Friday, December 15, 2006

River colours

"The river changes colour a lot depending on what’s going on in the mountains. So you can have a spring day when you’ve got a blue sky and the river takes on this blue sheen. In the summer, when the light’s right... particularly over a rocky ledge, you’ll see this red brindle colour almost like the peat coming through the water. In autumn time, or in the summer when you have heavy rains up in the mountains and you get a lot of silt runoff, the river will just thunder down like a stream of hot chocolate. It’s quite amazing. And then in the winter if you have a quick snowmelt it’s quite deceptive. You don’t think the river’s in spate but actually you’ve got this ink black roar of water coming down. A bit like this like we have today we have to day [but ] much fuller. And the power of the spate on the river Findhorn is...incomprehensible until you actually see it. It’s completely exhilarating”

-- Jamie Whittle on Open Country (re-broadcast on 14 December).


Dieter Helm is characteristically sharp:

To meet [a] series of new challenges, Europe needs more than a set of national responses, however much these might be in individual member-states's narrow interests. That Germany is in the driving seat, both as Gazprom's hub and with the presidencies [of the EU and G8], provides a timely chance to prepare Europe for its future energy dependency, and to better align its internal energy market reforms with the external challenge.

But at stake is much more: if Germany fails to go down the European path, it will be a break with one of the deep political objectives of the EU, and it will show the sceptical voters of Europe that the EU cannot deliver in an area of such vital interest. Energy is where a significant part of the case for greater European integration may be won or lost.


The Economist, the house magazine of old fashioned liberalism and maybe neo-liberalism too, gets it right:

No ifs or buts. Whatever the general did for the economy [Pinochet] was a bad man... took the return of democracy in 1990, with its ability to bestow legitimacy, to create an investment-led boom and a large fall in poverty. Elsewhere in Latin America, free-market reforms were enacted by democracies...

...Even if history bothers to remember that he privatised the pension system, that should not wipe away the memory of the torture, the “disappeared” and the bodies dumped at sea. His defenders—who include Britain's Lady Thatcher—really should know better.

Lovey Dove-y

"The wider public interest"..."outweigh[s] the need to maintain the rule of law".
It looks like an extraordinary thing for the highest officer of the law in any jurisdiction to say. But the BBC's diplomatic correspondent writes: "Nobody anywhere is...surprised at [the] decision" [to end a corruption investigation into a British-Saudi arms deal].

Well, even if that's true (and not everyone agrees -- see comments below by one activist), please let's have a dispassionate and rigorous analysis of what the attorney general's statement and the Prime Minister's reasoning say about: 1) the British constitutional system and the place of law within it; and 2) how, precisely, "the UK public interest in terms of both national security and our highest priority foreign policy objectives in the Middle East" is served.

(The activist wrote:
Why should anyone want 'integrate' into a country that: goes to war illegally; makes money selling arms to despotic regimes; lets arms traders know they above the law; allows the judiciary to be overruled by the executive; claims that it is not in the 'national interest' to uphold the rule of law and; has a government that brazenly pretends that the 'national interest' is not 'economic' ('national interest' halts arms corruption inquiry, 14 December). Let's face it, we are hooked on oil and will do anything to ensure we keep on getting it, including sell arms to pay for it - and blow the impact on global climate. Only one political party has stood up against all of this but, because of our outdated electoral system, it hasn't a single seat in parliament. Vote Green for sanity and self-respect!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bye baiji

What would Daoists say about the extinction of the Yangtze Dolphin?

Horn of Africa

“I am ready to die,” [says] Osama Abdi Rahim, dressed head to toe in camouflage and marching around with a loaded rifle. He is 7 years old.

-- Somalia’s Islamists and Ethiopia Gird for a War, front paged in the NYT on 14 Dec. The article continues:

“I’ll be honest,” said Sheik Muktar Robow Abu Monsur, the deputy security chief for the Islamists. “America is the best friend of Islam. It wakes up the sleeping Muslim.”

Factors behind the hysteria include drought and demographics. A startlingly pessimistic article in The Economist this summer (The Path to Ruin, 10 August) noted:

It wouldn't take much for famine to seize hold of the [Somali borderlands in the Horn of Africa]. Humanitarian action has kept the starving alive, but it has not enabled them to recover their lives. The trend is an ever increasing need for food aid plus ever less money from donors to pay for it. The World Food Programme (WFP) is responsible for delivering most of the aid in the Horn. It says that the number of Ethiopians on its books has doubled since the 1990s, in bad years to as many as 10m. The situation is not much better elsewhere. Some 1.7m hungry people are reliant on food aid in south Somalia—when the WFP can get it to them. And 3m people in Kenya, mostly in the country's arid north, will get some kind of food aid this year.

The Economist article includes a chart of population growth, showing the total number of people in Ethiopia rising from about 75 million today to 144m by 2030, and Kenya from about 35m to 65m over the same period the same time. Somalia's population, says the graph, will grow from about 8m to nearly 20m. Somalia has the highest fertility rate of the three countries (6.8 children per woman) and there are sizeable Somali minorities in Ethiopia and Kenya too.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A cause for celebration

Bushmen from the Kalahari desert have won a court case in which they accused Botswana's government of illegally moving them from their land.

Don't know how lucky you are, boys

Breakup, chaos, poverty, violence and extreme corruption: it happened to the USSR and was hailed as a triumph of democracy.

"A large majority of Russians...regret the end of the Soviet Union, not because they pine for 'communism' but because they lost a secure way of life. They do not share the nearly unanimous western view that the Soviet Union's 'collapse' was 'inevitable' because of inherent fatal defects. They believe instead, and for good reason, that three 'subjective' factors broke it up: the way Gorbachev carried out his political and economic reforms; a power struggle in which Yeltsin overthrew the Soviet state in order to get rid of its president, Gorbachev; and property-seizing Soviet bureaucratic elites, the nomenklatura, who were more interested in 'privatising' the state's enormous wealth in 1991 than in defending it. Most Russians, including even the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, therefore still see December 1991 as a 'tragedy'.

In addition, a growing number of Russian intellectuals have come to believe that something essential was lost - a historic opportunity to democratise and modernise Russia by methods more gradualist, consensual and less traumatic, and thus more fruitful and less costly, than those adopted after 1991".

