Saturday, 29 September 2012

Video - Arctic Ice Melts to new Record Minimum


The Arctic ice cap has just started to re-freeze after reaching a historic minimum last week on 19th Sepetmber. An ice-free Arctic during summer-time is now a few years away at most, with untold consequences for our weather systems and the follow-on impact on our ability to live on the planet.

As well as the effect of cold melted ice on the milder sea water systems of the mid-Atlantic, bringing more extreme weather - hot and cold, wet and dry - to many parts of Europe and Britain, the decline in white ice will reduce the planet's albedo effect, which reflects much of the heat of the sun away from Earth. This will increase the rate of global warming even faster than now.

It also augurs extremely badly for many Arctic species' survival.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Nothing Wrong...Really.. part 349

"If we do not exert the right of eating our neighbour, it is because we have other means of making good cheer"
                                                                                        - Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 16

Denial
Wisdom may not quite entirely lie with the gloomy; but the continued denial of global warming, not by scientists, but by a range of right-wing politicians and their profit-seeking corporate sponsors has reached Panglossian levels of delusion as, this year, more and more climate extremes are being reached and records broken. The results are devastating communities across the planet by fire and flood, severely damaging natural resources and pushing the price of food significantly upwards as the US grain belt is devastated by drought unprecedented in 80 years - just a year after Russia suffered similarly.

NASA, no left-wing conspiracy, has published charts this week showing how the summer ice melt in the Arctic has reached unprecedented levels: most observers are now expecting an ice-free Arctic in summertime by 2020 if not earlier. This is already affecting the weather in northern Europe, with increasing rainfall and gales as colder oceans whip up storms unknown in the region in human times. Yet again, the Gulf Stream "conveyor" which has traditionally kept Britain milder than similar areas at our geographic latitude, may be slowing as cooler northern waters, chilled by melting ice, drive the warmer waters and air from the south-west away.

Arctic summer ice 1984

Arctic ice cover last week
The NASA website can be accessed here

Yet, even at the highest levels of political life, climate change denial remains widespread: Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has mocked President Obama's commitments to tackle global warming thus: "President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family."  His words deny the reality that should strike the heart of any loving parent stone cold - that, if not in their own lifetimes then certainly in the lifetimes of their children global warming, if unchecked, threatens to overwhelm our biosystems: their offspring may trade inaction now for a long, lingering farewell to any sort of civilised way of life.

Yet Obama, for all his emissions of promises and commitments to curb carbon emissions has presided over a massive expansion in fracking for dirty coal and gas to the extent that the US is now energy independent for the first time and private investment in research and development of renewable sources of energy is plunging (more evidence of how the market system can not deliver truly green solutions). Carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise unabated across the world.

And, behind all this, misinforming, misleading and ripping off the bewildered public, mass media continues to proselytise for us all carrying on as if nothing is wrong, as if the party never needs to stop - those who warn the house is on fire are decried as hair-shirted killjoys. As the ice cap melts across the Arctic, rather than sounding a global emergency, politicians from Putin to Palin and corporations from Moscow to Dallas are rubbing their oily palms with glee at the prospect of new fields of carbon energy opening up to them. 

In his satire, "Candide", 18th century French philosopher Voltaire has the main character reject the eternal optimism of his teacher's belief that the "all is for the best in the best of all worlds" somehow follows naturally - instead, we need to take responsibility and act ourselves: "we must cultivate our garden".

Yet, as multinationals tear down our forests and rip open ever new fissures to drill and frack for dirty energy, our garden is distinctly wilting and barren in many places. But still it is the words not of Candide, but his Professor Pangloss, that echo in endless, selfishly complacent denial of reality: "Troubles are just the shadows in a beautiful picture."

Better perhaps to heed Candide's own thoughts on the Professor's boundless optimism in the face of the truth:  "It is a mania for saying things are well when one is in hell...I confess that when I consider this globe, or rather this globule, I think that God has abandoned it to some evil creature"



Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Spanish Revolution

Marx - saw it coming and got the teeshirt!


The last twenty four hours have seen a wave of anti-austerity protest in Madrid. Galvanised by social media, the Indignants have marched on Congress in their tens of thousands to demand an end to the harsh austerity measures of the conservative government which, deferring to the European Central Bank's "tight money" regime, have slashed public services and catapulted one in four Spaniards onto the dole.

They have faced rounds of rubber bullets from the police, but they remain in place even now; follow them here.

The Spanish Government's fiscal policy is the same that is being applied across Europe for the sake of saving the beleaguered Euro - while in Britain, which is not part of the Eurozone, the Con Dem Government pursues deficit reduction as its first and, many would argue, sole monetary policy objective. All this in spite of the fact that cutbacks depress economic activity and cause the whole economy to spiral down in an ever-decreasing circle - and with less tax generated and more unemployed people needing state assistance, the deficits continue to grow.
Madrid on Tuesday evening
There are alternatives - Keynes and Roosevelt demonstrated that borrowing to invest in employment pays dividends many times over - a tack echoed in the current round of Green New Deals proposed by Green Parties (including US Presidential candidate Jill Stein). And in the case of sovereign currency states like the UK, expanding the monetary supply by "quantitative easing" (printing money) can kick-start a stagnant economy (and as a nation that can print its own money, the UK can never go bankrupt contrary to Tory and Lib Dem claims of pending insolvency).

