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Climate change, PRISM, and why the NRA might (accidentally) be right after all

June 15, 2013

When I write about climate change, I often talk about it in terms of destabilisation. It occurs to me that perhaps I should frame this process of dislocation in a broader context; it isn’t just the weather that is being subverted – it’s the very stability of society itself.

Elsewhere I have described how the speed at which change is forced on us promotes anxiety and stress (The Wages of Fear, Join the dots: Marlon Brando, AGW, the next Olympics, Dan Brown and Wikileaks?). We can’t feel secure in the midst of global economic turbulence, job security we can no longer take for granted, terrorism from within and without, a political system so patently untrustworthy we are left disenfranchised, cynical and bitter, and the rapacious money-men in league with our elected representatives who conspire at every turn to rob us blind, cheat us and line their own pockets from the public purse after they’ve gambled away the funds we entrusted them with. On top of all this we have climate change  – something so all-encompassing (and apparently intractable) it just adds fuel to a bonfire of anxieties already raging near-uncontrollably.

Where we obviously benefit from them, we can admire rapid technological developments, but as with every coin there are two sides, and PRISM is, for those in power, another gateway to the seductive dark side of the digital denomination. (I can’t say I was surprised by any of the revelations this week; I was taken aback by how few commentators remembered or referred to its predecessor ECHELON, surely a marker for what was to come?)

If like me you detect a continuous undercurrent of threat, distress and anxiety in every part of our society, then it follows that any government must consider what it means, both to them and to the stability of the countries they run. The first article I wrote for the Guardian, in 2009, addressed this very theme: it was called (by the sub-editors) “The real threat to our liberties”.

The theme, in a nutshell, was this: if you are a government watching helplessly as your country careers rapidly toward disaster, you have evidence of civil volatility that rapidly descends into disorder (the UK’s ‘fuel riots’ in 2000 being a case in point), you are aware that the global climate is being destabilised and understand the appalling scope for catastrophe this heralds, and things keep blowing up – then it may be considered expedient to whittle away quietly at the civil liberties enshrined in law, in preparation for a time when liberty has to be protected by force. (Or should that be ‘profits’?)

Far too many aspects of UK law have been modified through secondary legislation (a way of disguising or concealing the changes), nearly all of which have reduced our rights as free people in a democracy. (In the US, much the same has taken place under  the convenient umbrella of the Patriot Act – the PRISM system being only the latest revelation to emerge from that country). Despite making some headway in getting some laws repealed, the process continues; the ‘snooper’s charter’ is a current example of the unabated assault on freedom, along with secret courts, RIPA and much more. Here’s Timothy Garton-Ash, writing in the Guardian (also in 2009):

“Almost every week brings some new revelation of the way in which our government has taken a further small slice of our liberty, always in the name of another real or alleged good: national security, safety from crime, community cohesion, efficiency (ha ha), or our “special relationship” with the United States.

“Liberty comes last. As Dominic Raab writes in his excellent book The Assault on Liberty, this government “has hyperactively produced more Home Office legislation than all the other governments in our history combined, accumulating a vast arsenal of new legal powers and creating more than three thousand additional criminal offences”.”

Source: Liberty in Britain is facing death by a thousand cuts. We can fight back

Also in 2009 – why that year keeps cropping up is something I haven’t discovered yet – an audit of encroachments on our rights was conducted by a group at University of the City of London, sponsored by the Convention on Civil Liberty. It’s worth a revisit:

“This report by the UCL Student Human Rights Programme (“UCLSHRP”) is a concise and approachable inventory of the loss. It is a profoundly disturbing document, even for those who thought they knew about the subject, for it not only describes the wholesale removal of rights that were apparently protected by the HRA and set down nearly 800 years ago in Magna Carta, it also shows how the unarticulated liberties that we assumed were somehow guaranteed by British culture have been compromised. The same is true of constitutional safeguards that were once considered beyond the reach of a democratically elected legislature.”

Source: The Abolition of Freedom Act 2009

To sum up: on both sides of the Atlantic, our freedom is under threat from our own governments. Apparently, we are now the enemy – or will be soon.


