastic windmills you’d get on sticks in seaside shops.”


“They were great!” he enthuses. “And I’ve been thinking: it sums up what’s wrong with all this opposition to wind energy. These folks have lost their childhoods! They’re too serious. They’ve forgotten how to birl.”


Tom’s a man who gets all his electricity from a twenty-foot high birler or wind turbine on the croft. His family live the good life in ways that don’t cost the Earth.


“I mean,” he concluded, “think what the alternative to wind farms is – nuclear madness or catastrophic global warming. At least with birlers on the moor, you see where your energy’s coming from! ”


Meanwhile, Ed Iglehart, emails us from Galloway. He’s all for renewable energy, but is outraged at the multinationals muscling in. “I’ve done a company search on the one planned for the Solway,” he says. “And I don’t like what I’ve found out. Is there ANYONE local involved, or even Scottish?”


So let’s get real. Yes, we need to slash energy consumption, starting with the greed of the rich. But we also need renewables. So here’s five principles of acceptability.


First, the primary benefit must go to surrounding communities. That’s what happens in Denmark, so let’s make damned sure that Scots benefit likewise. So, please, no planning permission unless communities consent, collect and control. If our planning system is democratic, it must build in community gain.


This issue is urgent. If the wind gets privatised – if it’s captured as a new fringe benefit of private land ownership – then only the lairds and their multinational pals will get rich. What’s more, land that’s been worthless as sheep grazing will suddenly acquire serious capital value. And this would undermine Scotland’s new land reform legislation. It would actually make it harder to buy-out the lairds.


The second principle is that profits must, of course, be used primarily for host communities and to compensate some individuals. But they should also be spread around to benefit the whole region. Windfarm revenues must not be like oilwells - in the back yards of some but not of others.


Third, permission must not be given in areas of great natural beauty. The human spirit needs places of sanctuary. If regions plan with intelligence and share the proceeds around, they can have both reverence and revenue.


Fourth, sites must be prepared in ways that cause minimum ecological disruption. For example, rather than disrupting water flows in the bog with regimented roads of solid rock, so-called “floating roads” could be contoured into a landscape. These use timber instead of hardcore. The winding road over Mull was originally built like this. It’s a time proven ecological technology using a renewable local resource.


And fifth, planning permission should favour local employment creation. Build wind turbines at disused oil fabrication yards like Arnish on Lewis.


Of course, our politicians and planners may say that this contravenes rule such-and-such of the World Trade Organisation. Well, either they stop abdicating governance … or get birled away by the winds of change.





No. 7, Issue 373, 2 May 2002, p. 15, "Mainstream parties are creating a mutant politics".



Monday morning after the first round of the French elections…. I tell Alastair it’s like waking up to a hang-over. They’re saying that on the radio too.


The previous night’s results gradually sink in. The unimaginable has happened. Massive support has gone to Jean Marie Le Pen, a racist political thug.


This Sunday sees the second round of that election. As a French citizen, I now have to choose between Le Pen and the incumbent conservative president – Jacques Chirac.


If Chirac loses, he may be jailed for corruption. Only the immunity of presidential office currently protects him from trial. My political choice thereby falls between a fascist and a possible embezzler. Quel choix démoniaque!


Like many of my compatriots, I’m feeling ashamed to be French right now. I’m wrestling to understand what’s happened. And that’s where the rage emerges.


Curiously though, I’m not raging at those who effectively voted fascist. The people I’m most mad with are those mainstream Socialist Party politicians - Lionel Jospin and his cronies.


They took for granted getting through to this Sunday’s high noon shoot-out with Chirac. Their campaign was an infantile and irresponsible disaster. Glasgow’s Herald newspaper was spot on when it said that the only difference between Jospin and Chirac were their wives!


Jospin’s campaign said little about the massive issues of today – people’s identity and the future of Europe … poverty and violence … global warming … corporate colonisation.


In short, Jospin’s party – France’s New Labour equivalent – failed the nation by feeding us trivia. And what do they do now? Are they busy constructing a politics that engages people? Are they examining their links with big business? Are they reaching out to those who didn’t vote because they thought it would make no difference?


Not at all! Instead, like Al Gore’s Democrats in the US election, they’re busy blaming the smaller left-wing and Green Party candidates for, as they put it, “stealing their votes”!


France’s mainstream parties have hit a crisis of vision. They’ve run away from people’s deepest concerns. They’ve been like those Scottish politicians who’ve inexplicably failed to listen to Highland voices about GM crop testing. They’ve created a mutant politics that breeds apathy on the one hand and fascism on the other.


What’s the solution? Well, in his books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the brilliant Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, implies that our motivations are linked to our emotions. We need to learn how to listen deeply and respectfully in dialogue with one another. We need to reach those emotions that fear has twisted and frozen. We need to engage the power of empathy and critical analysis. And then we’ll be capable of a politics that’s “in touch” with reality.


This ought to be nothing new in the “Auld Alliance”. It’s already there in the Scots “democratic intellect” – the notion that education should be broad-ranging and serve communities rather than elites.


It means giving people opportunity to get the big picture in which their lives take place; empowering a nation that otherwise, in Hugh MacDiarmid’s words, “Canna Scotland see wha yet/ Canna see the Infinite/ And Scotland in true scale to it.”


That means supporting popular education projects that currently struggle for funds in urban community centres and little village halls. It means political education to help people use their democracy.


Even the politicians will benefit. They’ll less likely be made redundant by fascists!





No. 6, Issue 371, 18 April 2002, p.18, "Lessons to be learned from Ireland's Injuries".


Temple Bar, Dublin, and we’ve been in Ireland for the past week.


It’s inspiring to see what they’ve achieved: independence, booming prosperity, constructive relations with the rest of Europe, an amazing countryside that’s not just the preserve of the rich with their servants, and a welter of hospitality.


By day the streets buzz with pin-striped businessfolk. At night beggars contemplate paper cups like Buddhist monks and a Chinese girl plays an amazing lute-like instrument by Molly Malone’s statue.


It’s close to midnight. She shivers on the April pavement. Her music’s amazing, but you know that only desperation can work icy fingers with such pressed out passion.


You think to yourself it’s like Molly Malone’s come back, and she’s an asylum seeker running from God knows what, and these notes are the cockles and mussels she’s selling “alive alive o”.


You throw down a couple of Euros. Momentarily the Chinese woman stops to thank you. She does so in that profoundly dignified “God bless” way that many Big Issue vendors know well. And you move slowly on, touched by something, humbled, but it’s hard to pin down quite what it is.


Yes, you move on, and it feels, too, like you’ve actually touched something. In fact, you’ve touched somebody’s wound. You’ve briefly entered into the sanctuary of another’s vulnerability. And you think to yourself, “Aye, maybe that’s the blessing”.


Right now, as it happens, the whole of Ireland is immersed in touching its wound – child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.


The other night Cardinal Desmond Connell appeared on TV to explain the church’s handling of the crisis. A poll the next day suggested that 72% of people were dissatisfied with his performance.


Yes they want a full inquiry, but more than that, they need to grasp the wider sickness in the nation. They need to grasp what has become of a church once so central to Irish identity.


That church took its present form not in good times, but at Ireland’s saddest moment. Its power emerged when a whole people were on their knees in the potato famine that took away fully one third of the population.


Before the famine, only 30% of the Irish attended Mass. By 1850, after hunger had run its 5-year course, attendance had risen to over 90% as people gave up on an earlier, less institutional spirituality rooted in nature.


Lacking the information to see the Famine for what it was – namely, a political famine caused by British colonial oppression – they took it that nature had failed them. Folks turned instead to the institutional church with all its baggage of hierarchy, male domination and, of course, hang-ups about sex.


That church, for all the very wonderful people in it, was an all-too-human institution. Retrospect shows how deeply good and evil were intertwined there.


We can see now that the post-Famine Irish church was filled with people who were hurt and hurting. Their wound was the wound of a whole nation. And it festered on. Secretive and unaccountable power structures kept the lid on things.


This prevented the cultural trauma of a violent history from being properly understood. So the wound went uncleansed. A demonic infection took root.


That infection is the same the world over where individuals, families and nations carry unresolved trauma from their past. It shows not just in child abuse but in the whole web of social dysfunctions – alcoholism, drugs and even institutional corruption. It shows wherever human dignity has been compromised.


And that’s why Scotland and England cannot ignore Ireland’s present humiliation. We too carry wounds from a violent history. We too need cultural healing.




No. 5, Issue 369, 4 April 2002, p. 13, "Be honest, there is no such thing as a holy war".


We happen to be passionate about spirituality. Spirituality is about the interconnection of all life. It’s about life as love made visible. It’s about each of us finding the demanding courage most truly to become ourselves, to nourish the soul, to nourish one another.


In short, spirituality is about bringing meaning alive in life. Religion is the social expression of spirituality, and it pisses us off when we see religion being recruited by the forces of war. 


President Bush may have gaffed when he talked about launching his “crusade” against terrorism, but it was a revealing gaff. As fighter planes roared off with tent-piercing missiles, the rhetoric from Washington and London left no doubt that the going was getting tough, the tough were getting going, and God was riding shotgun with the good guys.


We’re now seeing that Afghanistan was maybe just the warm up. The propaganda war is already raging and we’re its casualties.  The ultimate enemy is Iraq, and anybody else out of line. This, we’re told, is a just war.


We’ve even had defence secretary Geoff Hoon softening us up to the idea that it might be justified to nuke Iraq. It would be a justified sin. It would be redemptive violence – violence that redeems our sacred way of life – our sacred right to Middle East oil - God’s own violence.


Well, in 1824 a great Scottish writer from the Borders – James Hogg, the so-called Ettrick Shepherd – wrote a book about precisely this sort of justification of violence.


We expected it to be a heavy read, but not so. Hogg’s “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” is both gripping and, if you translate it into today’s world of justified warmongering, it’s prophetic.


Here’s a few quotes:


“Still, in those days of depravity and corruption … I felt great indignation against all the wicked of this world, and often wished for the means of ridding it of such a noxious burden.”


You could just imagine that in a future memoir from Tony Blair. How else could he justify Britain’s bombing runs? Actually, it comes from Hogg’s central character, Robert Wringhim, who commits a series of murders in God’s name.


As for George W. Bush, you could imagine him borrowing Wringhim’s words, as follows:


“It was more honourable, and of more avail to put down the wicked with the sword, than try to reform them…. I am the sword of the Lord, and Famine and Pestilence are my sisters.”


Then there’s Wringhim getting divine assurance as follows: “Thou art called to a high vocation; to cleanse the sanctuary of thy God in this thy native land by the shedding of blood; go thou forth then like a ruling energy, a master spirit of desolation in the dwellings of the wicked, and high shall be your reward both here and hereafter.”


We could dedicate that “divine mandate” to Geoff Hoon, though actually, Hogg shows it to be straight from the Devil. Indeed, Hogg’s “Confessions” are one of the most masterful studies of evil ever written. He shows what happens to the soul when violence is “justified” in the name of God.


It was Muslim “justified sinners” that gave us September 11th. Israeli ones give us the ongoing slow holocaust of Palestine. And before Scotland adds any further support to America’s war, every one of our MPs and MSPs might consider taking counsel with the Ettrick Shepherd.


What the world needs today is neither distorted Christianity nor equally warped travesties of Islam. We believe it needs a spirituality that teaches war no more.









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4 April 2002

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