Thursday, December 31, 2009


What we have to understand - and what I have come belatedly and painfully to grasp - is that our collective narcissism can be an obstacle to successful statesmanship. In blunter terms: This is not about us. In so far as we have made Iran about us, we have added mountains to the landscape of human misery and pain. This is a struggle for the Iranian people, a long, brutal, bitter struggle. We should do all we can to support them, without the neocon grandstanding that actually helps the regime rather than hurts it. But we have to understand our limits.
-- Andrew Sullivan reflects on U.S., Israel and Iran.

P.S. Gideon Rachman asks how long can the Iranian government last? and guesses it will fall before the end of 2010

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Writing that works

These two small examples may not work for everybody but they work for me:
Coppice hornbeams seem to gesture like hands thrown up generously, or the ash coppice like fingers thrust up through mud -- the fingers of a drowning man. Hazel coppice like sea anemones. I snorkel through.
-- Roger Deakin
The valley sinks into mist, and the yellow orbital ring of the horizon closes over the glaring cornea of the sun. The eastern ridge blooms purple, then fades to inimical black. The earth exhales in the cold dusk. Frost forms in hollows shaded from afterglow. Owls wake and call. The first stars hover and drift down.
-- J A Baker

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

African future

Africa's population, 110 million in 1850, passed 1 billion in 2009. It is projected to reach 1.9 billion by 2050. For optimists the second half of the 21st century may be African.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Peter Bradshaw thinks Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is one of the best films of the decade. He may be right. Few films resonate as this one does.

It's suggested that this deceptively simple photo by August Sander provides a link:

The subject's uniform and helmet grab the modern viewer's attention. But the background -- the specific context (perhaps his home village?)-- is also a vital part of the image. And the young face can be interpreted in many ways. As for the fate of this individual, what do we know?

Writing in 1931 -- some years before this picture was taken, of course -- Walter Benjamin dryly observed of the early stages of Sander's great project:
Work like Sander's could assume an unlooked-for topicality.
Benjamin also quotes Goethe:
There is a delicate empiricism that so intimately involves itself with the object that it becomes true theory.

P.S. 30 Dec: In the NYT, A.O. Scott is sniffy about this film:
Forget about Weimar inflation and the Treaty of Versailles and whatever else you may have learned in school: Nazism was caused by child abuse. Or maybe by the intrinsic sinfulness of human beings.
But the film allows for, indeed encourages a more complex view: not a case of either (historical determinism) or (human weakness), but both.

A great game

Rory Stewart thinks Obama is playing poker in Afghanistan as well as his hand allows. The situation is not that of Iraq in 2006 or Afghanistan in 1988, but neither is it Afghanistan in 1842, still less in 330 BC.

'Progressive imprisonment without parole'

This cockroach-like existence is cumulatively intolerable even though on any given night it is perfectly manageable. "Cockroach" is of course an allusion to Kafka's Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into an insect. The point of the story is as much the responses and incomprehension of his family as it is the account of his own sensations, and it is hard to resist the thought that even the best-meaning and most generously thoughtful friend or relative cannot hope to understand the sense of isolation and imprisonment that this disease imposes upon its victims. Helplessness is humiliating even in a passing crisis—imagine or recall some occasion when you have fallen down or otherwise required physical assistance from strangers. Imagine the mind's response to the knowledge that the peculiarly humiliating helplessness of [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] is a life sentence (we speak blithely of death sentences in this connection, but actually the latter would be a relief).
-- from Night by Tony Judt.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Chinese authorities convict Liu Xiabo to 11 years and declare 2009 the “year of citizens’ rights.”

P.S. As Perry Link has noted, Charter 08 (of which Liu Xiabo is a principal author) invokes in its opening paragraphy the rights that should accrue to all Chinese citizens according to China’s own constitution:
The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.

Friday, December 25, 2009

An aura

What is an aura, in fact? A gossamer fabric woven of space and time: a unique manifestation of a remoteness, however close at hand. Lying back on a summer's afternoon, gazing at a mountain range on the horizon or watching a branch as it casts its shadow over the beholder, until the moment or the hour shares in the manifestation -- that is called breathing in the aura of those mountains, that branch.
-- from Brief history of photography by Walter Benjamin. (1931)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The whole shebang

'Cockup or conspiracy?'

Some will always believe that Tony Blair took the country to war in Iraq on a lie, but the most damning charge emerging from the Iraq war inquiry so far is that Britain went to war on a wing and a prayer.
-- Patrick Wintour summarizes the Chilcott inquiry so far.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Good COP bad COP

Joe Smith is cautiously optimistic about COP15. But Mark Lynas says the Chinese broke it.

Some sensible voices and others give a view here.

Evan Osnos has previously noted that If China’s emissions keep climbing as they have for the past thirty years, the country will emit more greenhouse gases in the next thirty years than the United States has in its entire history.

Winking at the brim

The great age of Islamic literature, much...was devoted to wine. There's a line I came across in Rumi: "The wine is intoxicated with me, not me with the wine."
-- Roger Scruton on Start the Week

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The rising of the sun and the running of the deer

Sometimes this year I've felt as if I was up to my ears in quick setting concrete. One of the things that has helped has been to get out on the river and kayak. I've done this in all weathers but it's especially good when the sun is bright and the air is clear. And so it was this afternoon near the turning point of the year. On the main channel the bare trees were in glory, a crescent moon was high in the blue, and I followed a kingfisher looping from one bough to another, trying to get away from me as I shucked my boat through the water.

Mostly when paddling I listen to the sounds around me but sometimes -- especially when I want to put some welly into the strokes -- I listen to music. And today I thought back over the music I've been listening to this year.

Impossible to remember or summarize it all. I enjoyed a new version by Keane of Under Pressure produced by my friend Kenny Young on Rhythms del Mundo Classics. It's a fitting tribute to the original -- one of the great songs of its time, sung by perhaps the least introverted Zoroastran who ever lived. The main point is in the two words at the climax: "give love". Jack Johnson's version of Imagine on the same album is good too.

I understood a little better the greatness of Shostakovitch. The allegro of the tenth symphony, which I imagine to be a portrait of Stalin. The second movement of the eighth string quartet: one of the most terrifying things ever written (although you really have to hear it played live and played well to get this). The weird, haunted ending of the fifteenth symphony.

Now we have a two year old we are doing the Christmas thing. It's part of the cultural baggage, it has good stories for children, and I can just about take some parts of it in small doses as metaphors and images for things that matter. The stories are no more real than the sunset in a Van Gogh painting is real, but some of them do speak. For example, the most precious thing can sometimes be found in the most humble place.

