tag: World affairs

Jun 2011

On This Deity: 4th June 1989

I’ve a new article up at On This Deity.

4th June 1989: The Tiananmen Square Massacre.

In the early hours of the morning on June 4th 1989, the Chinese military began a brutal crackdown of the protest movement that had seen up to 100,000 people camped out in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square for more than a month. What had begun, back in April, as a series of small student gatherings to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang – the erstwhile General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party who had been expelled for his vocal support of political reform – had, by June, grown into a mass demonstration of civil disobedience by a number of disparate groups.

read the rest…

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Apr 2011

On This Deity: 7th April 1969

New piece up at On This Deity

7th April 1969: The Birth of the Internet.

Protest movements and pressure groups have found the net to be a powerful organisational tool. Indeed, the recent and ongoing revolutions in North Africa were coordinated – in part at least – through social media websites. Wikileaks, for all its many faults, has shaken the political establishment around the world. Research in almost any field you care to mention has been aided by the collaborative space provided by the net. And just as hatred breeds freely in cyberspace, so there are wonderful stories of hope, love and solidarity emerging from the electronic ether facilitated by encounters between like-minded people who would otherwise never have met.

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Apr 2011

On This Deity: 5th April 1992

Check out my new article at On This Deity

5th April 1992: The Siege of Sarajevo.

On April 5th 1992 units of the Yugoslav People’s Army on orders from Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, in combination with Bosnian-Serb militia groups, took up positions in the hills surrounding the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. From there they opened fire on the city below with artillery, mortars and sniper rifles. It was the beginning of a three and a half year siege that left many thousands dead and heralded the disintegration of Yugoslavia in a decade-long series of conflicts, bringing to an end Tito’s dream of unifying the Balkans.

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Feb 2011

Israel, Iran and what’s not reported

The first thing to point out is that I’m no fan of either Israeli or Iranian government policy. Both nations appear (to me at least) to be suffering their own collective psychoses. Israel’s is a type of post-traumatic stress exacerbated by decades surrounded by hostile neighbours, so that it’s developed into a paranoid psychosis. Iran, on the other hand, spent decades trapped within a classic double-bind and has now found itself in the grip of religious fundamentalism. I have a great deal of sympathy for the ordinary people of both nations, terrorised as they are by enemies internal and external; real and imagined.

That said, I have very little sympathy for the actions of either government, who appear hell-bent on bringing the region as close to the brink of war as possible. The current civil uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, while to be lauded for ending tyrannical regimes, are likely to make Israel (in particular) more jittery than usual and serve, in that sense, to ratchet tensions up even further.

Let me be clear; this is not an attempted justification or a call for the continuation of these regimes. Tyrants need to be overthrown, and while we all hope this happens with a minimal increase in regional instability, we do not expect a people to remain in oppressive conditions merely to ensure that their twitchy neighbours don’t get spooked. At the same time, we should collectively face up to the likelihood of an increase in regional instability and explore ways to mitigate it.

Because it seems we can’t expect nations in the region to do so. While dictators topple and political vacuums beckon — or else “the army” takes over, which is rarely a good sign no matter what assurances of a future transition to civilian rule are offered — Israel and Iran appear intent on sabre-rattling at what must surely be the least appropriate time to do so.

Warships through The Suez Canal

Middle East map

Today the BBC carries a news story about two Iranian warships passing through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea. As someone who objects to the routine projection of military power beyond national borders (I’m even dubious about the projection of military power within national borders, but that’s an issue of national sovereignty and, within reason, should be left to each nation to decide), I unconditionally condemn this action by Iran. Just as I condemn the US, British (and any other) fleets patrolling the oceans of the world as though someone appointed them custodians of us all. I understand the current need to keep warships in certain areas to help deal with piracy (though this itself is part of a wider issue, and those ships should be flying a UN flag). But I don’t believe the world should accept national navies adopting threatening positions just outside the territorial waters of nations they don’t like.

And Iran’s claim to be conducting exercises with the Syrian navy is farcical. Despite not being a physical threat to Israel, a fact that’s acknowledged in the BBC article, these ships are clearly entering the Mediterranean to piss off the Israelis. No other reason. And a nation like Israel, in the grip of paranoid psychosis, rarely deals with provocation in a rational or proportional manner. Look at their response to the Gaza aid flotilla. Witness their policy of collective punishment whenever Palestinian militants attack — or just threaten to attack — Israel. Provoking Israel is a dumb thing to do, because it can quickly create a situation that spirals out of control.

