Turkey’s Mining Disaster 2014 – and keeping up with the Joneses

Families of Turkish coal miners in Soma
The words of an old song have been running through my head for the last few days. Maybe you remember the Bee Gees. I guess they had a little something for everyone, since their musical career spanned five decades. The song I’m remembering, though, was their first major hit, released in 1967. It’s a fictional monologue by a coal-miner trapped underground, showing a picture of his wife to his mate while they wait and hope for rescuers to arrive:
In the event of something happening to me,
there is something I would like you all to see.
It’s just a photograph of someone that I knew.
Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones?
Do you know what it’s like on the outside?
Don’t go talking too loud, you’ll cause a landslide, Mr Jones.
I keep straining my ears to hear a sound.
Maybe someone is digging underground,
or have they given up and all gone home to bed,

thinking those who once existed must be dead.

Despite the song’s title, Wikipedia assures me there was no mining disaster in New York in 1941 – though there apparently was one in Pennsylvania that year, and there had been one in New York State two years earlier. The Bee Gees were perhaps inspired by a tragic accident in the Welsh coal-mining town of Aberfan. In 1966, 144 people including 116 children were killed when a mountain of debris from the mine collapsed, burying a village primary school under 40,000 cubic metres of rock and shale. Very definitely, however, a mining disaster has taken place in Turkey in the town of Soma, Manisa, where almost 800 miners were underground when an explosion occurred. So far 300 have been confirmed killed – with that death toll likely to rise.

Unlike the Bee Gees’ miners, who had some hope of survival, so long as rescuers arrived before their pocket of air was exhausted, the Turkish miners were mostly doomed from the beginning. Some of them were working 420 metres below ground when the explosion occurred. The horror of what happened down there in a hell of pitch blackness, burning coal and an atmosphere of deadly poisonous methane gas can scarcely be imagined by those of us for whom an electricity outage above ground is a scary experience.

The other aspect of the tragedy, of course, is the shocking bereavement for hundreds, perhaps thousands of Soma townspeople who have, at one blow, lost husbands, fathers, sons, neighbours, friends and workmates. What makes it worse is that miners and union representatives had apparently been expressing concerns about safety in the mine for some time – with little response from company management.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly cancelled a trip to Albania to visit the stricken town and express his sympathy. He also apparently urged people to refrain from using the tragedy as a political football. Some hope! Already there have been demonstrations across the country, adding fuel to the fire of political unrest that has been growing against the government for the past year, with some protesters adding ‘murderer’ to the list of accusations they are levelling against Mr Erdoğan.
How fair is it to blame the AK Party government for the disaster in Soma? First of all, it must be accepted that the Soma mine is operated by a private company, not the Turkish state. On the other hand, say opponents, that is the heart of the problem – the privatization of former state activities results in the application of bottom-line accounting and principles of short-term profit such that worker safety and conditions of employment figure very low on a list of management priorities.
Well, I have no personal experience of coal mining, thank God, but I have been working in the private education sector in this country for some years, and I have seen how owners and managers of educational institutions treat teachers. With no union or professional organisation to represent their interests, teachers often work in a state of fear, knowing that their employment can be terminated without redress, and that any comments they make about pay or working conditions can be a reason for termination. If employers can treat university-educated professionals in this way, it is easy to imagine that the lot of a coal-miner will be little removed from servitude. Clearly, whatever social and economic gains have been made in Turkey in the first years of the 21st century, there is a crying need for improvement in workplace conditions, and the right of employees to collective bargaining is fundamental to this.
To be fair, however, these problems are not confined to Turkey. In 2010, 29 coal miners died in a similar tragedy in New Zealand, again in a mine operated by a private company. A Royal Commission found that government oversight of safety regulations had been inadequate and that company management had been aware of dangers such as high levels of methane gas. As a result, the company was ordered to pay compensation to the bereaved families, but it was unable to do so, since it went bankrupt. The CEO was absolved of blame on the grounds of insufficient evidence. I would have thought that, in these days of grossly overpaid CEOs, one of the few justifications for their obscene pay-packets would be strict liability in such circumstances – but who am I?
Anyway, I thought it was a little unfair that reports in NZ news media on the Soma disaster concluded with the words, ‘Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.’ There is a website called the Coal Mining History Resource Centre which publishes a list of recent fatal mining disasters. According to CMHRC, apart from the New Zealand explosions, three of the worst in the past ten years occurred in the United States.
The fact is that coal mining is an extremely nasty business that few would willingly undertake if they had alternative means of making a living for themselves and their families. According to CMHRC, at the peak of coal mining in the United Kingdom, between 1900 and 1950, there were 84,331 injuries and deaths in mine accidents. In the same period in the United States, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the US Dept of Labour, there were 452 accidents in coalmines involving injury and death. It is, of course, technologically possible these days to make conditions underground safer. Reports in the Turkish media are saying that there are safe-room installations available for miners to take refuge in in the event of high gas levels or explosions – but they are so expensive that mining companies do not consider them economically feasible.
Open-cast coal mine in Alabama, USA

