Chilling Out in Rural Thailand: How a Holiday at Gecko Villa can Change Lives

ImageImageFull disclosure: One of my oldest friends is behind this Responsible Tourism venture in Thailand, but I give it my full support as it is testimony to his lifelong devotion to the cause of fighting rural exodus and providing decent livelihoods in rural communities. Many of the lowest wage workers in Bangkok, notably those in the sex trade, come from Isan, the northeastern part of Thailand that borders Laos. Gecko Villa, a fully catered holiday rental in that little known corner of Thailand, is a peaceful and beautifully appointed retreat where you can relax with all the creature comforts, enjoy home cooked food and experience the “real” Thailand – try to go there during rice planting/harvesting season for a real immersion experience!

Khun Ten, the owner of the villa, explained to me how it all works.

Q. Tourism in Thailand has for many years been a mainstay of this SE Asian economy, centered on specific destinations. The infrastructure on islands such as Phuket or Koh Samui, or in the coastal city of Pattaya is specifically geared to mass tourism, where international hotel chains dominate. So how do you attract independent visitors to the undiscovered northeast?

A.  It’s true that whilst the northeast of Thailand (locally called “Isan”) is the largest region in the country, it is visited by only one percent of international travelers. Yet we see this as a strong point:  we aim to offer something very different to visitors.  At the same time, we feel that the number of visitors seeking greater authenticity, and direct interaction with the locals, continues to grow. Most visitors will have found our detailed website themselves, but we also work with a select number of travel agents offering tailor-made holidays.

Q. How does a holiday at Gecko Villa differ from a normal hotel stay, or from a normal vacation rental?

A. In a number of ways – including the location, the user experience, the services provided and the activities offered.

The villa is a spacious and independent holiday villa set in the heart of the countryside – it is not just part of the room inventory of a larger hotel or resort – and is built around a private swimming pool that overlooks our adjoining rice paddies and plantations. I and my family and relatives live in a small village nearby.  We meet and greet guests at arrival to transfer them to the villa, and look after them throughout their stay. We  introduce them to the locals and to indigenous ways of life, and cook Thai meals for them. In a way, we have taken the concept of a normal holiday letting, but added catering and other services that would more typically be found in a resort (such as laundry, traditional Thai massage and more.)

We are happy to involve guests fully in the local ways of life.  Activities can include Thai wet market visits and cooking classes, visits to local schools and temples, tours of the listed wetlands of Nong Han, and boat trips on the stunning pink lotus lake nearby, as well as  excursions to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Ban Chiang . The more adventurous may want to help out with the rice planting or harvesting, or go hunting for insects or field mice – unusual but traditional sources of protein.  Of course, if guests simply wish to relax by the pool, enjoy having their cooking done for them and indulge with a traditional Thai massage by the pool, these options are always open.

But I think the main factor that differentiates a holiday with us is the personal touch.  This is true from the outset – as the vast majority of our guests contact us directly via our website – right through to guests’ departure. Everyone involved at the villa has a direct interest in ensuring that visitors have an enjoyable stay, and I believe that the opposite is also true, as guests see that their holiday contributes directly to the well-being of all those involved – from the driver and the cook to the housekeepers and the massage therapists.

Q. You also underline the responsible travel aspects of holidays offered

Yes. Gecko Villa, from the outset, was rooted in the principles of responsible tourism. One of our main achievements has been preventing the typical separation of families and the migration of parents to Bangkok or overseas. Out of the rice planting and harvesting season, the vast majority of locals are still obliged to seek unskilled employment far from home, and this means that young children have traditionally been left with elderly grandparents. Creating local employment has enabled several families to stay together, promoting stability and a secure, local and individually empowering source of employment.

Many guests comment on how they will seek out a holiday that will impact the locals in a positive way, without passing through middlemen.  In turn, they enjoy a more authentic stay, being able to “go local.”  We are also very grateful to those guests who help the immediate local community – for example through  donations to the local village school or giving English lessons there. It has also meant access to better education and medical treatment for those involved.

