Oct 17

TTIP day of action Oct 2014

Here’s some videos from the TTIP day of action 2014:


John Hilary – War on Want

David Babbs – 38 Degrees

Ludovica Rogers – Occupy London

Sam Lowe – Friends Of the Earth

Tracy Worcester – Pig Pledge

Jan O’Malley – Keep Our NHS Public

Speaker – Save Lewisham Hospital

Jean Lambert MEP – Green Party

Annie – Unite The Youth

Sara Calloway – Global Women’s Strike

Banners at Parliament Square

Oct 02

TTIP: The ‘harmonization’ of regulation for the benefit of corporations

Negotiated in secret and widely opposed by civil society and community groups, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) calls for the ‘harmonisation’ of regulations between the United States and the E.U.  Internet privacy and safety and environmental regulations in all areas are expected to be decimated if this anti-democratic re-write of common protections for workers, the environment, and the public is permitted.  Corporate interests with privileged access to the negotiating process hope to achieve technocratic control of regulatory science. To learn more come to this public discussion event:


  • Linda Kaucher – Stop TTIP!
  • Wendy Grossman – Open Rights Group
  • Hilda PalmerHazards Campaign
  • Sam Lowe – Friends of the Earth

Monday October 6th, 7-9pm @ The Feminist Library, 5 Westminster Bridge Rd, London SE1 7XW.  Nearest tubes: Waterloo/Lambeth North

Organized by Breaking the Frame www.breakingtheframe.org.uk

The BTF working group supports the October 11th Day of Action on TTIP. For more information or to find your local action http://www.nottip.org.uk/

Feb 24

Databases and data-mining: a favoured method for security and law enforcement agencies

Databases and data-mining: a favoured method for security and law enforcement agencies

Chris Jones Statewatch

Image from The Guardian

The documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden on the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have revealed the vast extent of state surveillance undertaken in secret in the name of “national security”. However, absorbing vast amounts of digital information is not solely the preserve of secretive security agencies. Increasingly, police forces are taking a similar approach. However, organisastion and campaigning have the potential to slow and possibly halt such developments.

A potted history of the NSA

In 1946, following their cooperation on signals intelligence in World War II the UK and USA signed an agreement – known as the UKUSA agreement – which permits “the exchange of the products of the following operations relating to foreign communications”:

(1) collection of traffic

(2) acquisition of communication documents and equipment

(3) traffic analysis

(4) cryptanalysis

(5) decryption and translation

(6) acquisition of information regarding communication organisations, practices, procedures and equipment.

More specifically, the agreement was between the US Army-Navy Communication Intelligence Board (“representing the U.S. State, Navy and War Departments and all other U.S. Communication Intelligence authorities which may function”) and the London Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) Board (“representing the Foreign Office, Admiralty, War Office, Air Ministry, and all other British Empire Communication Intelligence authorities which may function”).[1]

Canada joined the Agreement in 1948, and Australia and New Zealand in 1956. Norway (1952), Denmark (1954), Germany (1955), Italy, Turkey, the Philippines and Ireland are also party to the agreement.

Together the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand make up the ‘Five Eyes’ states. They share intelligence and information on a variety of issues, and from a whole host of sources – not just SIGINT – including human intelligence, defence intelligence, and security intelligence.[2] There are a number of other ‘Eyes’ groups with varying countries involved.[3]

During the Cold War the primary interest of these agencies was communism and the activities of the Soviet Union, its satellite states, and their agents. Now they appear chiefly focused upon terrorism, industrial espionage, and cyber-security (for example with a focus on hackers and cyber-attacks).


In 1988 the journalist Duncan Campbell revealed that Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the USA were operating a global telecommunications interception system, which became known popularly as ECHELON.[4] Agencies such as the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) played a key role in this network.

A decade later the issue began to receive political attention in Europe, most notably with the publication of three European Parliament reports, one of which concluded, amongst other things, that Member States involved with the system were probably in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Despite the furore, nothing happened. Rather than taking action to rein in the NSA’s capabilities, US politicians apparently gave the agency the green light to expand. According to NSA whistleblower Adrienne J. Kinne, after 9/11 “basically all the rules were thrown out the window” and extensive surveillance of US citizens as well as foreign nationals increased massively, in the name of combating terrorism.[5]

One of the EP’s reports noted of ECHELON that:

“In areas characterised by a high volume of communications only a very small proportion of those communications are transmitted by satellite… this means that the majority of communications cannot be intercepted by earth stations, but only by tapping cables and intercepting radio signals, something which – as the investigations carried out in connection with the report have shown – is possible only to a limited extent… the UKUSA states have access to only a very limited proportion of cable and radio communications and can analyse an even more limited proportion of those communications… the extremely high volume of traffic makes exhaustive, detailed monitoring of all communications impossible in practice.”[6]

Changing strategies

The US government was obviously well aware of these problems. In 2001 the Wall Street Journal reported that “the NSA’s snooping capabilities are in jeopardy, undermined by advances in telecommunications technology.”[7]  According to Thomas Drake, another NSA whistleblower, in 2003 the government intervened in the sale of a US undersea cable company to an Asian firm, Global Crossing. A ‘Network Security Agreement’ was signed between the government and the company, which was obliged to maintain an internal corporate cell of American citizens with government clearances responsible for ensuring that surveillance requests for fulfilled quickly and The vast global increases in digital telecommunications and transactions led the US Department of Defence (of which the NSA is a part) to state in 2007 that the Pentagon aimed to expand its systems to be able to handle yottabytes of data (yottabye=a septillion bytes, 1024; gigabyte=about a billion bytes). A March 2012 article by James Bamford[9] in Wired magazine makes clear the expansion of the NSA’s operations to deal with the digital age. It examined the NSA’s new data centre in Utah, which was intended to gather, store and analyse:

“[T]he complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches as well as all sorts of personal data trails – parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter’.”[10]

As an aside, the centre will have a significant environmental impact: according to Bamford it will use 65-megawatts of electricity per year and its water system will have the ability to pump 1.7 million gallons of liquid per day. It also has its own sewage system, and a massive air conditioning system to keep computers cool.

The Snowden revelations

Then, in June 2013, investigations based on documents obtained by Edward Snowden confirmed the involvement of Global Crossing and other firms in the worldwide surveillance operation and the extent to which the NSA and its allies, such as GCHQ, are able to monitor personal communications.

Agreements with companies such as Global Crossing and BT, as part of the FAIRVIEW program, allow the NSA to extract internet traffic as it travels across the globe; the agency extracts information directly from the servers of major US internet corporations such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo; gathers information on hundreds of millions of text messages and phone calls every day; and has broken or circumvented digital encryption standards.

GCHQ, meanwhile, which over the last three years has received £100 million from the NSA for its efforts, also engages in cable tapping, monitors phone calls and text messages, and so forth. It provides information and analysis to MI5, MI6, the government, and also the NSA, who apparently consider the comparatively weaker regulation of its British counterpart as a “selling point”.[11]

The haystack

Broadly speaking, it seems that the NSA and its partner agencies are aiming to collect, if not everything, then as much digital information as they possibly can. People generate this information through increasingly-ubiquitous devices such as smartphones, laptops, etc.; the advances that have led to these devices allow state agencies to store and process the information.

