Saturday, May 31, 2008

Torture music

Whereas stress positions and the like are intended to make the vulnerabilities of a human being's own body betray him and cause him pain, both "futility music" and "gender coercion" target the practices by which a human being's cultural beliefs are embodied, performed, and made real as ethical practices. "Futility music" and "gender coercion" can force human cause themselves psychic rather than physical pain. Deriving directly from who they are or have chosen to be as enculturated human beings—that is, as persons, not only as sensate biological organisms—this psychic pain attacks its target and causes self-betrayal in the intrasubjective space that many religious traditions call the soul. It is when soul and body together collapse in the catastrophe of self-betrayal that resistance is not just futile but impossible.
-- from “You are in a place that is out of the world. . .”: Music in the Detention Camps of the “Global War on Terror by Suzanne Cusick.
The SS made singing, like everything else they did, a mockery, a torment for the prisoners ... those who sang too softly or too loudly were beaten. The SS men always found a reason ... when in the evening we had to drag our dead and murdered comrades back into the camp, we had to sing. Hour after hour we had to, whether in the burning sun, freezing cold, or in snow or rain storms, on the roll call plaza we had to stand and sing of ... the girl with the dark brown eyes, the forest or the wood grouse. Meanwhile the dead and dying comrades lay next to us on a ripped up wool blanket or on the frozen or soggy ground.
-- from the testimony of a former inmate at Sachsenhausen in an account of music and the Shoah.

These two examples noted in Futility Music by Alex Ross.

Against stupidity

Climate Progress highlights a good example of the bifurcation between influential media-based stupidity on the one hand, and sober intelligence that is held in contempt on the other, in contrasting assessments of climate change by Charles Krauthammer and F. Sherwood Roland.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Two trenchant comments on different issues from two Nobel laureates:
Physicists tend to be supercritical of strong conclusions but the data on global warming now indicates the conclusions are not nearly strong enough.
-- Leon Lederman (physics) regarding a report calling for action on climate change in the US.
We saw a forlorn, deserted, desolate and eerie place. The entire situation is abominable. We believe that ordinary Israeli citizens would not support this blockade, this siege, if they knew what it really meant to ordinary people like themselves.
-- Desmond Tutu (peace) speaking about Gaza.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Throwing away the pearl

Damage to forests, rivers, marine life and other aspects of nature could halve living standards for the world's poor, a major report is to conclude. Current rates of natural decline might reduce global GDP by about 7% by 2050.
says a report about the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity review (see also Biodiversity 'fundamental' to economics).

All very well, but be aware of the inadequacey measures such as GDP. Jonathan Rowe explains this well in testimony (pdf) to a U.S. Senate Committee in March of this year.

[A footnote to Rowe: The quantification of Ireland in the 1640s is not "the first known attempt in Western history to create a total inventory of a nation’s wealth." There is Domesday (1086), for one.]

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

GB makes bad situation worse

Brown wants more nukes on the never never.

P.S. 30 May: this comment probably gets it pretty well.

So farewell then...

So farewell then, Ernst Stuhlinger.
You were a great survivor:
You survived Stalingrad, unlike 750,000 others,
And became an American
In Operation Paperclip.
'Once ze rockets are up who cares vere zey come down?',
Sang Tom Lehrer,
But the Angel of Death,
Silent as a V2,
Finally came down on you.
-- E. J. von Thribb (aged 94 and three quarters)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Freeman Dyson says biotechnology will provide a solution to rapidly rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide:
Biotechnology could be a great equalizer, spreading wealth over the world wherever there is land and air and water and sunlight. This has nothing to do with the misguided efforts that are now being made to reduce carbon emissions by growing corn and converting it into ethanol fuel. The ethanol program fails to reduce emissions and incidentally hurts poor people all over the world by raising the price of food. After we have mastered biotechnology, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed. In a world economy based on biotechnology, some low-cost and environmentally benign backstop to carbon emissions is likely to become a reality.
Where would the 'carbon-eating trees' go, and in how great a quantity? What changes would they be subject to? What impacts would they have on existing ecology?

RealClimate is less polite. Joe Romm notes that Dyson jumped the shark a while ago.

Meanwhile, Wally Broecker hopes carbon scrubbers will save the day. [another Broecker interview here]

Elsewhere oil

George Monbiot is incisive and witty (We have gone mad, Your Majesty). He's right that the UK government is off track. We should also bear in mind that optimism about the conventional alternative for government looks increasingly unwise - see David Nussbaum.