Q. Can you share some of the eco-friendly initiatives you have integrated at the villa?

A. That’s an interesting question, as some of the practices at the villa that might be seen as “eco-friendly initiatives” are in fact traditions borne out of necessity, whilst others are more deliberate.

Traditional practices for example would include our rainwater harvesting. As there is no mains supply of water at the property, an environmentally aware and sustainable approach to water conservation is second nature. Guests will see large red water jars under the roof of each and every house in the local villages, as this harvesting has been undertaken for centuries.  Then take recycling. Again, this has been practiced for many, many years in most rural areas in Thailand, as well as in most cities, where “saleng” – or waste recyclers – separate plastics, metals, bottles and so forth from waste, selling it on to specific recycling facilities.

The trick is to then to try to extend such practices. As an example, promoting the use of banana leaves, rather than plastic bags, to wrap food, or a more controlled use of organic waste for the creation of fertilizers.

Likewise, equipping the property with power-efficient, energy-saving fittings and equipment makes a big difference, especially with items such as air-conditioners. And using a salt water chlorination process at the swimming pool avoids the use of powdered chlorine.

The Thai and Isan food prepared at the villa uses locally sourced ingredients. When you look out from the swimming pool over the rice paddies, you are looking at the very source of the rice we eat each day. We also grow our own lemongrass, basil, pea eggplants, tamarind, chili, mint, spring onions, mango, banana, limes and more.

Then there is the simple matter of design. The villa was built by local villagers, using the local and sustainable “Pradoo” wood, and a number of elements of the property reflect traditional practices aimed at a better integration with the environment. The high and pitched roof of the building, for example, and the villa’s extensive balconies, ensure maximum cooling breezes and ventilation, & shelter from the tropical sun. The construction of the house on raised pillars also helps ventilation, allows a quick run-off of rains, and reduces the risk of termites.

Q. You also mentioned reforestation in the area…

A. Vast expanses of Isan are dedicated to rice farming. Historically, this has meant that ancient forests have become more and more rare.  It is only recently that the locals have realized the need for biodiversity. We can only play a small part, but we hope to encourage others to join us as they gradually see the advantages.

Our approach has been twofold. On the one hand, we took an area of unproductive rice paddy fields adjoining the property and replanted this with indigenous trees, mixing in cash crops such as rubber trees with endangered species such as mahogany, teak, and local hardwoods. We hope that this will not only be a boon to the local flora and fauna, but also avoid the strain on water requirements and the production of methane that are typical in rice paddies.

On the other hand, we acquired a site of mature woodland originally destined for felling and conversion into rice paddies. Our aim here was again to help maintain the eco-system and natural wildlife, and reduce water requirements.

Q. Do you intend to expand the property at all ?

A. No. We want it to remain a family affair, to retain its authenticity and to continue to have a “small footprint.” After all, these elements are what attract guests. For the same reason, we never book two sets of guests into the villa at the same time – we want them to be assured of privacy, whilst nurturing direct interaction between guests and locals.


Gecko Villa is a 3 bedroom vacation rental sleeping up to six guests. Rates include the villa and private pool, airport transfers, freshly cooked, authentic Thai meals daily, and maid & laundry services. The minimum stay is only 2 nights.



In Memory of Jeff Haskins

It’s Saturday morning here in Paris, the 21st of July, 2012. Just one week ago, on July 14, 2012, my colleague, mentor and friend Jeff Haskins passed away in Mombasa, Kenya at the age of 32. His passing has left a big black hole which is impossible to fill, and so much pain.

In the past week, every morning as I look up at the sky I am reminded that another day is dawning where Jeff won’t be able to see the sky, hear the birds or  go on doing what he was born to do: making a difference to people’s lives.

Jeff made a difference at every level. His legendary ability to connect with people all over the world has been celebrated in the tributes which have poured forth in the past week from heartbroken family, friends, colleagues and clients. Jeff knew no boundaries of race, language or religion – he touched everyone with his smile, his charisma, his unique vision of the world.