The result is an enormous haystack which is apparently used to sift out the various needles: terrorists, hackers, spies, companies breaking sanctions and trade embargoes, etc. The NSA, GCHQ and their supporters claim that the agency is incredibly judicious with this information, but significant lack of transparent oversight arrangements means it is not clear that this is the case. In any case, it does not justify collecting it all in the first place.

Nevertheless, the “haystack” approach – the collection and analysis of vast sets of digitally-stored data – has become, or is becoming, increasingly adopted in law enforcement.


There are numerous examples that could be used, but a particularly useful one, due to its scale and nature, is Passenger Name Record (PNR) information. PNR is generated by travel agencies and transport operators when individuals book travel tickets. For airlines, which so far have been the key focus state PNR collection and analysis efforts, the PNR data is made up of:

  • PNR record locator code;
  • Date of reservation/issue of ticket;
  • Date(s) of intended travel;
  • Name(s);
  • Available frequent flier and benefit information (i.e., free tickets, upgrades, etc.);
  • Other names on PNR, including number of travellers on PNR;
  • All available contact information (including originator information);
  • All available payment/billing information (not  including other transaction details linked to a credit card or account and not connected to the travel transaction);
  • Travel itinerary for specific PNR;
  • Travel agency/travel agent;
  • Code share information;
  • Split/divided information;
  • Travel status of passenger (including confirmations and check-in status);
  • Ticketing information, including ticket number, one way tickets, and Automated Ticket Fare Quote;
  • All baggage information;
  • Seat information, including seat number;
  • General remarks including OSI (Other Service Information), SSI (Special Service Information) and SSR (Special Service Request) information, e.g. wheelchair requirements, seating preferences, special meal requests, etc.;
  • Any collected APIS information;
  • All historical changes to the PNR listed in numbers 1 to 18.

All this information is collected by commercial companies for their own use. Law enforcement agencies, however, decided that it may be useful to them.

In 2004 the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the EU signed an agreement on airline PNR which has been renewed a number of times, most recently in 2012. The agreement requires the PNR data of all airline passengers travelling from the EU to be taken from airlines’ and travel agencies’ computer reservation databases and sent to the DHS for processing and examination for involvement in “terrorism and related crimes” and “other crimes that are punishable by a sentence of imprisonment of three years or more and that are transnational in nature.”[12]

It is worth noting that although the NSA apparently collects “travel itineraries” (see Bamford quote, above), it presumably does not share them with the DHS. If it did, there would have been no need to conclude a separate agreement with the EU to ensure that airlines and travel agencies hand over PNR information.

Currently there is EU legislation on the table that if passed would extend the system to flights coming into the EU – and possibly plane, train and boat travel within the EU – despite the fact that no evidence has been presented to show the value of PNR in dealing with terrorism and crime. Justifications from law enforcement agencies that have been made public have relied on anecdotes. The same problem surrounds the EU’s controversial Data Retention Directive, which mandates the collection by telecommunications service providers of metadata on telephone calls and internet use for up to two years, for law enforcement purposes.[13]


The tendency towards the collection and collation of large sets of data, personal or otherwise, and the application of new modes of analysis to already existing datasets, appears endemic: the introduction of “predictive policing” systems,[14] the attempt to give law enforcement agencies powers held by GCHQ through the “Snooper’s Charter”,[15] the EU’s Data Retention Directive, providing law enforcement authorities with access to the European database of asylum seekers’ fingerprints and the European visa database,[16] not to mention use of data-mining and analysis tools by private companies…

These “solutions” are frequently marketed to governments by multinational IT and security corporations as “solutions” to the problems of terrorism, crime and “migration management”. The fact that states and state agencies frequently purchase such systems shows the extent to which they see large-scale collection and processing of data to be a valid and effective way of dealing with security problems. Given the amount of personal data that is routinely generated, collected and stored by private companies and non-law-enforcement government departments, there are clearly vast possibilities for more extensive surveillance.

However, such developments are by no means inevitable. Campaigning prevented the Snooper’s Charter becoming law, legal challenges from NGOs may well see the Data Retention Directive struck down,[17] and the negotiations on an EU PNR system have for some time now been stalled due to civil liberties concerns.[18] Ensuring transparency and basic accountability of security and intelligence agencies (as called for by campaigns such as Don’t Spy On Us in the UK[19] and Stop Watching Us in the US[20]) is the first step towards ensuring that these bodies are compelled to act within a framework based on human rights and the rule of law. There’s always lots of bad news, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism too.

[9] Author of a number of books on the NSA: The Puzzle Palace (1982 and 2001); Body of Secrets (2002), The Shadow Factory (2008).

Nov 24

Technocracy, gender and reproductive technology

David King

It is often assumed that the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, liberalism and progress through science are aligned with the liberation of women. Reproductive technologies, as part of medicine are also assumed to be an unalloyed benefit for women, giving them reproductive choice and control over their lives. Although there is truth in this, there is a darker side of the liberal agenda, which can be traced to the origins of modern science in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century. This revolution marked a shift in fundamental worldviews throughout European society, and the establishment of technocratic capitalist modernity.

The Medieval World

In the medieval worldview, as in nearly all previous cosmologies across the globe, the earth/nature was seen as female and as an inherently alive and inter-connected whole. There were different shades of this philosophy, including the alchemists’ view of the world as a unity of opposing and equal male and female principles. While the male principle is active, the female was thought of as passive and nurturing. For example, it was thought that the heavens were masculine and fertilised the earth through rain (semen).

For many hundred years, the feudal order, however unjust, maintained an ecological balance that maintained social stability. As the medieval order broke down in the 14th and 15th centuries, this began to change. The medieval worldview played a significant role in restraining all-out exploitation of natural resources. For example, in the medieval worldview, our distinction between organic and inorganic substances did not exist: metals were thought to be formed by the secretions of the earth’s womb. As the market economy emerged and with it the demand for minerals, there were major debates in the 16th century about the acceptability of mining, with opponents portraying it not merely as the sin of avarice but as the rape of Mother Earth. Proponents responded by portraying nature as wicked stepmother who refuses to nourish her children.

Organic metaphors also permeated political thinking, with the image of the ‘body politic’ being taken very literally. While the nobility subscribed to hierarchical philosophies stressing the active rule of the head, vitalist thinkers like Paracelsus viewed activity and change as immanent to nature, which translated into a radical, democratic politics which led to his persecution by different states of Europe. In the transition period, in which the stability of the Medieval order was breaking down under the pressure of nascent market capitalism, the relationship between metaphysical ideas about nature, gender, politics and questions of political power were very significant. The break-up of the old order and accompanying social turmoil created widespread existential angst, with fears of chaos, anarchy, and even a crumbling of the laws of nature. The destructive side of nature (plagues, famines, tempests) began to be emphasised and this was linked to male fears of the unruly and dangerous force of female sexuality.

Thus the Judeo-Christian idea of the dominion of man over nature and women began to be emphasised, and was allied to a backlash against women who were attempting to escape from their medieval roles and carve out a place for themselves in the new commercial economy. These politics can be seen clearly, for example in Milton’s Paradise Lost. On the elite political stage, the conflict was played out in John Knox’s First Trumpet Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a polemic against the three Catholic Queen Marys of Scotland and England which emphasised the Aristotelian orthodoxy that the male principle of spirit should rule over the female in order to maintain order in the cosmos. For women of the lower orders, the male backlash took the more violent form of the witch persecutions, which pitted the hierarchy of the Church against the old, pagan and more democratic religion.

