Saturday, March 31, 2012
Friday, March 30, 2012
When you use the phrase “the social conquest of earth” in the title of your book, what do you mean by that? How have social animals conquered the earth?
The most advanced social insects—ants, termites, many species of bees and wasp—make up only about 3 percent of the known species of animals on earth. But on the land they make up in most habitats upwards of 50 percent of the biomass. And of course humans, one of the very few of the largest animals that have reached the social level, has dominated in every respect.
And you see their social behavior as being key to these two kinds of animals having become so dominant?
When you study social insects, as I have, you see directly why eusocial, advanced social issues overall dominate because they will organize groups of individuals in seizing territory, in appropriating food, in defending their nest and generally controlling the parts of the environment for which they’re specialized.
How do you see the process by which you go from asocial species where insects are living as individuals to these incredibly highly organized societies? What do you see as being the progression through natural selection?
It’s actually fairly clear-cut when you take into account what we know about the evolutionary steps leading from completely solitary to eusocial or advanced social behavior. A great many solitary species—let’s say bees, wasps, the primitive cockroach—in the first stage build a nest and care for the young.
In the next stage, the mother or the mated pair stays with the nest and rears the young, defending them and securing food for them. In the next stage, whereas ordinarily the young would disperse upon reaching maturity, now they remain with the mother or the parents. And if that happens, and they work together as a group, then you have the advanced stage of social behavior.
A lot of scientists see social behavior as being partly the product of what’s called “inclusive fitness,” the effect that genes have not just in terms of an individual animal’s number of offspring but how many offspring their relatives may have. You’ve argued that inclusive fitness is not necessary and that you can focus on natural selection on individuals and on what you call “group selection” to explain how these social animals, like the social insects or humans, evolve their behavior. What do you mean when you use the term group selection?
As you might know, group selection became almost taboo in discussions on social behavior. But it comes back forcefully in the new theory developing about the origin of advanced social behavior.
The way I define it, group selection operates on the fitness, or lack thereof, of the social interactions in the group. In other words, it’s not simply group versus group in that sense but what actions individuals take that affect the group. And that would of course be communication, division of labor and the ability to read others’ intentions, which leads to cooperation.
When it’s an advantage to communicate or cooperate, those genes that promote it are going to be favored in that group if the group is competing with other groups. It gives them superiority over other groups and the selection proceeds at the group level, even as it continues to proceed at the individual level.
The first glimmers of a solution arrived in the nineteen-fifties. According to legend, the biologist J. B. S. Haldane was asked how far he would go to save the life of another person. Haldane thought for a moment, and then started scribbling numbers on the back of a napkin. “I would jump into a river to save two brothers, but not one,” Haldane said. “Or to save eight cousins but not seven.” His answer summarized a powerful scientific idea. Because individuals share much of their genome with close relatives, a trait will also persist if it leads to the survival of their kin. Haldane never expanded his napkin calculations into a formal mathematical theory. That task fell to William Hamilton. In 1964, he submitted a pair of papers to the Journal of Theoretical Biology. The papers hinged on one simple equation: rB > C. Genes for altruism could evolve if the benefit (B) of an action exceeded the cost (C) to the individual once relatedness (r) was taken into account. Hamilton referred to his model as “inclusive fitness theory.”
At first, Hamilton’s concept of inclusive fitness was entirely ignored. Many biologists were turned off by the math, and few mathematicians were interested in the problems of biology. The following year, however, an ambitious entomologist named E. O. Wilson read the paper. Wilson wanted to understand the altruism at work in ant colonies, and he became convinced that Hamilton had solved the problem. By the late nineteen-seventies, Hamilton’s work was featured prominently in textbooks; his original papers have become some of the most cited in evolutionary biology.
As Wilson realized, the equation allowed naturalists to make sense of animal behavior using genetic models, giving the field a new sense of rigor. In an obituary published after Hamilton’s death, in 2000, the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins referred to Hamilton as “the most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin.” But now, in an abrupt intellectual shift, Wilson says that his embrace of Hamilton’s equation was a serious scientific mistake. Wilson’s apostasy, which he lays out in a forthcoming book, “The Social Conquest of the Earth,” has set off a scientific furor. The vast majority of his academic colleagues are convinced that he was right the first time, and that his recantation has damaged the field.
The controversy is fuelled by a larger debate about the evolution of altruism. Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask? This is science with existential stakes. Tells about Wilson’s recent collaboration with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita on the paper “The Evolution of Eusociality” and the criticism it received from the scientific community.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
These once-isolated people, a tiny group, have no system of numbers; their sentences cannot accommodate subordinate clauses or other forms of recursion (embedding phrases), and they are not impressed by the Gospel of St Mark in Pirahã, not least because it is a story composed by someone they do not know, about someone they have never heard of, in a time and place that has no meaning for them. The Pirahã people tend to confine their discourse to things they know about, and their verb forms can be suffixed to distinguish between hearsay, inference and observation. They have no perfect tense.