This is hinted at by the Israeli Foreign Minister himself in that BBC story, when he says:

To my regret, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations. The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations.

Avigdor Lieberman (Israeli Foreign Minister)

It’s familiar rhetoric all right, but no less ominous because of that. And it neglects a crucial element in this “Iranian warships in the Mediterranean” narrative that is currently ongoing. An element that is simply ignored in the four different news stories I’ve read about this issue today. Despite describing this act by Iran as “unprecedented”, why has much of the western media chosen to gloss over the fact that it’s nothing of the kind? Isn’t the fact that Iran’s action is clearly and unambiguously a response to Israel’s 2009 decision to send two warships the other direction through The Suez Canal worthy of reporting?

I’m not saying that “they did it first” is an adequate response to criticism of Iran’s action. It’s certainly a pathetic justification for something that clearly increases the likelihood of a military engagement between two heavily-armed nations. But without that crucial piece of information, Iran’s naval manoeuvre looks like a unilateral act of provocation, when in fact it’s actually another chapter in an ongoing tit-for-tat escalation between two psychotic nations. It must be viewed in that context, and whatever the western response to Iran may be, it must be made in that context.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2011

Revolution in North Africa

First Tunisia. Then Egypt. Where next?

Tonight the Egyptian regime is teetering on the edge of collapse. A lot of commentators are suggesting that the fall of Hosni Mubarak is inevitable, though I’d be wary of underestimating the man’s tenacity. The domino-effect is somewhat overrated and to simply assume that the pattern we saw in Tunisia will automatically repeat itself in Egypt is to be guilty of questionable generalisation. Certainly opposition movements across the Middle East have been inspired by the Jasmine Revolution, but the complex and unique internal dynamics of each nation cannot be ignored. These aren’t all “the same place” though they may face many of the same problems.

A police van burns on 6th October Bridge

My family lived in Cairo for a couple of years during my mid-teens so I know the city fairly well. Or rather, I knew 80s Cairo fairly well. Much has changed in the intervening years, though the images being broadcast today were of roads, bridges and buildings with which I am very familiar. Watching an honest-to-goodness revolution unfold on streets I once thought of as “home” has been a peculiar experience to say the least. It’s made me think about where else such events might happen.

One thing that hasn’t changed about Egypt since my time there in the mid-80s is the guy in charge. Hosni Mubarak, 25 years older and with saggier jowls, is still running the country. Which is what you’d expect in a “democracy” where the president tends to stand unopposed in elections. And as today’s events demonstrate, that isn’t because he’s universally loved. Mubarak is shrewd as hell and has a much larger and better equipped security apparatus than ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. It still wouldn’t surprise me to see him emerge from this chaos with a firm grip on the reins of power in Egypt. Though I suspect his dream of installing his son as successor is now over.

That said, I’m not suggesting things are looking good for Hosni Mubarak. There are rumours that he has already fled the country but while the odds are certainly stacked against him, they aren’t quite as heavily stacked as they were for the guy twelve hundred miles to his west.

The Devil You Know

Here’s where I get controversial. And please do me the favour of accepting my words at face value rather than trying to read some kind of veiled pro-Mubarak sentiment into them, or suggesting I’m putting forward a pro-western neoliberal neocolonial agenda. Those who know me will understand that’s not where my concerns are coming from. Those who don’t will just have to take that on faith.

Firstly let me state, unequivocally, that the Egyptian regime is corrupt, despotic and guilty of more human rights abuses than any of us will ever know. If the world was a truly just place, Hosni Mubarak would face trial for (and be convicted of) crimes against humanity. The people of Egypt deserve much better. And I fully support their attempts to achieve it.