The Birth of Technocracy

The emerging mechanical and scientific philosophy of the 17th century crystallised first in the writings of Francis Bacon, who as Lord Chancellor of England was personally involved in the witch trials. Bacon’s major contribution was the idea of the experimental method of science and a strict insistence upon inductive reasoning, i.e. reasoning from observations about nature and the results of experiment, rather than the abstract logical theorising that had dominated the philosophy of the Middle Ages. Bacon, who was a great enthusiast for the new ‘mechanical arts’, first coined the mission statement of technocracy – ‘Knowledge is Power’. Criticising Aristotle’s natural history approach to discovering facts about nature, Bacon stressed that nature would not reveal the secrets hidden in her womb and bosom unless she was ‘vexed’ through the interventions of the scientist, which he often likened to the techniques of prosecutors and inquisitors. He often refers to nature as a harlot who must be forcibly subdued through science. In his utopia, The New Atlantis, he describes a fully-fledged political technocracy (i.e. a society ruled by scientists), ruled by the Father of its scientific institute, ‘Salomon’s House.’


Bacon’s philosophy was echoed by the aristocratic founders of the Royal Society. In 1664, for example, Henry Oldenburg, the Society’s secretary, stated that its intention was to, ‘raise a Masculine Philosophy…whereby the Mind of Man may be ennobled with the knowledge of the solid Truths.’ Despite their view of nature as merely dead matter, such writers continued the identification of nature as female. Robert Hooke, for example, viewed matter as the, ‘Female or Mother Principle,’ which was, ‘without Life or Motion, without form, and void, and dark, Power in itself wholly unactive, until it be, as it were, impregnated by the second Principle, which may represent the Pater.’

These scientists were clear that the scientific approach to nature must be vigorous, and their writings are full of sexual metaphor. Bacon proclaimed that men must make peace amongst themselves in order to turn their, ‘united forces against the Nature of Things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds’. Instead of remaining in the, ‘outer courts of nature,’ Bacon exhorted his followers to ‘penetrate further’…’, ‘into her inner chambers.’ John Webster, a slightly later writer, argued that such an approach would be needed in order to, ‘unlock her Cabinet’, and Oldenburg echoed this tone, arguing that scientists must ‘penetrate from Nature’s antechamber to her inner closet.’   Although modern scientists do not openly express themselves in such terms, examples can be found in the writings of scientists throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries.

During this period, male doctors began the first of many waves of displacing women midwives from the management of childbirth.  However, their scientific confidence was not matched by their understanding of how human reproduction worked.  Echoing the inherited patriarchal assumption that the active principle was in the male ‘seed’, these writers insisted that the egg and the womb were no more than passive receptacles for the seed that made no contribution to the child’s characteristics.  It is rather ironic that my copy of Carolyn Merchant’s ‘The Death of Nature’, the classic description of the misogynist philosophy of the Scientific Revolution, is described by its publishers as a ‘seminal’ (rather than ovular) work.

In Bacon’s model of nature, as in that of the other key philosopher of the Scientific Revolution, Rene Descartes, matter is essentially passive and only moves or changes in response to external forces identified as the principle of spirit or God.  This follows the earlier aristocratic models of society and the cosmos: it was no accident the first scientific society was named the Royal society.  In the mid 17th century, with the work of Isaac Newton and the founders of the Royal Society, a ‘billiard ball’ or clockwork model of nature came to dominate scientific thinking, in accordance with Descartes’ and Bacon’s mechanical model of the universe.  It was this ‘disenchantment’ of nature that legitimated the technocratic drive for complete control and the capitalist projects of exploitation of natural resources without limit.

At the root of the scientific attitude to nature is a distancing of the perceiving subject from his object (nature), a severing of relationship between the scientist and nature, which is precisely what scientists describe as necessary in order to obtain ‘objectivity’.  In the 1660s, this gendered difference of approach was reflected very concretely in the famous experiments on the vacuum in which scientists placed a bird in a bell jar, and then evacuated the air, killing the bird.  According to contemporary accounts, women observers protested vehemently against this, forcing the men to conduct the experiments in the dead of night after the women had gone to bed.  It is this distancing of subject from object that, in the second wave of the women’s movement in the late 20th century, feminists identified as the ‘male gaze’, through which men objectify women.

Reproductive Technologies

The technocratic project of control of nature did not get to grips with human reproduction until the beginning of the 20th Century, where it emerged in the form of the eugenics movement. In this period, technocracy was an open political movement of scientists and engineers, who argued that the problems of administrating industrial society were too complex to be left to democratic processes, and that the running of society should be entrusted to their ‘apolitical’ stewardship. The eugenics movement was closely allied to the technocracy movement, and contrary to the idea we have inherited of eugenics as an extreme right-wing phenomenon, most eugenicists saw themselves as progressive and humanitarian. Eugenics was part of the overall managerial tendency in politics that arose as a result of the failure of 19th Century laissez-faire capitalism to deal with the social turmoil of industrial mass society. At its centre was the technocratic concept of social control through control of nature, in particular the randomness and mess that arises from human sexual reproduction. Eugenicists would always begin by asking, “How can we devote so much attention to the breeding of our farm animals, yet do nothing about human breeding?”  But its target was women’s bodies and reproductive capacities, not those of men.

The gender politics of eugenics appear contradictory unless it is understood as a form of technocracy, fundamentally aimed at the rational control of reproduction. Some aspects seem very clearly anti-feminist and oppressive of women, for example the tendency to sterilise unwed mothers. It is not an accident that in the classic eugenic study of a poor white US family, the Jukes, which supposedly demonstrated that four generations of the family were criminals, ‘feeble-minded’, prostitutes etc, the ancestor from whom all these burdens on society were descended was a woman, Ada Jukes. If only she had been sterilised, the eugenicist argued, society would have been spared the burden of the following generations. Likewise the Supreme Court case, which established the right of US states to sterilise people without consent involved a woman, Carrie Buck.

On the other hand, the eugenics movement (which was always composed of a large proportion of women) presented benefits to women: it was eugenicist women, notably Margaret Sanger in the USA and Marie Stopes in England, who pioneered birth control for women, and who founded the Family Planning Association, for example. Stopes and Sanger always argued that they were relieving women of the burden of multiple pregnancies and caring for huge families, yet it was also very clear that their efforts were targeted at the ‘lower’ classes.

The integration of eugenics with the technological control movement of the 20th century (Fordism) is best captured by Aldhous Huxley’s 1930s novel Brave New World.  It is most remembered for its vision of artificial wombs and artificial class differentiation through dosing the bottled foetuses with alcohol.  In that world, the word ‘mother’ is a term of abuse indicating something disgusting, whilst women are simply not permitted to refuse sex.

After World War II, when eugenics had acquired an extremely bad name, the efforts of eugenicists switched to population control in the Third World. Here again, whilst control of their fertility was undoubtedly a genuine benefit for many women in those countries, the targeting of the reproduction of black women, who were supposedly creating a world population problem, and the coercive nature of many population control programmes reveals the eugenic character of that movement. In the 1970s and 80s the targeting of poor women and women of colour with dangerous long term contraceptives such as Norplant and Depo Provera continued these policies.  Although it is often assumed that racist and coercive sterilisation programmes are a thing of the past, recent scandals in Israel and the USA show that this is not the case.