-- Stephen Cohen, who puts a lot of the blame on Yeltsin, in The Guardian and The Nation.

I'm not sure the majority of Russians are right to believe the USSR didn't have fatal defects. Clearly, however, a less destructive transition path was possible.

We don't care

A useful post by Clive Bates here, on which I have commented as follows:

Thanks indeed for this sober and thoughtful analysis. I found it particularly useful after reading a 12 Dec article in the New York Times by Steve Lohr titled The Cost of an Overheated Planet.

It's clear that governments and societies (which are not the same think - thank you, David Cameron) will sometimes spend on things they think will reduce the risk of big hazards. A Lohr points out, "In the late 1950s...American military spending reached as high as 10 percent of the gross domestic product and averaged about 4 percent, far higher than in any previous peacetime era. A Soviet nuclear attack was a danger but hardly a certainty, just as the predicted catastrophes from global warming are threats but not certainties."

The article then touches on the implications of spending 1% of US GDP to fight global warming (incidentally, says Lohr, 1% of US GDP is more than $120 billion a year, or $400 a person; it is about equal to the Bush administration’s tax cuts in 2001; and roughly the amount spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2006).

At first sight one might think: "Case closed - if [we] are willing to spend 1% on war surely [we] are willing to match this in the struggle to save the planet", or some such worthy statement (1% being also the figure Stern recommends for expenditure to fight climate change).

As you rightly point out, however, revealed preferences for things that seem to be remote tend to be smaller, even among those who self-define as altruistic (which takes us back to Adam Smith, the Chinese empire and one's little finger).

Climate change is perceived as a much more remote, and lesser threat than nuclear war was in the 1950s and 60s.

It may be that that perception is wrong. The probabilities of a nuclear exchange between the USSR and the USA, which occasioned the latter to spend up to 10% of GDP to fight it, may for much of the time, including in the 1950s, have been smaller than thought (although, if Robert McNamara is right about Castro, we got incredibly close in 1961). And the possibility of "runaway" climate change is not, as far as I know, something that serious scientists dismiss completely (this would not necessarily be as bad as nuclear war, just that it could be very bad).

I'm not suggesting one should try and create a "duck and cover" hysteria about global warming. I am suggesting we need to recalibrate our understanding of respective risks.

Here's a further thought. As you say, in Britain (and other rich industrialised countries) we are willing to spend disproportionate sums on immediate near term problems. You give the good example of health care in the last few days of life.

So what if societies such as ours started to place greater value on the near term impacts of climate change (for example, the likely loss of tropical coral reefs at less than 2C global average temperature rise)?

I feel out of my depth using a term like "the construction of value", but isn't that what we are talking about? Those concerned with local and global social and environmental justice may seek to reshape values so that more people cherish such things (yes, even in our revealed preferences) a little more with respect to what we believe to be our own near term utility. (By the way, perhaps there is a case for dialogue/education with those facing terminal illnesses and their families regarding the case for a less drawn-out death -- ouch! a difficult but valid debate).

So to your final point: "perhaps a human rights or pure justice lens would be better". Well yes! The comparison may be a tendentious, but imagine a political economist of the 1770s looking at the economic case for and against the abolition of slavery. That would provide useful data, but it would only take him so far. The battle in that case was political.

Also, this time the people on the receiving end may have other ways of expressing their grievances or otherwise making themselves felt - through, for example, large scale migration from West Africa to Europe.

Reading it back, this comment comes across as impossibly idealistic. As Jonathan Glover points out in his extraordinary book Humanity: a Moral History of the 20th Century, we have hardly begun to tackle the social psychology and practical ethics of warfare, still less issues such as environmental protection.

But as he is flavour of the week, let's cite Barack Obama - let us have the audacity to hope.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

24 hour party people

This on the impacts of a small nuclear war, both directly and on the climate, is interesting -- not least as it appears in "proliferation week", when the US aids NNPT cheeky chappy India, and the Israeli PM says they have the bomb.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The day before yesterday

In An Inconvenient Truth (and here), Al Gore quotes Winston Churchill: "we are entering a period of consequences". The phrase came to mind in connection with at least three different things to which I was more or less paying attention on Wednesday, 6 December: the publication of the report of the Iraq Study Group; the pre-budget statement from Gordon Brown; and my own meanderings as a country mouse visiting The City, which took in a street opera and a discussion of carbon trading.

The ISG report may bang a few Washington heads together over the consequences of what has happened since the 2003 invasion. But both the shriller critics of the Iraq war, such as Greg Palast, and the more thoughtful, such as Mark Danner (see Iraq: the war of the imagination), point to reasons why, in the unlikely event it is implemented, this is unlikely to be enough.

Meanwhile, in Britanistan, Chancellor Brown chose not to announce the "green" budget some had hoped for. Small additional revenues from travel taxes (£5 on flights and £23 on a motorist who drives 10,000 miles a year) will be used to fill a hole in finances, not to transform the transport system (never mind the whole economy). If Brown is serious about the recommendations of his own Stern review, he is not showing his cards now.

My own business in London allowed time to contemplate two very different approaches to dealing with the consequences of the actions of the majority of us in rich industrial societies.

The first was And While London Burns, an "opera for one" about climate change which you download onto an MP3 player and then follow on foot as an audio guide leads you around byways in the Square Mile.

I will not review it in detail here, but this is a serious, imaginative, engaging, astute, ambitious and resonant but musically weak drama. A central theme is fully imagining, and taking responsibility for, the consequences of our actions.

In three acts, Fire, Dust and Water, treading from the earth of a once-buried temple of Mithras to the golden ball of fire thrust into the air on top of The Monument, the opera glimpses down many alleys (and passes roads untaken, from Blake to the Blitz), but it centres on the mental breakdown/liberation of a City worker at an investment bank that services BP, one the great beasts of the carbon web.

Among several effective sequences is a walk around the underground ring in Bank station passing exits one to six as the possible consequences of one through six degrees of climate change are dramatised. No need, now, to read Mark Lynas's forthcoming book! (One note of detail: I did the walk on a cold winter day when the fans, which extracted heat from deep below ground during London's summer heatwave, were not turning. So the dramatic effect here was lost.)