The catalyst for this post was a Guardian article by Nafeez Ahmed titled “Pentagon bracing for public dissent over climate and energy shocks”, in which he describes in considerable detail the various ways the US is preparing, legislatively and militarily, to suppress civil disorder. It’s pretty clear too that the US is not acting out of whimsy, but perceives a clear and substantial threat:

“But why have Western security agencies developed such an unprecedented capacity to spy on their own domestic populations? Since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests. This activity is linked to the last decade of US defence planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis – or all three.”

The article got me thinking; how could the public withstand the might of the US military, such a well-armed force? Then it hit me: the American public are just as well armed, because they can buy the same weapons the military use.

That’s a concept that seriously raises the stakes for any government. The world is awash with guns these days, and one unfortunate demonstration of the trickle-down effect is how many guns there are even in the UK, so ubiquitous have weapons become. And while guns are still illegal here, with the exception of licensed shotguns and rifles, in the US the picture is far more ugly.

I hope that you shared my disgust at the demagoguery surrounding gun control legislation in the US after the terrible and tragic events that seemed to pile bodies – too many of them children – on an altar of disgraceful political expediency. I expect the National Rifle Association (NRA) to promote the same, blind adherence to their long-outdated mandate. I did not expect venal politicians to be quite so publicly bought and sold.

At the heart of the NRA position is, of course, the second amendment of the US constitution – the right to bear arms. This is the Jefferson version (there are others, with slight differences in wording or punctuation):

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Until now, I’ve thought that was a pretty crass way to defend the sale of staggeringly dangerous automatic weapons, grenade launchers and the like, to ordinary citizens. I frequently asked myself the obvious question: what the fuck are these people defending themselves from?

Well, now I know. When Santayana claimed we would repeat history if we didn’t learn from it, I never imagined that might include the US civil war. It’s pretty ironic that the same people so enamoured of PRISM and all it stands for are may be sympathetic, or indeed funded, by an organisation like the NRA, whose purpose is to defend the arming of the same public the US military is gearing up to do battle with. Seems like the American armed forces are going to have quite a fight on their hands.

Later that same day…

After writing this piece, I was having a look round when I saw a Daily Telegraph headline I thought must surely be a mistake – or perhaps one of those ‘clever’ teasers that sub-editors come up with that isn’t what it appears to be: “Councils have mounted millions of snooping operations in past decade, finds report

Millions? Give me a break…but no, my incredulous response was, it turns out, inappropriate. Here’s what the article said:

Public bodies have sought to use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) on nearly three million occasions in the past decade to snoop on people.

The list of cases includes a council which spied on a family to make sure they were not cheating on school catchment area regulations, and scores of households suspected of flouting bin rules.

Campaigners warned that plans to curb council snooping do not go far enough and the UK’s surveillance laws should be overhauled to stop “unnecessary, unwarranted and unchecked state intrusion”.

More than 20,000 warrants for the interception of phone calls, emails, and internet use have been issued since the Ripa came into force in 2000, the human rights group Justice said.

The group said so-called directed surveillance, where someone can be followed or have their house watched, had been authorised on at least 30,000 occasions in the past decade.

A further 2.7 million requests have been made for information such as phone bills or location data, along with more than 4,000 authorisations for intrusive surveillance, where bugs are planted, the group said.

Orwell’s 1984 gets mentioned a lot in (or below) these kind of reports, and journalists often opine that we’re heading towards the kind of surveillance state Orwell envisioned. To them, I can only respond with a Panto shout-out: BEHIND YOU…


5 Comments leave one →
  1. markhb permalink
    June 17, 2013 1:16 am

    Fine piece as ever Graham. Its (overdue) time for a new contract between government & people, but i wonder who is going to represent the people this time because the politicians clearly have no intention of offering more than lip service.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 17, 2013 5:46 am

    Hello Mark – I was hoping I might catch your attention. As for your observation, it’s one of the most baffling of all the problems we face (you comment on it frequently in CiF, as I recall). I guess it’s consistent with my own view that the current ‘democratic’ system cannot accommodate the changes required, but I’m dissatisfied that I can’t propose any kind of credible solution. I suppose that is why I believe, deep down, that the current institutions need to be swept away, in order to clear the ground for new ones, but this is a terribly destructive option and although it’s what I believe, it isn’t what I want to advocate – if you know what I mean.