But I don't buy the idea that only the Saudi authorities know whether there is an *absolute* shortage of global oil reserves. Yes the reserves of some mid east countries may be surprisingly short (and maybe even more so for gas than oil: see the energy-rich Gulf faces a gas shortage), but I still think that -- globally and over the time frame of decades that really matters -- the pinch point remains accessibility, not absolute reserves. We are still looking at 'elsewhere oil' rather than 'peak oil'. (See the second comment to this post and consider that the Arctic may hide a quarter of so far unexplored and unexploited oil and gas reserves.) [P.S. 31 May: See Recoil at The Economist]

The US military industrial complex (on which read Frida Berrigan) will be just one player in this increasingly multi-polar world (on which read James Galbraith reviewing Kevin Philips).

[Or we could all adopt policies to massive increase renewables and intelligence of energy use...Sorry, that was a joke.]

Friday, May 23, 2008

Understatement of the day

An upturn in methane concentrations emissions could have significant implications for the Earth's climatic future. -- Richard Black.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Robert Skidelsky made an odd claim in a commentary earlier this week in which he accused scientists (not to speak of those who report science accurately) of 'harden[ing] uncertainties into probabilities'. If he has actually read the IPPC reports, he surely understands that a prediction with, say, 90% confidence is a statement that something is uncertain but probable.

And he falls into a common error in thinking that because things are not certain they will therefore necessarily be less extreme than the best estimates indicate. Paul Klemperer is a better guide, with a piece, mentioned on this blog before, titled If the climate sceptics are right, it is time to worry.

A new low

from Clinton.

P.S. 23 May: presumably this represents her true wish.

Stop and think

Today we are living through the challenge of prevention, of looking twice before doing something, discussing twice before doing something. Because each thing that we alter can lead to ... dramatic consequences. Those who celebrated the industrial revolution never thought that we were injuring the planet, almost fatally. We didn't have this knowledge. Today we know.
-- Marina Silva

The machines laugh

Occasionally people write to ask this blog to endorse products and ideas. Earlier this week, for example, came a request to be one of many hosts for a 'funky' virtual balloon race in which 'thousands of people' will 'race across the Internet in the hope of winning the ultimate luxury holiday in Ibiza'.

I'm usually one of the last ones to be an impossibly pious environmentalist, but I refused, saying 'I think we should be deploying our ingenuity and creativity to help people be happy where they are or to help those who are not so fortunate, not to encourage high impact luxury consumption that damages the environment.'

Perhaps I've been reading too much poetry like Fuel by R. S. Thomas:
And the machines say, laughing
up what would have been sleeves
in the old days: 'We are at
your service.' 'Take us', we cry,

'to the places that are far off
from yourselves.' And so they do
at a price that is the alloy in
the thought that we can do without them.
Apparently the poet's son was unimpressed: his father would 'drone on to absurd lengths about the evil of refrigerators, washing machines, televisions and other modern a congregation that didn’t have any of these things and were longing for them.'

A more nuanced discussion of eco-travel is here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What's wrong with the world?

We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. Leona Helmsley's dog made 12 million last year... and Dean McLaine, a farmer in Ohio made $30,000. It's just a gigantic version of the madness that grows in every one of our brains. We are monkeys with money and guns.
-- Tom Waits

The moolah

Bill and I don’t need your Netroots arugula moolah. We don’t need your stinking $20 donors. We’ve got Burkle, the Saudis, the Kuwaitis and Kazakh uranium loot on tap.
-- Hillary Clinton interpreted by Maureen Dowd.


...The analogy between Chile and Iraq cuts both ways. After arguing that Chile was a laboratory for Friedman’s free-market ideals, Klein has to acknowledge the inconvenient fact that Pinochet refused to reverse Allende’s nationalisation of the copper mines. This suggests that Chile’s military rulers were not the lackeys of foreign companies, did not view nationalisation as a step on the road to Communism and were nationalists before they were neoliberals. At one point, Klein herself admits that Pinochet’s Chile was not a laboratory for Chicago School ideals. But this concession is soon forgotten and she continues to hold up the Chilean analogy as evidence that torture in Abu Ghraib, too, had a primarily economic rationale and, indeed, was part of the same ‘crusade to liberate world markets’.

Klein argues that the invading forces deliberately allowed the National Museum in Baghdad to be looted and the National Library burned. These apparent acts of criminal negligence were in fact a form of cultural lobotomy, a collective shock treatment meant to ‘depattern’ the minds of the Iraqis and reduce their capacity to resist free-market reforms. She never explains why ancient manuscripts stored in a library would have fortified Iraqi resistance to a radical economic agenda. Indeed, this example shows how far Klein is willing to go to deny the decisive role of imbecility and obliviousness in the making of the Iraqi disaster.

