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Privatising Bin Services ………. September 9, 2011

Posted by irishelectionliterature in Environmentalism.
Tags: ,
23 comments

Came home yesterday to find this lovely letter from Greyhound Waste waiting for me. Needless to say I’d forgotten that South Dublin County Council had abdicated its role in providing bin services and that Greyhound Waste had taken their place. All the while I’d told Panda and others that I wanted to stick with the Councils service as I actually believed a council should be providing such a service.

When the bin tags first came out I got myself a Green Cone and dramatically reduced the amount of rubbish that was ending up in my black bin, allied to that my youngest would soon be out of nappies, so my biggest source of rubbish was gone.
For hedge clippings, grass cuttings and plastics etc I’d go down to recycle centre in Rathmines once in a while with them. They started charging there for green waste , so I built myself a compost heap in the garden.
At this stage I don’t use my Brown bin and put my black bin out maybe 4 times a year.
So upon reading the letter I was delighted to see that I was going to be saving money on my bins.
except I wasn’t.

I read and then reread and found that no I had to pay this new annual sixty euro charge or my bins wouldn’t be collected.
Sixty this year ….. how much next year? how much the year after?
I don’t mind paying bin charges for each black bin I put out but I do mind having an annual charge whether I like it or not.
Whats the story with pensioners, unemployed etc? Will they have to pay the private company the sixty euro to have their bins collected?
We’ll soon have charges for water and whatever else they can invent and in time these utilities will be privatised. For whose benefit?

Animal Crackers March 18, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Environmentalism, Libertarianism, Media and Journalism, Pseudo-Science, Revolutionary Communist Party.
20 comments

(This began as a comment in response to Worldbystorm’s musing about the attitude of the Spiked crowd to animals, but became a little unwieldy, so it gets its own post).

Animals – their welfare and their rights – is one of the key issues that recurs again and again with the Revolutionary Communist Party group, but doesn’t seem to generate the same debate as their more high-profile, or controversial, preoccupations.  An article by Brendan O’Neill on the old favourites – the environment, child protection or liberal elitism – may generate hundreds of responses on Comment is Free, but discussions around animals don’t tend to receive the same kind of intense level of interest.  However, as Worldbystorm rightly points out, it’s something that they are fascinated with, and keep coming back to.  For that reason, I thought it might be interesting to take a sample of the articles on Spiked about animals, and see how they reflect many of the tropes of a typical RCP article.

For clarification, I’m using the term Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) to refer to the entire range of writers and personalities associated with what might mostly broadly be called Furedi and chums.  This includes Living Marxism/LM, Spiked, the Institute of Ideas, the Manifesto Club, Sense about Science and all the rest.  I’m assuming that readers will already be aware of the background of the network and of the links between the different groups (both the overtly Furedian ones and the front organisations).  Those interested in finding out more might usefully start with the Sourcewatch article on the LM group and following the links – in particular the piece entitled “Strange Bedfellows” from The Ecologist.

I admit, of course, that treating all of these individuals as a single collective is something of a blunt instrument.  Different writers will adopt different styles and different approaches, depending on their audience, the medium they’re using and their particular interests.  However, on many issues – in particular in relation to animals – there does appear to be a single, unwavering line common to all.

With those disclaimers in hand, let’s look at some of the rhetorical tactics of the RCP’ers.

1: “The real reason they oppose it …”.

Take, for example, the 2006 Spiked article “Stop weeping over whaling“, by Helene Guldberg.  In it, the author tries to demonstrate that anti-whaling sentiment is actually motivated by cultural imperialism and anti-Japanese bigotry.  Or, to be specific, the author asserts that as the case and doesn’t provide any evidence in support of the claim.  The entire article is a mismash of various logical fallacies and indicates a deliberate unwillingness to even to begin to engage with the substantial anti-whaling arguments.

We see this again and again with the RCP’ers.  Rather than address the actual arguments of those they oppose, they prefer to speculate wildly about the motivations of others.  We see it over and over with the debate on climate change.  Those who highlight, for example, the impact of increased air travel, fuelled by low-cost carriers, on the environment are doing so not from any concern about global warming, but because they are liberal elite killjoys who want to prevent ‘ordinary people’ (always a loaded phrase) from enjoying themselves.

This tendency is perhaps best exemplified in the large red banner currently across the front page of Spiked linked to their ongoing campaign: Beijing 2008 – Challenging China-bashing.  To believe the RCP’ers, there is a huge upsurge of racist, anti-China feeling sweeping the land: a latter-day version of the ‘Yellow Peril’.  Concerned about the consequences of continued Chinese economic growth reliant to the burning of fossil fuels?  Racist anti-China bashing!  Alarmed at what you saw about infant abduction stemming from the one-child policy on the recent Channel 4 documentary China’s Stolen Children? Patronising anti-China bashing!  Don’t like what you’re seeing on the news about the occupation of Tibet and the violent crackdown on protestors?  You’re both self-loathing and imperialist (a rather contradictory combination, some might think.  Don’t worry, though.  Brendan O’Neill is large; he contains multitudes).  Of course, one might question why a group supposedly so concerned with individual freedom would consistently ignore China’s appalling human rights record, but that would no doubt make one an anti-China basher, a liberal elitist and a scaremonger about the Yellow Peril.

In all cases the motivations of those opposed to the RCP worldview is called into question; the actual arguments they make seldom are.  One wonders why.

2: That’s how it is!

In this particular manoeuvre, the RCP’er will make a particular assertion in order to refute a position he or she disagrees with, but will proceed as if their assertion is already universally accepted, when it’s actually the very point at issue.  “Begging the question”, to put it another way.

Take the 2006 article ‘A Great Aping of Human Rights’.  In it, Josie Appleton writes about a proposed Spanish parliamentary resolution in support of the objectives of the Great Ape Project, that is to extend the protection of certain fundamental rightsto the Great Apes.  Josie Appleton, unsurprisingly, is against this.  She argues that:

The Great Ape Project emerged out of disillusionment with human beings and human values, and effectively looks to apes to provide a new moral compass. Great apes are cast as wise and knowing figures that can help to renew a corrupted human civilisation.

Unfortunately, however, this isn’t true as anyone who had read collection of essays in The Great Ape Project (which Appleton cites in her footnotes) would know.  The argument is, essentially, that there is no moral justification for limiting basic rights to humans and preventing their extension to non-human animals which share certain intellectual attributes with humans.  This, of course, isn’t a particularly mainstream opinion and is far from non-contentious.  However,  Appleton argues as if this point, central to the argument, has already been refuted without bothering to do so.  It’s the long-winded equivalent of Mick Hume’s ‘Animals Count? No they don’t‘ piece (thesis: Animals Matter; antithesis: No they don’t; synthesis: They just don’t! Shut up!).