I first worked with Jeff as a consultant on an International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) promotion in September 2007. In the ensuing years he taught me everything I know about PR, media relations, advocacy and more importantly: making an impact. Everything he did was about maximizing that impact. He had an uncanny sense of strategy and razor sharp judgement in every situation. He had a super-human devotion to the cause of each and every one of his clients, and they were numerous. He had boundless reserves of energy and he was full of life, as anyone who has seen his smile can testify.

Jeff and I had a unique and irreplaceable working relationship. We always worked at a distance – he was in Nairobi, I was in Paris. But over hundreds and hundreds of Skype calls, there was something I can only call a magical alchemy that flourished and endured. When I learned of his death last weekend, I struggled to understand how I could possibly go on doing communications work with him no longer there at the end of the Skype call to brainstorm with. Jeff defined the law of “two brains are better than one” when it came to brainstorming, except that in his case the equation would be more like 1+1 = 5.

I trawled through my email account this morning looking at thousands of emails that Jeff and I shared on all the promotions we worked on together. I now understand the common theme that unifies that work: it was about making a difference, and Jeff never gave up on his singular ambition to do so for each and every client. This was the energy that drove hundreds of successful campaigns, the thing that underlies a comment I saw on the Burness memorial page saying that his work literally resulted in “$ millions of grants” for one client. Jeff would have been happy to see that one.

This year, I had the privilege of working with Jeff on a media campaign that I ran for the International Council for Science at Rio + 20. So instead of being his colleague, this time I got to be Jeff’s client. I always knew that it was special to be Jeff’s client, but nevertheless there are some things that have to be experienced at first-hand. We started talking in April and the conversations continued until we met up in Rio mid-June. What can I say? His awesomeness as a strategic advisor was peerless. Every time I got on Skype with him and articulated a challenge, I would emerge half an hour later (our calls were always very efficient!) buzzing with new ideas and a fresh vision that had just been augmented tenfold.  It was this constant, tireless scaling up to a Big Vision which was Jeff’s trademark. He did this in real time, thinking out loud. It was like performance art. It was fast, furious and brilliant. And he was always right. (with one exception perhaps: pitching Will.I.Am to write a song for the Cowpea Breeders Conference might have been over-ambitious?)

In Rio we had many conversations about the future. Many of them were unfinished, broken off mid-sentence, because we were too busy, because there was a lot of work. We shared two memorable days together visiting EMBRAPA and a Rio favela with the media. Nothing will ever be the same again. But we must remember and honor his love of life, his genius for making a difference and his irrepressible energy, creativity, intelligence and curiosity. While we were at the favela in Rio, I kept handing him my pocket Leica so that he could capture the scenes with his unique vision and talent. Those shots are overflowing with movement and color, just like Jeff himself.

EMBRAPA, Rio de Janeiro, June 16, 2012

I actually don’t know how to end this post, so I’m just going to include some shots (thanks to Jeffrey Oliver of IITA) of our unforgettable trip to southeast Nigeria in September 2010 to promote yams for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). We ate a lot of yam, made a lot of new friends, and I hope we made a difference to funding for yam breeders.

Jeff, we will always miss you. The world is a smaller place without you.



Enjoy some of Jeff’s shots here from the ILRI pinterest board.

Rio + 20: Power of Informal Networks and Brazil’s place in the world

ImageRecently returned from Rio + 20,  I wanted to share my overall take on what was important about this mega-event.  In my view, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a historic, game-changing event whose importance will not be understood for many years to come. This is because the signficance of what happened in Rio de Janeiro from June 20-22 was diffuse, uncoordinated, distributed across multiple networks and hard to capture in any kind of zero-sum argument.

Two things stood out: Rio + 20 affirmed and strengthened the importance of informal networks and non-state actors for achieving momentum on sustainable development goals. The second was the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy – a team of 200 negotiators sewed up the final document before the conference opened – not just impressive, this achievement signalled something important about Brazil’s place in the world today.