The supposed primacy of neoliberal ideology and business interests in the Iraq war is also thrown into doubt by another consideration. Nothing we know about Dick Cheney suggests that he wanted to ‘redeem’ Iraq or make it into a model society of any kind. If he followed any example in his dim plans for post-invasion Iraq, it was not Milton Friedman’s but Ariel Sharon’s. No one would suggest that Sharon aimed to ‘redeem’ the Palestinians or create a model market society in the West Bank and Gaza. What he aimed for, and achieved, was managed anarchy: a weak, internally divided and festering society unable to project power outwards but susceptible to periodic violent intrusions. Free-market orthodoxy was not on Sharon’s mind, or on Cheney’s either...
-- from a review by Stephen Holmes of The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.

Klein may sometimes project and distort, but for outrageous manipulation nothing beats the 'mainstream', as Nick Turse shows.

[P.S. another interesting review of The Shock Doctrine here]

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Speer's spawn

The architects, including Norman Foster and Rem Koolhas, to whom Richard Lacayo refers in The Architecture of Autocracy (Foreign Policy, May/June 2008) are probably more talented (at least at architecture) than Albert Speer, and work for less odious clients than he did. But the comparison is not completely out of line.

Lacayo says he once asked Koolhas if he had any qualms about providing the headquarters for a government controlled news operation in China:
He replied that China was evolving, and he hoped that its state controlled media would eventually 'evolve into something like the BBC.'
I don't think Lacayo is impressed by this answer. I am not. It reminds me of an anecdote in The Megacity, a 2006 article by George Packer about Lagos:
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' [wrote Koolhas in an essay titled Fragments of a Lecture on Lagos], '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 movements, seemed from above an impressive performance, evidence of how well Lagos might 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.
Perhaps it's unfair to pick on Koolhas, but it does look as if, at best, some 'big' architects too often look at people through the wrong end of telescope.

And -- who knows? -- perhaps the Chinese media will be shaken up by the recent earthquake in Sichuan, responses to it, and other events.

Monday, May 19, 2008

UK political parties

PFI before New Labour:
Mussolini resorted to subterfuge to pay contractors without increasing his budget. He would make a contract with a private firm to build certain roads or buildings. He would..sign an agreement to pay for the work on a yearly installment plan. No money was paid out by the government And hence nothing showed up in the budget.
-- from John T Flynn, in Private Eye, 16-29 May, quoting Twelve Years of Fascist Finance.

And the Conservatives are in hock to Ashcroft. 'What connects the deputy-chairman of the Conservative Party with Hugo Chávez', asks The Economist A $10m mystery

Berlusconi eat your entrails out.

[P.S. 20 May George Monbiot thinks that New Labour has destroyed hope.]

Friday, May 16, 2008

'Moral insanity'

'The refusal to act according to important moral dictates that the agent fully understands.' -- A.C.Grayling in a useful piece.

Wrong again

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the lessons of Munich and appeasement were wrongly applied to a later international crisis.
-- from Lyne Olson, quoted by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. The line is relevant to George W. Bush's accusation against Barack Obama, not least because:
By maintaining its current arsenal [of 10,000 nuclear weapons], the US is sending a message to the world that nuclear weapons are legitimate.
Lawrence Krauss (7 May).

[P.S. 18 May: Frank Rich reminds of the Bush family's profitable investment in Nazi Germany]

[P.S. 22 May: “Bush’s rhetoric is completely disconnected from everything on the ground" - Martin Indyk, quoted here]

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Marina Silva goes, "definitively defeated". A prince chips in.

Mauricio Torres says
The idea that the caboclo way of life is environmentally destructive is not supported by my research. Communities have often been there for generations, living sustainably. To deny their achievements is a convenient lie - one that allows large companies and their government vassals to justify land grabs.



The masses in China are overwhelming; the people in them are vividly and irrepressibly individual. -- James Fallows

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power.
Albert Einstein, 1954.
[In the Israeli self image] violence only ever comes from the outside. Miracle and innocence are inscribed into the origins of the nation.

...In fact, to acknowledge the nakba is not to de-legitimise Israel, but it does require of the nation a different form of accountability for its own past...