But on another analysis, this round of austerity, just like the previous period of expansion, is just part of the never-ending capitalist not-so-merry-go-round; a cycle of boom and bust followed by more boom and bust. It will never end, never be resolved, especially in a world where many resources are fast becoming expensively scarce. On this analysis, the only real answer is to change the economic and social systems completely - to a more planned economy, with resources used to the benefit of all and strict limits placed on what private individuals and companies can take from the common wealth. 

Otherwise, we are condemned to Austerity Groundhog Day:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "The Communist Manifesto" (1848)

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Et Tu, Davey?

Cassius Cable and  Praetorian Davey - yond men hath a lean and hungry look! 
Nick Clegg's beleaguered Lib Dems gather in Green Party-run Brighton this week for their annual Federal Party Conference, their third since they entered the Coalition Government with the Tories and began to implement perhaps the most right wing fiscal and social reform agenda in British history - much to the chagrin of many of their members and the likely permanent alienation of swathes of their former voters.

Clegg's personal ratings are at an all-time low and the party's have plunged by two-thirds since the 2010 election - today, two opinion polls (Opinium & Survations) have them on just 8% and 10% of popular support, in fourth place nationally behind the UK Independence Party - others are a little kinder, but still show UKIP breathing down the Lib Dems necks close enough to raise the hackles of fear. With hundreds of councillors culled at the local elections last May and more losses likely in spring 2013, Clegg's own position is increasingly rumoured to be at risk, at least in the longer-run. As leading pollster Peter Kellner of YouGov has warned, on current trends, the party will lose 80% of its MPs in the 2015 election.

For now, the party rank-and-file have shown an almost lemming-like willingness to follow Clegg over the cliff, but cracks are beginning to show as the leader's desperate strategy of trying to emphasise differences with his Tory partners fails to make any electoral impact. Likewise his attempt to apologise for voting to raise student fees in full defiance of a pledge to vote against any such thing (note, "vote against" - whether in Government or not) has fallen on deaf ears.

Mr Clegg is facing two potential challengers - interestingly both from former SDP members who may be seen to represent a slightly less full-on charge to the right by Clegg and his Orange Book ally David Laws (now returned to the Cabinet table in a rather odd arrangement as he is not a full-member).

The first is the Secretary of State for Business and Enterprise, Vince Cable. Cable, a former apologist for the Shell Oil company, has enacted some pretty right wing changes to employment law while in office, but he still laughingly tries to pass himself off as the "Marx of the Lib Dems" - though he could do with clarifying whether he means Karl or Groucho. His hubris is boundless, and fuelled by a finding that Lib Dem ratings could soar to as high as..12%!, he has told the Sunday Times that he does not rule out being leader of the party - one day. Soon, we might imagine him whisper under his impatient breath.

The other rumoured challenger is Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary. He is closer to Clegg politically, but views himself as a credible challenger to Cable. The Mail on Sunday produced an article today covering his ambitions to succeed Clegg. On Channel 4 News this evening, he hotly denied the article's veracity - he is, he claimed "one of the Praetorian Guard surrounding Nick Clegg".

Now, Mr Davey could either be being opaquely clever here or alternatively betraying his lack of historical knowledge: for over two and a half centuries, the Praetorians were the bodyguards of the Roman Emperors. So he might be suggesting that he would take a political bullet for Emperor Cleggie, so deep is his belief in him. Alternatively, given the Praetorians' propensity for bumping off Emperors (on one occasion even putting the throne up for auction), he could instead be giving a coded signal that he may bury the knife in Caesar's shoulder-blades any day soon. Notably, when invited several times by the C4 interviewer, Davey repeatedly avoided saying "No" to the question of whether he wants to be leader.

Either way, the third-going-on-fourth party, faces a dismal time ahead - yet doggedly still clinging to the belief that nuanced changes to party pronouncements (the latest being that parents can use their pensions towards their kids mortgages!) will somehow win their lost legions of followers back. If Vince Cable is all their "left-wing" has to offer, they may as well shut up shop and follow their National Liberal ancestors in the smothering bosom of their Tory Masters.

A third candidate for the leadership is rumoured to be Lurcio, currently the MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale. Oh don't ye titter!


Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Government: An Apology...

The Government - an apology.

Yes, it is an apology...one big apology of a Government!


Thursday, 20 September 2012

√ -1 = Reason Without Reason: A review of Zamyatin's "We"

"We" - 2006 edition from Modern Library (New York)
ISBN 0-812907462-X
Yevgenny Zamyatin was a revolutionary: a Bolshevik agitator against the Czar, he was arrested and beaten up by the police in 1905, kept in solitary confinement and then sent on internal exile - the punishment of choice of the Romanov authorities: Russia was large enough to send dissenters far enough away to neutralise them, but still within the purview of the God-anointed Father of All-Russia.