Today I was listening to band called Kerfuffle who have a fresh version of The Sussex Carol:
On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King's birth.

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night.
"Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!"
Carols like this and the great medieval English lyrics bring something of the past to life so that it is not really past. They embody what T.S. Eliot called "a condition of complete simplicity costing nothing less than everything." Or, as my two year eight month old daughter said after I played this one to her again this evening, "that was a lovely music."

Some Middle English lyrics are less simple but no less direct. Take this from the fifteenth century:
I shall say what inordinat love is:
The furiositie and wodness of minde,
A instinguible brenning fawting blis,
A gret hungre, insaciate to finde,
A dowcet ille, a ivell swetness blinde,
A right wonderfulle, sugred, swete errour
Withoute labour rest, contrary to kinde,
Or withoute quiete to have huge labour.
Birdsong is sparse at this time of year. How much will we have in the spring? We know that songbird numbers continue to fall. Conservation efforts in Britain may be worth little absent a better scenario for climate change than looks likely and reduced pressure on migrants elsewhere, not least in Africa (or, in the case of the lapwing, regions such as the Near East).

Added 23 Dec: Over their short lifetimes many migratory birds fly a distance equivalent to that between earth and the moon. Some people call them courageous.

(Related post: Fear and trembling)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Facing death is not fear as such, because I am not afraid of what might happen to me; I think I would accept it, for I have accepted many hard things, and I'm not one to back away from a challenge. But I fear that my beautiful dream may never be brought to fruition, may never be realized. I'm not afraid for myself but for something beautiful that might have been.
-- from the journal of Hélène Berr, quoted by Ian Buruma.

How Israel lost

As prophesied long ago by the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz and others, the occupation -- and above all the settlement project -- have profoundly eroded the moral fiber of Israel, corroded central institutions of the society and undermined our integrity as a political community. None of this happened in a vacuum; the "other side" has much to atone for as well. But even I can remember a time when charges of war crimes were not simply sloughed off by Israel's leaders, when military mistakes that cost innocent civilian lives were acknowledged as such and elicited expressions of sorrow, and when Israeli courts clearly articulated the principle that a soldier has not only the right but indeed the duty not to carry out an order that is at odds with his consciousness as a human being or with basic human values.
-- from Israel without illusions by David Schulman.

P.S. Mustafa Barghouthi

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Getting on with it after the fiasco

Wise heads such as John Schellnhuber have predicted for months if not years that COP15 would end in failure. [1] But the fact that even pretensions to a minimal global deal are unmet at least makes the scale of the challenges clearer than ever. And rather than tearing out hair (see the comment from Save the Children here) it's time to get on with what is achievable in the circumstances. [2] Individual countries can still move in the right direction. Sectoral deals are possible. Mike Hulme had this to say back in November:
One of the arguments I make about Copenhagen is that we’ve stitched together so many concerns – quite serious and real concerns – under one umbrella [namely, the reduction of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere]. It’s a bit like the Rubik’s Cube that came out some years ago. There are so many different combinations that I could never solve it. And this is what we’ve created with Climate Change. A Rubik’s Cube that we can’t solve. Whereas if we begin to tease out the various elements of the problem – the problems of development, the problems of adaptation, the problems of short-lived greenhouse gasses like methane or black soot, separate those out from the problems of long-lived CO2, we could find a much easier set of pathways.
Evan Osnos has a good piece on China's energy and technology choices.


[1] (Added 16.00) described by one delegate as "carefully managed collapse".

[2] (added 21 Dec) including harder campaigning. See, for example, Johann Hari

Thursday, December 17, 2009


In a note from Stupid TV, Franny Armstrong quotes Climate Interactive's assessment that current proposals at COP15 would mean a 3.9C temp rise which would which would equate to something like:
- Africa uninhabitable
- Southern Europe a desert
- Australian agricultural system wiped out
- All coral reefs gone
- Most forests gone
But as John Sterman has explained, there's a significant probability, perhaps 50%, that temperature rise could be higher than that. This applies for 2 C as well:
there is a real risk of what we call “eroding goals” — of slipping what we strive for in the face of difficulty. Since when is a 50/50 chance of limiting warming to 2 °C by 2100 acceptable as a target? Sure, that’s better than doing nothing, but who thinks playing Russian roulette with half the chambers loaded is a good gamble? To limit the chance that warming will exceed 2 °C by 2100 to no more than, say, 5%, emissions would have to fall even farther and faster than the “Low Emissions” path... That’s still like playing Russian roulette with 1 in 20 chambers loaded. Who among us would play that game? Who among us would play that game when the gun is pointed not at our heads, but at our childrens’?
P.S. 18.05: supposedly the UN draft means 3 C

Words and deeds

Further to footnote [2] of War and law, consider this from George Packer:
In his address, Obama said, “When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, or repression in Burma, there must be consequences,” and he added, “We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung San Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran.” This was the least convincing passage of the speech: so far, there have been no consequences in places like Darfur, and bearing witness—or at least such low-key witness—to Iranian protesters has done nothing to sway the mullahs. The weakness of Obama’s strategic flexibility is that it depends so heavily on practical skill, above all in diplomacy, a field in which America has lost its touch over the past two decades. Failure will seem like a failure of vision and principle.
American pressure on Egypt to tighten the blockade on Gaza is also inconsistent with Obama's vision.

'More than an army'

A profile of Erik Prince. Jeremy Scahill adds context.

A wider vision

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions." A gradual evolution of human institutions.
-- Barack Obama in his Nobel prize acceptance speech. [Emphasis added] And yes this is right, but Obama still has a blind side:
Our problem is that the Obama Administration seems to want both impunity and oblivion. That won’t work—if nothing else, it’s unworthy of us as a nation.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The fix

Oliver Morton has a first rate overview of geoengineering in Prospect. A clearer and more sensible piece is hard to imagine. An excerpt:
Shortly after Paul Crutzen’s 2006 article, Tom Wigley...looked at ways of combining emissions reduction and sunlight reduction. Wigley suggested that sulphates might be squirted into the stratosphere in the near term as a way to slow the rate of warming and buy time for the massive and costly industrial shift to alternative energy. Wigley’s “buying time” approach has not enjoyed much enthusiasm from other researchers, who fear that it will reduce the sense of urgency needed to drive emissions elimination. The Royal Society report spoke for many in treating geoengineering techniques only as an insurance policy. But this is also inconsistent. Rejecting the Wigley scenario reflects a view that political decision-making cannot summon the nuanced, self-disciplined approach needed to geoengineer a little without losing your commitment to reducing emissions a lot. The “Plan B” scenario rests on a political process with characteristics just as unlikely: it requires schemes to be researched in depth but to stay unused until (but only until) some unspecified assessment commanding international political assent deems disaster imminent but not unavoidable. Good luck with that.
About two years ago I spent about six months trying to persuade New Scientist to let me write a feature on this topic. They didn't agree, and in any case I doubt I could have written anything as good as this.