ImageSide events were the main event
Media coverage in the immediate aftermath of Rio + 20 was mostly negative, and focused on the so-called “weakness” of the final document. This reflects a basic misunderstanding of what these conferences have become in recent years: big networking sessions where people involved in sustainable development pitch ideas and projects, and make commitments for the future.
That is to say, the main action was not in the plenary sessions with the heads of state, but rather in the plethora of side events.
The end result was hundreds of non-globally negotiated voluntary commitments. UN Secretary General for Rio + 20 Sha Zukang announced that governments, businesses, NGOs and inter-governmental agencies made commitments totaling $513 billion towards sustainable development.
Rio + 20 demonstrated, beyond any shadow of doubt, the capacity of corporations and grass-roots organizations to deliver concrete actions on sustainable development without any help from governments.
Dan Farber at Legal Planet “The Environmental Law and Policy Blog” noted, “These developments fit well with the theory of network governance.  The idea is that international cooperation does not simply involve formal treaties, but instead involves networks of officials at different levels of government, NGOs, and stakeholders.”

Informal networks are where the action is

“It does seem to be true that we are seeing the emergence of less-centralized forms of coordination with some resemblance to the decentralized global communication web. Especially since the formal process of international negotiation seems stalled right now, networks like these may be our best hope of progress on global issues,” he added.

Indeed, this echoes the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, who wrote in an op-ed shortly before her death on June 12, “Inaction in Rio would be disastrous – but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: The oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life to thrive.”

This message was echoed in a number of places in the week after Rio + 20.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on June 24, Jim Leape of WWF wrote:
“If you looked around in Rio last week, you saw where the action really is — local and national governments, companies, NGOs, labor unions finding ways to get on with it.
“Governments are coming together in regional initiatives to manage the resources they share. “

Commitments were plentiful and generous

One count showed a total of 600 commitments made at side events at Rio + 20.
These included:

*   Banks, investors, 57 countries, and companies like Wal-Mart agreed to include “natural capital” (and its depreciation) in their measures of wealth.
*   Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s initiative to push companies into reporting their environmental footprints.
*   Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s global reporting initiative to push companies into reporting environmental footprints.
*   The World Wildlife Fund said it had obtained pledges from twenty-six countries for an agreement to protect transnational water bodies.
*   Microsoft committed to roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. If it were a country, Microsoft would have the 51st largest GDP
*   A group of prominent development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities.
*   The U.S. EPA and the Brazilian Environment Ministry announced an online tool as part of the U.S.-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability that highlights key links between policies, funding and on-the-ground projects that can help drive urban sustainability investment around the world. The project is a result of a unique bilateral agreement between Presidents Obama and Rousseff and the cities of Philadelphia and Rio.
*   The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) joined six major organizations at Rio+20 to announce the Global Initiative on Urban Resilience (GIUR), an effort designed to spur building and infrastructure development, create new investment opportunities and foster community action around the world. Partner organizations include the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI International, the World Bank, the Eye on Earth Summit, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Program on Energy, Resources, and the Environment and the Earth Council Alliance of Rio de Janeiro. The GIUR aims to create solutions by focusing on urban geographies, identifying the synergies between city governments, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions and different business sectors.

Green Economy Goes Mainstream
The mainstreaming of green economics may well turn out to be the big legacy of Rio + 20. UNEP was effective at putting Green Economy on the agenda, despite G77/China’s successful efforts on “green economy means different things to different countries” approach to the final text. Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said the final document produced at Rio + 20 is “a reflection of the global situation at a moment in which there is a global crisis and we have to act collectively. [But] the document itself is very rich in terms of actions, initiatives and programs.”
The Nature Conservancy, Corporate Eco Forum and 24 companies representing half a trillion dollars in annual revenue committed to a potentially game changing initiative around ecosystem valuation.

“A new generation of business and political leaders has started to connect company success with social and environmental issues that were previously the concern only of NGOs,” wrote John Vidal in the Guardian.

Fred Pearce wrote in Yale Environment 360 that: “… behind the scenes, something really interesting just may have happened in Rio.” Green economics, as represented in Rio, meant primarily introducing metrics about the use and abuse of nature and natural resources into corporate and national accounting. Once natural capital appears on balance sheets in the same way as man-made capital, then CEOs and policy makers will adopt greener ways, and environmental protection goes from being a cost to an investment.

On the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy, Nicolas Bourcier of Le Monde provides a good summary.