On the other hand, they can also sing, hum, yell and whistle information to one another. So they have four additional speech forms as well as a very precise vocabulary for their environment and everything in it that matters to them. If there is some deep structure that underpins all 7,000 human languages – a universal grammar or language acquisition device or language instinct, already hard-wired in the human brain at birth – Pirahã seems to be an exception.
For Daniel Everett – linguist, anthropologist and once an evangelist missionary in the Amazon – the case settles an old argument about the nature of language. The exceptional language of the Pirahã people seems to be a unique cultural tool – like their knowledge of plant toxins, and their ability to fish with a bow and arrow – adapted for their exceptional circumstances. It is just another finely honed instrument from the human cognitive toolbox: we have large brains, we are social animals, we co-operate, we have a lucky arrangement of lungs, larynx, pharynx, palate, tongue, teeth and lips. We can speak, and so language has evolved, just as our brains and bipedal locomotion have evolved.
Language, in the Everett formula, is the sum of cognition plus culture plus communication. There is no need for a language instinct to set a three-year-old suddenly talking nineteen to the dozen. The infant's ambient culture compels the order of subject, verb and object, the potency of individual words and phrases (such as "nineteen to the dozen"), and the precise choice of phonemes.
This claim has reportedly annoyed the hell out of other linguists, among them Noam Chomsky, one of the high priesthood of the discipline, and the founder of the belief in what, for shorthand, is called a universal grammar. It also presents a challenge to the arguments of the psychologist Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, a 1994 bestseller. The notion of language as an innate human talent received a colossal fillip that year with the identification of one British family, some of whose members, through three generations, were perfectly ordinary, while others had a very precise and puzzling problem with the rules of language. This was interpreted as evidence for a "grammar gene".
This, to be fair, was before the genome of even the simplest bacterial organism had been sequenced, during an era in which researchers were betting that humans inherited more than 100,000 genes, perhaps even a million. Among these might be a gene for schizophrenia, a gene for intelligence, for being good at the 100m sprint and for learning to manipulate sentences.
The picture has changed since the human genome project ended in 2003. The awesome bundle of human complexity turned out to be delivered by about 23,000 genes; many more than a fruit fly, certainly, but many fewer than the maize plant. Whatever it is that lets us relish the preposterous loquacity of Mr Micawber, condemn the hubris of footballers and compile scenarios for a Greek debt default, all on a brief bus ride, it won't be a simple genetic turn of the screw in a larger than usual primate brain.
Can you give me a very quick summary of the essential claim of this book?
There are two claims, the first is that universal grammar doesn't seem to work, there doesn't seem to be much evidence for that. And what can we put in its place? A complex interplay of factors, of which culture, the values human beings share, plays a major role in structuring the way that we talk and the things that we talk about.
From your experience in the Amazon, and generally, what is it that makes language possible?
Language is possible due to a number of cognitive and physical characteristics that are unique to humans but none of which that are unique to language. Coming together they make language possible. But the fundamental building block of language is community. Humans are a social species more than any other, and in order to build a community, which for some reason humans have to do in order to live, we have to solve the communication problem. Language is the tool that was invented to solve that problem.
You studied the Pirahã community in the central Amazon. Is there something especially interesting about Pirahã language?
I was assigned there to translate the Bible for them because no one could figure out the language – it's not related to any other known living language. All languages have unique characteristics, but the Pirahã just seems to have so many unique characteristics. Things that we didn't expect. I mean the absence of numbers, the absence of counting and colours, the absence of creation myths, and the refusal to talk about the distant past or the distant future. A number of things like this, including, the special characteristic of recursion, the ability to keep a process going in the syntax forever. This constellation of features really cried out for an explanation and, it took me about 20 years to realise that there might be a unifying explanation for all of these things. My experience with the Pirahã was absolutely fundamental in shaping my ideas about human language.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.
To explain this persistence, Haidt invokes an evolutionary hypothesis: We compete for social status, and the key advantage in this struggle is the ability to influence others. Reason, in this view, evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn. So if you want to change people’s minds, Haidt concludes, don’t appeal to their reason. Appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions whose conclusions reason defends.
From Adam Smith and Max Weber to the current day, scores of writers have grappled with these questions. Some scholars, like Weber, have argued that religious or cultural differences create vastly different economic outcomes among countries. Others have asserted that a lack of natural resources or technical expertise has prevented poor countries from creating self-sustaining economic growth.
Economists Daron Acemoglu of MIT and James Robinson of Harvard University have another answer: Politics makes the difference. Countries that have what they call “inclusive” political governments — those extending political and property rights as broadly as possible, while enforcing laws and providing some public infrastructure — experience the greatest growth over the long run. By contrast, Acemoglu and Robinson assert, countries with “extractive” political systems — in which power is wielded by a small elite — either fail to grow broadly or wither away after short bursts of economic expansion.
