Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tough oil

A couple of signs of changing times that were newish to me:
This year, the US overtook Russia to become the world’s biggest gas producer for the first time in a decade.
-- thanks to shale gas, reports Gideon Rachman
This year, the United States’ largest single source of imported oil is expected to be the Canadian tar sands.
-- reports Elizabeth Kolbert.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Before the Homoousians and the Homoiousians

Jesus’ morality has a brash, sidewise indifference to conventional ideas of goodness. His pet style blends the epigrammatic with the enigmatic. When he makes that complaint about the prophet having no honor in his own home town, or says exasperatedly that there is no point in lighting a candle unless you intend to put it in a candlestick, his voice carries a disdain for the props of piety that still feels startling...

Some of the sayings do have, in their contempt for material prosperity, the ring of Greek Cynic philosophy, but there is also something neither quite Greek nor quite Jewish about Jesus’ morality that makes it fresh and strange even now. Is there a more miraculous scene in ancient literature than the one in John where Jesus absent-mindedly writes on the ground while his fellow-Jews try to entrap him into approving the stoning of an adulteress, only to ask, wide-eyed, if it wouldn’t be a good idea for the honor of throwing the first stone to be given to the man in the mob who hasn’t sinned himself?...

This social radicalism still shines through—not a programmatic radicalism of national revolution but one of Kerouac-like satori-seeking-on-the-road. And the social radicalism is highly social. The sharpest opposition in the Gospels, the scholar and former priest John Dominic Crossan points out in his illuminating books—“The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” is the best known—is between John the Faster and Jesus the Feaster. Jesus eats and drinks with whores and highwaymen, turns water into wine, and, finally, in one way or another, establishes a mystical union at a feast through its humble instruments of bread and wine.
-- from Adam Gopnik on the real Jesus

Monday, May 17, 2010

MPAs not MAD

Shortly before the election I recorded a thirty second slot for Greenpeace's 'Cut Trident' campaign. That message has only just gone up, more than a week after the election, here. (You'll need to search 'Caspar' in the box in the bottom right hand corner. If you find it, and like it, give me a 'heart'!)

Britain's new coalition government has agreed to go ahead with a replacement for Trident. This overrides the position taken by the Liberal Democrats before the election. They were the only one of the three largest parties to oppose a rush to renewal.

Greenpeace's campaign was framed for the run-up to the election so my message comes after the horse has bolted. I hope, however, that they and others will continue their opposition to this misguided, dangerous and costly policy.

I wrote a short backgrounder for the thirty-seconder and post it below. Even this, of course, simplifies many key issues. For an introduction to Marine Protected Areas you could hardly do better than Enric Sala's talk recently posted by TED. Callum Roberts of York University has also written about this brilliantly. And for a little more context on destruction of the seas, Jeremy Jackson TED talk is also good. Anyway, here's my spiel:
Trident is a weapon system of the Cold War, designed for the world of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD. [1] But that’s not the world we live in today. We are moving into a multipolar world in which many, perhaps dozens, of emerging powers will have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them over long distances, and in which non-state actors may be able to explode a nuclear device in a major city. This is a world of significant and increasing risks. None of them will be reduced by British possession of weapons designed for the mass slaughter of innocent people.

The best way to tackle our present nightmare is through international cooperation that leads to more effective control of nuclear materials in the civil sector, and to better control, limitation and, ultimately, abolition of nuclear weapons. [2] The framework for this, imperfect as it is, already exists. It’s called the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the overwhelming majority of nations, including Britain, are committed to it. Under its terms, the five officially recognized nuclear powers of which Britain is one are required to move towards nuclear disarmament. In return, other countries give up their programmes. After nearly a decade of neglect by the Bush administration in the United States, the administration of Barack Obama has breathed new life into this process. And there has never been a better opportunity for Britain to help reduce threats to its own security as well as the rest of the world.

A small part of the money earmarked for a new generation of British nuclear weapons could make a real difference here. 100 million pounds -- just over one tenth of one percent of 97 billion -- could promote sustained, creative engagement with and between other powers: trust-building exercises, exchanges of expertise - especially where trust is least - help for the creation of nuclear weapon-free regions and so on.
If we’re serious about our future security and well-being we should also consider other priorities. How an additional ten billion for education, for scientific research and development, and for greater energy efficiency? Hey, we could even use some of the money to reduce the government deficit.

And here’s another idea: the protection of endangered species and vulnerable ecosystems worldwide. As a writer on the natural world, I have found that people are only beginning to understand the wonders and the true value of this, our common heritage, and that we destroy it at our peril. But as we breath species and ecosystems are probably being destroyed faster than at any time in human history and perhaps for tens of millions of years.

The challenges of ecosystem protection and restoration are huge and complex. Many of them cannot be solved or even mitigated by throwing money at them. But a few can. And in this, the International Year of Biodiversity, Britain can make a difference where it matters most. One of the best ideas around is the creation of new Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. These can do more than anything else to stem the destruction of the ocean life, at least in the near term. Relatively tiny sums - just one or two million a year for the Chagos Archipelago, for example -- have helped ensure some of the world’s most extraordinary coral reefs have a good chance of getting through the next few decades. A worldwide network of MPAs, increasing coverage from under one percent of the oceans to as much as a fifth or even third, is achievable for globally trivial sums, and it can be done in ways that recognize the needs of local people. Unlike the enormous subsidies currently paid to the fishing industry, it would actually deliver a positive return on investment. Similar initiatives to protect biodiversity on land can work too. A billion pounds from Britain would be a good start.

[1] According to Aron Bernstien of the Council for a Livable World, 192 independently targeted warheads on a Trident submarine can deliver 100 to 300 KT (The Hiroshima bomb was 15KT). This means that they can deliver, on a conservative estimate, 19 MT or more than six times all of Allied ordnance deployed against Germany, Japan and other powers in World War Two: " It's reported that UK Trident submarines carry 48 warheads.

[2] See, for example, A World Free of Nuclear Weapons by George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007.

P.S. Martin Rees on Disarmament Labs

P.S. 24 May: See An Arsenal We Can Live With by Gary Shaub and James Forsyth, and a useful Guardian article from 20 May: Deadly - and very, very expensive

Friday, May 14, 2010

'Reaching far beyond Realpolitik...'

Or not:
[Obama's] Cairo speech laid out a series of initiatives for America’s re├źngagement with Muslim countries. Almost a year later, as a few of those initiatives have begun to take shape, a general pattern has emerged. The programs focus on entrepreneurship and business development, science education, women’s and children’s health, student exchanges. They do not cover human rights, political empowerment of women, or governance. After an internal debate, the Administration decided to stay away from these more sensitive topics at first and, instead, to build credibility in worthy but uncontroversial areas. It was a legitimate decision, [sic] but it has reinforced a view among some Arab reformers that, according to a recent report by the Project on Middle East Democracy, “President Obama has said the right words, but is unwilling or unable to offer substantive new policies to support the aspirations of people in the Middle East.”
-- George Packer. A recent FOOC report on Egypt here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

'Lotte hatt blaue Augen'

A.O. Scott gets it:
Jean Renoir is often described as one of the great humanists of world cinema. That’s a word that has an implication of high minded abstract maybe soft-headed sentimentality: “underneath it all we’re all the same and why can’t we just get along?” But...Renoir was not really motivated by abstract concerns about humanity...he was motivated above all by curiosity about and sympathy for his characters, by an interest in people. The film abounds in so many moments of humour of warmth, of sensuality, of surprise that make you realise that anything more abstract is really an illusion.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"The entire Indian subcontinent"

At the moment, virtually nowhere on Earth has a wet-bulb temperature of more than 30 °C. But with a global rise of 11 °C [by 2300], huge areas would have wet-bulb temperatures of more than 35 °C for part of the year. According to the climate model used by the team, these regions would include much of the eastern US, the entire Indian subcontinent, most of Australia and part of China.
-- Earth 2300: Too hot for humans.

Of course, it's just a model.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Gandamak ghost

In a useful piece published back in January on Obama's options in Afghanistan, Rory Stewart (who is now the Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith) stressed that the situation in Afghanistan today differs from 1842 as much as it differs from 330BC and 1980. Still, Dalrymple's comparison has some plausibility.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

One of the reasons nukes may not be such a good idea

You don’t have to obtain access to the nuclear fuel, get into the control room [of a nuclear power plant] or penetrate the containment shell. Most of the critical components of the cooling system, including pumps and water intake pipes, sit unprotected outside. If you can get a car bomb or a team with demolition charges near these components, you can shut off the cooling water to the reactor, and physics will take care of the rest.
-- Charles Faddis.