After the collapse of the Imperial regime in 1917, Zamyatin's hopes were high as the social liberal experiment of the Soviets began - initially unsullied by the dogmatic centralism of the Leninist Bolsheviks. He enthusiastically participated in Maxim Gorky's House of Arts at Ryabushinsky in Petrograd, blazing a trail with others in developing Soviet "NeoRealism" in writing - the florid, repetitive language of the Old Days was to be swept away. The Revolution was not just about breaking down the old barriers and extreme inequalities; it was also about a new way of thinking, living and expression - rational, efficient, and all the more powerful for it. One word should convey what in the past a dozen were used to describe; "written with 90-proof ink", as he put it.

But like many artists and thinkers who initially supported both the liberal and socialist revolutions, Zamyatin began to diverge from the strain of Bolshevik thinking that placed the Party at the centre of all things. This vanguard of revolution not only crushed the bourgeois liberals and Kadets, but also turned on fellow socialists in the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties before weeding out wrong-thinking Bolsheviks, such as Kollontai and those in the Workers Opposition. It is no coincidence that his completion of "We" in early 1921 coincided with an upsurge of strikes by trade unions and leftists across Russia against the privations of the increasingly repressive Bolshevik regime - a cycle of unrest that concluded only with the extermination of the Social revolutionary sailors at the Kronstadt Fortress as Lenin reasserted his authority. Later that year, all factions within the Bolshevik Party were abolished, apart from his own.

Sensing where these changes were leading, Zamyatin penned "We" as a breathtaking combination of science fiction, political allegory, mathematics and romance. Set a thousand years after the tribulations of the Two Hundred Years' War swept away current society, this unlikely combination resides in the mind and, as the story develops, the soul of the protagonist, a cypher (as people are called by then), D-503. In a glass city hermetically sealed from the natural world, men and woman are designated with a letter and reference number; children are raised by the One State under the benevolent guidance of the Benefactor; sex is reduced to a series of appointments via pink slips; people march in step with each other and everyone lives and works to times set out in the Table of Hours. All mail is read by officials and everywhere, the Aeros of the Guardians with their proboscoid cameras hover above the city, watching and listening, seeking out any remote sign of dissent, any threat to order - even the cyphers' rooms have glass walls and ceilings, a true police-state Panoptican.

Ryabushinsky - site of Gorky's House of Arts
George Orwell clearly owed a great debt of the imagination to Zamyatin, but that is a side-issue: "We", written as a series of notes left by D-503 as he struggles to come to terms with the challenge his love for the mysterious I-330, is a fast-paced assault on the senses. Zamyatin's NeoRealism may reduce people to curves (D-503's regular sex partner is O-90, who is described as a circle) and angles (the exciting new I-330 is portrayed as an X), but at the same moment it captures humanity at its most intimate and genuine.

D-503's battle to reconcile his role as the Builder of the One State's great scientific project, a space machine, "The Integral", and his painful physical and emotional reactions to his growing love for I-330 is contrasted with his lifelong anxiety as a mathematician of being unable to determine the square root of minus one.This is a torture begun by his school teacher that has plagued him ever since. In a world built on reason alone, how can there be such a conundrum as the square root of minus one? If maths can explain everything, how can there be a question with no answer? And if cyphers are to exist efficiently and happily, surely the irrationality, the emotions of love, can only be a malady - D-503 turns to his doctor to get a sick note for his love.

Zamyatin's dystopia was founded on the centralist drive of the Bolsheviks who, by 1920, had seen off their White, Black and Green opponents in the Civil War at huge human cost (a price, to be fair, exacted by all parties in the conflict). Lenin and his cohorts were already tarnishing dissent of any hue with the badge of counter-revolution, and hence in "We", part of the debate is about whether there can ever be a final revolution: Zamyatin clearly saw humanity functioning in continually evolving cycles, never reaching any End of History, while Lenin's interpretation of Marx was that the communist revolution would mean the final phase in the history of social relations had been entered.

As part of his pretty idiosyncratic interpretation of Marx, one rejected by the vast majority of socialists before and since, Lenin truly exalted the collective above the individual - not only in terms of social equality and security, an objective that IS shared by most socialists - but in terms of valid existence and free will. To this end, he was initially repelled but then fascinated by the writings of the US labour theorist Frederick Taylor. This proponent of the then-nascent field of scientific management saw the most efficient organisation as one which broke the means of production of goods and services down to the lowest single process-step. Workers would be trained to repeat the same tasks over and over endlessly. In this way, reducing the individual to mere cogs in a huge machine, Taylorism argued that maximum efficiency of production and design would be achieved - the worth and needs of the individual human within this no longer mattered.

Lenin had taken a similar approach in the brutal days of the Civil War, sacrificing millions of civilians and military to combat, cold and starvation for the sake of the Revolution, and he extended this into the functioning of the new Soviet State. Taylor's thinking (much loved by arch-capitalist Henry Ford) was transposed to the USSR and developed further by Alexei Gastev, head of the Institute of Soviet Labour, who advocated workers as "proletarian units" and came up with the idea of exchanging names for cypher designations. There was no compassion, no humanity - these were old, bourgeoisie concepts, necessary sops to the need to survive in Czarist times but at best diversions and at worst obstacles to progress in the New Era . Logic and reason, cold but ultimately True, come in replacement of the former barbarism.

Taylorism Triumphant - Cyphers at work: from Fritz Lang's Metropolis
In "We", Zamyatin refers to Taylor as the spiritual guide of the all-powerful One State: children are taught to revere him and he is central to the lives of the cyphers. Thus, D-503's love-sickness juxtaposes as powerfully as anything the world-views of Zamyatin and Lenin. Just as Bolshevism originated to create a fairer society but was warped by ideologues, so the One State's ultimate purpose was originally benign, aiming to free its citizen-cyphers from the chains of uncertainty and unhappiness: "What", asks the Benefactor, "have people prayed for, dreamt about and agonized over? They have wanted someone, anyone, to tell them once and for all what happiness is - and then to attach them to this happiness with a chain..."

Yet while the novel takes the political philosophy of Lenin to its logical conclusion of a de-humanised state, its final objective epitomised by The Operation, which will isolate and remove the imagination of all cyphers, it is not by any means a pessimistic tale. Unlike Orwell, there is no boot stamping forever on the face of humanity - rather, even after a full Millennium of the One State, people's essential humanity is intact, no matter how suppressed or self-controlled or, as D-503 contemplates his hairy hands, how frighteningly misunderstood.

"We" was almost never published in the Soviet Union - its allegory meant it did not get past the newly-reconstituted censors and a single manuscript had to be smuggled out to be published in Czechoslovakia. Zamyatin was himself twice arrested by the Soviet police under suspicion of counter-revolutionary activities. "We" was finally released to his compatriots to read legally only in 1989, in the dying days of Lenin's state. In a fine demonstration of their ideological bigotry and narrow-mindedness, the Soviet authorities by their actions completely validated Zamyatin's case.

As Stalin assumed power in the years following Lenin's death, Zamyatin disagreements with the new Communist state and his fears for his personal safety grew. With the intercession of his friend and patron, Maxim Gorky, he successfully requested permission to leave the USSR in 1931 and settled with his wife in Paris, where he worked on script-writing with film director Jean Renoir. He died in 1937.

The Twentieth Century owes a huge debt to this little known author, both for the creation of a genre of science fiction which is powerful in its warnings for the future, but also for a message that is ultimately deeply humane and optimistic. His arguments may have been forged in the chaos of revolutionary Russia, but they speak as much to us today with societies gripped by the supposedly irreplaceable system of capitalism and under surveillance whether electronically or by Aero-like drones. Just like the cyphers of the glass city, our lifestyles are increasingly geared to ignoring and sealing us away from the seeming unpleasantness of natural reality - from the weather to our food, to the plight of our fellow humans.

The One State, with its fixed elections and social conformity, is not unknown to any of us - but equally, the cri de coeur for change remains, as does the inherent power and potential that is within our species. Even in the dark winter streets of frozen, starving 1920's Petrograd, Yevgeny Zamyatin saw this and in "We", his Opus Magnus, he released the true spirit of revolution - one which may indeed be guided by the thoughts and writings of scientists and moral philosophers but ultimately is born in the soul, in the beating compassion and great love of the human heart.


"True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics" - Yevgeny Zamyatin

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Screw The Planet!

Here is a real time graph of every aircraft above North America at 22.17 GMT today, Tuesday 18 September 2012.

For more, including a real time map of every aircraft airborne anywhere on the planet, check out www.flightradar24.com

There are nearly 40 million commercial airflights every year - one study suggests the aviation industry is responsible for around 8% of global warming; and rising. Air fuel is the only fuel that is not taxed - because there is no international agreement to tax it, no individual government dares to introduce it in case it disadvantages their corporate donors from the aviation industry. Capitalism fails again...

Committed non-fliers have a facebook group at the No Miles High Club.


(Thanks to John Compost Cossham for drawing attention to this terrifyingly useful website.)

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Moviewatch and The Coming War On Iran

Israeli Options: possible strike routes to Iran by the Israeli Defence Force (graphic from Heartland Geopolitics)
The British Sunday Times today carried a low level report that in the recent Cabinet reshuffle, the Lib Dem Defence Minister, Nick Harvey, was dismissed to make it easier for his party leader, Nick "Cordite" Clegg, to give his blessing to an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear development facilities. Whatever the truth of Harvey's dismissal, the evidence is clear - the Israelis are continually heightening the chatter around their claims of having a right to attack Iran; only today, Israeli PM Netanyahu has stated that Iran is building a nuclear bomb and must be resisted, while President Obama has repeatedly indicated use of force to be an option. Meanwhile the American and British military are positioning themselves to counter any Iranian retaliation and in particular any use of the Iranian navy to blockade the narrow Straits of Homuz at the far end of the Persian Gulf, which would close off western access to key sources of Saudi and Kuwaiti oil. An attack is not far away.

In spite of Iran's repeated assurances that it is not developing nuclear weaponry (a claim largely supported by all the neutral assessments and evidence available), Israel is keen to strike - as are various Sunni dictatorships, such as Saudi and Bahrain, whose Governments (Wikileaks has shown us) have long petitioned for a western-backed assault on the Shia lands of Persian Iran. The period up to the US elections have long been seen as a prime time for an assault, with the narrative being that any US Presidential candidates, rather than opposing or criticising an attack, will instead vie with each other to show support for plucky little Tel Aviv. 

The current round of anti-western riots sweeping various Muslim countries  may well be used as a suspiciously useful pretext for the long-awaited attack. Unreported in the mainstream media is the growing view by many well-researched activists on the Net that the frankly bizarre video at the centre of the riots was not the production of the Egyptian-born con man, Nakoula Bassey, presented to the media. Rather it is the work of one Jimmy Israel, a film-maker  who goes under the pseudonym "Sam Bacile" and who originally cited Israeli backers as the funders of the film. And, in turn, the man who translated the film into Arabic, giving it the boost to reach a mainly Muslim audience, was Morris Sadek, who is closely aligned to the pro-Israeli neocons in the US Republican Party. Both Sadek has obvious interests in whipping up any situation that strengthens the hand of the pro-war argument on Iran; while Nakoula, nominally (and usefully) a Coptic Christian, is clearly motivated by money alone - as witness the previous work he has carried out for people with strong links to Islamic activists.

Predictably, the Western media dutifully parrots the line that Iran should not have nuclear weapons and that, because of President Ahmadinejad's reported hostility to Israel, any attack by the IDF's airplanes or missiles will be justified. If there was any truth to his alleged comments - that Ahmadinejad said, "Israel must be wiped off the map", it might be possible to have some sympathy for Israel; but the plain truth is that he has never uttered these words. What he did say was ”Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad.” This literally translates from Farsi to English as “The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” Neither the words "Israel", nor "map", nor "wiped from" feature - nor indeed was he making his own statement, but quoting from a much older speech by Ayatollah Khomeini. There is, consequently, a huge difference between opposing a specific regime, or government, and seeking to obliterate a country or race of people - and the comment in any case is specific to the illegal occupation of Jerusalem, not the existence of Israel or the Jewish people.

Yet while the Israeli Government and the western media repeatedly quote a quote that was never made, they completely ignore the pretty unambiguous statement by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in 2006 that: "We have no problem with the world. We are not a threat whatsoever to the world, and the world knows it. We will never start a war. We have no intention of going to war with any state.”

In any case, even setting aside Iran's insistence that it is developing nuclear energy for the time when its oil reserves diminish, if like the USA and the UK, you claim nuclear deterrence works, why on Earth would Iran not develop nuclear weapons? It is, after all, surrounded by nuclear weapon states - Pakistan and India, as well as US forces in Afghanistan, to its east; Russia to the north; to the south, American forces ranged across the Gulf states in support of Saudi and its allies; and, to the west, Israel, its 200 warheads making it one of the biggest nuclear weapons states on the planet.

Iran is surrounded by hostile nuclear weapons' states or forces.
It seems it is ok for these states, all of whom have launched aggressor wars in recent decades, to have nuclear weapons. Iran, by contrast, in spite of not actually having developed a nuclear weapon yet and having not invaded another country since 1826, is fair game for an attack. Ironic beyond all measure, Israeli generals have even been contemplating exploding a high altitude nuclear pulse weapon above Iran to "blast it back to the Stone Age". All with at least the tacit approval of the USA and its British allies (the Israeli military is 20% funded by the US taxpayer) - and even the British Lib Dem leader, whose party once prided itself on its opposition to the Iraq war, appears to be clearing the way to at least not be too opposed to the latest military adventure.

How in any deluded scenario an assault on Iran is going to make the world more peaceful, or help to reconcile the Muslim and Western worlds, only the insane neurons in the helmet-heads of the Israeli and US military can possibly explain. These, of course, are the same men (and nearly all of them are men) who gave us the lie of the Weapons of Mass Destruction justification for invading Iraq. Given the monstrous dissimulation perpetrated to launch that war, who is to say they and their associates would not happily create a new crisis such as the one we are currently witnessing to pave the way for a "necessary" bomb-run or missile strike on Iran?

These men, we are told, are the guardians and saviours of our civilisation and way of life. And in hours, days or at most a few weeks, they will unleash the means of that salvation on the people of Iran.

Only we can stop them: protest now; contact your representatives and MPs, get active. Thousands of Israeli citizens are taking action by petitioning Israeli pilots to refuse to take part in bombing Iran. Please join them by signing the anti-war petition from the American Peace Movement here!

Just like Iraq and Libya, the threatened military adventure is about assaulting dissenting states - it is not about democracy or peace, as witnessed by America's continued support for vicious regimes in Saudi and Bahrain. The American neocons who did so much damage and took so many lives in Iraq are the real movers behind this latest aggression. Don't let them away with it again!

Friday, 7 September 2012

In Praise of Windpower

2012 - the wettest summer in Britain in 30 years; droughts across America, the worst in 80 years, begin to push food prices up across the planet as crops fail - just as last year they did in the Russian grain belt; wild fires torch Spain, the worst in decades; floods engulf the Philippines and China, the worst in decades; while the entire Greenland ice-shelf thaws simultaneously for the first time in thousands of years, and Arctic ice melts at a rate which results in warming equivalent to a doubling of human-created carbon emissions.

Still think it's just a coincidence that global warming just happens to be taking place alongside humanity's continued release of record amounts of carbon gases into the atmosphere? Never heard of cause and effect?

The Earth's temperature is delicately balanced in a range that permits life to exist on its thin crust. Our planet lies in the so-called "Goldilocks zone" as astronomers call the narrow band out from a star where it is neither too hot, like Venus, nor too cold, like Jupiter, for life as we know it to exist. The Earth is particularly blessed by the development of our biosphere into a world with contrasting climates which enhance the overall temperate nature of our planet - keeping it just cool enough for plants to grow and people to flourish.

Key to this is the albedo effect - this is the rate at which the Earth reflects light (and heat) back from the Sun out into space. Without it, the planet would burn, as would anything on it. Albedo is strongest on white and other light surfaces, whereas on dark surfaces it is low to non-existent, causing heat and energy to be absorbed by the recipient material.

Traditionally, Arctic and Siberian ice sheets and snow have played a major role in reflecting heat back off the planet - while just 4% of sun light hitting an asphalt road is reflected back, with snow the rate is between 80% and 90% and ocean ice is around 70%. As global warming caused by human activities heats the planet and these ice sheets melt, the overall albedo of the Earth has started to decline, creating an upwards spiral. As dark water replaces white ice, even more heat is absorbed, leading to more extreme weather patterns such as more typhoons and storms. The feedback loop continues - as Siberian permafrost melts, methane gases twenty times more warming than carbon are released; more ice melts; albedo declines more, and more. Currently, the Albedo effect provides the Earth with an average temperature of around 15C. As ice cover reduces, this is rising, and if, in the extreme, all the ice and snow on the planet was to liquefy, this would rise to an average of 27C: far above the level at which most forms of current life, including humans, could survive.

We need to act urgently more than ever. We need to see a huge switch from carbon fuels to cleaner alternatives. Yet this week, the British Coalition Government has appointed an Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, who is both a sceptic of climate change altogether and keen to abolish any and all support to alternative forms of energy - "fracking" for poisonous shale gas and oil is his pet project. He is keen on green fields, it seems, as long as they are on rich people's estates and splattered with the blood of shot pheasants and , in his ideal world, the body parts of foxes torn apart by hounds. That, ultimately, his green and pleasant land is going to be parched and turned dry brown by rising global temperatures, seems of little concern to him. Like most Tories and capitalists, he can't focus much beyond next year's dividends sheets.

A poet, Derenz, has written on the beauty of wind power, one of several forms of alternative energy which is clean and limitless, and the bizarre hypocrisy of those who oppose them in the name of a nature in imminent peril from carbon emissions. This is the closing verse:

Wind-flowers,
towers, remain
unplanted as the planet
heats, while the booted
arrive in cars of steel,
to tramp hill to hill,
heel to heel,
across the shrinking peat.



Monday, 3 September 2012

Dreams of Apocalypse


Post-apocalypse London* 

Since time immemorial, humans have been asking the same key questions: who are we? Why are we here? And where are we going?

For millennia, religion was used to offer the response: whether we were created from, then absorbed and re-shaped and endlessly recreated anew from the matter of the Universe, as the Hellenic and Buddhist faiths proclaimed. Or alternatively we are shaped in the image or purpose of a Divine Creator, who set rules for us to follow and will in the End come to render Judgement, as the Abrahamic faiths believe.

The Big Bang Theory of scientific creation and evolution similarly holds to a beginning and end of sorts – though like the Hellenic and Buddhist schools, each end heralds a new cycle. A new beginning, whereas the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic themes see the End of Life and in turn of the Universe as points of departure to a different plain, to Heaven – or by some reckonings, to Hell.

Although both Jews and Muslims believe in an Ultimate Judgement by God on all humanity, it is the Christian Book of Revelations, purportedly written by the Evangelist John towards the end of the First Century, that most explicitly (though in many respects also in the most obscure fashion possible) sets out the End and the Judgement. The Four Horsemen - sometimes identified as War, Famine, Pestilence and Death - will be sent out near the End Times to proclaim the coming Judgement of Souls (notably a concept derived from the Egyptian God Anubis, who weighed the souls of the dead)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - harbingers of the Last Judgement
While many of all faiths have argued that humans are stewards of God’s Creation for the future, US fundamentalists, who comprise over 20% of the population, hold that, if the world is due to end anyway, it exists for our exploitation rather than needless conservation. 

Indeed, one such believer, James Wyatt, dreadfully appointed by President Reagan as US Interior Secretary in 1981, chillingly told a bewildered Congressional Committee that “When the very last tree is felled, then Jesus Christ shall return.He was, unbelievably, responsible for the environment policy of the most powerful nation on Earth – and the ruin of our planet was a divinely-ordained inevitability he was actually looking forward to. (He has in recent years denied meaning and, sometimes, even saying this - alternately claiming he was taken out of context. What is beyond doubt was his implying that environmentalists should be gunned down because of the "trouble" they cause.)

Yet he was (and is) far from alone: both US churches and, unsurprisingly, the internet are awash with fundamentalists eagerly awaiting the destruction of our world and the return of Christ. If through war and resource destruction they can help that day along, they will willingly do so. Apocalypse Soon website depicts global warming as the culmination of God's Plan, not the result of human greed and folly - there is nothing we can do to prevent it and, indeed, as seeking to do so runs counter to God's Will, those who argue for clean energy and resource conservation are in effect blasphemers. There an ironic consensus between the prophetic fatalism of some religious thinking and the believe of many secular progressives that if the planet continues on its current trajectory, the dreams of apocalypse revealed by Saint John all these centuries ago may well come true.

Science has shown us that there have been Mass Extinctions before on the Earth – five in all, and many now talk openly of a Sixth Extinction: this is opening up rapidly with the destruction of a record number of animal and plantspecies every year, a trend that is escalating almost daily. Sitting atop the thin membrane that is the Terran biosphere, human society is increasingly under pressure as our current economic system of unalloyed global capitalism fosters growing consumption and an obsession with short-term profits rather than any form of restraint or long-term planning. Taking its cue from the Abrahamic Genesis myth that sets Man’s Divinely-granted Dominion over Creation (including over women), Capitalism holds that anything and everything may be commodified and bought and sold as long as there is a demand for it and some degree of scarcity (i.e., it is not freely available to all – such as air, for now at any rate).

In consequence, the economic system blindly drives forward the prospect of oblivion: and while there may be elites who even now enjoy obscene levels of wealth, their control over the course of events is as illusory as ever. Whether the Bilderbeg Group actually means anything or not, nothing and no one is ultimately in control of capitalism. Our species is riding an increasingly ravenous tiger and no one is going to come riding to the rescue. There is no Free Market White Knight – because had such a mythical figure ever actually existed, he would have rented out his armour and sold the horse.

And it is this prospect of our world of today gone totally out of control that, more recently, has spawned an alternative cannon of literature, counter-posed to the stories of Revelations which culminate in the arrival of Divine Judgement. For over a century, science fiction writers have asked the three key questions over and over again, and some of the most compelling visions they have created have been in response to the third enquiry of where we are headed. Whilst tapping into both our natural curiosity about what could be, as well as our morbid mix of fear and fascination with what might go wrong, few of the greatest texts offer an optimistic vision.

Meal-time for Morlocks...
H.G Wells blazed a trail with his short novella, “The Time Machine”, which sees the protagonist hurled forward to a time when civilisation has collapsed and humanity is divided into two newly evolved branches - the cattle-like Eloi who are farmed and eaten by the ferocious, troglodyte Morlocks – each a response to a world gone awry. This  inspired Russian Yevgenny Zamyatin's 1921 novel "We", which projected the man-machine theories of the early 20th century nearly a thousand years forward to imagine a de-personalised totalitarian nightmare. This was to be evoked further in films like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and novels like Huxley's "Brave New World" and, of course, Orwell's "1984" - all of which projected then-current schools of thought about social and bio-engineering to extreme but logical conclusions. Zamyatin's efforts in particular attracted the wrath of the nascent Bolshevik regime as it began to clamp down on the torrent of free thought briefly unleashed by the collapse of Imperial Russia and propagated by the herculean efforts of Maxim Gorky.

In subsequent decades, writers conjured up many versions of how the world as we know it might end, each responding to some of the threats of the writers’ times: in the years following the war, with atomic deadlock between the West and the Soviet Bloc, both literature and cinema focused on the potential for nuclear holocaust.

Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” movie posits a world of extremes where the the justification of nuclear arsenals lead to a suitably Freudian Love of The Bomb. Obsession with nuclear weaponry, which led to many in the American military positing the concept of “limited” nuclear war (helpfully “confined” to Europe), was to be parodied at its most extreme a few years later in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”, where a mutant human community worship a planet-killing plutonium missile and sing hymns in its praise.

More meal-time...
Over-population was one of the first big environmental themes to be raised by the mass media in the 1960s, spawning films like “Soylent Green” depicting  a world of massive social injustice, authoritarian politics and the total devaluing of human beings. Less successfully, “Logan’s Run” depicted a future society which controlled over-population via a mythological re-birth which permitted the elaborate ritualised execution of everyone reaching their 30th birthday. In tandem, the threat from man-made viruses accidentally unleashing a species threatening plague provided the foil for films such as “The Omega Man” (later remade as “I Am Legend”) and books such as “Earth Abides”.
 (NB It should be noted here that the frequent appearance of arch-Republican and avowed capitalist Charlton Heston in several of these films was almost certainly contingent with the size of his cheques as opposed to any endorsement of the movies’ premises – indeed, Serling commented that Heston was so bigoted that his narrow worldview meant he just didn’t notice the range of progressive political messages in the first two Apes films, even when later on they were explained to him!)

Technology has also both fascinated and terrified humans since the first loom was invented: and again, science fiction has offered up dystopian visions of a future run by robots, whether the prophetic Thatcheresque android of “Metropolis” or the indistinguishable-from-human replicants of Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner”, which was based on Philip K Dick’s story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”  1970’sColossus: The Forbin Project” combined several themes – nuclear war, overwhelming technology and scientific hubris- to create a nightmare scenario of artificial intelligence deposing its human creators that was far more convincing than the later series of Terminator films, which again portrays profit-seeking companies developing robotic weaponry endowed with independent thought seeking to destroy humanity.

With many artificial life form programmes now underway and within striking distance of recreating human-levels of intelligence, and last month the Disney Corporation perfecting the ability to graft human-like faces onto robots “for entertainment purposes”, this theme remains as pertinent today as 80 years ago in Lang’s Berlin studios.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son
However, perhaps the bleakest tale of all is one of the most understated. Published in 2006 and made into a strikingly beautiful but harrowing film, “The Road”, by Cormac McCarthy, tells the story of a man and his son walking an endless road in a dead world, hopelessly seeking some solace among the debris. It is hauntingly written and evokes so powerfully the relationship between the father, who has known a world of abundance, and his boy, who has known nothing but grey skies, ash-covered landscapes, scavenging for the last few tins of food and hiding from the dangers of cannibalistic strangers. All the hopes and dreams a father might have for his child are gone – all he can do is try to keep his offspring alive, hoping against all logic that somehow they might find something to offer just the faintest chance of a future. The cause of the apocalypse is unstated, but the skin deep nature of civilisation is revealed as the survivors scramble to secure what resources remain. Appropriately, much of the film version was made in the deserted and devastated streets of post-flood New Orleans.

This is one scenario, a sudden collapse. Other novels tell of more gradual endings – “A Secret History of Time to Come”, by Robie Macauley, is set three or four centuries on from a race conflict that destroyed the USA and presaged global conflict and the collapse of society. In this tale, a wanderer, Kincaid, follows an old ESSO road map around the Great Lakes of the Mid-west, encountering remnants of the old societies – while most live in wooden huts and barter for goods, occasionally some half-remembered title or post comes up such as a “Shirrf” in charge of one community. But in this world, no one travels far and strangers are seen as a threat and so Kincaid frequently encounters hostility. Underpinning his Odyssey is a concept of embedded biological memory – he keeps seeing an image of something which drives him ever on towards a destination he does not understand. This haunting book, while not as desperate as “The Road”, nevertheless shows how the human society we cling to now has shallow roots and how, left untended through a combination of greed and complacency, can wither and die faster than we dare contemplate. All that remains are the empty shells of once great buildings and the overgrown highways traversed by the solitary figure of Kincaid on his journey to nowhere.

Perhaps, though, the most assertive rebuttal of humanity’s claim to Dominion over the planet and the other species on it is to be found in Paul Dehn and Rod Serling’s film adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s “Monkey Planet” – 1968’s “Planet of the Apes”. In this, two thousand years from now, humanity’s remnants have lost all power of speech and reason, roaming the Savannah in search of crops to sequester from the farmlands of the now dominant Simians. The Apes have an evidently deep hatred and fear of these seemingly docile if destructive creatures. Their conservative society is unable to come to terms with the true reasons for this antipathy, but in their religious writings and the repressive actions of their Government in the form of Minister Doctor Zaius, humanity’s destructive potential is clear: Beware the beast man, for he shall make a desert of his home and yours.”  A desert area known as the Forbidden Zone is described as having been a paradise, ruined by mankind. The facts are long lost, but the folk memory of the Simian culture that has emerged stretch far enough back to recall however vaguely the inherent folly of our degraded species.

It is perhaps the most apposite illustration of the potential outcome of our current complacency as we face both deep resource scarcities and environmental degradation of catastrophic proportions – too often, we are told by both greens and the media that we must “save the planet”. Yet the truth of the matter, which much apocalyptic science fiction tells us, is that it is not the planet that is in danger – it is us; it is humanity, as well as many of our companion species.

It is said that good science fiction tells you more about the world in which it is written than it has to say about any alternate realm. And in this respect, the nightmares of tomorrow, forged in the minds of the authors of the last century or so, are a far more powerful warning and road map than any of the fantastical and whimsical dreams of apocalypse conjured up by Saint John. And science fiction is decidedly not prophetic – as often as not, it is a warning, a call to arms against folly and injustice. Unlike the writings of Saint John, where our species is so damned it has no means of redemption or escape other than by Divine Fire, the visions of tomorrow created by contemporary writers draw both on our very human fascination of our potential destinies and on our potential for action.

By depicting the very worst of outcomes, whether the big bang of Strangelove, the subversion of our own creations in Bladerunner or the poisonous legacy of the Apes films, science fiction offers choices. On a range of threats to our species survival, it portrays the possible – but not the inevitable. Where are we going? is a question that we can answer for ourselves; it is not pre-ordained by a spiteful deity intent on revenge against his own creation – we have no right to absolve ourselves of the responsibility of the stewardship of our planet so easily. In all the scenarios painted above – nuclear holocaust, environmental destruction, artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation and so on, the protagonist is not God, or Nature, or aliens. It is us, people. And just as we are the threat, so we can be the solution. Our behaviour, our choice of economic system and the social norms we adopt, our exploitation of the natural habitat and our damaging of our biosphere – all of it is our choice, our Free Will.

Unfortunately, with born again Christians mobilised to powerful effect in the US elections, and increasingly making their political presence felt in other countries too, it is the chilling Visions of Divine Inevitability that are more likely to inform public policy in the near future. As the Believers rapturously eye up the final trees and sharpen their apocalyptic axes, we need more than ever the authors of alternative futures to sharpen their pens and help to save us from leaving behind the most dystopian of legacies.

We deserve better. 




*Post-apocalypse London picture - credit to Hellgate London pc game