The Sakharov Prize

has been awarded to Memorial. There is still hope in the idea of Europe and 'the European project' at its best.

For some context see Orlando Figes here and here, and an interview with Ludmila Alexeyeva at openDemocracy.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

War and law

A few days I contributed a comment to OurKingdom regarding Sir John Scarlett's comments to the Chilcot inquiry. As I said at the time (10 Dec), I had little to offer at that moment except sarcasm.

Several things have come to light since then, not least Tony Blair's statement that he would have found another pretext for invasion if not WMD. Jonathan Steele says:
Apart from WMD there was no other conceivable [legal] foundation for an invasion. Using force to produce regime change on humanitarian grounds is not permissible under international law, and the attorney general told Blair as much in July 2002. [1]
There's a chorus to condemn Blair now. It remains the case, however, that having no foundation in law to remove a regime on humanitarian grounds is not a satisfactory state of affairs. Governments that commit appalling large scale crimes ought to be vulnerable to removal by force approved under international or very close to the time that those crimes are committed. [2]

[1] P.S. see also Hans Blix and Ken Macdonald

[2] In his Nobel acceptance speech, Barack Obama observed that the conditions that led doctrines such as a 'responsibility to protect' in the 1990s and early 2000s have not gone away:
wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations. The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states -- all these things have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos. In today's wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, children scarred.
The prospects for co-ordinated international humanitarian action have, however, deteriorated.

Monday, December 14, 2009


For George McGovern it's déjà vu all over again. Scott Atran argues:
We need to bring [a] perspective to Afghanistan and Pakistan...that is smart about cultures, customs and connections. The present policy of focusing on troop strength and drones, and trying to win over people by improving their lives with Western-style aid programs, only continues a long history of foreign involvement and failure. Reading a thousand years of Arab and Muslim history would show little in the way of patterns that would have helped to predict 9/11, but our predicament in Afghanistan rhymes with the past like a limerick.
Last week, Tom Englehardt mapped nine surges in Afghanistan.

Prussia and Israel

Uri Avnery sees similarities

System failure (3)

Paul Krugman writes that the U.S. Republican party is committed to a bankrupt ideology. But, Frank Rich notes, the failure goes deeper than the relationship of just one political party to the financial industry.
Those at the top are separated from the consequences of their actions. They are exemplified by Robert Rubin, formerly of Citigroup and a mentor to both Obama’s Treasury secretary and chief economic adviser. He looked the other way when his bank made ruinous high-risk bets, and then cashed out and split, leaving taxpayers to pay for the wreckage while he escaped any accountability.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the financial industry has spent $344 million on lobbying in the first three quarters of 2009.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Zombies and window dressing

Ben Goldacre makes several useful points about popular reactions to climate change including the following:
* The public know that evidence-based policy is window dressing for the government, so now, when they want us to believe them on climate science, we tend to be suspicious

*contrarians use 'zombie arguments', which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down.
Myles Allen notes of journalists on the CRU hack:
Even if they were reporting on Berlusconi's sex life they would be more careful...But it's only climate change.
Clive James, perhaps suffering from road rage, tells us that 'science is never settled'. Would that apply to evolutionary theory, Clive? To the germ theory of disease? To the heliocentric model of the solar system?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tragedy and climate change

There is something genuinely tragic about the whole question of climate change. Whilst we know there are political ramifications, we know people are responsible, we know there’s culpability and all of that, at the same time it is a genuine tragedy to me in the sense that it’s something that we’ve all inherited, it’s something that we didn’t necessarily set into motion knowingly and it’s disproportionate in its impact...This sense of there being this long secret waiting to be discovered under the ice or in the atmosphere and it then was discovered too late and responded to too late.
-- the playwright Steve Waters, interviewed by Robert Butler at Ashdenizen

Related post: Climate change, poetry and tragedy


He took pleasure in copying the work of Millet, Delacroix, Courbet, Rembrandt, and writes to his brother Theo that copying "teaches, and above all, consoles". This is the humility of greatness.
-- Margaret Drabble on Vincent Van Gogh

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Beyond 'evil'

Andrew Sullivan posts an excerpt of a response from the DiA blog commenting on the interview with a suicide bomber that he described as 'evil'. DiA is right to go into depth here. DiA concludes:
[American] Bombs can only do so much. Long after the bulk of American troops have left the region, Pakistani moderates will still be fighting the long war of ideas. And there is no guarantee that they will win.
Two comments on that: 1) American bombs probably only make things worse; and 2) No there is no guarantee the moderates in Pakistan will win. Indeed, it looks at least as likely that people with the mentality of this would-be suicide bomber will get their hands on nuclear weapons, or rather that their handlers will.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

'No conscious intention'

[Sir John Scarlett] denied being under pressure to "firm up" the September 2002 dossier which contained the claim Iraq could use Weapons of Mass Destruction within 45 minutes of Saddam's order. But he said it would have been "better" to have made clear it referred to battlefield munitions not missiles.
Tony Blair wrote in the introduction to the dossier that it was "beyond doubt" that Saddam could hit British targets with biological and chemical weapons within 45 minutes.

No conscious intention was involved. Perhaps the Holy Ghost intervened.


Nepstad et al think an end to deforestation in the Amazon is possible.

Norway: one billion points

Coming soon?

Is Andrew Sullivan right on a looming US Israel split?

Only to see

I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down.
-- John Clare, quoted by Roger Deakin

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Minimum amount the US military has spent since 1985 on attempts to develop a missile shield: $150,000,000,000.

Factor by which this exceeds spending on the Apollo moon landing and the Manhattan project combined: 5

Rank of global warming among national priorities cited by Americans in a January poll: 20

Percentage of Americans and Chinese, respectively, who think action on global warming is worth it even if prices rise as a result: 41, 88
from Harper's Index, Harper's, Dec 2009

Friday, December 04, 2009

from a Nature editorial on CRU hack

...The paranoid interpretation [of climate change denialists] would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country's much needed climate bill. Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real - or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails...

...In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings - and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition. After all, the pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.
-- Complete text here.

On the brink

RBS ups the ante

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A history and a future of lies

It does not make me feel any better about those who willfully distort and misrepresent climate science to know that there are even worse liars around.

In Russia, for example, as John Sweeney reports, official textbooks say that Britain was appeasing the Nazis in 1940 and 1941, and airbrush out the millions who died in the famines and the gulags.

P.S. Sweeney relays a good Russian joke: "You never know what's going to happen yesterday".


It's a strange mindset indeed that brings Nick Griffin and Melanie 'only a theory' Philips together.

William Shaw, Brian Davey and Joe Smith explore aspects of the phenomenon.

Spencer Weart observes:
The theft and use of the emails does reveal something interesting about the social context. It’s a symptom of something entirely new in the history of science: Aside from crackpots who complain that a conspiracy is suppressing their personal discoveries, we’ve never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance.
Ben Santer of the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has circulated this open letter to the climate science community:
Dear colleagues and friends,

I am sure that by now, all of you are aware of the hacking incident which recently took place at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU). This was a criminal act. Over 3,000 emails and documents were stolen. The identity of the hacker or hackers is still unknown.

The emails represented private correspondence between CRU scientists and scientists at climate research centers around the world. Dozens of the stolen emails are from over a decade of my own personal correspondence with
Professor Phil Jones, the Director of CRU.

I obtained my Ph.D. at the Climatic Research Unit. I went to CRU in 1983 because it was - and remains - one of the world's premier institutions for studying the nature and causes of climate change. During the course of my Ph.D., I was privileged to work together with exceptional scientists - with people like Tom Wigley, Phil Jones, Keith Briffa, and Sarah Raper.

After completing my Ph.D. at CRU in 1987, I devoted much of my scientific career to what is now called "climate fingerprinting", which seeks to understand the causes of recent climate change. At its core, fingerprinting is a form of what people now call "data mining" - an attempt to extract information and meaning from very large, complex climate datasets. The emails stolen from the Climatic Research Unit are now being subjected to a very different form of "data mining". This mining is taking place in the blogosphere, in the editorial pages of various newspapers, and in radio and television programs. This form of mining has little to do with extracting meaning from personal email correspondence on complex scientific issues. This form of mining seeks to find dirt - to skew true meaning, to distort, to misrepresent, to take out of context. It seeks to destroy the reputations of exceptional scientists - scientists like Professor Phil Jones.

I have known Phil for over 25 years. He is the antithesis of the secretive, "data destroying" character being portrayed to the outside world by the miners of dirt and disinformation. Phil Jones and Tom Wigley (the second Director of the Climatic Research Unit) devoted significant portions of their scientific careers to the construction of the land component of the so-called "HadCRUT" dataset of land and ocean surface temperatures. The U.K. Meteorological Office Hadley Centre (MOHC) took the lead in developing the ocean surface temperature component of HadCRUT.

The CRU and Hadley Centre efforts to construct the HadCRUT dataset have been open and transparent, and are documented in dozens of peer-reviewed scientific papers. This work has been tremendously influential. In my personal opinion, it is some of the most important scientific research ever published. It has provided hard scientific evidence for the warming of our
planet over the past 150 years.

Phil, Tom, and their CRU and MOHC colleagues conducted this research in a very open and transparent manner. Like good scientists, they examined the sensitivity of their results to many different subjective choices made during the construction of the HadCRUT dataset. These choices relate to such issues as how to account for changes over time in the type of thermometer used to make temperature measurements, the thermometer location, and the immediate physical surroundings of the thermometer. They found that, no matter what choices they made in dataset construction, their bottom-line finding - that the surface of our planet is warming - was rock solid. This finding was supported by many other independent lines of evidence, such as the retreat of snow and sea-ice cover, the widespread melting and retreat of glaciers, the rise in sea-level, and the increase in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. All of these independent observations are physically consistent with a warming planet.

Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. The claim that our Earth had warmed markedly during the 20th century was extraordinary, and was subjected to extraordinary scrutiny. Groups at the National Climatic Data Center in North Carolina (NCDC) and at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York (GISS) independently attempted to reproduce the results of the Climatic Research Unit and the U.K. Meteorological Office Hadley Centre. While the NCDC and GISS groups largely relied on the same primary temperature measurements that had been used in the development of the HadCRUT dataset, they made very different choices in the treatment of the raw measurements. Although there were differences in the details of the three groups' results, the NCDC and GISS analyses broadly confirmed the "warming Earth" findings of the CRU and MOHC scientists.

Other extraordinary claims - such as a claim by scientists at the University of Alabama that Earth's lower atmosphere cooled since 1979, and that such cooling contradicts "warming Earth" findings - have not withstood rigorous scientific examination.

In summary, Phil Jones and his colleagues have done a tremendous service to the scientific community - and to the planet - by making surface temperature datasets publicly available for scientific research. These datasets have facilitated climate research around the world, and have led to the publication of literally hundreds of important scientific papers.

Phil Jones is one of the gentlemen of our field. He has given decades of his life not only to cutting-edge scientific research on the nature and causes of climate change, but also to a variety of difficult and time-consuming community service activities - such as his dedicated (and repeated) service as a Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Since the theft of the CRU emails and their public dissemination, Phil has been subjected to the vilest personal attacks. These attacks are without justification. They are deeply disturbing. They should be of concern to all of you. We are now faced with powerful "forces of unreason" - forces that (at least to date) have been unsuccessful in challenging scientific findings of a warming Earth, and a "discernible human influence" on global climate. These forces of unreason are now shifting the focus of their attention to the scientists themselves. They seek to discredit, to skew the truth, to misrepresent. They seek to destroy scientific careers rather than to improve our understanding of the nature and causes of climate change.

Yesterday, Phil temporarily stepped down as Director of the Climatic Research Unit. Yesterday was a very sad day for climate science. When the forces of unreason win, and force exceptional scientists like Professor Phil Jones to leave their positions, we all lose. Climate science loses. Our community loses. The world loses.

Now, more than at any other time in human history, we need sound scientific information on the nature and causes of climate change. Phil Jones and his colleagues at CRU have helped to provide such information. I hope that all of you will join me in thanking Phil for everything he has done - and will do in the future - for our scientific community. He and his CRU colleagues deserve great credit.

With best regards,

Ben Santer

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Unequal States

In the US today, the Gini coefficient—a measure of the distance separating rich and poor—is comparable to that of China.
notes Tony Judt in an essay exploring the fate of social democracy in the United States. He quotes Adam Smith:
The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.
Elizabeth Warren charts the death the American middle class.

What next?

The 'Thinker' and Female Figurine From Cernavodă, Danube Valley 5000-3500 BC

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Never mind the science...

...We look out of the window and it’s very cold, it doesn’t seem to be warming.
says Benny Peiser.