To see the same approach in a non-animal context, look at Jennie Bristow’s 2007 article ‘Abortion: stop hiding behind the science‘.  In it, Bristow argues that, contrary to the argument of anti-abortionists, greater scientific understanding of foetal development doesn’t impact of the moral case in favour of access to abortion and that this case should be restated.  She writes:

But when it comes to the principle of abortion, science can tell us no more than it ever has. Women who need abortions should be able to have them: some people agree with this, and others do not. Scientific evidence, however sound it may be, will never tell us what society should do about abortion.

This happens to be a position I’d agree with myself, and I believe that the moral case for the right to choose should be restated.  However, nowhere in Bristow’s piece does she do that.  She simply asserts that women should be able to access abortion services, without ever explaining why this should be the case.

3: Infantile Contrarianism

Occasionally, one finds oneself agreeing with an RCP’er (don’t worry – remember the old saying about the stopped clock).  Other times, one disagrees but accepts the sincerity of their arguments.  All too often though, pieces like ‘In defence of fur‘ are published, which can’t possibly be genuine.

No doubt Josie Appleton either likes the feel and look of fur, or doesn’t really care about it one way or the other, but the article itself reads like a heavy-handed and obvious attempt to appear controversial.  Take that, conventional wisdom!  Have at you, bien-pensants!  The RCP is on the job, demolishing the ivory towers of the elite, undermining what you think you know and totally blowing your mind!

Except, they’re not, of course.  There’s little more tiring than a self-conscious controversialist.  These pieces are, invariably, attempts to appear radical by mindlessly opposing what’s seen as the consensus view on some issue or other without really thinking through the basis for the position.  Kneejerk first, argument later.  Which often leaves the writer clutching desperately for something – anything – to support the view they’ve adopted.  Who could read Josie Appleton’s defence of the use of fur

Just as a butterfly is never aware of the beautiful patterns on its wings, so a mink will wear its soft coat until death without ever appreciating it. For the mink, fur is just something that it carries around in the battle to survive, like claws or teeth.

By being made into a fur coat, that mink’s pelt is raised into something higher, just as a tree made into a violin is raised, or a cow made into a sumptuous steak is raised. A raw material becomes part of the human world; fur isn’t just on the back of an animal scratching around for food, but is instead worked on and admired as art. Indeed, it is only really by becoming a coat that a mink’s life can be said to have had any purpose at all.

without feeling at least a little embarrassed for her?

For more of this ‘I hate you Daddy’ defiance of mainstream thinking, see all of Brendan O’Neill’s output.

4: If it’s global warming, how come it’s cold today?

Climate change isn’t a tactic of the RCP per se.  The various articles the Furedists produce on the subject employ the full range of rhetorical tropes, including those highlighted above.  However, given that it’s such a key issue for them, as well as such an important issue more generally, it merits specific consideration on its own.

It’s rare to see an RCP’er deny the reality of man-made climate change outright; rather, as we see in the Polar Bear article that WbS highlighted early, they prefer to muddy the waters, to cast doubt on the accuracy of the available evidence and malign the motivations of those trying to tackle the problem.  In this case, the attempt is made to highlight a report pointing to possible flaws in forecasting methodology used in predicting the impact of climate change on the bears, with the underlying implication that all evidence for climate change is similarly flawed.  The authors of the article – Armstrong, Green and Soon (a professor of marketing, a research fellow in business and finance and an astrophysicist respectively) – are favourites of the RCP, two of them having previously made similar points about forecasting in the IPCC report, covered by Brendan O’Neill here.

To be fair, it’s possible that there may be some truth in the suggestion that the forecasting methology employed in various climate studies is flawed.  And it’s difficult for the lay-reader to determine the plausibility of this.  However, when viewed in the context of a wider and consistent campaign by the RCP against those who argue that climate change is occuring, and needs to be tackled, it’s reasonable that one should caution against taking anything published on the site on the subject with a pinch of salt.

What makes the RCP’s attitude towards the climate change question so fascinating, as well as confusing, is the fact that in some ways it runs completely contrary to their stated philosophy on some many other issues.  Look at the review of Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge to see this tension at its most pronounced.  While it attempts to support the primacy of rational enquiry over superstition and pseudo-science, it has to pull back at the end and, essentially, say ‘except for environmentalism’.

Also interesting is the RCP group Sense about Science, which describes itself in the following terms:

Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust promoting good science and evidence in public debates. We do this by promoting respect for evidence and by urging scientists to engage actively with a wide range of groups, particularly when debates are controversial or difficult.

We work with scientists to

  • respond to inaccuracies in public claims about science, medicine, and technology
  • promote the benefits of scientific research to the public
  • help those who need expert help contact scientists about issues of importance
  • brief non-specialists on scientific developments and practices

One might imagine that a group of this kind might have something to say on the issue of climate change, possibly the most important ‘scientific’ issue facing the global community, and one on which a certain amount of scientific knowledge on the part of the public would be, at the very least, desirable.  Unfortunately, while the group is ready to launch  any number of press releases denouncing homeopathy, anti-GM protests or the collected works of Gillian McKeith, all they have produced on the question of climate change is a short document on the complexity of forecasting.

On this, as on so many other issues, it’s difficult to know what their motivation is.  It’s tempting to simply suggest that they’re insincere, and that they have a vested financial interest in pushing the positions they’re taking.  Certainly, the links between the RCP (et al) and various large corporations has previously been highlighted.  Perhaps even odder is the suggestion that they actually do believe all this, with what can only be described as a quasi-religious fervour.  There’s a blind faith at play in the perfectability of humanity and of scientific progress that borders on the fanatical.  One can see this in the Little Atoms interview with Brendan O’Neill of last November.  After a long diatribe treading very familiar ground on the perfidy of environmentalism, the presenters finally ask Brendan what, precisely, he would do to combat Climate Change.  His response – he didn’t care; science would look after it (indeed, to suggest that this might be a little naive displays nothing but the questioner’s contempt for mankind’s potential). 

Perhaps it would be a little cruel to view the RCP as the post-Marxist equivalent of the Heaven’s Gate cult, waiting for Frank Furedi’s instruction to cut off their sex organs and meet him behind the comet.  Certainly, at their most extreme they recall some of the more extreme groups in Ken McLeod’s Fall Revolution novels.

Who knows, though: they might be right.  And come the Singularity who’ll be first against the wall?

Huntin’ and shootin’… just why is Tom McGurk so worked up about the Green Party? December 30, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Environment, Environmentalism, Green Party.
8 comments

fox_hunting.jpg

An entertaining (albeit for the wrong reasons) article by the usually somewhat better Tom McGurk in todays Sunday Business Post. Tom has taken it upon himself to worry about:

[a] political cult, a complex 21stcentury miasma of world-enders, global warmers, suburban hysterics and political correctors; they are the new puritans come among us to spread the new materialist guilt. Daily they pronounce on all the new sins, from big petrol-guzzling engines to hunted foxes, one-off houses and the carbon costs of a family holiday in Torremolinos.

Why yes, that’d be the Green Party then.

Under the title “Greens must not be allowed to sabotage our ancient rituals” his ire is raised by;

[the] increasing concern in rural Ireland about the Green agenda in government, particularly among the equestrian and country sports communities.

Early this month, two well-attended public meetings at Slane in Co Meath and at Gowran Park in Co Kilkenny demonstrated the growing unease about the Greens in government and their attitude to hunting and other rural sports.

The Ward Union Hunt in Meath was the first to feel the displeasure of environment minister John Gormley, who delayed for months before finally granting the hunt its licence. In the event, Kafka ruled – conditions attached to the licence were such that to attempt to hunt and obey them was going to be farcical.

The true horror of this situation only brought home to him”

not only by Gormley’s attitude – to a hunt that is over a century old and unique in Ireland, if not the world – but also by the sneering cynicism with which he acted. But then, as someone remarked, Meath’s Ward Union was easier to kick around than Meath’s new highway through Tara.

In rural Ireland, many feel that the Ward Union battle marks the beginning of a campaign by the Green Party and other environmentalist lobbies to put manners on Ireland’s traditional hunting, shooting and fishing community. One Green Party website has been describing all country sports as ‘‘blood sports’’.

Good Lord. A Green Party website ‘describes’ all country sports as ‘blood sports’. Beyond belief isn’t it? So different say to a Sunday newspaper columnist who describes John Gormley as… as… Kafka!

Still, he is right, isn’t he? The ‘ancient ritual’ (Meath Ward Union: estd. 19th century) has been knocked back by the granting of a license.
McGurk further argues that unlike the UK there is no class dimension to hunting. Well, yes and no. Firstly that is to suppose that class issues are unchanging. Sure, no doubt there are many ordinary people who hunt in Ireland… McGurk says:

Hunting in Ireland is enjoyed by the local butcher, baker and farmer; it’s not about killing foxes, but about the enjoyment of horses and the countryside. Given the historic battle for the repossession of the land and our emotional relationship to it, the Greens could be picking a fight with forces they are badly underestimating.

But, so what? The class issue has always been the weakest plank in the argument against hunting. He is on even more contentious territory when he suggests that hunting is part of some integral relationship between us Irish and ‘our’ land. There is a clue in the date of the establishment of the Meath Union. The reality is that land ownership amongst the Irish in a broad sense was a factor of the 19th century (and through into the early 20th century). The sense of alienation was very much a class issue, and one directed against those who had previously expropriated the land. And it is this alienation and consequent identification amongst a broader population, and some aspect of the ethical issue as regards animal rights and welfare, much more than his straw man of:

two and a half thousand suburban votes in Dublin 4 and 6 – thanks to the vagaries of proportional representation – can result in such a threat to the wealth of our rural traditions.

…which leads to a degree of unease about hunting. A rural tradition of hunting on horseback which is a century old is a fairly shallow tradition. I’ve never been overly exercised about hunting, but I have encountered hunts in the countryside (as recently as it happens as last week) and there is something about large groups of people on horseback that raises a, perhaps, atavistic response in me. It’s an obvious response… one borne of the power relationship that humans on horses generate, a relationship not unnoticed by security and police forces the world over.

So, would I ban the hunts? Well, let’s just say that I’m happy enough with the Minister setting conditions. Still, it is later that McGurk’s argument becomes even less coherent.

Where once rural Ireland was seen as the place from which you escaped, there is now a growing sense that the quality of life there far exceeds anything to be found in towns. Communities are stronger, there’s better value in housing, there are superior schools and there is seemingly more space and more time. Perhaps most importantly of all, technology has profoundly reduced the disadvantage of distance to manageable proportions.

I suspect that it is into this new 21st century political territory that the Green campaign against country sports is heading. This is a territory where, as we saw in Britain, prejudice rather than rationality held sway. For example, in a world dependent on factory farming and globalised animal production, the notion that the killing of a small number of wild animals by that minority of the populaton involved in country sports is morally different is simply absurd.

The first paragraph is full of unsustained assertions. Perhaps he’s right to shed a tear for ‘community’, or perhaps not. Others with an equal measure of sentimentality and distance shed a tear for the rare ould times in Dublin’s inner city twenty years back, when said city was plagued by crime deprivation and drug abuse. And no doubt some in twenty years will look back with equal fondness on the present situation urban and rural. But… if – as we see – urban sprawl and a movement of people back to the land through largely unrestricted development, that too generates its own traditions which are at odds with the supposedly ‘ancient’ ones he defends.

The second paragraph contains an odd argument. Purpose is all, or at least it has some traction in this debate. Killing an animal for sport is not the direct equivalent of killing an animal for food. And farming is increasingly regulated to provide for animal welfare. It’s not enough and there are many who find the killing of animals simply abhorrent, but it is a factor. Still, he doesn’t see it that way.

The cruelty argument against hunting has neither a scientific nor a moral basis, given the farming methods by which our species survives. In fact, it is hard to imagine a community whose relationship with animals is closer and more intense than the farming community from which most of the hunting community is drawn.

When prejudice, not to mention hysteria, takes over, and the arrogance that goes with telling other communities – which have spent many generations with animals – how they should treat them, the debate will sink up to its axles in its own pointlessness.

I love this argument. The logical conclusion is that democracy, or indeed potentially any level of animal welfare, should not apply in certain circumstances. But worse again it would sanction any sorts of behaviour simply because it had gone on for generations. Nah, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t believe that.

He concludes with a bizarre point:

Extraordinarily, they (the Greens) are happy to cover the historic landscape of Ireland with enormous windmills, but go berserk at the prospect of someone digging a new septic tank. The now extinct PDs have vacated the moral high ground, only to be replaced by ‘know-all of Sandymount’.

You read it here first – next year all of this will have political ramifications for Fianna Fail and its rural vote if the Greens turn out not to be the house-trained environmentalists that Bertie had anticipated.

Examples perhaps of the supposedly ‘beserk’ behavior? Why none. What is one to make of it? A media keen to find an ‘enemy’ now that the dreaded Shinners have been badly wounded and an election is still 4.5 years away? An excess of Christmas pudding leading to dyspeptic fears for the future?

As it happens I think there are interesting debates to be had as regards the rural and the progressive (including different forms of hunting), and I suspect some may throw up outcomes that are less than congenial to progressive thinking. But… to argue that a rather mild-mannered Green presence in government and response to a hunt is a harbinger of political Apocalpyse and the egregious destruction of all that is rural is no more than hyperbole.

And returning to:

the world-enders, global warmers, suburban hysterics and political correctors

Does one sense that here, as in so many other places in our supposedly ‘liberal’ media, there is a retreat from actual engagement with issues into facile denigration and name calling? Or is it just the rush to make that New Years deadline? Must do better in 2008…

Powercuts, the night sky and a green solution to light pollution (sorry, couldn’t resist)… December 29, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Environmentalism, Science.
8 comments

earthlights_dmsp_big.jpg

This Christmas I was given a book on the last 50 years of spaceflight: Space, the First 50 years. It’s great, co-written by the grand old man of astronomy (and remarkably reactionary) Patrick Moore and it’s a great addition to a small library of space science books. Incidentally for a fantastic book with a broader remit can I direct you towards Cosmos: A Field Guide which I picked up in Chapters in Dublin last year. I’m not sure what it is, but paradoxically the rationalist and materialist in me finds a somewhat pantheistic comfort in the incredible imagery of space that this era has provided.

Anyhow, I’d been thinking of writing a post on Astronomy Ireland and their efforts reported on Monday in the Irish Times to counteract the light pollution which has effectively made the night sky a pale shadow of its true glory [click on the above image to see how bad light pollution has become]. They’re pushing, as part of an international campaign, led I think by the International Dark-Sky Association, for better more energy efficient public and commercial street lighting.

David Moore of Astronomy Ireland is reported as noting that as much as 30 per cent of the bill for public lighting (€300 million a year) could be saved in a transition to energy/light efficient fittings.

He says that: ‘What we have… are light fittings that are incredibly badly designed. They are just a bulb hanging out of a pole and so much of the lighting gets wasted because it goes upwards and not where it is supposed to go. With light shade deflectors you can go down to a lower wattage bulb, space them further apart and save energy’.

‘It’s a win-win situation. Astronomers get their skies back and the public get lower energy bills and a lower carbon footprint’.

Not just astronomers though. We all get our skies back. So, here we have a convergence of science, environmentalism and green politics in an area which will allow us to actually reap a serious benefit both in terms of energy efficiency and giving us back something that we’ve lost from our personal environment in the past fifty odd years or so… a genuine appreciation of the night sky.

milkywaylightpollutionseptember2006.png

I can count the number of times I’ve seen the Milky Way in such a way as to truly appreciate the term ‘star field’. Once on Inis Mean in the early 1990s, once in Tunisia and once in the countryside outside Kilkenny. That’s absurd in the context of decades on the planet and a lifetime looking at the sky.

Anyhow, curiously enough, there was a powercut tonight in the part of Dublin I live in. Spooky? Well not really, it was fixed within an hour or so (and oddly enough another gift I received, a windup torch, came in handy). But what was revelatory was how even a limited reduction in ambient street light allowed a significantly enhanced view of the sky (mind you, it played havoc with alarms and such like, and was actually genuinely spooky before torches came on to be caught within a near pitch black environment).

This is the easy stuff, improved technology, better planning and consequently a genuinely better standard of life. Mick of Organized Rage made the point recently that little, except perhaps true love, exists outside political culture. Well, while this is love (of a sort), it’s also political and cultural. And most importantly it makes good sense.

Why, bad as it is, climate change isn’t the only threat: Near Earth Objects and December 2004. March 11, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in climate change, Environment, Environmentalism, Global Warming, Technology.
7 comments

Not sure if anyone caught this in the Guardian on Wednesday. With the day that was in it it seemed possible to briefly raise our eyes from the electoral gutter to the clean fresh sky above us and beyond that space itself.

Er…no, actually best not. Let’s go back to the Assembly Election, because I read one of the most disturbing reports in a newspaper I’ve ever seen.

The Planetary Defence Conference is taking place soon with the aim of establishing ways to deal with asteroids that threaten to impact with the Earth. Near-Earth Objects ranging from grains of dust to moving mountains kilometers in size are fairly certain to have caused up to extinction level events in the past.

Various techniques have been suggested for dealing with them and the Conference will consider them in some detail. These range from attaching propulsion systems to them in order to deflect them to attempting to destroy them with nuclear weapons and such ideas are well known from films such as Deep Impact and Armageddon. Still, interesting and all as that is what really my eye was the information contained further down the story. When discussing one possible threat to the planet it noted:

    All eyes for the moment are on Apophis, a 390-metre wide asteroid discovered in 2004, which has an outside chance of hitting the Earth in 2036. If it struck, Apophis would release more than 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres would be directly affected by the blast but the whole planet would see the effects of the dust released into the atmosphere. There could be dark skies for a year or more and crops worldwide would be destroyed.

But it could actually be worse.

    Many smaller objects around the Earth’s orbit break up when they reach the atmosphere, with no impact beyond a short fireworks display. An NEO wider than 1km, however, collides with Earth every few hundred thousand years and an NEO larger than 6km, which could cause mass extinction, will collide with Earth every 100m years. Experts agree that we are overdue for a big one.

This potential threat has led the Conference to consider the following…

    The critical question psychologists will address is whether details of an impending impact should be kept secret, to avoid widespread panic. In December 2004, for example, scientists calculated that if Apophis were to hit it would land somewhere along a line that crossed central Europe, parts of the Middle East, the most populated district on Earth (the Ganges River valley), and on out across the Philippines. At the time, the information was kept secret and many NEO scientists agreed it was the right thing to do.

Wait a second. The threat assessment was of such significance (i.e. it was thought that the chances it could actually happen were sufficiently high) that it was felt better in the interests of public order to keep a lid on the information? Isn’t that sort of remarkable and how come we’ve heard so little about it up until now? Granted the threat passed. We’re still, mostly, here. But even so…

    But Clark Chapman, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, says secrecy goes against the advice of many experts in risk management. “There are myths about the downsides of putting all information out, used as rationalisations by astronomers and space agency officials for withholding information, but which are counter to the policies of expert social scientists.”

    He says the perception that members of the public would immediately panic about an impending impact has no support from studies of social psychology. “If risk communication is done poorly, people may become unduly alarmed, they may lose faith in the veracity of official statements, they may misunderstand what’s being communicated, they may ignore important warnings.”

To be honest it’s not so much the threat of panic that worries me, but the threat of a giant rock hitting the planet.

And, to my mind, it indicates how parochial much of our thinking is. We’ve been discussing climate change here over the week, and it’s always struck me that whether caused by anthropogenic sources or otherwise there is an imperative to act, if only because it forces us to think smarter about our technologies, our utilisation of resources and our place on the planet…

There is of course an appeal, and it’s understandable, for a simpler way of life, but I think that’s a serious error, indeed it’s hard to see how that can be achieved with a planetary population in the billions short of some very unpleasant measures.

This as a great opportunity to shift ourselves forward into using much more clever technologies in transport, energy and conservation. If we are dependent upon land transport or slower air transport then it makes sense to use the most advanced technologies available and make them more efficient.

And, like it or not, to sustain our planetary environment we must, of necessity, have a presence in space both to monitor the biosphere and to warn of and guard against incoming problems, must, of necessity have a high technology civilisation. Not for puerile issues of national or international pride or because technological progress is an end in itself (although arguably it can be when developed appropriately) but as a matter of survival and since it’s the smart thing to do. And also because, to be honest, this universe we find ourselves in is implacably hostile in it’s simple indifference not merely to human life but to the biosphere in general. The current efforts to establish a means of dealing with climate change are enormously important, but climate change isn’t the only threat we as a species or the planet faces, yet, ironically we are, as ever, the only species on the planet in a position to do something about it.

SwindleWatch ’07 March 4, 2007

Posted by smiffy in climate change, Environment, Environmentalism, Film and Television, Global Warming, Media and Journalism.
42 comments

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been had”? I can’t be sure, but I’d bet Johnny Rotten’s famous quote will crop up in next Thursday’s Channel 4 documentary on climate change, The Great Global Warming Swindle, taking its name from the not-very-good Sex Pistols film.

According to the Channel 4 website:

In a polemical and thought-provoking documentary, film-maker Martin Durkin argues that the theory of man-made global warming has become such a powerful political force that other explanations for climate change are not being properly aired.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Imagine what it could mean if it were true: that there’s a vast conspiracy of vested interests including, most recently, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, collectively lying to use about the nature and cause of climate change, and that all our concerns about energy conservation and reduction of greenhouse gases have been a complete waste of time.

Don’t go rushing to buy shares in Ryanair just yet. The Observer’s science editor Robin McKie has a pretty damning piece in today’s edition rubbishing the programme. While I’m not sure I’d go along with his comparision with CFC gases and with his proposed solution, he makes the point that many of the claims on the programme are untrue and simply a rehash of the same so-called ‘scepticism’ that, until relatively recently, used to get an amount of coverage in the media disproportionate to the weight of scientific support it attracted in the name of a ‘balanced debate’ (i.e. until the BBC realised that it was a load of old rot, and that there was little or no support for the view that contemporary climate change was anything but man-made).

Something McKie doesn’t point to, however, is the background of the director. Martin Durkin has quite a track record in this kind of programme. George Monbiot writes about him here, pointing to his some of his previous output including a report on how silicone implants reduce the risk of breast cancer (initially proposed to the BBC’s Horizon but dropped when the commissioned researcher contradicted the claims, then shown by Channel 4), a series (again for Channel 4) called Against Nature, which essentially argued that environmentalists were proto-Nazis out to control the world (which misrepresented the views of many of those interviewed, for which Channel 4 was forced to apologise) and a programme (once again, Channel 4) on genetically-modified foodstuffs which one of the participants described as having “rendered great disservice to science generally and to the scientific debate on GM-food particularly“. For someone with no scientific background, one has to wonder how Martin Durkin keeps being commissioned for programmes like these. Or, as Private Eye wrote at the time “What does Channel 4 do with programme makers condemned by the TV watchdog,the Independent Television Commission (ITC), for using underhand editing techniques? The answer is, er, hire them to make another programme.”

One intriguing element to the whole affair is the link to the Revolutionary Communist Party, also known as the Living Marxism group, also known as the Institute of Ideas, also known as Spiked Online, also known as Sense About Science. Phew! It’s hard to keep up, even for an ex-DL member, so for an introduction to the bizarre and murky world of this sect which went so far left it came out the other side, check out George Monbiot’s pieces and ‘The Revolution has been Televised‘ and ‘Invasion of the Entryists‘, as well as Nick Cohen’s ‘The rebels who changd their tune to be pundits‘. All of these pieces highlight the role played by RCP members and friends in Durkin’s films and, while it isn’t claimed that Durkin is a member of the RCP, an article on the group by What Next states that “The day after (a piece on Against Nature appeared in The Guardian), the paper reported Martin Durkin, the Against Nature producer, saying that the RCP had been dissolved a year previously. Not known as an RCP member or supporter, it’s not clear how he was privy to such information”.

It’s hard to do justice to the sheer strangeness of the ideology behind this group in its various guises. Essentially, it presents an uber-libertarian view of the world, where everything suggestive of state intervention in private lives, or which might limit scientific exploration or experimentation to any degree is charged with being ‘politically-correct’ or totalitarian, part of a creeping statism which aims to control the actions of everyone on the planet. Whatever you’re for, these professional controversialists will be against it. Indeed, if John Waters scrubbed himself up a bit, he might even be admitted as a member.

Much of what they write, particularly from The Times’ Mick Hume or the New Statesman’s Brendan O’Neill seem, at first glance, to be run-of-the-mill contrarianism. Worried about emissions for air travel? Just leftie elitists trying to stop working class people going on holidays. Use a green bin for recycling? Council plot to regulate our lives. Concerned that maybe homophobic or racist abuse shouldn’t be thrown around on a college campus? Politically-correct Big Brother attack on freedom of speech.

Pretty standard, Magill-type rubbish, all in all.

But poke a little deeper and you find an ideology far odder than anything dreamt up by Eamon Delaney in a rare, sober moment. This is also the group which denied the existence of concentration camps in Bosnia, as well as describing Neil Hamilton as a ‘sacrificial lamb’. For a real indication of how nuts they can get when questioned, check out the stunned response of the presenters of Little Atoms (not known for the tough interrogation of their guests) to Brendan O’Neill’s (Spiked contributor and New Statesman columnist) claim that intervention is always wrong, even in the case of genocide, because it’s paternalistic and disempowering.

Many profiles of the RCP-group try to understand their almost Ayn Randian ideology. Some think that they continue to be Marxists, religiously so, and are promoting the market and global capitalism in order to hasten its inevitable demise (rather like those fundamentalist Christians who want to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem in order to bring about the Apocalypse). Others see them as having abandoned the class-struggle and economic elements of Marxism, leaving only an ultra-humanist fanatical devotion to ‘progress’ for its own sake. Others still see them as just in it for the money.

I’ve no idea. All I would say is that if you do sit down to watch the programme on Thursday, treat everything you hear with some scepticism, and do some research into who is speaking. You wouldn’t want to be had!

[As a side-note, looking back over that Nick Cohen piece in the New Statesman for the purpose of writing this post, one quote in particular jumps out immediately:

Former lefties can make a good living in the media by attacking their ex-comrades – I’d do it myself if the price was right.

Doh!]

Moonbase, Missile Defence, and just why there’s a good reason for them both… or Victor Papanek and the necessity for ethical design… December 11, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Design, Education, Environment, Environmentalism, Ethics, Greens, NASA, Pseudo-Science, Science, Technology.
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Okay, I’m slightly exaggerating about Missile Defence, but hear me out about Moon Base.
350px-lunar_base-1.jpg
In 1970 Victor Papanek, an Austrian designer and educator wrote a book called ‘Design for the Real World’. Originally published in Sweden, so popular was it that it was translated into English only a year later. The idea behind it was what Papanek felt was a mismatch between the power of design in contemporary societies and the lack of moral responsibility felt by the broad product design profession. As he noted himself ‘no a single volume on the responsibility of the designer, no book on design that considers the public in this way, has ever been published anywhere’. And from this Papanek developed a critique of this form of design and how it dovetailed with capitalism and sought to present a sort of roadmap for those involved in design. He argued that consumerist design was akin to medicine and ‘comparable to what would happen if all medical doctors were to forsake general practice and surgery and concentrate exclusively on dermatology, plastic surgery, and cosmetics’.

Essentially he proposed that there are six areas where designers must positively engage.

Firstly in the area of design for the Third World. Papanek considered that in a world where billions lacked the appropriate and sustainable technologies to improve their lives. He pointed to the lack of development in lighting or in upgrading or making more sustainable simple technologies such as paraffin or oil lamps.

Secondly in the area training and educational devices for those who are disabled. His particular focus was on simple products which improve life, such as hearing aids. The costs of such items were extremely expensive, but through a more rational allocation of resources such costs could be cut. Yet this would demand a political and social will.

Third he looked to design for medicine and health. Topical this, indirectly in an Irish context. He noted that at the time medical instruments were either over designed or extremely crude. He sought a more measured approach.

Fourth he considered design for research was a necessity. Here we see an interesting, almost techno-utopian strand in his thinking. The idea is that much experimental equipment was over designed or badly designed thus inflating the costs of research. Again, he sought social and political change, but also accountability on the part of those who commissioned such products.

Fifth, he saw the design of survival systems in hostile environments as a crucial priority. This included underwater, deserts, polar areas and space environments. With increasing pollution and a global environment under significant pressure he considered that it was necessary to ‘sustain human life under marginal conditions’.

Sixth, he looked to design for ‘breakthrough concepts’. This is in some respects the most radical of his ideas. What he sought was rather than continual marginal improvement in products, instead a complete rethink about the purpose and function of items in order to make them more sustainable. So if you design a kettle you create one which allows for more precise control of the amount of water boiled in order to save electricity, and so on and so forth extended outwards to encompass all products.

Needless to say this is a significant rupture with traditional consumerist design techniques, and one which hasn’t been un-influential. ‘Green’ and socially responsible design has begun to permeate product design in particular.

And as for Moon Base, well look to the fifth area. That sort of cutting edge technological advance isn’t without benefits, particularly if this is positioned within an international context. More to the point, while direct applicability may not be absolutely forthcoming, aspects of it certainly are. I don’t want to overstate this. Project Orion, as the crew component of the new Lunar missions is named, is in many respects simply an extension of the old Apollo capsules, with capacity for up to 6 astronauts rather than the previous three. It’s not comfortable, it’s not a 2001 Earth Orbit to Lunar Surface style vehicle. But it is technology that has been proven to work previously and can be further refined. And this is also important in terms of our ability as a species to protect both ourselves and our planetary biosphere. One of the more disturbing aspects of our growing knowledge of how fragile that biosphere is has been the realisation that it is vulnerable both to anthropogenic threats such as climate change and external threats beyond the atmosphere. It’s something of a cliche to suggest that once humans travelled beyond Earth orbit and were able to show us the image of the planet from afar our relationship with the planet changed, but consider the manner in which for example An Inconvenient Truth was advertised. This sort of signification is of value.

Naturally there’s much to disagree with Papanek, if not in his overall argument, then in the detail. For example, it’s difficult to see how consumerist design can be modified very rapidly. In later books his proscriptions, particularly in the area of societal structures become a little arcane (for example he goes someway along the path Rudolf Bahro and other deep Greens went with regard to dismantling current society into much smaller self contained units – ideas I’d not necessarily disagree with but find difficult to believe will be implemented any time soon). But on the other if he provides me with a justification for Moon Base…

Mind you, now I think about it, wouldn’t that be the ultimate small self contained unit…

By the by, for those interested in this area a book by Nigel Whiteley, Design for Society, although dated, provides a good overview of the area.

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Forgot to add this…of course even when the US or US/UN gets there they’ll still only be second…or third…or fourth as this most interesting site 😉 indicates…

Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the Greenest of them all? September 22, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in climate change, Energy consumption, Environment, Environmentalism, Global Warming, Greens, Uncategorized.
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There is an interesting debate rumbling through certain portions of the environmental movement.
A piece in the New Statesman by John Gray this week under the heading ‘Clear and Present Danger’ reviewed George Monbiot’s latest work Heat. The book is about global warming, and has been serialised in the Guardian this week. It’s good stuff, but extremely depressing. Monbiot is convinced of the necessity to implement sweeping changes in the society.

Yesterday Monbiot criticises the report from the Tyndall Centre, which we’ve noted here previously, but I’ll look at that in a moment.

Let’s start with John Gray the interesting, if mildly misanthropic, philosopher who has made a career from taking contrarian positions on a range of issues.

The essence of the debate, actually let’s call it a three way debate because of course Friends of the Earth and the Tyndall Centre are also involved, hinges on this. The Tyndall Centre has proposed a report which calls for specific cuts in emissions in selected areas. Monbiot considers that the Tyndall Centre figures are too little and are ‘two decades too late”. John Gray considers that Monbiot might well be right, but that global warming is, as James Lovelock has proposed, now all but inevitable and it’s now a matter for battening down the hatches and preparing for it’s impact.

So who is right? Well, essentially all three are right but perhaps some are more right than others.
The Tyndall Centre proposals are probably overly cautious. Something needs to be done, but attempting to implement that in a democratic society is going to be incredibly difficult (note the way in which Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian admitted last week that it was only An Inconvenient Truth which finally brought home to him the reality of global warming – if he found it difficult to get you can bet 90% of the population is in some form of denial). That’s why Tyndall have pitched towards the political centre and acceptability. Tyndall seeks to rein in temperature rises to only two degrees above preindustrial levels, something they believe can be accomplished by a 90% decrease in emissions by 2050. Monbiot disagrees since he believes Tyndall have got the figures wrong and that even a 90% decrease is too little unless achieved by 2030.

Monbiot characterises this in the following terms in the Guardian piece:

“In other words, Friends of the Earth [who initiated the Tyndall Centre Report] had already set the target before it asked its researchers to find out what the target should be. I suspect that it chose the wrong number because it believed a 90% cut by 2030 would not be politically acceptable.

This echoes the refusal of Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist, to call for a target of less than 550 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, on the grounds that it would be “politically unrealistic”. The message seems to be that the science can go to hell – we will tell people what we think they can bear.”

He’s right. But he’s also wrong. Unfortunately it is politically unrealistic and unacceptable. The nature of the changes Monbiot believes are necessary are such that it’s hard to see anything short of a very authoritarian government being able to push them through. Perhaps that’s what we’ll have by 2030.

John Gray points to a further problem with Monbiot’s thesis and implicitly that of the Tyndall Centre which I’ve already noted. The developing world is simply not going to alter it’s energy consumption in such a way as to alter global warming even if the UK does follow the Tyndall Centre/Monbiot path.

“However sensible it may be in parts, there is a profound unreality surrounding the programme of action Monbiot proposes. “Curtailing climate change must be the project we put before all others,” he writes. But who are “we”, exactly? Humanity at large is ridden with intractable conflicts, and delusional bigots rule its most powerful state. An American air attack on Iran would produce an oil shock greater than any that has yet occurred, triggering the search for other sources of energy – many of them dirtier than oil. Moreover, continuing growth in human numbers (a crucial factor in the worsening en vironmental situation that Monbiot mentions only once in the book, giving it less than a single complete sentence) is increasing resource scarcity around the world. It is always claimed that the human environmental impact is a matter of per capita resource rather than sheer numbers, but there is an upper limit. By conservative estimates, there will be some two billion more human beings on the planet 50 years from now. Coming decades are far more likely to bring intensifying resource wars than concerted action against climate change.”

More pointedly Gray comments that:

ˇThere is, in fact, not the remotest prospect of the world adopting anything like Monbiot’s programme, but once again this may not matter. As he recognises, it may already be too late: “Because the carbon released now stays in the atmosphere for some 200 years and causes climate change many years into the future, there is perhaps a 30 per cent chance that we have already blown it.” It is a sobering admission, from which Monbiot immediately retreats. “I am writing this book in a spirit of optimism,” he declares, “so I refuse to believe it.””

I don’t think that’s to Monbiot’s discredit, but I would tend to think along with Gray that the pass may already have been sold, that global warming is now on an unstoppable path and we’re going to have to adjust to it. This adjustment is going to be painful in the extreme, whether as painful or more so than that proposed by Monbiot is an important point to consider.

Let’s think about it a bit further. If global warming is unstoppable what we can expect are radical, but not unheard of, shifts in the nature of the planetary environment. Sea level rises, increased temperatures, the destruction of certain species, indeed of whole ecologies. All this is survivable, for much of the human population of the planet, but the point isn’t really survivability but how much of what there is now we should seek to preserve.

And that’s where Monbiot is absolutely correct . If global warming can be halted or at least softened in impact, it makes sense to plan our society in terms of much smarter energy consumption. If Gray is correct, and it can’t, then exactly the same holds true – if not more so. Frankly I’m not a huge fan of narrow energy sustainability, and am particularly suspicious of those who would see us retreat from technology. I would hope that we can find new sources which will leap-frog us beyond such constraints – but I’m realist enough to recognise that the world we live in is one where energy sources are decreasing and therefore in the short to medium term we must utilise them wisely.

Gray concludes by saying that:

“There are some useful things that can be done. In Britain, we can increase flood defences against rising sea levels, secure our electricity supplies by commissioning replacements for existing nuclear power stations, develop new technologies for cleaner coal and create wildlife corridors to help other species adapt. But first we have to accept that we cannot control the process of climate change we have set in motion. Unfortunately this requires an insight into the limits of human power that is beyond most environmentalists. Like the rest of humankind, they cannot bear very much reality.”

I think Gray is being unnecessarily harsh. Monbiot in particular has paid greater attention to this topic than many before him. One cannot fault him for retaining a sense of optimism in the face of catastrophic change. Environmentalism has been aware of these dangers for a considerable period of time – and now it shapes much of the debate, note the way in which capital (even if only in the form of Richard Branson) is finally waking up to the issue. Whether, though, the changes they seek to implement can realistically alter the dynamic of global warming is a different question, but at least some of the range of measures proposed will be worthwhile particularly if integrated into new technologies…

Perhaps that sounds like a new, somewhat greener, spin on techno utopianism. If so I plead guilty, but I genuinely see this as an opportunity for progressive technologies to be allied with environmentalism in the face of a fundamental change in global climate. If eventually we can’t ameliorate it perhaps we can be sure we won’t exacerbate it further.

The first cut is the deepest – or how curbing emissions may not be so painful… September 16, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in climate change, Energy consumption, Environment, Environmentalism, Global Warming, Uncategorized.
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A great, illuminating article in the Guardian yesterday about a report from the UK based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research which for once actually maps out a clear strategy to carbon cuts in order to reduce greenhouse gases to a level that would actually make an impact. Granted these are for the UK, but they have a clear application on this island, North and South. You can find the details at the Tyndall Centre and the article here, but for your reading convenience the details are as follows.

A sustainable effect i.e. one that would prevent a 20C increase in temperature necessitates a 60% cut in emissions by 2050. That’s a huge figure but one that Tyndall Centre believes is realistic. They propose concentration on specific sectors but as Kevin Anderson, research director at the centre notes: “Our research demonstrates that the UK can move to a low carbon economy…but the journey will become much more demanding the longer the government leaves it to act.”

So what are the areas. Train transport: with the introduction and extension of the network, double decker trains and their use as a substitute for short haul flights (great, just as I get over my fear of flying the damned things are grounded).

Energy consumption: with a shift towards renewables – in fact a jump from 5% to 36% by 2030. Energy saving in industrial processes will be necessary with the introduction of smart technologies.

Car Transport: or goodbye the car. Well no, not quite. Simply by shifting from oil to alternatives would cut emissions. But it will also necessitate a reduction in car numbers, some 13% by 2030.

Buildings: A new emphasis on energy saving houses. Insulation, energy saving devices and bulbs and domestic energy generation alone would make a significant dent in the overall figure. Now they step into PARECON territory by suggesting we would all as individuals trade emissions. Interesting to see if that might work, but the possibility is there with greater integration of domestic electronic controls which various companies have been releasing into the market over the past decade or so, allied with the internet. Utopian? Perhaps not.

Aviation: A significant player, but not quite as significant as one might expect. Lighter aircraft, slower aircraft, updated turbo props for short haul flights and such like should be sufficient to negate the negative effects of aviation. And trains will take up some of the slack.

So, in a way it’s not about forgoing present societal standards, but making them ‘smart’.

Why do I like it? Well firstly because global warming is the single most pressing issue that we face, bar none. Secondly because this report doesn’t run around screaming with hands in the air pretending that technological society can suddenly shift into reverse gear, but instead approaches the topic in a measured fashion that places technological progress at the heart of social progress and – to my mind the security of our societies. The report accepts that air travel and car transportation will remain features of our civilisation but that they must be improved to be sustainable. Thirdly because it gives clear, attainable goals for action that don’t require herculean efforts on our part, merely a logical approach to the issue. Fourthly because weaning ourselves away from fossil fuels ensures, or at least improves, the security of our societies. Any criticisms? Well this isn’t a criticism but it doesn’t see a place for nuclear power, which is fair enough, my internal jury is still out on that one. Implicitly for it to be successful it would require a similar response from the rest of the world, a tricky job persuading those industrial behemoths India and China to sign up to this sort of regimen. It also is predicated on some new technologies and some fairly significant improvements in others. Perhaps they’ll work, we’ll see. But all in all a good days work.

Security, September 11th and other issues…or let me keep my illusions September 4, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in 9/11, Environmentalism, September 11th, Uncategorized, United States.
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Prior to September 11 the world appeared considerably more secure. Didn’t it?

Actually the more I think about it the less I agree with that proposition. Remember the missile shield? Remember the crisis in Sino-US relations? Remember the crew of a US surveillance aircraft forced to land on Chinese territory, frantically smashing up the equipment on board for fear that advanced US technology would fall into the hands of the PRC? Remember too a US economy that was moving throughout 2000 into something of a recession.

And now what do we have? A threat, a palpable threat, one which in the shape of 9/11 brought an atrocity, a shocking blow to the US and indirectly the rest of the world. But a threat that, so far, remains nebulous, considerably less potent than we imagined or were led to believe. There have clearly been attempts to emulate those attacks, perhaps most recently in the latest UK/US airplane plot. But still, these remain rather pitiful efforts. Even the very real horror of the London subway bombings and the Madrid bombings of 2004 appear to be a lesser circle of hell than the seemingly apocalyptic visions released as the World Trade Centre collapsed. It’s also worth remembering that 9/11 was the result of years of planning, straight from the depths of that Golden Age of a world ruled by the benevolent US led by Bill Clinton. A vanished time now, of course. But thought of more fondly perhaps than true remembrance would justify.

Perhaps it is because the paradigm within which these events occur is now one of low or medium level terrorism that strikes infrequently. Perhaps it’s just too complicated to successfully mount an attack on the scale of 9/11. In fact, clearly it must be since there hasn’t been a sequel to that particular atrocity. And there is a further paradigm, that of the grinding daily reality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are hardly unprecedented. Afghanistan has seen conflict for most of the late 19th and early 20th century. Iraq has seen a different form of conflict, sometimes from external sources, sometimes from internal.

But there is a curious aspect to this. The significant global tensions prior to September 11 appear to have been somewhat diminished. Relations between Beijing and Washington are actually quite – well – lukewarm. A marked improvement as it happens. The missile shield has moved into the realm of myth and budget appropriations. No-one with any serious knowledge of it actually believes it’s going to work in the near future and it has all the appearance of yet another off-shoot of the military industrial complex. Those upset with the glacial pace of the US administration regarding global warming can at least note the way in which the US at state level is beginning to make agreements on emissions with the EU.

It’s almost as if the concentration on what – in real terms – remains a limited albeit real threat to the US and Europe has masked a curious convergence, even agreement on larger issues. The world isn’t at peace, far from it, but neither is it at war and there is no real sense – as far as I can judge – that the US or Russia or China are likely to have a serious falling out anytime soon. Perhaps it’s the byproduct of 2003 and the truly abysmal performance by various players at the UN and elsewhere in the run-up to the Iraq war. Perhaps after that anything is better. But I can’t help feeling that it’s more than that.

And in a way it is, because while the hegemon roams the earth it gives everyone the opportunity to blame the hegemon.

The US has become a sort of short-hand for all the ills of the world. In far too many conversations, be they about the environment, international politics, fast food, religion or whatever talk inevitably loops back to the mendacities perpetrated upon an innocent planet by the US. I don’t want to make out that this is ‘anti-Americanism’ in the sense the term is sometimes thrown about. But it is a withdrawal of sympathy, a growing indifference, or even in some cases a sort of contempt. That’s bad for us on a personal level because we have to listen to a lot of dull boilerplate conversations, but it’s bad on a broader level because when one has someone to blame often that becomes a reason for inaction. And the reality is that the US, a country I’d regard myself as a friend of (not that it’s too worried one way or another), isn’t the only actor in all this and no more than being the sole instigator of isn’t necessarily the only route out of our problems.

One feels that in the event of another or worse event than 9/11 the instinctive international sympathy that welled up in the following days will be of a lesser degree and duration.

The US administration hasn’t helped with regard to this impression. It’s counterproductive obduracy and inane contempt towards public (and state) opinion in the rest of the world has been – well to be honest bizarre (Although there is a small part of me that very slightly applauds the honesty of the approach – one that doesn’t pretend that power relationships are anything other than power relationships). Thankfully that phase appears over with a kinder gentler Bush administration MkII. The reality may be as uncompromising, but as with so much else it’s all about the optics.

The US is the pre-dominant military, economic, and in some respects cultural, force on the planet and is able to dictate to some degree the direction and pace of change. Of course the important qualification in the preceding sentence is ‘to some degree’. The US may well be pre-dominant, it may indeed be hegemonic, but it is by no means omnipotent. Far from it. In 2002 Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, wrote that ‘September 11 proved that we all live in a world with a single global hyperpower that had finally decided that, since the end of the USSR, there are no short-term limits on its strength and no limits on its willingness to use it, although the purposes of using it – except to manifest supremacy – are quite unclear’. But while the question, “just what is the hyperpower for?”, remains valid, the last five years have demonstrated the opposite regarding the limitations of power. While US strength may be effectively limitless, there are limits on both it’s willingness to use it and it’s ability to use it.

Those who had any illusion as to the efficacy of pure military power as an instrument of democratisation must now be sadly disabused of it. Or at least most should be – although the siren voices for a military adventure in Iran remain more vocal than the historical track record should permit.

And other illusions have gone too. That the Arab ‘street’ would rise up and throw off the shackles of their regimes (too difficult), that Muslim anger would spiral out of control in Europe producing carnage on a mass scale (the populations appear better integrated and vastly more sensible than the Cassandra’s give them credit). That the US was headed directly to a state of fascism (too big, too diverse, too wedded to democracy for it to be otherwise).

And where does that leave us really?

Well to my mind, for what it’s worth, I think the current period is now strikingly like the latter years of the Clinton Presidency in terms of international relations. Or, to put it another way, away from the cosmetic fluff about the War on Terror it’s shifted back to business more or less as usual, messy international agreements, the renewed primacy and yes – prestige of the UN (particularly in the aftermath of the Lebanon), the hyperpower having to work in concert with the rest of the world, pragmatism and so on.

Perhaps this too is an illusion. Perhaps the next twelve months will bring some new terror that will ratchet up fear, and the impulse to action – any action, however poorly planned or executed.

But whether illusion or not it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

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