Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Climate change, imagination and culture, part 1


This is the first part of an essay based on a talk given on 22 Oct in the series The Cultures of Climate Change at CRASSH in Cambridge (footnote 1)

Unlike the film from which my title borrows a line, I cannot promise to “hold the world spellbound with new and startling powers from another planet” (2). But I will try to keep you amused for forty minutes or so, and float some ideas to help get a discussion going.

Let me preface my comments on climate change and culture by saying that my view – not original to me of course, and quite widely shared – is that manmade global warming is very likely a matter of first order urgency, a planetary emergency (3). As the alien says in The Day the Earth Stood Still, “If you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to just a burned out cinder.”

My talk is in three parts. First, a challenge to what I understand to be an assumption framing this series. Second, a look at three examples that I think say interesting things about climate change and ‘culture’ in broad and narrow senses of that term. Third, some questions provoked by a recent protest involving venerated cultural objects which many people thought was beyond the bounds of cultural and political acceptability.


OK, first the challenge. Here’s a quote from the framing introduction to this series on The Cultures of Climate Change (4):
There is a conspicuous absence: with only a few exceptions, the artistic, literary and critical communities have so far been quiet on the issue [of climate change].
A similar observation was made by Bill McKibben in his contribution to the spring 2005 British Council/openDemocracy debate on the politics of climate change (5). He wrote:
…oddly, though we know about it [climate change], we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?
McKibben is persuasive but is he right? Whatever the situation in 2005, things have changed substantially in the two and half years since he wrote that. There has been a substantial amount of interesting and useful work from these artistic, literary and critical communities – at least in the English-speaking countries that are the focus of my talk (and I acknowledge that this focus is parochial).

‘Culture’ is one of the most complicated words in the language. I won’t try to define it (6), but I will say that influential cultural productions and (not necessarily the same thing) ‘high’ culture – the artistic, literary and critical spheres which I understand to be our topic for today – exist in a broader continuum, not least popular/commodity culture, the media, and – even – ‘DIY culture’ (7). Where do you stop when talking about culture? Internet venues like YouTube offer a platform for individual creativity/agitprop (8). I won’t try to cover popular music in this talk.

But we shouldn’t forget our political and media/current affairs ‘culture’ – especially when it comes to such a highly politicised issues as climate change. In this regard you can get the feeling sometimes that, in Britain at least, climate change has ‘jumped the shark’. As has been said, “one sign of how far the debate has moved on is that politicians now use ‘climate change’ as a benchmark for establishing the seriousness of other issues. When the Health Secretary Alan Johnson spoke about obesity [last] week he said the threat was a ‘potential crisis on the scale of climate change’” (9).

[Seriousness, yes, but also trivialisation: climate change is the new black is the new rock’n’roll is the new stand-up is the new …]

Popular/commodity-culture products exploiting climate change are several years old. Examples include: The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a commercially successful but pretty clunky Hollywood blockbuster with major flaws in its presentation of the science (reportedly, it left viewers on average more sceptical about the issues than they had been before (10)); State of Fear (also 2004), a pernicious mindfuck; and Crimes of the Hot (2002/03), an episode in the Futurama series from the creators of The Simpsons featuring a satire on geo-engineering in a world ruled by the cryogenically preserved head of Richard Nixon. And there are any number of less known, would-be airport paperbacks out there focussing on climate change (11).

Moving ‘up-market’ (12), there are abundant references and representations in recent works of in photography and the visual arts that would probably be defined by their creators and critics as ‘serious’ work. Exhibitions and books such as Gary Braasch’s World View of Global Warming(1997? – 2007) and NorthSouthEastWest(2004) have been seen quite widely displayed. One fairly well-known focus for inspiration in Britain has been the Cape Farewell series of expeditions taking painters, sculptors, writers and others to the Arctic over the past four or five years(13). [Incidentally, one the organisers of this series asked me what it was like on a Cape Farewell trip. (I went in 2003). I told him there was a lot of getting sea sick and a lot of drinking. That is an accurate but incomplete description. I forgot to say: there was a lot of getting cold. (14)]

Another recent example is Mark Edwards’s Hard Rain (2007), a book and photographic exhibition partly inspired Bob Dylan’s 1963 song. This includes an explicit focus on anthropogenic climate change, alongside various forms of cruel destruction by and of humans. I happened to see the exhibition just a few days ago in the Botanic Gardens in Oxford where it is installed right next to The National Collection of Hardy Euphorbias. You can’t get much closer to a touchstone of the culture-heritage complex in this country than that!

And in Britain we have now had at least two works describing themselves as operas or oratorios about climate change (15).

Some well-regarded writers have also approached the issues in the extended non-fiction/literary essay form. Examples include Edward Hoagland’s Endgame (16), and articles in the LRB by John Lanchester (Warmer, warmer) and Neal Ascherson (Diary, 18 Oct 07). I think there are hints in the work of the late W G Sebald (17), and at least one poet has tried to tackle the issue head on (17.5)

As for full-length works of fiction in the age of anthropogenic climate change (18) that may still be read and seen in ten or twenty years time, here’s my starter list (19):

Children of Men by P D James (1992), film version directed by Alfonso Cuarón (2006)
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (1995 – 2000) with film scheduled for release in 2008
Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006), with film version in development.

