Top Scoops

Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | Scoop News | Wellington Scoop | Community Scoop | Search


Linking Iraq To Terrorism At Expense Of Refugees

'They Were All Asylum Seekers': The Propaganda Campaign To Link Iraq To Terrorism At The Expense Of Refugees.

By David Miller
Stirling University

In the spring of 2003 three separate currents of ideology collided, or rather, were brought together. The ongoing spasms about asylum seekers and immigration flowed into the same ideological pool as the campaign on the war on terror. At the same time the government propaganda campaign aimed at winning public opinion to support the war in Iraq attempted to present Iraq as linked to Al Qaeda and Islamist 'terrorism'. In the event the government campaign failed to convince the public of the need for war, but the main effect of the campaign was to increase hostility towards asylum seekers.

Asylum has been linked to terrorism in particular because of the wave of arrests under the new Terrorism Act. These arrests are accompanied by a great fanfare in the media. A number of those arrested have been found to be asylum seekers. In the case of the alleged discovery of 'traces' of the poison Ricin and the stabbing of a police officer in a subsequent arrest, the Daily Mail triumphantly revealed that 'they were all asylum seekers' [1]

Only in the context of a campaign against asylum seekers and refugees could this be thought significant. Assuming that all asylum seekers were banned from Britain and 'terrorists' used tourist visas to enter Britain could we look forward to headlines like 'They were all tourists'? To ask the question is to answer it. But what have the asylum preoccuptions of the Mail got to do with the War on terror? The reporting of the arrests and those of a rash of others in the past six months have consistently linked them to al-Qaeda.

In a series of scares in late 2002 it was reported that there was a link between those arrested and Iraq, or at least Al Qaeda. The case of the London Underground is instructive in that the arrests occurred on 9th Nov with little fanfare. Two days later Tony Blair made his Lord mayor's speech in which he stated that there was a ‘real’ threat. The following weekend the Sunday Times following briefings from MI5 linked the arrests to a 'suspected Al Qaeda terrorists' gas attack plot. [2]

Fleet Street scrambled to follow up the sensational tale… The Independent on Sunday said the Algerians may have been planning to place a dirty nuclear bomb 'on a ferry using a British port'. [The Observer] said they had been charged with plotting to 'release cyanide on the London Underground', as did pretty much everyone else. Broadcasters repeated the story. [3]

The story was boosted by the 'green light' from No 10 to follow it up, leading the Sunday Times to defend its story as being based on 'reputable security sources'. [4] Reputable maybe, But how accurate are they? This link surprised the lawyer for one of the suspects since as he put it: ‘none of the allegations which had entered the public domain over the past few days had been put to his client’. [5] The Algerians were eventually charged with having false passports and no evidence whatsoever of gas or dirty bombs was produced. Some commentators such as Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times complained:

I was outraged by the smallpox scare story [of December 3rd 2002]. It was a clear repeat of the previous weekend’s lobby story of “gas horror on London Tube”, itself an echo of the Home Office “dirty bomb” story two weeks earlier. These Whitehall officials are panic happy; careless of the cost and worry they cause others… This is the third weekend in a month that a terrorism threat has emanated from Whitehall. Terror stories are always the easiest for government to sell. Headlines write themselves and the pictures always “burn or bleed”. . [6]

The former Labour spin doctor Charlie Whelan has written that the government 'PR machine… believes it will help public opinion go in their favour over the intended war with Iraq'. [7]

For some commentators the combination of repression and media frenzy stirs uncomfortable memories of Ireland. Faisal Bodi argued: 'For all the hysterical headlines warning of a Bin Laden in our backyard, the reality is a picture of political repression of Muslims that is starting to resemble the experience of Northern Ireland's Catholics throughout the Troubles'. [8] Like Ireland the arrests are high profile and the outcomes usually much less dramatic. Also like Ireland the media coverage ensures the possibility of a fair trial will be prejudiced, leading most probably to a series of unsafe convictions. By May last 2002 official figures showed one hundred and forty-four arrests under the Terrorism Act 2000, of which 46 were charged with offences. By January 2003 the figure was closer to 200 and 'the fact still remains that there has yet to be a single conviction'. [9]