“You need political equality to underpin economic prosperity,” says Acemoglu, the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics at MIT. More specifically, he says, economic growth depends on widespread technological innovation. But widespread innovation is only sustained where countries promote rights, giving more people the incentive to invent things.
And while Acemoglu and Robinson have documented this thesis during roughly 15 years of joint research, now, in their new book, Why Nations Fail, released this week by Crown Publishers, they look more closely than ever at the collapse or stagnation of countries that lack these inclusive political systems.
Elites, Why Nations Fail asserts, resist innovation because they have a vested interest in resisting change — and new technologies that create growth can alter the balance of economic or political assets in a country.
“Technological innovation makes human societies prosperous, but also involves the replacement of the old with the new, and the destruction of the economic privileges and political power of certain people,” Acemoglu and Robinson write. Yet when elites temporarily preserve power by preventing innovation, they ultimately impoverish their own states. Fist tap Dale.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
The problem was that Americans were deeply sceptical of capitalism, far more than today. As John Reed wrote in "Whose War?", an essay that ran in the socialist magazine The Masses: "The rich has [sic] steadily become richer, and the cost of living higher, and the workers proportionally poorer. These toilers don't want war... But the speculators, the employers, the plutocracy - they want it... With lies and sophistries, they will whip up our blood until we are savage - and then we'll fight and die for them."
Reed wasn't on the fringe. Six weeks after Congress officially declared war, enlistment totalled over 70,000 recruits. The military needed a million men. Something needed to be done, but initiating a draft alone would only incite rioting in the streets.
So Wilson launched an enormous propaganda campaign to turn public opinion around. He sent 75,000 speakers into communities around the country to deliver 750,000 speeches in favour of war. For the unmoved, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which criminalised criticising the government during wartime.
Americans often ascribe to economcis effects that are in fact caused by politics. Before the Espionage Act, for instance, there were hundreds of radical newspapers, many of them socialist or communist - or just sympathetic to the plight of workers. After the war, most disappeared. That wasn't the result of market forces. The US government went to great pains at great expense to persuade Americans to embrace an approved ideology while it silenced dissidents with old-fashioned censorship. The Masses, along with 70 other radical publications, went out of business, because the US Post Office wouldn't deliver it.
Yet they were the lucky ones.
'A turnkey totalitarian state'
The Wilson era saw 2,000 prosecutions under the Espionage Act. One was Eugene V Debs, the union organiser. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving a speech, lambasting the draft for World War I. Today, the Obama administration hopes to convict Bradley Manning for allegedly leaking documents to WikiLeaks, including a video of an American helicopter gunning down Iraqi children.
The War on Terror has inspired new laws and new ways to decimate civil liberties. The US Department of Justice recently rationalised the killing of Americans abroad. Attorney General Eric Holder twisted himself into knots trying to separate due process from judicial process. The difference apparently means that it was okay to murder an American working for al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Worse is our spying on everyone, including Americans. The National Security Agency (NSA) is building a huge complex in Utah to house server farms that can handle yottabytes of data (a yottabyte equals one septillion bytes, or one quadrillion gigabytes). According to James Bamford, the NSA wants to eavesdrop without needing court orders. As one source said, we are becoming "a turnkey totalitarian state".
If the NSA is collecting information on everybody, who does it consider an enemy of the state? "Terrorists" is one answer, but how do you define "terrorist"? Are terrorists also political extremists? Fist tap Arnach.
The US Attorney General won a court order to stop the strike, but the union and its leader, Eugene V Debs, refused to quit. President Grover Cleveland, over the objections of Illinois' governor, ordered federal troops to Chicago under the pretense of maintaining public safety. Soldiers fired their bayoneted rifles into the crowd of 5,000, killing 13 strike sympathisers. Seven hundred, including Debs, were arrested. Debs wasn't a socialist before the strike, but he was after. The event radicalised him. "In the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle," Debs said later on, "the class struggle was revealed".
I imagine a similar revelation for the tens of thousands of Americans who participated in last fall's Occupy Wall Street protests. As you know, the movement began in New York City and spread quickly, inspiring activists in the biggest cities and the smallest hamlets. Outraged by the broken promise of the US and inspired by democratic revolts of Egypt and Tunisia, they assembled to protest economic injustice and corrupt corporate power in Washington.
Yet the harder they pushed, the harder they were pushed back - with violence. Protesters met with police wearing body armour, face shields, helmets and batons; police legally undermined Americans' right to assemble freely with "non-lethal" weaponry like tear gas, rubber bullets and sonic grenades. There was no need for the president to call in the army. An army, as Mayor Bloomberg quipped, was already there.
Before Occupy Wall Street, many protesters were middle- and upper-middle class college graduates who could safely assume the constitutional guarantee of their civil liberties. But afterward, not so much. Something like scales fell from their eyes, and when they arose anew, they had been baptised by the fire of political violence. Fist tap Arnach.
The NDAA implodes our most cherished constitutional protections. It permits the military to function on U.S. soil as a civilian law enforcement agency. It authorizes the executive branch to order the military to selectively suspend due process and habeas corpus for citizens. The law can be used to detain people deemed threats to national security, including dissidents whose rights were once protected under the First Amendment, and hold them until what is termed “the end of the hostilities.” Even the name itself—the Homeland Battlefield Bill—suggests the totalitarian concept that endless war has to be waged within “the homeland” against internal enemies as well as foreign enemies.
Judge Katherine B. Forrest, in a session starting at 9 a.m. Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, will determine if I have standing and if the case can go forward. The attorneys handling my case, Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer, will ask, if I am granted standing, for a temporary injunction against the Homeland Battlefield Bill. An injunction would, in effect, nullify the law and set into motion a fierce duel between two very unequal adversaries—on the one hand, the U.S. government and, on the other, myself, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, the Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir and three other activists and journalists. All have joined me as plaintiffs and begun to mobilize resistance to the law through groups such as Stop NDAA. Fist tap Arnach.
Monday, March 26, 2012
The man with the nicotine habit is in his late 50s, with stubble on his face and the dark-suited wardrobe of an undertaker. As chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center for the past six years, he has functioned in a funereal capacity for al-Qaeda.
Roger, which is the first name of his cover identity, may be the most consequential but least visible national security official in Washington — the principal architect of the CIA’s drone campaign and the leader of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In many ways, he has also been the driving force of the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killing as a centerpiece of its counterterrorism efforts.
Colleagues describe Roger as a collection of contradictions. A chain-smoker who spends countless hours on a treadmill. Notoriously surly yet able to win over enough support from subordinates and bosses to hold on to his job. He presides over a campaign that has killed thousands of Islamist militants and angered millions of Muslims, but he is himself a convert to Islam.
His defenders don’t even try to make him sound likable. Instead, they emphasize his operational talents, encyclopedic understanding of the enemy and tireless work ethic.
“Irascible is the nicest way I would describe him,” said a former high-ranking CIA official who supervised the counterterrorism chief. “But his range of experience and relationships have made him about as close to indispensable as you could think.”
President Obama was on solid ground in relying on such authorities when he reportedly ordered a drone strike in Yemen last fall that took the life of Anwar al-Aulaqi. Mr. Aulaqi was a U.S. citizen, a radical cleric and, according to the administration, an operational leader of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. We supported dismissal of a lawsuit brought by Mr. Aulaqi’s father that sought to force the administration to disclose the criteria for placing someone on the “kill list” — a legal gambit that would have invited unprecedented judicial intervention into battlefield decisions in the absence of congressional or legal authorization.
Sunday, March 25, 2012
eurasiareview | This Reflection could be written today, tomorrow or any other day without the risk of being mistaken. Our species faces new problems. When 20 years ago I stated at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro that a species was in danger of extinction, I had fewer reasons than today for warning about a danger that I was seeing perhaps 100 years away. At that time, a handful of leaders of the most powerful countries were in charge of the world. They applauded my words as a matter of mere courtesy and placidly continued to dig for the burial of our species.
It seemed that on our planet, common sense and order reigned. For a while economic development, backed by technology and science appeared to be the Alpha and Omega of human society.
Today, everything is much clearer. Profound truths have been surfacing. Almost 200 States, supposedly independent, constitute the political organization which in theory has the job of governing the destiny of the world.
Approximately 25,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of allied or enemy forces ready to defend the changing order, by interest or necessity, virtually reduce to zero the rights of billions of people.
I shall not commit the naïveté of assigning the blame to Russia or China for the development of that kind of weaponry, after the monstrous massacre at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ordered by Truman after Roosvelt’s death.
Nor shall I fall prey to the error of denying the Holocaust that signified the deaths of millions of children and adults, men or women, mainly Jews, gypsies, Russians or other nationalities, who were victims of Nazism. For that reason the odious policy of those who deny the Palestinian people their right to exist is repugnant.
Does anyone by chance think that the United States will be capable of acting with the independence that will keep it from the inevitable disaster awaiting it?
In 1973, a deal was struck between Saudi Arabia and the United States in which every barrel of oil purchased from the Saudis would be denominated in U.S. dollars. Under this new arrangement, any country that sought to purchase oil from Saudi Arabia would be required to first exchange their own national currency for U.S. dollars. In exchange for Saudi Arabia's willingness to denominate their oil sales exclusively in U.S. dollars, the United States offered weapons and protection of their oil fields from neighboring nations, including Israel.
By 1975, all of the OPEC nations had agreed to price their own oil supplies exclusively in U.S. dollars in exchange for weapons and military protection.
This petrodollar system, or more simply known as an "oil for dollars" system, created an immediate artificial demand for U.S. dollars around the globe. And of course, as global oil demand increased, so did the demand for U.S. dollars.
Once you understand the petrodollar system, it becomes much easier to understand why our politicians treat Saudi leaders with kid gloves. The U.S. government does not want to see anything happen that would jeopardize the status quo.
A recent article by Marin Katusa described some more of the benefits that the petrodollar system has had for the U.S. economy....
The "petrodollar" system was a brilliant political and economic move. It forced the world's oil money to flow through the US Federal Reserve, creating ever-growing international demand for both US dollars and US debt, while essentially letting the US pretty much own the world's oil for free, since oil's value is denominated in a currency that America controls and prints. The petrodollar system spread beyond oil: the majority of international trade is done in US dollars. That means that from Russia to China, Brazil to South Korea, every country aims to maximize the US-dollar surplus garnered from its export trade to buy oil.
The US has reaped many rewards. As oil usage increased in the 1980s, demand for the US dollar rose with it, lifting the US economy to new heights. But even without economic success at home the US dollar would have soared, because the petrodollar system created consistent international demand for US dollars, which in turn gained in value. A strong US dollar allowed Americans to buy imported goods at a massive discount – the petrodollar system essentially creating a subsidy for US consumers at the expense of the rest of the world. Here, finally, the US hit on a downside: The availability of cheap imports hit the US manufacturing industry hard, and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs remains one of the biggest challenges in resurrecting the US economy today.
So what happens if the petrodollar system collapses?
Well, for one thing the value of the U.S. dollar would plummet big time.
U.S. consumers would suddenly find that all of those "cheap imported goods" would rise in price dramatically as would the price of gasoline.
If you think the price of gas is high now, you just wait until the petrodollar system collapses.
In addition, there would be much less of a demand for U.S. government debt since countries would not have so many excess U.S. dollars lying around.
So needless to say, the U.S. government really needs the petrodollar system to continue.
But in the end, it is Saudi Arabia that is holding the cards. Fist tap Big Don.
washingtonsblog |Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of open politics – called perestroika – is largely blamed for the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, according to Gorbachev’s 1996 memoirs, it was the Chernobyl nuclear accident, rather than perestroika (or Ronald Reagan’s increased arms spending), which destroyed the Soviet Union.
As Gorbachev wrote in 2006:
The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was an historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed.
The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue. It made absolutely clear how important it was to continue the policy of glasnost, and I must say that I started to think about time in terms of pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl.
The price of the Chernobyl catastrophe was overwhelming, not only in human terms, but also economically. Even today, the legacy of Chernobyl affects the economies of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
As we’ve previously noted, “the risk of a nuclear catastrophe … could total trillions of dollars and even bankrupt a country”. Indeed, Fukushima may yet bankrupt Japan.
And any country foolish enough to build unsafe nuclear reactors – based upon their ability to produce plutonium for nuclear warheads and to power nuclear submarines – may go the way of the Soviet Union.
truth-out | A group of right-wing extremists in the United States would have the American public believe it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of a market society. Comprising this group are the Republican Party extremists, religious fundamentalists such as Rick Santorum and a host of conservative anti-public foundations funded by billionaires such as the Koch brothers(1), whose pernicious influence fosters the political and cultural conditions for creating vast inequalities and massive human hardships throughout the globe. Their various messages converge in support of neoliberal capitalism and a fortress mentality that increasingly drive the meaning of citizenship and social life. One consequence is that the principles of self-preservation and self-interest undermine, if not completely sabotage, political agency and democratic public life.
Neoliberalism or market fundamentalism as it is called in some quarters and its army of supporters cloak their interests in an appeal to "common sense," while doing everything possible to deny climate change, massive inequalities, a political system hijacked by big money and corporations, the militarization of everyday life and the corruption of civic culture by a consumerist and celebrity-driven advertising machine. The financial elite, the 1 percent and the hedge fund sharks have become the highest-paid social magicians in America. They perform social magic by making the structures and power relations of racism, inequality, homelessness, poverty and environmental degradation disappear. And in doing so, they employ deception by seizing upon a stripped-down language of choice, freedom, enterprise and self-reliance - all of which works to personalize responsibility, collapse social problems into private troubles and reconfigure the claims for social and economic justice on the part of workers, poor minorities of color, women and young people as a species of individual complaint. But this deceptive strategy does more. It also substitutes shared responsibilities for a culture of diminishment, punishment and cruelty. The social is now a site of combat, infused with a live-for-oneself mentality and a space where a responsibility toward others is now gleefully replaced by an ardent, narrow and inflexible responsibility only for oneself.
When the effects of structural injustice become obscured by a discourse of individual failure, human misery and misfortune, they are no longer the objects of compassion, but of scorn and derision. In recent weeks, we have witnessed Rush Limbaugh call Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and "prostitute"; US Marines captured on video urinating on the dead bodies of Afghanistan soldiers; and the public revelation by Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs trader, that the company was so obsessed with making money that it cheated and verbally insulted its own clients, often referring to them as "muppets."(2) There is also the mass misogyny of right-wing extremists directed against women's reproductive rights, which Maureen Dowd rightly calls an attempt by "Republican men to wrestle American women back into chastity belts."(3) These are not unconnected blemishes on the body of neoliberal capitalism. They are symptomatic of an infected political and economic system that has lost touch with any vestige of decency, justice and ethics.
energyskeptic | Our leaders have known since the 1970s energy crises that there’s no comparable alternative energy ready to replace fossil fuels. To extend the oil age as long as possible, the USA went the military path rather than a “Manhattan Project” of research and building up grid infrastructure, railroads, sustainable agriculture, increasing home and car fuel efficiency, and other obvious actions. 1) Since there’s nothing that can be done about climate change, because there’s no scalable alternative to fossil fuels, I’ve always wondered why politicians and other leaders, who clearly know better, feel compelled to deny it. I think it’s for exactly the same reasons you don’t hear them talking about preparing for Peak Oil.
Instead, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on defense and the military to keep the oil flowing, the Straits of Hormuz open, and invade oil-producing countries. Being so much further than Europe, China, and Russia from the Middle East, where there’s not only the most remaining oil, but the easiest oil to get out at the lowest cost ($20-22 OPEC vs $60-80 rest-of-world per barrel), is a huge disadvantage. I think the military route was chosen in the 70s to maintain our access to Middle East oil and prevent challenges from other nations. Plus everyone benefits by our policing the world and keeping the lid on a world war over energy resources, perhaps that’s why central banks keep lending us money.
2) If the public were convinced climate change were real and demanded alternative energy, it would become clear pretty quickly that we didn’t have any alternatives. Already Californians are seeing public television shows and newspaper articles about why it’s so difficult to build enough wind, solar, and so on to meet the mandated 33% renewable energy sources by 2020.
For example, last night I saw a PBS program on the obstacles to wind power in Marin county, on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. Difficulties cited were lack of storage for electricity, NIMBYism, opposition from the Audubon society over bird kills, wind blows at night when least needed, the grid needs expansion, and most wind is not near enough to the grid to be connected to it. But there was no mention of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) or the scale of how many windmills you’d need to have. So you could be left with the impression that these problems with wind could be overcome.
I don’t see any signs of the general public losing optimism yet. I gave my “Peak Soil” talk to a critical thinking group, very bright people, sparkling, interesting, well-read, thoughtful, and to my great surprise realized they weren’t worried until my talk, partly because so few people understand the Hirsch 2005 “liquid fuels” crisis concept, nor the scale of what fossil fuels do for us. I felt really bad, I’ve never spoken to a group before that wasn’t aware of the problem, I wished I were a counselor as well. The only thing I could think of to console them was to say that running out of fossil fuels was a good thing — we might not be driven extinct by global warming, which most past mass extinctions were caused by.
3) As the German military peak oil study stated, when investors realize Peak Oil is upon us, stock markets world-wide will crash (if they haven’t already from financial corruption), as it will be obvious that growth is no longer possible and investors will never get their money back.
4) As Richard Heinberg has pointed out, there’s a national survival interest in being the “Last Man (nation) Standing“. So leaders want to keep things going smoothly as long as possible. And everyone is hoping the crash is “not on my watch” — who wants to take the blame?
5) It would be political suicide to bring up the real problem of Peak Oil and have no solution to offer besides consuming less. Endless Growth is the platform of both the Republican and Democratic parties. More Consumption and “Drill, Baby, Drill” is the main plan to get out of the current economic and energy crises.
There’s also the risk of creating a panic and social disorder if the situation were made utterly clear — that the carrying capacity of the United States is somewhere between 100 million (Pimentel) and 250 million (Smil) without fossil fuels, like the Onion’s parody “Scientists: One-Third Of The Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?”
There’s no solution to peak oil, except to consume less in all areas of life, which is not acceptable to political leaders or corporations, who depend on growth for their survival. Meanwhile, too many problems are getting out of hand on a daily basis at local, state, and national levels. All that matters to politicians is the next election. So who’s going to work on a future problem with no solution? Jimmy Carter is perceived as having lost partly due to asking Americans to sacrifice for the future (i.e. put on a sweater).
Saturday, March 24, 2012
The city received a downgrade to B2 from Ba3 for its $553.1 million in outstanding general obligation unlimited tax debt and also a downgrade to B3 from B1 for the $486.4 million in outstanding general obligation limited tax debt. Both ratings fell two points.
Moody's also downgraded the Detroit Retirement Systems Funding Trust from Ba3 to B2, the report states.
It is yet another blow to the financially strapped city, which is fast running out of cash as Gov. Rick Snyder is pressuring Mayor Dave Bing and City Council to agree to a consent agreement that would help implement financial structure and stability.
"We changed it because despite some positive steps that the mayor and City Council have done to reduce the city's general fund deficit, the problems have persisted," said David Jacobson, a spokesman for Moody's. "The fiscal year 2011 general fund deficit balance continues to increase. There's been a persistent inability to achieve structural balance despite all the big spending cuts."
Mayor Dave Bing's chief operating officer, Chris Brown, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that the downgrade "isn't unexpected." The city is taking steps to mitigate any negative financial impact, he said.
"In December, we narrowly averted a downgrade," Brown said. "Since then, we've been concerned about the continued possibility, and we've worked to avoid it."
County Executive Steve Bellone said he was taking the action after an independent task force found it would have a deficit of $530 million in a three-year period.
"After weeks of analyzing our County's finances, our fiscal assumptions and our costs we now have a picture of the real state of our finances. And the truth is worse than any of us could have imagined," Bellone said in a statement on the county's website.
Suffolk County's financial strains could worry a municipal bond market already unnerved by ongoing bankruptcy proceedings in Jefferson County, Alabama, and signs of financial problems in other municipalities around the nation.
Bellone said the emergency declaration empowers him to immediately embargo up to 10 percent of funds in each department of Suffolk County, which forms the eastern half of New York's Long Island and includes the exclusive Hamptons resort area, the location of some of the most expensive residential properties in the United States. "After being told the 2011 budget was balanced, I was stunned to learn it was actually out of balance by more than $33 million, the first time Suffolk County ended a year in deficit in 20 years," Bellone said.
The future looked even worse, with a projected $148 million deficit for 2012, rising to $349 million by 2013.
Bankruptcy isn't an option, said Mayor Spencer Short, adding that more cuts are coming: "I'm looking at the possibility of introducing a budget that's beyond bare bones."
Antioch, a city of 100,000 on the eastern fringe of the San Francisco Bay area, is another municipality clobbered by the housing slump. Unlike in Vallejo and Stockton, though, relations between Antioch's city leaders and labor units were not contentious, allowing quick action to cut costs when the scale of its financial troubles became clear, City Manager Jim Jakel said.
Jakel ticked off Antioch's moves to keep its books balanced: a hiring freeze; furloughs; employees waiving pay increases; and a city workforce reduced to 245 from 401 through attrition and layoffs.
Costa Mesa, a city of 110,000 south of Los Angeles, has slashed its payroll from 611 to 450. It is selling its police helicopters and has hired a neighboring city for air patrols. It's also pursuing a controversial effort to convert to a charter city from a general law city, which would give City Hall more power to outsource more work, said councilman Jim Righeimer.
Friday, March 23, 2012
These sentences of mine, written without much premeditation, had touched a nerve. I heard back from many people who were grateful to have read them. I heard back from many others who were disappointed or furious. Many people, too many to count, called me a racist. One person likened me to the Mau Mau. The Atlantic writer who'd reproduced them, while agreeing with my broader points, described the language in which they were expressed as "resentment."
This weekend, I listened to a radio interview given by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof. Kristof is best known for his regular column in the New York Times in which he often gives accounts of his activism or that of other Westerners. When I saw the Kony 2012 video, I found it tonally similar to Kristof's approach, and that was why I mentioned him in the first of my seven tweets. Fist tap Dale.
The high watermark for popular engagement in politics comes some time later, in that unloved decade, the 1970s. In Britain a series of strikes against Ted Heath's inept administration eventually forced an election in 1974, which the government lost. In the same year Nixon resigned the presidency as the Watergate scandal metastasised. In 1976, the bicentenary of the Declaration of Independence, the Americans elected a President promising change and democratic renewal. The popular movements that first emerged in the 1960s seemed on the brink of transforming both America and Britain.
That's certainly how it seemed to those who ran politics and the economy. Scandinavian social democracy haunted the waking nightmares of American businessmen. One of them worried that "if we don't take action now we will see our own demise". Another complained in a revealing metaphor that "we are like the head of a household, and the public sector is like our wife and child. They can only consume what we produce".
The Trilateral Commission is an obscure talking shop whose current members include the (unelected) Prime Ministers of Italy and Greece. In 1975 it was sufficiently worried to put together a book entitled The Crisis of Democracy.
One of its authors, Samuel Huntington, identified the core of this crisis, from the perspective of the governing elite. In the 1960s and 1970s, "previously passive or unorganised groups in the population… embarked on concerted efforts to establish their claims to opportunities, positions, rewards and privileges, which they had not considered themselves entitled to before". Blacks, women, and "clerical, technical and professional employees in public and private bureaucracies" - that is, the vast majority of the population - were seeking the kinds of power that the wealthy and their trusted servants considered theirs by right. Crucially, they were seeking control of the state through the electoral process.
Democracy could only work, explained Huntington, if there was "some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups". The so-called crisis of democracy would only end when the majority gave up their ambitions to secure an effectual say in politics and hence economics. It was time for the powerful to assert "the claims of expertise, experience and special talents" over and above the claims of democracy. Fist tap Arnach.
Together, politics and media combine to provide an astonishingly consistent form of reality management controlling public perception of conflicts in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Alastair Crooke, founder and director of Conflicts Forum, notes how the public is force-fed a ‘simplistic victims-and-aggressor meme, which demands only the toppling of the aggressor’.
The bias is spectacular, outrageous, but universal, and so appears simply to mirror reality. Ahmad Barqawi, a Jordanian freelance columnist and writer based in Amman, said it well:
‘I remember during the “Libyan Revolution”, the tally of casualties resulting from Gaddafi’s crackdown on protesters was being reported by the mainstream media with such a “dramatic” fervor that it hardly left the public with a moment to at least second-guess the ensuing avalanche of unverifiable information and erratic inflow of “eye witnesses’ accounts”.
‘Yet the minute NATO forces militarily intervened and started bombing the country into smithereens, the ceremonial practice of body count on our TV screens suddenly stopped; instead, reporting of Libyan casualties (of whom there were thousands thanks only to the now infamous UNSC resolution 1973) turned into a seemingly endless cycle of technical, daily updates of areas captured by NATO-backed “rebel forces”, then lost back to Gaddafi’s military, and again recaptured by the rebels in their creeping territorial advances towards Tripoli…
‘How is it that the media’s concern for human rights did not extend to the victims of NATO bombing campaigns in the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Sirte? How come the international community’s drive to protect the lives of Libyan civilians in Benghazi lost steam the minute NATO stepped in and actually increased the number of casualties ten-fold?’
It is a remarkable phenomenon – global media attention flitting instantaneously, like a flock of starlings, from one focus desired by state power to another focus also desired by state power.
But the bias goes far beyond even this example. The media’s basic stance in reporting events in Libya and Syria has been one of intense moral outrage. The level of political-media condemnation is such that media consumers are often persuaded to view rational, informed dissent as apologetics for mass murder. Crooke writes:
‘Those with the temerity to get in the way of “this narrative” by arguing that external intervention would be disastrous, are roundly condemned as complicit in President Assad's crimes against humanity.’ They are confronted by the ‘unanswerable riposte of dead babies - literally’.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
So when the unusually long and strong earthquake shook this city right after noon local time, as I was typing away at a local Starbucks where I often work, I slammed shut my laptop and ran as fast as I could home (losing a powercord and mouse along the way).
The streets were packed with people who had evacuated, looking up at the highrises around us, wondering if there was damage and if buildings would hold. As I looked up and ran, I kept thinking not about what lay in my own path, but that the buildings standing firm must mean that mine probably did too.
Everyone was fine at home, my sweet baby outside with her caretaker and the rest of our neighbors. But the earthquake was the biggest that I felt since living here. It measured in at 7.4 according to the US Geological Survey, which initially put it at 7.9, and the center was in Guerrero state. On Twitter, President Felipe Calderon said there appears to be no serious damage. "The health system is operating normally, except for some broken glass and other minor damage," he wrote in a Twitter post.
The quake shook central and southern Mexico, with damage including a fallen bridge and swaying office towers in Mexico City. Some 60 homes are reported damaged near the epicenter of the quake, and there are currently no reported deaths, according to the Associated Press.
I am writing this “reporters on the job” from outside my house right now on the sidewalk. For the first time in about a half dozen temblors that have prompted us to evacuate the house, we do have damage. Our walls are cracked, as it appears that our apartment and that of our neighbor slammed into one another. (Their windows are blown out.) Right now we are waiting for the authorities to assess whether there is structural damage.
It's certainly not dramatic, but we do have broken shards of glass across our entrance and plaster across the front hallway. As I am sitting here, I see the front walling of our apartment blown off, and it immediately brings me back to the horrors of Haiti's earthquake in January 2010, my first and only first-hand experience with a disaster that devastating.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
“He got a lot of criticism for this, and he may not be as internally resilient as someone needs to be to weather a storm of criticism like that,” said Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. “It might have been such a tremendous injury to his ego that he just sort of fell apart.”
Hilfer has not seen Russell, nor does he know his medical history. But he said worry and self doubt can lead to sleep problems and poor self-care, which can trigger irrational behavior such as Russell’s.
“Sometimes we see this in response to people not taking good care of themselves when they’re under great deal of stress and pressure,” Hilfer said. “They become overwhelmed and anxious and it interferes with their ability to sleep. Without treatment, it can cause disorientation and mental confusion.”
Hilfer said severe dehydration can also cause strange behavior.
“Dehydration can absolutely cause all the signs of mental confusion he seemed to be experiencing,” he said, adding that severe dehydration would most likely be brought on by illness, but could also result from poor self-care.
A bad reaction to a medication, possible a prescription sleep aide, might also be to blame, Hilfer said.