But what works best dramatically in the opera is also, perhaps, where one of the greatest questions lies: the consequences of imagining downfall and apocalypse, and how this makes one feel, think and act.

Because even though And While London Burns searches for optimism – finishing with a chorus "we could build a new city" – a strong sense of apocalypse runs through this "requiem for a warming world". And for the protagonist, this is a drama of escape: to follow the trail of his lost love who gave up her safe middle class job and now hides out on some remote sunny beach, waiting for the downfall of Empire.

Visions of catastrophe run through many cultures. In the West, drawing on traditions that include the pursuit of the millennium, these took a new turn with the industrialisation of work and war, and a growing sense that humans themselves can destroy each other and the planet on a massive scale. (Cruel pre-modern imaginings of destruction by supernatural fury still thrive in things like the Left Behind series).

My generation, growing up in the last days of the Cold War, could with good reason allow nuclear annihilation to squat on our dreams: a reality well captured in Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth (1982). So the idea of a human-caused catastrophe that only cockroaches and Keith Richards survive is nothing new. The apocalypse outlined by James Lovelock sometimes seems mild by comparison.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of apocalyptic imagining. (Children of Men is one of the better recent genre films). In connection with climate change I have indulged in it myself in an article sensationally titled Tsunami coming for us all (Andrew Baird and others have cast doubt on the idea that reefs and mangroves really did afford significant extra protection to coastal communities, but I think the main point of the piece – that we need to think harder about the human impact on nature – still stands).

Giving some space for the worst imaginings can help us to deal with them. But how?

As I hear it, for the protagonist of And While London Burns (and, I guess, its authors), there can be no salvation within "the system". This belief is most clearly illustrated through the treatment of Swiss Re, the giant reinsurance company caught at the heart of what the opera portrays as a spinning paradox. Swiss Re thrives on "just the right amount of disaster" but would be ruined by a sharp increase in damages associated with climate change. Meanwhile, Swiss Re must invest its revenues in the very oil and gas companies that cause climate change.

The company and the network of which it is part must look for ever new markets in order to grow, and in an image of a crazy, dizzy dance, round and round the Gherkin, the sense of a snake eating its own tail, with the ultimate madness – echoed by voices around and around on the soundtrack – "they are even selling the sky".

This sounds like a reference to carbon trading, which was the subject of another bit of business I had in London that day: a panel debate at ABN AMRO on "Gourmet Carbon versus Commodity Carbon".

Ricardo Bayon, co-editor of Voluntary Carbon Markets (Earthscan, January 2007), set the context. Regulated carbon markets are growing fast from a total volume about $9bn in 2005 to $21.5bn in just the first nine months of 2006 (with the EU ETS accounting for $18.5bn and the CDM about $3bn).

Voluntary markets were smaller and harder to measure, he said, but the best guess was that ten to twenty million tonnes of CO2 were traded in 2005 at an average of about $10 per tonne – making a market worth $100m to $200m market last year.

So the voluntary market is
small – perhaps just one hundredth the size of the regulated market, but it is growing fast too.

[Disclosure: Coral Bones has received a grant from (among others) Ecosecurities, a major player in the CDM, and carbon offset for emissions associated with the project has been donated by Climate Care]

The six panellists and, I guess, most of the hundred or so attendees from organisations with names like Ecosystems Markets and Evolution Capital, clearly do not believe in dropping out. Some see a bright new market, and a chance to make money. And most clearly believe it is possible to change "the system" from within.

Here is a sketch of a case in their favour. First, as Pedro Moura-Costa of Ecosecurities put it, a voluntary market can be a place for experimenting and getting things to work ahead of a regulated market that requires compliance. Perhaps the most striking example of this pre-compliance phase may prove to be the State of California, where legislators and the governator have agreed to return total emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% cut them by 2050 under a cap-and-trade system. Just to reach the 2020 target would mean a cut of around [did he say 25% or 45%?] on present emissions, said panellist Joe Nation, who is a California state assemblyman (D) and a co-author of AB 32. The governor is pushing for this in six months because, said Nation, "like 87% of Americans" he understands the gravity of the situation. (The Bush administration is threatening to sue California. As no one quite said: "bring them on".)

Second, a voluntary market can allow individual consumers and groups of consumers to express preferences and back them with money, and maybe this can aggregate into something good.

A number of arguments are made against this second point. For example, carbon sequestration in forestry has been described as like drinking water to lower sea level (attrib. Oliver Rackham) or worse (The Cornerhouse). And offsets are just a way of buying one's way out of a guilty conscience and don't lead to the changes in behaviour needed to actually reduce emissions (this criticism has been given life by a comparison to indulgences offered by priests in Europe in the Middle Ages).

On the indulgence point, well yes Martin Luther was right that the system was corrupt. But what if the priest or monastery spent the money raised from indulgences on something that actually benefited of the poor, the sick and the abandoned rather than timeshare on plainsong?

What if purchaser of the voluntary offset has a certificate he or she feels she can trust which says that something less bad than nothing at all was done with the money to reduce emissions that would otherwise have taken place? (Imagine a priest with a chain of custody from your indulgence all the way to the hot soup going into the mouth of a starving peasant). Millions of people in rich countries donate hundreds of million of dollars and euros to development organisations to alleviate poverty on the basis of evidence that is often as sketchy, and/or does as little to address the root problem.

A voluntary carbon offset standard (VCS) was, not suprisingly, central to the discussion at ABN AMRO. One should remember the lessons of the CDM, said Mark Kenber of The Climate Group. In the early days, "we thought it would solve everything" - climate change, global poverty, injustice. Of course it hasn't but, he said, it is a first step. And until such time that the international community agrees on an enforceable system that enforces stabilisation at "450ppm or whatever the science indicates" the players sould try to develop a robust international standard that permits the market in reductions to grow (The Climate Group has this. See also this from The Carbon Trust.)

There's a lot to think about here (the interim statement on Coral Bones is:
"offsets do not solve the problem of emissions from flights or make the project 'carbon neutral'. But they are better than doing nothing to account for emissions"). Do we really need carbon markets to protect the likes of Mexico's Sierra Gorda, as some panellists argued? It begins to seem like some sort of religion.

It's a no brainer is that we need to do a lot more soon, however powerful the interests vested against change.

