Ethical pioneers changing the way we live

6/2/2011 Observer  Martha Lane Fox: “The more people that use technology the bigger the gap becomes for those who can’t”.Martha Lane Fox: dotcom millionaire and internet evangelist. Martha Lane Fox remembers the first time she heard about the internet. She was
in her final year of university and a friend called Toby, whose gap year in
Japan had left him technically savvy, had a new gadget. “He showed me this weird
little device and said he was sending an email over the internet and I had no
idea what that meant,” laughs Fox.
Even when Fox was building what was later to become the dotcom boom’s flagship
success,, her biggest struggle was convincing hotel chains and
tour operators that the internet could be the future of business. “The majority
of them just didn’t believe it was going to survive.”
Having proved them wrong and made millions in the process, Fox is turning her
attention to the internet as a societal tool. Two years ago, she was asked to
become the UK’s “digital inclusion champion” (“which has an unfortunate
acronym,” she grins) and find ways of helping the most disadvantaged in society
through technology. Naturally, she set her sights even higher. “Rather than
looking at individual projects and trying to replicate them I thought, screw
that, we have a real opportunity, right now, to help get as many people online
as possible. Because a networked nation, with everybody knowing how they can get
on to the internet, could really change the dynamics of the country.”
Fox’s aim is to reach the 9.2m people in the UK who have never used the
internet, almost half of whom are among the country’s lowest-income households.
“The more people that use technology the bigger the gap becomes for those who
can’t,” Fox reasons, quoting statistics that show that those who are online are
more likely to be in work, and to be earning more in their job, not to mention
the financial benefit of saving around £560 a year.
“It’s extraordinary the amount of people who say to me ‘My life was saved by the
internet,’” she says. Fox points to the wall, where dozens of smiling faces
attest to the power of the worldwide web to turn their lives around. One, a
young woman in her late teens called Emlyn, was homeless, living in a shelter,
when she saw a computer course advertised. “Now she is doing a university
course, has her own flat, is training to be a psychologist, and she would say
that the internet is what gave her the confidence to do that.”
Fox has had personal experience of the importance of the internet – when
recovering from a life-threatening car accident in 2004, she spent a year in and
out of hospital. “For people who are disabled or struggle to go outside, I’ve
felt it very keenly – for me, it is very hard to carry bags full stop, so thank
god for online shopping because otherwise I would have no clothes and no food in
the house!”
A self-confessed optimist, Fox believes “the opportunity to use connectedness in
a positive way is still unexplored and unappreciated” and that the internet
could be our greatest help in facing the problems of climate change. “We are
better informed and better able to understand what is happening to the world and
our planet than ever before because of it, and I think that better information
is going to help people come up with solutions to the challenges that lie
The Yes Men: anti-corporate hoaxers Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno

 The Yes Men: ‘People shouldn’t be afraid of doing very dramatic things to
combat injustice’ Photograph: Philip Toledano for the Observer
Sitting in a New York café, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, otherwise known as
anti-corporate hoaxers the Yes Men, are explaining their newest project. Or they
would be, if they didn’t keep getting interrupted by waitresses yelling, “Egg
salad!” “We work out of cafés a lot,” says Bonanno. “It keeps our overheads low,
but it isn’t without its problems.”
It’s not a surprise to find the Yes Men leading a peripatetic existence. They
are, after all, famous for impersonating others, as in 2004 when Bichlbaum posed
as a representative of Dow Chemical in a BBC interview on the 20th anniversary
of the Bhopal disaster, accepting responsibility for the catastrophe that killed
thousands of Indians at a chemical plant, and offering $12bn in compensation.
Their actions are designed to “contribute to a giant movement that creates
change” – in Dow’s case, it caused worldwide coverage and, as Bichlbaum says,
“each article had to explain who Dow is, what Bhopal is, what had happened
there, and that was the goal, to publicise the situation.”
Now they are hoping to use their experience to encourage a wave of direct
activism, courtesy of their newly founded Yes Lab, which teaches organisations,
through workshops, how to best draw attention to the injustices they’re
fighting. “What we do isn’t illegal,” says Bichlbaum. “People shouldn’t be
afraid of doing very dramatic things to combat injustice. If we continue on this
path of turbo capitalism we’ll really end up without anything left! The risks of
taking direct action are actually really small relative to the risks of not
doing them.”
Yes Lab’s most high-profile success story to date came when the Rainforest
Action Network and Amazon Watch were leaked a planned “green” ad campaign for
Chevron, the oil company currently being sued for environmental and human-rights
abuses in Ecuador. Bichlbaum and Bonanno helped them to come up with a parallel
set of ads, bearing slogans such as “Oil Companies Should Clean Up Their
Messes”, which launched on the same day and were successfully confused for the
real thing by various media outlets. “We’re very happy and proud of that,” says
Bonanno. “It’s not every day we’ve been able to derail an almost-$100m ad
When Bichlbaum and Bonanno were introduced by mutual friends 15 years ago, both
were pursuing similarly mischievous forms of protest. Mike’s “Barbie Liberation
Organization” had swapped the voices of Barbie and GI Joe dolls in stores to
protest at gender stereotyping; Andy, a video-game developer inspired by the gay
activism he’d witnessed in San Francisco, had secretly altered the game he was
working on so that men in swimsuits would appear and start kissing each other at
various intervals. Both now teach at universities – the New School in New York,
where Bichlbaum is a professor of communication, design and technology, has just
established a Yes Lab of its own.
“We’ve got a network of about 100,000 followers and quite a few of those people
are champing at the bit to do something themselves,” says Bonanno. “That’s what
our current mission has become, to involve as many people as we can.”
Ann Pettifor: unorthodox economist

 Anne Pettifor: ‘The question is, how do we exercise control over our monetary
system?’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer
Economist Ann Pettifor puts her success down to being an outsider. “I was born
in South Africa – I’m African – so was very interested in why African countries
built up such large sovereign debts after the 1970s.” This not only provided the
impetus for her groundbreaking campaign Jubilee 2000, which resulted in the
cancellation of $100bn of debt owed by more than 35 countries, but also led to
her spotting the looming credit crunch. When she became director of
international finance at the New Economics Foundation in 2001, she arrived
worrying about the debts of poor countries, but then was shocked at rising debt
levels in the west.
“I was like the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes,” she says. “I hadn’t been
immersed in neo-liberal economics so I looked at the situation with fresh eyes.”
Pettifor edited a book accurately predicting the credit crunch in 2003 and wrote
another in 2006, detailing the extent of the problems with the current global
financial architecture, so you’d think economists and bankers might sit up and
listen now – but her approach is still at odds with the mainstream. “Bankers
tell us that for government to find the resources to deal with climate change,
private bankers must be paid high rates of interest. That need not be so. The
question is, how do we exercise control over our monetary system?”
She says that what she wants to contribute is Keynes’s great insight – “that we
can afford what we can do” – and that quantitative easing has shown that the
banks can create money out of thin air. “Billions were conjured by Mervyn King
to bail out the financial system, now we need to use the banking system to make
things happen for the ecosystem. Saying we can’t afford to deal with climate
change is like saying we can’t afford to survive. We have the highest youth
unemployment in history. How foolish to suggest we can’t afford to use the
energy, talents and skills of young people to tackle climate change.”
Colin Hines: founder of the Green New Deal

 Colin Hines: ‘Industry knows the green movement isn’t brown bread and sandals’
Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer
“I have rattled round the environment movement for decades,” says Colin Hines.
It’s a self-deprecating description of a career that spans 30 years, spent
tackling issues ranging from population and food to nuclear proliferation and
international economics. Now he believes he has come up with the financial
solution to the two greatest dilemmas of our time: how to save both the planet
and the economy.
Hines started out as a liberal studies lecturer at a London community college,
which sparked his interest in population. He went on to join Greenpeace
International and became co-ordinator of its Economics Unit. It was at this
point that he realised the importance of working with the establishment as well
as against it. “Initially we were on the outside waving a flag, saying there was
a problem. But in the 80s and 90s at Greenpeace we tried to work with people to
find a solution while not losing our edge.”
International trade and its impact on the environment became his main interest
and Hines started to focus on the finance sector. “Industry knows the green
movement isn’t brown bread and sandals. They’ve been up against us so long
they’ve absorbed some of our ideas, they’ve adapted. Finance is something we
haven’t gone for hard enough.”
Hines gathered a group of experts to tackle the looming financial, energy and
environmental crises. Called the Green New Deal Group (a nod to the inspiration
they found in President Roosevelt’s New Deal, an economic programme which helped
pull the US out of the depression in the 30s), these experts published a
groundbreaking report in 2008 which laid out major structural changes to
national finance – particularly taxation – and plans to tackle energy
conservation. Hines has been promoting their ideas ever since. The key to the
future, says Hines, is localisation and he wants to create a “carbon army who’ll
crawl over every building in Britain, making it energy efficient. It would be
labour-intensive work that could predominantly be done in Britain by British
people. That’s the great thing about face-to-face caring and infrastructure
renewal. They’re two big sources of jobs and they can’t be outsourced. This sort
of localisation will help us take control of the economy, give us energy
security and make our existence more sustainable.”
Hines’s current hope for the Green New Deal is Birmingham, where he helped form
the group Localise West Midlands. “It’s wonderful doing things in Stroud and
Totnes, but Birmingham is the biggest local authority in Europe. They’re doing
exactly what we suggest – using a mix of public and private money to fund a
large-scale project. The city’s serious about it, and Birmingham is a hard-arsed
place: if they’re doing it, then who knows?”
Ricardo Semler: classroom revolutionary

 Ricardo Semler with his wife Fernanda Photograph: Coen Wubbels
When Ricardo Semler was 21, he was put in charge of the family firm that made
pumps and propellers. One of the young Brazilian’s first moves was to fire
two-thirds of his managers. “I’d come from having fun in rock bands,” he says,
“and I’d seen that there were ways to make people enthusiastic if they were
involved entirely.”
The result was Semco, one of the most revolutionary and counterintuitive
companies in the world, where employees choose everything from their dress code
to their salaries. Critics said it would never work – yet it became one of South
America’s most successful conglomerates and, 25 years later, Semler is applying
his principles to the classroom.
Semler realised that “the young adults who joined our company were awaiting
direction. Tracing this back made it evident that schools, from an early age,
were torturing kids with useless formats.” He and his wife Fernanda, above,
gathered a group of education experts to imagine a new school, removed from
structures that were “created to make life easier for adults”. The concept is
Synapses, a “self-driven” system now being offered to children in São Paulo.
At his “Lumiar” schools, the masters are rarely trained teachers, but have a
passion about a particular subject; pupils choose their own courses, from
basketball to planets, Star Wars to fashion and meet weekly to make decisions on
all aspects of the running of the school, from discipline to class outings. The
schools’ results have been astonishing, scoring 96.15% in government tests,
“even in rural areas,” says Semler, “where one third have no electricity at
home, and the average income of the parents is £170 per month”.”
Synapses projects are already in development in the UK and India, although this
is defiantly not a programme to be rolled out: for Semler, the whole point is in
taking control away from “authority” and giving greater freedom to pupils just
as he did to his employees.
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC: civil liberties and human rights champion

 Baroness Helena Kennedy QC: ‘The student protests have been heartening. The
empathy has been great to see’. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer
“I’ve been practising for 38 years now and I haven’t in any way lost enthusiasm
for being in court,” says Baroness Helena Kennedy QC. “It gives you access to
the pain that people experience when their rights are abused or they’re pulled
into a system they find mystifying.” Though her focus is justice, Kennedy’s
range of interest is phenomenal. From equal opportunities for women to
constitutional reform, to education for the disadvantaged, she touches a lot of
lives. “This week,” she says, when we meet just before Christmas, “I made a
speech to a jury in a murder trial, met with Geoffrey Robertson, lead lawyer on
the Julian Assange team, who I’m assisting, looking into the issue of
extradition. I’ve also been looking at the exploitation of migrant workers as
I’m lead commissioner on an inquiry into human trafficking and I’ve been working
closely with women concerned with the abuse of women in Africa – and the whole
business of what’s happening to women in the Congo.”
This may sound like a complex and diverse range of issues, but Kennedy says it’s
all about the way society fails people. “That’s the problem with the Congo: why
is it beyond a world as sophisticated as ours, that we haven’t managed to think
of ways to prevent war, share the largesse, stop abuse? We see some problems as
beyond solution. They’re not: it’s just greed and avarice which means we’re
somehow unwilling to share the world’s resources.”
Kennedy believes that the only way to bring change is through institutions,
which is why law – especially international law and the creation of conventions
and treaties – is so important. Still, she’s delighted by the new stirrings of
politicisation in British society. “I’ve been working on an inquiry into
democracy and why people are so disengaged. Seeing the student demonstrations
has been heartening. It’s been portrayed as self-interest, but many are there
because they see what the impact on those less fortunate than themselves will
be. I think that identification and empathy is great to see.”
Coming from a poor, working-class background, Kennedy feels particularly
strongly about education as it was such a pivotal force in her own life.
“Learning shouldn’t be a commodity. It changed me: I learned about the other,
about how the world worked, about art and music. Education will continue to be
available to the privileged, but will it be for someone from a background like
She thinks that dissatisfaction will only grow as the impact of the cuts really
starts to bite. “Voting will be the least of the ways we’ll make a difference.
We’ll see more people going to demonstrations, their voices will be
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