Throughout the 20th Century, whilst overt eugenics has declined, human reproduction has become an increasingly technologised process, in which pregnancy and childbirth have become increasingly medicalised and hospitalised and obstetrics and gynaecology have become the domain of mainly male doctors, with midwives performing an increasingly subordinate role.  Technological interventions in reproduction have included hormonal contraception and fertility drugs as well as the disastrous experiences of drugs such as DES and thalidomide.  Technologisation of reproduction has created its own logic of quality control, through the development of ultrasound and other prenatal screening programmes.  In 1979, IVF was first achieved by Robert Edwards, a committed eugenicist and board member of the British Eugenics Society.

The response of feminists to reproductive technologies has varied depending on their relation to technocracy. Thus, for example, in the early 1970s the radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone, tried to develop a kind of Marxist approach in her book The Dialectic of Sex, which argued for the use of technology to liberate women from the burdens of reproduction as the only way to achieve equality for women. Most notoriously, Firestone argued that as in Huxley’s Brave New World, scientists should develop ectogenesis, i.e. artificial wombs for growing babies outside the body.

In contrast, in the 1980s an international network of feminists calling itself The Feminist International Network for Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering (FINRRAGE), developed an eco-feminist critique of reproductive technology, arguing that it is part of the patriarchal attempt to appropriate and control women’s bodies. Some of these writers theorised that this drive to control women’s fertility originates in fundamental male insecurities stemming from men’s marginal role in the reproductive process, and argued that the technologisation of reproduction was leading to the removal of the last truly woman-centred aspect of human life from female control.  Further generations of feminist writers and scholars have continued to struggle with the contradictions of technocratic progress, control and choice, and women have fought against medicalisation through the natural birth movement for example.

Some Current Gender Issues in Reproductive Technology

IVF; Although IVF has now been practised for over 30 years and millions of women have undergone it, there is still a lack of research on the long-term health consequences for women. IVF is a stressful and invasive procedure with significant short-term health affects, notably Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome. This condition, in its mild form, can affect up to 30% of women, and there is no clear consensus about how many women are affected by the medium and severe forms, with figures ranging from 1 to 8%. In these cases, blood vessels become leaky leading to the collection of a large amount of fluid in the abdomen. Although figures are unclear, there may be one death per year from OHSS in the UK, but there is no systematic monitoring of the condition. Feminist critics have argued that the standard IVF approach, which uses large hormone doses to produce 10 to 15 eggs, many of which will be of poor quality, imposes unnecessary risks on women. It is sometimes suggested that these high doses are used in order to create a supply of surplus eggs, which can be used in research.

Egg donation: These concerns about hormone treatments are especially sharp for women who are donating eggs to other women, since they are not themselves aiming to become pregnant. Such women undergo significant risks and there have been major controversies about the exploitation of women in egg donation. For example, in the 1990s and 2000s, a commercial egg trade operated in Europe, with women from Eastern European countries donating eggs in return for small payments to “fertility tourists” from Western European countries. In some cases the clinics, which were making large profits from this trade, subjected the donors to extremely high doses of hormones, with resultant damage to the donors’ health. There is some evidence of overlap between the criminal networks that traffic in Eastern European women and the egg donation trade. In 2009 the UK changed its policy on egg donation, allowing payments of £750 to egg donors, with the aim of encouraging UK women to make up the shortfall in supply in the UK. Critics such as the No2Eggsploitation Campaign argued that these financial incentives were likely to lead to women on benefits and students with large debts taking the risks of egg donation, for purely financial rather than altruistic reasons.

Surrogacy: In the UK, commercial surrogacy is not permitted (although substantial ‘expenses’ payments can be made). As a result, an international surrogacy trade has developed centred on India and the Ukraine, with many of the same concerns as those raised by the trade in eggs. In India, whilst clinics are making large profits, surrogate mothers are paid only a small proportion of the overall fee, and often have to sign contracts stipulating that the clinic is not responsible for any damage to the woman’s health as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. The women are often coerced into surrogacy as a source of income by their husbands or fathers (in India, such work is seen as similar to prostitution, and are obliged to reside in dormitories at the fertility clinic during pregnancy.) In essence, the situation seems little different from baby-farming, and is a particularly unpleasant example of the exploitation of people in developing countries by wealthy Westerners.

Sex Selection: The development of ultrasound scanning in the 1980s has enabled the widespread abortion of female foetuses, particularly in India and China. These practices, driven by traditional patriarchal preference for sons as well as complex social factors, have extended the traditional phenomenon of female infanticide and death by neglect of young girls. The result is that in some parts of India the ratio of boys to girls can be as high as 125 boys for every 100 girls, and it is estimated that over 100 million women are missing from the world population as a result of sex selection. In turn, this is leading to significant social problems, including large numbers of men unable to find wives and the resulting increase in trafficking of women into these areas. In the 1990s, India legislated against prenatal sex selection, but the law has never been properly enforced, and the large sums of money to be made in this industry has meant that the problem continues to grow. It appears that the practice has now spread to some Eastern European countries, such as Georgia.


The purpose of this post has been to relate issues in reproductive technologies to the overall regime of technocracy, which has been a central element of capitalist modernity. Technocracy, which began in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century and was based upon the views of male scientists and philosophers, is based on principles of control and authority over the unruly female that are closely similar to those of traditional patriarchy.

These fundamental dynamics of technocracy have been played out in the development of reproductive technologies under the banner of eugenics in the 20th Century. The overall trend towards growing technological medical control has followed from the obvious offence that unregulated human reproduction represents to a technocratic social order.

But this is not to say that control of nature is always a bad thing or that it never brings concrete benefits to individual women; such is the contradictory nature of technocratic progress. Millions of women are grateful for IVF and hormonal contraception, for example. It is also often argued that these technologies give women more choice (that great shibboleth of consumer capitalism), and it cannot be denied that, in some ways, they do. But like all technologies, they also control us by controlling what the options are, and through the social pressure of a society which thinks that high-tech and control are always best. No-one has to be forced by the state to undergo pre-natal testing and the result – the termination of 90% of pregnancies involving Down Syndrome, for example – is a foregone conclusion, without anyone having to take responsibility. One thing that placing these developments in an overall framework of technocracy does allow us to understand, however, is that these benefits are often technofixes – technological solutions to social/political problems that fail to address the real causes of the problems.

Provision of contraception to Third World women is a case in point. The suffering of women under the burden of so many children is caused by a combination of patriarchy – men’s insistence on their sexual rights within marriage and producing children – and poverty which makes it a rational strategy to have many children. Instead of addressing these issues, the population control movement of the mid 20th Century descended upon these countries with its technology – contraception/sterilisation, often applied coercively.

A consistent feature of technofixes is that they seen sensible within the overall technocratic order, and so perpetrate that order and the interests that benefit from it. For women in industrialised countries, contraception may have reduced the risk of unwanted pregnancies and sexually liberated them, but it also created a situation in which it became an expectation that they should always be ready to have sex with men who wished to, rather than genuinely putting women in charge of their sexual lives and reproduction.

One simple thing we can say about the whole process of development of these technologies (as has often been said about technology-led development of Third World countries) is that it is hardly driven by the express wishes of its intended beneficiaries. Rather, it is driven by the logic of technocracy, which may sometimes partially help women in certain ways. It is hard to know which of these technologies would be in real demand in a feminist, post-technocratic world.  Perhaps women would take control of them – this is the promise of utopias such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Bodies of Glass.