A final point. Al Gore chooses an odd quote for his foreword to Voluntary Carbon Markets: "Between the idea and the reality...Falls the Shadow". If you read the whole poem from which this quote is taken it's not exactly encouraging, but then its author knew more about London and desolation than most.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A paradise for fly tippers

Nida Al Fulaij of the People's Trust for Endangered Species writes to all Hog Watchers to suggest they nominate the hedgehog in a competition for the quintessential icon of the English environment (

It's a nice thought, but I like some of the other suggestions too, including Watchtree Nature Reserve. Helen Rimmer says:

"Watchtree Nature Reserve was established on the foot and mouth burial site in Cumbria. Ironically, prior to F & M the site was an old airfield, which had become a paradise for fly tippers. Over 100,000 native trees have been planted (23 species) along with 4 km of hedgerows. A lake (with bird hide), reedbeds, wetlands and ponds have also been established. It is teeming with wildlife & also some rare species have now made their home there. The site is now run by DEFRA and is open to the public at certain times. It’s fantastic!"

Friday, December 01, 2006

Temperature tantrums

"Now, maybe it's because I have a toddler at home, but the EPA's argument, presented by Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garre, quickly sounds very familiar. 1) I can't clean it up; 2) Even if I could, I don't want to clean it up; 3) You can't make me clean it up; and 4) China is making an even bigger mess. How come China never has to clean it up? When and if all that fails, the EPA, like my son, just puts its hands over its eyes and says there is no mess in the first place."

Dahlia Lithwick The Supreme Court Melts Down Over Greenhoues Gases (

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Anthropocene at the opera

Last year, in an article we commissioned for openDemocracy's debate on the politics of climate change, Bill McKibben wrote:

"But oddly, though we know about [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?"

Now, the Ashden Trust has published what seems to be the first review of the world's first opera about climate change, And While London Burns.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The memo Hadley didn't send

"The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action.

The puppet can't cut it. Here's what we can do to help:

Iraq needs strong leadership, a strong man to bring stability to the country. A strong man. General something. Like that guy in Pakistan. Or somewhere. What was his name?"

A world historical skirmish

The New York Times and others report the opening salvos in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, 05-1120:

"The Supreme Court stepped gingerly into the national debate over global warming on Wednesday, asking how much harm would occur if the Environmental Protection Agency continues its refusal to regulate greenhouse gases from new vehicles".

The cast in this strange combination of (on the one hand) epic struggle for the future of man and biosphere and (on the other) grosteque farce includes Dick Cheney's hunting buddy Antonin Scalia, Gregory Garre and Ken Starr. Twelve states, mainly along the US Atlantic and Pacific coasts, three cities, a U.S. territory and 13 environmental groups are pitched against the administration of the George W Bush, the EPA, trade associations for car and truck makers and automobile dealers, Michigan and eight other states.

The dumbass AP reporter (or his/her editor) writes "many scientists believe [carbon dioxide] is flowing into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate". Believe?

In a battle between a corrupted legal system and science who will win? As David Archer recently wrote on Realclimate ( - riffing Thomas Jefferson and Richard Feynman -- " I tremble for humanity when I reflect that nature cannot be fooled. You're damn right I’m scared".

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Das Prinzip Hoffnung

"It may be true that the EU is the world’s best hope on climate change. Unfortunately, that is just another reason to feel gloomy about the future of the planet" - Gideon Rachman, FT, 27 Nov

Thursday, November 23, 2006

"Rigour not anger"

...was the phrase used by Jonathan Freedland today on The World at One to describe the late Nick Clark.

It's something we need more of, and not just in journalism

Monday, November 20, 2006

China article published

"China: time for a politics of climate change" was published simultaneously in both languages on today.

The numbers may be a little wobbly in places, but not to the extent that the argument is undermined.

The article was written in early October, with a quick update in early November. Had it been completed a few days later, it would have taken account of the calculations by Paul Baer and Michael Mastrandrea (High Stakes, IPPR, 6 Nov 2006).

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Frans de Waal forecasts the future

"Given that our brains absorb and reflect everything around us, they are barely our own. We all carry society's brains around, and the biggest advance in science will come from disentangling the feedback loop between brain development and the ancient primate tendencies that shape our societies.

We have the distinction of going where no species has gone before. Whether we make good use of that distinction depends on human nature and the way we choose to organise our societies. What is the value of medical discoveries if most people cannot afford them? What good does it do to harness power if we only use it to make weapons? Who can say that anti-science forces will not send us backwards in time?

This is why we need a deeper understanding of human nature, and this can be achieved only if the social sciences replace their ideology-laden, fragmented approach with objective science grounded in a unitary theory of behaviour. There is only one such theory around, which is why I predict that 50 years from now every psychology and sociology department will have Darwin's portrait on the wall."

Friday, November 17, 2006

"Things bad begun..."

Ahdaf Soueif quotes Shakespeare wisely: "Glamis hath murder'd sleep..."

This is Lagos

Around the city, garbage dumps steam with the combustion of natural gases, an auto yards glow with fires from fuel spills. All of Lagos seems to be burning.

Newcomers to the city are not greeted with the words “Welcome to Lagos” They are told “This is Lagos” – an ominous statement of fact. Oliza Izeobio, a worker in one of the sawmills along the lagoon, said, “We understand this as ‘Nobody will care for you, and you will have to struggle to survive.’ ” It is the singular truth awaiting the six hundred thousand people who pour into Lagos from West Africa every year. Their lungs will burn with smoke and exhaust; their eyes will sting; their skin will turn charcoal grey. And hardly any of them will ever leave.

Rem Koolhas described how his team, on its first visit to the city, was too intimidated to leave its car. Eventually, the group rented the Nigerian President’s helicopter and was granted a more reassuring view:

"From the air, the apparently burning garbage turned out to be, in fact, a village, an urban phenomenon with a highly organised community living on its crust…What seemed, on ground level, an accumulation of dysfunctional movememtns, seemed from above an impressive performance, evidence of how well Lagos migh perform if it were the third largest city in the world."

The impulse to look at an “apparently burning garbage heap” and see an “urban phenomenon,” and then to make it the raw material of an elaborate aesthetic construct, is not so different from the more common impulse not to look at all.

