Friday, August 31, 2007

Hungry generations

To keep up with the growth in human population, more food will have to be produced worldwide over the next 50 years than has been during the past 10,000 years combined...

"If we can improve agricultural practices across the board we can dramatically increase our food production from existing lands, without having to clear more or put more pressure on soils. Simple things like good crop rotation, sowing at the right time of year, basic weed control, are what is needed. They're very well known but not always used."
-- from Global food crisis looms as climate change and population growth strip fertile land, a report from the International Forum on Soils, Society and Global Change.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Copenhagen con

Eban Goodstein reviews Bjørn Lomborg's new book here.

LibDems save planet, or not

It looks as if there may is some quite bold and interesting stuff in Zero Carbon Britain: taking a global lead, a document put out yesterday by the Liberal Democrats (whose standing in the polls appears to be declining fast).

I haven't read it in full yet. Among things I will want to understand better are:

1. the implications of paragraph 2.1.5, which says:
In the short term, Liberal Democrats would seek to develop a post-2012 framework that allows different countries to participate according to their national circumstances through a ‘multi-stage’ approach. Each country would work towards the 2°C pathway, but the stringency of their commitments will depend on their economic, developmental and environmental circumstances. Industrialised country emissions would be allocated on a per capita basis, whereas developing countries will take on emission limitation targets or intensity targets or no commitments at all, depending on their level of development.
How do they know what the "2°C pathway" is and are they sure it is the right thing to look at (in the light of uncertainty around, e.g., tipping points?). [see footnote A]

If there still is a credible case for saying that there is such a thing as a "2°C pathway", can it be achieved without., e.g., a reduction in Chinese emissions in the "short term", and if so how?

2. the implications of paragraph 2.1.6, which says:
In the medium term, Liberal Democrats would seek an equitable allocation between countries of carbon emissions, with rights to emit allocated on a per capita basis.
What do they mean by "the medium term?"

Footnote A: See, for example, criticism of the 'naive realism' of this approach from David Stainforth et al as reported by Fred Pearce in New Scientist on 14 August, or my note on the Stainforth paper and its implications in The day after back on 8 July.

[P.S. 30 August: see Is a zero-carbon Britain possible? by Leo Hickman.]

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Qualities of the Isles

A review of The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

As Robert Macfarlane tells it, in 1977 a nineteen-year-old Glaswegian named Robert Brown was arrested for a murder he had not committed. Brown had a confession beaten out of him by the police and spent 25 years in prison before his conviction was overturned.
When he was released, one of the first things he did was to go to the shore of Loch Lomond and sit on a boulder on the loch’s southern shore in sunlight, to feel, as he put it, ‘the wind on my face, and to see the waves and the mountains’. Brown had been out on the loch shore the day before he was arrested. The recollection of the space, that place, which he had not seen for a quarter of a century, had nourished him during his imprisonment. He had kept a memory of it, he recalled, afterwards, ‘in a secret compartment’ in his head'.
The Wild Places is Macfarlane’s own story of discovery, liberation, loss and return. It recounts his travels around the British-Irish archipelago in search of places with the kind of qualities that made the shore of Lomond resonate for Brown. Macfarlane wants to know if ‘wildness’ still exists in this "tidy garden of a toy realm" (as the American writer William Least-Heat Moon described Britain).

In keeping with the pilgrimage tradition, The Wild Places is both an outer and an inner journey. The outer journey takes him to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) off the coast of North Wales, the Coruisk basin on Skye, Rannoch Moor, Strathnaver broch, Cape Wrath and Ben Hope in the Scottish Highlands, The Burren in Galway, Red Pike in the Lake District, holloways in Dorset, Orford Ness in Suffolk, and the ‘Tor of the Snow Hares’ in the Peak District. The account is rendered in prose of precision and delight. So, at Strathnaver:
Down on the shore, I found the limb of pale dry driftwood, rubbed by the sea back to its grain lines. I saw tracks of an otter…pressed into the wet sand as cleanly as a pastry cut with a forwards fling of sand from the tip of each sharp toe-mark, showing that it had been moving at speed. I came across a set of animal bones, scattered in a rune I could not read. I picked up other things, carried them back to the broch, and laid them on its floor. A worn black stone, two inches long, shaped roughly like a seal; basalt, I guessed. A little rhomboid stone, whose grey and white strata recalled the grain of the driftwood and the sand terrace. A hank of dried seaweed. A wing feather from a buzzard, tawny and cream, barred with five dark diagonals. When I teased two vanes apart, they unzipped with a soft tearing noise. I arranged the objects into lines and patterns, changed their order.
Macfarlane believes that for the early medieval monks who left records of their time on Enlli and other islands "attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship. The art they left behind them is among the earliest testimony to a human love of the wild." And part of Macfarlane’s aspiration, perhaps, is to develop that tradition in this new millennium: wilderness writing as a form of prayer for the less deceived.

Macfarlane’s prose – like Macfarlane the man, who jumps unhesitatingly and repeatedly into freezing mountain streams and the cold seas around these rocky shores, and sleeps on icy mountaintops without a tent – burns with gentle joy and playfulness. Like W. H. Murray, one of the heroes in this book, Macfarlane has "shed any reticence about feeling for beauty". But a lack of reticence does not mean he is flailing around. The writing is deft and disciplined, like the strokes of a great water-colourist. The delight is child-like but not, in the derogatory sense of that term, childish.

The inner journey in The Wild Places is towards a more refined and subtle apprehension of what wildness means and does. And here Macfarlane draws on the work of dozens of writers, artists, naturalists, tinkerers and others who have so enriched the capacity to experience. As readers of his series of essays for The Guardian newspaper on the relationship between writers and the landscape will know, Macfarlane has read widely and deeply, and he has a great talent for communicating the essence of their work. This account includes familiar names (in Coleridge’s account, for example, wildness is "an energy which blows through one’s being, causing the self to shift into new patterns, opening up alternative perceptions of life"); but it also includes many who are less well known such as John Sell Cotman, Richard Jeffries, Stephen Graham, Ralph Bagnold and John Baker. The Wild Places would be worth reading for its bibliography alone.

Macfarlane is intensely literary. His day job, after all, is teaching English literature at Cambridge University. But his sensibility is more than ‘merely’ literary or artistic. He is at ease with science and understands the beauty in dispassionate description of physical, chemical and biological phenomena: the ‘poetry of reality’ (in Richard Dawkins's phrase) that can open new doors of perception. [I noticed very few errors: the correct term for glowing marine organisms is ‘bioluminescence’, a process in which light is generated by an enzyme-catalyzed chemiluminescent reaction; ‘phosphorescence’, by contrast, is a process in which energy absorbed by a substance is released relatively slowly in the form of light].

His scientific sensibility helps to make possible, among other things, a brilliant account of night walking (previously extracted in a 2005 edition of Granta), and insight into the extraordinary work of the Vaughan Cornish, who spent decades studying wave forms. Macfarlane takes greater pleasure dancing on the ledge of existence in sunlight partly because he meditates on the millions of miles of space each photon has crossed.

For all its wide reach, The Wild Places adheres to standard story-telling conventions. It has a beginning, middle and end: a dear friend is lost, but new hope is found, and a lesson is learnt. Searching for the essence of wilderness atop Ben Hope – "there could be, I thought, no other place in Britain and Ireland where you could better feel and sense of [what Wallace Stegner called] a 'bigness outside oneself' " – Macfarlane has a surprising and for him unpleasant revelation. "This place", he writes, "refused any imputation of meaning". Maybe it was just too darn cold. Guided by his friend Roger Deakin, MacFarlane finds a new deeper sense of wildness that takes account of the miniature as much as the huge, the present moment as much as deep time of fire and ice, and the process of life in a "constant and fecund present":
There [is] as much to be learned in an acre of woodland on a city’s fringe as on the shattered summit of Ben Hope: this was what Roger had taught me – and what my daughter did not yet need to be taught. It was something most people forgot as they grew into adults’.
Macfarlane’s conclusion, then, concerns taking heed and care of what is the nearest, in place and time, now and in England – or Scotland, Wales or Ireland, and extending access for all. It’s a conclusion that might please as unlike a sensibility as Bill Bryson in his role as president of the CPRE . For modern Britons, it would seem, as for the Koyukon of Northwest Alaska, "a person moving through nature, however wild, remote…is never truly alone" (in the words of the anthropologist Richard Nelson). The garden and the wilderness are one, and perhaps we can recover something of what was lost in the catastrophes such as the Highland Clearances:
Wood was central to [the] pre-Clearance culture [of the island of Raasay]. The surprisingly extensive forests of the island were worked by its inhabitants. Their boats were made of oak and pine, with oars and rudders of ash. Hawthorn and holly were used for hedging. Houses were made with beams of oak and that supports of hazel. Baskets were woven of willow, and bowls were turned out of elder, and then polished up until the hoped patterns of grain could be seen in the wood. Life demanded the indefinite flourishing of the trees, and so the woods were worked and sustained. But when the people were cleared, the grazing of the sheep that took their place repressed the woods and prevented their regeneration. The woods departed as the people had departed before them.
I think The Wild Places is a great achievement. I also think there are matters on the margins of its scope that require further consideration. As Macfarlane knows well and writes in the book, we live in the shadow of changes and threats, including but not limited to global warming which may destroy much, before his life ends, including the beloved local beech wood where he starts and ends this journey.

In broad terms one can hazard that, in the West at least, the idea of ‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’ as attractive, largely positive qualities developed from the eighteenth century onwards during an era of unprecedented urbanisation and industrialisation, and in reaction to those developments. It took in ‘The Sublime’, the Romantic poets, Sturm und Drang, Henry Thoreau, John Muir & co. But dark shadows never disappeared: throughout these years associations of ‘wildness’ and ‘wild’ jumped and switched from ‘joy’ and ‘life' to ‘darkness’ and ‘destruction’ and back again, almost as light and darkness shift on the bonnet of a car racing beneath trees in sunlight. The Erlkönig is never far away. Mistah Kurtz, he live.

Andrew Motion gently criticizes Macfarlane for not acknowledging W G Sebald, one of the darkest of recent literary pilgrims on these shores (who found some of the deepest resonances in another Browne). This is not quite fair. Sebald is included in the bibliography of The Wild Places. Comparing their extraordinary but very different accounts of Orford Ness, I am tempted to call Macfarlane Tigger to Sebald’s Eyore. This may get a quick laugh, but it’s not quite fair either. Though his tread may not go as far, darkness, and horror, float in the corners of Macfarlane’s vision too, down to bells for Remembrance Sunday heard from his 'tor of the snow hares'. Three quarters of a million young men in the Third Battle of Ypres. 90,000 bodies were lost in the mud alone. Try that for resonance.

Some conservationists say we have already experienced the End of the Wild, and we need to learn to live with the consequences. Whether this is a true statement or a useful one is open to question. And whatever the answer there may be even bigger and more ambiguous challenges ahead. Freeman Dyson, for example, says that after two to three billion years "the Darwinian interlude is over". If this is true, can 'wild' and 'nature' ever be meaningful categories again?

[We might also fruitfully turn our attention the deep future, as well as the deep past which Richard Feynman so presciently recommended to poets some decades ago. In The Life and Death of Planet Earth, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee say the collapse of plant life on Earth is inevitable and will happen some hundreds of millions of years hence as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations take an irreversible plunge. But all is not lost ... at least until the seas vaporise and the planet finally cooks! There is likely to be, say Ward and Brownlee, a period of a hundred million years or so with no plants, but with animals. It will be "a world astoundingly different from our own, a pace where fungi, algae and bacteria form the base of the food chain, and where animals have reorganized into trophic guilds and communities completely foreign to us. This is a world as yet never envisioned by any form of popular culture, and yet it will be reality on Earth for many millions of years". How's that for wild? I was not drinking when I wrote this.]

Kelvin Kelly, a noted writer on technology and the future, thinks the most difficult human assignment is to know what it is that we want: "the problem is that we don’t know who we are".

It’s a problem some ancient Greeks would recognise. Perhaps, armed with the wisdom and joy found in books such as The Wild Places, and with renewed energy to live or relive our own experiences in the ‘wild’ of these islands, a rock picked up on a beach may become a philospher's stone - something to cradle in the hand and then throw into the sea so that it skips across the waves before it sinks to the sea bed.

Disclosure: Caspar Henderson is acquainted with Robert Macfarlane, and is listed in the acknowledgements of The Wild Places.

'The Lobby'

Taming the influence of lobbies, if that is what Mearsheimer and Walt desire, is a matter of reforming the lobbying and campaign-finance laws. But that is clearly not the source of the hysteria surrounding their arguments. “The Israel Lobby” is a phenomenon of its moment. The duplicitous and manipulative arguments for invading Iraq put forward by the Bush Administration, the general inability of the press to upend those duplicities, the triumphalist illusions, the miserable performance of the military strategists, the arrogance of the Pentagon, the stifling of dissent within the military and the government, the moral disaster of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the rise of an intractable civil war, and now an incapacity to deal with the singular winner of the war, Iran—all of this has left Americans furious and demanding explanations. Mearsheimer and Walt provide one: the Israel lobby. In this respect, their account is not so much a diagnosis of our polarized era as a symptom of it.
-- from The Lobby by David Remnick

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Now, and in England

The scale of the abuse has horrified the officers and other agencies working with them, who have found women being forced to work in the sex trade in houses in villages as well as city centres, being unable to go out and having sex with up to 60 men a day, earning thousands of pounds for the gangs.
-- from Trafficked women auctioned in pubs and locked up in brothels.


Working in England this week while my four month old daughter and her mother are in Spain, I am, newly, unaccustomed to being alone. But animals fill my imagination as I work on the Book of Barely Imagined Beings. And animal presences grace the air and water around me too.

Early yesterday morning I startled a large heron in the golden light down by the river. It took flight and came to rest on a middle branch of a giant, green-glowing ash tree on the opposite bank. And, as I looked, a fox trotted noiselessly under the ash. Today I was startled by a loud rattle and thud in my office and turned to see an astonishingly, other-wordly large dragonfly bouncing against the walls and skylights. For a moment I thought of the ancient dragonfly-like Meganeurid, the largest flying insect that ever lived, which had a wingspan of nearly three feet. The dragonfly in my office was about five inches across but that is big enough!

The diversity with which dragonflies are regarded in different cultures is also astonishing. In much of European folklore they are seen as malevolent. In one Swedish story, for example, the devil uses dragonflies to weigh people's souls; in another, trolls use dragonflies as spindles when weaving their clothes. In Japan, by contrast, dragonflies are symbols of courage, strength, and happiness.

My office room has three skylights and two windows. All of them were closed. Each of these would attract a bee, wasp or fly that could indefinitely hurl themselves against the glass. But in less than ten seconds the dragonfly flew out the open doorway into the light. This suggests that dragonflies have better vision than some other flying insects. I read that they have close to 360° field vision from their 30,000 eyes. Now what must that be like?

Pollution in China

...Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China's leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water. Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only 1 percent of the country's 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Beijing is frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics...

...At least two leading environmental organizers have been prosecuted in recent weeks, and several others have received sharp warnings to tone down their criticism of local officials. One reason the authorities have cited: the need for social stability before the 2008 Olympics, once viewed as an opportunity for China to improve the environment.
-- from As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes (plus full feature package here).

Saturday, August 25, 2007

This happy breed of men

News that a quarter of UK babies are born to foreign parents has caused a stir. Robert Winder gives a positive spin (Brazil but for the sunshine), and makes some good points. But he skirts a widespread anxiety which is that a new indentity, discontinuous with and hostile to the history of these islands has implanted itself and is growing fast. As Robert Colls wrote (English Journeys), "You have to wonder how much...all the way down hatred and alienation [of the kind expressed by the four London underground bombers of 7/7] exists in our country".

My hunch is that many people fear a new 'nation' is taking route in the UK alongside the three or four of the last thousand to fifteen hundred years or so, a beachhead of the 'Ummah' that threatens the others: a variant on the 'rivers of blood' theme.

The idea may be quite wrong (life, identity and the reasons for conflict are more complicated, including for the reason that Britain may be quite like Sarkozy's France, where a poll last year showed that almost as many French Muslims think of themselves as French first and Muslim second as think of themselves as Muslims first and French second). But it is there.

Among the key points to bear in mind, though, is that any idea of Britain/England/Scotland/Wales etc worth the name that people want to protect is a construct that takes constant work, vigilance and renewal. In The Progressive Patriot, Billy Bragg asks, "how do newcomers fit into our island story? Is there room in this concept of Britishness for those whose ancestors were not here when Magna Carta was written or the Bill of Rights passed?". He also points out that he was the first in his family line to have been born in a time of universal suffrage. "When my grandfather was called up to join the 28th Middlesex Regiment in November 1915, he and millions like him did not have the right to vote".

[P.S. Both I and my daughter had one parent born abroad.]

Friday, August 24, 2007

Storm on the bayou

Real Climate's 'Friday roundup' points to this report about Katrina and its aftermath from NWF.

And Darryl Malek-Wiley of Sierra Club Louisiana Environmental Justice writes to point to this account by Rebecca Solnit of the struggles.

I will long remember good times with Darryl and other fine folk in Louisiana: brave battlers for justice and dignity: kind kind people who made me welcome and did good work that impressed the hell out me.

Cry havoc

Scott Horton thinks the next war draws nearer. See also Fox attacks Iran.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hope or death

The birth of a gorilla in the 'wild' is celebrated. Are we looking at a hope for the future or a ghost from the past?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

'Mistaken rhetoric of environmentalism'

'No Impact Man' captures an important point in this post.

Climate change, party politics, dialectics

[the climate camp movement] is not new. [...] it builds on the movements of the 1990s - Reclaim the Streets, Earth First!, Rising Tide; yet these were built on the movements of the 80s, such as the Greenham women; who grew out of direct action against nuclear power in the 70s; which drew upon the peace movement and Committee of 100 in the 50s and 60s; who drew upon the squatters of the 1940s; and so it goes back to the suffragettes and beyond. It's all about building capacity for social movements to succeed and it is obvious that the camp has built capacity, with a vengeance...

Grassroots movements make history, but political parties can combine with them as a necessary part of the process to get the policy changes we need
-- Derek Wall, Principal speaker of the Green Party (UK) in a letter to The Guardian.

[I was one of the approximately one and a half million people on a flight to or from the rapidly expanding Heathrow during the week of the camp.]

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hobbes, Rouseau, God and car bombs

Europe’s rapid secularization is historically unique and...relatively recent. Political theology is highly adaptive and can present to even educated minds a more compelling vision of the future than the prospect of secular modernity. It takes as little for a highly trained medical doctor to fashion a car bomb today as it took for advanced thinkers to fashion biblically inspired justifications of fascist and communist totalitarianism in Weimar Germany. When the urge to connect is strong, passions are high and fantasies are vivid, the trinkets of our modern lives are impotent amulets against political intoxication.

...We [progressive secularists] have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men.
-- from an interesting but somehow unsatisfactory analysis under the title The Politics of God by Mark Lilla.

Tipping points, properly defined

Thanks to RealClimate for highlighting Tim Lenton's useful Tipping points in the Earth system.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


WASHINGTON, DC According to an EPA study conducted in conjunction with the U.N. Task Force On Global Developmental Impact, consumer-product diversity now exceeds biodiversity...For the first time in history, the rich array of consumer products available in malls and supermarkets surpasses the number of living species populating the planet.
-- from The Onion.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Biofuels and afforestation

In all cases, forestation of an equivalent area of land would sequester two to nine times more carbon over a 30-year period than the emissions avoided by the use of the biofuel. Taking this opportunity cost into account, the emissions cost of liquid biofuels exceeds that of fossil fuels.
-- from Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests? by Renton Righelato and Dominick V. Spracklen (Science, 17 August 2007).

A correction

The deceit behind the attempts to discredit evidence of climate change reveals matters of importance. This deceit has a clear purpose: to confuse the public about the status of knowledge of global climate change, thus delaying effective action to mitigate climate change. The danger is that delay will cause tipping points to be passed, such that large climate impacts become inevitable, including the loss of all Arctic sea ice, destabilization of the West Antarctic ice sheet with disastrous sea level rise later this century, and extermination of a large fraction of animal and plant species...Make no doubt, however, if tipping points are passed, if we, in effect, destroy Creation, passing on to our children, grandchildren, and the unborn a situation out of their control, the contrarians who work to deny and confuse will not be the principal culprits.
-- from James Hansen The Real Deal: Usufruct and the Gorilla

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Et super hanc petroleum

I was, predictably, criticised as being too simplistic when I joined those who said early in 2003 that the forthcoming invasion of Iraq was "about oil". Well, read Kevin Phillips on American Petrocracy.

[P.S. Michael Klare on the era of Tough Oil.]

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

¿Qué hay que hacer más?

Television footage showed an emergency room in Dohuk overwhelmed with patients. A nurse wiped blood from the face of a young boy, who cried in pain, while another wound bandages around the head and arms of an infant who showed signs of severe bruising around the eyes.
-- from Search goes on as Iraq death toll tops 250.
Yazidis believe that good and evil both exist in the mind and spirit of human beings. It depends on the humans, themselves, which one they choose. In this process, their devotion to Melek Ta’us is essential, since it was he who was given the same choice between good and evil by God, and chose the good.
-- from Wikipedia.

Just in case this was forgotten again

Two years ago the Pew Research Centre analysed the sources of popular support for terrorism across a sample of six Muslim countries. It found little connection with poverty and a surprisingly small one with Islamic fundamentalism. By far the strongest correlation was with those who felt that America opposed democracy in their country. Contrary to common myth, al-Qaida thrives not because Muslims hate our values, but because we are seen to have been false to them.
-- David Clark.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dying quietly

In 2005, only a fifth of deaths attributable to "illnesses of affluence" (chronic conditions) actually took place in the most affluent nations. Three quarters happened in poor or middle income ones.
-- from The poor world is getting the rich world's diseases, The Economist, 11 August

Monday, August 13, 2007

and the winners are

Estimated number of U.S.-(taxpayer)-paid private contractors in Iraq: More than 180,000.

Effect of Iraq War spending on the profits of major weapons corporations: Northrop Grumman has just announced a 15% second-quarter increase in sales over 2006 for its information and services division, 7% for its electronics division; General Dynamics' combat systems unit just recorded a 19% rise in sales. Lockheed Martin's profits went up 34% to $778 million.
-- from All-time highs in Iraq (see also Afghanistan and Iraq boost BAE profits)


The UN says some 400,000 people have fled the violence in Mogadishu in the past four months.
-- War crimes 'rampant' in Somalia

Delusion, cowardice...

Some of the language in comments reacting to the Guardian article Revealed: cover-up plan on energy target and editorial is intemperate. But the main point is right: Britain needs an energy policy worth the name, including both a feed-in tarriff (or similar) for renewables and an array of structures and regulation for demand management.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


I suggested that the plight of the Palestinian workers is similar to that of battery chickens. No one likes to think of the conditions battery chickens are forced to live in; instead they prefer not to dwell on the issue at all, so long as they get their cheap meat (or cheap labour, in this case). Ruti agreed, saying "Israelis just don't want to know what goes on, they don't want to see themselves as the bad guys. People need to feel good, so they simply close their eyes to reality."

-- Seth Freedman.

P.S. 15 August: Palestinian state would endanger US, warns Giuliani.

Apes, spite and sympathy

I was dubious about reports of research said to show that 'spite is a uniquely human emotion'. But I haven't really thought my doubts through. It looks as if Neil Fairweather articulates one quite well in a letter to New Scientist:
Chimpanzees are incapable of spite, it seems...but researchers are having difficulty reconciling this with the idea that chimps do exhibit altruism. I suggest a simple explanation: spite is not the "evil twin that cannot be separated" from altruism, as researcher Keith Jensen puts it. Altruism is the tendency to do things that benefit others, at your own expense. Its opposite is miserliness. Spite is the tendency to attempt to harm those who have benefited in your stead. Surely its opposite is the tendency to attempt to help those who have suffered while you have gained. Is this not sympathy? If chimps show sympathy towards individuals who have been deprived for their benefit, but not spite towards those who have benefited from their loss, then there might be some explaining to do.
[For textbook nastyness, see reports of mass "execution" of gorillas in Congo.]

Pakistan: not a circle but a spiral

M Ilyas Khan 's commentary Pakistan's circular history is clear, concise and useful. But it omits at least one key factor. While Pakistani politics may have in some senses been going round in a circle, demographic, economic and environmental factors have not. So, for example, the population of what is now Pakistan (and in 1947 was Western Pakistan) has grown from about 30 to 35 million at independence to about 165 to 170 million today. Mobile phone use has exploded in the last five years or so. Such changes have the potential to rupture an apparently circular cycle of behaviour.

Friday, August 10, 2007

'Heretical thoughts'

To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by a hundredth of an inch per year. Good topsoil contains about ten percent a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch of topsoil. Changes in farming practices such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots which stay in the soil, and less returns to the atmosphere. If we use genetic engineering to put more biomass into roots, we can probably achieve much more rapid growth of topsoil. I conclude from this calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meteorology. No computer model of atmosphere and ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land.
-- from Heretical thoughts about science and society by Freeman Dyson

[see also Artificial soil: quick and dirty]

[P.S. 14 August: Alun Anderson responds to Dyson here].

Warmer still?

...until now, [most] climate forecasters who worry about what greenhouse gases could be doing to climate...looked 100 years ahead, far enough so that they could safely ignore what's happening now. No more. In [ Improved Surface Temperature Prediction for the Coming Decade from a Global Climate Model], researchers take their first stab at forecasting climate a decade ahead with current conditions in mind. The result is a bit disquieting. Natural climate variability driven by the ocean appears to have held greenhouse warming at bay the past few years, but the warming, according to the forecast, should come roaring back before the end of the decade.
--from news report Humans and Nature Duel Over the Next Decade's Climate (Science, 10 August 2007). See also Ten-year climate model unveiled.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


"Everything is broken, and there is total movement." -- Miren Eguiguren, a social worker in Caracas, as quoted by Ivan Bricoe in Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?

Stalking horse

In a foreward to Europe’s Dirty Secret: Why the EU Emissions Trading Scheme isn’t working by Open Europe Max Andersson, a Green Party Member of the Swedish Parliament, the paper argues that
far from creating a credible basis for EU level action on climate change, the ETS has instead established a web of politically powerful vested interest groups, massive economic distortions and covert industrial subsidies... action (whether through the EU or on a larger scale) should focus on setting tough and enforecable national targets for greenhouse gas reduction, but should leave decisions on how to reach those binding targets to individual countries. This would give national governments the flexibility to explore alternatives to emissions trading - most notably green taxes as part of their strategy for combating climate change.
Some criticisms of the shortcomings of the ETS are well taken (and have been previously highlighted elsewhere -- see, for example, ETS 'scandal'). The case for carbon taxes and (hence) a more predictable future price for carbon is gaining increasing support.

But there is at least one flaw in Open Europe's argument. Namely, "politically powerful vested interest groups, massive economic distortions and covert industrial subsidies" are as likely to manipulate national jurisdictions as supranational ones such as the EU. Clearly this is something they have been able to do in the past.

A trading system such as the ETS needs reform (including of the amount of credit that can be purchased outside Europe) rather than abolition. Perhaps that reform can come in combination with carbon taxes as one of the first steps in a long journey from 2008. The key issues is political will.

[P.S. 10 August. A friend writes: "the ETS [is] in trouble as phase one didn't change behaviour much; much will hinge on phase II but I think the data systems are up now so the Commission should be able to set [National Allocation Plans] much more accurately which was the main problem which allowed 'politics' to overwhelm things."]

Japanese robot dance

Storm in New York

Interesting to read about the impact of yesterday's sudden storm on the New York transport system. In the early '90s my boss Crispin Tickell used to say say that a big hurricane in New York might be just what was needed to convince the Americans to get truly serious about climate change. Storms like this one could be a nudge in that direction, in the context of attitudes changing more widely.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The wild

"Our culture has been raised against the wild but in its own unlikely way, the snake finds a gap and slithers through". -- Paul Evans on Wenlock Edge

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


In the Grandpont area of Oxford where I live we were concerned a couple of weeks ago about flooding after what may have been the the heaviest rains in a 24 hour period recorded in Britain. In the event we remained above the flood water. And, of course, our concerns seem ridiculously, even grotesquely petty and selfish compared to what is happening to some people in Bihar and other parts of South Asia. I heard one item on the radio last night which featured a grandmother and her family of nine somewhere in Bangladesh stranded on the roof of their hourse for the last five days with only a few kilos of rice.

[P.S. 9 August: Surviving on snails and rats in Bihar; 10 August: Extreme Floods Hit 500 Million People a Year - UN]

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Taliban failure?

NATO officials categorize the Taliban into two types of fighters. Tier one, as they are called, are hardened, ideologically driven men who have come back to fight from their rear base in Pakistan. Tier two fighters are local men who may join the war for a variety of reasons — economic, tribal or religious.

“The biggest change from last year to this year is there has been no tier two mobilization,” [Lt. Col. Stuart Carver, who commands the Battle Group North, ] said. “They have tried,” he said of the Taliban.
-- from Carlotta Gall's article British Make Initial Gains Against Taliban, which gives the impression that the British approach in Helmand is working.

See too this account from Sangin by Mark Townsend.

And see the view from Rory Stewart (extracted and linked at Kabul no bull).

[P.S. 9 August: British Criticize Air [U.S.] Attacks in Afghan Region]

Friday, August 03, 2007

U.S. climate policy basics

James Hansen has framed a Declaration of stewardship for U.S. political candidates. It calls for a moratorium on 'dirty coal', a 'fair' and gradually rising price on carbon emissions, and incentives for energy efficiency and conservation.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Anthropologists and mercenaries

Matthew D'Ancona picks up on the likes of David Kilcullen as part of a bright new hope in the Brown era. For greater detail and insight into Kilcullen's thinking see George Packer's article last December, Knowing the enemy (not at time of writing linked on Kilcullen's wikipedia page). For example:
Just before the 2004 American elections, Kilcullen was doing intelligence work for the Australian government, sifting through Osama bin Laden's public statements, including transcripts of a video that offered a list of grievances against America: Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, global warming. The last item brought Kilcullen up short. "I thought, Hang on! What kind of jihadist are you?" he recalled. The odd inclusion of environmentalist rhetoric, he said, made clear that "this wasn't a list of genuine grievances. This was an Al Qaeda information strategy."
This is useful stuff, but what keep in mind, too, some economic drivers for war for profit's sake:
In the case of Iraq, ...the US and UK governments could give the public the false impression that the occupation was being scaled down, while in reality it was simply being privatised.

Forest follies

In an article on Chinadialogue, Xinzhou Song of describes some of the dangers of monocropping:
In the late 1950s, problems arose with the [man-made] Feibo forest reserve in Sichuan, which consisted of Burma Pines. The forest floor was covered with a thick layer of pine needles, which produced no compost and supported no organisms in the soil. Animals and other plants found it hard to survive in such an environment, leaving the forest floor dry and prone to regular forest fires. The soil was also eroded by rain.

Another forest, this time in Heilongjiang and consisting of larches, fell victim to an infestation of pine caterpillars in 2002. A railway operated by the Qiqihar Railway Bureau ran through the forest, and on June 1, several kilometres of the track were covered by a layer of caterpillars two to three inches thick. Passing trains mashed the larvae into a pulp that covered the tracks and stopped the trains...

...Of the more than 400,000 Chinese pines planted in Qingjian County, northern Shaanxi, only about 100 trees remain. The locals call them the “bandits of the hills”. In 2000, the city of Wuhai in Inner Mongolia decided to plant cypresses on 270 square metres of sand dunes. The result? The cypress trees died, and the sand dunes, which had been confined to one area, started to spread.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


This morning I asked Hossein Derakhshan what his take was on a BBC report Death verdicts for Iran reporters. He replied this evening with a link to his new post Journalists or active members of armed separatist group.

Trobriand CC

Imagine it. Ricky Ponting is caught at square leg. The England team, all 57 of them, in war paint, feathers, flowers, some with spears, taunt the Australian captain as he begins the lonely trudge back to the pavilion. They surround him, humiliating him as he walks by, doing the octopus dance, waving their right hands in the air, to remind him that he has been caught. "The octopus is very sticky," they chant. "The ball sticks in my hand! In my hand! In my hand!" A mighty roar of approval goes up from the ecstatic Lords crowd, most of whom are topless ladies. See? Now that's what I call cricket.
-- from Sam Wollaston's review of an episode of Last Man Standing.