In the current social order, however, there can be little doubt of the trajectory of perpetual reproductive and genetic control technologies – not merely the free-market eugenics that is developing right now, but a world in which sex is separated entirely from reproduction so that both may serve as forms of social control, as Huxley predicted. Ultimately, as the ‘transhumanists’ hope, both may become entirely redundant as humans finally achieve the masculine dream inherent in technocracy from its beginnings – the escape from the material, from embodied existence altogether, as we become entities of pure spirit running in computers. That vision is not merely anti-female, but anti-human.

Oct 01

Gender and Technology

Cynthia Cockburn

At the first two events in this series you’ve been looking at technology in relation to militarism, nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Tonight I’m inviting us to focus more on technology in relation to capital, capitalists, companies, what technology means to employers, and to people as workers (women and men) and people in other contexts than work, who need and obtain technological skills, or lack and fail to get them.

I should explain maybe that my fulltime work for around fifty years now has been research and writing. And a guiding principle for me in designing and carrying out research has been that I should have what I think of as a “constituency” for the work I do – by which I mean a group of people for whom my research findings may be of practical and political use, peopl who I’ve identified, and communicate with, and am active among. 

My first two books on this theme were about men, and the relationship between masculinity and technical knowhow. I set out to understand men in their identity as skilled technical workers and what was happening to them as their jobs were transformed by the computer. At the time there was a growing panic on about the de-skilling effects of computerization on men.

It may seem a bit odd, to have been a feminist, at the height of second wave feminism, and be researching men. You might wonder, shouldn’t we stop paying this everlasting attention to men and look at women instead? But the point was, for me, that to understanding men and their relation to technology could serve us well, as women. And my “constituency” in this research, was in fact women – even if the research wasn’t about them.  Because in our feminist movement of those days were women who wanted access to technical skills which can give you a grip in life, and better paid jobs. Some of you will remember just how hard it was back then for a woman to train and work as a carpenter, a motor mechanic, or an engineer.

In industry these jobs were cornered by men, men supported by male-dominated trade unions. But outside the work context too, men prevailed in technology – so what was going on?

For me – to understand technology you have to think about both class and gender. Well you always have to do that whole-istic thinking – because these big structures or meta-systems of power – economic power, gender power, racial power – are all intersected, they all work together to oppress and exploit, in and through each other.

Technology makes the connection between class and gender, in particular, very clear. The way I came to understand it, during these fifteen years of research, was pretty much like this. Technology is a medium of power. Think about it – at the simplest level a lever or a pulley adds power to the arm. A battering ram, or a nuclear weapon, amplifies the physical capacity of an army or a state. Owning tools, equipment and machinery and putting other people to work on them, bringing together the two great forces of production, has been, throughout history, the main source of economic power. The person who possesses special knowledge and competence with technology has always had a valuable asset – something that can be put to use autonomously, or to sold to an employer.

Think about social production, in a factory. ‘Know-how’ about making or using tools or machines gives a whole lot of power both over matter, shifting it, working it. But power over people too. The authority of know-how over the instruments of labour, the machinery, means being able to hold an employer to ransom, so to speak, and is also extended to authority over other workers. The engineer who knows about the mechanisms of the assembly line governs the movements not only of materials but of human beings.

Those categories of people who don’t possess the power of technical knowhow are obliged to depend on those who do to achieve their ends, whether it’s to win a war, keep a factory running or the plumbing and electrics of a house in good repair.


Technology has an inescapable bond with wealth. Even simple tools are no earthly use if you dont have the resources to acquire land or materials on which to use them. The huge technologies of irrigation or construction depend on massive economic surpluses to be effective. The engineer has always needed a patron. Once capitalist industrial production developed, the skilled technoloogist was obliged to turn to the manufacturer if he wanted a chance to exchange his skill for a living. Since the advent of 20th century corporate capitalism, the ‘technological innovator’ has often been a team in the employ of a giant firm – it takes a multinational to launch a tomography scanner or an i-pad onto the market.

As technologies change and displace each other, it creates a lot of disturbance among the technically-skilled strata of the workforce. Some gain position and some lose it. Some help push others down. The relationship of the person who has the relatively powerful attribute of technical competence to the person or organization with the absolutely powerful attribute of wealth has always been a negotiated one, highly ambiguous. The technologist at one level or moment is a mere employee, at another very close to the boss. Economic and class history has been a history of struggle over technology..


Among the haves and have-nots of technological competence, women and men are unevenly represented. The technical competences that men as a sex have and women as a sex lack is an extension of the physical domination of women by men. It also costs women very dear in earnings and social authority.

There is a prior problem to face though…it’s not so simple that women can just ‘decide’ to become technologically skilled.  Back in 1984 when I was three or four years into this work, the government funded an initiative called Women into Science and Engineering Year, W..I..S..E. It was organized by the Engineering Council working with the Equal Opportunities Commission. The approach they took was simply to explain to women that this kind of work, even in its traditional form, wasnt necessarily dirty, greasy and heavy…that anyway computerization was making things cleaner and lighter. Women just had to open their eyes and get into it.

It wasn’t very successful – and for good reason. It was naive. The sponsors of WISE year were overlooking the fact that technical know-how is a gender attribute, it’s deeply associated with masculinity. Its lack feminizes men, and possessing it unfeminizes women. It’s not so easy just to flout gender rules. It costs both men and women a lot to do so.

You have to remember I was doing this study in the very early 1980s, and it was only in the 1970s that we’d really clarified and gripped the concept of gender. Ann Oakley’s important book “Sex, gender and society” was published in 1972. She’d helped us to understand that the lived difference between masculinity and femininity isn’t born in us, it’s not given by our biology and therefore inevitable. Rather, it’s socially constituted, and the particular forms it takes vary from one society to another.

This idea of gender as social and variable, obvious as it seems today, was fresh then and it opened the way for me, like loads of other feminist researchers and writers of those years, to observe and describe gender in the making. I finished by understanding my study of compositors caught up in a technological crisis as one of the making and remaking of men. ‘Ideal men’ as pre-eminently technically competent and in control of technological production processes.  ‘Ideal women’ as technically inept…or rather defining women’s stereotypical abilities and values (caring, supporting) as ‘natural’ to them, and their actual skills (cooking, cleaning, sewing) as non-skills.

I want to close by saying a bit about what this kind of analysis of technology relations suggests about our feminism, the feminist movement we need and might be building. It’s pretty much commonsense to suppose that technology, as a medium of power is going to be developed and used in any system of domination to further the interests of the ones who are on top, the owning class as a class and men as a sex. So, yes, as women we have to think carefully about technology from the perspectives of both class and sex…two systems of power that bear heavily on us.

And, it’s interesting…if we’re honest with ourselves we have to face some worrying political contradictions…Women undeniably have a right to technical skills. But if these competences are historically an aspect of class power and male power, can we share in them without becoming honorary capitalists or honorary men. Can we engage in technological work without lending a hand to the employer’s control of other workers? If it’s an aspect of male power, can we share in technical knowhow without contributing to the oppression of other women?

The implication here is that we need a whole-istic kind of feminist consciousness and movement, one that involves a socialist opposition to capitalism, and a feminist opposition to patriarchy. There was quite a strong socialist feminist current in the 1970s and 1980s. It faded away in the 90s, with Marxism and socialism generally, both of which have also been pushed further into retreat by economic recession.