Clearly, these are not novels ‘about’ climate change. Sure, all four describe a global catastrophe, but (I think) only two of them – the Dark Materials series (20) and Oryx & Crake (21) – explicitly describe warmer worlds. You could say they are simply part of a long tradition of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction that long predates awareness of man made, or anthropogenic climate change. Still, I think it’s hard to read these books now without thinking of the nexus of real issues that ineluctably include climate change and its consequences. And I for one can’t help thinking the creative process in these authors was informed, consciously or not, by global environmental change (22),(23). But please challenge me on this if you want to. My comments are, after all, supposed to help start a conversation (24).

This is the first of three parts of an essay about climate change, imagination and culture. Part two is here. Part three is here.


(1) Edits include expanded and updated references to 30 October.

(2) Quote from the trailer of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

(3) Substantiating and defending this position would require another talk as long as this one. Here I take it as a given. (For a different view see, for example Climate Resistance or Benny Peiser on Stabilisation 2005). Let’s note in passing, however, that analysis and evidence reported over just the last few days continue to be consistent with and/or strengthen a coherent picture built up by many thousands of scientists over several decades. On 20 Oct it was reported that researchers at UEA have found uptake of CO2 in the North Atlantic halved between the mid 1990s and 2000 to 2005 (Oceans are ‘soaking up less CO2'). On 21 Oct Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director Steven Chu was reported as saying that even on the most optimistic models for the second half of the century, 30 to 70 percent of California’s snowpack would disappear, jeopardising the water supply of tens of millions of people: “There’s a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster…and that’s in the best scenario.” (The Future is Drying Up). Also in California, we have witnessed the biggest fires in many years resulting in the evacuation of more than 800,000 people, and while these may not be directly attributable to anthropogenic global heating, future dry conditions as a result of climate change could make such evens increasingly frequent and serious.
All evidence needs to be rigorously scrutinized by first-rate scientists and mediated through a transparent process such as that undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But consensus documents such as the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report are the product of highly constricted political circumstances which typically require a higher standard of proof than is applied in almost any other set of circumstances where evidence-based policy decisions are made. As they say, even Saudi Arabia has to agree with every line. For example, the IPCC 4AR does not take account of most potential carbon cycle feedbacks because of the uncertainty surrounding the issue. Ignoring risks because you don’t fully understand them is not necessarily a good idea. See, for example: Rocketing CO2 prompts criticisms of the IPCC, New Scientist 24 Oct; CO2: Don't count on the trees New Scientist 27 Oct -- “We thought [reduced carbon uptake by tropical forests] wouldn’t happen until global temperature increased by 2 C. It would be terribly worrying if that feedback is already kicking in”; and James Lovelock: 'Humans at war with Earth on climate change'(Royal Society) and It’s too late for greenhouse gas cuts, says scientist. The draft for Lovelock's talk is now up on his site here.
Climate change is, of course, part of a wider nexus of environmental and development challenges – see GEO4, 25 Oct.

(4) Cultures of Climate Change

(5) Can you imagine it? A warming world needs art, 22 April 2005

(6) See, for example, the entry for 'Culture' in Key Words by Raymond Williams.

(7) Bill McKibben is among the believers in the value of locally-produced art, placing value on the fact that, for example, “A hundred years ago Iowa had 1,300 opera houses”. As some amateur musicians may agree, what matters in many cases is not necessarily the quality of the output but the fact we are doing it ourselves.

(8) e.g. a competition for one minute films about climate change organised by Friends of the Earth

(9) Robert Butler, Ashden Trust Editor’s Blog, 22 Oct 07. Among its activities, the Ashden Trust supports dramatists and other artists exploring climate and environmental change.

(10) The jumping the shark moment in the film is surely when the ferocious ravening WOLVES (Waaooooh!!!) escape from Central Park Zoo and pace the mean, frozen streets of Manhattan. And thanks to Marc Hudson for pointing to the following paper: Does tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change by Thomas Lowe et al -- "while the film increased anxiety about environmental risks, viewers experienced difficulty in distinguishing science fact from dramatized science fiction. Their belief in the likelihood of extreme events as a result of climate change was actually reduced. Following the film, many viewers expressed strong motivation to act on climate change. However, although the film may have sensitized viewers and motivated them to act, the public do not have information on what action they can take to mitigate climate change".

(11) such as the thriller Sixty Days & Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson. See review by Fred Pearce in New Scientist, 25 August 07.

(12) The idea of hierarchy in cultural production is often challenged. Why shouldn’t 'high' culture include knitting as well as opera, as Ian MacMillan, presenter of The Verb on BBC Radio 3, almost puts it?

(13) The Cape Farewell project has published a book, Burning Ice: Art and Climate Change, and held some joint shows. Individual artists who have been on the expeditions have followed their inspiration in various directions. Cape Farewell is also heavily involved in educational work, among other things. Another enterprise, Tipping Point, brings together artists, writers and others in a conference-type setting to share ideas and inspiration.

(14) See Cape Farwell: An Arctic Diary May 03, and Arctic Dreams, May 05. For photographs from the 07 expedition see Nick Cobbing's Noorderlicht and landscapes.

(15) And While London Burns (2006) from Platform London, which I have reviewed here, and The Water Diviner’s Tale, performed at the BBC Proms, 27 Aug 07

(16) Endgame: Meditations on a Diminishing World, Harper’s Magazine, Jun 07

(17) In On the Natural History of Destruction (2001), for example, Sebald writes: “In contrast to the effect of the catastrophes insidiously creeping up on us today, nature’s ability to regenerate did not seem to have been impaired by the firestorms” (page 39, US hardback edition 2003). The Rings of Saturn (1999) does not contain explicit reference to climate change so far as I recall, but it is permeated with, among other things, the precarious nature of human existence, especially in coastal zones, and the capacity of people to destroy thanks to, among other things, psycho-pathological lack of imagination and care.

(18) Ruth Padel's "Slices of Toast" (thanks to Marc Hudson for alerting me to this).

(19) “Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three”, Philip Larkin wrote. What about climate change? I suggest we settle for 1988, when James Hansen gave his dramatic testimony to the US Senate. This helped create a space for, among other things, at least two influential non-fiction polemics: The End of Nature by Bill McKibben (1989), and Earth in Balance by Al Gore (1992). Obviously human impact on the global climate change began long before 1988. Most take large scale burning of coal from the late 1700s as a starting point. One hypothesis, known as the early anthropocene, takes in the agricultural era as a whole, from (first) widespread forest burning and (second) methane release from rice paddy and livestock production, about ten and seven to five thousand years ago respectively. Most everyone agrees, though, that the rate of change in the biogeochemical cycle over the past few decades is unprecedented in millions of years.

(20) Others may have better examples. And there is writing from the period before widespread awareness of anthropogenic global warming which prefigure the issue or could be seen as in some way "prophetic". Philip Pullman, for example, recently referred to JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) (One week in September). The work of Philip K Dick is probably another place to look.

(21) For example, “The climate’s been changing. The summers are hotter than they used to be. They say that people have been interfering with the atmosphere by putting chemicals in it and the weather’s going out of control” from the character Will Parry on page 322 of The Subtle Knife (Scholastic Press edition of 2001). The Subtle Knife was first published in 1997.

(22) [Find a quote from the novel]

(23) Children of Men vividly imagines what some environmentalists call ‘the death of birth’ – a notion going back to at least to Rachel Carson (1961). The Road depicts a world devastated by, most probably, nuclear war. You could argue the toss as to whether that destruction has come about as a result of destabilisation in which climate change played a role, and whether that’s relevant. Still, the reviewer who called it “a novel for the globally warmed generation” is on to something. Climate change is, obviously, not the only major global challenge, environmental or otherwise, facing a world of nearly seven billion soon to be nine billion people. See, for example, Our Final Century by Martin Rees (2003).

(24) None of the four novelists mentioned is a scientist. There is a lively field of scientists turned writers - see for example, Science and Art in the Novel: When extremes converge. Michael Crichton is a medical doctor, but then so was Harold Shipman.

(25) To be trite, metaphor is often but not always central to art, writing and film-making. Alien (1979) may not be ‘about’ cancer or some other horrible disease, but it resonates with concerns about those things.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Fear and La Terreur

Paul Krugman and François Furstenberg.


I reserve the right to imagine anyone and anything I damn well please. If I want to write about Jewish people, or paedophiles or Patagonians or witches in 12th-century Finland, then I will do so, despite being 'authentically' none of these things...I'm sick of all this cant about cultural authenticity, and sick of the duty (imposed only on "minority" writers) to represent in some quasi-political fashion. Art isn't about promoting social cohesion, or cementing community relations. It's about telling the truth as you see it, even if it annoys or offends some people.
-- Hari Kunzru on Brick Lane's many narratives.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Serene and calm

The more carrots Condi feeds ’em, the better they’ll be able to see the bombs coming.
-- Dick Cheney, via his angel on Earth, Maureen Dowd

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Kyoto bashing and climate uncertainty

About ten days ago I described a talk by Steve Rayner titled It's the development path, stupid. The talk prefaced a paper co-authored by Rayner and Gwyn Prins which appeared in Nature on Wednesday (Time to ditch Kyoto). Clive Bates and Charlie Kronick made interesting comments on my post (scroll down here). Clive has developed his critique at Bacon Butty here.

Turning from policy to science, RealClimate has a useful post, The certainty of uncertainty, commenting on Gerard Roe and Marcia Baker's Why is climate sensitivity so unpredictable?. For example:
450 ppm is an oft-cited threshold since this keeps deltaT below 2°C using standard climate sensitivities. But the skewed nature of the distribution of possible sensitivities means that it is much more likely that 450 ppm will give us more than 4.5°C of global warming rather than less than 2°.

In a sensible world...

The US has yet to play its highest card: an offer, comparable to that made to, and accepted by, North Korea, of a comprehensive refashioning of the strategic relationship between the US and Iran. Unless and until that bargain is explored, it will never be clear whether Tehran could be persuaded to eschew the nuclear course.
-- from Bush heads for a dreadful miscalculation over Iran by Philip Stephens.

P.S. 1 Nov:
...a fissiparous, unstable and increasingly militarised Islamic regime, whose president has called for Israel to be removed from the map, is deliberately proceeding towards the threshold where it could, if it chose, swiftly take the last step to having a nuclear weapon. Among the probable consequences would be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Sunni Muslim powers such as Saudi Arabia deciding they need their own.

Where are the German, British or Italian intellectuals and peace activists raising the alarm about this? Where have all the demos gone? Nuclear proliferation makes the risk of the actual use of nuclear weapons greater than in those last years of the cold war, though the scale of annihilation would be smaller. You may object that Israel, Pakistan and India already have their bombs. Yes, that's bad, and the west has flagrant double-standards in respect of India and Israel - but this is no argument for letting others obtain their own instruments of mass carnage. Four wrongs don't make a right.
-- from Facing disaster in Iran, Europe must finally make the hard choices by Timothy Garton-Ash.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Things can only get bitterer

All the surviving members of the twenty five most endangered primate species combined "would fit in a single football stadium" (BBC, IPS).

More widely, "there are no major issues raised in Our Common Future for which the foreseeable trends are favourable" (as quoted from GEO4).

No longer, not necessarily

“There is a deep knowledge gap separating the Arab and Islamic nations from the process and progress of contemporary global civilization,” said Abdallah S. Jumah, the chief executive of Saudi Aramco. “We are no longer keeping pace with the advances of our era.”
-- from Saudi King Tries to Grow Modern Ideas in Desert. That would be "no longer" in the sense of "since about the 14th Century" (CE); a "no longer" like the "not necessarily" in the phrase about the war going to Japan's advantage.

P.S. 31 Oct: Jason Burke on The Values Monarchy.

Ideal and reality

...the Levellers posited nearly 400 years ago...precisely the kind of secular constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience and speech alongside a sovereign parliament which many regard today as much needed political safeguards...What the Putney debates highlight is this nation's extraordinary role in the development of participatory democracy. In our diffident relativism we tend to shy away from it, but from the Magna Carta onwards, we have played a pioneering role in the emergence of equality before the law, universal suffrage, an independent judiciary and freedom of speech. The struggle for these rights is precisely the history we should be teaching our schoolchildren and new migrants.
-- from Tristram Hunt on the Putney Debates of 1647.
Lord Hoyle's solicitor said that the financial relationship with Mr Wood was "a matter of public record of which Lord Drayson, who is a friend and colleague of Lord Hoyle, would be fully aware".
-- from Peer was paid to introduce lobbyist to minister, a report by David Leigh and Rob Evans.

[P.S. 30 Oct: CIF on the putney debates.]

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cool it

This time from someone who actually knows what they are talking about:
Ninety-nine percent of the $3 billion federal Climate Change Technology Program should still go toward developing climate-friendly energy systems. But 1 percent of that money could be put toward working out geoengineered climate fixes like sulfate particles in the atmosphere, and developing the understanding we need to ensure that they wouldn’t just make matters worse.
-- from How to Cool the Globe by Ken Caldeira.

P.S. 25 Oct: Ray Pierrehumbert at RealClimate responds.

For no particular reason...

...a photo of a Martian sunset taken by Spirit at Gusev crater, May 19, 2005.

Actually there is a reason. I was listening to the The Cosmic Ocean, a two part radio series about water and life in the universe presented by Leo Enright (and originally broadcast in 2004). Enright makes quite a nice jump from red ochre handprints in Lascaux some 17,000 years ago to the bumping imprint of a space craft on the dusty red Martian surface today.

The programmes helped bring into focus for me that one can think about life in three parts: 1) the life that is 'already here' on Earth [and so much of which we are destroying]; 2) the life that humans may or may not create this century through synthetic biology etc; and 3) the life that is, or may be, 'already there' in space.

Thinking, too, about maps and dreams, imagination and discovery, from Martin Behaim's Erdapfel to Giovanni Schiaparelli's first map of Mars and beyond.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

World bank critic

[Robert] Zoellick's focus [as new head of the World Bank and IFC] is on globalisation, helping multinationals extract oil, gas and other resources from developing countries. This hugely helps industrial nations, but does nothing for the world's poorest, who should be the paramount focus of the bank. Fostering climate change through deforestation, cattle ranching and fossil fuels are all anti-poor priorities that the Bank must halt.
-- from How to aid destruction by Robert Goodland.

In the Financial Times on 19 Oct Kuen Lee, John Mathews and Robert Wade outlined what they see as a preferable alternative to 'The Washington Consensus, titled t the Beijing-Seoul-Tokyo Consensus, or BeST for short (Rethinking development policy: A new consensus).

Old-new troubles

It may be ludicrous for politicians to describe plans from a pipeline to run from Russia to Berlin as a new version of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, which secretly carved up half of Europe, but it’s probably true that Poland is being deliberately left out in the cold.
-- Mark Mardell (23 Oct).

P.S. 25 Oct: Tim Garton-Ash starts from the remarkable election results in Poland to write an interesting article on the strange fate of political parties across much of Europe. [It's a good piece and it seems churlish to point to small lapse: Garton-Ash writes that the new Poland "will not be driven by anachronistic, 19th-century fears of Germany". Anachronistic, maybe. But 19th-century? As Tom Lehrer sang, "Once all the Germans were warlike and mean, but that wouldn't happen again. We taught them a lesson in nineteen-eighteen, and they've hardly bothered us since then."]

Life-affirming, life-destroying...


Sunday, October 21, 2007


I'm part of the 90% plus that hardly follows technical stories about the net, but reports of the Storm worm (like this one) have even/finally made it into the bubble of the likes of me. I have little sense of whether this is as serious as it sounds or is being hyped (To a beneath-a-rock-dweller like me, it's not clear just how serious they think this is at places like The Register e.g. here. Has Bill already helped us great unwashed out?)

Wikipedia notes that a recent article in PCWorld says that a network security analyst presented findings at the Toorcon hacker conference in San Diego on 20-Oct-07, saying that Storm is down to about 20,000 active hosts or about one-tenth of its former size.

A minor point, perhaps, but I find quite interesting the psychology behind the teasers used in subject headings designed to get people to open the infected files, such as:

A killer at 11, he's free at 21 and kill again!
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has kicked German Chancellor Angela Merkel
British Muslims Genocide
Naked teens attack home director.
230 dead as storm batters Europe
Radical Muslim drinking enemies's blood.
Chinese/Russian missile shot down Chinese/Russian satellite/aircraft
Saddam Hussein safe and sound!

Drinking in Yerevan

The few Turks who travel the other way [from Turkey to Armenia] can discover that they have more in common with their Armenian neighbours than they suppose. A visit to the open-air vegetable market in Yerevan reveals that many of the words for vegetables are the same (and so, too, are some of the swear-words). As often as not, Turks who identify themselves are greeted with a big smile and even with a discount. And a simple apology for the events of 1915, without mention of the G-word, can melt the ice.
-- says a correspondent for The Economist (Unearthing the past, endangering the future)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Storm in Channel: Continent isolated

"I feel as though I'm caught in the midst of an Olympic synchronised lying event, where just about everyone is saying the opposite of what they think for reasons different to those they give", says Clive Bates (Have a referendum... on EU membership, not the treaty).

Friday, October 19, 2007

The warm embrace of U/North

Yesterday ABC News reported...that the Clinton campaign is holding a “Rural Americans for Hillary” lunch and campaign briefing — at the offices of the Troutman Sanders Public Affairs Group, which lobbies for the agribusiness and biotech giant Monsanto. You don’t have to be a Naderite to feel uncomfortable about the implied closeness.
-- from Death of the Machine by Paul Krugman.

Neo-con death cult

Danny Postel guest blogs at Common Sense about the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) and "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week".

We are in the test tube

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Creaky ice movie

My friend John Ryan recommends this computer-generated video from the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington. It shows the record-breaking retreat of the polar icecap this summer.

Also worth a look is John's check story on Glacier Bay National Park’s rapid melt-off and "suspicions of an attempted coverup at the National Park Service".
"According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, September sea ice was 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000. Sea ice cover is in a downward spiral and may have passed the point of no return, with a possible ice-free Arctic Ocean by summer 2030".
-- from Melting Ice Pack Displaces Alaska Walrus

Something wrong with our system

My conclusion is a simple one: we have a "system problem". Apologies do not address this. We are on the verge of a chronic and irreversible collapse of trust in our system of government, however honest the people are who run it.
-- Anthony Barnett ventriloquises the Gordon Brown that wasn't.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Thabo Mbeki's problem

David Beresford reported in yesterday's Guardian that:
Justice Malala, the highly regarded former editor of the defunct newspaper This Day, accused Mr Mbeki of "stepping into the worlds of [the late Zairian president] Mobutu Seso Seko and [Zimbabwe's Robert] Mugabe".

"Mbeki's Stalinist leanings are fully on show," he wrote. "Journalists and editors arrested, opponents jailed upon trumped up charges; everyone in government living in fear that they are being followed, watched and bugged."
I accept that outsiders, not least white ones from former colonial powers, can too easily and without even being aware of it slip into unduly facile condemnation of some post-colonial African leaders. But Mbeki's trajectory as described by Justice Malala doesn't seem surprising to me.

An anecodote. More than ten years ago I was in San Francisco to report on a conference organised by Mikhail Gorbachev with the aim of bringing together leaders and thinkers from different cultures to help chart a course for the 21st century less insane than the 20th. Participants included the late, wonderful Carl Sagan, Jane Goddall, Richard Leakey, Gorbachev himself and Thabo Mbeki, who at that time was deputy president of South Africa (Nelson Mandela was still president). Most of the participants I spoke to impressed me with their humanity, warmth and absence of bullshit -- including, to some degree, Gorbachev himself, who at least the very least displayed a convincing simulacrum of humanity, but had not succeeded in shaking off Soviet-era abstractions and bromides in his language.

I had about ten minutes with Mbeki, who I was told was more than usually busy as he was (I think) engaged in intense long-distance discussions relating to the new South African consititution. Mbeki instructed me ('instructed' would be the right word) in how remarkable and progressive the document was -- explicitly recognising, for example, the rights of homosexuals. (And I have no reason to doubt that the South African constitution is indeed an impressive document). But I felt no spark of warmth or connection, only ideology, in his mini-sermon.

Now one should always make allowances for politicians being over-tired, over-stretched and so on. Mbeki may have a warm side. Obviously he operates in tough circumstances. But all I can say is that the vibe was not great. I found it a little creepy in fact, and at odds from what one felt from other participants in that struggle, including of course Mandela himself.

Another ancedote, from Desmond Tutu (reproduced by Jonathan Glover) about his mother, an uneducated black woman in Apartheid-era South Africa:
In the eyes of the world this lovely person was a nonentity. I was standing with her on the hostel verandah when this tall white man, in a flowing black cassock, swept past. He doffed his hat to my mother in greeting. I was quite taken aback; a white men raising his hat to a black woman! Such things did not happen in real life. That gesture left an indelible impression. Perhaps it helped deep down to make me realise we were precious to God and to this white man; perhaps it helped me not to become anti-white, despite the harsh treatment we received at the hands of these white people.
The tall man in the cassock was Trevor Huddleston. Many years later (but some years before the San Francisco conference) I, a confirmed atheist at least as far as this universe is concerned, gave him a lift to and fro in a crapped-out Hillman Imp (which I had failed to look after for friends) so that he could give a blessing to some native North Americans plus Buddhists who were running from London to Moscow for peace (yes, this was the during the gap in the reign of fear between the Berlin Wall and 9/11). Huddleston was a Mensch.

For a recent, moving insight into some of the long-term consequences of Apartheid, and related catastrophes, see Anthony Sher on A tidal wave of violence.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cultures of climate change

On 22 October I am offering the first talk in a series organised by CRASSH in Cambridge on “the cultures of climate change”.

Under the title Klaatu barada nikto: climate change and other acts of imagination, I will argue that a combination of two stances -- 1) 'precision and responsibility' [the phrase is Elias Canetti's in an essay cited by W G Sebald], and 2) subtlety and distance -- can best serve artistic, literary and critical actors as they consider climate change in relation to other challenges and the big questions “What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?”

The price

“There will be lakes of blood,” [one] young man said. “Of course we want the Americans to leave, but if they do, it will be a great disaster for us.”
-- from Ask the Iraqis by Lawrence Wright.
No one knows exactly what [the Iraqis] do want, least of all themselves, except that they don't want us.
-- Gertrude Bell quoted by Rory Stewart.

Smells like...prosperity

Pollution has reached epidemic proportions in China, in part because the ruling Communist Party still treats environmental advocates as bigger threats than the degradation of air, water and soil that prompts them to speak out...

Fixing the environment is...a political problem.
-- from In China, a Lake’s Champion Imperils Himself, part III of the NYT series Choking On Growth.


"Every time I visit, the situation seems to have worsened...This time, I was very struck by the sense of hopelessness among the Palestinian people."

Mr Dugard attributed this to "the crushing effect of human rights violations", and in particular Israeli restrictions on Palestinians' freedom of movement.
-- from UN envoy attacks Mid-East Quartet (BBC).

See also the letter 'Failure Risks Devastating Consequences' from Zbigniew Brzezinski et al.

P.S. 5pm: Seth Freedman writes that "too many [young] Israelis have just stopped caring".

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Verschärfte Vernehmung

"Bush lies doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s time to confront the darker reality that we [Americans] are lying to ourselves", says Frank Rich.


By supporting the bill [to declare Iran’s 125,000-member Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization] Mrs. Clinton is...solidifying crucial support from the pro-Israel lobby.
-- from Clinton's Iran Vote by Helene Cooper in the New York Times

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Fascinating fascism

Drifting around the web, a link in the Small Wars Journal Blog take you to the archive of the Blackwater tactical weekly, thence to the
September 07 edition of the newsletter, which features a link to New American Truth, the cover of which shows two searchlights reaching up into the night sky above New York in place of the twin towers. An image straight out of Albert Speer's designs for Nürnberg.

Friday, October 12, 2007

'Zero emissions necessary'

"Only the total elimination of industrial emissions [by 2050] will succeed in limiting climate change to a 2°C rise in temperatures, according to computer analysis of climate change"...more.

'Slum fights'

"We will be fighting in urban terrain for the next hundred years." -- Wayne Michael Hall, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, quoted by Nick Turse in The Pentagon's 100 year war.

A 'Gore Denial' briefing

Douglas Coker of the Enfield Green Party writes:
...David Adam reports on the court case brought by Stewart Dimmock, a member of the New Party, challenging the government plan to show Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” (AIT) in schools on the basis it is 'misleading'. Resolving scientific debates is really not best pursued in a court but that’s where we are on this one. Do note the judge has concluded the film AIT was "broadly accurate"...

I fear we may have to deal with a wave of “Gore denial”. While generally global warming denial is increasingly for the flat-earthers there are still some who don’t want it to be true and conclude therefore that global warming is not happening, or it's not that bad or well … we can’t do much about it ... can we … and so on. So I’ve expanded on David Adam’s 8 (yes 8) bullet points. I’ve added a ninth point.
DC's briefing is attached as a comment to this post.

P.S. 10.05am: Al Gore is a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, along with the IPCC]

P.P.S. 12 noon: Catherine Brahic scrutinises Judge Burton's judgement in New Scientist's environment blog here.

[P.P.P.S. 15 Oct: see Paul Krugman on Gore Derangement Syndrome.]

[P.P.P.P.S (!) 16 Oct: the folks at RealClimate write: "the judge's characterisation of the 9 points is substantially flawed. He appears to have put words in Gore's mouth that would indeed have been wrong had they been said (but they weren't)."]

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Blood money

"Conflicts in Africa since the end of the cold war have cost the continent £150bn, equivalent to all the foreign aid it has received over the same period" -- from The devastating cost of Africa's wars: £150bn and millions of lives, a report on the Oxfam study Africa's missing billions.

Truth, murder, consequences

Setting to one side for a moment (as if!) all the politicking around a vote by US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee to recognise as genocide the 1915-17 mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, it's worth recalling that what had happened to the Armenians was cited specifically when the word genocide (γένος+occidere) was coined.

Speaking in different circumstances and about different events, the 81 year old Andrzej Wajda told The World Tonight that the aim of Katyń, his film about the massacre of some 20,000 officers and intellectuals including his own father in 1940, is "to be a farewell and end to the subject... I don't want it to cause political problems...Despite the fact it was a crime I don't believe it should be followed by criminal charges against the people involved".

[P.S. 14 Oct: See David Ignatius, an Armenian-American, on The Dignity Agenda.]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Iran no brainer

A Pentagon consultant on counterterrorism told me that, if the bombing campaign took place, it would be accompanied by a series of what he called “short, sharp incursions” by American Special Forces units into suspected Iranian training sites. He said, “Cheney is devoted to this, no question.”

A limited bombing attack of this sort “only makes sense if the intelligence is good,” the consultant said. If the targets are not clearly defined, the bombing “will start as limited, but then there will be an ‘escalation special.’ Planners will say that we have to deal with Hezbollah here and Syria there. The goal will be to hit the cue ball one time and have all the balls go in the pocket. But add-ons are always there in strike planning.”
-- from The Administration’s plan for Iran by Seymour M. Hersh.

