Thursday, July 30, 2009


It is perhaps not surprising...that so many carbon traders used to work at Enron.
-- Financial Times

The 'best' solution to reducing emissions is (largely) higher taxes on carbon-intensive fuels. But that would take away revenue streams captured by special interests so it makes for harder politics. See system failure.

A downer on CCS

The Royal Society here in the UK and others (including independent analysts such as David MacKay) [1] support accelerated work and investment on CCS. In the light of experience at Vattenfall’s Schwarze Pumpe project in Spremberg, Joe Romm revisits what he sees as four fundamental problems with the technology:
  • expense
  • scale
  • permanence and transparency
  • timing

[1] see this post, and correction in the appended comment by Prof MacKay

Monday, July 27, 2009

Radovan's excellent adventure

'Dabic' [that is, Karadzic] also sought out a Belgrade clairvoyant, Dusan Janjic. Dabic expressed profound admiration for Janjic’s talents — specifically, his prowess in reading energy grids with something called a Multi-Zap Zapper.

"I had the intention of developing a method in which Dabic could heal our patients, holding one hand under the testicles and one on top of the testicles," explains Bojovic [nnother partner in alternative healing]. Unfortunately for infertile Serbs, Dabic's arrest ended the testicle experiments.
-- from Radovan Karadzic’s New-Age Adventure by Jack Hitt

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Macht keine Dummheiten

When Shmuel Goldfein — it means something like Sam the Moneygrubber — made aliyah from Plotsk, he changed his last name to Barak (Lightning), and named his son Ehud, which means something like ‘popular.’ Sam the Moneygrubber begat Popular Lightning.
-- Tony Horowitz quotes Rich Cohen in a review of Israel is Real.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Plus ca change

The parallel with the failure to properly reform the banking system is striking. Self-regulation is still the watchword. Any threat of serious sanction for lying and corruption has been carefully and deliberately avoided. Like the bankers they so obediently service, politicians will return to business as usual at the earliest possible opportunity.
-- Guy Aitchison, OurKingdom

Friday, July 24, 2009

War music

Why is the American military using music [to break down prisoners]? After all, it could as easily use white noise, or ‘sonic booms’, Israel’s weapon of choice whenever it has wanted to frighten Lebanon without going to war. Moustafa Bayoumi, in an article in the Nation in 2005, suggested that music is used to project ‘American culture as an offensive weapon’. But if the use of American music is a blunt assertion of imperial power, why are metal and gangsta rap the genres favoured by interrogators at Gitmo? One reason [suggests Jonathan Pieslak, author of Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War] is that metal is uniquely harsh, with its ‘multiple, high-frequency harmonics in the guitar distortion’, and vocals that alternate between ‘pitched screaming’ and ‘guttural, unpitched yelling’. ‘If I listened to a death metal band for 12 hours in a row, I’d go insane, too,’ James Hetfield of Metallica says. ‘I’d tell you anything you’d want to know.’ (One interrogator told Pieslak that he tried Michael Jackson on Iraqi detainees, but ‘it doesn’t do anything for them.’)

One can imagine other dissonant forms of music – serial music, or free jazz – being equally effective. But not many military interrogators listen to Schoenberg or Stockhausen – or, for that matter, to Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler. The use of metal and rap, it turns out, mainly reflects the soldiers’ taste. As Pieslak shows, it’s the music many of them listen to when they’re ‘getting crunked’ – pumped up for combat missions. Songs like Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’ put them ‘in the mood’ to fight because their pounding, syncopated rhythms sound very like a volley of bullets being fired from an automatic gun, but the same songs are also deployed in interrogation, and in combat, to terrify people and break them down. It all depends on where you’re listening, and who controls the loudspeakers.
-- Adam Schatz, LRB

How to win

It is clear that the cautious language of science is now inadequate to inspire concerted change, even among scientists. We need a fundamentally different approach. Only then will scientists be in a position to throw down the ultimate challenge to the public: "We've done the work, we believe the results, now when the hell will you wake up?"
-- writes George Marshall in an article worth attention.

The noted climate scientist James Hansen, for one, has been far from cautious in his language for many years. Recently he even put his body on the line for arrest. Bring Hansen together with people who look more 'ordinary', as Greenpeace did in the film about their Kingsnorth action, and you may be on to a winner.

Without Hansen type figures on board it may be harder to persuade more people -- or so would seem to be the lesson from the Drax trial. You need both a scientific authority and 'someone like me'/'someone I like'.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Afghanistan again

Nearly eight years on, Paul Rogers's judgment remains clear.

P.S. 24/27 July: see also Martin Shaw

Creative conflict

I do not believe that human culture can ever reach a perfect synthesis of its diversified and incompatible components. Its very richness is supported by this very incompatibility of its ingredients. And it is the conflict of values, rather than their harmony, that keeps our culture alive.
-- Leszek Kolakowski

Added 24 July, from FT obit:
One of the crucial European traditions is the ability ... to look at one’s own civilisation with the eyes of others. We should be able to look at ourselves self-critically. If we are unable to do that, our civilisation will destroy itself.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Backwards and downwards!

Manifestos with bold aims sometimes echo down the years in irony, satire and farce. [1] Disorganising on the streets of Paris in the 1960s, the Situationists took the slogan "Workers of the world, Unite!" from Marx and Engel's 1848 mother of all manifestos and turned it into "Workers of the World, Disperse!". Two decades later huge crowds in Moscow marched under the banner, "Workers of the World, We apologize!" [2]

Today sees a launch event for the Dark Mountain project, a "literary movement for a time of global disruption." In its manifesto, project curators Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine weigh in against "the civilising project, which has become the progenitor of ecocide" [3] and in favour of "a non-human perspective...which sees us as one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession."

Having spent the last year or two trying to better understand and write about the momentous extinctions and creations of the Anthropocene (and having been around gloom for a while longer [4]), I sympathize with much of what is said in the manifesto. [5] I will follow the project with interest but with these provisos in mind:
A) There is already a lot of dark work out there in both in literary and popular culture, stretching back to at least Han Shen. [6]

B) There are limits on the ability for most humans most of the time to break out of the "bubble" of distorted perceptions. The bubble just changes shape. It may even be that the most we can know is that, in certain respects, we are always in a bubble of illusion. [7]

C) When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilisation he replied "it would be an excellent idea". In that spirit, I think the need is for different civilisation, not uncivilisation. We need to engage in politics and a struggle for justice for the majority who for decades to come are likely to live and die in cities (and megaslums like those of Lima, Manila and Lagos). It is they who may play the largest role in determining what happens to the world. Only a lucky few can "head for the foothills". As we enter a valley that may be darker even than the 1930s, not everyone who talks about democracy will be, in Robinson Jeffers's phrase, a dupe. [8]


[1] In Hendrik Hertzberg's account, Sarah Palin's declaration/manifesto of independence may seem like farce, but -- with, say, the support of News International -- it could yet lead to tragedy.

[2] Long before the Situationists, writes Andrei Codrescu in The Posthuman Dada Guide, the first Dada soiree in July 1915 included a sendup of The Communist Manifesto which concluded "Workers of the World, Go Dada!". But the (anti) artists soon found themselves outdone by reality. Codrescu notes:
In the winter of 1915, an estimated 120,000 French soldiers were killed in a single brief offensive (against the Hindenberg line, 150 miles from Paris ) and a serious mutiny ensued. One of the most striking events of that dark time was the procession of a group of infantrymen through a town, baaing like sheep, to protest that they were being led like lambs to the slaughter.
A case of "Workers of the World, Go Baa Baa!", perhaps.

[3] The curators write that "the bubble" -- the illusion of progress -- is built on
foundations... of coal, oil and gas -- millions upon millions of years of ancient sunlight, dragged from the planet and burned with abandon...on top of all the unseen layers on a well tended surface are you and I: unaware or uninterested, in what goes on beneath us; demanding that the authorities keep us in the manner to which we have become accustomed; occasionally feeling twinges of guilt that lead us to buy organic chickens or locally produced lettuces.
There is an allusion here, conscious or not, to George Orwell (The Road to Wigan Pier):
...Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation--an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.
[4] See for example, Whatever happened to Gaia?, written some time before Lovelock's most pessimistic pronouncements and before the risk of catastrophic climate change was as widely entertained as it is today.

[5] See Dark Patrons

[6] Some consider Cormac McCarthy's The Road a defining text (see Michael Chabon's commentary), but the literature goes much wider and, arguably, mainstream horror movies like 28 Days Later inhabit some of the same territory. For gluttons, see my essay on climate change, imagination and culture (parts 1, 2 and 3 ) and a short note on the new new nature writing. One ancient Chinese poems goes like this:
Everyone who glimpses Cold Mountain
starts complaining about insane winds,
about a look human eyes can't endure
and a shape nothing but tattered robes.

They can't fathom these words of mine.
Theirs I won't even mention. I just tell
all those busy people bustling around:
Come face Cold Mountain for a change.
[7] See, e.g., Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World by Chris Frith. See also the Diamond Sutra:
Thus should one view all of the fleeting world - a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a star at dawn, a phantom, and a dream.
[8] See Eno on The feeling that everything is going to get worse, Ehrlichs on The return of the population bomb.

Image: Maunsell Forts in the Thames Estuary

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Karakoram to Kashmir

A few years ago on a hike high in the Karakoram my companion and I bumped into some blokes with fearsome thick beards and wild eyes. It turned out that most of them worked for Siemens in Karachi, and were on holiday. They were a lovely chaps: educated, sophisticated and funny.

Even though I am now the father of a small child and hardly have a brain any more, I remain vaguely aware that all kinds of stuff is happening in this part of the world (including, on the sidelines, normal eccentricities such as a polo match at Shandur Pass), not to mention 'at home'.

Nevertheless it's sobering to be reminded via Joe Romm's blog of what is likely to be an important part of the big picture:
According to an article by Stephen Faris in Foreign Policy and the IPCC, the Himalayan glacier in the Kashmir province that provides 90 percent of Pakistan’s water for agricultural irrigation will disappear by 2035 as a consequence of climate change.
Is this really what the IPCC estimate says? They may:
a) be wrong on rate of melt: it could take longer;
b) underestimate the likely rate of temperature rise;
c) ...?

Monday, July 13, 2009

System failure

In her attack on Sarah Palin, Peggy Noonan writes :
Here are a few examples of what we may face in the next 10 years: a profound and prolonged American crash, with the admission of bankruptcy and the spread of deep social unrest; one or more American cities getting hit with weapons of mass destruction from an unknown source; faint glimmers of actual secessionist movements as Americans for various reasons and in various areas decide the burdens and assumptions of the federal government are no longer attractive or legitimate.
Noonan may or may not be right with some of these predictions. [1] What is sure, though, is that serious leadership is needed, [2] and in many areas Obama is yet to prove more than words. Kevin Baker writes in the July edition of Harper's (my copy finally arrived: it comes to the U.K by slow boat):
Much like Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama is a man attempting to realize a stirring new vision of his society without cutting himself free from the dogmas of the past -- without accepting the inevitable conflict.

...Obama will have to directly attack the fortified bastion of the newest "new class" - the makers of the paper economy in which he came of age - if he is to accomplish anything. These interests did not spend fifty year shipping the greatest industrial economy in the history of the world over­seas only to be challenged by a newly empowered, green-economy working class. They did not spend much of the past two decades gobbling up previ­ously public sectors such as health care, education, and transportation only to have to compete with a reinvigorated public sector. They mean, even now, to use the bailout to make the government their helpless junior partner, and if they can they will devour every federal dollar available to recoup their own losses, and thereby preclude the use of any monies for the rest of Barack Obama's splendid vision.
Baker may or may not be right. With more likelihood, the Obama administration is already failing to meet the challenges of climate change, and -- without a radical push -- will be incapable of doing so. [4]

P.S. 14 July: I suppose the hope is that Obama may prove more Lincoln than Hoover: finding himself obliged to adopt a more radical goal (in Lincoln's case abolition) than the one (preservation of the Union) he first had in mind.


1. See, for example, the U.S. government assessment of the threat of a nuclear bomb to a major western city (news report, workshop report).

2. Hard to see this coming from the Republicans. Truly bizarre, to me, is Noonan's characterization of 'the media' as the enemy. Isn't she a featured writer in the Wall Street Journal, owned by News International, which also owns Fox News etc? Also, I have a niggle with American usage of the word 'elite', a collective noun, to mean an individual. This is like using 'base' to mean an individual voter or activist.

3. See For Goldman, a swift return to lofty profits.

4. See, for example, James Hansen, 13 July 2009: Strategies and Sundance Kid.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Ex Africa aliquid bonum

Elizabeth Ohene comments on the visit of Bama Obarack, or is it Marack Omaba?

Political, not personal

Forget short showers, says Derek Jensen
Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake,do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Six impossible things before breakfast

Fred Pearce has argued that the proposed G8 pledge is/was scientifically illiterate. This looks more so:
As President Obama arrived for three days of meetings, negotiators for the world’s 17 leading polluters dropped a proposal to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by midcentury, and emissions from the most advanced economies by 80 percent. But both the G-8 and the developing countries agreed to set a goal of stopping world temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels.
-- G-8 Nations Fail to Agree on Plan to Fight Climate Change

Monday, July 06, 2009

The sun watt won it

A solar-powered printing press invented by Augustin Mouchot printing 500 copies per hour of Le Chaleur Solaire for the festival of L'Union Francaises de la Jeuenesse at Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, 6 August 1882. Image featured in web pages for The Manchester Report