The new young feminist movement in London is strong on body politics. It’s a radical feminism, clearly identifying and resisting male dominance and exploitation of women, especially cultural, sexualized commodification of women and our images and bodies.  To some extent it is anticapitalist, in the sense that it understands the exploitation to be by big businesses, to be consumerist. But to my understanding the resistance of women as workers to capitalism and the state is not very well developed, and is certainly not linked up with radical feminism and antiracist feminism, in the whole-istic movement we badly need. Analysing technology relations as both a matter of class and gender could perhaps be useful in inspiring

Sep 30

The Problems of Nuclear Technology

Peter Lux

As well as the well-known problem of radioactivity there are a number of things that make nuclear power dangerous.

Decay Heat

Nuclear energy comes from the splitting of atoms – nuclear fission. The problem is that the two fragments that are formed are usually radioactive. This radioactivity continues to produce heat even after the nuclear reaction is stopped. Therefore spent fuel or a nuclear reactor which is shut down must be continously cooled or else the fuel rods will melt causing radioactive release or possibly an explosion. This is the current problem at Fukushima.

Dirty and Inefficient

The fission process is very ‘dirty’. Over 700 different isotopes are formed during the fission process. This makes it very difficult to reprocess or convert the spent fuel into a safe form for storage. Current nuclear power plants only use about 4-6% of the energy available from the nuclear fuel. Of this only about 30-40% is converted to electricity – the remainder is waste heat. With gas or other power plants it is possible to use this waste heat to provide hot water and heating for homes with something called ‘combined heat and power (CHP). However, this is not possible with nuclear since the power plants are sited away from population areas.

Nuclear Materials

The effect of the intense radiation on the materials that make up the reactor is not well understood. This results in a ‘try it and see’ approach to long term degradation of the reactor.

A Batch Process

In a conventional gas or coal plant the fuel is added as it is burnt. However, in all current nuclear power stations about 3 years supply of fuel is in the reactor. It is then necessary to have sophisticated control mechanisms to make sure that the fuel is ‘burnt’ slowly.


Nuclear power plants are some of the most complex machines every created.

In the 1980s, Charles Perrow came up with Normal Accident Theory which stated that in such complex systems an accident is caused not by a single component failure but a number of events that lead up to an accident. In such complex systems accidents WILL happen – they are normal. In his book Perrow states that two technologies are so dangerous because of this that they should be abandoned. The two technologies are nuclear power and genetic engineering.

Bespoke Technology

With a lot of technology there is a great deal of crossover from one area to another. For example carbon fibre and composite technologies used to develop better airplanes can also be used in wind turbines. Development in semiconductors used to create electronic components can also help produce better solar panels. With nuclear power there is very little crossover with the exception of nuclear weapons, and therefore little collective experience and know-how builds up outside the nuclear industry.

Negative Learning Curve

Because of the size, complexity and the bespoke nature of the nuclear industry there is a negative learning curve and nuclear power plants are getting more expensive to build.

There has been a positive learning curve with the running and maintenance of nuclear power plants. The capacity factor (i.e. the amount of time the plant is producing electricity) has increased in the United States from 65% in the mid 80s to 75% in the 90s to over 85% currently. It has taken them a very long time to get the existing plants working correctly. For this reason power Companies will continue to use the old Boiling Water 9BWR) and Pressurized Water (PWR) reactors. New reactors such as the Hitachi ABWR have had very poor capacity factors – as low as 42% with some years not producing any electricity at all. This is the reactor design proposed for the new reactor at Wylfa. The companies claim that these new reactors will have a capacity factor of 90%, but this seems unlikely.

History of Nuclear Power

As everybody knows it started with the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. Only 10% of the enormous cost went on the development of the bomb itself. Most of the cost was for the supporting infrastructure – mining, conversion, enrichment etc. After the war the US had this infrastructure which was to be put to another use. This also happened with the explosives industry – Trinitro Toluene (TNT), Nitocellulose, Nitroglycerene all need nitrate to produce. After the war this large capacity for nitrate production was used to produce fertilizer which is why there was a massive increase in the use of artificial fertilizer after the war.

The UK and other countries needed nuclear reactors to produce plutonium to produce the atomic bomb. North Korea gets its plutonium from a British designed Magnox reactor. It is important to note that most nuclear weapons states (with the exception of Pakistan) at the moment use Plutonium rather than Uranium to make nuclear bombs.

There is an undeniable link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons – making the actual bombs is only a minor part of the process – the building up of skills and infrastructure is much larger.

When Japan toyed with the idea abandoning nuclear power there was lots of opposition from various parts of the Japanese establishment. As Japan’s former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba said:

”Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons.”

The US thought after the war that it was safe to sell pressurised water and boiling water reactors since they require enriched uranium. If it was found that a country was using its power stations for developing nuclear weapons then they could cut off the supply of enriched uranium.

If anyone is interested in this it is useful to look at Iran’s involvement in the development of enrichment facilities in Europe and how it was denied enriched uranium since the revolution in 1979.

Power To The People

From ‘who owns the mill’ to controlling the oil in the Middle East, controlling energy supply is a source of ‘stupendous wealth and power’. It is time that this power was given to the people and not just the few. As a group says in Sizewell, “Power to the people, not profit for the few”. With recent technological advances in wind, solar and other renewable sources we have the opportunity to democratise power production with energy efficiency, renewable technology and decentralization.

Sep 30

GM and Gender

WEN at Gender and the Politics of Technology

The relationship between GM and gender is a really complex one –  the GM debate in itself is huge and there will be a whole BTF session devoted to that very topic in November, so this will be a brief overview of what we consider to be the key issues.

As a starting point, GM crops will affect men and women differently, in different times and places, depending on the gendered divisions of labour (e.g. cash cropping in sub-Saharan Africa but homestead production in South Asia) socio-cultural norms and the political economy of each place. So while GM will affect men and women differently depending on an array of factors, I’m just going to highlight a few of the ways in which GM has the potential to disproportionately negatively affect rural women in developing countries.

Main themes

–            Biodiversity and women’s role in and knowledge of preserving seeds

–           GM and agro-chemicals

–           Control and ownership

Main questions

–           Who controls this technology?

–           Who benefits from it?

–           What are the forces or perceived needs that shape this tech—how could it be different?

The GM companies’ rhetoric is about over-population: (due to reach 9.3 billion by 2050) and increasing meat and dairy consumption in China and India as their middle classes expand, leading to higher food prices such as we saw in 2008. How are we going to feed the world? The FAO and OECD argue that we need to increase production by 60% over the next 40 years.  Their argument is that we need GM in our toolbox to meet these vast challenges.

They would argue that women are potentially the main beneficiaries of GM, since in many places it tends to be women who produce food for families. They could benefit from ‘better’ varieties: increased yield, less disease and pests, improved plant characteristics, e.g. more nutritious ‘Golden Rice’. They argue that decreased production costs leads to lower food prices and this will help low-income women to feed their families.

Women are not a homogenous group- there will be some women who welcome GM. There is, however, a growing movement of rural women who are speaking out very strongly against GM and I would like to highlight a few of their reasons for concern.

1.         Even in places where women are involved in cash cropping, women’s lack of access to land, seeds, tools, credit and extension services as well as dynamic and shifting gender roles will affect the adoption of technology. Worldwide, women receive only about 5 % of agricultural extension services and own about 2 % of land worldwide. It is not a simple case of technology trickling down to those who could potentially benefit the most from it.