“Rio + 20 marked the end of a cycle. And the arrival of what one can call “a diplomacy of prosperity”, cherished by the strongmen of Brasilia. A world where south-south relations often have a more decisive dimension than north-south relations.”

He goes further to say that Rio + 20 didn’t just affirm Brazil’s position as a leader of the south; but also that the US was tacitly supportive of their position, judging from the self-effacing and moderate tone the US delegation struck at the conference.

My feeling from the outset, before the conference even began, was that this show belonged to the BRICs and that Obama/Cameron/Merkel’s no-show was at most a minor distraction. In the weeks before Rio + 20, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ambassador Patriota – who is taking Chinese lessons – ran an op-ed in the China Daily to say that green economy means different things to different countries. The message was clear – Brazil had aligned with China on this key issue of the final document, source of much disappointment to those who had pinned their hopes on “The Future We Want”.

Anecdotally, Rio de Janeiro during the conference was staggering beautiful and contrary to dire predictions that we would be stuck in traffic gridlock for 3 days, the buses ran regularly and on time, security was abundant but not stifling, every Brazilian I came in contact with went out of their way, and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we were welcome and that things ran smoothly. They were, quite simply, outstanding hosts.

I’ve seen the future, and it belongs to Brazil.


Change starts from within

Here’s a beautiful manifesto for change which comes from Ragi Kadirgamar in Mysore, India. We were talking about “the world in 2030” and he wrote something which strikes at the heart of all our global problems: which is that the change we need comes from within, that we should connect our hearts and minds, and thereby view the world from the perspective of inter-connectedness and collective stewardship. Why isn’t this at the top of everybody’s agenda?
“Most of our global conflicts, whether it be the wars between peoples, our disrespect for nature etc, originate within each one of us. Finding personal peace means our relationship with others and the world completely changes, because we realize the other is our self, the world is myself, nature is me; and therefore we stop wanting to treat it in any other way than with great respect, and love.
My thesis at university was about sustainable development and sustainable cities, 1994. I then took part and won several international competitions based on these themes. At that time I was not on a spiritual path so my perspective was very mental. Now the integration has happened, the heart and mind speak and see with the same voice. ‘Life is One Unbroken Whole’.
There is convergence between the great spiritual teachings of the world, and the latest scientific theories. For instance, the fact that every particle knows what every other particle is doing in the universe, at any given moment in time. And recent findings that show how plants communicate with each other constantly, creating a global matrix of plant life communication that spreads across the world – and how this relates back to our human bodies that are literally brand new every seven years, after every cell has died and been reborn. What an incredible story we are living.”
Ragi will be in Beziers France this summer from June-September to give workshops on Advaita philosophy.

Non-Violent Communications are Urgently Needed in the Media

This is something I have been thinking about for a long time, and I feel it’s time to issue a call to action. Journalists everywhere, without delay, need to start training in non-violent communications in order to adapt to a world of increasing complexity. This is important.

The urgency was driven home to me yesterday while listening to a violent clash on French radio (France Culture) between anthropologist Paul Jorion and journalist Brice Couturier.

Jorion is big on complexity theory and systems thinking, and during the interview he tried to explain that the financial system was already defunct, and that it is beyond salvation, so we should stop dreaming about a miracle bailout or solution that will stop the train wreck. Couturier seemed a bit peeved, and started calling Jorion a “prophet”, and badgered him repeatedly by interrupting him mid-sentence and demanding to know “what’s the solution, then”? Jorion got upset, and became repetitive and defensive. He told Couturier that he was a part of a system that was being routed, and that his anger was a reflection of that.

I think most people listening to this would have experienced the discomfort I felt, probably for two main reasons. The first is of course that Jorion warns that we are within weeks of a break-up of the euro zone (not the first time someone has said this, Jacques Attali and others have forecast the same but somehow Jorion delivers the gloomy news with more force) and that anyone who lives here is going feel some degree of fear and unease at the prospect of violent change. The second, however, is much more important – the complete disconnect between Jorion and his journalist interlocuteurs. They were unable to understand eachother at the most basic level, and I find this very worrying.