I recently came across the fascinating story of a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania called Centralia. Apparently, back in 1962, a fire started in an exposed vein of anthracite coal which then began to burn underground. All attempts to extinguish the fire proved unsuccessful and the town eventually had to be abandoned because of noxious gases emerging at the surface. Reports say that the fire could burn for another two hundred and fifty years before the 12 km coal seam is exhausted. In the mean time, the ghost town of Centralia has been erased from maps, and roads that used to pass through it have been diverted.

Now, I understand, when regulations are passed obliging companies to spend money on health and safety, they either close their mines, or do what seems to be the norm in developed countries – revert to open-cast or strip mining. The method here is to use massive digging machines to excavate down to the seam and load the coal on to trucks without the need for a large labour force of subterranean workers. Admittedly this process does create a significant amount of environmental damage – but as yet governments are less responsive to that cost. In the case of the New Zealand Pike River mine, however, the fact that coal extraction was taking place in a national park means that strip mining has so far not been approved.
One report I read about the current issue said that Turkey meets 40% of its current electricity needs from coal-burning plants. I’m sure the government recognises that this is undesirable, and in fact, they are planning to build at least two nuclear power plants to reduce dependence on coal and imported natural gas. Nuclear energy itself, of course, has its down side, as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima have shown us. So what’s the government of a developing economy to do when its industrial base is expanding and its middle class is growing and demanding higher living standards (read ‘energy consumption’)? Out of curiosity I checked how the US and the UK meet their electricity needs and the results were surprising, to me at least:
In the US, the largest source of electricity is coal-burning plants (37%), followed by natural gas (30%) and nuclear energy (19%). In the UK, natural gas (40.4%) nudges out coal (32.3%) as the major source, with nuclear power supplying 17.6%. According to Wikipedia, coal-fired power plants are still far and away the largest provider of electricity in the world. So what’s the answer? If you really feel sorry for those coal miners, reduce your electricity consumption – but be aware that those guys will then need alternative means of employment.
Clearly this whole business is not merely a problem that Turkey alone is facing. In developed and developing countries alike, the pressure is on to privatise activities that were once considered the primary responsibility of the state, from education and health, to public transport, telecommunications and energy supply. I will readily admit that some of these services are more effectively and efficiently supplied by private sector owners and managers. I well remember, for example, how long we used to wait for a telephone connection in days gone by. On the other hand, I question whether private enterprise can provide satisfactory health and education to the majority when its first responsibility is always to its shareholders, and turning a profit is inevitably the number one priority. Short-term employment contracts, out-sourcing of functions formerly carried out in-house (such as cleaning and catering), as well as the tendency to look for cheaper labour in countries with lower standards of living and less stringent labour protection laws, have created a global environment where concern for human dignity and rights are given scant attention.
I really would like to think that things are getting better, but I have serious doubts. I recently had reason to look up statistics on car ownership around the world. As you would expect, the USA ranks pretty high, though its rate of 80% puts it in 3rd place behind billionaire playgrounds San Marino and Monaco. New Zealand and Australia also feature pretty well up the list, with 71 and 72%. Northern Europe, again as we might expect, is less dependent on the private car. Denmark, for example, where the bicycle is a lifestyle choice, has a 48% rate of car ownership. City-dwelling Turks, suffering for hours in the gridlock of Istanbul traffic, will perhaps be surprised to learn that their nation’s rate is a mere twenty percent. If Turks and the Chinese (current ownership rate 10%) approach even the proportion of cars owned by Danes, never mind Americans, what hope is there for planet Earth?
So I say to my Turkish neighbours (and American and New Zealand friends across the oceans could set an example here) – if you really care for those coal miners, get yourself a bicycle and an Akbil[1], start using the Metro and the Metrobus, and give serious thought to reducing the size of your carbon footprint.