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The forest of lost children

The endangerment of children—that persistent [and greatly exaggerated] theme of our lives, arts, and literature over the past twenty years—resonates so strongly because, as parents, as members of preceding generations, we look at the poisoned legacy of modern industrial society and its ills, at the world of strife and radioactivity, climatological disaster, overpopulation, and commodification, and feel guilty. As the national feeling of guilt over the extermination of the Indians led to the creation of a kind of cult of the Indian, so our children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked. At the same time they have become fetishes, the objects of an unhealthy and diseased fixation. And once something is fetishized, capitalism steps in and finds a way to sell it.
-- from The Wilderness of Childhood by Michael Chabon

Friday, July 03, 2009

Memory and history

If any European country seems out of place in today's Europe, stranded in another historical moment, it is Belarus under the dictatorship of Aleksandr Lukashenko. Yet while Lukashenko prefers to ignore the Soviet killing fields in his country, wishing to build a highway over the death pits at Kuropaty, in some respects Lukashenko remembers European history better than his critics. By starving Soviet prisoners of war, shooting and gassing Jews, and shooting civilians in anti-partisan actions, German forces made Belarus the deadliest place in the world between 1941 and 1944. Half of the population of Soviet Belarus was either killed or forcibly displaced during World War II: nothing of the kind can be said of any other European country.

Belarusian memories of this experience, cultivated by the current dictatorial regime, help to explain suspicions of initiatives coming from the West. Yet West Europeans would generally be surprised to learn that Belarus was both the epicenter of European mass killing and the base of operations of anti-Nazi partisans who actually contributed to the victory of the Allies. It is striking that such a country can be entirely displaced from European remembrance. The absence of Belarus from discussions of the past is the clearest sign of the difference between memory and history...

...If there is a general political lesson of the history of mass killing, it is the need to be wary of what might be called privileged development: attempts by states to realize a form of economic expansion that designates victims, that motivates prosperity by mortality. The possibility cannot be excluded that the murder of one group can benefit another, or at least can be seen to do so. That is a version of politics that Europe has in fact witnessed and may witness again. The only sufficient answer is an ethical commitment to the individual, such that the individual counts in life rather than in death, and schemes of this sort become unthinkable.

The Europe of today is remarkable precisely in its unity of prosperity with social justice and human rights. Probably more than any other part of the world, it is immune, at least for the time being, to such heartlessly instrumental pursuits of economic growth. Yet memory has made some odd departures from history, at a time when history is needed more than ever. The recent European past may resemble the near future of the rest of the world. This is one more reason for getting the reckonings right.
-- from Holocaust: The Ignored Reality by Timothy Snyder

England's glory

Jonathan Stevenson quotes Lord Denning on the right of jurors to follow their own judgment:
This principle was established as long ago as 1670 in a celebrated case of the Quakers, William Penn and William Mead. All that they had done was to preach in London on a Sunday afternoon. They were charged with causing an unlawful and tumultuous assembly there. The judge directed the jury to find the Quakers guilty, but they refused. The Jury said Penn was guilty of preaching, but not of unlawful assembly. The Judge refused to accept this verdict. He threatened them with all sorts of pains and punishments. He kept them 'all night without meat, drink, fire, or other accommodation: they had not so much as a chamber pot, though desired'. They still refused to find the Quakers guilty of an unlawful assembly. He kept them another night and still they refused. He then commanded each to answer to his name and give his verdict separately. Each gave his verdict 'Not Guilty'. For this the judge fined them 40 marks apiece and cast them into prison until it was paid. One of them Edward Bushell, thereupon brought his (case) before the Court of the King's Bench. It was there held that no judge had any right to imprison a juryman for finding against his direction on a point of law; for the judge could never direct what the law was without knowing the facts, and of the facts the jury were the sole judge. The jury were thereupon set free.
P.S. But Stevenson and his co-defendents were found guilty.


When we are not presented with a dystopian vision, we are encouraged to be implausibly optimistic. ‘There can be only one winner: democracy and a strong Afghan state,’ Gordon Brown predicted in his most recent speech on the subject. Obama and Brown rely on a hypnotising policy language which can – and perhaps will – be applied as easily to Somalia or Yemen as Afghanistan. It misleads us in several respects simultaneously: minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals. All these attitudes are aspects of a single worldview and create an almost irresistible illusion.
-- from The Irresistible Illusion by Rory Stewart.

P.S 13 July: a Review of In the Graveyard of Empires by Seth Jones