...[But] the literature can give us hope, provided we recognise the fundamental and continuing injustice that has spawned
-- from Chroniclers of pain by Jacqueline Rose.
At 60, Israel is not a perfect democracy, a Jewish ghetto imperiled by Iranian Nazis or a puppet master indirectly controlling Washington. It is more democratic than its neighbors, more reliably pro-Western and more successful economically and militarily. It faces the classic dilemmas of a nation-state dealing with minorities, borders and neighbors. It is best understood as a real place, not a country of myth.
--from Seven myths about Israel by Gershom Gorenberg.
Today, many Israelis have no idea what it must feel like to be Palestinian - how it is to live in a city such as Nablus, a prison for 180,000 people. There are no restaurants there, no cafes, no cinemas. What has become of the famous Jewish intellect here? I am not even speaking of justice or love. Why does one continue to feed the hate in the Gaza strip? There will never be a military solution. Two peoples are fighting over one and the same land. No matter how strong Israel becomes, there will always be insecurity and fear. The conflict is eating away at itself and at the Jewish soul, and it has been allowed to do so. We wanted to own land that had never belonged to Jews and build settlements there. The Palestinians see this as imperialistic provocation, and rightly so. Their resistance is absolutely understandable - not the means they use to this end, not the violence nor the wanton inhumanity - but their "no".
-from 'Music gives me hope' by Daniel Barenboim.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A frightful hobgoblin

A vapid post on Freakonomics (which elsewhere enthuses about Chrysler subsidizing gas for purchasers of its giant toy trucks) sent me back to Why Bother?, an article by Michael Pollen about facing up to climate change which appeared in April but which I hadn't found time to read before. Pollen thinks clearly and has a good turn for phrase. For example:
Cheap fossil fuel allows us to pay distant others to process our food for us, to entertain us and to (try to) solve our problems, with the result that there is very little we know how to accomplish for ourselves. Think for a moment of all the things you suddenly need to do for yourself when the power goes out — up to and including entertaining yourself. Think, too, about how a power failure causes your neighbors — your community — to suddenly loom so much larger in your life. Cheap energy allowed us to leapfrog community by making it possible to sell our specialty over great distances as well as summon into our lives the specialties of countless distant others.

Here’s the point: Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult.
Pollen concludes, essentially, that Il faut cultiver notre jardin and eat its contents. This is right of course (if not exactly a surprise from this writer), but it is not enough. Change the light bulbs, plant the garden: yes, definitely; but I also want to go with Vaclav Havel (quoted by Pollen as follows): we should “conduct [ourselves] as if [we] were to live on this earth forever and be answerable for its condition one day.” [Or, in the more plausible rhetoric of Dennis Leigh and Alasdair Gray, 'Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation'.]

A word that eludes Pollen (and perhaps Wendell Berry on whom he draws) is 'alienation'. Perhaps this is because the spectre of Karl Marx gives so many Americans the willies. But, as Jonathan Wolff illustrates in a remarkably compact and accessible interview, the concept is rich and useful.

Thinking about alienation and its consequences today doesn't mean we should take 'scientific socialism' and so much other garbage seriously or that we should forget the horrors inflicted by some who claim to have followed Marx. It does mean we have to go further than light bulbs and onion bulbs (including, as philosophers like James Garvey help to articulate, in our thinking about future generations).

What would Marx have thought about gardening, guerilla or otherwise? If Jonathan Wolff and the Japanese scholar to whom he refers are right, the passage in The German Ideology about hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, rearing cattle in the evening, and engaging in criticism after dinner is the product of a joke by Marx at Engel's expense.

Derrida, Darwin and the lyre

There was much to engage with in The Ecological Thought a 12 May talk by Timothy Morton (of which an audio version will be archived here in due course). I won't try to comment on it here, but note something (also blogged at Ashdenizen) from Shelley that occured as: "We lack the capacity to imagine what we know". The original in context is:
We [lack] the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we [lack] the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we [lack] the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.

Image: Astrophyton darwinium

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Energy efficiency

The elusive negawatt in the May 10 Economist is a not bad outline of why, if energy conservation both saves money and is good for the planet, people don't people do more of it. It includes useful thumbnails of analysis, obstacles and actions from France to China, from California to Japan.

In many instances, we are reminded, irrational framing and psychology play important roles. Homeowners, for example, tend to demand exorbitant rates of return on investments in energy efficiency— around 30%. Businesses are not quite so demanding, but they still tend to put greater emphasis on increasing revenues than on cutting costs.

Strange, though, that the article makes no reference to the work of Amory Lovins and co, who did more than anyone else to put these issues on the map, and drive the analysis further. Lovins & co have their critics, and some of these criticisms may be justified, but if concentrations of greenhouse gases are to be kept below 450ppm then we really have to pay attention.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Yes, we can

I said seven years ago we need a fund to fight HIV AIDs. That’s been put in place, and now there are more than 2 million Africans getting treatment and that same fund has gotten more than 50 million bed nets out there [to reduce malaria incidence]. The puzzling thing to me in truth is the sense of ‘No we can’t’.
-- Jeffrey Sachs, 5 May

Friday, May 09, 2008

The funnies

Five eco lightbulb jokes here (P.S. and Robert Butler is looking for more. My contribution would be a variation on an old one: "How many climate sceptics does it take to change a lightbulb? None, because climate sceptics aren't afraid of the dark", only someone beat me to it).

Quite a good green joke is one of the cartoons on the letters page of the 10 May New Scientist. A woman is walking away snootily from a man who is holding out some flowers and saying "I bought you these solar-powered devices for carbon dioxide extraction".

Making you laugh, then making you drink are Last words.

But most profound is Tom Waits.

The anti-social contract(or)

If the War on Terror "shows clear signs of having developed into a popularly supported governmental perpetual-motion machine" (John Mueller) who benefits? Maybe the likes of KBR, which "[having] landed billions in Iraq contracts, has used two Cayman shell companies to avoid paying hundreds of millions in payroll, Medicare and unemployment taxes" (The Lucrative Art of War, Linda Bilmes).

More fun is on the way.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Space is the place

CRASSH sends notice of a talk on 12 May by Timothy Morton titled The Ecological Thought. The blurb (..."using literary and cultural theory to probe a dominant paradigm in environmental thinking--systems theory" etc etc) leaves me unsure, but a post by Morton on Tibetans in Space suggests the man has one or two interesting things to say.

But more space cadet than cosmonaut is Slavoj Žižek on Ecology Without Nature ( Morton says this draws on his argument without citation). Žižek's points about collapsing the distinction between 'Man' and 'Nature', and 'Unknown Knowns' (that is, ideological underpinnings for action that are invisible to the actor) are probably worth taking seriously, but are presented here along with assumptions that are overly simplistic or wrong (such as that there is *no* 'balance' in nature, *only* 'catastrophe' and that the process of laying down fossil fuels was necessarily catastrophic and violent [eh? Carboniferous as Curtis LeMay?]).

Žižek's way of public being (all that nose wiping, hair touching and hand chopping) suggests barely sublimated anger and violence, seeming to confirm Simon Critchley's judgement (Letter, Harper's, May 2008) that Žižek tends towards "dictatorship, political violence and ruthlessness". Environmentalism as currently constructed, I guess Žižek would say, is yet another mask for a bourgeoisie that is to be "definitively crushed" by the violent armed forces of the proletariat.


I tried to run away. I hid for quite a while. I had a rich life; I had incredible experiences, a very slow development of a certain musical world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But I can’t live there anymore. Because, in a sense, it doesn’t exist anymore. A piece like ‘In the White Silence’ is almost—I didn’t realize this at the time—almost an elegy for a place that has disappeared.
-- John Luther Adams, profiled in a Letter from Alaska.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

General destruction

Mangrove loss 'put Burma at risk'

Soaking the citizens

Dieter Helm has just published "A new regulatory model for water". Part of his conclusion is that:
[U.K] Water regulators have presided over a large-scale exercise in financial engineering, transferring value from investors...The original privatisation ‘contract’—that the balance sheets should be used to finance real capital investment — has been broken. Now the regulators, and the customers, face highly geared companies with limited balance sheet capacity...

P.S. 4 June: still making out like bandits.

Warfare state, part 49,718

As well as running an £800,000 advertising campaign, the company has been paying [former Lord Justice] Woolf £6,000 a day to head the review committee with a brief "to ascertain whether ... BAE's ethical standards are irreproachable". The committee's secretary, Richard Jarvis, is a civil servant, seconded from the Cabinet Office.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Joseph Stiglitz is not infallible, but he has good very service in many ways, not least in his recent analysis with Linda Blimes, The Three Trillion Dollar War. So I was a little disappointed at a talk he gave today in Oxford, Meeting the Challenges of Global Governance in the 21st Century.

He made some strong points, of course, regarding government and regulatory capture by banks and big financial players -- plenty to justify the old saying "if you're not angry you're not paying attention"; but for all his gifts, Stiglitz is not always an outstanding public speaker, and he was frustratingly sketchy on how a Financial Product Safety Commission and a Financial System Oversight Commission would work.