It seems that the wave of arrests signals the confusion and panic in the police and intelligence services. Under the cloak of the terrorism act the police are simply sweeping the Muslim community in the hope that they strike it lucky against an unknown threat. According to press reports 'From the beginning, senior officers privately recognised there would be 'collateral damage' - petty criminals or even innocent individuals temporarily detained in the police trawls. But they decided it was a price worth paying' [10]

Where there is 'intelligence' the quality of it has reportedly been suspect. The strongest connection between the people arrested in the past few months has been that many have been from Algeria. It is well known that two key Algerian opposition groups have been active in the UK since the 1992 election was cancelled for fear that it would be won by Islamists. The 'intelligence' on some of the Algerian suspects arrested in the UK has reportedly emanated from Paris and some experts say the information comes from 'tainted official sources in Algiers'. In addition neither opposition group 'has ever been directly connected to bin Laden.' [11]


Spook spin?

In a deportation case last year against nine men detained without trial for over 7 months, the defence asked Martin Bright, Home Affairs editor of the Observer, to analyse the prosecution evidence linking the defendants to terrorism. In a piece submitted to the court and available only on the Observer website he notes that 'by far the largest proportion' of evidence was simply press cuttings reporting such links. In 'almost absurdly circular' fashion these were based largely on unattributable briefings from intelligence sources.

Information from intelligence briefings from foreign or the domestic services becomes common currency and is then repeated by journalists who are starved of any real information. Reputable journalists report the denials of the Islamists themselves, but the fact that someone denies being a terrorist is never considered to be much of a story. As increasing numbers of dissidents have been rounded up in Britain and elsewhere it has become increasingly difficult for journalists to check their stories properly... We have therefore been thrown back on an increasingly narrow set of sources: essentially the police and the intelligence services. [12]

In recent years MI5 and MI6 have overhauled their information operations and now have named press officers who deal with designated reporters in each media outlet. Bright notes that 'In the case of the Observer, I deal with MI5'. As Bright notes: 'Most journalists feel that, on balance, it is better to report what the intelligence services are saying, but whenever the readers see the words 'Whitehall sources' they should have no illusions about where the information comes from'. [13]

Of course it would be wrong to see this as a wide ranging conspiracy in which the government, the police the secret state are all engaged. Key elements of the state clearly do genuinely believe the briefings they get and in fact much of the state apparatus has to act as if the briefings are true regardless of what they actually believe. A useful way of looking at it is proposed by Martin Bright of the Observer:

I believe that the police and intelligence services are genuinely concerned and that the threats are largely real (in their minds at least they really believe an attack is imminent and inevitable)… But I do not know for sure and I don't believe the police have any understanding of Islamist politics and so what they perceive as a threat may be nothing of the sort. [14]

As Bright notes in his court submission the same goes for MI5's press officer. He has 'no expertise in Islamic or Arab affairs and simply acts as a conduit'. Furthermore it may well be that Tony Blair is genuinely convinced that there is a threat. As he put it in an interview with Newsnight 'I mean this is what our intelligence services are telling us and it's difficult because, you know, either they're simply making the whole thing up or this is what they are telling me' (6 February). And it doesn't seem likely that they are making all of it up. Nevertheless, there are reasons to doubt the genuine mistake line of argument at least some of the time. One good reason for scepticism is the past record of the intelligence and defence establishment. As Bright himself notes in the past information was slipped out informally and 'Sometimes the stories that resulted were true and sometimes not'. Others have revealed the deceptive information operations of intelligence agencies. [15] But the best reason to doubt the Prime Minister is that there is abundant evidence that Downing Street and MI5 have engaged in both spin and deliberate mendacity. The day after Blair's Newsnight interview Downing Street had to apologise that the government dossier said to be based on intelligence sources, was in fact plagiarised from a student thesis and compiled by Downing Street spin doctors. [16] Moreover, as the case of the London underground showed, MI5 have themselves been engaged in deception on the terror 'threat'.