[1] Intelligent ticket – usable on most forms of public transport in Istanbul

Saudi Bustards

We New Zealanders are very concerned about endangered species of flora and fauna. We actually have a government cabinet minister responsible for the environment. I’ve got a feeling we used to have one tasked with its conservation, but I wouldn’t swear to that.
I have to confess, though, we can sometimes get a bit self-righteous and holier-than-thou on the subject, which we really have no right to be. Since Europeans began to arrive in numbers a mere 170 years or so ago we have managed to eradicate at least twenty species, mostly birds. We have also brought many more to the verge of extinction, including four species of sea mammal.
Nevertheless, being aware of its existence is the first step towards solving a problem, and I feel some pride in the programmes our government funds to preserve fascinating birds like the kakapo from following the dodo into oblivion.
Houbara Bustard
getting it on for the ladies
The modern state of Turkey, despite standing on land that has witnessed the passing of innumerable civilisations for millennia, is surprisingly still home to species of birds and animals not much to be met with elsewhere in Europe: the white-tailed eagle, fallow deer, Iranian gazelle and the Mediterranean seal; the Anatolian spiny mouse, the steppe eagle and the pallid harrier; the striped hyena, Indian crested porcupine, northern bald ibis, demoiselle crane, Saker falcon and the Taurus frog. It’s not so long ago, I understand, that dancing bears were to be seen on the streets of Istanbul for the entertainment of visitors. These days, at least among educated urbanites, more enlightened attitudes are in evidence towards the preservation of native flora and fauna.
Currently before a court near the southeastern city of Diyarbakır is the case of two shepherds charged with illegally shooting a rare Anatolian leopard. The brothers claim that the leopard leaped out of a tree and attacked them. If they hadn’t shot it they would have been torn to pieces. The judge, for his part, has expressed scepticism that the scratches sustained by one of the brothers are consistent with his having been savaged by a 90 kg wild cat. If his decision goes against them, the shepherds could be jailed for three to five years.
While you probably have some knowledge of leopards, gazelles and eagles, you may be less familiar with (perhaps even have less sympathy for) spiny mice, Taurus frogs and crested porcupines. Another creature whose existence may come as a surprise to you is the Asian Houbara (Chlamydotis mcqueenii), sometimes known as the McQueen’s or Houbara Bustard.
The Asian houbara, whose natural habitat is the arid steppe or desert, is apparently quite a large bustard, somewhat bigger than its North African bustard cousins. It is, however, severely endangered and the subject of conservation efforts by the International Foundation for Conservation and Development of Wildlife (IFCDW).
Interestingly for New Zealanders, this big bustard has an important characteristic in common with our own flightless, nocturnal parrot, the kakapo. While many birds form bonded pairs for the purpose of mating and raising chicks, both kokako and bustards engage in what is known in ornithological circles as a lek breeding system. What happens here is that males select a spot to stage their performance and proceed to dance, bellow loudly and otherwise make spectacles of themselves while the young ladies stand demurely around and select a partner. One thing naturally leads to another – after which males and females go their separate ways, males, one assumes, happy to escape the responsibilities of fatherhood, and females relieved that they don’t have to spend a lifetime with those noisy arrogant boorish bustards.
Possibly as a result as a result of this male behaviour, the meat of the bustard is considered, particularly in traditional Arab societies, an aphrodisiac. In addition, bustards seem to have a rather evolutionarily unpropitious approach to being hunted. Hunters on camels would surround the birds and approach in slowly decreasing circles. Eschewing the obvious avian escape of flight, the bustard would attempt to conceal itself in the manner immortalised by ostriches, with generally unhappy outcomes for the survival of the species. It’s also possible that they had learnt the futility of flight from the Arab practice of using trained falcons to catch them on the wing – and just wanted to get it all over with quickly.
Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud
in need of a bustard kebab
Whatever the case, the result, as noted above, is that the Asian bustard is a critically endangered species. Its disappearance has been accelerated as wealthy Arabs have graduated from traditional Mohammedan camels to Western 4WD SUVs and state-of-the-art hunting rifles. The poor little bustard is now a rare sight in the Arabian desert, and sheikhs with potency problems are having to travel farther afield in their search for hubaran assistance. Again, as we New Zealanders are aware, poorer countries are often obliged to woo rich neighbours to spend their money in our market-place. In Pakistan hunting permits for bustards are issued and safari tours organised for Arabs from the upper strata of society. Quotas, of course, are stipulated, but not, it seems, stringently policed.
The matter came to my attention in an articlein our local Turkish newspaper. Saudi prince, Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was reported as having participated in such a hunting safari in the Balochistan region of Pakistan. During the 21-day outing, the royal Saud accounted for 1,977 of the endangered bustards; though Wikipedia records a higher number – 2,100.