We’ve already seen how the media has reacted to Occupy Wall Street, and its European counterpart, the “Indignados”. They accuse them of having no agenda, and then hope that they will go away. Governance expert and blogger Guy Janssen writes intelligently about this here. Who needs an agenda when you have a vision?

Journalists are trained to extract sound bites from their interviewees. They are programmed to corral an interview towards closure, in the same way that their own stories have to have a beginning, middle and end. The end can often be a “good quote”, a nice ringer of some kind that sounds a closing note. You get the idea. So an interviewee who does not obeys those laws is, invariably, punished in some way, or at least never invited back. Public relations firms train their clients to perform for the media in this way with their messages and sound bites. The whole system is the antithesis of authentic. And I believe that it’s now getting in the way of our ability to adapt to what’s happening.

Good questions should invite curiosity and inquiry. They do not need to promote action or problem solving immediately. Connecting to ourselves in order to better connect with others can transform the way we engage and help to build better solutions for the future.

An open-ended question is one that does not have a simple yes/no answer. It’s one that invites inquiry and curiosity. If trust is present, the question will surface good ideas and possibilities. It’s what we need more of in all our relationships, but especially in the nexus of politics and media.

It only takes one person to start a movement – which journalist is going to be the first one to start asking open-ended questions and not be afraid of what will happen next?

France becomes first country to ban shale gas fracking

France this week became the first country in the world to ban hyrdaulic fracturing for shale gas. Senators voted on June 30 by 176 to 151 in favour of the ban, which had already been approved by the French Parliament in May.

The ban nevertheless leaves the door open to several firms which had already been granted shale gas exploration licenses. If they are able to prove within two months that their mining technique is not fracking, they can go ahead. Otherwise, the permits will be revoked. Affected companies are:

Toreador Energy France (whose share price has fallen 70% from its highs since the ban), Schuepbach Energy LLC, Total EDF and Devon. Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet has confirmed that France could face legal action over the ban.

Socialists voted against the text because they felt it was too vague: it bans fracking, but not exploration for shale gas and oil using other techniques.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, uses a high-pressure blast of millions of litres of water, sand and hundreds of chemicals to create a shockwave to break open cracks deep in the earth and force the gas out. These chemicals and the gas have been found to leak into water supplies.

Local politicians and environmentalists have been campaigning against the technique since March 2010 after a number of drilling licences were awarded in the south of France and around Paris.

Former Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, under whose watch the permits were granted, admitted in a television interview in April this year that he had shown “a lack of vigilance” on the issue.

Anyone who hasn’t seen Josh Fox’s documentary on shale gas fracking in the US, Gasland, should watch it here. It exposes the chronic health problems, contamination of air, water wells and surface water suffered by communities in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah during the last decade’s gas fracking boom. The most spectacular sequences involve residents setting their tap water on fire with a match.

Pre-Revolutionary rumblings in France

According to sociologist Jurgen Habermas, emancipation takes place whenever people are able to overcome past restrictions that resulted from distorted communication. It’s a useful framework to use when looking at the growing anti-system sentiment that has spread from Greece to Spain and now to France. Here are some of the markers in the chronology:

In 2007, a book called “The Coming Insurrection” came out, authored by “The Invisisble Committee”. This book was rumoured to be linked to a group which carried out synchronized and sophisticated attacks on high-speed rail lines between Paris, London, Brussels and the French regions in 2008 by jamming steel rods across overhead power cables, halting trains and damaging power lines. No one was hurt.  The book was translated into Spanish and English (MIT press) in 2009. Sales in France estimated at over 40,000 copies.

Last year’s unexpected success of a pamphlet written by a 93-year-old man called Stephane Hessel who issued the call “Indignez-vous” (roughly translated as “get outraged”) to protest their exasperation at income inquality, poor treatment of immigrants etc.

In late May, around 1,000 people took to the streets of Paris one weekend to call for a popular uprising to mirror a Spanish campaign where demonstrators have denounced mainstream politics, corruption and unemployment for several weeks.