However, the unintended consequences of those attempts could have ramifications far beyond the borders of Egypt. As I listened to reports of today’s protests on Al Jazeera, something was said… just once and not repeated… that made me feel a little uneasy. “Several members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested in the past 24 hours” said the reporter. I have no idea whether the Muslim Brotherhood is playing any part in the current situation. In reality, even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with it, Hosni Mubarak’s “round up the usual suspects” approach will have made them targets. What I do know is that some members of the Egyptian opposition have called upon the Brotherhood to form militia units to maintain order in the absence of the police. Mubarak’s efficient suppression of opposition groups will ensure a power vacuum if he is ousted in the next few days, and it seems very possible that the Muslim Brotherhood will be best-placed to take advantage of that vacuum.

Now, before you accuse me of anti-Muslim sentiment let me point out that my problem is with hardliners of any religion having too much political influence. Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish State gives me the creeps. The subordination of Iranian politics to the clerics appals me. And they both pale into insignificance compared with how appalled I am by the thought of the Christian Right gaining any more power in the United States than they already possess. The grip that Catholicism had on my country, Ireland, was nightmarish and I don’t wish to see a similar fate visited upon any other nation.

I do not see The Islamic Republic of Egypt to be a better option than what the Egyptians had last week. And there’s a real danger that could emerge from this situation. Neither are desirable of course, but the former — and this is the crucial point — seriously increases the possibility of another Arab-Israeli conflict. And that would be a disaster for the entire region, if not the world.

The Fall of The House of Saud

Meanwhile, during my time spent online today, I’ve encountered numerous tweets and blog posts and facebook comments excitedly anticipating the spread of this revolutionary fervor to Saudi Arabia… a regime far more brutal and oppressive than Egypt. I’ve also spent time there, and if ever there was a nation in need of regime change it’s Saudi Arabia.

However, while the dangers of the relatively secular Egyptian society falling under the spell of theocrats are real but not massive; the fall of the Saudi Royal Family would almost certainly result in the rise of a hardline Islamist government. See, people have this idea of Saudi Arabia being run by Islamists, but in fact the reality is more complex. Yes, it’s a society run along fundamentalist islamic principles, but the people right at the very top are cynical realists rather than True Believers. They pander to the religious tendencies within their culture, but they work hard to keep things on an even keel with regards to foreign policy. Purely for their own purposes, you understand, but it nonetheless maintains a certain level of peace in the region.

I want you to consider two crucial facts about Saudi Arabia… One: They are by far the largest oil exporter on the planet. Two: By percentage of GDP, they have the largest defence budget of any major country on the planet (and in real terms are the 8th biggest spender on weapons… spending almost 3 times more per annum than Israel on guns, bombs and planes).

I suspect that a Saudi revolution could lead to a radical Islamist government, and I suspect that in turn could lead to war with Israel. Nobody is more convinced than me that the world needs to wean itself off its addiction to oil. And I’m also convinced that Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian people needs to change. I’m just not sure that a Saudi-Israeli war is the optimum way of achieving those ends.

In summary

I don’t for a moment want to give the impression that these are “predictions”. They are very much worst-case scenarios and I will be overjoyed if a wave of revolutions sweep the Middle East and North Africa leaving stable secular governments in their wake. Republics that fully maintain their Islamic cultural heritage while remaining pluralist, tolerant and non-confrontational. That would be my ideal and if Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution turns out to be the spark that set off such a beautiful flame, then it will be long remembered as one of the most positive developments in the history of a region for too long dominated by ruthless despots, unaccountable royal families and corrupt bureaucracies.

But history teaches us that revolutions rarely end up at the glorious destination envisioned by those who participate in them. Let us all hope that this time round, history won’t repeat itself.

UPDATE: As if on cue, a spokesman for the hardline Iranian government has come out in support of the uprisings in the secular Arab states and expresses his “optimism” about the situation in Egypt.

UPDATE 30-01-2011: Meanwhile Tunisia’s Islamist leader returns home after 22 years in exile.

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Dec 2010


The Irish media is still filled with talk of the IMF, the ECB and the bailout. And the snow of course. It’s remarkable when you think about it; there’s almost nothing the Irish government could have done to distract us from the economy. But a few days of frozen precipitation does the job. Suddenly the news is filled with images of kids on sleds and people standing next to snow-covered cars. I’ve not yet encountered anyone combining the two stories, but it’s surely only a matter of time before columnists start talking about the shroud of snow being “appropriately funereal”, or how a blanket has been drawn over the face of the Irish state.