Who can know? And who was counting? Maybe His 63 year-old Royal Highness was proud of his achievement, and tweeted the kill as advance warning to the houris in his harem back home . . . ‘Look out, momma! Here I come!’

The Vero Centre – a Turkey-New Zealand connection in a globalised world

I have to tell you I’m not a big reader of Forbes magazine, nor do I visit their website much. Occasionally I want to check whether Bill Gates is still the richest man in the world or if not, which Mexican, Indian or Russian oligarch has temporarily knocked him off his perch. Maybe someone I know has sneaked into the Top 500 and I can seek to renew an old friendship. Apart from that, I guess my income has never really put me in the bracket for readership or invitations to join the club.
Two NZ poets with a message for the world
 – Glover and Tuwhare
My recent visit was the result of following a link from a New Zealand news site I use to keep up with what’s going on down there in the land of my fathers – and also, I confess, because I had been stung by a barb from a friend who suggested I needed to broaden the scope of my reading.
The news item was summarising an analysis of the New Zealand economy by a bright young man calling himself Jesse Colombo (his real name?). The essence of his argument is that NZ’s economy has all the hallmarks of a bubble and is likely to burst before too much longer. Commentators in the Land of the Long White Cloud have been quick to make light of Mr Colombo’s assessment, but interestingly, they don’t seem to disagree with any of his evidence – merely the conclusions he draws.
I used to take a more serious interest in economic conditions in NZ, but since I have been living in Istanbul, my main concern has been the depreciating exchange rate of my Turkish Liras when I have to travel or send money back downunder. This is indeed one of Colombo’s points: that the Kiwi dollar is overvalued, not only against the TL, but against all the major world currencies.
Other indicators he discusses are:
  • The financial sector has replaced farming as the largest contributor to the economy;
  • Home mortgages represent an uncomfortably high percentage of bank portfolios. Most of these have floating interest rates – fine while rates are low, but Colombo predicts that they will rise, and soon;
  • NZ has one of the most over-valued property markets in the world;
  • The ratio of household debt to GDP is even worse than the United States;
  • Government debt, which fell steadily through the 1990s and early 2000s, has nearly tripled in the last five years.