Am I hot or not?

Sex Party is described as "a shocking news report about the effects of Britain's obsession with non-sustainable transport on the mating habits of UK flora and fauna". It's an unbranded spot by a UK train operator. No prizes for guessing which. But does the clip give the misleading message that global heating is going to be one big orgy?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

'A Nobel Cause'

Stefan Rahmstorf at Realclimate draws attention to an event in Potsdam where 15 Nobel laureates are meeting with top climate and energy experts and politicians to discuss global sustainability.

There are some interesting participants along with 15 Nobel laureates, including the economist Paul Klemperer and the novelist Ian McEwan.

[Comments on Realclimate suggest political maniuplation in association with the event -- for example with regard to ongoing German government support for new coal-fired plant.]

P.S 11 Oct: New York Times report here

Tenderness of the 'Ndrangheta

...with only room for 500 drums [of toxic waste] on a ship waiting at the northern port of Livorno, 100 drums were secretly buried somewhere in the southern Italian region of Basilicata. Clan members avoided burying the waste in neighbouring Calabria, said the turncoat, because of their "love for their home region", and because they already had too many kidnap victims hidden in grottoes there.
--From cocaine to plutonium: mafia clan accused of trafficking nuclear waste

'Radically rethinking climate policy'

Here are my notes from It’s the development path stupid, a talk by Steve Rayner at Oxford University Centre for the Environment on 8 Oct. The notes should not be taken as precise, complete or detailed record of what he actually said: they may contain errors, over-simplifications and unhelpful abbreviations, and certainly omit some important points.

Rayner said that the Kyoto Protocol had been an important symbolic expression of global concern. But it had failed.

Bill Clinton recognised this and left the body of Kyoto on a gurney in the basement of the Whitehouse. When George W. Bush moved in he ordered that the stinking body be buried.

We need to accept, said Rayner, that on climate change Bush was a bad guy doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. His biggest mistake was not to propose an alternative for at least six years.

Nevertheless, many (European governments, NGOs etc) continue to think that the solution is to do more of the same: a bigger, better Kyoto. This was a typical example of framing a problem incorrectly and then continuing to insist when you fail that a solution is to do more of what you did before.

Rayner was particularly critical of governments like the British one, whose (then) environment David Milliband could express an interest in personal carbon credits on almost the same day as his government announced two major new airport runways. [Scepticism with regard to the UK government may be reinforced by this article by George Monbiot]. Rayner also took issue with environmentalists such as Monbiot and Mark Lynas who, he said, overstated or misstated the issues – saying, for example, that scientists agree that climate change is the greatest danger humanity has ever faced. Scientists agree no such thing, said Rayner. What about nuclear war or the Black Death etc?

Kyoto is modelled on three earlier treaties – the Vienna Convention on stratospheric ozone (which preceded the Montreal Protocol); the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the US EPA’s Acid Rain Program. But there were vital respects in which the challenges of anthropogenic climate change could not be met from within structures modelled on these.

Perhaps the most important contributions of the Stern Review, he said, was that it recognised that climate change is a moral problem, and confirmed that poor people in marginal environments [are being and] will be most affected.

In Rayner’s view, we need to hold several alternate views in mind when searching for a real solution: a clumsy ‘decision space’ in the triangle between ‘hierarchical’, ‘radical free-market’ and ‘radical egalitarian’ views. As Lancelot Capability Brown said in a different context, 'confront the object and draw nigh obliquely'.

Rayner, a lead author for IPPC Third and Fourth Assessment Reports, said he had proposed a special report on climate change and sustainable development (which requires a diversified approach, emphasises benefits of early adaptation and building for resilience, among other things). This proposal had, he said, been vetoed by China and the United States.

His five recommendations, which may be published in a co-authored comment in Nature ahead of COP 13 in Bali, were:

1. Abandon universalism – work with the fewer than 20 countries that ‘really’ matter (and only around 10 if EU is counted as a political block);
2. Allow genuine emissions markets to evolve from the bottom up;
3. Increase investment in adaptation (currently only around $1.5bn spent on adaptation as against approx. $19bn on mitigation). [Adaptation used to be taboo but no longer is. Geo-engineering is still taboo, but should not be];
4. Work the problem at appropriate sales (provinces, states, cities, local trading systems);
5. Make wartime levels of public investment in [green] energy R&D.

I mentioned that point 5 sounded similar to the recommendation made by Martin Rees in Science in August 2006, and asked what sort of levels of investment Rayner had in mind (were we looking at 'wartime' GDP allocation as in a total war like World War Two or as in the present perpetual war for perpetual peace), and how could political will be mobilised in support of such a goal. Rayner said he would be reasonably happy with up to half the current US spend on military R&D, which had roughly doubled under George W. Bush to $80bn – up from about $4bn today, most of which went on nuclear and 'clean' coal. The money should come from government(s), he said.

Someone else asked what should western NGOs like Oxfam best do to mobilise concern among their supporters. Rayner said they should concentrate on problems of most immediate concern to the poorest, such as provision of fresh water, rather than climate change (‘confront the object and draw nigh obliquely’). He was unimpressed by a recent Christian Aid campaign that showed a photograph of a South Asian women up to her neck in water 'calling' for readers to support a climate bill in the UK. A climate bill would not affect the stocks of GHG already in the atmosphere which might or might not be causing or contributing to present problems, he said, and this woman had much bigger problems than climate change on her plate.

In response to a questioner who looked like a Chinese government official, Rayner said the first best things China could do would be for the central goverment to mandate massive deployment of wind turbines and to rethink a model that brought about the premature death of millions of their citizens by exposing them to pollution from coal. It was at least feasible to trap particulates from coal fired power stations. This wouldn't stop CO2, of course, but it would limit the deposition of dust in the cryosphere which was thought to be contributing to accelerating polar warming by lowering albedo.

He tactfully agreed with a (I think) Brazilian questioner asking about repayment of ecological debt by saying that one of the best way to apply funds from the rich countries was to support clean energy in rapidly emerging economies on the best possible terms.

And he suggested to two other questioners that playing 'the historical blame game' was not going to solve the problem.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Way to go, Rowan

The Archbishop said "We do hear talk from some quarters of action against Syria, or against Iran". Any miltary action would be "criminal, ignorant...and potentially murderous folly".

Valley of the shadow

Mark Hertsgaard's The Making of a Climate Movement documents a remarkable and potentially significant trend in the United States, but should be read in combination with Why Climate Change Can't Be Stopped by Paul J. Saunders, Vaughan Turekian, who write:
The international political environment...makes truly significant emissions cuts very unlikely. In 2010...developing countries will emit nearly 20 percent more CO2 emissions than developed countries. Indeed, only in China (and perhaps India) would emissions limits or cuts make more of a difference than in the United States. By one estimate, China has already surpassed America in emissions to become the world’s leader and, with sustained high growth rates, will open the gap even further. In fact, if China grows at 8 percent for the next nine years, its economy will double in size— is turning increasingly to carbon-laden coal for electricity. And although China’s energy intensity (energy consumed per unit of economic output) has decreased by nearly 5 percent per year for the last two decades as a result of greater efficiency, it is still nearly seven times that of the United States, according to the World Bank. At this rate, China’s growth trajectory could add the equivalent pollution of another present-day United States to the climate system in a little more than a decade.

Dollar-for-dollar, the most efficient way to cut global greenhouse gas emissions would be, in theory, to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to improve China’s energy efficiency. But [the U.S.] Congress would never support such an approach. After all, which members of Congress would vote to undercut the competitiveness of U.S. companies, especially in the face of a weak domestic economy, public anger over outsourcing, China’s currency value, and the U.S. trade deficit with China? More broadly, how long will voters in Europe and Japan, which have done the most to limit emissions, be prepared to make sacrifices for the global climate if they believe they are alone in doing so?
Saunders and Turekian, former Bush administration officials, are likely wrong to say that "environmental advocates hype the consequences of climate change" (have they actually read the IPCC Fourth Assessment report?), but may be too right on the "too late" bit...unless public opinion in the U.S and other rich countries can be convinced to support significant investment in poor and emerging economies.

(Hat tip DP for both pieces)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Historical ironies and ugly habits

[Theo Van Gogh] frequently insulted Muslims and their prophet, calling the former geiteneuker ("goat-fuckers"). [This] did not stop him from also insulting Jews and many others.

...almost certainly unknown to van Gogh, the Dutch obscenity he used, neuken, is by origin Arabic, indeed to be found in the Qur'an, where it is the normal term for marital relations: French, English and Spanish all have the same slang word - niquer, nooky, noqui-noqui - transmitted in the Dutch case via contact with Arab traders in South Africa, as is the all-purpose racist term of abuse kaffir, from the Muslim term for an "infidel"
-- from Fred Halliday on Islam and Europe: a debate in Amsterdam.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

UK withdrawal from Iraq

John Major accused Gordon Brown of trivialising military imperatives and playing "politics" with soldiers' lives and Iraq's stability, but the truth seems to be that British military strategists think withdrawl is the least bad option [P.S. 3 Oct: Brown should listen to the military and quit Iraq now]. If, then, Brown is serious about actual withdrawal, it is the Tories who are playing "politics".

"Withdrawal must be accompanied by political dialogue", intoned a Guardian editorial in one of those sweeping phrases that means everything and nothing.

According to a BBC File on 4 feature on the British drawdown in Basra some 80% of the locals they talked to in southern Iraq want the British to stay, and the evidence points to the escalation of a vicious struggle for the control of some 80% of Iraq's oil, and other horrors, following British withdrawal (barring effective intervention by other outside forces).

Western peace activists continue to agitate for an end to the war, by which they mean an end to Western involvement. Their love of humanity and idealism is compelling (in the long run of history and the struggle for human dignity, for example, the protestors at Faslane are surely on the right side). But righteousness needs thought too, and should heed context. Have anti-war protestors really considered the most likely, as opposed to the ideal, consequences of withdrawal for Iraqis? (At least some of the neo-cons and their associates seem only to have thought their ideal scenario was possible.) The chances of the country's oil being equitably shared and wisely applied, as envisaged by The General Union of Oil Employees and their allies, look slim -- not to mention other challenges.

In a photo feature on the extraordinary lives of Iraq's women, Antoinette living in Mosul (obviously a long way from Southern Iraq, and with all kind of different dynamic) says:
I was a very shy child. I used to be terrified of any sound and of the dark. I stammered until late in my teens. Since I became a mother, though, all that has stopped. I will not allow anything, the explosions, the armies or anyone to implant fear in the hearts of my children.
Brave words indeed. Will she be able to honour them, and what can outsiders best do to help?

[P.S 5 Oct: The Oxford Research Group releases a report on Monday 8 Oct titled British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan “a disaster”.]