In the rest of the world however, the fate of Ireland is beginnning to fade a little. And although the IMF thing is still getting the occasional headline, it’s more distant… something in the background. It won’t be so bloody distant if we succeed in bringing down the euro, mind. And if I was a citizen of Portugal I’d be getting a bit concerned right about now. Nor should the people of Italy and Spain be feeling too confident.

As I write, a huge amount of private debt is being shifted onto the Irish public. On top of that, we’re being strip-mined of our remaining assets. Goodbye National Pension Reserve fund, hello Wave of Privatisation. And given how fruitful this asset grab is turning out to be, only a fool would bet on it being the last. The Irish acquiescence, along with the failure of any of our neighbours to demand a halt to this daylight robbery, is actively encouraging the “contagion” that everyone claims to fear. The international markets are instruments of tremendous power, and our political leaders are giving them incentives to topple nations. I’ve gone from wondering whether it’s incompetence or madness driving this policy, to realising it’s both. What ‘The Market’ needs right now is a hefty dose of nationalisations to get it back in line. At the same time our political classes could do with a revolution or two in order to teach them some humility. Preferably dramatic but non-violent revolutions (violence tends to breed chaos and with chaos comes a whole host of unintended consequences, and while only a fool insists violence can never be justified, it should always be considered a last resort).

Isn’t this post supposed to be about Wikileaks, though?

Sorry, got a bit carried away with the intro there. Let’s shift our gaze away from Irish matters and take a glance further afield. Ignoring the snow — which is now news across much of Europe and North America — a look at the internet media suggests much of the world is fixated on the Wikileaks saga. And who can blame them? Suddenly the headline “Website sparks war” doesn’t seem entirely fanciful.

As is so often the case lately, I find myself irritated by the polarisation that has emerged as a result of this issue. Two narratives have emerged which reluctantly I find rather simplistic and lacking nuance. And I say “reluctantly” because many of my friends, plus commentators for whom I have a great deal of respect, are promoting one of those simplistic narratives (the “Julian Assange is a hero and the various charges against him are a big American plot” version). The other narrative — less prevalent amongst those I know, needless to say — being the “Julian Assange is a traitorous rapist who seeks to destabilise democratic governments and should be hunted down and shot like the rabid dog he is” version.

Before I get onto the “hero” narrative, let me say a little something about the “villain” Assange. Now, it goes without saying that I don’t know any more about the rape allegations than anyone else. However, there are two points worth noting that cause me some consternation with respect to them. Firstly, the general murkiness of the allegations and the extreme confusion surrounding them makes them — certainly not unique — but definitely atypical in such cases. The charges were dropped, reactivated, dropped and reactivated again. So the current charges are being handled by the third Swedish prosecutor to get involved in the case. It might be argued that this is a result of the difficulty securing evidence and, hence, convictions in this kind of case. All the same, from what I’ve read it is far from normal for such cases to be passed from prosecutor to prosecutor in this manner. A cynic might suggest that two people looked at the case, concluded it had either no merit or that — rightly or wrongly — it simply could not be successfully prosecuted due to a lack of available evidence, but that a third person took up the case for reasons of political ideology or personal aggrandisement.

I should probably take a moment to state clearly (because unfortunately we live in a world where it cannot be taken as read) that if there really is evidence linking Assange to a rape or sexual assault, he should face trial and suffer the full penalty. It is perfectly possible for a person to behave with honour in one area of his life while being depraved in another and the former simply does not excuse the latter.

Nonetheless, one only has to spend a little time reading about the allegations against Assange before confusion and apparent contradiction arise. This may merely be a result of bad reporting, but given how politically charged this whole situation is, I honestly feel one can be forgiven for raising a sceptical eyebrow while at the same time hoping that justice manages to assert itself (in whatever shape it takes).

The second question that gets raised about the rape allegations is one I first saw enunciated by feminist writer, Naomi Wolf, in her article J’Accuse: Sweden, Britain, and Interpol Insult Rape Victims Worldwide. Wolf, who has campaigned for two decades to raise the profile of — and seek justice for — victims of sexual assault views the treatment meted out to Assange in even more cynical terms than I was prepared to…

… Never in twenty-three years of reporting on and supporting victims of sexual assault around the world have I ever heard of a case of a man sought by two nations, and held in solitary confinement without bail in advance of being questioned — for any alleged rape, even the most brutal or easily proven.
… the highly unusual reaction of Sweden and Britain to this situation … seems to send the message to women in the UK and Sweden that if you ever want anyone to take sex crime against you seriously, you had better be sure the man you accuse of wrongdoing has also happened to embarrass the most powerful government on earth.