The French protestors unfurled banners reading “Real democracy now” and “Paris wake up”. Protestors in Bayonne and Toulouse also joined them, holding banners that read: “We all have reasons to be indignant…join us”.

In the latest issue of the magazine “Usbek & Rica”, former advisor to French Socialist President François Mitterrand said: “We are clearly in a pre-revolutionary period.”

“This populism is justified by a very simple fact: since 10 years, 80% of growth has benefitted 1 % of the world’s population.”

“Yesterday evening I was in a country which I won’t name…and the Prime Minister said ‘If a populist and seductive leader comes on the scene, he can take power in three months.”

Attali is hardly an anarchist or a revolutionary. In 2007, he was named to head a Commission known as ‘The Commission for the Liberation of French Economic Growth’

From Usbek & Rica – interview with Paul Jorion, a Belgian anthropologist who blogs about finance and economics.

On capitalism:

“Until now, the system was tolerated by the masses, who, without directly profiting, were beneficiaries of the social advantages. However, today, we are being told that the Welfare State was a luxury. But it wasn’t a luxury! Its existence was the thing that prevented people from revolting.”

Qu: You have often referred to the potential for rebellion among those who are living under austerity measures. Will they be tempted by violence?

PJ: The strength, and also the weakness of capitalism, is that those who possess capital lend with interest to those who need money. Consequently, the fortune of those who are already rich tends to increase. Then comes a moment when the concentration is too strong: money is blocked in one place and there is no more for others. Until it is redistributed, we converge towards a blockage which arises from concentration. After 1929, money was restributed in very big proportions throughout the 1930’s. Now in 2007, we took measures which went in the same direction: to protect those who have money. Three years later, the situation has deteriorated. All the measures taken were upside down. We came back very quickly to the starting point of the crisis. The people did not create the situation, they are its victims.

A Manifesto for a European Revolution from blogger Stanislas Jourdan.

“Protest movements in Spain and Greece and even Portugal are doomed because they don’t propose any alternative social project. The slogans simply reflect a deep desire for change, a return to certain non-commercial values, more social justice. However, as they are filtered through the prism of mass media and the obsolete political discourse, people are finding it hard to come up with anything fresh. Which means lack of imagination, lack of ambition, lack of solutions. Add to this that France hasn’t really felt the full brunt of the crisis. Thanks to the safety net – crumbling but still in existence – many people still think they have something “to lose” in the event of a revolution.

So right now we are – at best – in a pre-revolutionary stage where indigation is rising, but where there is no communal ideology which is strong enough to set forth.”

In an op-ed which ran in Le Monde on 8th June, 2011, two university professors (one from Paris, the other from Jaen in Spain) talk about the pauperization of the middle classes in their two countries. They note that real estate prices have increased 140% and 288% respectively for Paris and Madrid in the past decade. “For less than 800 euros you can’t find a studio in Paris or a one bedroom flat in Madrid, while the average after-tax salary is 1,500 euros here and 900 euros in Madrid!”

Bowing to public fears, France stalls on 3rd generation nuclear reactor

France took a little longer than Germany to process the post-Fukushima shift in public opinion, but today it was announced that plans to build a 3rd generation nuclear power plant at Penly in Seine-Maritime has been “paused”. The EPR – European Pressurized Reactor – developed by France’s Areva between 1990 and 2000 – is currently under construction in Finland, China and France. Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total, said that the project “no longer has a calendar”. This was quickly deflected by the Energy Minister, Eric Besson, who insisted that the project was “not blocked”.

Construction was to have begun on the Penly project in 2012. It would have been the first nuclear reactor not to be 100% controlled by the electricity company EDF. EDF was to have been a 50% stakeholder, with 8.33% for Total and the rest divided between Italy’s Enel and Germany’s Eon.

The two other EPR’s already under construction in Europe – at Flamanville in France and another in Finland – have been dogged by delays and vast budget over-runs.

Laure Noualhat‘s blog at Liberation contains an interesting piece of internal communication at EDF from last month. It’s a message from EDF’s CEO Henri Proglio to his employees, issued several days after Fukushima. Here are some highlights:

“As employees of a group whose nuclear activity is known and recognized, you will inevitably be questioned by your family, friends and neighbours. It is important that you are able to reassure them on the means that EDF has put in place to prevent risks at its plants.”

“Under such circumstances, humility and responsibility are de rigueur. When the time comes to do an audit, we will draw lessons from the Japanese tragedy to make our installations even safer.

“I know that I can count on your support during this delicate period for the nuclear industry.”

This all started back in the 1970s, when France – responding to the 1973 oil crisis – announced a huge nuclear program aimed at generating all of the country’s electricity from nuclear power, without any public or parliamentary consultation.

So, contrary to what may appear like public support for the nuclear lobby, what the Fukushima experience has revealed in fact is just how fragile public opinion is on this issue.

France and Japan – the cost of arrogance

Le Monde ran an opinion piece by Hervé Kempf on March 30, 2011 which in my view merits a wider audience because of the parallel he draws between Japanese and French nuclear policy.

“Day after day, the Fukushima catastrophe becomes increasingly normal: the unacceptable has become part of daily life. Radioactivity is leaking, and will continue to leak. As the French Authority on Nuclear Safety – masters of the subtle art of understatement – said on March 28 “the prognostic of evaluation of reactors 1 to 3 should remain very uncertain during the coming weeks.” What is certain, is that the nearby waters and soil are being poisoned insidiously. Let’s try to establish a preliminary balance sheet, based on the optimistic assumption that Japan’s engineers and workers will succeed in stopping the emission of gases and cancerous particles.

Japan has lost four, perhaps six nuclear reactors, estimated at a value of 20 to 30 billion euros, not including decommissioning. More than one thousand square kilometers around the reactors are contaminated to different degrees, making normal life impossible. The Fukushima nuclear plant will become a nuclear cemetery, requiring surveillance during hundreds of years to come. The country’s energy policy will be upturned. There will be calls for political accountability.

In nuclear matters, Japan is France’s twin: same policy, same techniques, same opacity, same arrogance of the pro-nuclear lobby, same passivity in the political class. Fukushima will have consequences here.

No-one can accept the hypothesis of seeing Nogent-sur-Seine, just 100 kilometres from Paris, or Saint-Alban, at 50 kilometres from Lyons, going through the same thing as Fukushima. The requirements of nuclear safety will increase considerably, and so will the cost of electricity. Attention will also shift to the question of nuclear waste and the decommissioning of nuclear facilities, and there are no real solutions.

Aside from the debate on an end to nuclear energy,  we will have to question the logic of privatization which has informed nuclear policy for the past decade. Will EDF have to be renationalized? Should GDF/Suez build reactors in France? Is the EPR of Penly useful? Is the liberalization of the electricity market a good thing?

…..What the disaster in Japan teaches us is that opacity, in a technological society, is intrinsically dangerous.”

France sends nuclear experts to Japan; but robots refused

France’s nuclear company Areva has sent two experts to Japan to support TEPCO’s efforts in the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima. The experts, who are going at the request of Tokyo Electric Power Co, are specialized in “dismantling” and “clean-up” of nuclear power plants, according to today’s Le Figaro. However, the standing offer to send robots to operate in areas where humans cannot has so far been refused by the Japanese company, and the robots are still parked at Chateauroux airport in France.
nb Tepco did not apparently refuse the 100 tons of boric acid, 3000 masks, 10,000 radiation suits, 20 000 gloves sent by Areva / EDF on the 17/18th March.

Areva is commissioned by Japanese power companies to process uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide fuel, so-called MOX fuel. MOX fuel used at the No. 3 reactor unit at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was shipped from France in 1999.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is up for re-election in 2012 and faring badly at the polls, announced this week that he would visit Japan on Thursday, making him the first foreign leader to visit the country since the nuclear disaster began. The domestic context for Sarkozy is dire: his prime minister broke ranks with him recently on how to deal with a sudden surge in the far-right at the polls; pollsters forecast that he will not even make it to the second round of next year’s presidential elections in all but one of several scenarios. So he flies off to Japan to declare his solidarity with the Japanese, and to play the role of chief flak for France’s nuclear industry.