Folarin Gdadebo-Smith [who works in local government] says. “You’re aware of the ‘megacity’ thing...Lagosians talkabout it as a trophy. As far as I am concerned it’s an impending disaster.
-- George Packer in The New Yorker

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Max Rodenbock quotes strange bedfellows to telling effect:
"The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander must make is to establish...the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature."
—Carl von Clausewitz, On War
"The actual reason for the failure of the US policy in its political field and international relations is their lack of information regarding the world's realities and also the enclosure of the decision making people of that country in their own fabricated and false political propaganda."
—From the Web log of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, following a visit to New York in September 2006

Monday, November 13, 2006

Soros and priorities for Europe

At a public meeting yesterday in Oxford, George Soros and Timothy Garton-Ash both said quite a lot of sensible things; but on the point on which I questioned Soros, who was plugging his new book, he left me unconvinced.

The specific point concerned the future role of the European Union. Soros thinks the EU -- a far from perfect but actually existing example of an open society -- can play a key role in building a more just world order, but that it needs to define a mission. As Garton-Ash was probably correct to say, the EU cannot simply keep offering membership to an ever larger number of states (although, for Soros and I guess for Garton Ash, keeping the process of negotiation with Turkey alive is crucial). Europe, Soros said, needed something new to motivate people, to "get them out on the streets" in the way the cry for freedom had in so many central and eastern European countries.

I asked what, given the sheer number of very hard problems facing the world (some of them maybe unprecedentedly hard), should the Europeans choose as a priority, or priorities? Soros answered that one priority should be a common European energy policy in the face of a resurgent, bolder and nastier Russia.

I agree that Europe's energy future is vital, and share Soros's concern about the dangers of the present situation. But I am sceptical of the answer he gave. Is a common energy policy really something around which large numbers of people could mobilise? Perhaps if repackaged as part of an "employment/climate change/global justice and development" mission? Hmmm, let's keep talking.

To be fair, Soros did not hear my question or that from others very well (the venue was the echoing University Church) and he only had time for brief answers .

At first, I sympathised with another questioner who asked him "what if it's all too late?". She was refering to the growth of fundamentalist terrorism in the UK (on this, I don't think the UK authorities are exaggerating because I don't see a convincing argument that it is in their interest to do so). But then again -- in contrast to her fear -- here and now is where we have to learn to be more serious and tougher in the sense of not giving up hope and facing the problem sensitively and firmly, as George Soros has not done since at the age of 13 or 14 he joined the anti-Nazi resistance in Budapest in 1944.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

"...having first exhausted every other possibility"

Coming back to the UK from Mexico via New York and Boston a few days ago (before the US elections), I was struck that some of the talk among rational people about responding to climate change is at to least as radical as it is in Europe. This even goes for some politicians too. So, for example, it was said that Henry Waxman in the House and Jim Jeffords in the Senate have talked about an 80% cut in US emissions by 2050.

This impression is reinforced by a contribution to the Policy Forum in Science (3 Nov 06) by David Doniger, Antonia V. Herzog and Daniel Lashof which takes seriously the idea that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas could be stabilised at no more than 450ppm CO2e without bringing the whole show to a grinding halt.

(the quote in the title of this post is the second half of the much over-quoted observation which begins "The Americans always do the right thing...")

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Manufacturing perception

At the periphery of coverage in English language media this morning, dominated as it is by results from the US mid term elections, are reports from Gaza. And there is what looks like a typical contrast between a UK and a US version. So, the Guardian reports "Israeli kill 18 in Gaza", including 8 children killed in their sleep, with 40 more wounded, all civilians, and a huge outpouring of anger at the morgue; while AP reports "Hamas urges attacks on US targets", with scarcely a mention of the deaths and no mention that many of them were sleeping children.

P.S. 9 Nov: reporting on this issue improved over the next 24 hours, with US sources reporting the deaths, and UK press reporting Hamas calls for revenge.

Monday, November 06, 2006

China: time for a politics of climate change (2)

In early October I drafted an article for chinadialogue on China and the politics of climate change (based on this, with some figures amended) . I have updated the article in the light of some events over the last month, and am posting the new version here today on the first day of the Nairobi conference. As with the previous version, this is an invitation to engage. If you see flaws or gaps in the figures or the argument please let me know.

China: time for a politics of climate change

The richest industrialised nations need to act much faster and more effectively to tackle climate change; but failure in the West is not a reason for people in China not to act urgently too. China is close to or already exceeds its share of sustainable emissions. For reasons of basic self interest as well as natural justice, it is time for people in China to start engaging more actively with each other and the outside world on one of the most difficult challenges on the planet: the politics of climate change. This article is an invitation for engagement for activists and others both inside and outside China.

It is sometimes said that, given the track record of the richest industrialised nations in failing to reduce their emissions, Westerners are in no position to tell China what to do, still less other countries rising from poverty. Here I argue that it is time to move on from such a polarised position, and to think in new ways about the technical and political challenges ahead. The argument comes in three parts: 1. The “safe” level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is probably much lower than is generally understood; 2. China is close to and will soon exceed its fair share of what is already an unsustainable burden of pollution, and; 3. This situation presents enormous political challenges, requiring extraordinary creativity and leadership at many levels within China and by the Chinese people internationally.

1. The “safe” level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is probably much lower than is generally understood.

Unless there is radical change in the way the world produces the energy it needs and how land and other resources are used, mankind is likely to change the global climate in ways that will impose big dangers and high costs on people and nations worldwide.

China will not be exempt from the changes. Three key impacts are described by Stephan Harrison in his contribution to chinadialogue. Higher temperatures will shrink the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau, disrupting the water supply of many hundreds of millions people and the agriculture on which they depend. Climate change, allied to unsustainable land-use practices, will increase the number and size of dust storms from China’s deserts. And the thawing of previously frozen soils would both increase the scale of desertification and contribute to positive feedback to global warming caused by the release of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide from frozen soils as they thaw.

Other effects of global warming would include more storms of the kind that displaced millions of people and caused $15bn in damage to coastal provinces (according to reports from Xinhua in August 2006). And, as former US Vice President Al Gore points out in his film An Inconvenient Truth, if as now seems possible, warming causes a substantial part of land-based ice in the West Antartic Ice shelf and Greenland to melt, then sea level rise will displace tens of millions of people from the regions of Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere.

To avoid, or at least reduce the risk, of dangerous climate change with impact such as these it is necessary to:

  • first, sharply reduce and then stop the increasing rate of emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and;
  • second, reduce total global emissions in order to prevent atmospheric concentrations reaching substantially higher levels that trend lines indicate.

To date, much international discussion at the interface of science and politics has taken as a rule of thumb that, as a first step, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) should be not exceed approximately twice concentrations before the modern industrial era. A typical range used is 500 to 560 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere (see, for example, Socolow et al, Science 2004, and Scientific American, Sept 2006).

Each part per million of CO2 corresponds to about 2.1bn tonnes of atmospheric carbon. The current level – about 380ppm – is 800bn tonnes. 560ppm would mean about 1,200 tonnes. On this reckoning the world adds 400bn tonnes of carbon to the global atmosphere, but no more, and not exceed this target.

It is sometimes argued that total global emissions of up to twice this amount, or 800bn tonnes, would be OK because vegetation, soils and the oceans will soak up half. But this argument is open to challenge. A warmer climate is likely to mean that vegetation and soils become a net source rather than a sink of carbon, leading to a positive feedback (warmer soils means more of the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane, more greenhouse gases means warmer soils and so on). And using the oceans as a sink causes acidification that scientists now think may cause the most rapid and disruptive change to life in the seas since catastrophic events tens of millions of years ago (see Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, Royal Society August 2005 and The other CO2 problem, New Scientist August 2006).

So it is far from sure that atmospheric concentrations of around 560ppm will be “safe” in the sense that this level will keep the risk of disasterous impacts, including those described for China, within acceptable limits.

Advisors to the British Government and others have suggested that 450 or even 400ppm of CO2 may be nearer the mark[i], with a 2 to 20% chance of a temperature increase of 5 degrees Centigrade[ii] if global greenhouse gas concentrations were stabilised at the equivalent of 430ppm CO2.

Virtually every advance in climate science points to bigger impacts and more serious consequences than previously predicted from human emissions of greenhouse gases. That being the case, caution is wise. And the time available to act is much shorter than is often thought. Currently, the combustion of coal, oil and gas, together with other activities, add approximately 7 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere every year. At the present rate, with no acceleration, it would probably take about 12 years for atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to reach 400ppm [iii]. Other stocks of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere by human action including methane and nitrous oxide have the effect of an additional 15% of CO2 so the actual human forcing on the atmosphere when CO2 levels are 400ppm will actually be equivalent to 460ppm.

If, at such a time, it became clear that a higher concentration would cause catastrophic damage, then to avoid those impacts all emissions would have to cease immediately[iv]. Since this is virtually unthinkable, there may well be much less than twelve years for the world to begin a rapid, rational and effective transition to a very low carbon economy.

It is likely that the risk of catastrophic climate change is already as much as one in five. The risk is increasing with every passing month that the world fails to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. It’s like a game of Russian roulette: there is a bullet in one of the chambers of the revolver, and we are in the process of putting in a second bullet. The gun is pointed at the head of everyone in the world.

2. China is close to and will soon exceed its fair share of what is already an unsafe burden of pollution

As mentioned above, global emissions are currently about 7bn tonnes of carbon a year. China is the second largest single polluter, although the European Union as a whole emits more.

Estimates of China’s total emissions vary[v]. According to the Energy Information Agency[vi], China accounted for 14.1% of total world emissions of CO2 in 2003. This accounts only for emissions from fossil fuel combustion and does not take into account other sources of greenhouse gases. It indicates that the Chinese contribution in that year was, at a mimimum, just under one billion tonnes of carbon (7 x 0.141 = 0.987).

But whatever the exact figures on Chinese emissions and those of other countries, there is some simple arithmetic from which we cannot escape – assuming, that is, that we want to start by stabilising global emissions at around today’s levels of 7 billion tonnes.

If present day global emissions were allocated equally to every person in the world, China – with something like a fifth (about 22%) of the global population – would be entitled to about 1.5bn tonnes.

Energy consumption in China is currently growing at nearly 6% (in fact 5.7%) per year. If 10% of that additional demand is met by so called zero-carbon sources such as wind and nuclear power (which may be controversial for other reasons), carbon emissions will still increase by more than 5% a year[vii]. At this rate it would be between about 8 years from 2003 for China to be emitting 1.5bn tonnes of carbon. And that means that by 2011 – little more than four years away – China could be exceeding its “fair” global share. Several scenarios indicate that by 2020 China will be contributing around 2 billion tonnes of carbon per year to the global atmosphere[viii].

3. This situation presents enormous political challenges, requiring extraordinary creativity and leadership at many levels within China and by the Chinese people internationally.

One of the first things that comes up when China and climate change are mentioned in the same breath is that the richest countries, historically and still today, are by far the biggest emitters per head, and have the responsibility to act first. This is certainly true. And it is often stressed, including, on chinadialogue, by Yu Hongyuan of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

The responsibility of the rich industrialised nations to act first was recognised in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. China is a signatory to the Protocol, and benefits from some investment in clean and renewable energy projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (see, for example, World's Biggest Greenhouse Gas Deal Takes Effect in Win-Win Situation for China, Industrialized Nations ). The European Union is also offering some additional assistance with projects such as carbon capture and storage for one coal fired plant by 2020 (see the article by Jon Gibbins on chinadialogue). The United States, which has not ratified the Protocol, says it will assist through something called the Asia Pacific Partnership which does not set targets to reduce emissions. The majority of American businesses leaders expect that US to join some form of cap and trade system for greenhouse gases within a few years.

Current actions in the richest countries are hugely, even grotesquely, inadequate given the need for cuts. So far, very few have reduced their emissions at all except as fortuitous byproduct of other measures. For example, in my own country, Britain, emissions have been rising continuously for more than ten years, following a “dash for gas” which replaced much coal-fired generation with cleaner natural gas powered turbines. The unified German Federal Republic was allowed to take the carbon credits from the collapse of the economy of the former East Germany, which had been powered largely on lignite, one of the dirtiest form of coal.

The richest countries need to massively ratchet up their commitment to energy efficiency, demand management and clean energy at home and abroad. China and other countries should press them to act faster and more effectively. But neither China nor anyone else can cannot afford to wait for them to fail.

Recall that China will soon pass its “fair” share of total global emissions which we will need to reduce soon. Once China exceeds its fair share, it will no longer have the luxury of pointing the finger at other countries merely because they are even worse greenhouse gas polluters. Other, poorer countries want their place in the sun too. And China, for them, will have become a member of the club of global “bad guys”.

Hundreds of millions of people have risen from poverty since China began reforms about a quarter of a century ago. More live in hope of a similar transformation. But unless future development is undertaken with substantially lower emissions the foundations of China’s prosperity and its future potential will be in jeopardy. The same is true of the wider world to which China is ever more interlinked.

The political challenges to achieving greener growth and distributing its benefits widely and equitably are enormous. Support and advocacy by some at high levels of government, which occurs both in the West and China, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Powerful interests which profit from environmental destruction stand in the way of progress. This means that the challenges are political as well as technological.

Government and civil society in China can learn something from the manifold failures and limited successes in Western countries. On the plus side, countries like Britain now have something like a “mainstream” politics of climate – mainstream in the sense that the major political parties compete in pledging their commitment to green growth, and the issue is extensively debated in the media. Even in the United States – often considered the greatest obstacle to progress – the majority of citizens support action and some politicians are beginning to articulate the need for change. For example, Senator Jim Jeffords and Congressman Henry Waxman have said that the US needs to cut its emissions by at least 80%.

On 30 October the British government published a detailed assessment of the economic impacts of climate change. A team led by former World Bank chief economist Nick Stern concluded that the need for action was urgent, that acting now will be much cheaper than not acting, and that it is the only way to protect future economic growth in all countries. Crucially, “strong deliberate policies by goverments are essential to motivate change”. The British government has said it will introduce a bill in the next parliamentary session to address the challenge.

Many civil society groups in Britain welcome such rhetoric, but are not convinced the words will be translated into effective action because so many existing policies, from transport through regulation of the building industry, point in the opposite direction.

On 4 November some tens of thousands of delegates from some of these groups, which comprise environment and conservation organisations, churches, unions and womens’ and others organisations, and have a combined membership of many millions, took part in one of a series of demonstrations in over 50 countries, including some of the poorest and most vulnerable such as Bangladesh, calling for faster action to reduce emissions by the rich countries. In Britain the environmental group Greenpeace took more radical action by occupying and partly shutting down a coal-fired power station.

The path to a politics of climate change may be very different in China to that in the West. Certainly, westerners are in no position to tell Chinese people what they should do. But because this problem concerns all of us, it will help to share our experience – both failures and successes. China has great resources to draw on, including traditional values described on chinadialogue by Martin Palmer, some contemporary ideas discussed on chinadialogue by Pan Yue and campaigning such as that pursued by Ma Jun and his colleagues (and described here on Chinadialogue) .

At the recent summit in Beijing with 40 African leaders, Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi said "we take great pride in China's strong and warm friendship with Africa". If this is to friendship is to be genuine and durable, China needs to get serious about climate change, which unchecked is likely to have an even more severe impact on the peoples of Africa than it does on China . As delegations from the world’s governments assemble in Nairobi for the climate convention, it is time for the Chinese government and people to step forward and begin to play their full part in one of the greatest challenges ever faced by humanity.

[i] see, for example, Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, Schellnhuber et al and Can 2C warming be avoided? at RealClimate

[ii] Meinhausen 2006, cited in Stern Review, page 9

[iii] The calculation here is that at a rate of 7bn tonnes a year it takes 12 years to produce 84bn tonnes. 84bn tonnes translates to an additional 40ppm in the atmosphere, but half of this is soaked up by vegetation, soils and the oceans, meaning the net addition to the atmosphere over 12 years is approx 20ppm.

[iv] Some scientists suggest that a massive programmes to draw down carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere into stable sinks in soil and geological strata plus geoengineering to inject sulphates into the stratosphere could help should such a stage of crisis be reached. But such approaches are likely to be face both severe challenges of technical practicability and political acceptability.

[v] See, for example, Kyoto promises are nothing but hot air, Fred Pearce, New Scientist, 22 June 2006

[vi] Cited in supporting paper to the Stern Review on the economics of climate change

[vii] 5.7 – 0.57 = 5.13

[viii] e.g. IIASA 1, 2 & 3 as cited by Japan’s National Institute of Environmental Sciences as cited in Stern supporting paper in ref 2 above

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Putting the Boot in

Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi demolish Max Boot, the "respectable face of neo-conservatism" here. They show quite clearly that with regard to Iran, Boot and those who share his line are enemies of freedom and democracy in any meaningful sense, and fellow travellers with a particularly vicious Stalinist cult.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Understanding the A.C.M

Mullah Omar and his followers formed the Taliban in 1994 to, among other things, bring some justice to Afghanistan and to expel predatory commanders like Dado. But in the early days of Karzai’s government, these regional warlords re-established themselves, with American financing, to fill the power vacuum that the coalition forces were unwilling to fill themselves. The warlords freely labeled their many enemies Al Qaeda or Taliban in order to push the Americans to eradicate them. Some of these men were indeed Taliban. Most, like Abdul Baqi, had accepted their loss of power, but they rejoined the Taliban as a result of harassment. Amir Dado’s own abuses had eventually led to his removal from the Helmand government at United Nations insistence. As one Western diplomat, who requested anonymity out of personal safety concerns, put it: “Amir Dado kept his own prison, authorized the use of serious torture, had very little respect for human life and made security worse.” Yet when I later met Amir Dado in Kabul, he pulled out a letter that an officer in the U.S. Special Forces had written requesting that the Afghan Ministry of Defense install him as Helmand’s police chief and claiming that in his absence “the quality of security in the Helmand Province has dramatically declined.”
--Elizabeth Rubin: In the Land of the Taliban

Friday, October 20, 2006

Last days of the republic?

Chris Hedges, author of the outstanding book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, is not optimistic (see Bush's nuclear apocalypse).

As noted in this blog back on 15 August (
Dates for your diary) , one analyst predicts 26 to 28 Oct for the attack.

Can I get odds on this at the bookies?