The Iraqi connection

It was only in late January that the UK government attempted to openly link Iraq with all this. In a key address to the House of Commons Liaison Committee, Tony Blair said: 'I think it is important that we do everything we can to try to show people the link between the issue of weapons of mass destruction and these international terrorist groups, mainly linked to al-Qaeda'. The media coverage of 'terrorist threats' does suggest that the government has been doing what it can to make that linkage. But every piece of 'information' the US and UK come up with has been almost immediately shown to be at best over-optimistic and at worst flagrantly false. These claims have included the alleged meeting between the 9/11 plotter and Iraqi intelligence in Prague, the presence of an ill man in a Baghdad hospital and the presence of an alleged Islamist in an area of Iraq not even controlled by the government. [17]

But not even Blair appears to believe the link to exist. Seconds later in the House of Commons Blair acknowledged that 'I know of nothing linking Iraq to the September 11 attack and I know of nothing either that directly links al-Qaeda and Iraq to recent events in the UK.' This will come as a surprise to those people who get their news from the mainstream media.

But let's be clear, the spooks are not all on-side for the battle. MI5 seems keener on the internal scare operation than MI6 who in turn appear, along with the military establishment, to have grave doubts about the war. This was graphically illustrated when Blair tried to link Al Qaeda to Iraq. The next morning MI6 let it be known that there are 'no known links between the Iraqi regime and the al-Qaeda network'. [18] Nevertheless Downing St persisted with the spin campaign, attempting to keep just on the right side of truth in Blair's public pronouncements and briefing the media with far more dramatic tales off the record. The final position seemed to be that although there was no connection it was dangerous to leave weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Hussein in case at some future date these ended up with terrorists. The 'link' in other words is a hypothetical one. Via the medium of spinthis is deliberately translated into a real link. Some ministers either don't know or don't care that the link is only notional and persist in claiming that the threat is real and present rather than hypothetical and in the future.

From all of this it can be concluded that the link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda is non existent and is simply a propaganda device to massage public opinion. The terror threat, if there is one, has little to do with 'al-Qaeda'; the 'suspects' arrested are likely to be a collection of activists and innocents. If any of them are engaged in planning attacks, these are not likely to be in the UK, but in France or Algeria. But in any case this has nothing at all to do with Iraq.

While this propaganda onslaught may well have worked with some in the population it has signally failed to convince the majority as can be seen from both the opinion polls and the largest ever demonstrations in British history on the 15 February. Moreover the attempt to link asylum and terrorism have also failed in propping up support for the war. Opinion poll data show that, if anything, the mounting fear has pushed people into the anti war camp. The propaganda campaign has, though had (possibly) unintended but wholly predictable consequences in further ratcheting up racism and hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers. As Simon Jenkins puts it:

I resent the Government trying to terrify me, week after week, to dominate the news agenda... Scaremongering is not a spin-doctoring pastime; it plays on the basest human instincts of group paranoia, xenophobia and ghoulish panic. [19]

This is not merely short sighted but is a clear means by which the government's foreign policy aims have in practice sacrificed the safety and well being of refugees fleeing from (amongst other places) Iraq in the name of fighting tyranny in Iraq.