Well, it’s many years since I had a mortgage in New Zealand. On the other hand I do try to visit once a year, and I too have long considered the $NZ absurdly over-valued. Not many years ago there was parity with the Turkish Lira – now I need nearly 2 TL to buy 1 $Kiwi.  And although I love my hometown Auckland, I cannot understand how an average house there can possibly be worth the current selling price of $NZ 700,000.
Auckland is not quite the one-horse, one-street town I remember from my youth. These days the CBD is making efforts to extend at least a block east and west of Queen St, and on my last two visits I have strolled up Shortland St (no connection to the long-running TV soap) to a café in the Vero Centre, a 40-floor tower block its website informs me is New Zealand’s premier business address.’ This year, with a little time to kill while waiting for the friends I had arranged to meet, I wandered around the lobby with its ‘distinct South Pacific feel . . . a showcase of New Zealand art’.
Probably I should have trod a little more carefully. Centrepiece in the lobby is a 6-7 metre high structure resembling a tyre-less bicycle wheel, the work of one Andrew Drummond, an exponent, so I’m told, of performance art. Well, the wheel does indeed perform, rotating slowly on its axis – or at least it did until I edged alongside it to get a photograph of something on the wall. It was only later that I noticed a line drawn on the floor and a sign advising visitors not to step inside the demarcated zone. I felt grateful that I hadn’t set off an alarm attracting security guards to throw me out into what I understand has aspirations to become Auckland’s version of Wall Street.
What I wanted to photograph was a quotation among many by well-known local and international personages covering one of the lobby walls. There it was, in raised brass lettering, Times New Roman font – the much-quoted words of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, addressed to the mothers of the young lads from the British Empire who had left their mortal remains on the killing fields of Gallipoli so many years ago. I was touched, I can tell you – not merely once again by the magnanimous words of the victorious commander who harboured no resentment against those who had invaded his homeland; but that some influential people in my own country have recognized this significant gesture of goodwill.
On the wall nearby were the words of John Clarke, aka Fred Dagg, reminding us that ‘We [New Zealanders] don’t know how lucky we are.’ Some clearly need reminding, particularly those who were ungratefully throwing eggs and stones at the Prime Minister a few days ago. Clarke was a local comedian popular in the mid-70s for satirizing NZ politicians and way-of-life at a time when the country had been cast off by Mother England and was struggling to find a new place in the real world of post-oil shock economics. From an earlier and arguably more traumatic time came lines from one of the country’s most-quoted poets, Denis Glover:
Tom’s hand was strong to the plough
Elizabeth’s lips were red,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.
The refrain is much loved by schoolteachers of English literature as encapsulating a fine example of onomatopoeia. You’d have to say, though, that, by accident or design, the quotation selection panel chose the least significant lines from the poem for their display. I don’t want to read too much into the fact that Vero Insurance is owned by the SuncorpGroup, ‘one of the largest financial and insurance operations in Australasia’, having swallowed most of New Zealand’s historical insurance companies. I will suppress the cynical response that rose within me when I read, in the lobby near the lifts, a list of the building’s tenants, at least twenty-one of which are involved in banking, insurance and finance, and a further nine are law firms.
Wikipedia, however, tells me Suncorp’s Chairman and CEO are two gentlemen with the interesting names of Dr Ziggy Switkowski, and Patrick Snowball. I haven’t got around to checking out Mr Snowball, but Dr Ziggy seems to be a fascinating character, an unusual combination of businessman and nuclear physicist – having been awarded the ‘Advance Australia[1] Award’ in 1995 for ‘outstanding achievement in industry and commerce’.
Prior to his association with Suncorp, Switkowski had been CEO of Optus and later, Telstra, overseeing the full privatization of the telecommunications giant. He apparently generated some controversy in Australia when a Commonwealth Government inquiry, of which he was the chairman, recommended that Australia increase its exports of uranium and also work to develop its own nuclear power industry.
In 2011 he also became a director of Lynas Corporation, a company involved in the mining, in Western Australia, of what are known in the trade as ‘rare earths’. Without getting into too much scientific detail, rare earths are chemical elements with scary names like Dysprosium, Ytterbium and Thulium that are essential ingredients in key modern technologies such as colorants for glasses and enamels, self-cleaning ovens, lasers, PET scan detectors, nuclear batteries and ultra-powerful permanent magnets.
China has long been the world’s major producer and exporter of rare earths, but has recently looked to scale down its operations for economic and environmental reasons. Well, when China starts having environmental concerns about an industry, it is surely time for others to take notice. Despite the fact that Lynas mines its rare earths in Western Australia, it seems they have chosen to set up their processing plant in Malaysia, citing cost benefits. What that generally means, in corporate-speak, is that local labour can be employed for wages far below those acceptable in the home country, in a market where health, safety and environmental protection conditions are considerably less demanding. Local politicians in Pahang province and environmental groups have apparently been protesting against the plant since 2008, and concerns were even raised in an article in the New York Times – in spite of which, LAMP (an innocuous-sounding acronym for the controversial rare earth plant) entered production in 2013.
Denis Glover published his poem ‘The Magpies’ in 1941, when the Second World War was helping to pull New Zealand out of the disastrous economic depression of the 1930s. Glover had a reputation as something of a radical inclining towards anarchic left-wing political views. Apart from the catchy avian sound effects, ‘Magpies’ tells of a young couple, Tom and Elizabeth, who, having worked for years to carve a farm out of the unforgiving bush, lost everything to the bank that foreclosed on their mortgage, though was subsequently unable to find another purchaser willing to take it on. Elizabeth died and Tom went a little ‘light in the head’. . . and the last word belonged to the magpies, whose‘quardle oodle ardle wardle doodling’ is probably as fitting a comment on today’s financial system as it was 70-odd years ago.

[1] The word ‘fair’ omitted, you’ll notice.

The Nepalese Don’t Understand Capitalism

Surfing through the TV channels on a laid-back New Year’s Day I chanced upon a tennis match involving my favourite Spanish left-handed World No 1. It seems one of the tournaments warming players up for the Australian Open Grand Slam in Melbourne this month is being held in Doha, capital city of that well-known tennis-playing nation, Qatar.
Spot the tennis-players. ExxonMobil tournament in Qatar
Excuse me if a little cynicism crept into that last sentence. You can’t really blame the players, I know, because after all, tennis is their job, and there’s $US 1,096,910 in prize money up for grabs in that Doha tournament. Still, I felt some admiration for Roger Federer, who is apparently doing his warm-up in Brisbane, Australia.
You are perhaps aware that the hereditary absolute monarchy of Qatar is also scheduled to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, but has been attracting some unwelcome media attention for alleged mistreatment of labourers working on the associated huge construction projects. The tiny Arab state is, according to Wikipedia, ‘the world’s richest country [by per capita GDP]and achieved the highest human development in the Arab World and 36thhighest globally . . . and also the 19th most peaceful country in the world’.  Qatar has a population of 1,903,447 of which, sadly for male Qataris, only 498,283 (or 26 percent) are female. In fact, however, only 15 percent of those nearly two million residents are actually citizens – the vast majority being expatriate male labourers from India, Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh and other nations not ranked quite so high on lists of per capita wealth and/or peacefulness.
One assumes, then, given the high level of peace in Qatar, that Qatari males have better odds of finding a girl than the overall statistic might lead us to think. Similarly, since wages for migrant workers, according to Human Rights Watch, ‘typically range from $8 to $11 for between nine and eleven hours of gruelling outdoor work each day’, one must further assume that per capita income stats and measurements of human development only reflect the situation of actual Qatari nationals.
The Guardian ran an article on 29 December pointing out the shocking fact that, in spite of ‘brutal working conditions and flagrant abuse of workers’ rights’, thousands of impoverished Nepalese men queue up each day for the chance to work in Qatar and other Gulf states. Their hope is that they will earn $200 a month for a couple of years, pay back the fee charged by employment agencies back home, and perhaps start a small business or send their children to school on their return.
Protest against treatment of
migrant workers in Gulf States
Living conditions in Nepal are so bad that stories of over-crowded accommodation, starvation rations and non-payment of wages are not sufficient to shorten those queues. The Wikipedia entry mentions Nepal in the same sentence as Rwanda and Bangladesh, stating that nearly 60 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, with unemployment and underemployment approaching half of the working-age population. More than one third of households do not have a toilet in their house, and less than half have running tap water. ‘Leading diseases and illnesses include diarrhea, gastrointestinal disorders, goiter, intestinal parasites, leprosy, visceral leishmaniasis and tuberculosis.’ Malnutrition is a serious problem: ‘about 47 percent of children under five are stunted, 15 percent wasted, and 36 percent underweight.’ Another Guardian article in June this year described the death of a 12-year-old girl in Kathmandu. The girl, working as a domestic slave for a higher-caste family to repay a debt incurred by her father, had apparently ‘doused herself in kerosene and then set herself alight.’ Such slavery, the article continues, is not at all uncommon.
It’s a sad story, but what can you do? Time ran an article in their Business and Money section last week entitled: ‘How a Starbucks Latté Shows China Doesn’t Understand Capitalism’. The gist was that Chinese are unreasonably complaining because Starbucks charges more for a coffee in Taiyuan than it does in downtown Manhattan – with similar charges made against Nestlé and Danone. The writer says, in essence, that the Chinese should shut up. The answer, as usual, comes down to ‘the bottom line’, which is: Companies will price their products based on what the consumer is willing to pay’ – and if you don’t like the price, don’t buy the product. Big talk, but in this case I suspect capitalism may find its bottom line rationale clashing with its need to tap into the one-and-a-half billion Chinese consumer market.
Nevertheless, that headline did raise another question in my mind: Who actually does understand capitalism? Getting back to that tennis tournament in Doha, the major sponsor is the American multinational oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil – not surprising, I guess, since little old Qatar has the world’s third largest natural gas reserves, as well as a good supply of petroleum. According to Wikipedia, ExxonMobil’s largest shareholder is that paragon of international philanthrocapitalism, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Two members of the current board are a professor of economics at Stanford University and another of management practice at Harvard Business School. Well, that trio at least should have a pretty good grasp of how capitalism works. Certainly their baby looks in rude financial health. As of July 1, 2010, ExxonMobil occupied eight out of 10 slots for Largest Corporate Quarterly Earnings of All Time. Furthermore, it occupies 5 out of 10 slots on Largest Corporate Annual Earnings’.
On the other hand, you yourself may not be as well versed in the philosophy that drives the world economy as the Gates couple and those disinterested academics, so let me give you a couple of pointers. The ExxonMobil bottom line, not surprisingly, does not attach great importance to the environmental health of Planet Earth. That Wikipedia entry lists six major oil spills within continental United States for which the corporation was responsible and whose seriousness they tried to downplay: apart from the Exxon Valdez disaster of March 1989, more recently there have been oil spills in Brooklyn and the Yellowstone River in July 2007, a pipeline spill and benzene leak at Baton Rouge Refinery in April and June 2012 and another oil spill at Mayflower in March 2013. ExxonMobil have been accused of funding organisations disseminating misinformation about the part fossil fuels play in causing global warming. Even the people at Forbes, not generally known for caring about the downtrodden masses, have raised questions of company executives bribing and/or taking kickbacks from the dictatorial regimes of oil-rich nations such as Angola and Kazakhstan.
You might think that, if only out of cynical self-interest, the board of ExxonMobil might want to throw a few of those All Time Highest Quarterly Earnings in the direction of Nepal and its enslaved girl children. Even Rafael Nadal, if he knew what was going on, might be persuaded to donate a portion of his winner’s purse. But clearly the sponsors of tennis and the football World Cup are happy to have their company names and logos broadcast to television sets around the world and accept at face value the Qatari royal family’s hype about the wealth and standard of living of their people. Whatever spin its most ardent proponents try to put on it, capitalism is largely about short-term profit; and concern for future generations, or disadvantaged present-day ones is not a major factor in bottom line accounting.
Another example is the financial sector, in particular, the denizens of Wall St who were credited with causing the global crisis of 2008. In February 2009 President Barack Obama appointed Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to chair a board tasked with advising the administration on matters affecting economic recovery. In January 2010 the board came back with a set of proposals aimed at preventing banks from engaging in the kind of dodgy trading and investing that had led to the financial meltdown. Those proposals, popularly known as the Volcker Rule, and officially as the Dodd-Frank Wall St Reform and Consumer Protection Act (!!!), have been doing the rounds of various ‘agencies’ for the past four years, and are now scheduled to go into effect on 1 April 2014 (any significance in that date, I wonder?).
Clearly those ‘agencies’ have had plenty of time to play with the proposals. According to an articlein Time’s Business pages, the original relatively simple recommendations have been tampered with and expanded to such an extent that ‘The Volcker rule . . . has been turned into Swiss cheese by bank lobbyists’ – on whom their employers spend nearly half a billion dollars a year. The article goes on to say that ‘the biggest banks are even bigger now than they were before the crisis: the eight largest financial institutions in the U.S. control nearly $15 trillion worth of assets, or about 90% of GDP’.
It seems to me one of the big differences between post-modern economies and those in the developing world is the sophistication level of their corruption; the capacity for burying their dirty activities in a legal labyrinth, or exporting them offshore. In between, of course, are the oil-rich newcomers, who just snow the soiled underwear with money and defy the world to criticise.
Take Dubai. I resent it intensely when my plane stops there on the way to Auckland or Sydney. If I want to go there, I’ll buy a ticket – which I will never willingly do. This year I’m going via Malaysia – not lily-white, for sure, but less objectionable than its Middle Eastern Muslim cousin.
The population of that desert oasis is similar to Qatar, with more or less the same ratio of males to females, for pretty much the same reason – more than 70 percent are poor migrant workers from Asia. Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation says,‘Most companies are forcing their workers to live in squalor. An unconscionable number of workers die due to unsafe conditions.’ Workers are ‘effectively living in 21st century slave states,’ she says. According to Al-Jazeera, unions and strikes are illegal. Annual per capita income of citizens in the United Arab Emirates is $48,158, but only 20 percent of the 7.9 million residents have citizenship – almost impossible to get if you can’t prove a paternal blood relationship to the original inhabitants. Women’s rights are reportedly beyond medieval. In Dubai, a woman who reports being raped can be sentenced to over a year of time in prison for ‘engaging in extramarital relations.’
On the other hand, thousands of Western ex-pats, including tennis and rugby players, choose to live, work and play in the UAE, lured by high salaries and a lifestyle they could not afford in their own countries. Apparently adjudicators from the Guinness Book of Records were on hand in Dubai on New Year’s Eve to officially witness the world’s largest ever fireworks extravaganza. The six-minute display is said to have exploded half a million fireworks spread over nearly 100 kilometres of coastline, provided employment for 200 technicians (from US firm Fireworks by Grucci) using 100 computers, and cost $6 million.

In the end, perhaps that’s the real secret of capitalism’s success: blind the ‘haves’ with lavish displays of pyrotechnics, and keep the self-immolating Nepalese slave-girls well out of sight.

The Anatolian Crane – Symbol and reality

It’s great to see a growing environmental awareness in Turkey. Local councils are encouraging residents to sort their garbage and take an interest in the recycling process – and the message is starting to get through. Bicycles are more in evidence on the streets of Istanbul – and not just the cheap supermarket model ridden by children and poor people who can’t afford a car. Activists are protesting about the loss of green areas to urban development projects.

Demoiselle cranes –
sacred in religion and symbolic in folklore
All this is laudable, but in any country (excluding Singapore and Monaco perhaps) urban conglomerations make up a small percentage of the total land area. What goes on in those rural areas is arguably of greater importance than what happens in cities. In the end, a city is a place where nature is sacrificed to the needs and comforts of technology and civilisation.

Measured by land area Turkey is the second largest country in Europe, behind only Russia (the largest country in the entire world). Turkey is more than twice the size of Germany, and 30% larger than France. Not surprisingly, then, the empty spaces of Anatolia are home to varieties of plants, birds and animals that have died out in more developed parts of the continent. I came across an article in Today’s Zaman, my English language Turkish newspaper, on the subject of the Anatolian, or Demoiselle, crane:

It is not an exaggeration to say that the crane is one of the most prominent symbols of Anatolian culture. If we look only at music, we see the crane appearing in Musa Eroğlu’s folk song “Telli turnam selam götür sevgilimin diyarına…” (Oh my crane, carry my love to the lands of my lover…), or even in the group Yeni Türkü’s folk song “Telli Turna” (Demoiselle Crane).
Biologist Ferdi Akarsu performed tireless research on these cranes of Anatolia for three years. Interestingly, he came across 45 different folksongs in the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) archive that deal with cranes. But are we talking just about folksongs? There are of course also sayings, carpets, hand embroidery and even religious ceremonies that include the crane. The “turna cemi” of the Alevis and the “sema” of the Mevlevis carry suggestions of this bird as well.
So what has happened to our birds? According to field research begun in 2010 by the Nature Association (headed by Akarsu), there are just 12 pairs of breeding Demoiselle Cranes left in Anatolia. The number of juvenile cranes is just 19. This research demonstrates that these cranes are disappearing faster than previously thought.  Read more . . .