2.         Even then, if we go back a step further, it is important to ask in whose interest this biotechnology has been developed? Not through any bottom up, participatory research process where women’s views and needs as food producers are taken into account. This is a top-down process whose research agenda is decided by predominantly white males in developed countries. Research is targeted towards commercial agriculture in industrialised countries, not subsistence oriented farms in developing countries. Even if more women were involved in biotechnology firms and had some input into their research agendas, this would not necessarily mean that the end product would better benefit women in developing countries.

Biodiversity and women’s role in and knowledge of preserving seeds

There is little evidence to suggest that women are inherently more conservationist than men. However as a result of gendered divisions of labour, women and men hold different knowledges related to biodiversity. In many cultures it is women who choose, store and preserve seed to meet many different needs- food, fuel, fodder and medicinal purposes. One plant must do many things- provide grain but also the straw which is useful for weaving. A plant can have many uses and must be well adapted to the specific agroecological terrain in which they are growing- for example drought or pest resistant varieties. In many places women’s responsibilities for household food production have increased as a result of male outmigration, pandemics such as HIV/AIDS and war.

Control and Ownership

Given women’s vital role in food production and seed saving in many developing countries, it is widely accepted among farmer, small scale producer and peasant movements across the world that patenting and the prohibition of saving seed would severely impact the lives of subsistence oriented families, especially women.

An example from the Pesticide Action Network for Asia and the Pacific, India- Green Revolution experience

“We used to wait in long queues to buy ‘packet’ seeds every year during sowing season,” she recalls. “The problem with ‘packet’ (hybrid) seeds,” she adds, “is that they cannot be saved from year to year.” Community members in Kulumedoddi report that changing cultivation practices over the years resulted in a loss of indigenous varieties in the area. As farmers reverted to the use of hybrid varieties, seed conservation practices slowly began to disappear. This affected the food security of community members, most of whom are subsistence farmers cultivating crops for family consumption. “In the olden days, there used to be many different seed varieties. If a six-month crop failed, we had a fast-maturing, two-month crop that we could grow for our families,” explains Shivrudraiah, a noted community leader in the area. This dependency on external sources for inputs of farming had left her and her family vulnerable to fluctuating markets, weakening their livelihood security.

Essentially the patenting of seeds entails the prohibition of saving seed nearby because crops can cross-pollinate with those from adjacent fields. The resulting seeds may carry the patented gene, so a person could be profiting from the GM seed without paying royalties to the company.

It is women who have saved, stored and preserved seed for generations; GM threatens to undermine and undervalue their traditional knowledge with a scientific, rational and ‘better’ approach to food production. For many rural women it is yet another manifestation of a patriarchal capitalist system which has served to undervalue and exploit women’s reproductive labour.

GM and agro-chemicals

Pro GM people might argue: “look at Bt corn: it has been modified to produce its own insecticide. This means that farmers don’t have to a) buy expensive insecticides and b) less insecticides in the ecosystem is good. Even if Monarch butterflies are harmed, it is better than the blanket application of broad spectrum insecticides. This rhetoric paints GM as the good guy option against chemicals.

However- not all GM crops are the same- others are modified to be herbicide resistant- a few weeks ago the USDA quietly announced its decision to deregulate (approve) Bayer CropScience’s newest genetically engineered soybean, designed to be resistant to the herbicide, isoxaflutole. The EPA has designated isoxaflutole a “probable human carcinogen.”

Children are more vulnerable to toxins from agro-chemicals, as are women at certain times in their reproductive cycles. Not only does this mean that women are at a greater risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals than men, but given women’s role as primary care givers, they will also be burdened with the tasks of caring for sick children and the elderly,  further adding to women’s unpaid reproductive labour. This is particularly worrying given that studies of US agriculture have shown that farmers using herbicide resistant GM crops are using between 2 and 5 times as much herbicide as farmers growing non GM crops.

To conclude:

Question of control and ownership: while at the moment livelihoods and food securities are in many places are in the hands of women, GM seeds threaten to take control and ownership of that security, which many rural women see as potentially making them more vulnerable to debt, to hunger and to illness. Instead of seeing GM as the answer to feed 10 billion people, or as simple improved crop varieties, rural woman are seeing it as yet another link in the food production chain which companies would like control over, and a form of undermining and disrespecting their knowledge and expertise with regards to crop varieties and their ability to feed their families.

I’d like to finish with a look at what rural women in developing countries are saying:

Asian Rural Women’s Coalition:

“This present imperialist-dominated economic and political processes promote corporate control over all aspects of food and fibre production and have created monopoly control over land, seas and marine resources, water, livelihoods, seeds and genetic biodiversity….Rural women are disproportionately and negatively affected, suffering increased gender based violence, hunger and malnutrition, forced evictions and trafficking.”

The Women’s Declaration from the Nyeleni conference on Food Sovereignty in Mali in 2007 called for a rejection of “capitalist and patriarchal institutions that conceive of food, water, land, people’s knowledge and women’s bodies as mere goods.”

Tower Hamlets Community Seed Library

Given this context, it has become ever more important to save and exchange seeds, especially traditional or rare varieties. At Women’s Environmental Network we have taken this on board and created a seed library for the Tower Hamlets Food Growing Network, where food growers can swap seeds and share knowledge. This is particularly exciting because Tower Hamlets is so diverse; there is the potential to create a seed library with varieties from all over the world. We think this is really important and exciting- especially as a way of building solidarity between food producers and seed savers in the Global South and North.

Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) is the only organisation in the UK that has worked consistently to make the links between women’s lives and environmental issues. For more than two decades we have had a track record of being the first to raise awareness on important issues overlooked in ‘the mainstream’, especially those concerning women’s health and waste reduction.

WEN’s mission is to make the connections between women’s health and wellbeing and environmental issues. We want to inspire women to make environmentally informed choices about health. WEN aims to empower women to become agents of change in their families, networks and society and to participate equally in an environmentally sustainable future.

Connie Hunter is a recent graduate of Politics and Development Studies from SOAS. She focused on environmental issues and wrote her dissertation about the need for a political agroecology with specific reference to gender and farming practices in developing countries. She has been a volunteer at the Women’s Environmental Network for about 2 years.


Aug 18

Nuclear Madness

David King

Last Monday’s meeting on nuclear power has got me thinking about the whole phenomenon of nuclear power and how it ever got to the size that it is. To me, it’s really a puzzle, because it’s so completely obvious that this is a technology that you don’t want to use on planets with a biosphere.

The basic problem is that the materials and natural forces that nuclear power exploits are so toxic and dangerous that it is never going to be possible to contain them for long. The history of major disasters once every ten to fifteen years, thousands of smaller incidents and ‘near misses’ bear this out. The nuclear industry has been promising us solutions to the problem of its waste products for the last 60 years, but it is really clear that there is no solution, even in the short term. How these materials are to be kept safe for hundreds of thousands of years (a period longer than humans have been around as a species), it is impossible to guess. In the shorter term the whole nuclear power cycle, which includes mining, production of fuel, reprocessing etc, sprawls across the globe generating plutonium for nuclear weapons that you would never want to get in to the hands of out of control entities such as Western governments. (Indeed, as the speakers at Monday’s meeting reminded us, although nuclear power was first promoted as a peaceful compensation for the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first nuclear reactors were designed specifically to maximise the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons production.)

The usual answer to the question of why powerful technologies persist is that somebody is making money out of them, and that’s undoubtedly true for nuclear power, although only at the cost of massive subsidies from tax-payers: if capitalism were allowed to function ‘normally’, nuclear power would not exist. Despite the propaganda, it’s also obvious that saving us from climate change is certainly not the reason that nuclear somehow persists: we could never build enough nuclear power stations quickly enough to make any significant dent in the problem.

So, there’s something else going on, some other underlying drive that tries to keep the nuclear show on the road despite all difficulties. I suspect that if you were to ask the nuclear engineers, they would tell you that it is precisely the challenge of overcoming the seemingly impossible technical difficulties that they find so rewarding. Nuclear power stations are probably the most complex engineering projects on the planet. Even though that complexity, which is required in order to contain all the toxic materials and huge temperatures and pressures that reactors operate at is itself a major cause of vulnerability. The more complex the system, the more points at which it can fail – this is the Catch 22 of nuclear technology. But all that does not matter to the engineers because, ultimately what’s driving them is their own ideology, the ideology of technocracy, which insists that human beings can and must find ways to control nature, whatever the cost. Nuclear power is the most extreme example of the technocratic ideology in today’s world, although geoengineering and synthetic biology are catching up fast.

As ever, the pathological shines a light on the basic functioning of a system. Since the Scientific Revolution and the age of Enlightenment, the central ideas of the technocratic world view – materialism, the view of nature as a clockwork mechanism, the idea of ‘objectivity’ and the scientific method as the sole arbiter of truth – have underlain what our culture calls rationality. These ideas have inspired generations of scientists and engineers to use science and technology to help people, and no one can deny their genuine motivation to do good. But the persistence with a project as obviously insane as nuclear power shows that, at the heart of scientific rationality there is a fundamental flaw, one that can lead scientists into complete irrationality. The dark side of the apparently innocent move to harness nature’s forces for human benefit is an iron will to control and manipulate nature without restraint. If you really force scientists and engineers into a corner, they will admit that this is how they think, and they can’t see anything wrong with it. Four hundred years of allowing that philosophy free rein has undoubtedly produced some spectacular successes and benefits for humanity, but the downside of that history is an overconfidence that can sometimes lead to massive overreach, such as nuclear power.

I am a member of  Luddites200, and like the Luddites themselves, we are not an anti-technology movement.  Our central assertion is not that technology is bad, but that it is political, and that those political forces, acting through technology often produce effects that are what the Luddites called, ‘hurtful to Commonality’.  The main task of Luddites is to democratise the politics that leads to the introduction and adoption of some technologies and not others. But I have to admit that there are some technologies that are simply bad, full stop. Nuclear power is one of them and to persist with it is not merely wrong, it’s insane.

Aug 10

Some thoughts on nuclear power

By A Drop in the Ocean


Despite astronomical cost and no solution for the back end, the UK seems to be falling for nuclear power.
Have we had a chance to fully evaluate its pros and cons, especially, the risks?
Fukushima has taught me nuclear power is not so much about energy but more about control and domination regardless of consequences.
Greene’s article  http://japanfocus.org/-Gayle-Greene/3672 summarises how the real risks of radiation have been vigorously suppressed, by whom and why.
Interested viewers can watch the following on the Chernobyl cover-up. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oc72kT_gFNQ (Preview)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCIto-rsa8o

Jul 01

Killer robots: weapons out of human control?

Richard Moyes, Article 36

These issues will be discussed at our first cafe discussion event on July 8th, see also http://www.luddites200.org.uk/Drones.html

The Luddite uprisings two hundred years ago highlighted the social and economic impacts of changing technologies of production, and the capacity for technologies to serve as a focal point for social protest.  Recent decades have seen successful international civil society mobilisations, focused around the harmful effects of certain weapons –leading to treaties banning anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions.  Now there is a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots – calling for a ban on weapons can kill without direct human control

The growing impetus and technological capacity for weapon systems with greater autonomy is one of the emerging challenges regarding the control of weapons internationally.  We already see greater autonomy in the use of tele-operated drones – but where current systems are still directly controlled by a pilot (albeit sitting many miles away) there are plans afoot that could take the human ‘out of the loop’ altogether.

After being deployed on a mission, these so called ‘fully autonomous’ weapons would have the capacity to choose and engage targets without further human intervention.  In the military planning documents of certain governments, the greater degrees of non-lethal autonomy being given to existing systems, and the automatic targeting used in certain weapons already deployed (such as the Harpy anti-radar weapon, the Phalanx ship defence system and sensor fused weapons), non-governmental organisations like Article 36 see the warning signs for a situation where machines are given the power to decide who to kill.

In April 2013, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was launched in London to stop this from happening.  Calling for a ban on fully autonomous weapons, the campaign is made up of non-governmental organisations from different countries and different backgrounds working together towards a common goal.  NGOs are not the only actors concerned about this issue.  Also in April, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns released a report to governments at the Human Rights Council in which he called on states to enact national level ‘moratoria’ – to freeze the development of such weapons and allow time for international discussion of the moral challenges they present.

The UK was the only state in the Human Rights Council debate on this report to speak strongly against its findings – rejecting the call for a moratorium and arguing that existing international law is sufficient to control these weapons.  However, in the UK’s House of Commons on 17 June, the government was rather more progressive. Foreign Office Minister, Alistair Burt noted that by the UK Government’s interpretation existing international law applicable to weapons would prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons:

“As I had the chance to read the hon. Lady’s speech before the debate, I noticed that she used the phrase ‘Furthermore, robots may never be able to meet the requirements of international humanitarian law’. She is absolutely correct; they will not. We cannot develop systems that would breach international humanitarian law, which is why we are not engaged in the development of such systems and why we believe that the existing systems of international law should prevent their development.”

By recognising that fully autonomous weapons “will not” be able to meet the requirements of international humanitarian law (and certain analysts argue the opposite), this position provides a significant barrier to the development of such systems.  Furthermore, in a previous statement to parliament 26 March 2013, the government has asserted that “the operation of weapons systems will always be under human control.”

This position from the UK offers some grounds for optimism, but the key challenge now is to press the government to delineate what level of “human control” is considered adequate to ensure weapons meet our moral, legal and policy standards.  The UK already has weapons where the final targeting decision is made by a computer (albeit in very narrow circumstances), so this explanation of what constitutes sufficient human control is a pressing issue.

Article 36 (the NGO) takes its name from article 36 of Additional Protocol I of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions, a legal article that places an obligation on states to review new weapons, means and methods of warfare to ensure that they meet legal obligations.  Bound by this law, the UK undertakes such reviews at a national level, albeit in secret.  Those conducting the reviews would need to have some detailed explanation of the level of human control that is necessary for a weapon to accord with UK policy if these reviews were going to be effective.  It is this delineation, of what constitutes ‘meaningful human control’ that we are now calling on the UK to make public in order to ensure that our rejection of fully autonomous weapons is watertight.

The way in which technologies reshape relationships between people and institutions is profound.  In the case of weapons, changes in technology and in the distribution of technologies continue to recalibrate and restructure how we, as a broad human society, think about and organise the practice of killing each other.  For organisations in the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, allowing machines to select who lives and dies in a conflict environment crosses a fundamental moral line.  How we delineate the level of human control necessary in relation to individual weapon systems, and individual attacks, will be revealing of how we ensure control over weapons in our society more broadly.

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