Tuesday 30 April 2013

Bees, and independence

About ten years ago, when the Scottish National Party was still in opposition (and I was still an active member), I confronted Nicola Sturgeon after a party meeting and told her that if I heard her say 'the minister must resign' just one more time, I'd tear up my membership card and leave the party. We've heard very little of that refrain from the party since; not, I suspect, so much because of what I said (although I hope it helped), as because for a good part of that time the party has been in power.

Don't get me wrong: I still want independence. It's unfinished business. And I honestly think it will make the world (and Scotland) a better place. I still work for it. I still campaign for it. But it isn't, for me, the most important issue on the the political agenda now, by a long way. The most important issue on the political agenda has to be the preservation of the planet as a viable habitat for humans into the future.

That is very challenged at the moment. It's challenged first and foremost by global warming, and the most important contributor to global warming is burning fossil fuels, which makes all the arguments about whose is the oil under the north sea a bit moot. It would be better for all of us if the oil stayed where it belongs, under the north sea, and the carbon it represents was never returned to circulation. But another very significant challenge is ecocide, the accelerating destruction of major parts of the ecosystem which supports all life on this planet. And one of the key elements of ecocide is the genocide of the bees.

Why bees matter

During the middle ages, and on through the early modern period until the voyages of Captain Cook, sailors on long voyages commonly died of scurvy. Scurvy is a particularly horrible way to die. Your joints and bones hurt. Your teeth fall out. You die slowly in fever, with jaundice, nerve damage and a range of other symptoms. Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, and vitamin C is produced primarily in flowering plants. Thiamin (vitamin B1) is also essential to human life, and is also produced primarily in flowering plants.

Bees pollinate flowering plants. They aren't the only pollinators of flowering plants, of course, but they're by far the most common and effective. For the majority of species of flowering plant they are effectively the only pollinators, because most other pollinators are specialists which concentrate on only small groups of species. Furthermore, of course, many of the same factors which are causing the collapse of the bee population are also causing other pollinator populations to decline.

Flowering plants provide us with fruit, and if they aren't pollinated, they don't fruit. If they don't fruit, of course, they also don't set seed, and while a number of food plants can be propagated vegetatively (i.e. without seeds) the vast majority can't. There are two special cases among plants commonly eaten by humans. Peas and beans very largely self-pollinate, and don't need pollinators; figs are pollinated by a specialist species of wasp. For the rest, we depend on bees. If bees go extinct, the flowering plants mostly go extinct within one generation, and with them, the species (including homo sapiens) which depend on them for food.

Yes, gentle reader. You. You and your children. Without vitamin C, you die. Horribly. This matters.

The role of neonicotinoids

Bees are dying. That isn't controversial. At the rate at which they are dying, they will be extinct in only a few decades. There are many factors which are well understood which contribute to the death of bees; one is the Varroa mite. But another that certainly contributes is the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoids are neuropathic - they work by causing brain damage in the species they affect. They affect almost all insect species, including species which predate on pest species; but, in particular, they affect bee species. Bees affected by neonicotinoids suffer brain damage and lose the ability to communicate and to navigate. They also die. Neonicotinoids are typically used to treat seeds before planting, and persist in the soil for a significant period (years) after the treated crop was planted, affecting other plants growing in the same soil and the insects that pollinate them.

The role of Richard Lochhead MSP

Richard Lochhead is Scotland's minister for Rural Affairs and Environment. In theory, under the devolution settlement, he actually has no role in this, because the issue of licensing of pesticides is something the UK negotiates at a UK level with the rest of the EU. So he could have sat on his hands and stayed schtum. He should, of course, have protested vigorously against the UK government's intention to vote against the ban on neonicotinoids. That was in Scotland's - and the world's - vital interests. But he did neither of these things. He chose to cave in to the demands of the agrochemical lobby, against Scotland's interests, and support the UK government.

Let's be clear about this: it wasn't Scottish industry he was supporting. There is no major Scottish manufacturer of these toxins. They are made principally by Bayer, a German company - and Germany (which has already unilaterally imposed restrictions on neonicotinoids) voted to ban them. So a Scottish National Party minister backed a German company against the Scottish people. I'm not alleging he's personally corrupt - I'm not saying he was bought and sold for German gold - but this was at best a profound error of judgement.

But - we won the vote, didn't we?

Despite Richard Lochhead, the EU did decide to ban neonicotinoids. Temporarily. For two years. Two years during which, because the stuff is persistent in the soil, it still won't be possible to do any conclusive science because the whole environment will still be saturated with neonicotinoids. And so, in two years time, the same lobbyists with the same grubby money will still be whispering in Richard Lochhead's ear (if he still holds the Rural Affairs brief), still saying that it isn't 'conclusively proven' that neonicotinoids are 'the cause' of the catastrophic decline in bees. Nobody said they were the cause. They're a cause, in a multi-factorial problem, and they're a cause we can affect.

This fight is not won. It will come back in two years time. And meantime, the stuff is still in the soil, still contributing to the decline of bees. We haven't won anything. Yet.

If independence changes nothing, it's not worth having

Independence, in the modern world, is a limited concept. Much of what any nation does is constrained by its relationships and agreements. And, as I've said above, independence is not the most important political issue facing us today. Independence isn't good for its own sake. It's good if it helps us create a better Scotland and a better world. A more liberal, equal, self confident Scotland; a more peaceful, secure world. A world with a future. A world, specifically, with food for the future - with flowering plants - with bees.

But what the SNP has been telling us these past few years is that if we vote for independence, nothing will change. We'll keep the monarchy. We'll keep the pound. We'll stay in NATO...

And now this.

We're used to Westminster politicians doing the bidding of well-funded lobbyists; we're used to the sleazy world of not-quite-blatant corruption they inhabit. We know that part of the reason that the English NHS is being sold off to the private sector is because (mainly American) health companies donated largely to the Tory party. We know that part of the reason the government bailed out the banks with a trillion pounds of our money (which, gentle reader, includes fifteen thousand pounds of your money) is that the financial sector has been exceedingly generous benefactors of both main Westminster parties.

The SNP need to wake up and smell the coffee. Without activists, we won't win the referendum. Without activists, they won't win the next Holyrood election. If all they can offer activists is the same old same old - same old monarchy, same old NATO, same old kow-towing to big business - why the HELL should we waste our energy working to win these things?

The minister must resign

I don't, any longer, have a party card to tear up. The relentless surge towards the 'central ground' which the party has been pursuing over the past decade left me behind years ago. I am, like most activists, of the left. But I urge all those of you who do still have party cards to tear them up, and to write to Richard Lochhead explaining why. And for those of us who aren't party members, but are working on the referendum campaign, we need to work through Radical Indpendence and the National Collective to push the idea of a Scotland that dares to be different.

The Scottish National Party has to show us it understands this. Richard Lochhead needs to show us he knows he was - badly - wrong. He clearly does not have the judgement, the clarity of vision, the understanding of the issues to hold a rural affairs brief.

The minister must resign.

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