Monday, 24 November 2014

Examples of Geometric Designs Used in Religious Architecture

Nasir al-Mulk Mosque or Pink Mosque in Shiraz, Iran


Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic


Lotf Allah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran


Selimiye Mosque in Edime, Turkey


Golden Mosque in Registan, Uzbekistan


Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, England

Saturday, 22 November 2014

What the Big Environmental Groups Don't Want You to Know


I used to be a fan of Greenpeace. I’ve donated to them in the past and have always assumed they were leading the way in terms of raising awareness about the devastating effects of climate change, and the relevant human activity that contributes to these effects. But my view of Greenpeace completely changed when I watched the recent and much-discussed documentary Cowspiracy. Directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, it follows Andersen as he tries to discover the driving force of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. If you haven’t seen the film, you must watch it – immediately.

A keen environmentalist himself, Andersen learns from a 2009 World Watch study that livestock products contribute to 51% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making animal agriculture the key factor in climate change. Even if we take a more modest estimate from a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock is responsible for 18% of GHGs, a bigger share than all transport everywhere combined. Clearly then, the food which we eat every day, and the industries which this supports, has serious consequences for ecosystems and the future vitality of the planet. However, as Andersen soon discovers through his research, this is not something that big environmental groups want you to know about. But why are renowned groups like Greenpeace hiding these statistics? Is it not in their interest to disclose the most accurate information to date?

What unravels before the viewer’s eyes is a deeply unsettling truth: many big environmental groups – such as Greenpeace, 350.org, WWF, Amazon Watch, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation and Rainforest Action Network – are concealing information about animal agriculture because it will harm their public image and sponsorship. On Greenpeace’s website, for example, you get the impression that it is the burning of fossil fuels for energy that is the main reason why the planet is in the dire state it’s in. They claim that the solutions for climate change include protecting tropical forests, replacing ‘dirty’ fossil fuels with renewable energy and energy efficiency, and rejecting “false solutions” like nuclear energy. These are valid recommendations, but there is still absolutely no mention of the well-documented effects of animal agriculture on the environment.

If you go on the ‘Individual action’ page on Greenpeace’s website you are given advice on how to reduce your own impact on the environment. You can turn down the temperature on your refrigerator, washing machine and water heater; use compact fluorescent light bulbs; insulate your home; walk, cycle or use public transportation wherever possible; use efficient showerheads; and purchase appliances that are the most energy efficient you can afford. And as many other groups will tell you, you should cut down on your use of plastic bags.

What these big environmental groups don’t tell you is that massively cutting down on, or eliminating completely, your consumption of animal products is the the most effective way to minimise your impact on the environment. This is an unsettling truth for most people, because most people consume animal products on a daily basis, and the prospect of changing a lightbulb and using a bag for life seems like a much more manageable accommodation than giving up meat and dairy. For fear of damaging their fundraising campaigns, these groups refrain from telling us that it is our eating habits - those deeply ingrained in our daily lives and in our culture - which deserve a large portion of the blame for resource depletion and environmental degradation.

As finding show, a quarter pound hamburger requires 660 gallons of water - equivalent to two months of constant showering. This means that any efforts to cut down on personal water usage pale in comparison to the water that can be saved from cutting down on, or giving up, beef. In the U.S., domestic use of water makes up only 5% of total water consumption in the country, whereas animal agriculture makes up a shocking 55%, due to the fact that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. In other words, raising cows for beef production is an insanely inefficient use of our dwindling resources and energy. If you carry out all of the recommendations made by the U.S. government to cut down on water consumption, you can save 47 gallons of water per day. But this is kind of insignificant when you compare that to the 660 gallons that can be saved from refusing to eat one hamburger.

In interviews with representatives of big environmental groups, Andersen finds that they are either an unwillingness to address the problem of animal agriculture, or they attempt to understate, deny or claim ignorance about the conclusions reached by the FAO and World Watch reports. This feat of intellectual dishonesty stems from a prioritisation of publicity and business over integrity. I was also shocked to learn that activists have been killed over trying to expose the harmful effects of cattle rearing on the Amazon rainforest. A U.S.-born nun called Dorothy Stang, who lived and campaigned in the Brazilian Amazon, was shot and killed at point blank range by a gunman hired by the cattle industry. 1,100 activists have been killed in Brazil in the last 20 years, which illustrates that discussing this elephant in the room is not only a risk to the profitability of environmental groups, but to the lives of the outspoken as well.

Even if everyone ate grass-fed beef, long touted as the ethical and environmental panacea for factory farming, this would require 3.9 million acres of grazing land in the U.S. in order to feed the entire country’s population. Yet as the documentary points out, the U.S. only has 1.9 million acres of arable land available, meaning that grass-fed beef would still lead to escalating deforestation in the Amazon. It seems that there is simply no way to sustainably meet the world’s demand for meat, which will inevitably increase with the exponential growth of global population.

It is well documented how the meat industry acts as a powerful political force and how livestock lobbying groups have been successful at weakening or preventing new meat-safety initiatives. The influence of meat corporations, through the millions spent on lobbying each year, also probably explains why governments have been so unwilling to agree on policies and regulations which reflect the severity of environmental degradation. If regulations did match this destruction, the meat and dairy industry would have to bear the external costs incurred through their activities - those which harm third parties, such as air pollution, soil erosion, ocean acidification, and so on. 

If these industries had to internalise these 'negative externalities' - as they are called in economics - this would substantially drive up the price of meat and dairy, making it impossible for the general population to maintain their demand for these products, which in turn would cause agribusiness profits to plummet. It's no surprise then that these industries go to such great efforts to ensure that health and safety, environmental and welfare regulations do not get passed.

If the collusion between the meat industry and government wasn’t bad enough, the possible affiliation of livestock lobbying groups with environmental organisations is even more disturbing. In an interview with Emily Meredith from Animal Agriculture Alliance, one of the biggest livestock lobby groups in America, Meredith is silent on the issue of whether the meat and dairy industry has ever supported or donated to groups such as Greenpeace. Her silence really does speak louder than words. This means that groups like Greenpeace may be concealing the main cause of climate change from the public, not just for fear of public disapproval and fewer donations, but because they will lose serious funding from groups which represent the villains in the fight for sustainability.

The big environmental groups and government leaders can no longer be depended on for effective change. The salient point I took from this documentary is that it is individual responsibility and action – achieved through a switch to a vegan diet – which marks the path to a sustainable future. This lifestyle change is easier, cheaper and more effective than any other eco-friendly recommendation you will hear from Greenpeace or the government.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Children and Young People Need Honest Drug Education

Children and young people in the UK (those aged 5-16) are taught about drugs in the non-compulsory subject known as personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE). However, even though the subject is non-compulsory, the new National Curriculum does recommend that all schools teach PSHE and states that it is “an important and necessary part of all pupils’ education”.

The problem is that children and young people are taught about drugs by non-specialist teachers who fail to deliver an informed, balanced and honest perspective about the subject. This is due partly to a lack of resources, as this joint report by the PSHE Association and Mentor ADEPIS highlights. It is also due to the government’s own distorted view on drugs and its attitude of fear towards drug use.

The government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is not independent, which unfortunately means that any perspective on drugs which conflicts with the government’s own agenda will be ignored or silenced. Such was the case with Professor David Nutt, who was the previous chairman of the ACMD, but who was dismissed for his claims that ecstasy was safer than alcohol and horse-riding.

Without an independent team of scientists informing drug policy, the government will continue its inconsistent and non-evidence based programme of drug prohibition. This has a knock-on effect on education, whereby teachers have no other option but to draw upon the government’s biased claims about drugs. The joint report by the PSHE Association and Mentor ADEPIS recommends that PSHE becomes a compulsory subject by law. This is to ensure that pupils from all backgrounds receive the same information in order to make sensible life decisions. Moreover, it is argued that statutory PSHE will reduce social and health inequalities, as well as reduce the costs incurred by social and public health issues. These are all valid justifications, but statutory PSHE is useless if the content of the course isn’t honest and practical.