Oh. That's alright then. For just a moment there I thought we should be paying attention to a report by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

Justin Hewitt has a great geo-engineering idea:
There are a good few meters between water levels at high and low tide and none of these places are flooding at high tide, so surely if we blow up the moon [sic] sea levels will be a constant somewhere between the 2 and a rise of 0.5m will still mean sea levels lower than they were at the previous high tide.
Hat tip: RB

Monday, November 30, 2009

'The arbiter of Western reason and sanity'

Tom Friedman can declare with a straight face that "anyone who shoots up innocent people is ... mentally imbalanced" without seeing how clearly that applies to himself and those who think like he does. It's that self-absorbed disconnect...that shapes most of our warped political discourse.
-- Glenn Greenwald vents on Thomas Friedman, and there's a note that Orwell would have recognised Friedman's use of euphemism.

Have the Iranians blown it with Russia?

Gideon Rachman applies some actual thought to the current situation.

Beyond prayer

As the months went on, Todd’s prayer was answered by an offer for a permanent position with BP.
A line in Sarah Palin's book quoted by Sam Tannenhaus.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Analogies and stories

Paul Kingsnorth compares Copenhagen 2009 to Munich 1938. He's not the first to be pessimistic. James Lovelock, for example, was among those saying something similar about ten years ago. And yes, of course things may get a little bumpy in future.

I agree with those who warn against seeing COP15 as a last chance. My own hackneyed historical analogy of choice relates to a letter sent by Winston Churchill to British officers on 4 July 1940 at a time when German invasion seemed imminent. (I have the copy that was sent to my grandfather, who was Naval Liaison Officer with Army Eastern Command.) It says, basically, don't panic and don't give in. [1]

Moving beyond historical analogy, Robert Butler at Ashdenizen notes this from Steve Waters:
Climate change seems to elude dramatisation, perhaps because it presents not only a challenge to the habits of everyday life, it challenges the habituated imagination itself, it challenges the very basis of story-telling.

[1] (added 1 Dec) James Hansen expresses this in terms relevant today here and here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Distant light

Light reveals nothing about how far it has travelled. A ray of light arriving from a distant star makes no more fanfare on its arrival than does the glint reflected of the rim of a cup.
-- Simon Ings
The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent upon it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.
-- Galileo Galilei

Climate birthers

George Marshall on the attempted Swift boating of climate scientists

'I'll show you my birth certificate' doesn't work as an answer to 'Bastard' because that's not what the insult is about. This is bear baiting not a pursuit of truth

P.S. 23 Nov George Marshall in The Guardian, and George Monbiot.

Friday, November 20, 2009

After a gale

Down by the beach, the Burn of the Waters, rushing seaward, is impossible to cross. My step stones have disappeared, the burn is running twice as fast and wide as usual. I detour up to the road, where the water pouring under the bridge just about remains contained by its banks. The beach itself is still being pounded by the breaking waves, flinging spray high into the air, but their ferocity has subsided and old greying foam has left a tidemark along the stones. At the end of the beach, the higher black rocks are covered by a denser whiter mass of foam like discarded fleece.
-- Christine Smith

Which is it, Mr Miliband?

I have had a copy of the infamous Bybee memo for months, and this allows us to consider which of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" the British government would rather keep under wraps. As identified by Bybee, the 10 techniques are:

(1) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard.
-- from Britain's torture cover-up continues by Clive Stafford-Smith

Got Hope?

Gandhi was killed by fanatics. Mandela's legacy is at risk. But both of them, along with others, provide hope that tribalism, bigotry and hatred as prime movers in human affairs can be overcome some day.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I used to doubt that a 6°C rise global average temperature this century was likely. Now a study indicates it may be a plausible scenario. [1]

CO2 emissions have risen by 29% in the past decade, and 2% in the last year despite the economic downturn.

Concerns such as 'peak oil' look more misplaced than ever as there is more than enough coal, oil (if Dan Yergin is right) and natural gas to send things over the edge.

[1] P.S. Richard Betts says:
Year-to-year changes in the global economy have quite an effect, and it's too early to discern longer term, robust changes. However, if we continue to let emissions rise without mitigation, there's a strong chance we'll hit 4 °C and beyond. If we want to be staying below 2 °C then it's true to say we've only got a few years to curb emissions.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On old photos

I have long wondered the photographs of people who have been dead for several generations, especially those whose identity is unknown, are often so poignant. [1]

An idea articulated by Douglas Hofstadter in I Am a Strange Loop may cast some light on this. Hofstadter suggests that each human "I" is distributed over numerous brains rather than being limited to just one brain -- that is, a human identity is a phenomenon of relationships between people, not something that exists on its own.

An analogy could be made with the nature of a secret. As has been pointed out, a secret is not (as we may tend to think) something that exists within a person's head, but rather a relationship between two people. [2]

And so with some old photographs. The people to whom they were significant, precious are now themselves dead and so are those who knew them. The network, the circles of relationship are broken forgotten faded.


[2] This point is well made by a Dutch academic here.


A debate here on Hobbes in Hebrew.

But how much is there really to learn? Israel's 'mad dog' strategy -- readiness to use overwhelming force up to and including nuclear weapons -- suggests little has escaped attention with respect to the use of violence for ends of state.

And among supporters such as Christian Zionists in the U.S., the state has substantial numbers of citizens governed by religious belief in support of a civil power.

Friday, November 13, 2009


The Pentagon has provided $3.7 million for an independent production company, Theater of War, to visit 50 military sites through at least next summer and stage readings from two plays by Sophocles, “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” for service members.
-- NYT

Shadows of unforgotten ancestors

In one sense, we know more about the French Revolution or the Stalinist reign of terror than those who were involved in them, because we know what they led to. With the privilege of hindsight, we can inscribe these events in a broader narrative, making more sense of them than Robespierre or Trotsky were ever able to do. The price of this superior knowledge is impotence. There is no way we can use this knowledge to undo past catastrophes. We are like men and women frantically waving at history from a long way off, powerless to intervene in its crises and convulsions.

Yet we are not entirely impotent. It is up to us to ensure that Michelangelo and Thomas Mann, say, did not belong to a race that ended up destroying itself. They themselves, being dead, are powerless to prevent that tragic denouement, whereas we are not. We can make a difference to their stories. We cannot undo the fate of those in the past who fought for justice and were murdered for their pains. But we can rewrite their narratives by our own actions in the present, and even give them a classical happy ending.
-- from Waking the Dead by Terry Eagleton

Death wish

If you can't imagine why anyone would want to watch entire continents destroyed -- "2012" is not the movie for you. For "2012," needless to say, lacks all reasonable perspective. It's the kind of movie that expects that audiences, shortly after watching the entire population of India subsumed by a tidal wave, will urge on a fluffy white dog as she crosses a chasm and leaps into her owner's arms.
-- Dan Kois

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Take all the power stations in the United States. Together, they produce almost 5000 gigawatts of electricity - enough to boil several billion kettles simultaneously.

Now imagine building another five power stations for every one that already exists in the United States. That is about the amount of electricity generation that the world is on track to add over the next 20 years. And three-quarters of the new stations will use fossil fuels.
-- Energy agency warns of 'irreparable' damage

Brothers in arms

In the margin of a page on Lapham's quarterly is this from Thucydides:
The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting done by fools.
Andrew Bacevich, both soldier and scholar, is neither coward nor fool. His analysis of Afghanistan (republished in Harper's this month) stands.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Tear it down

Deceived by 20th-century Communism and disillusioned with 21st-century capitalism, we can only hope for new Kravchenkos — and that they come to happier ends. On the search for justice, they will have to start from scratch. They will have to invent their own ideologies. They will be denounced as dangerous utopians, but they alone will have awakened from the utopian dream that holds the rest of us under its sway.
-- Slavoj Zizek

New nuclear in Britain

UK government fast tracks nuclear power, never mind the extraction footprint, without having worked out what to do with the waste, and reckless of cost.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

One path leading to another

Road shining like river uphill after rain.
-- a line found on a slip of paper in Edward Thomas's diary after his death at the battle of Arras. RM

Loose nukes

The Taliban overrunning Islamabad is not the only, or even the greatest, concern. The principal fear is mutiny—that extremists inside the Pakistani military might stage a coup, take control of some nuclear assets, or even divert a warhead.
-- Seymour Hersch

G_d's work!

Rejoice and thanks be to G_d, I am saved. Lloyd Blankfein has explained that G_dman Sachs is doing G_d's work on Earth. Verily, His beneficence is infinite. Praise be unto His Name!

And here was me thinking that, as Jon Jost put it, there was some kind of racket at work. Cursed be my evil past. I once was blind but now I see.

Blankfein: New Pope, or greater manifestation of a Higher Power?

U.S. unemployment, on a broad measure, is 17.5%

Friday, November 06, 2009

Pinker or Lanier?

For all their flaws, media such as Wikipedia, news feeds, blogs, website aggregators, and reader reviews offer the potential for great advances over the status quo — not just in convenience but in intellectual desiderata like breadth, rigor, diversity of viewpoints, and responsibility to the factual record. Our intellectual culture today reflects this advance — contrary to the Cassandras, scientific progress is dizzying; serious commentary on the internet exceeds the capacity of any mortal reader; the flow of philosophical, historical, and literary books (many of doorstop length) has not ebbed; and there is probably more fact-checking, from TV news to dinner tables, than an any time in history. Our collective challenge in dealing with the Internet is to nurture these kinds of progress.
-- Steven Pinker
If the new world brought about by digital technologies is to enhance Darwinian effects in human affairs, then digital culture will devour itself, becoming an ouroboros that will tighten into a black hole and evaporate. Unless, that is, the Pirates can become immortal through technology before it is too late, before their numbers are overtaken, for instance, by the high birth rates of retro religious fanatics everywhere. This race for immortality is not so hidden in the literature of digital culture. The digital culture expressed by the Pirates is simultaneously nihilist and maniacal/egocentric.
-- Jaron Lanier

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Strange planet

The Tao-Rusyr caldera and Kal'tsevoe Lake on Onekotan, one of the Kuril Islands.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Look no rabbit

Writers are sometimes likened to illusionists, but I'm not sure that's the right analogy – for the illusionist the rabbit is in the hat and the trick is to disguise how it got there. For the writer there is no rabbit, and there is no hat, and there never was and never will be.
-- Samantha Harvey


The 65th bomb killed Olaf Schmid


A company behind plans to open the first hotel in space says it is on target to accept its first paying guests in 2012 despite critics questioning the investment and time frame for the multi-billion dollar project.

The Barcelona-based architects of The Galactic Suite Space Resort say it will cost 3 million euro ($4.4 million) for a three-night stay at the hotel, with this price including an eight-week training course on a tropical island.

During their stay, guests would see the sun rise 15 times a day and travel around the world every 80 minutes.
-- Reuters
Put quite simply, the life of [the British
 statesman in 1905] was superior [to that of the super-connected California company executive of 2016] because he was
 allowed rest and reflection, his
contemplation could seek its own level, and
 his tranquility was unaccelerated. While he
was in his time a member of a privileged
class unburdened by many practical
necessities, today most Americans have
similar resources and freedoms, and yet
they, like their contemporaries in even the
most exalted positions, have chosen a
different standard, closer to that of the [frenetic company executive].

...Requisite, I believe, for [the good life] are the discipline, values, and
clarity of vision that tend to flourish as we
grapple with necessity and to disappear
when by our ingenuity we float free of it.
-- Mark Helprin (1996)

Death and the contrarians

George Monbiot reflects on link between climate science contrarianism/denial and the psychology of vital lies, entitlement and exceptionalism.

Whether or not there is link between old age and contrarianism/denial is an open question. My guess is that there is a stronger correlation with other factors, including education attainment, pre-existing political and cultural beliefs, and immediate life experience and expectations.

On the question of how to confront the growth of contrarianism/denial in the face of even more compelling scientific evidence, one place to start could be IPPR's recent document Consumer Power: A Communications Guide for Mainstreaming Lower-Carbon Behaviour. Its checklist goes:
1. “Don’t focus on climate change"
2. “Focus on saving money now”
3. “Prevent the rebound effect” (in which people spend money saved through low-carbon behaviours on other, high-carbon practices)
4. “Talk about carbon pollution, not CO2 emissions”
5. “Satirise high-carbon behaviours”
6. “Make lower-carbon options desirable”
7. “Remember that being in control matters” (e.g. with regard to controlling personal energy costs)
8. “Make it fun”
9. “Avoid guilt and the ‘environmental’ label”
10. “Use messengers that ‘keep it real’”
But clearly we need more than that.


The story of Mahmoud Vahidnia. Via AS.

P.S. 6 Nov: or was it a put-up job?

Sunday, November 01, 2009


In Afghanistan's disreputable 2009 presidential election, everyone's a loser. Hamid Karzai's "victory", achieved by fraud and now by default, has left him a tarnished, diminished figure. The US administration that orchestrated the whole process still lacks the credible partner in Kabul it says is essential for success.

The UN's reputation for probity lies critically wounded in the gutter, a victim of inaction and bitter infighting among officials. Nato's mission looks even more rudderless and ill-defined than before. The cause of the Afghan people, bemused and terrorised by turns, is no further forward and may in truth have been set back.
-- Simon Tisdall

P.S. 2 Nov: Andrew Sullivan:
The surge has failed in Iraq to create the national unity it was designed to achieve; and its security achievements are just not replicable in Afghanistan. Expecting Karzai to reform now when he is in a civil war and just defeated his opponent makes no sense at all. Enormous pressure on him for years made no discernible difference.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


This is perplexing but fascinating:
If observers are an integral part of the cosmic formula, then it may not matter how many universes exist - just how many a single observer can tell apart. If the observer is a person, that depends on how many bits of information the brain can process. "Based on the number of synapses in a typical brain, a human observer can register 10 ^16," says Linde. That means humans can differentiate 10^10^16 universes, which is much more manageable than the 10^10^10,000,000 Linde and Vanchurin found to start with.
See also a report on Quantum to Cosmos.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

Science, imagination, art

I wrote here that "scientific and technological possibilites...lay the path and large human imagination and politics follow."

Some writers and artists appear to be sensitive to the very frontiers of scientific understanding in their time. Walter Benjamin wrote of Franz Kafka that he was a contemporary of modern physics. "When you read a passage from Eddington's Nature of the Physical World, it's almost as if you're listening to Kafka."

A photo by Eddington of the 1919 eclipse

[1] Letter to Gershom Scholem (1938). "Kafka lives in a complementary world," writes Benjamin, alluding to Niels Bohr's principle of complementarity. Kafka also anticipated political trends. Benjamin continues:
...the reality that now presents itself as ours -- theoretically in modern physics and in practice by military technology now almost beyond the individual's capacity to experience, and...Kafka's world, often so serene and pervaded by angels, is the exact complement of his age, which is preparing to do away with considerable segments of this planet's population. In all likelihood, the public experience corresponding to this private one of Kafka's will be available to the masses only on the occasion of their extermination.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Nuclear power is the lazy option. Stick up a few more reactors, don't say too much about costs per kilowatt hour (let alone costs for each tonne of CO2 abated), dump the responsibility of dealing with the waste on future generations, and don't worry too much about the state of the grid or the impact on renewable energy.
-- Jonathon Porritt
When France embarked on an aggressive program of building nuclear capacity — a 40- fold increase in 25 years from the late 1970s — annual emissions from the electricity and heat sector fell by 6 per cent, but total fossil emissions declined by only 0.6 per cent annually.
-- Clive Hamilton


Clive Hamilton thinks it may be too late to prevent catastrophic climate change:
under the most optimistic assumptions about the timing and extent of global greenhouse gas emission reductions, cumulative emissions over the next few decades will result in atmospheric concentrations reaching 650 ppm of CO2-e, associated with warming of 4°C or more before the end of the century, a temperature not seen on Earth for 15 million years. It now seems almost certain that, if it has not occurred already, within the next several years enough warming will be locked into the system to set in train positive feedback processes that will overwhelm any attempts to cut back on carbon emissions. Humans will be powerless to stop the shift to a new climate on Earth, one much less sympathetic to life.
Graph from David Archer via John Schellnhuber (slides here, page 11)
We moderns have become accustomed to the idea that we can modify our environment to suit our needs, and have acted accordingly for some three hundred years. We are now discovering that our intoxicating belief that we can conquer all has come up against a greater force, the Earth itself. We are discovering that humans cannot regulate the climate; the climate regulates us. The prospect of runaway climate change challenges our technological hubris and our Enlightenment faith in reason. The Earth may soon demonstrate that, ultimately, it cannot be tamed and that the human urge to master nature has only roused a slumbering beast.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Influenza A

While the world media has obsessed, and rightfully so, about this fast-spreading [Swine Flu], I'm worried about the next crisis, something much deadlier and much more catastrophic, indeed the kind of crisis most people wrongly believe could not happen in this day and age. If I were the author, this urgently needed novel would have to be called Plague.
-- Robin Cook. HPAI A(H5N1) + HINI, and no happy ending

Friday, October 16, 2009

The trap

For Obama to do the courageous thing and withdraw would mean having deployed against him the unlimited wrath of the mainstream media, the oil interest, the Israel lobby, the weapons and security industries, all those who have reasons both avowed and unavowed for the perpetuation of American force projection in the Middle East. If he fails to satisfy the request from General McChrystal – the specialist in ‘black ops’ who now controls American forces in Afghanistan – the war brokers will fall on Obama with as finely co-ordinated a barrage as if they had met and concerted their response. Beside that prospect, the calls of betrayal from the antiwar base that gave Obama his first victories in 2008 must seem a small price to pay. The best imaginable result just now, given the tightness of the trap, may be ostensible co-operation with the generals, accompanied by a set of questions that lays the groundwork for refusal of the next escalation. But in wars there is always a deep beneath the lowest deep, and the ambushes and accidents tend towards savagery much more than conciliation.
-- David Bromwich

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Six insights on Congo

Martin Shaw summarizes Gérard Prunier:
* the Rwandan genocide was a decisive moment in modern African history;

* most of the states that became involved did so because of limited, local interests;

* the partial nature of most states' interests, combined with their restricted mobilising capacities..., explain why this was not really "Africa's great war", but rather a messy, episodic conflict across but some areas of the vast DRC;

* the Hutu Power forces in Rwanda in 1994 were unique in organising a large-scale, nationwide campaign of genocide. But genocidal violence (massacres, rape, expulsions) has remained intermittent throughout the conflicts in the DRC in the subsequent decade and a half, and been employed by many of the parties;

* the Rwandan...government of Paul Kagame was unique in having a sustained interest in continuing the Congo wars, and determined to use the west's guilt at failing to stop the 1994 genocide to produce impunity for itself;

* many western governments and NGOs were (most of the time) duly blinded by their guilt to acknowledge the hardship Rwanda's campaign was inflicting on the DR Congo's population, or to raise their voices against it.
Complex conflicts across northeastern Africa, centred on Sudan "still cast a long shadow that reaches into the DRC."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Monday, October 12, 2009


[LBJ] was a member of a minority group, defined not in racial or ethnic terms but in terms of "alienat[ion] from the self by a double sense of identity and so at the mercy of a self which demands action and more action to define the most rudimentary borders of identity."

"To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."
-- William Astore cites an unlikely pair: Norman Mailer and Sun Tzu.

But a central reason for the continuation of the war is that it is good business.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dreaming wakes

Giulio particularly concerned by the possibility that parts of our brain might be going offline without us even realising it. "In many respects, it would be like having a temporary mental disorder without anybody, including yourself, being aware of it," he says.
-- from Are you asleep? Exploring the mind's twilight zone?
Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.
-- George Santayana


[Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide] similar to those now commonly regarded as adequate to tackle climate change were associated with sea levels 25-40m (80-130 ft) higher than today.
-- BBC report

Thursday, October 08, 2009


Tom Englehardt compares the US and Nato in Afghanistan to the Martians in H G Wells's War of the Worlds.

It's a striking comparison, but I wonder if Ahmed Rashid is right: this is a war of necessity, it just needs to be fought smarter.

Monday, October 05, 2009


A good article on Maya Lin's What is Missing? (Hat tip BM)

Lin's Vietnam memorial is the greatest monument relating to industrialized warfare that I know of. How it got approval an imperial city like DC escapes me. Perhaps a Strong America Emergency Executive for the Protection of the Constitution under president Sarah Palin will relocate it.

The article on What is Missing? is nearly overwhelmed by obtrusive advertisements -- an odd effect, if not quite as odd as the start of Yann Arhus-Betrand's Home, where the opening title is constructed from brand names in the Gucci group.

Communicating the emergency

The Safe Climate Australia campaign is more than three months in. Their video Run for a safe climate remains one of the best bits of communication around.

Hat tip Climate safety.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Sympathy without the devil

"Attacking [religious fundementalists] is easier than understanding [them]," says Simon Donner. "It also does more harm than good."

Consider the Otin-taii declaration.

Condemned to repeat it

The beauty-contest analogy helps explain why real-estate developers, condo flippers, and financial investors continued to invest in the real-estate market and in the mortgage-securities market, even though many of them may have believed that home prices had risen too far. Alan Greenspan and other free-market economists failed to recognize that, during a speculative mania, attempting to “surf” the bubble can be a perfectly rational strategy. According to orthodox economics, professional speculators play a stabilizing role in the financial markets: whenever prices rise above fundamentals, they step in and sell; whenever prices fall too far, they step in and buy. But history has demonstrated that much of the so-called “smart money” aims at getting in ahead of the crowd, and that only adds to the mispricing...

...During the Depression, the Glass-Steagall Act was passed in order to separate the essential utility aspects of the financial system—customer deposits, check clearing, and other payment systems—from the casino aspects, such as investment banking and proprietary trading. That key provision was repealed in 1999. The [Obama] Administration has shown no interest in reinstating it, which means that “too big to fail” financial supermarkets, like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, will continue to dominate the financial system. And, since the federal government has now demonstrated that it will do whatever is necessary to prevent the collapse of the largest financial firms, their top executives will have an even greater incentive to enter perilous lines of business. If things turn out well, they will receive big bonuses and the value of their stock options will increase. If things go wrong, the taxpayer will be left to pick up some of the tab.
-- from Rational Irrationality by John Cassidy

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Towards a Green Stoic philosophy

The philosopher John Gray recently wrote:
stoicism will be needed if civilised life is to survive an environmental crisis that cannot now be avoided. Walking on lava requires a cool head, not one filled with fiery dreams.[1]
As I’ve written previously, I find this view quite compelling. But what would this kind of stoicism look like? How would it work?

When someone is described as stoical the adjective is usually coupled with ‘grimly’: the caricature would be a guy in a toga who falls on his sword without complaint. But the human animal needs more than sang froid and an extremely practical cast of mind, essential as those qualities are in current circumstances. [2] We need some form of hope, albeit a toughened one that is ready to take many more punches, and we need some sort of vision. We need, I suggest, ‘green stoicism’. [3]

The ‘green’ in this coupling refers to a kind of environmentalism that is as undeceived and unsentimental as we can achieve. It recognizes (among other things) that evolutionary processes and earth systems are indifferent. [4] It sees grandeur in life as well as pain and tragedy. But it also seeks for space where intelligent decisions are sometimes possible, particularly as processes, systems and emergent properties in physics, biology, ecology, neuroscience and so on become better understood.

And the ‘stoicism’ is informed by more than grim determination to do the right thing even when defeat seems the most likely outcome (important though that is). While it is deeply concerned with understanding destructive aspects of human nature such as our susceptibility to fear and anger and to appetites that run out of control, it also celebrates a tradition of exploring and cultivating the virtues and human flourishing. [5] It holds that to some extent we can manage and channel our drives and those of others to beneficial ends. Our ability to do so may be limited and often destined for defeat but it is better than nothing.

Ancient stoicism, broadly speaking, said that we must live in accordance with nature. Four or five hundred years of modern science have given us much more sophisticated models of nature to work with: progress in science is real. [6] 'Green stoicism' would build on this real knowledge for an approach to human affairs that is neither Hobbesian nor Panglossian. [7]


[1] A review of Uncivilisation: Dark Mountain Manifesto. The metaphor doesn’t quite work: it is impossible to walk on lava. Closer, perhaps, to envisage a walk on a thin crust of cooled rock above a magma chamber. If it erupts beneath our feet then, stoic or not, we're toast. But if eruption is not imminent then we may have some room, albeit temporary and limited, to make choices. We may be able to move to another part of the landscape where we are less likely to be in the path of lava flows or noxious gasses. There may even be things we can do to reduce the likelihood of an eruption.

[2] See for example, the proceedings of the 4 Degree Conference, and much else including Michael Klare on Energy Xtremism

[3] Michael Benedikt has used the phrase 'environmental stoicism' to denote "the ability to endure or tune out places that are cheap or neglected, depressing or demeaning, banal, uncomfortable, or controlling." An interesting idea but not what I have in mind.

[4] Lao Tzu: "Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs." Charles Darwin: “Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult -- or at least I have found it so -- than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind.” James Lovelock: “Nature is not fragile; we are.”

[5] Eudaimonia does not require hedonism in the sense we use that term today. As Epicurus put it, "it is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly."

[6] A beautiful example here. But (added 8 Oct) Gray, presumably, would not agree. "We imagine that the theories we frame about the world are not only useful, but also true." This is, he says, "a highly questionable assumption". On the other hand, he has just referred to the possibility of a multiverse, an idea that derives from the contemporary cosmology.

[7] See The human frame.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Two degrees is important politically but in terms of what is going to happen, I think a lot of people think it is a lost cause already. Four degrees is highly plausible given the evidence and it is different enough from two degrees that we can start exploring the difficulties and what the world will look like.
-- Mark New

A few details on Nature's climate blog.