Sunday, July 31, 2005


The whereabouts of Sudan's First Vice-President John Garang are unclear after a military helicopter taking him back from Uganda failed to arrive (BBC, 18.10 GMT).

African politics

Richard Dowden has high praise for Mathew Lockwood's book on Africa The State They're In:

"Is there something that works in every other developing country but not - apparently - in Africa? Lockwood has come up with the missing piece of the jigsaw. It is African politics. The reason that - South Africa apart - sub-Saharan Africa has not developed is that it has not been in the interests of the controlling elites to develop it.

...Of all the other books on the state of Africa this year, none has come close to confronting this fundamental truth. Jeffrey Sachs, for example, seems blissfully unware of the realities of African politics. The Commission for Africa report comes close but still makes too much use of that neutral word 'governance' to evade the brutal core of Africa's political problem.

...only Africans can develop Africa. 'The international community can play only a minor, supporting role in this drama' says Lockwood.

...what is to be done? The dilemma is that the majority of poor people in Africa live in badly run - though often rich - countries that are held back by their political structures. Aid to these countries helps to preserve the status quo. It is a dilemma that no one has the answer to, not even Lockwood. He recommends setting an aid safety net for Africans and basing more aid on incentives: give aid to governments that hit targets for health, education and economic performance."

There are at least three issues here which in my view need further sustained and focussed debate, supported with proper resources and commitment of expertise in such a way that non-specialists can play a part as citizens. (I may sound excessively idealistic, but I do think that if we don't try, we and a lot of other people are fxxxxd)

First, that "minor role" of the international community. Dowden concludes his review of Lockwood's book with a reference to the first-do-less-harm principle - not least, ending unnecessary arms sales and tackling corruption by western-based companies in Africa. This is something he and colleagues have scrutinised in their RAS report "What about the damage we do to Africa?"
(see my 18 July post). More, please.

conditionality in aid. Richard Dowden, Matthew Lockwood and others are of course well aware of/know much more than me about the challenges surrounding various efforts in this regard. (When Matthew Lockwood wrote an article outlining his case for The Guardian back on 24 June, I wrote to ask him what he thought of the US government's Millennium Challenge Account and an analysis of it that had quite recently appeared in The Economist. His response was informative. Matthew is now moving on to other issues such as practical work relating to climate change, but others of his calibre are needed to engage the wider public on this matter).

Third, politics as Africa's fundamental problem. This generalisation looks more useful than some others, and I'm not saying it's not right enough, but I do think it needs to be tested more against specifics. Dowden says Sachs is blissfully unware of the realities of African politics. But I'm not sure that's completely fair. Sachs is not a political ignoramus, and his case as to why Africa is so poor takes account of levels of corruption (a reasonable first order proxy for bad politics). Sachs points out that Bangladesh has higher levels of corruption than Ghana (on the TI index) but has achieved higher rates of growth. His thesis is that corruption is a problem but that health and geography are more fundamental, and can only be tackled with increased outside aid (child immunisation, roads etc).

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Climate dilemmas

Dispute continues around the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, with environmentalists calling it toothless because of its lack of timetables and targets

The way it was announced - apparently a suprise to the international community - certainly contrasts with the painstaking multilateral approach that has surrounded Kyoto and the G8.

Things to consider:

  • the parternship includes the world's four largest coal producers, if not the largest (Australia, China, India and the United States). Three of these countries are also its largest consumers and likely to burn coal come hell or highwater so technology to deal with the consequences is needed.
  • Two members of the partnership - Japan and South Korea - are signatories to the Kyoto Protocol. It's true that Korea is "non-Annex I state" which means it has not undertaken to meet specific targets; but Japan does have targets to meet (albeit inadequate to the challenge - but then so is almost everything so far), and as the world's second largest economy by some distance it carries some weight that, with an additional finger on the scale from S Korea, may help to draw the "techno-optimist" and "timetables-and-targets" camps together.
  • For a US administration characterised by unilateralism and realpolitik (another notable example in recent days being the nuclear deal with India), this may be as good as it gets. The partnership may facilitate technical progress - and US companies such as GE (the country's largest by market capitalisation) will lap up the opportunities (including nuclear ones) and thereby afford some space for those working towards making targets and timetables a little bit more achievable (e.g. beyond 2012).

Friday, July 29, 2005

China and the world economy

"Most analysis of China's growing importance focuses on its rising share of global output and exports. That, in turn, fuels fears that China is stealing production and jobs from the rest of the world. But this misses half the story. It is true that China's trade surplus has increased sharply this year—mainly because the government's efforts to cool fixed investment have cut back imports. But over the past decade, China's imports have risen at the same pace as its exports. So China is giving a big boost to both global supply and demand.

China's impact on the world economy can best be understood as what economists call a “positive supply-side shock”. Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University, reckons that the entry into the world economy of China, India and the former Soviet Union has, in effect, doubled the global labour force (China accounts for more than half of this increase). This has increased the world's potential growth rate, helped to hold down inflation and triggered changes in the relative prices of labour, capital, goods and assets.

The new entrants to the global economy brought with them little capital of economic value. So, with twice as many workers and little change in the size of the global capital stock, the ratio of global capital to labour has fallen by almost half in a matter of years: probably the biggest such shift in history. And, since this ratio determines the relative returns to labour and capital, it goes a long way to explain recent trends in wages and profits".

From T shirts to T bonds, 28 July


"During the last Palestinian intifada it was possible to see an entire community presenting the symptoms of trauma: an inability to sleep, deep depression, lack of motivation and loss of appetite. Psychologists tell us that humiliation and trauma typically generate feelings of violence that endure for years even among those living in stable societies" - Alastair Crooke.

"Early release has no meaning for the victim unless it's early release to the grave from a ruined life or a body broken by the barbarous use of the bodies of the innocent to gain what the terrorist wants" - Norman Tebbitt.

Climate change and extremes

The anthropogenic contribution to climate change may not or may not be above signal to noise yet.

In some cases, such as the drought in the Iberian peninsular, it is said not to be - see, for example,
It's part of a natural cycle - footnote by Alok Jha to this article.

But extreme events in urban areas - like the metre of rain in and around Mumbai or the tornado in Birmingham - are likely to raise concerns about climate change higher in many people's consciousness. That can be manipulated, for good or bad.

The bad lieutenant

I agree with this:

"Tony Blair this week vowed that his government would yield “not one inch” to the terrorists. It just has" (The new face of London's police, The Economist, 30 July).

Next year in Tehran?

In a wise piece, based on actual knowlege and observation, Peter Galbraith makes a strong case that US-led invasion of Iraq has benefited Iranian interests above those of any other outside players (Iraq: Bush's Islamic Republic).

He recommends that the Bush administration should:

"...draw the line at allowing a Shiite theocracy to establish control over all of Iraq. This requires a drastic change of strategy. Building powerful national institutions in Iraq serves the interest of one group—today it is the Shiites—at the expense of the others, and inevitably produces conflict and instability. Instead, the administration should concentrate on political arrangements that match the reality in Iraq. This means a loose confederation in which each of Iraq's communities governs itself, and is capable of defending itself."

"Stability" in Iraq - in the sense of a climate in which business can be done and oil production increased - looks like a US interest as conventionally defined (see Reconstructing Iraq: Bringing Iraq's Economy Back Online by Gal Luft
) . But do the US administration and its close allies think this is achievable without taking on Iran?

"So far", writes Galbraith, "the Bush administration seems surprisingly untroubled by the influence in Baghdad of a country to which it has shown unrelenting hostility".

Is this because the administration has other plans? If so, who is driving these plans and what form are they likely to take? Or - notwithstanding all that's been said about nuclear weapons - can the US reach a modus vivendi with the Iranian regime?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Manufacturing uncertainty

"The current battle between Sherry Boehlert and Joe Barton goes far beyond jurisdictional positioning over which committee gets to look into climate research. It's about nothing less than whether special interests and their political allies will be allowed to upend the scientific process and harass researchers whose results they don't like -- or whether, instead, Congress will make an honest attempt to understand policy-relevant scientific information without, as Boehlert might put it, 'putting its thumbs on the scales.' In the case of the 'hockey stick' and other climate-change research, nothing less than the fate of the planet itself may be at stake."

Chris Mooney, Thumb War, American Prospect, 25 July

Real money

Today Shell announced £5.8bn profit. Yesterday BP announced a £6bn profit.

In black and white

Hassan Butt: …most of our people, especially the youth, are British citizens. They owe nothing to the government. They did not ask to be born here, neither did they ask to be protected by Britain.

Aatish Taseer: Do they have an allegiance to the country?

Hassan Butt: No, none whatsoever.

Aatish Taseer: Do you feel some?

Hassan Butt: I feel absolutely nothing for this country. I have no problem with the British people… but if someone attacks them I have no problem with that either.

From Prospect, August 2005.

The same issue also contains a useful piece by Ehsan Masood: "unless the Koran is read in context, neither Bin Laden nor the BNP is wrong when claiming that Islam glorifies violence."

"...Until very recently, I was not sure whether [Tariq] Ramadan, [Ziauddin] Sardar and [Abdolkarim] Soroush could influence mainstream Muslim Britain, which views all knowledge as bound up within the pages of the Koran. But something now seems to be moving. Eight days after the London bombs, I was asked to address a public meeting of Muslims organised by City Circle, a group of City-based Muslim professionals. On the panel next to me was Abu Muntasir, one of the founders of British Salafism, whom I first came across when he was a Muslim student leader at Kingston Polytechnic in 1984. Abu Muntasir, his voice shaking, read out a long list of ancient rulings about how Islam equalled peace and justice, and how the bombings were an aberration of the faith's true teachings. I did not think that was good enough. Turning to Abu Muntasir, I said that he was part of the problem, and that al Qaeda could just as easily find ten quotes from ancient Muslim texts to make the case for war. Then came the shock: addressing the audience, Abu Muntasir said he agreed and that he believed that for the past 20 years he had been going up a blind alley. As the meeting drew to a close, Abu Muntasir broke down and wept at the memory of those who had died".

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

5% say more attacks justified

A Guardian/ICM poll of Britain's 1.8m Muslims which says that two thirds have thought about leaving the UK also finds that 5% say more attacks would be justified.

On this count, around 80,000 people in Britain who happen to be Muslim would support more attacks.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Air apparent

The 25 July FT reported that the European Union is looking to include aviation in the European Emission Trading Scheme (see comment).

This looks like an interesting development.

(We) environmentalists are quick condemn flying as the big baddy for global warming. It's not hard, for example, to imagine the scorn that some will pour on iniatives like the Sustainable Aviation Group, an association of airports, airlines and aviation manufacturers which says it will increase fuel efficiency by 50% per seat kilometre by 2020.

But hold up a moment. If the volume of air traffic (seat kilometres) increases by 3% a year it will be almost half as almost big again in 15 years. On this reckoning, a doubling of efficiency would yield total emissions of less than three quarters of the amount today.

A 25% cut in emissions from aviation would not be a bad real world result .

By contrast, the idealist - more acurately absolutist - view that [other] people should just stop flying is unlikely to influence many people.

More useful, then, to scrutinise energetically the work of the Sustainable Aviation Group and those with similar goals (if any) to see whether they take the necessary steps in a timely manner, and examine just how far proposals like including aviation in the ETS
(for a start) can help, and what can be achieved building on those proposals.

This requires detailed understanding of the challenges (definitely) and (even) willingness to talk to the principal actors in a non-confrontational way. It does not mean withdrawing the "threat" of some form of sanction (although environmentalists are the small clutch of 2 ounce mice in this picture and consumers are the large troop of eight hundred pound gorillas).

What is going to deliver progress apart from a combination of pressures including hard market signals?

(For another view see Donal Fitzgibbon)

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Rabbit's new friends and relations

"In Harare, Iranian Ambassador to Zimbabwe Hamid Moayyer was quoted as saying that 'the Republic of Iran continues to work with the Zimbabwean government to avail more lines of credit which are crucial for business growth'."

From "Mugabe goes begging to China" New Zimbabwe, 24 July.

See also an interesting Azanian initiative.

The heroic Iraqi resistance

24 July: Suicide bomb kills at least 25

16 July: Suicide bomb kills 98

15 July: Suicide bombs kill 16

13 July: Bomb kills 26 children (Nice one!)

10 July: 20 army recruits killed

26 June: 35 die in Mosul attack

25 June: Suicide attacks kill 23

20 June: Several attacks, 31 dead

2 June: Multiple bombs kill 24

30 May: 27 dead in Hilla

11 May: 70 dead in Tikrit, Hawija

4 May: Irbil bombing kills 60

A good man down

Richard Doll, a major figure in 20th century medicine and the struggle for a better human future, is dead at 92.

People like him needed all the more as the foundations of the enlightenment are under attack (see, for example, here)

Doll was a decent and warm man. I remember one day in 1993 or '94 walking into the lodge at Green College to find Doll and his wife had come down to say goodbye to one of the porters who was retiring that day, even though Doll had left the wardenship of the college some years before. The porter was a "nothing" in the Oxford hierarchy, but Richard Doll treated him with respect, care and affection.

Grandeur in this view of life

"…as more and more is learned about the complexities of these processes, the concept of 'the gene' as a reified DNA sequence tends to dissolve. What exists, as one molecular biologist put it, is not a set of discrete genes, but an entire genome. And what evolves is neither a set of genes nor a given static phenotype, but a developmental system, embedded as that system is in an even broader web of interactions with its fluctuating environment - the famous 'tangled bank' of hedgerow species that Darwin invokes in the closing paragraph of The Origin".

from Steven Roses’s review of Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb (23 July)

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Mixed signals

"Whoever kills a human being, then it is as though he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a human life, it is as though he had saved all mankind." ( Surah 5: 32).

The British Muslim Forum included this in a fatwa read out in most mosques in Britain yesterday, and that's great.

By contrast, these are the kinds of verses others pick up on:

Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush.” (Sura 9:5)

Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and his Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) People of the Book.(Sura 9:29)

Poignantly at this time, David Pallister (Guardian 22 July) quotes a
spokesman for the Islamic Society of Britain:"We feel like [we are] on an ocean with no sign of the shore and we are going farther into the ocean. We don't know what to do. It's all too much."

Tariq Ramadan sounded sensible on the Today Programme this morning - saying, among other things, that both Muslim and indigenous European communities were parents to the young extremists, and that they needed to act together to deal with the challenge. If he means what he says - and on the evidence I think he does - then attempts by Murdoch media and others to demonise him and other moderates will surely make the situation a lot worse.

Edgar Longman's design

Philip Stewart has sent through this image of Edgar Longman's mural for the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Chemical galaxy

This morning I went to visit Philip Stewart, who designed the Chemical Galaxy.

I'd first seen his poster in Jem Finer's shed at the Centre of the Universe (see this post). Turns out he was featured this week on Newsnight.

Philip talked about the origins of the idea - inspired by a giant mural by Edgar Longman which he saw as a 12 year old at the Festival of Britain in 1951, and the popular work of Fred Hoyle.

Graphical representations of periodicity of the elements go back some way before the periodic table. Philip showed me, for example, a fascinating [French?] graphic from 1867 [?] that portrays them in a helix (represented in two dimensions) .

(On matters helical, Philip said he had visited Jem most days of the Centre of the Universe project, and had given him the picture in his shed of the Great Mosque at Samarra).

We covered some ground in a general conversation, including Islam and the environment (Philip prefers to "ecology" to "environment") , Darrell Posey's wonderful Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, climate change (including graphical representations such as a Carbon Clock), ecological economics to Herman Daly (there was, I suggested, more on this in Adam Smith than you might at first think), the damage done by Richard Dawkins's conceptually faulty jump from selfish gene to selfish individuals (influential on Margaret Thatcher & co), David Buller's Adapting Minds, the damage done by flying and the merits of staying in one place or travelling only by bicycle or even better by foot.

Stewart, who describes himself as a feral turkey, teaches in the human sciences unit at Oxford U. He clearly loves teaching, and was proud to show me a tribute from his students last year who had all calculated their ecological footprint.

I think I may be gearing up for a long walk.

Heading for 100

With these three, it comes to 93 British soldiers killed in Iraq since March 2003 . A bloody pity.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Adam Gopnik on terrorism

"The worst of both readings of what is happening is surely true. The terrorists are psychopathic and shrewd, nihilistic and rational, glorying in death for death's sake while still calculating whom to kill, with what effect, when". (Not Scared, New Yorker 25 July)

Blimey! Did somebody call for Mr Dostoevksy?

Thinking against terror

As some sink into a post-modern mush, it's refreshing to once more read Unite Against Terror.

Good to see this links to Iraq's war on women by Lesley Abdela (although Barefoot and Pregnant should be in the list of links).

Today's NYT editorial, Off course in Iraq, also picks up on concerns about the impact on women.

And the battle of ideas aspect is usefully alluded to by Hamayun Ansari in his FT piece Identity struggle leads to radicalism:

"The reluctance of Muslims to examine the Koran historically and contextually" [my emphasis added] "prevents them from challenging Islamist extremists' interpretations of the word of God to suit their political agendas".

While on women and politics, few are more sensible in their advice than Lesley Abdela herself, in a message to Isabel Hilton the key conclusions of which she has circulated:

"The challenge is to make extra space for women's voices and perspectives without making a women's ghetto. I always think it falls roughly into 3 categories:

1. Make sure you add the extra (often invisible) gender dimension on every discussion topic - for example in a discussion on Constitutions, electoral systems or on tax policies - how might different aspects of a draft constitution, electoral systems or a tax policy impact differently on women's lives from men's lives?

2. Issues that are of specific importance to women (although some men should be interested too) issues such as implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 or women's participation in politics etc

3. Making sure that women's voices and women writers are seen and heard equally contributing ideas on to all mainstream democracy debates".

Stern criticism indeed

'Costco's average $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam's Club. And Costco's health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco "it's better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder".'

(From How Costco Became the Anti-Wal-Mart, Stephen Greenhouse, NYT, 17 July)

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Jasper Becker on North Korea

A first rate piece here.

Who does the killing in Iraq?

According to the new Oxford Research Group report, a minimum of 24,865 civilians were killed in Iraq between March 2003 and March 2005.

Women and children reportedly accounted for almost 20% of civilian deaths. "US-led forces killed 37% of civilian victims. Anti-occupation forces/insurgents killed 9% of civilian victims. Post-invasion criminal violence accounted for 36% of all deaths.
Killings by anti-occupation forces, crime and unknown agents have shown a steady rise over the entire period”.

Some surprises for an outsider like me if these figures are accurate.

First, that the proportion of civilians killed being women and children is only a fifth of the total (I guess all those attacks on queues of young men wanting to be policeman really drives up the figures)

Second, that anti-occupation forces/insurgents accounted for such a small proportion of total killed. Has this proportion increased in recent months and days, from a relatively slow start in 03, 04 and early 05?

Third, bleak amusement in that criminal violence and US-led armed force have killed roughly equal numbers of civilians (albeit the majority of those inflicted by allied forces were during the first phase of the invasion).

Monday, July 18, 2005

UK govt failures on energy

Paul Brown reports what looks like a signal failure of the UK government to get serious on energy efficiency (Energy saving targets scrapped).

He also continues excellent coverage of the UK nuclear industry, with an 18 July report on subsidy to help prop up British Energy, which had to bailed out from bankruptcy two years ago (Taxpayers £184m aid to private energy firm), and a 16 July report on the shockingly bad work culture at Sellafield (Sellafield staff ignored 100 warnings about leak).

Orphans of Islam...and globalisation

A thoughtful piece of work from Madeleine Bunting.

She assumes the three Leeds lads were from Britain's Mirpur population, and may well be right (what was that observation by Emmanuel Todd makes about social volatility and rapidly growing populations where people marry their first cousins?)

But the fourth bomber almost certainly was not, and for this reason among others her piece is not the full story (nor, in fairness does it pretend to be).

The Economist ("The Enemy Within") cites Oliver Roy on "neo-fundamentalism", which may or may not be violent as:

"a broad reaction by Muslims in western countries against their families and background, as well as against their host societies. As Mr Roy portrays them, such Muslims have abandoned the food, music and customs of the 'old country'but still feel repelled by the ethos and values of the 'new country'. Adrift from both, they are attracted by a simple, electronically disseminated version of the faith which can readily be propagated among people of all cultures, including white Europeans".

In the Netherlands, notes the Economist, the intelligence services reckon they have identified three broad categories of people from which actual and would-be terrorists are drawn: recent arrivals, second-generation members of immigrant communities, and converts.

Dirty bombs and primitive nuclear weapons

Looking on the Oxford Research Group site ahead of their publication on Iraq tomorrow, there this useful but slightly odd piece by Frank Barnaby.

In the present context, a dirty bomb using an isotope such as Caesium 137 looks more likely than a primitive nuclear weapon.

Assessing the G8 on Africa

What to make of the G8's pronouncements and actions with regard to Africa?

I have not got to grips with this properly yet. The Economist has what looks like a fairly clear piece about the numbers: "Only Japan's spend anohter $10bn spread over the next five years caught the OECD's number cruncher's by surprise" (14 July).

Richard Dowden writes this morning to say there will be a new piece up on the Royal Africa Society site by lunchtime.

Meanwhile, the RAS June report “What about the damage we do to Africa?” is a good place to start (according to the report, the damage factors most susceptible to amelioration by non Africans are: corruption and money laundering; poaching Africa’s professionals; arms and mercenaries in Africa’s conflicts; exploitation of natural resources; and the new global politics and the war on terror)

Richard Dowden's June piece for The Independent still makes a very useful overview. On the UK role, Dowden says:

We need to make a long term commitment to Africa and spend more resources trying to understand how it works. The government needs advice on how to call those difficult political decisions. Africa has been handed over to the expanding Department for International Development which knowledge of development theory is deep but experience of African political realities is thin or non existent. Meanwhile cuts at the Foreign Office is allowing it to shed its African experts like dead leaves. One day we may regret it”. (full text attached as comment 1).

For activist views, Teresa from the Gaia campaigning group cites these pieces in her 17 July e mail:

1. G8 Moves a Bit on Aid and Debt, but Fails on Trade and Climate
Article from Third World Network. Date: 11 July 2005
Martin Khor
2.G8 condemn Africa to miss Millennium Development Goals
Press release from World Development Movement. Date: 8 July 2005
3. G8 Summit: Africa Is Offered a Little - At a Price
Article from Inter Press Service. Date: 8 July 2005
Sanjay Suri
4. G8's Free Trade Project is Here to Stay - Along With World Poverty
Article in the Guardian. Date: 4 July 2005
Caroline Lucas and Vandana Shiva,3604,1520586,00.html
5. What Matters More than Anything Else is Agriculture
Article from the New Statesman. Date: 11 July 2005
Colin Tudge

Sunday, July 17, 2005


The breathtaking weather today - brilliantly clear bright light - connects this place to the distant hills and mountains of the island, today bathed in sunshine over hundreds of miles.

Summits and gullies, old trees, rocky shores: I feel almost sick that I am not treading there, breathing the air, instead of filed away in a concrete, brick and tarmac slot in a city.

Was it just a moment ago that I was high on a ridge in Karakorum looking towards K2? Is a dream gone as soon as you turn to look at it?

"The question for designers of what is dubbed The Next City is how to love all species all the time" (Eco designs on future cities).

"If you represent the Earth's lifetime in a single year, the 21st Century would be a quarter of a second in June" (Martin Rees)

Scientists, responsibility, open societies

All credit to Mark Lynas for confidence, resourcefulness, determination and good intentions; but not always for careful thought.

For example, Mark's 25 June opinion piece telling scientists to "Get off the fence over global warming" is misconstrued.

I wrote a rather too quick response on the day of publication. New Scientist did not print it, but did publish a sensible response from Mike Hume.

Dr Hume's response is attached as comment 1. Mine as comment 2.

Groping forward

Last week I began work on an outline for a book that maybe I should have written five years ago. That is, an investigation of whether the challenges of energy/development/climate are soluble, and if so - rhetoric and imagining aside - who is doing the most useful work, and how?

Conversing with Mark Lynas on 14 July, the "peak oil" thing came up. I repeated that I thought this idea was an intellectual virus - likely not relevant on the timescale of the challenge. Made a reference to a column I wrote in Jan 2004, Running on Empty.

Looking at it again, does the threefold challenge squeezed in at the end of the column suggest a structure?

Probably not, but it may help.

"The worst scenario"

"The worst scenario is having the stresses of climate change coupled with the widespread dispersion of nuclear know-how and materials. Fortunately things do seem to be moving a bit in the right direction".

This from someone who knows a thing or two.

Cry Democracy

"We didn't hear anyone at Live 8 raise a cry for democracy in Africa...We would have preferred for the musicians in Philadelphia and London to have marched and sung for political revolution. Instead, they mourned a corpse while forgetting to denounce the murderer".

Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme, 15 July.

Muslim anger and the working class

Was this "Muslim anger"? Answer, Seamus, on a postcard please.

And Ken, when you spoke of how terrrible it was that "working class" Londoners were hit, does that mean it's OK to hit "middle class" Londoners, and were the people on those trains who earned around thirty grand - about a fifth of your salary - "working class"?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Like wow

The desert floor of Wadi al-Hitan, or Whale Valley, south of Cairo is littered with fossils of the last whales known to have legs (see here).

Friday, July 15, 2005

How big is your racket?

Every now and then, a Noam Chomskyan view of the world doesn't seem completely irrational.

So, for example, when Ed Harriman writes (in "Where has all the money gone"):

"Both Saddam and the US profited handsomely during his reign. He controlled Iraq’s wealth while most of Iraq’s oil went to Californian refineries to provide cheap petrol for American voters. US corporations, like those who enjoyed Saddam’s favour, grew rich. Today the system is much the same: the oil goes to California, and the new Iraqi government spends the country’s money with impunity".

He may have a point.

And when Isabel Hilton points to the links between Colombia's drug untouchables
and the government (Guardian, 13 July) and observes:

"In the last five years the US has spent $3bn in the war against drugs in Colombia, a trade with which the paramilitary armies are intimately connected. The money is dispensed under Plan Colombia, due to end in September but now renewed for a further year. It is reasonable to ask whether it was renewed because it was considered a success or a failure: it has had no effect on the availability, street price or purity of the drugs that continue to arrive in the US. And though the US and Colombian officials claim that one million acres of coca have been eradicated in Colombia, the UN testifies that the area under cultivation in the Andes grew by 3% last year".

She too may have a point.

Indeed, in both cases, there's a good case - absent convincing evidence to the contrary - that we are looking at two massive rackets.

This is not to endorse - for example - the views of some anti-capitalism campaigners and anarchists who see everything in a frame of imperialist exploitation. The world is far too big, messy and contentious for that.

Anatol Lieven, Salma Yacoob

Ten out of ten for Anatol Lieven, while Salma Yacoob is worth a few minutes thought.

Anatol (
"Engage Muslim support or lose the war on terror", Financial Times, 13 July) writes:

"The response of Britain and its allies requires better intelligence and increased ruthlessness, but also greatly improved focus on their enemies – something that the Bush administration has not only failed to provide, but has gone out of its way to obstruct...

In portraying the struggle against Islamist terrorism as a war, the Bush administration is correct, and European critics who envisage it as a mere struggle against criminals are wrong. The key questions, however, are: 'What kind of war?' and 'How can it best be fought?'.

...the Bush administration has failed in its first and most obvious strategic task: that of splitting the opposing camp. By deliberately obscuring the differences between Sunni religious extremists, Arab nationalists, Shia religious parties, Iranian nationalists and Palestinian radicals, the administration has done the gravest disservice to America and its allies.

In place of a comprehensive diplomatic and political strategy, the administration, aided by Tony Blair, the British prime minister, has advanced the promotion of democracy. But there is nothing to suggest that democratic institutions necessarily act as a barrier to extremism, especially when to socio-economic weakness is added a sense of national humiliation".

(full text attached as comment to this post).

Salma Yacoob ("Our leaders must speak up", Guardian 15 July) writes:

"...what is undeniable is that the shoddy theology - no matter how "unIslamic" and easily condemned by most Muslims - is driven by political injustices. It is the boiling anger and hurt that is shaping the interpretation of religious texts into such grotesque distortions. Such extreme interpretations exist only in specific political circumstances - they certainly do not predate them, and the religious/political equation breaks down if there is no injustice to drive it.

This leaves British Muslims in a very difficult place. To bring in these wider questions requires them to dissent from the government line. This is difficult for them, keen as they are to avoid further marginalisation. However, if Muslim leaders succumb to the pres sure of censorship and fail to visibly oppose the government on certain foreign policy issues, the gap between the leaders and those they seek to represent and influence will widen, increasing the possibility of more dangerous routes being adopted by the disillusioned"

Salma Yacoob is right to say the arguments need to come out more into the open. It is only in that way that arguments that are wrong (as I believe some of the positions advanced by Respect to be) can be refuted through civil discussion, to the greater benefit and peace of all.

Meeting with Laura Rival

Bastille day lunch with Laura Rival. She's about to go for much of the summer to Salvador in Brazil where she will research the history of black politics across Latin America (including one of her own areas of particular knowledge - Ecuador).

Laura says black politics in South America today is impoverised in comparison to where it was in the sixties. A hope is that though her research she can publish evidence that will help people understand how much more outward-looking an earlier generation of leaders were.

Laura has just organised a conference in Oxford of anthropologists from around the world on issues of sustainability in the 21st century. Anthropology as if it were relevant to human concerns in our common crisis.

She invited Steve Rayner, head of the James Martin Institute, to chair one of the sessions. Rayner is Director of the UK Economic and Social Research Council's national research programme on Science in Society. In an earlier life he did his PhD in anthropology on Maoist and Leninist groups in Britain, it seems.

Another of the conference participants was Scott Atran. Once a graduate student with Margaret Mead at Columbia, Atran did his PhD on the Druze, has done groundbreaking work with the Maya. He is a cognitive scientist with special interests in decision making and the origins of religion (he is the author of In Gods We Trust), and has conducted numerous in depth interviews with people who went on to be suicide bombers.

An hour or so with Laura was deeply inspiring and encouraging for the task I'm setting out on in the next few months.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Jem Finer wins prize

the New Music Award here.

See this post.

Macfarlane and the Pomona

A response today from Robert Macfarlane regarding The Herefordshire Pomona (see posts here and here). He writes “I didn't know the book, and was very glad to have made its acquaintance”. He has mentioned it in the follow-up piece on the recommendations for the classics of nature library which the Guaridan review will run sometime this month.

Climate Care

Meeting this morning with Mike Mason, Tom Morton and colleagues at Climate Care. Among the things they’re looking at are compact fluourescent lightbulbs for schools in Kazakhstan.

I mentioned Ron Oxburgh’s enthusiasm for enzyme technology that breaks down biomass residues (e.g. straw) into readily combustible compounds. Mike said that if this worked it could be the single most important renewable energy technology in sight.

Some questions – on my part at least – around advantages and likely drawbacks, but interesting to consider the theoretical options.

A quick back of the envelope calculation from Mike: converting 10% of the incremental growth on 10% of whole Siberian forest could meet roughly 1% of total world oil demand (assuming about 80mbpd rising to 120mpd).

These numbers may be broadly indicative - they are certainly not accurate - but they do nevertheless suggest impressive potential. Also another illustration that (unlike the 20th century when, as Mike put it, oil was “the lever”) there is no one lever of change for meeting the energy/climate challenge in the 21st century.

During our conversation,Mike placed a mug of hot water on the table, and a small lid on top of it with a miniature Stirling engine, which turned a small wooden propeller around for more than fifteen minutes.

Shlomo Ben-Ami on Hamas

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the former Israeli foreign minister, this morning sent round a notification of his new article in the IHT. He concludes:

“Instead of resisting Hamas's political rise, Abbas needs to see its readiness to join forces with Fatah in securing the governability of Gaza as a vital step on the way to full Palestinian statehood in both Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas's willingness to abandon its violent opposition and to assume the responsibility that comes with political power needs to be seen as a most welcome shift on the way to a fuller political cooptation of the most important revolutionary force in the Palestinian territories”.

Forests in Burma

An article just through from Chris Lang, looking at Total and the Wildlife Conservation Society in Burma, where around one million people have been forced from their homes and land (here).

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Martin Wolf: yes but

I largely agree with Martin Wolf when he writes:

"We must recognise that the underlying struggle is over how Islamic civilisation achieves its reconciliation with modernity. Of the four great civilisations of Eurasia – European, Chinese, Indian and Islamic – it is the last that has found it most difficult to accept the transformation brought about by the first. China and India have now decided to participate in the modern world. Much of the Islamic world – and, above all, the Arab part of it – is failing to do so". (Enemies of freedom underestimate us, 12 July)

Yes, but the deep question is why many parts of the the Middle East has so failed. And at the deepest level an important factor in the equation (though not the only one) is the "oil curse". Oil makes possible rentier regimes in Iraq, Iran and the Gulf that are able resist the hard adaptations to modernity that China and India have faced (albeit with much trauma). This in turn has led to political events that have created the radicalisation whose consequences we now face.

"Under control"?

This afternoon I went to visit someone in the Cabinet Office who had just attended a "brownbag lunch" (informal talk) with Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitian Police Commissioner. Sir Ian was fulfilling a long standing engagement. His view, it seems, is that routines and plans should carry on as normal as much as possible.

Both my contact and someone else there who had attended Sir Ian's talk had been impressed by the talk. My contact said that Sir Ian had said that fact that they had identified the bombers as lads from West Yorkshire was regarded as good news because it would shake many in the Muslim communities out of a state of denial, and the authorities would now get the ful cooperation of those with authority in those communities to root out the small number of those spreading extreme views.

But is this right? I was dubious then and a little later this afternoon read "We rock the boat" by Dilpazier Aslam, a Guardian trainee journalist, which didn't allay my doubts. Dilpazier Aslam concludes:

'Perhaps now is the time to be honest with each other and to stop labelling the enemy with simplistic terms such as "young", "underprivileged", "undereducated" and perhaps even "fringe". The don't-rock-the-boat attitude of elders doesn't mean the agitation wanes; it means it builds till it can be contained no more'.

The use of the phrase "each other" is interesting. I e mailed Dilpazier Aslam with two questions:

What do you think would be a better description of the enemy?

What kinds of ways of rocking the boat do you think offer the best way forward?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Hard to think of worse news

...than this.

A new English Civil War?

N Korea nukes: as bad as Cuba 1962?

"More than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, we are on a collision course with a nuclear power".

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times (
12 July)

"How much carbon can we emit?"

"...while keeping global temperature rise from exceeding 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels"?

- asked Myles Allen this afternoon at an open meeting on carbon capture and storage at Imperial College London organised by Jon Gibbins.

Among key points, as I understood them:

  • stabilisation of emissions at 1990 levels (as per Princeton wedge study) does not deliver "safe" climate change;
  • common assumption is that cutting emissions to 40% of 1990 levels by 2050 would deliver "safe" climate change;
  • a "sustainable" per capita emissions quota is scientifically indefensible;
  • the maximum forecast warming is constrained by things we can observe if we limit the total C02 injection into the atmosphere
  • robust case for total emissions profile consistent with an approx 20% chance of greater than 2 C warming allows for a total of 1,200 gigatonnes of carbon to be burnt. This means we can burn roughly twice what we have burnt to date;
  • all scenarios require a greater than 50% cut in emissions at some point in less than fifty years;
  • declining C02 in the atmosphere will also present challenges, and will need to be managed.

(related: Allen et al for Stabilisation 2005 here)

Monday, July 11, 2005

To him that hath

Israel, already the largest recipient of US aid by far, is likely to receive an additional $2.2bn for withdrawing from the Gaza strip. (BBC, 11 July).

Israel already receives $3bn annually in direct aid. That's about $600 a head (assuming 5 million people in Israel). By contrast, sub-Saharan Africans in abject poverty receive between $1 and $2 per head in US aid (closer to $1, if Jeffrey Sachs is correct).
Israel also receives very substantial military and other forms of US support.

The news comes just after reports that a barrier in Jerusalem will cut off 55,000 Arabs. Greg Myre reports in the New York Times (11 July):

"Israel's separation barrier in Jerusalem will cut off 55,000 Palestinian residents from the rest of the city, Israeli officials acknowledged [on 10 July]. Palestinians responded sharply, saying they will face daily complications in reaching jobs, schools and hospitals".

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A visit to Hundred Acre Wood

Cristina took this picture today in Wytham Wood (770 hectares, or nineteen hundred acres).

On Friday I saw dragonflies in my garden (0.0028 hectares), and there were frogs in the kale patch.

I think the frogs were eating the spiders. My garden is their Manoir au Quatre Saisons.

Tough (on the) causes of terror

Roger Scruton may have a case here (oD today, 8 July):

"Long before Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq, long before September 11th, the Wahabite loonies have been preaching murder and resentment in our mosques, and the ghouls of al-Muhajiroun have been recruiting young men and women to the cause of mass murder. Our government wishes to criminalise 'religious hatred', but is blind to the real form that it takes - not the legitimate criticism of Islamic extremism that most of us would wish to make, but the incitement to holy war in the name of Islam".

and Thomas Friedman may also have a point if this is actually true:

"The Muslim village has been derelict in condemning the madness of jihadist attacks. When Salman Rushdie wrote a controversial novel involving the prophet Muhammad, he was sentenced to death by the leader of Iran. To this day - to this day - no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden".

But pumped-up hotheads like Douglas Murray, in his New York Sun article (subscription only - text appended as comment 1 to this post) only make things worse.

More useful are the likes of David Gardner in the FT (9 July):

"The overwhelming majority of Muslims do not hate us for our freedoms. They do, however, despise [Western support for dictatorship in the Middle East] and some of the more frustrated among them are thereby prey to the siren songs of the jihadis.

Validation of this analysis came last September from the Defense Science Board (DSB), a federal advisory committee to the US defence secretary. The polls the DSB looked at are chilling. People in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, Washington’s main Arab allies, gave a 98 and 94 per cent 'unfavourable' rating to the US and its policies. But at the same time, the DSB study found that majorities or pluralities in the Arab countries do support values such as freedom and democracy, embrace western science and education, and like US products and movies. 'In other words, they do not hate us for our values, but because of our policies,' the DSB says, before demonstrating how hatred of the policies has begun to tarnish the appeal of the values". (full text appended as comment 2)

and Jeffrey Sachs, also in FT (8 July) :

"We are not, thank goodness, in World War III as some of America's hotheads have believed since September 11. To believe such is to risk making it a tragic reality. In truth, our struggle is not of one culture against another, but a struggle for our common survival on a fragile planet threatened by too many weapons, too much environmental destruction, too much extreme poverty and disease, too many young men unemployed in the Middle East deprived of hope and dignity, too many fundamentalist misconceptions in a world that has been built by science which can be harnessed by ignoramuses and psychopaths". (full text appended as comment3)

Saturday, July 09, 2005

How many Bushies to change a light bulb?

How many members of the Bush administration does it take to change a light bulb?


1. One to deny that a light bulb needs to be changed;

2. One to attack the patriotism of anyone who says the light bulb needs to be changed;

3. One to blame Clinton for burning out the light bulb;

4. One to arrange the invasion of a country rumored to have a secret stockpile of light bulbs;

5. One to give a billion dollar no-bid contract to Halliburton for the new light bulb;

6. One to arrange a photograph of Bush, dressed as a janitor, standing on a step ladder under the banner: Light Bulb Change Accomplished;

7. One administration insider to resign and write a book documenting in detail how Bush was literally in the dark;

8. One to viciously smear #7;

9. One surrogate to campaign on TV and at rallies on how George Bush has had a strong light-bulb-changing policy all along;

10. And finally one to confuse Americans about the difference between screwing a light bulb and screwing the country.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The militarised mind

The London bombings will cause anger, and that's OK.

The challenge is how to channel the anger intelligently.

Philip Stephens in the Financial Times writes there are no quick fixes:

"Missing still is the binding thread – the organising principle, if you like – that would bring coherence to their response to terrorism. American military power will not do it. Nor, on its own, will the “soft power” of the Europeans. Between the two, there might be an answer".

This takes one to the iusses outlined in The Marriage of Mars and Venus.

Meanwhile, in another part of the wood, militarised minds will continue to predominate. As Fred Halliday writes in a recent analysis of the Iranian election results:

"Ahmadinejad’s triumph highlights a vital underlying factor in the formation of
Iran’s revolutionary regime: that the state, its ideology and its mentality were forged not in the years of Islamist struggle against the Shah (1963-1978), nor during the course of the revolution itself (1978-1979), but in the much more brutal and costly war with Iraq (1980-1988).

This was the second longest inter-state war of the 20th century, one in which as many as 750,000 Iranian soldiers died. The institutions created during that war – the pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), the basiji (Mobilisation) and the intelligence services – are at the core of the Islamic Republic, not the clergy, the revolution’s political leaders, or the regular army. It is significant that most of the eight-to-ten key people around Khamenei owe their prominence to this conflict".

In Israel too, the key political leaders - not least Sharon - were forged by war, and military actions look to be at the heart of future planning, including an attack on Iran if Paul Rogers (7 July) is correct:

"Israel ... aims [at] the destruction of any facilities that could contribute to the development of nuclear weapons and the destruction of Iranian missiles and their production facilities. There is no expectation that any attacks would have long-term effects – all they would be seeking is a few years of delay, with the possibility of further attacks in the future. From their perspective, though, they might also have the added bonus of the Iranians retaliating against US facilities in the region, bringing the United States into a bigger conflict and at least ending up with substantial damage to the Iranian economy".

Teaching the Iraqis about the untidiness of history

To set beside Ed Harriman's Where has all the money gone?, here is Chalmers Johnson TomDispatch (7 July):

In September 2004, in one of the few self-critical reports to come out of Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense, the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication wrote: "The larger goals of U.S. strategy depend on separating the vast majority of non-violent Muslims from the radical-militant Islamist-Jihadists. But American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended."[5] Nowhere was this failure more apparent than in the indifference -- even the glee -- shown by Rumsfeld and his generals toward the looting on April 11 and 12, 2003, of the National Museum in Baghdad and the burning on April 14, 2003, of the National Library and Archives as well as the Library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowments. These events were, according to Paul Zimansky, a Boston University archaeologist, "the greatest cultural disaster of the last 500 years." Eleanor Robson of All Souls College, Oxford, said, "You'd have to go back centuries, to the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, to find looting on this scale."[6] Yet Secretary Rumsfeld compared the looting to the aftermath of a soccer game and shrugged it off with the comment that "Freedom's untidy. . . . Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes."

The most sensible piece so far

...on the London bombings is this.

Ian McEwan brings together an acute eye for detail, a capacity to guage and articulate mood and a key question of the moment: "how much power do we grant Leviathan, how much freedom will be asked to trade for our security?"

The only thing to add at this stage is let us put aside differences and match the dignity of the many millions who walked together in solidarity through the Spanish streets after the bombs in Madrid in March 2004.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Awe, strength, responsibility

On a day when it's easy to be pessimistic, do not to lose sight of positives in human experience and capacity.

Tim Radford writes prose poetry in his description of the Deep Impact mission:

"[It] was more than a triumph in human patience. It was also a lesson in humility...It was a stunning exercise in human cooperation, celestial sharpshooting and cosmic curiosity."

(you have to read the detail of his short piece rather than this summary to get the poetry - full text here)

The fact that human scientific endeavour at its best enhances the capacity to wonder at existence and appreciate beauty is enormously important not only as a truth in its own right, but also for its political significance.

Awe and wonder are essential for maintaining the spiritual strength needed for tasks ahead, including the energy and climate challenge which, yes, does present a greater threat than terrorism.

Spirituality is not “just” something for those who adhere to established religious traditions and cultures. The alliances that will be necessary will have to cut across the religious/non-religious divides. Shared sense of wonder can help.

A BBC online article published yesterday gave a snapshot update on what could be part of a significant trend in the US in which evangelical Christians begin to take climate change seriously (see also the Hot Politics! post “Faith and climate change” from back on 18 May).

Secularists like me should not forget the vital role religious people have played in great movements for social change. George Fredrickson, for example, is right to remind of the vital role of Quakers and evangelicals in the fight against slavery (his point that Enlightenment thinking was no bar to slavery but rather allowed it to be put on a new “scientific” base is not especially helpful: both religion and free-thinking can be horrendously debased, but that does not in itself undermine the potential of the latter any more than it does the former) .

Equally, religious people should not to dismiss the spirituality that agnostics and atheists may experience. What may seem like a contradiction to a religious person (who, for instance may see evolutionists as a "cultural elite, out of touch with [American] society") is in fact a vital truth: better understanding through science can increase one's sense of wonder and, crucially, the motivation to act responsibily.