The first issue with current drug education relates to a problem of language. Take the full name of Mentor ADEPIS (Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service). The very separation of ‘alcohol’ and ‘drugs’ gives children and young people a biased perspective on drugs – it neglects the fact that alcohol is a drug as well. Furthermore, this distinction between alcohol and drugs gives children and young people the impression that because alcohol is legal and socially acceptable that it is therefore much safer compared to illegal and socially unacceptable drugs. Yet as Professor Nutt continues to remind us, it is much easier to abuse alcohol and use it irresponsibly compared to many other illegal drugs, including cannabis, MDMA, LSD and ‘magic mushrooms’. It is also worth noting that because Mentor ADEPIS is funded by the Department for Education, it is unlikely that it will disseminate a balanced and evidence-based perspective on drugs shared by the likes of Professor Nutt.

A 2012 Ofsted report found that most pupils understand the dangers of illegal drugs, but are less aware of the physical and social damage associated with alcohol abuse. This is due in part to the false distinction made between alcohol and drugs, as well as a lack of information about the true harms of alcohol. Outside of the classroom, the government is doing very little in terms of drug education. For example, the government funded website Talk to Frank is rarely visited and offers no more than a superficial profile of the harms and risks of various drugs.

Drug education in the UK is a lot like sex education – both are focused on the dangers and risks involved. This is not an effective way to minimise harm. Both sex and drug education should focus on teaching children and young people that you can have sex and use certain drugs in a way which is both pleasurable and safe. Even if drug education exclusively focused on the dangers of drugs and on trying to prevent children and young people from using them, they are going to experiment with them anyway. Humans are naturally curious about altered states and no amount of fear-mongering will change this. In light of the fact that many children will grow up with the desire to try illegal drugs, drug education should focus not only on offering a balanced and informed perspective, but also on offering information on how all drugs can be used sensibly. It may seem outrageous to teach our youth how to have a positive trip on LSD, but without this valuable information, they may experiment with these powerful drugs in unfavourable circumstances, leading to a great deal of mental suffering.

There have been quite a few ketamine-related deaths this year, including the death of Nancy Lee who died following years of ketamine abuse, and a man who died after taking ketamine at Glastonbury festival. Some people may regard these stories as examples of a tragic accident (in the case of Glastonbury) or a tragic consequence of mental health issues (in the case of Nancy Lee). And in some sense they would be right. However, we cannot ignore the fact that a lack of education is also to blame. Children and young people simply aren’t taught that ketamine abuse is associated with bladder and kidney damage, nor are they informed about its addictive properties. They aren't taught about the risky combination of ketamine with alcohol either. Both are central nervous system (CNS) depressants – meaning that they slow down brain activity - and when combined amplify each other’s effects, severely slowing down the heart rate, even to the point of death.

It is important to teach children and young people about contraception and consent in order to have healthy sexual relationships. In the same way, we should teach children and young people about testing their drugs and using them safely in order to have healthy drug experiences. Straight away some people may view this as encouragement, but in reality it is a lesson in harm reduction, plain and simple. People will use drugs, whether they are told to avoid them or not, whether they are illegal or legal, so we must ensure that our children are equipped with the correct information to minimise various drug-related harms. We should encourage young people to use drug-testing kits, to be aware of the dangers of various drug combinations and how to react if an adverse mental or physical reaction occurs.

Accurate, reliable and practical information on drugs is out there on the Internet, but more often than not, this is not how children and young people inform themselves about various drugs. Before you smoke a joint for the first time, it is unlikely that you would have researched about the high THC/low CBD content of cannabis today, which makes paranoia and anxiety more likely. Before you swallow a pill for the first time, it is unlikely that you would have researched about pills being adulterated with dangerous substances or lacking MDMA altogether, instead consisting of some dangerous substance, like PMA. And before you drop acid for the first time, it is unlikely that you would have researched about risky substances such as 25i-NBOMe being sold as 'acid'.

You can find out about this useful information on popular drug forums – including Bluelight and Erowid – but only a minority of drug users will use them in order to educate themselves. Furthermore, these are not sites which children and young people regularly visit or which their parents would want them visiting. Yet it contains exactly the kind of information that should be taught in PSHE in every school in the UK. Drug education needs to shift away from its current amateurish approach to one which is more honest and focused on harm reduction.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Assisted Dying Bill Does Not Go Far Enough

The Assisted Dying Bill had its 2nd reading in the House of Lords last Friday, resulting in a 10 hour debate on the matter. While the former Archbishop, George Carey, has supported the Bill, saying it is compatible with being a Christian, many have warned about the dangers of legalising assisted suicide.

Some believe that if assisted suicide is legalised, it will pave the way to euthanasia. Critics of the Bill are worried that the British medical profession will suffer from the same kind of abuses that Holland has supposedly experienced, a country which has legalised voluntary euthanasia. Holland’s Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act (2002) sets out the criteria upon which a physician can carry out euthanasia or assisted suicide.

In spite of the scaremongering stories you may read about assisted suicide leading to a slippery slope towards abuse and medical malpractice, this kind of thing has not happened in Holland. Holland remember has legalised not just assisted suicide, where the physician gives the patients the powers to end their life, but voluntary euthanasia, where the physician carries out the lethal act with the patient’s consent. Yet two decades of research into euthanasia in the Netherlands reveals a viable model of legalised euthanasia, where abuse of the system is rare.

The authors of the study found that “no slippery slope seems to have occurred” – the frequency of the ending of life without explicit patient request has not increased and there is no evidence for a higher frequency of euthanasia. In fact, by some accounts, the ending of life without explicit patient request has decreased, most likely due to the greater control, safeguards and transparency that comes with legalisation of the practice.

Lib Dem Care Minister Norman Lamb and religious leaders like Lord Carey and Desmond Tutu are in favour of assisted dying, while others such as Baroness Campbell and an oncologist called Karol Sikora have opposed the Bill. Those who oppose it claim that to entrust doctors with the power to end a patient’s life is extremely dangerous. In the words of Professor Sikora, the implementation of the Bill could lead to “death squads”.

David Cameron has also said that he is “not convinced” by the Bill and feels that “people might be being pushed into things that they don’t actually want for themselves.” However, Lord Falconer, who put forward this private member’s bill, insists that the final decision will always be left to the patient, with safeguards in place to prevent abuse. The proposed legislation would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose to some terminally ill and mentally competent patients who have less than 6 months to live. Falconer criticised the current situation, which allows the rich to travel to Switzerland to die in peace and dignity, while others are left “in despair” to suffer a “lonely a cruel death”.

In addition, doctors who want to carry out the procedure in the name of compassion are criminalised. Since most doctors will not even consider carrying out assisted suicide or euthanasia, many patients are forced to carry out the act themselves. Falconer argues that many patients feared “implicating their loved ones in a criminal enterprise” by asking them for help to die. Without assistance, patients might end their life by overdosing on pills or by suffocating themselves. If these methods fail, the patient may be left permanently brain damaged. Falconer maintains that passing the Bill would reduce the number of people from having to live their final months with unnecessary pain and suffering.

Considerations of welfare certainly justify this Bill, however, in order to apply these considerations fairly, we would need to legalise voluntary euthanasia as well. This Bill would not allow everyone to ‘die well’ – only a limited number of people. These restrictions may seem sensible at first glance, but what they really do is discriminate against other people who should have the right to die. For example, terminally ill patients with less than 6 months to live who cannot administer the lethal dose themselves would be denied relief. Furthermore, patients who experience immense suffering, but who are not terminally ill, would be denied relief.

The Bill would not benefit people like Tony Nicklinson (now deceased) who was left paralysed since his stroke in 2005. He lived a life characterised by suffering, but because he was not terminally ill and physically able to end his life, Falconer’s Bill would not apply to him. This is extremely unfair and cruel - someone who is not terminally ill and suffering (like Mr Nicklinson) might face longer periods of suffering than someone who is terminally ill and suffering. This is why the Dutch system is fair, because it does not limit its scope of compassion. Dutch law offers assisted suicide and euthanasia to not just the terminally ill, but to those who experience a level of suffering which physicians agree is both unbearable and incurable.