Keep Assange in prison without bail until he is questioned, by all means, if we are suddenly in a real feminist worldwide epiphany about the seriousness of the issue of sex crime: but Interpol, Britain and Sweden must, if they are not to be guilty of hateful manipulation of a serious women’s issue for cynical political purposes, imprison as well — at once — the hundreds of thousands of men in Britain, Sweden and around the world world who are accused in far less ambiguous terms of far graver forms of assault.

Anyone who works in supporting women who have been raped knows from this grossly disproportionate response that Britain and Sweden, surely under pressure from the US, are cynically using the serious issue of rape as a fig leaf to cover the shameful issue of mafioso-like global collusion in silencing dissent. That is not the State embracing feminism. That is the State pimping feminism.

It’s a difficult point to argue against. For no matter what you believe about Assange or the crimes he is accused of, it simply cannot be denied that his treatment is completely inconsistent with that of anyone else in the same circumstances. I honestly believe that the authorities in most nations fail to treat sex crimes as seriously as they should do. However, Assange’s experience doesn’t redress that; it merely highlights it further and illustrates the willingness of the judicial systems of Europe to bend to the political will of the United States when it suits them (on a day when “[t]he United States and European nations said the [Khodorkovsky] verdict raised doubts about the Kremlin’s commitment to the rule of law and human rights” an idiom involving pots and kettles springs to mind).

Nonetheless, while the Swedish allegations carry at the very least a whiff of conspiracy and political opportunism, I can’t help but be cynical about Assange’s decision to become “the face” of Wikileaks. A decision that has allowed his personal behaviour to begin overshadowing the work being carried out by Wikileaks. It seems it would have been perfectly possible for Assange to have pursued a different strategy… a small collective of semi-anonymous people (akin to “The Yes Men” perhaps?) could have become the voice of Wikileaks rather than a single figurehead whose personal behaviour — whatever the truth behind the charges — has at the very least opened him up to attack and risked discrediting Wikileaks in the eyes of many.

The sad thing is that what was once a low profile but nonetheless powerful collaborative tool for exposing government and corporate corruption around the world has become one man’s high profile stick with which to beat America. As such it’s less radical and less generally useful. Most worryingly though, it may be starting to inflict some collateral damage of its own.

Because moving away from Assange and the rape allegations there’s a larger issue at stake here. I still possess the remnants of the anarchist idealism of my youth. But it’s long been tempered by a realisation that while information may want to be free, it’s not always in the best interests of people that it should be.

It’s possible, for instance, that the North Koreans already knew China and the United States had discussed — however informally — the desirability of Korean reunification under a Seoul government. But if this is the first they’re hearing about it, then there’s a real possibility Wikileaks might provoke another ship being sunk, or another artillery barrage. Or worse. The politics of the Korean peninsula are complex to say the least, but I don’t think it can be denied that the latest escalation in tension can be at least partly attributed to the actions of Wikileaks. If the publication of these cables turns out to be a contributory factor in a new Korean War can anyone really say that these leaks were worth the lives of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people? It’d certainly take someone seriously committed to anarchism and freedom of information to consider so much death and suffering to be a price worth paying.

Especially when you consider the practical usefulness of the revelations. I mean, who seriously is shocked or surprised by anything they’ve read in the published cables? Or even in the previously published documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? We learnt that US troops callously killed civilians in both nations. There may have been a handful of people in Iowa still resolutely denying that such things happened until that famous video of the gunship firing upon injured civilians hit the internet, but I suspect 98% of those who saw that footage were merely receiving visual confirmation of something they already knew was going on.

Similarly, the news that China and the US were discussing ways of sidelining North Korea, or that the Saudis were agitating for a US attack on Tehran were probably well known by the various parties involved — as well as by most informed members of the public — so the public confirmation merely serves to heighten tension, rather than genuinely inform. And the notion that it will force the US (or China or Saudi Arabia) to moderate their behaviour in the future is beyond naive. It will simply force them to tighten security while simultaneously seeking ways to crack down on internet and press freedom.