1. Stephen Wright and David Williams 'THEY WERE ALL ASYLUM SEEKERS' Daily Mail January 18, 2003 Pg. 1
2. Hala Jaber and Nicholas Rufford 'MI5 foils poison-gas attack on the Tube' Sunday Times November 17, 2002, P. 1
3. Nick Cohen 'How to stitch up a terror suspect' The Observer Sunday January 12, 2003,6903,873043,00.html; Kim Fletcher, 'Why poison gas story was a load of hot air Gone to press' The Daily Telegraph, November 22, 2002, Pg. 20
4. Cohen Ibid.; 'Confused terror signals' Sunday Times November 24, 2002, P. 18.
5. Patrick Wintour and Jamie Wilson 'Pledge by Blair on terror warnings: PM says he will let public know about specific threats' The Guardian Tuesday November 19, 2002,3605,842873,00.html
6. Simon Jenkins, 'Poisoned by terror made and sold in Whitehall' The Times, 4 December 2002,,482-501952,00.html
7. Charlie Whelan, 'Labour PR machine not as clever as it likes to think' PR Week November 22, 2002 P. 8
8. Faisal Bodi 'Fear and loathing' The Guardian Tuesday January 21, 2003,3604,879016,00.html
9. Bodi, Ibid.
10. Jason Burke and Martin Bright 'Britain faces fresh peril from the 'clean-skinned' terrorists' The Observer, Sunday January 12, 2003.,6903,873105,00.html
11. Burke and Bright ibid.
12. Martin Bright 'Terror, security and the media ' The Observer, Sunday 21 July 2001,1373,758265,00.html
13. Bright ibid.
14. email to the author 25 February 2003.
15. David Leigh, ‘Britain’s security services and journalists: the secret story’, British Journalism Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2000: 21-26; Stephen Dorril MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service, The Free Press, New York, 2000, pp. 783-800.
16. MEDIA LENS MEDIA ALERT, Media Lens Alert: Blair's Betrayal Part 2 - The Newsnight Debate - Dismantling The Case For War', 11th February 2003,
17. Ed Vulliamy, Martin Bright and Nick Pelham 'False trails that lead to the al-Qaeda "links"' The Observer Sunday February 2, 2003,,6903,887207,00.html
18. BBC Online, 'Leaked report rejects Iraqi al-Qaeda link' Wednesday, 5 February, 2003, 10:05 GMT
19. Simon Jenkins, 'Poisoned by terror made and sold in Whitehall' The Times, 4 December 2002,,482-501952,00.html

****** ENDS ******

© Scoop Media

Top Scoops Headlines


Peace Plan: Ten Ways To Tackle Online Hate

A Helen Clark Foundation project to reduce online harm will be presented today in competition at the Paris Peace Forum... 'The Christchurch Principles' is the only Australasian initiative out of the 120 international projects chosen to be highlighted at the forum. More>>


Good Death: A Historical Perspective On Euthanasia

Some critics of the bill present religious and moral objections against euthanasia, while proponents have focused on the trauma and pain of terminally ill patients and their families. All these arguments have a long history. More>>

5 November - Parihaka: How NZ Government Misused Laws To Crush Non-Violent Dissent

This week, Māori in the Taranaki region remembered the “day of plunder” – the 1881 government invasion of Parihaka, the small settlement that had come to symbolise peaceful resistance to the confiscation of Māori land. More>>

Scoop Hivemind Report: Common Ground On Biodiversity

The HiveMind report Protecting and Restoring New Zealand’s Biodiversity, published today, analyses and summarises the findings of this engagement in which over 500 Kiwis took part. [Image: Cameron Houston, DOC] More>>


Gordon Campbell: On Trudeau’s Election ‘Victory’

Even before the votes were counted, the prospect of a Liberals/NDP minority government was being depicted as being not only Big Energy’s worst nightmare but as grounds for the western province of Alberta seceding (Wexit!) from Canada... More>>


  • Community Scoop
  • Gordon Campbell on the farming sector’s persecution complex
  • The Life and Death of Democracy 

    To understand the origins of this “ecosystem emergency” we need to understand the “dominion” worldview of capitalism. A worldview can be seen as a kind of self-replicating societal mind-virus or meme perpetuating and spreading its reality and manner of seeing the world. The scientific theory of memetics helps explain the power of such memes to spread a set of ideas throughout society. As Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk explain, memetics is increasingly validated by various branches of science, including evolutionary theory, quantum physics, cognitive linguistics, and epigenetics.

    The dominion worldview of the current global capitalist system is based on an inherently racist and patriarchal meme inherited from the bible. In this meme, God (usually depicted as an old white guy) grants Adam (a younger white guy) “dominion” over the earth and all of nature to “control and shape it.” (God: Genesis 1:26) This meme spread was globally through the enlightenment and places both nature and non-European people (or poor people in general) as inferior beings in a hierarchical construct called the “chain of being.” 

    The logic of the capitalist system sees eternal growth and control of nature and humanity as the primary motives within a game played by rational self-serving players. However, this dominion meme underpinning capitalism is ultimately predicated on the absolute rationality and morality of the cannibalistic consumption of both natural resources and human energy. This worldview ultimately leads to a narrowly materialist and reductionist vision of “human progress” that ignores the inherent importance of human and ecological diversity and interconnection with nature. 