    Anyway, more on that in later posts (and I’m back in the saddle now, after a long recharge of the batteries). Glad you had the time to pop in, and as they say: watch this space! 🙂

  3. markhb permalink
    June 20, 2013 10:15 am

    Hi Graham – I really appreciate your excellent thoughts & wish they were more widely appreciated! I agree its a conundrum and possibly a defining issue around our future development as a species (or not). Its true that “Democracy” as presently configured isn’t working well enough or fast enough to deal with our current issues, but its far from clear that there are any better alternatives ready to hand to take off the shelf so dont be too hard on yourself! Lets not even go down the path of “Dictatorship”, even a “Green one” ! The only other working alternative is the Chinese system where one party is the conduit for democratic governance, and although there are undeniable efficiencies, the many fundamental corruptions are also evident.

    As you wisely point out – the immense destructiveness of revolution takes years to put right. The Russian revolution and the Cultural revolution being two huge historical cases in point, though more recently Libya and Syria are not exactly advertisements for revolution.
    Dictatorship is so abhorrent that hopefully if i was living in those countries then I too would be a revolutionary. However Peace has always been a prerequisite of progress, and its probably easy to agree how important it is to find it as rapidly as possible. Peace is usually only possible when basic levels of equity are present. My uncompromising view is that Dictators need to be overthrown so that the real work of building responsive and responsible society can begin.

    Possibly my main objection to revolution however is a growing conviction that only increased levels of social organisation, economic cooperation, excellent education and democratic participation can stabilise and eventually heal the human relationship with the natural environment. So personally my instincts tend to lean towards compassionate evolution rather than violent revolution.

    Surely its only a smarter “enhanced” democracy with better leaders and fairer decision making which can provide better solutions and government more sensitive to planetary limits and international justice. Supranational institutions require more support and legitimacy. Mother Earth deserves more respect and rights. Women are way overdue control over their own reproductive health. Environmental costs must be accurately allocated into prices. Corruption can be steadily eliminated, resources can be better shared, but everyone surely needs to contribute. Lets make hereditary monarchs, banksters, assorted warmongers and polluters rather more accountable in future while we are about it!

    And if we were to close out the tax havens, call a halt to the futile and counterproductive “wars” on terror and drugs then it doesnt even need to cost

    Thats just to name a few little improvements that come to mind.
    I am sure there are a few more…..

    Rant over (for the moment)

    All the best Mark

    PS The hundred year rain events over here seem to be six monthly at the moment!

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 21, 2013 6:32 am


    Some odd paradoxes then: we in the west trumpet the superiority of our democracy, but it’s inherently corrupt (look at US politics, bought and sold over the counter), and many electorates are either disillusioned, apathetic, or both. Turnout in the UK is falling to levels where it cannot possibly be viewed as representative. Compare that with China, a police state and a dictatorship, equally corrupt, but making better progress on climate change and renewable energy investment that anywhere else in the world. Makes you wonder…(but to clarity, not so much as I advocate dictatorship).

    Then there’s your point about revolution:

    “…the immense destructiveness of revolution takes years to put right. The Russian revolution and the Cultural revolution being two huge historical cases in point…”

    You missed out the most obvious example: the world wars of the 20th century. Both produced the most profound, and in many ways very beneficial, social changes, wrought out of terrible destruction and loss of life, certainly. Yet what followed – the collapse of rule by autocratic monarchy and the dissolution of aristocratic power after WW1, and the emergence of a social contract, the welfare state, the development of wonderful technologies and enduring peace in Europe for the first time in 400 years, came about as a direct result of WW2, as terrible a catalyst as that was.

    If I made the observation that the most progress we’ve ever achieved followed hard on the heels of the worst destruction and inhumanity we ever inflicted, would I be wrong? I don’t think so, but equally I don’t know what that means (or, more honestly, I don’t like what it implies).

  5. markhb permalink
    June 21, 2013 7:38 pm

    I dont like what it implies either Graham, but surely there’s a case to be made that those changes might/could/should have been made anyway but without the necessity of violent revolution and/or destructive warfare; if only we could have sorted out our grievances rather better. Surely thats the challenge which humanity now faces? Its the utter necessity for the sustainability of the human species that we learn self control and self limitation and self organisation. In fact its a comprehensive self realisation thats required. If we continue to head inexorably into the boom & bust, the feast & famine cycles of previous generations, then the depth & intensity of the catastrophe only increases. And this time the lesson of climate change is that its different – the crisis is existential.

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