Ultimately I find myself deeply ambivalent about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The man appears to be embracing shallow celebrity with a certain eagerness that undercuts his campaign, while the potential usefulness of the website (and the world is indeed improved by a system that facilitates whistle-blowing) is — I would argue — compromised by becoming so highly politicised. It needs to be more discerning, and dare I say it, more responsible, about what it publishes. What was once a facility that could be used to expose government and corporate wrongdoing, has recently become little more than a political powderkeg, helping ratchet up tensions between nations, providing recruitment videos to militant organisations and placing more importance in the ability to access information than in the actual importance of that information.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Dec 2010

On This Deity: 9th December 1987

I’ve got another piece up on Dorian’s excellent On This Deity

9th December 1987: The First Intifada.

Today we mark the beginning of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987. Various end dates are cited, usually falling between the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 and the Mehola Junction bombing of 1993, but arguably the conditions and enmities created during those first years have characterised Israeli-Palestinian relationships ever since, however one chooses to draw the timeline.

read the rest…

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Dec 2010

The gulf between press release and reality

Remember the Gulf of Mexico oil spill? Remember we were told it wasn’t as bad as “the environmentalists” were making out? And remember we were told that the well had been capped and the problem solved?

Apparently we weren’t told the whole story.

Dr. Tom Termotto is the National Coordinator for the Gulf Oil Spill Remediation Conference. He’s been reading and collating the various studies and reports produced about the BP / Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Last week he released a report that calls into question the notion that this disaster has been successfully contained. Indeed, it appears that even the worst case scenarios being discussed when the disaster was at its most prominent fail to convey the seriousness of the situation.

Now, I’ve just read his report (republished on the Phoenix Rising from the Gulf blog), and have not independently verified any of his facts. I’m stressing this because, while I’ve feared for some time that we are being comprehensively lied to about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (there were numerous discrepancies in the media reporting of the story that rang alarm-bells for anyone with a knowledge of petroleum geology), the conclusions reached by Dr. Termotto are startlingly extreme.

He alleges that large sections of the seabed beneath the Gulf of Mexico have been destabilised by the extensive oil and gas drilling operations taking place there. Furthermore, the Deepwater Horizon explosion created numerous fractures in the already unstable rock strata and now, in his words, “the Gulf of Mexico is slowly but surely filling up with oil and gas”.

On top of that, because of the depth of the oil and gas deposits, they contain high concentrations of radioactive isotopes. To add to the problems, the chemical dispersants — which he claims are still being used underwater near the well head (see image, below) — are making a very serious problem a lot worse. These chemicals are themselves highly toxic, but even worse… they are reducing the oil droplets to a “micronized or nano-sized state”. This significantly increases the likelihood that large quantities of mildly radioactive crude oil is entering the food chain. As Dr. Termotto says, this is turning “an extremely serious regional disaster into an unmitigated global catastrophe”.

Gulf of Mexico chemical pollution

And there’s more. The leaking of gas from beneath the seabed is producing large build-ups of methane hydrates on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Given that the area is seismically active, this has the potential to spark a disaster should this build up be dislodged en masse.

The entire Gulf of Mexico has become an environmental timebomb that threatens the health of the world’s oceans. A complete moratorium on drilling in the area is the only sane response to this information, if it is shown to be valid. However I suspect that in the face of peak oil, neither the US government nor the oil companies are interested in examining Dr. Termotto’s findings, let alone acting on them. The rush for short-term profit is killing our world.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2010

Food shortages: still a serious issue

At the start of the year I wrote a short blog post entitled “2010: A year of global famine?” In it I linked to an agricultural analyst who suggested that crop yields were down across the globe in 2009 and would continue to fall in 2010. He suggested that we were facing global food shortages.

Today a comment was added to the post by Frank Maloney. I started to respond on that thread, but my comment grew to the point where it merited a post of its own. And here it is!

How’s that whole global food shortage for 2010 working out? Everyone just about exhausted their emergency supply of MRE’s?

The only thing that causes food shortages in modern societies is politics. Look at Ethiopia which has always been a poster child for famine, despite the poverty, cycle of droughts and hunger the region is producing and exporting huge surpluses of food on private farms owned by mid east governments.

Frank Maloney

Wrong! (and glad to be so)

Let me start by saying that the fact food shortages in 2010 weren’t as bad as were feared should be a cause for celebration rather than triumphalism and internet point-scoring. I’m very happy that predictions of global famine in 2010 were wrong. The predictions of worldwide food security issues for this year were shared by the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) and I suspect they are also very happy to discover that their worst fears were not realised.

That said, I fear we risk a dangerous complacency if we simply dismiss the issue because the worst case scenario for a single year failed to materialise. We should be happy that less people found themselves suffering food shortages in 2010 than had been expected by many analysts, but we should also be concerned by the numbers that did — nonetheless — face famine conditions and very worried indeed by the developments that created this year’s shortages. Because although a global famine did not occur, the situation remains extremely precarious and many — including the UNWFP — see it as a crisis postponed rather than a crisis prevented.

To an extent I agree with Frank’s comment, in that historically the primary reason for famine and food shortages has been political. However I disagree that will always be the case and believe we are already beginning to see it change. This change is being driven by two primary factors; Climate Change and resource depletion. The latter, resource depletion, covers a multitude of direct and indirect problems. Water shortages (also linked to Climate Change), peak oil (which drives up biofuel production — in the US this year, almost one third of all corn produced was converted to ethanol — as well as damaging fertiliser and pesticide production) and a looming shortage of essential nutrients such as phosphorous. All of these threaten to significantly impact the quantity of food being produced on our planet.

Now, there’s no doubt that you can tenuously link all of these things to “politics” rather than “nature”. But in doing so you essentially blur the distinction between the two to the point of meaninglessness. The Climate Change-driven droughts become “a political problem” because we have failed to find the political will to curb our emissions. Peak oil becomes “a political problem” because we haven’t found a politically acceptable way to eliminate non-essential consumption of crude oil. And so on.

But as I say, that’s semantics. Historically, when we spoke of famines as a political problem we generally meant that the shortages in a given area were the result of inequitable distribution due to the political machinations of corrupt (or incompetent) regimes. So while the Russian grain export ban (extended for another year in September) is obviously a political decision, it’s just sheer-bloody-mindedness to insist that the reason for that ban — successive low crop yields due to unusual weather — is also political.

High food and fuel prices

If you take a look at the UNWFP website, you’ll see the phrase “high food and fuel prices” crop up time and time again. Frank Maloney’s comment makes specific reference to Ethiopia, so I checked out the Ethiopia page. Because although the feared global famine did not appear in 2010, we did nonetheless suffer food shortages in several places this year and also witnessed food riots around the world. Ethiopia was one of the places to suffer, with the food security of over five million people coming under serious pressure. This is attributed to “a combination of factors: poor and erratic rainfall over the last two years, the high food and fuel prices that hit the country in 2008 and are persisting and the global financial crisis.” Of these factors, only the last one is unambiguously a political problem.

It is my contention, and I believe this is backed up by the evidence, that the current high food prices are here to stay (which isn’t to say that there won’t be periodic dips in the price, but like oil I feel we have reached a production peak — or perhaps “plateau” might be a better word — and that a long term drop in global food production is inevitable). As I say, there will be peaks and troughs; perhaps the weather in Russia and China will be perfect next year and we’ll see a bumper crop, but it looks almost certain that we’ve entered a new phase whereby Climate Change and resource depletion have placed our global production on a downward trend, notwithstanding the occasional spike.

In the wealthy countries this will mean we’ll have to spend more on our weekly shop. There’ll be some belt-tightening but starvation is unlikely. Here in Ireland, for instance, the combination of high food prices and economic collapse has resulted in a 2.6% drop in food consumption per capita in 2010 alone. For a nation that, by-and-large, has been overconsuming for a couple of decades, that’s not going to create serious hunger. But in the parts of the world already close to subsistence-level, that’s the kind of reduction that can tip them over into famine.

And it’s not the result of political decisions, or at least, it’s not only the result of politics; instead it’s the result of a very real drop in global food production. And there are few serious analysts suggesting that’s not set to continue.

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Sep 2010

The radicals will come out…

I’m watching BBC World News. Currently being broadcast is a debate about Islam, how it’s perceived in the west (particularly America), the “Ground Zero Mosque”, Pastor Terry Jones of Florida threatening to hold a Koran-burning party and other inflammatory issues raised on the eve of the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

The most depressing thing about the debate is how incredibly predictable it all is. Representing, I suppose, “the average American” is a construction worker whose every utterance seems carefully crafted to further the “insular Yank” stereotype. Knowing, as I do, plenty of intelligent and well-informed Americans, I find myself cringing at the caricature being beamed around the world. And I wonder whether or not this man is genuinely representative of America (more so than those intelligent, well-informed folks of my acquaintance) or whether he has been chosen for his fulfillment of a stereotype prevalent in the media.

Unfortunately, I suspect it’s the former. Partly based on my inherent cynicism and partly based upon my observations of US media and political policy — a very small minority of which appears to come from a place of informed intelligence.

So the construction worker complains that, while he personally doesn’t want to burn any Korans, the pastor should be permitted to do so because America values freedom of expression. In his next breath he condemns the building of an Islamic cultural centre near the location of the World Trade Centre and wishes to see it halted. Rarely has, what George Orwell called, “doublethink” been so perfectly illustrated.

He then wonders why there’s such widespread condemnation of this Koran-burning stunt while nobody is condemning “the Taliban threats” of reprisals. It seems like a near-decade-long bombing campaign and a ground war waged by the combined militaries of the west against the Taliban does not constitute enough condemnation for this guy.

He also wanted to know why it was only ever America who “stood up to extremism”. Why it was only in America that people were condemning the death-sentence by stoning of the Iranian woman accused of adultery? One wonders how he could possibly have known that it was only in America, as he clearly has no contact with international media (for those not following the story, the loudest and most sustained objections to this Iranian travesty have come from the cheese-eating surrender-monkeys of France, but it’s unlikely that Fox News would ever report such a thing).

Now he’s suggesting that the Koran-burning should go ahead because if it’s only a minority of Moslems who are extremists, then burning the Koran will ensure “the radicals will come out of the woodwork” so that “we can identify them”. His inability to understand that such gratuitous acts of provocation might serve to radicalise further those who are already angry at western policy in Afghanistan is yet another perfect illustration… this time of US foreign policy in general.

On the other hand, it’s heartening to note that a moderate Moslem is arguing against the building of the Islamic Centre, and vaguely amusing that the barbed nature of his reasoning failed to even register on the blue-collared caricature. The Centre, he suggested, could be seen as a celebration of American tolerance and a place where the tensions between cultures could perhaps be overcome. But “Americans aren’t yet ready for that” he suggests, and Moslems should accept this and await a better time to enter into a useful dialogue. He didn’t use the words “you lot just don’t have the emotional maturity to see beyond your ignorance and accept the issue is more complex than Moslems = terrorists and Americans = Number One”. But I could see in his eyes that he wanted to.

Ultimately, Pastor Terry Jones has the right to burn his Korans if that’s the message he wants to send to the world. He’d be a complete idiot and an arsehole to do so, but that would hardly make him unique among southern preachers. In response, no doubt, some idiots and arseholes in the Moslem World would escalate the matter. There’d be (yet more) burnings of American flags and bibles. And a mob would form in some moderate Islamic nation like Egypt and they’d attack a christian church. People would get hurt, perhaps even killed. Then a group of stupid young rednecks in Alabama would beat some random dark-skinned kid to death because he looked Moslem.

Pastor Terry Jones would have blood on his hands. Only a drop, certainly, in the ocean of red that’s been steadily growing these past nine years, since a group of murderers highjacked some planes in North America. But a drop more than any of us need.

Some thoughts…

* I can’t be the only one who, every time Pastor Terry Jones gets a mention in the media, hears “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy” in a high-pitched voice.

* The chap on the BBC debate called to mind “local man, Scott Gentries” of The Onion.

* I was recently reading about Bill Hicks and his response to a “Scott Gentries”-type after a gig one night. The irate audience member angrily confronted him regarding his criticism of America. “Love it or leave it buddy!” he snarled, “if you don’t think this country is the greatest in the world, then why don’t you go live somewhere else!?” Bill’s response was glorious… he looked incredulously at the man and responded, “What? And risk becoming a victim of our foreign policy?”

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion