Monday, January 30, 2006

Whose terror?

Israel's shooring of young girl highlights international hypocrisy, say Palestinians - Chris McGreal, Guardian 30 Jan.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Atran, religion and saving the world

I have been moving house, but there is time to note that my review of Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust was published three days ago here on openDemocracy.

The review was written very quickly on a hot day last summer (hence the recommendation to the read the book in the cool of the shade). I have still not finished the book since then but did make some progress. The point of this blog entry is to note what looks like a key point from the book that is well summarised in an interview with Atran for which I included a link in my review. The relevant passage:

Q. What have you learned about conservation from studying the Maya people of the Petén?

A. We took three groups that live in the same place--native lowland Maya, the Itza'; highland Maya, the Q'eqchi' that are forced down into the lowlands; and ladino immigrants that come up from all over Guatemala. We found that the group that actually preserves the forest, the Itza', is the one that has no institutions to speak of. The people don't monitor anything. They fight with one another constantly. They're extremely individualistic. And yet they protect the forest. The people with the strongest communal institutions, the Q'eqchi', who monitor one another in the forest and punish violators, they're destroying it at five times the rate of the others. They see the forest as a commodity, and they think it's open-ended. They don't think it needs protection. They don't see it as a threatened system. For them, it's relatively open jungle.

Q. What do the Itza' do differently?

A. They don't treat the forest as a commodity. They treat it as a relational item, like a friend or an enemy. There is no objective utility metric, like money value, that can be attached to it. We also found that the men who go out into the forest have this notion of what the spirits are doing, and they are scared to death of violating the spirit preference. They're real believers. Then we found that what the spirits prefer--not what the people think is important but what they think the spirits think is important--actually predicts species distributions.

I guess one of the reasons this comes to mind now is someone I know at a university in the US who works with major corporations has come to the view that it is only through change in values based on a religious revival that the most serious global challenges such as climate change can be faced successfully.

Atran's anecdote points to some complexities. From his evidence, any old religion is not enough. I'd guess the Q'eqchi, for example, are predominantly Catholic
(or at least nominally so).

Proselytising, globalised faiths such as Christianity and Islam share at least one feature with the religion of the Itza': they are no strangers to conflict. But they have been dominant in many societies that also severely damage and destroy their ecological base. Can they or other mass faiths be deliberately made anew?

Could some bouillabaisse of Rumi and St Francis -- with Hindu, Buddhist and other spices to taste -- do the job for hundreds of millions or billions of people? Or is there a crucial element in the case of groups such as the Itza' -- connected, maybe, to their limited geographical range, their individualism or both (factors that characterise many "early" religions) -- that cannot be reproduced at scale, deliberately or unconsciously?

Or does Atran's Maya study point to something darker: that all cultures are or can be violent whether or not they protect the natural environment? If that's the case, can mass technological societies ever be benign towards the environment, given that their violence will always impact the environment because of the scale of their activities and the tools available to them with which to compete in violent acts?

If the tendency to violence can never be channeled completely into less destructive activities can future conflicts between industrialised entities take a somewhat "cleaner" form than the wars of the 20th and early 21st century that damage ecosystems either direcly or as a byproduct of attacks on humans (burning oil wells, putting plutonium in the water supply and so on) such as precise targeting of specific human populations with pathogens that do not inflict damage on the wider environment (assuming such a thing is possible)?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Peaceful rise

Robert Zoellick finds love.

The Panda promises not to help with Iranian air defences.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Control Fraud

(to use Bill Black's phrase) Italian-style and US-style.

Phlegm and phlebotomy

The fight against global warming is lost, says the astrophysicist Paul Davies in his contribution to Edge's dangerous ideas for 2006. But in my view his analysis is unhelpful.

First, the idea that "the fight [to reduce emissions] is a hopeless one" risks being self-fulfilling. Yes, the forces against emissions reductions are absolutely huge, but we do not know for sure they are insuperable. As Dave Reay argues in his response to my note on James Lovelock's highly pessimistic assessment, we are not necessarily committed to the high emission scenario.

Second, saying "the obvious solution [is] nuclear energy" is like saying phlebotomy is the obvious solution to malaria. It applies antiquated and discredited thinking that further endangers the patient. Creating a more sustainable world industrial system means designing out dangers, wastes and legacy costs, not creating large new ones. (Some R&D into fission and fusion can continue in the eventuality that problems associated with these technologies are overcome, but not at the expense of an intelligent energy use revolution).

(On a side note, it appears that the British government, being either incapable or unwilling to learn, shares this mistaken view about nuclear power. It looks as if campaigners need to address this issue first.)

Third, Davies needs to substantiate his claim that "the evidence that the world will be worse off overall is flimsy", as it appears to go against the best judgement by climatologists and Earth systems scientists. Can an unstable world really afford - for example - millions of refugees from low lying parts of Bangladesh and the desertification of the Amazon Basin and so on in return for more power to Vladimir Putin's regional henchmen (assuming that Siberian tundra really did turn into good farmland)? Can one be sure that the positive feedbacks from unlimited emissions that so concern James Lovelock and others will not kick in and contribute to substantial net disbenefits?

For a wiser view see Martin Rees who says "The future will best be safeguarded - and science has the best chance of being applied optimally - through the efforts of people who are less fatalistic".

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Wazirstan Beatitudes

You couldn't make it up when Osama bin Laden drives Rogue State up the Amazon bestseller list. But for a good read I would rather go to Kurt Vonnegut's A Many Without A Country.

Thanks, Kurt, for the reminder last week that it was Bomber Command that committed the largest single massacre in European history (135,000 in a single night at Dresden) and this week:

"For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings...I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere".

May I give you a hint, Kurt. Number Ten: "thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house; ...[nor] thy neighbour's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass".

Many of us have a really hard time not coveting our neighbour's maid-servant, nor his ox. Me especially. We need to be constantly reminded.

For a more serious thought on religious values in America see Charles Marsh on Wayward Christian Soldiers.

Gary Wills writes:
"There is now [in the US] an inverse proportion between religiosity and sincerity."

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Imperial Grunts in Injun Country

"The suggestion that there is an analogy between the American Indian wars and the global role of the United States today is striking, and so is the comparison between those wars and the construction of the British Raj. In each case the resemblance is tenuous or nonexistent. The British presence in India involved many savage conflicts such as those surrounding the Indian Mutiny—which posed a serious threat to British rule in the mid-nineteenth century—and the Raj was always tainted by racism. Even so, throughout most of the colonial period a few thousand British officers were able to rule the continent without the large-scale use of military force. The primary goal of the Raj was to exploit India's resources, and so long as this process was uninterrupted the local population and its rulers were left largely to their own devices. In contrast, the goal of the American Indian wars was the expulsion of indigenous peoples from their lands, which in some cases resulted in the destruction of their way of life. Whether or not this can be described as genocide (as some have claimed) it was conquest of a different order from that imposed by the British on India". John Gray, in a critique of Robert Kaplan

All the grimmer in the light of increased role being required by the US of Nato (or a depleted coalition-of-the-willing part therefore: Brits but maybe not the Dutch) in SE Afghanistan. An analyst from Kings College, speaking on The World Tonight last night, was excessively diplomatic on the likely dangers of this development.

Launch of The Young Foundation

Last night I went to the launch of The Young Foundation. Short speeches from contributors to Porcupines in Winter included Richard Sennett on the importance of Michael Young's work on simply listening to ordinary people's understanding of their own lives, and Kate Gavron (co-author of The New East End, forthcoming) on the stories by which the old white working class live and the enduring importance for them - still - of the [Second World] War and the perceived golden age of the 1950s.

Philip Dodd, by contrast, warned against romanticising the idea of community (Dodd is a native of Grimethorpe, foverever associated in cliche with brassbands and mining). The very word was often used with a disciplinarian intent, or at least the wish of it, and idea that there were once happy communities could become endlessly regressive, he said. One should go back to Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native: "given a choice the poor will chose luxury over culture".

For all that, Alessandra Buonfino and Geoff Mulgan's essay, extracted in today's Guardian, still makes persuasive reading. For example," the austere solidarity of the war years - a time when, perhaps more than ever before or since, much of the population [in Britain] had felt useful, respected and engaged in a common project" cannot - as the authors say - be recaptured but it should be taken into account when facing the multiple future challenges of future "Britishness" (or "brutishness" as a mischievous letter pointed out was the spellcheck version of Gordon Brown's concept). The point is reinforced for me by the contrast with my girlfriend's home country of Spain, where the national narrative is so different.

I admire Geoff Mulgan's past work and trajectory (see for example here and here) and it looks like he has a great team. It was good, for example, to see at the launch two people I've worked with at different times and who hadn't previously met coming together for what could prove to be some really useful future work.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

UK energy debate

The remark "we can easily deal with climate change without nuclear power" coming from the likes Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre is useful. His stress on energy efficiency is bang on.

In my view, Madeleine Bunting was correct to say yesterday that the Labour government "has succeeded in doing very little other than reigniting an old (and many can reasonably argue, irrelevant) debate about the nuclear option".

Also, refer to comments from Tom Burke back on 30 Nov 2005.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Gaia, revenge and trust

In an article in today's Independent, James Lovelock says that it is too late to stop catastrophic changes to the global climate. The average temperature will rise by 8 degrees C in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics. Billions of humans of beings will die as a result, he says.

Nevertheless, he says , it is not too late to take meaningful action (however unlikely that action may be): "I cannot see the US or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time [emphasis added], and they are the main source of emissions".

Is Lovelock suggesting that action to limit emissions could still limit temperature rises to significantly less than 5 to 8 degrees, or that without action to limit emissions now the rise will be even greater? What is the basis for his conclusion?

When I interviewed Lovelock at length in late 1999 for an article that appeared the following year in edition 21 of Green Futures, his predictions were no less dire than in today's article and in his new book (to be published in Feb 2006).

His thinking has not changed much, then. What has changed is that the science has progressed and has largely confirmed the most pessimistic scenarios of the late 90s. Also, the political situation looks to have deteriorated substantially.

My 1999 article concluded:

Much of what Lovelock has to say is decidedly grim. But there is a positive side to Gaia that he is particularly keen to emphasise. Of at least equal importance to [Gaia theory's] usefulness to science, he thinks, is the [moral] guidance it can offer.

"This has been occupying my attention probably more than anything else. People do need something to revere or worship, and religion is beginning to fade all over the world because it's failing to deliver in two fields. One: it used to be the source of information about life, the cosmos and everything - in other words it did science's job for it. And science now does that job so superbly well that religion has become almost redundant in that sphere. Two: it used to give moral guidance. And it's beginning to fail in that too...And so what do we do instead? Science offers nothing, or hasn't done so far, where moral guidance is concerned".

"But now it just happens, quite by accident and not by any conscious thought on my part or anybody else's, that Gaia does offer moral guidance. It does so because its rules are simple: any species that improves its environment favours the welfare of its progeny, whereas any species that adversely affects the environment dooms it for its progeny. And this is very moral. It gives us something to which we are accountable - the Earth itself".

Gaia, Lovelock stresses, is not and should never be the basis of a religion, because religions have faith. "The word I prefer to faith is trust. If we put trust in Gaia then it gives us something that will fulfil the same kinds of needs as religions have." And the problem is that industrial civilisation in its present form is profoundly betraying that trust.

"I'm a grandfather with eight grandchildren" [says Lovelock]. "I need to be optimistic. I see the world as a living organism of which we are part; not the owner, nor the tenant, nor even a passenger. To exploit such a world on the scale we do is as foolish as it would be to consider our brains supreme and...our other organs expendable. Would we mine our livers for nutrient for some short term benefit?"

Lovelock remains a superb thinker and communicator, whether or not he's right about nuclear power. His reflection in today's article on how Darwin would have responded to Gaia theory is convincing. And the analogy with a boat above Niagra falls (quoted in the accompanying piece by Michael McCarthy) is well chosen.

But it's not clear to me that he's right to talk about total catastrophe as inevitable. There appears to be an inconsistency between on the one hand
saying it's too late, and on the other hand refering to changes in future emissions trajectories that could be undertaken in time (however unlikely that change may seem at present).

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Back from Zambia and Malawi

While I was away these appeared on openDemocracy: The metamorphosis of big oil?
and a contribution to the predictions for 2006 (sorry for my spelling mistakes and other glitches!)

I didn't find an actual prediction in Gopal Balakhrishnan's contribution , but I liked the quote from Guy Debord:

Cretinisation, so advantageous to rulers, owners and rentiers, nonetheless comes at a price for would-be empire builders:"Once the running of the state involves a permanent and massive shortage of historical knowledge, the state can no longer be led strategically."

It's also worth considering whether Slavoj Zizek is right when he says: what awaits us in 2006 and, one must say, beyond: the struggle between a spurious "culture of life" (the way Christians formulate their refusal of the very core of human creativity) and [an Islamist] "culture of death," both of which must be rejected in the name of any truly emancipatory politics.