    This mind-virus of the capitalist project has proven so infectious that it has spread its absolute dominion over the entire planet to achieve near-absolute hegemony and catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem and indigenous peoples. As Ladha and Kirk state “in order for Christianity to become dominant, the existing pagan belief-system, with its understanding of humanity’s place within rather than above nature, had to be all but annihilated.”

    Over the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, the global economy has orchestrated an unprecedented acceleration of the destruction of nature in its quest for eternal growth from ever-dwindling resources. This is simply because the rules of its operating system depend on this expansion and consumption of new territories and natural and human resources for its continued existence. However, as Ladha and Kirk outline, the exponential nature of the World Bank’s 3% global GDP growth imperative to avoid recession, means we now need over US2 trillion in growth every year “just so the entire house of cards doesn’t crumble.”

    The ever-higher levels of consumption of the commons needed to provide grist for this mill, has also given rise to an increase in authoritarianism and an associated chilling of the freedom of the press and human rights globally. A fierce suppression of whistleblowers, inconvenient journalists, and activists, all but ignored by the mainstream media has effectively ended the accountability of governments and businesses for this human and ecosystem devastation.

    Meanwhile, the propaganda arm of this capitalist mind-virus has entered a golden age by taking advantage of the unregulated social media frontier and the breakdown of real journalism. In this new environment, the use of memes as warfare to control, manipulate and misinform the populace to perpetuate and spread the dominion mindset has been perfected.

    What is the end game of this dominion worldview? It appears to be incapable of stopping anywhere short of the destruction of all life on Earth. As Nafeez Ahmed defines it: 

    “This is a life-destroying paradigm, a death-machine whose internal logic culminates in its own termination. It is a matrix of interlocking beliefs, values, behaviours and organisational forms which functions as a barrier, not an entry-point, to life, nature and reality.”

    The First Great Extermination

    What is the Rojava Revolution? | Accidental Anarchist

    “The future of the extraordinary feminist and democratic revolution in Rojava is now in danger. The US has announced it will withdraw its military forces from Syria, with whom the Kurdish forces have been fighting against ISIS. This will be a green light for Erdogan’s Turkey to fulfill its threats to attack Rojava and eradicate its nascent democracy. There’s never been a more important time to support Rojava. This clip from Accidental Anarchist shows why it matters.” – Carne Ross

    Watch the full movie:

    Posted by Films For Action on Saturday, 22 December 2018

    “This Is Not the Sixth Extinction. It’s the First Extermination Event. What we are witnessing is not a passive geological event but extermination by capitalism.”  

    Justin McBrien

    This increasingly aggressive search of capitalism for new territories and untapped resources has placed increasing pressure on ecosystems across the globe in what Justin McBrien terms the First Extermination Event. As McBrien says, “the great historical struggle against this extermination has been, and remains, the struggle for land and the rights of the commons.”

    Developing nations and indigenous people are at the forefront of this struggle as the commons in the global south have increasingly come under pressure from privatisation. Indigenous nations account for less than 5 percent of the global population, but are protecting 80 percent of its biodiversity. This ecological wealth is largely in the form of commonly held ecosystems such as forests, oceans, wetlands, and other wildernesses that are crucial reservoirs of biodiversity and buffers against climate change.

    Indigenous peoples and developing nations are also suffering disproportionate losses due to an increased reliance on and interconnection with the natural world. Many have already faced, or now face Cultural Extinction due to the fact that their languages, stories, religions, and customs are inextricably interconnected with the ecosystems being destroyed. Nowhere is this process more evident than in the Amazon, where Guardians such as Paulino Paulo Guajajara (above) are being killed for defending their ancestral lands from deforestation.

    Due to indebtedness and years of extractive imperialism and capitalism, these nations have minimal ability alone to resist the destruction of these commons or to fund mitigation or adaptation measures. However, they also hold the key to our survival. Unless we are prepared to aggressively challenge this destruction of the remaining commons in the developed world, our chances of preserving biodiversity and a habitable climate on this planet are slim.

    Ah… About That “Hope”?

    Tree at dawn. Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

    “Hopelessness isn’t natural. It needs to be produced.” – David Graeber

    Hope and belief in a better future is an important and subversive act of defiance against the possibility-limiting paradigm of this dominant worldview. In such concerning times, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of “learned hopelessness.” However, as anthropologist David Graeber states in a recent “Tactical Briefing,” to make sense of the seeming impasse of our current situation we must realise that this feeling is the product of:

    “a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a kind of giant machine that is designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.”

    So where is one to find hope in the face of this death machine? 

    There are plenty of indications the people have finally had enough of this worldview driving life on the planet towards extinction. Worldwide uprisings of Extinction Rebellion, the Youth Climate Marches, or other little-publicised uprisings in Ecuador, Iraq, Algeria or Lebanon are all evidence of a desire for a more equal and sustainable world. Perhaps most significant are the protests raging in Chile – the birthplace, most extreme testing ground, and now death ground? of the neoliberal project. 

    However, past uprisings teach us that in order to ensure this distributed energy succeeds in bringing about lasting change, we require a clear shared vision of the future world we seek to create. The emergent cooperatism worldview gaining traction worldwide provides such a potential framework for the more “life-affirming” future these many groups are seeking to create.

    Hope In Common 

    Protesters react as they gather during the evacuation operation by French gendarmes in the ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes, France, April 11, 2018. Stephane Mahe

    “Every time a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons”

    Michel Bauwens

    The current crisis can be seen as stemming from the failure of the dominion worldview and the increasingly strained institutions of the capitalist system to protect our environmental and social commons. One result has been a global resurgence of interest in the commons. This resurgence is underpinned by the cooperatism worldview which stands in direct contradiction to the assumptions of the dominion paradigm of global capitalism.

    As Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation summarises, “The commons are three things at the same time: a resource (shared), a community (which maintains them) and precise principles of autonomous governance (to regulate them).” This complex and inherently cooperatist nature makes the commons a powerful and popular organising system for managing natural resources and ecosystems amongst people across the world.

    This broad-based nature of the commons increases human agency by redistributing power and control over land-use decisions and favouring direct, participatory decision-making by the greatest number of people affected. The bottom-up and decentralised nature of the cooperatism worldview enables solutions and responses to environmental challenges to emerge from those most intricately familiar with particular ecosystems.

    This upsurge in the ground-up approach to land-use is evident in the many distributed, local-level collaborative initiatives taking on the guardianship and sustainable use of common lands and resources. In NZ examples include the landscape-scale community conservation literally in my own backyard in Miramar, the self-governance of Te Urewera or the granting of legal rights to the Whanganui river. Ellen Rykers’ recent article on The Dig explores the potential of the Community-centred to biodiversity action in Aotearoa.

    More ambitious commons-based approaches abroad include commons fisheries management in Kenya or Nepal’s Community-owned native forests or a plethora of tea, coffee and cacao cooperatives across the developing world. Then there is the astounding (ZAD) “Zone a Defender” – an occupied autonomous zone near Nantes, France (pictured above). Here occupiers have been conserving the forests and wetlands, collectively farming the commons and with community support, resisting forcible eviction by the police for decades. 

    Zapatista Women work on community-owned and operated farms. Tim Russo

    There are many other examples of the cooperatism approach emerging to create a parallel economy of self-governing alternatives alongside the global capitalist system. These range from small neighbourhood cooperatives and Community Land Trusts to large-scale anti-capitalist experiments like the autonomous indigenous communities of Chiapas, Mexico’s indigenous Zapatista movement.

    Such alternatives also include the occupied factories in Paraguay, Argentina or the USA, and autonomous institutes in Korea or the cooperatives, self-governed city areas, and free medical care centres formed in Greece after the recent political and economic crisis. As David Graeber says, such forms of mutual aid associations “spring up pretty much anywhere that state power and global capital seem to be temporarily looking the other way.” 

    Perhaps most inspiring of all is the success of Rojava, a self-governing, non-denominational and non-patriarchal, autonomous Kurdish region amidst the chaos of Syria. Sadly, this revolutionary “democratic confederalist” project is currently being crushed by surrounding authoritarian powers clearly threatened by the precedent it sets.

    Bringing Out The Best In Humans

    A commons-based or cooperatist approach to organising society, offers a more rational and scientifically sound way to relate to natural resources than the top-down and growth-based imperatives of the dominion worldview.

    The standard argument for the application of a dominion approach to land and resources is Garrett Hardin’s theory of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” However, Elinor Ostrom’s worldwide Nobel Economics prize-winningstudy of “common-pool resource” (CPR) groups in the ‘90s, debunked this idea entirely. Ostrom concluded that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, as long as certain “core-design conditions” are met. 

    Even that champion of neoliberal economic theory, The Economist is now on board. The September 2019 issue featured the article:“The alternatives to privatization and nationalization: More public resources could be managed as commons without much loss of efficiency.” The author cites Ostrom’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which she called on policymakers to “facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.” 

    However, the fact is, a thermodynamics perspective actually demonstrates the commons approach is MORE energy efficient than standard methods. A research project led by the P2P Foundation on the thermodynamic efficiencies of peer production found that a transition to open and shared models can result in an 80% saving in the amount of matter and energy used in running our society.

    Hope From The Edge of the World

    April 2019 protest in Brasilia (Sergio Lima)

    “The kin networks that bind people with other living systems resonate with the science
    of complex networks, key to understanding many ‘wicked problems’ of our time…”

    Dame Anne Salmond, Gary Brierly and Dan Hikuroa.
    Let the Rivers Speak: thinking about waterways in Aotearoa New Zealand

    We can also take much inspiration from those indigenous people acting as guardians of the natural world against extermination where states and institutions have failed to do so. Examples such as the Guardians of the Amazon, Mauna Kea or Ihumātao represent a refusal to accept the arrogant and materialist dismissal by the dominion paradigm of ancient indigenous knowledge and locally-derived wisdom, democracy and sustainability. 

    Understanding the worldviews of indigenous societies offers important shifts in perspective, consciousness, and behaviour that global society needs to make urgently in order to have any chance of surviving the coming wave of ecological and social disruption. These worldviews are imbued with a deep understanding of cooperatism and shaped by long histories of using the commons as an approach to land-use and social organisation.

    Growing understanding in anthropology and archeology and the science of complex networks confirms the validity of the fundamental tenets of indigenous worldviews: 1. that cooperation is what defines us evolutionarily as a species (Graeber), and 2. that humanity and nature are inextricably interconnected (Salmond et al). Veronika Meduna previously discussed these concepts in relation to Mātauranga Māori in her article on The Dig: Kaitiakitanga: Seeing Nature as your Elder.

    We are not, as the dominion worldview of capitalism holds, hierarchical and self-serving beings governed by a “selfish gene.” For most of our history, humans have existed in a mode of cooperation and relational interconnectedness with each other and the natural world. We must all urgently remember and recreate this way of being.

    Changing Our Minds

    Roy Scott Getty Images

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    George Bernard Shaw 

    Widespread adoption of a worldview grounded in Cooperatism is the fastest way to get public support for an overhaul of our approach to land-use and rapidly regenerate ecosystems. However, this is easier said than done. The theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’, holds that when reality falsifies our deepest beliefs, we’d rather tinker with the nature of our reality than update our worldview. This accounts for the growing tribalism of populist politics and the susceptibility to disinformation and narrative control that holds the status quo in place.

    Cognitive dissonance means that changing minds regarding the environment and our insane economic paradigm will not be done by using facts, statistics or rational debate to convince people of the merits of such an approach. Rather, as Maarten Van Doorn outlines, “Ideas change the world by upgrading people’s ‘normal’… by showing people what is possible, and changing their views about what is socially acceptable.”

    In short – the most effective way to change minds is to actually build the world (and worldview) of the commons all around us, making it the new normal as ordinary people rub up against it in their everyday life. Ensuring as many people as possible are able to participate in or benefit from commons-based and ground-up initiatives is one of the most powerful solutions there is to have an impact on the current crisis. 

    A Global New Deal For The Commons 

    Launch your meme boldly and see if it will replicate—just like genes replicate, and infect, and move into the organism of society… I believe these memes are the key to societal evolution. But unless the memes are released to play the game, there is no progress.

    ~ Terrence McKenna

    To have any chance of being adopted en masse, proposals for environmental action must directly benefit everyone, but especially disadvantaged communities in most need – migrants, working-class communities and developing nations. As Naomi Klein argues on The Intercept (and in her new book), if we do not link the intersecting climate, migration and social justice crises together into a holistic response, we will face a popular backlash. Klein’s astute hypothesis is that “only a Green New Deal can douse the fires of eco-fascism.”

    However, proposals for a Green New Deal and other green-growth based approaches such as New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act, simply do not go far enough. They fail to effectively challenge the core extractivist and dominion assumptions of the paradigm that has created the biodiversity crisis. Such approaches miss the point entirely unless they ensure that the basic needs of people and planet are met. The neglect of these core needs for so long by the establishment is the breeding ground for both the increased susceptibility to fascist and authoritarian memes and environmental catastrophe.

    There is an existing proposal and petition for a Global Deal for Nature, which I fully support and recommend. However, due to the importance of language and memes to changing worldviews, I still wish to launch this slightly different framing.

    So allow me to launch my meme: A Global New Deal For The Commons:

    I propose that what humanity and the planet desperately needs is a Global New Deal For The Commons. Such a deal would require a global mobilisation to ensure that the natural and cultural commons are protected and sustainable biodiversity-friendly and cooperatist land-use is adopted. If structured right, such a deal would have a massive impact towards restoring the planetary ecosystem and biodiversity, as well as healing deprived and hopeless communities everywhere in the process.

    To truly turn the biodiversity and climate crises around, this new deal needs to happen at least on a scale of wartime efforts such as the Marshall Plan of WWII or the New Deal of the Depression-era. As Rutger Bregman argues, centralised state action will be essential to any realistic efforts to drive an environmental effort on the scale required. However, I am less cynical than Bregman about the power of bottom-up efforts, and believe a properly balanced combination of the two is essential.

    A biodiversity-focused investment on this scale could combine central investment with an approach focused on catalysing, fostering, and scaling bottom-up land-use initiatives and ideas. It could prioritise local communities as workforces and support the emergence of ground-up, decentralised solutions and initiatives over centrally imposed or market-based solutions wherever possible.

    Such a new deal for the commons would require associated work on reforming land tenure and local democratic and economic institutions on a scale not attempted since the communist project. However, rather than the top-down command and control approach of communism, it would provide a framework, resources and tools for communities to re-learn how to live harmoniously with each other and with nature’s abundance. This approach could spread knowledge, technology and best practice for environmental restoration globally through open sourcing IP and implementing solidarity networks or networks of mutual aid across society.

    This new deal would also require real action on the national and global level to reform global governance and regulation and build a more just international order and institutions. This would require new agreements such as an international law of “ecocide,” and strengthened international environmental laws and enforcement mechanisms to ensure the compliance of corporations and rogue imperialist nations. This new order would also need to address debt-enslavement, eternal growth imperatives, and rebalance global wealth disparity to stop wealthy nations from shifting the impacts of growth onto vulnerable populations and ecosystems.

    However, crucially, to bring about this new order, we must find ways to continue challenging the narrow confines of permitted thought and debate keeping us locked in the destructive dominion paradigm. It would need to restore the rule of law and ensure the protection of whistleblowers, journalists, activists and politicians challenging this narrative. If not, who will hold power accountable for their inaction or blocking of real progress? Who will continue to tell the stories and defend the rights of those on the margins building the alternative futures discussed above?

    The debate around Te Koiroa o Te Koiora, and the to-be-finalised national biodiversity strategy and policy provide an excellent opportunity for New Zealand to lead the way in protecting and restoring the commons with such a new deal. There are good indications that a more community-focused approach is being considered and that more radical proposals resonated well with the public in our recent HiveMind engagement. However, we must ensure that translating this into real progress to fund and support ground-up and cooperatist environmental initiatives is seen as a priority for the Government.

    Please indicate if you agree with this statement of hope and declaration of intent here. You can also add your own statements for others to vote on if you wish: