Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Fukuyama Rashomon

Fukuyama may be "The man who changed his mind", as a title to a recent review by Anatol Lieven of After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads has it, but some of his interlocutors only seem to be more confirmed in their positions by his transition.

Paul Berman, in The New York Times, starts wittily enough:
Nowadays, if you are any kind of political thinker at all, and you haven't issued a sweeping denunciation of your dearest friends, or haven't been hanged by them from a lamppost — why, the spirit of the age has somehow passed you by.
although Lieven in New Statesman does it better:
the propaganda bulwarks of the Bush administration have, in recent months, often vanished from view behind the mass of intellectuals and journalists trying to jump off them.
For Gary Rosen (managing editor of Commentary, but writing in the Washington Post) the nub comes to this:

What's missing from [the new book], as a reader of the old Fukuyama would know, is the Hegelian twist that gave his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man its peculiar intensity and breadth. Liberal democracy, in that telling, was not only about the desire for pleasure and physical well-being but also about a second, more elevated drive: the individual's "struggle for recognition," the spirited -- and often political -- assertion of personal dignity and worth. About this deeply felt human need, Fukuyama is now silent. Yet in today's Middle East, nothing is so striking as the dearth of channels for its expression.

And Berman can't help noticing that Fukuyama has somehow come round to "some of the main elements of the liberal interventionist position of three years ago":
A genuinely cogent argument [for invading Iraq] , as Fukuyama sees it, would have drawn attention to the problems that arose from America's prewar standoff with Hussein. The American-led sanctions against Iraq were the only factor that kept him from building his weapons. The sanctions were crumbling, though. Meanwhile, they were arousing anti-American furies across the Middle East on the grounds (entirely correct, I might add) that America was helping to inflict horrible damage on the Iraqi people. American troops took up positions in the region to help contain Hussein — and the presence of those troops succeeded in infuriating Osama bin Laden. In short, the prewar standoff with Hussein was untenable morally and even politically. But there was no way to end the standoff apart from ending Hussein's dictatorship.
But of the three, only Lieven gets to the heart of the matter:
[Fukuyama's] work suffers from... a lack of detail concerning controversial questions. Fukuyama wisely advocates a limited, "Bismarckian" approach to the exercise of US power. But what does that mean in practice when it comes to the defence of Taiwan, the expansion of Nato into the former Soviet Union and a choice of war or détente with Iran? Above all, what settlement does he advocate for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
To build on Lieven's point, can Fukuyama contribute something sensible in response to Mersheimer and Walt's critique (summary here, full text here) of a policy which affords $500 per head to Israel, a wealthy industrialised nation (albeit with the highest rates of inequality and child poverty of any rich country bar the United States), while the US allocates less than $1 per head to each African? Or will we continue to be stuck with McCarthy-ite smears such as this?

(See also Jacob Weisberg and Christopher Hitchens)

Monday, March 27, 2006


"I tell him about the massacre site I saw at the church at Nyarabuye during the genocide and how I imagined God sitting on the roof of the church watching the bedlam below; watching 5,000 innocent people being butchered".

David Belton

Thursday, March 23, 2006


One of the things that stood out for me from a report of the trial of young men accused of having planned a series of bombs to waste slags and other kaffirs in London was the vocabulary they are said to have used to describe past and future bombings of random strangers: "beautiful" and "fantissimo".

Setting aside my proclivity to be facetious for a moment, I´ll make a supplementary observation to Grahame Thompson´s comments on fundamentalism: these boys look to me to be not too far from the white youths connected with the stabbing of Stephen Lawrence who fantasised extreme race hate crimes (if reports are correct). In both cases the hated "other" looks to be a product of insecure young masculinity expressed through loathing for another race or gender.

A second observation is that, fundamentalist/criminals as they may have been (if reports are correct), their means of expression and thought is partly shaped by profoundly non-fundamentalist cultural milieu. Setting aside my proclivity no longer, I´ll note that fantissimo was a horse with a bell for a heart on a 78 record of the 1950s, a song by Living Jane, and the fan site of what looks to be a German crooner of the kind who wears lozenge-patterned sweaters and, in the best seventies kitsch, jeans traegt und modern denkt.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Tonge tied

"I took the precaution of hiring my own interpreter, so I was able to hear exactly what some of the 200 bushmen and their families who had recently been forcibly resettled in a camp at New Xade were saying. I heard them describe it as a place of death, where they had nothing to do but drink, take drugs and catch Aids. Many of them felt that they had been evicted because Debswana wanted their land for its diamonds ... I, for one, came home more convinced than ever that a great injustice was being done."
Lord Pearson of Rannoch, quoted by George Monbiot

Monday, March 20, 2006

Getting used to it

The second world war killed around a third of Belarus's population, and left scarcely a pre-war building standing in Minsk. Before and after it, Stalin's purges were severe. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 contaminated a fifth of the country. The legacy of this wretchedness is the powerful third force of Belarusian politics.

The nature of this force is captured by many of the jokes Belarusians tell about themselves. In one, a partisan is hung by his captors. Two weeks later, he is still alive. How did he survive? "I got used to it." (Waving the denim)

The head of the International Republican Institute operation for Belarus referred to the elections as a farce. It sounds like he may be right. How very unlike the 98 to 100% return of incumbents to Pyongyang on the Potomac.

Three talks in KL

I’m giving three talks later this week Kuala Lumpur:

1. Climate change and business: obstacles and opportunities
National Science Centre, 10 am 22 March

Climate change is likely to present both serious challenges to the global economy over the next few decades and significant opportunities for business innovation. The talk will explore the nature and scope of these, including developments in carbon trading and carbon credits, from a position of constructive scepticism.

2. The politics of climate change
Renaissance Kuala Lumpur Hotel, 6.30pm 22 March

Leading scientists and some world leaders say climate change is one of the most serious threats facing humanity. Are they right? What are the obligations of rich countries and of emerging economies? This talk will introduce the science of climate change and the major political and economic developments to date, and open up to discussion of ethics, responsibility and action.

3. Climate change, science and the public: the case of coral reefs
Universiti Malaya, Malaysian Society of Marine Biology, 9am 23 March

Coral reefs are thought to be the ocean ecosystems most vulnerable to climate change. The consequences for fisheries that feed many hundreds of millions of people are likely to be severe. What are or should be the roles of scientists, educators and the media in exploring the issues? The speaker will offer a perspective from European public policy and media.


BBC Radio 4's Today Programme sounded like it had returned to the days when it was produced by grown up public intellectuals when this morning it featured a cage fight between Tariq Ali and Douglas Murray on what they had heard about Iraq.

Given the gravity of the stuff that happened this was not helpful. But even Tariq Ali doesn't deserve Douglas Murray who - if he continues to insist on the rotten apple theory of Abu Ghraib - could risk comparison with an absurd super-mini charicature of David Irving on the Final Solution (see "flexibility").

Friday, March 17, 2006


"What keeps me going is the strength of people who've lost everything" - Cameron Sinclair, Designing a wish.

Não de qualquer jeito

While President Lula said that Brazil has responded to the future energy challenge by "using clean, renewable, alternative energy sources to an ever-greater extent", Brazil seems to favour increasing fossil-fuel power generation. For example, coal, diesel oil and natural gas-fired thermoelectric plants will supply about two-thirds of the 3,200 megawatts of new electric power which was put out to bidders by the Brazilian government last December. Once built, these plants will emit over 11 m tonnes of CO2 per year - an 11% growth, which is not only bad for the global climate but also for the national economy.

...if Brazil were to implement an aggressive energy efficiency policy it could reduce the growth in power demand by as much as 40%, achieve energy savings of more than $37bn per year, and stabilise its power-sector related CO2 emissions by 2020. This may seem radical, but in 2001, under the threat of power blackouts, Brazilians slashed electricity demand by 20% in a couple of months, without reducing their quality of life.

Giulio Volpi: Soya is not the solution to climate change

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Life, the universe

This afternoon I went to the opening sessions of the First World Forum on Science and Civilization (thanks, James Tansey).

James Martin himself speaking on 21st century challenges was better than I had expected. He’s absorbed the lessons about natural capital (Amory Lovins) and runaway feedbacks (James Lovelock). He alluded to but didn't make a detailed case for (message: " buy TF book") a revolution in human organisation and society necessary to avoid catastrophe, and the possibility of "eco-affluence". One of the points of his I didn’t buy was his suggestion that the likes of Jeffrey Sachs and Hernando de Soto had never been in the shanty towns which present one of the greatest challenges of the next few decades.

Joel Garreau was entertaining and compelling. He suggested that neither the "heaven" nor "hell" scenarios arising from what he saw as an overly techno-deterministic take on the convergent GRIN technologies (genetics, robotics, information, and nano) were adequate. His favoured scenario was "prevail" – and the parable here was the 9/11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvannia. It wasn’t top down actors – the Pentagon or White House – that had prevented this plane crashing into its target, but the sixty or so people who – with their mobile phones – were in under an hour capable coming up with a solution that avoided catastrophe for others but cost them everything. Garreau placed his bet on "human nature" – surprising and unpredictably clever - in the "ultimate final exam" of the 21st century.

In one of the contributions from the floor, John Schellnhuber turned again to the question of how much time we had. There was a maximum of 20 years to avoid dangerous climate change, he said. (I had a quick chance to catch up with Schellnhuber later, talking briefly about drivers and passengers in the earth biogeochemical system)

Martin Rees, chairing, riffed on the larger picture. The notion of cosmological time – how much time this particular universe still had – had expanded many billions of years into the future, while the rate of technical change had accelerated. Perhaps this offered us the prospect of more time than we could ever previously have imagined.

The panelists and some others seemed happy to settle, for the purposes of this discussion at least, on a definition of humans as pattern-seeking, story-telling entities. Hmmm.

Later, John Harris lectured on enhancement, justice and rights. I think the enhancement bit is relatively uninteresting in the sense that it's not too hard once you really think about it (and assuming you think J S Mill makes sense). The really important questions are with regard to justice.

Before Harris’s lecture I went out for a run for an hour or so along the river from where I live (after two days chained to my desk, it was necessary) and experienced a pico-moment of "eco-affluence". The river path closed yesterday for repairs to erosion and after just one day with no people using it there was a heron right there on the path. I ran right by it – a metre or so tall and inexpressibly beautiful.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Implausible deniability

The new argument making the rounds of conservative think tanks, like the National Center for Policy Analysis, and circulating through assorted sympathetic publications goes something like this: Yes, the planet may be warming up, but no one can be sure of why, and, in any case, it doesn’t matter—let’s stop quibbling about the causes of climate change and concentrate on dealing with the consequences. A recent column in the Wall Street Journal laid out the logic as follows: “The problems associated with climate change (whether man-made or natural) are the same old problems of poverty, disease, and natural hazards like floods, storms, and droughts.” Therefore “money spent directly on these problems is a much surer bet than money spent trying to control a climate change process that we don’t understand.” Sounding an eerily similar note, a column published a few days later in the National Review Online stated, “We can do more to help the poor by combating these problems now than we would by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”
The "new" argument Elizabeth Kolbert describes has antedecents in the likes of Bjorn Lomborg who recently rehearsed it yet again in a letter to New Scientist magazine. I've responded to that, but it doesn't look as if NS will publish my reply. So I am attaching it to this post as a comment. Kolbert continues:
The beauty of this argument is its apparent high-mindedness, and this, of course, is also its danger. Carbon dioxide is a persistent gas—it lasts for about a century—and once released into the atmosphere it is, for all practical purposes, irrecoverable. Since every extra increment of CO2 leads to extra warming, addressing the effects of climate change without dealing with the cause is a bit like trying to treat diabetes with doughnuts.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Persian clock

We need a European approach to supporting democracy in Iran is one of Timothy Garton Ash's better recent pieces. He writes:
Two clocks are ticking in Iran: the nuclear clock and the democracy clock. The strategic objective of western policy must be to slow down the nuclear clock and to speed up the democracy clock.
and goes on to make some sensible sounding suggestions of what Europeans could do (enhanced cultural exchanges, a BBC TV channel in Persian etc). But what can we know about how fast are those clocks running?

In Exiles in the 6 March edition of The New Yorker (not archived online at the time of writing), Connie Bruck notes that Israeli intelligence asserts that Iran may be a year away from what it calls "the point of no return", or self-sufficiency, to acquire a nculear bomb. US intelligence sources are said to estimate that Iran is between five and ten years away from having a nuclear weapon.

This seems to imply that the Israelis are likely to push for or carry out strikes against nuclear targets in less than a year, should the climate in Washington prove favourable.

How that climate develops depends in part on who stays on top there. Hendrik Hertzberg (
Veep Doo-doo) thinks Dick Cheney is not likely to step down after congressional elections in November (if he did, though, how long would Elizabeth Cheney outlast him at State?) .

On a lighter note, perhaps the Iranians and the Americans will still be talking in September 2008 (Hooman Majd: Party On?).

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Goodbye, Gordon

Some friends who were close say they were having a good time and reading poetry together four days before his death, and that at the end he was totally out of it. Here's how I remember him in the late '80s when I briefly helped him with some research for a project on J M W Turner.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kevin and the flying toilet

A thundering piece on the right to clean water from "the boy Kev" (Kevin Watkins) in The Guardian today. It would be nice to know that the South African model and the new parternships in Senegal and Manila to which her refers are working as well as he implies, and really do offer a model/replicable kit with which exisiting and future campaigns can build.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Nuke rebuke

The Sustainable Development Commission hits the nail on the head with its report on the disadvantages of nuclear power (long term waste, cost, inflexibility, undermining energy efficiency and international security). Too bad this "independent watchdog" only has rubber teeth.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Oxford, 2 March

"[The evolutionary process is] clumsy, wasteful, blundering and horribly cruel" -- Charles Darwin

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Political panspermia

Methodist Central Hall in London was abuzz earlier today with campaigners appraising Members of Parliament and politicians busily counting future votes.

"Carbon dating" was the idea of Stop Climate Chaos, a coalition of voluntary and campaign groups in Britain that together claim several million members. They pulled off the remarkable trick of getting up to seventy MPs, including some very senior ones, to sit down with them and discuss their demands to establish a carbon budget that cuts UK emissions every year and to keep climate change at the top of the international agenda.

The event was dressed up as a speed dating extravaganza in which the politicians went from table to table, wooing with equal fervour ladies from of a certain age from the Women's Institute and dreadlocked pierce-lipped international development workers.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, exuded fitness. Surely his weirdly dilated pupils did not indicate the application of belladonna beforehand? More ambitious targets needed to be "based on sound science"…by which he meant they had to be technically feasible. His love drug was a second Kyoto-style treaty...with the health warning that nothing could be achieved without lots of new technology. A cross-party consensus and an independent climate commission were central Conservative aims (endorsed by virtually every party at Westminster except…Labour!). Only the most unsympathetic partner would accuse the Conservative Party leader of dishing out bromides at full strength.

Peter Ainsworth, Conservative spokesman on the environment, promised his consorts that his party would soon announce something "very interesting" about cars. Aviation was more of a challenge, but surely, he added, it was crazy that a flight to Malaga should cost only a tenth of what it cost to park at Gatwick airport. On the way out, I asked him what he thought of President Chirac's proposed tax on every airline ticket into France. This too was "a very interesting idea".

But on this correspondent's semi-random sampling of brief encounters around the hall, it was Liberal Democrats among Britain's three big political parties who would be receiving the most roses and chocolate. And, as Bagehot recently noted, it's quite possible the party could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament after the next election.

Norman Baker said that, unequivocally, there had to be a cap on airport expansion. He also suggested that every airline ticket should bear a mark showing how much carbon the passenger was responsible for.

The three candidates for the Lib Dem leadership worked the room in inverse proportion to their chances of success. Ming Campbell kept it short and sweet, while Simon Hughes courted dozens of tables.

Chris Huhne, all panda eyes and bushy fur, concentrated his fire and impressed his amours with a dig at the Labour government's record on green taxes. These had been steadily cut since 1999, he said. But taxing energy consumption was the best way to change behaviour at home and to give a signal internationally. Purrs around the table.

For Labour, Elliot Morley and a galaxy of other lovelies did their level best (an outside vote would go to former Environment Minister Michael Meacher; but he is now a largely solitary Romeo, having been cast into darkness for having spoken off message one too many times).

One concern, Morley said, was that a specific commitment to 3% year on year emission cuts could be unwise "because reality can be more spiky". His sharpest elbow for rival suitors on general calls for consensus. The question was what to actually do: "the detail is everything!" and here, he said, was the Conservative weak point. "They want to abolish the Climate Change Levy". Then he was off – to do important business at the Treasury that could make a difference on climate change, he told activists and Margaret Beckett who happened to be passing on her way to the encounter pictured above (she's the one in grey check with the red scarf and her back to the camera).

As the event drew to a close one could stand back and ask who is wooing who? One veteran journalist muttered "pathetically weak questions! When will the NGOs learn that politicians don't take them seriously?"

Both activists and politicians hope to engage the wider British public and other major players in society. Will these wider constituencies fall for their whiles? One thing that might help Stop Climate Chaos is a more accent on the positive (according to one insider, the name of the coalition, with its negative vibe, was a far from happy compromise).

Can SCC convince people that climate friendly policies will create a brighter future and better or different jobs and ways of living,? (According to another rumour, negotiations are underway for one of the big unions to join the coalition)

Sceptics would say that while the Confederation of British Industry and other major players in the economy will remain outside this tent putting their lovely appendages to a different use, participants are unlikely to get beyond first base.

But hope springs eternal. In the this very hall, sixty years and one month ago, the first General Assembly of the United Nations took place. If cooperation and the cosmpolitian spirit are the only thing that can save the humanity in the 21st century, then this coalition may yet beget progeny.

(openDemocracy version of this post here. John Vidal in The Guardian here)


"World is crazier and more of it than we think, Incorrigibly plural" -- Louis MacNeice

Risk society

According to James Annan the chance of climate sensitivity exceeding 4.5C is less than 5%.

Dave Stainforth says "even if there's just a half per cent chance of destruction of society, I would class that as a very big risk."

Go read (as they say): Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change.

Ulrich Beck says "[cosmopolitanism] just might make the improbable possible, namely the survival of humanity beyond the 21st century without a lapse back into barbarism."