Many are concerned that any form of assisted death could lead to terminally ill patients requesting death, not because they want to die, but in order to stop being a financial burden on their loved ones. A survey conducted in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, found that 66% of respondents said they wanted the ‘right to die’ so that they do not become a financial burden on their loved ones. On the other hand, safeguards can still be put in place in order to ensure the voluntariness of the decision to die. Also, it would be far more beneficial to eliminate this fear of being a financial burden – through free and effective healthcare – than to leave patients without a means to alleviate their suffering. In conclusion, the Assisted Dying Bill is a sign of great progress, but it certainly does not go far enough in minimising suffering and protecting the freedom of people to die in dignity.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

New Surveillance Bill Puts All of Our Privacy at Risk

David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May have assured us that the Data Retention and Investigation Powers Bill (DRIP) does not give the government new surveillance powers. Yet despite these assurances, privacy campaigners, civil liberties groups and lawyers argue that this new Bill – also known as the ‘snoopers’ charter’ – gives the government exactly these powers.

Cameron unveiled this ‘emergency’ surveillance legislation last week, in light of the fact that current EU mass surveillance methods were said to be illegal by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). So in order to carry on these illegal activities – and broaden them as well for that matter – Cameron decided that the UK should have its own mass surveillance legislation.

Back in April, the ECJ said EU legislation on mass surveillance conflicts with the fundamental rights of privacy and protection of personal data. The Court stated that the legislation “applies even to persons for whom there is no evidence capable of suggesting that their conduct might have a link, even an indirect or remote one, with serious crime.” The Court also pointed out that there was no way to limit the access that national authorities had to personal data.

Even if it were true that this new surveillance legislation merely reinstated existing surveillance legislation, it would still infringe on our civil liberties. Cameron is essentially trying to legalise blanket data retention, which the ECJ recently ruled is illegal. Critics of the Bill stress that the DRIP Bill puts all of our privacy at risk. The Bill requires that internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile operators store customer data for 12 months for purposes of law enforcement. In addition, the clauses in the Bill expand the government’s powers to directly intercept phone calls, emails, texts and social media traffic.

Cameron defended the Bill, saying, “We face real and credible threats to our security from serious organized crime, from the activity of pedophiles, from the collapse of Syria and the growth of ISIS in Iraq, and al-Shabaab in East Africa. I'm simply not prepared to be a prime minister who has to address the people after a terrorist incident and explain that I could have done more to prevent it.”

The whistle-blower Edward Snowden said that this law closely mirrors the Protect America Act 2007, introduced by George Bush in order to also deal with the dangers of terrorism and criminals. Through this legislation, the US government was able to engage in mass surveillance and information gathering activities. Snowden remarked that the “NSA could have written” the draft of the DRIP Bill.

David Allen Green, head of media practice at Preiskel & Co said, “They’re trying to make out this is clarificatory – but if you read through the Bill these are substantial amendments. They are creating things legally that weren’t there before.” Graham Smith, a private practice lawyer voiced similar concerns, saying that these new laws could allow the interception and retention of data from consumer services like iCloud and Google Drive. Isabella Sankey, policy director of the civil liberties group Liberty, told MPs: This fast-track legislation contains sweeping surveillance powers that will affect every man, woman and child in the UK.” Clause 4 of the Bill contains new powers for the UK to require overseas companies to comply with data interception and acquisition requests.

This Bill was brought in with no public debate or parliamentary scrutiny, but was made behind closed doors between the three party leaders. Like the Bush administration, the UK government believes that national security will always trump civil liberties. In any case, it is highly questionable whether we need sweeping surveillance in order to catch suspected pedophiles and terrorists. It is unjust and illiberal for the government to monitor everyone’s information under the guise of national security and crime prevention.

The idea that this Bill was brought in as a matter of “emergency” is extremely misleading, if not an outright lie. The ECJ’s decision against the Data Retention Directive was made in April, a decision which was not surprising, given that criticisms were made against this Directive for years. If this Bill really is needed as a matter of emergency, then it would have been introduced much earlier. There is no emergency. We are not under threat from ISIS. Cameron is trying to justify this attack on our civil liberties through scaremongering. And so we will lose our civil liberties, not suddenly, but through slow and gradual erosion.