This being America, perhaps a movie man says it best. As Manola Dargis puts it in a
review of Clint Eastwood's new film Flags of our Fathers, the actor-director's work "considers annihilating violence as a condition of the American character, not an aberration".

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A richer conception

We cannot now today recover the passions with which mechanists and vitalists debated whether a "mechanical" account of life could be given. The point is not so much that the mechanists won and the vitalists lost, but that we got a much richer conception of the mechanisms. I think we are in a similar situation today with the problem of consciousness. It will, I predict, eventually receive a scientific solution. But like other scientific solutions in biology, it will have to give us a causal account. It will have to explain how brain processes cause conscious experiences, and this may well require a much richer conception of brain functioning than we now have.
John Searle,
Minding the Brain

Monday, October 16, 2006

China’s New Leftist

“People ask in the West, How could China develop capitalism with an authoritarian state? But that’s ignoring how modern capitalism grew in the West, without much democracy and with the help of imperialism and colonialism. You have to ask whether this unique economic model of the West can be globalized without great wars and destruction of the environment. This is not an abstract issue. China has stopped felling itsforests, most of which have disappeared, but some country still has to produce wood for Chinese consumption.”

Wang Hui as quoted by Pankaj Mishra in China’s New Leftist

And here, 100 intellectuals protest the shut down of Century China.

Er, I'm sorry

An update today from Edge carries note about a presentation over a month ago by Scott Atran to the National Security Council at The White House titled "Devoted Actor v Rational Actor Models for Understanding World Conflict"

Accepting that neither Atran himself nor, even, the White House thinks that what he is presenting is a whole answer, it remains the case that it is probably a bit fxxxing late for this one, including obviously the version that David Hayes and I presented shortly after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Devoted Actor v Rational Actor Models for Understanding World Conflict" Presented By Scott Atran To The National Security Council At The White House, 14 September 2006 From extensive personal interviews and controlled psychological experiments with Israeli settlers, Palestinian refugees, leaders of Hamas, radical Islamic groups in Pakistan and Indonesia, and (ongoing pilot work) with certain non-Muslim fundamentalist groups, I (with my research team) find that when disputed issues are transformed into sacred values, as when land ceases to be a mere resource and becomes "holy" or when structures of brick and mortar become "sacred sites," then standard political and economic proposals for resolving conflicts don't suffice and can be counterproductive by raising levels of outrage and disgust. But even token symbolic concessions, such as an apology for a perceived wrong that touches a sacred value, can be more important than material trade-offs in making peace.

(See also Jan McGirk)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Actively looking for deaths

Only when you go out and knock on the doors of families, actively looking for deaths, do you begin to get close to the right number. This method is now tried and tested. It has been the basis for mortality estimates in war zones such as Darfur and the Congo. Interestingly, when we report figures from these countries politicians do not challenge them. They frown, nod their heads and agree that the situation is grave and intolerable. The international community must act, they say. When it comes to Iraq the story is different. Expect the current government to mobilise all its efforts to undermine the work done by this American and Iraqi team. Expect the government to criticise the Lancet for being too political. Expect the government to do all it can to dismiss this story and wash its hands of its responsibility to take these latest findings seriously.
Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, on the midrange estimate of 650,000 deaths as a result of the Iraq invasion.

Was this the first trillion dollar plus "minor" war.

P.S. 15 Oct: Paul Reynolds notes Huge gap in Iraqi death estimates.

P.P.S. 15 Oct: How army chief staged no 10 ambush
Those soft edges became razor sharp, leaving Blair little option but to claim last Friday that he agreed with 'every' word Dannatt had told Radio 4 in his interview. That meant that the Prime Minister actually believed the presence of British troops was exacerbating the violence in parts of Iraq; that the army risked being broken by the conflict and that the whole debate over withdrawal was not really news. Not even Blair's most trusted lieutenants thought that Blair believed that.

"Genocide liberalism"

You know that the forces of darkness have almost won when it is OK to conflate genocide with liberalism, as did David Frum.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Iftar bangers

Entrepreneur Asghar Ali, 32, has built a business on the back of changing trends among British Muslims. The biggest seller at Cafe Lahore in Bradford's west end is not biryani or spicy karahi chicken, but hot jam roly-poly and custard. Dressed in designer jeans and a Von Dutch cap, he tells me it is common for the cafe to be buzzing at iftar time, with people clamouring for their portions of pudding.

-- Saima Raza:
If it's sausages it must be Ramadan

Monday, October 09, 2006

Anna's darkness

The heroism of Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead over the weekend, is beyond doubt (see Putin silent...).

It is sobering to read of the
hatred in which she was held ("It was as though with the bloody act, a vassal was bringing his master [Vladimir Putin] the head of his arch enemy as a [birthday] present").

My own (very brief) impression of her was as someone nearly in thrall to the dark forces she sought to combat. At a reception by English PEN some months ago, I approached her to ask if she would contribute to openDemocracy. Her reaction seemed to be one of disgust, as if I was a corpse with maggots coming out of my eyes or, perhaps, an FSB agent. This is silly, of course. I guess I was just witnessing something in her way of being -- a mind obsessed with infinitely worse things than gauche liberals at a London meeting.

Iranian mirrors

America, with its characteristic readiness to forget the offences it has done to others while burnishing the memory of those it has suffered itself, thinks a great deal about the seizure of the embassy hostages in 1979, but very little about the coup it staged in Iran with Britain in 1953.
-- Martin Woollacott in a review of 7 books about Iran, all of which look like they are worth reading.

Fritz Stern

In 1979, when [Fritz Stern] was walking through the still bombed out centre of Berlin with Raymond Aron, [Stern and Aron] agreed that were it not for Hitler, the twentieth century might have been Germany's century. [Stern] had a grudging admiration for Germany of the kind voiced by Charles De Gaulle when he first ventured to Russia during World War II. Amid the ruins of Stalingrad, site of the farthest advance and greatest defeat of the German army, De Gaulle muttered "Quelle peuple!" An aide inquired, "You mean the Russians?" "No, " said De Gaulle, "the Germans". The general's judgement, [Stern] writes, says much about the German drama of the past century...Germany had "corrupted and nearly destroyed historic Europe" -- and civilisation itself --and yet its "prodigiously creative" people "would be indispensible for the post war recovery of Europe".
--from Amos Elon's review of Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern