Posts Tagged ‘Tom Engelhardt’
“Predictions are so difficult – especially when they concern the future.”
That witticism in the sub-title is not my invention, far from it, but, nonetheless, it seemed appropriate for today’s post. For today’s post is the republication of a recent essay that appeared over on TomDispatch. Tom Engelhardt, as with George Monbiot, gave me blanket permission to republish his essays some time ago and his latest essay, or rather the essay from TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, seemed worthy of being shared with the many dear readers of this place.
So with no further delay, let me offer you: Are Resource Wars Our Future? (NB: there were too many links to carry across in the essay so I have indicated each link by changing the text colour to red. If you skip across to the TomDispatch page, you can link through to the relevant item.)
Tomgram: Michael Klare, Are Resource Wars Our Future?
Posted by Michael Klare at 7:24am, November 3, 2015.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.
These days, all you have to do is look around if you want your hair to stand on end on the subject of our future on this planet. Here’s just a little relatively random list of recent news on climate-change-related happenings.
Mexico was recently hit by the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average global temperatures for September ran off the rails. (“This marks the fifth consecutive month a monthly high temperature record has been set and is the highest departure from average for any month among all 1,629 months in the record that began in January 1880.”) It was the seventh month of 2015 to be “record shattering” and the year itself looks as if it might cumulatively be the same. (By now, this story is considered so humdrum and expectable that it didn’t even make the front page of my hometown newspaper!) The cataclysmic civil war, terror war, and international conflict in Syria is being reclassified as the first climate-change war based on the staggering drought that preceded it. That, in fact, has been called “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” Turning to colder climes, ice in Antarctica is melting so unexpectedly quickly that, according to the latest research, the continent’s ice shelves might be heading for collapse by 2100, guaranteeing a future rise in sea levels of potentially staggering proportions. Meanwhile, last week you could go online and watch dramatic video evidence of the melting of Greenland — rivers of water raging across a dissolving ice shelf that, one of these decades, will raise sea levels by an estimated 20 feet globally. And oh yes, for those of you curious about the hotter regions, a new study indicates that heat waves in the Persian Gulf may be so fierce before or by the end of this century that, in some of parts of the oil heartlands of the planet, they might quite literally endanger human survival.
Need I go on? Need I mention why the upcoming climate change confab in Paris in a few weeks matters big time? Need I add that, whatever agreements may be reached there, they are essentially guaranteed not to be enough to bring global warming truly under control. And in that context, if you think that a Greater Middle East with five failed states in it since 2001 is already a nightmare, consider TomDispatch regular Michael Klare’s vision of a resource-war-torn planet in a “record-shattering” future of abysmal heat and climate tipping points. If you want to know what’s at stake for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, read this article. Tom
Why the Paris Climate Summit Will Be a Peace Conference Averting a World of Failed States and Resource Wars
By Michael T. Klare
At the end of November, delegations from nearly 200 countries will convene in Paris for what is billed as the most important climate meeting ever held. Officially known as the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP-21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the 1992 treaty that designated that phenomenon a threat to planetary health and human survival), the Paris summit will be focused on the adoption of measures that would limit global warming to less than catastrophic levels. If it fails, world temperatures in the coming decades are likely to exceed 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit), the maximum amount most scientists believe the Earth can endure without experiencing irreversible climate shocks, including soaring temperatures and a substantial rise in global sea levels.
A failure to cap carbon emissions guarantees another result as well, though one far less discussed. It will, in the long run, bring on not just climate shocks, but also worldwide instability, insurrection, and warfare. In this sense, COP-21 should be considered not just a climate summit but a peace conference — perhaps the most significant peace convocation in history.
To grasp why, consider the latest scientific findings on the likely impacts of global warming, especially the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). When first published, that report attracted worldwide media coverage for predicting that unchecked climate change will result in severe droughts, intense storms, oppressive heat waves, recurring crop failures, and coastal flooding, all leading to widespread death and deprivation. Recent events, including a punishing drought in California and crippling heat waves in Europe and Asia, have focused more attention on just such impacts. The IPCC report, however, suggested that global warming would have devastating impacts of a social and political nature as well, including economic decline, state collapse, civil strife, mass migrations, and sooner or later resource wars.
These predictions have received far less attention, and yet the possibility of such a future should be obvious enough since human institutions, like natural systems, are vulnerable to climate change. Economies are going to suffer when key commodities — crops, timber, fish, livestock — grow scarcer, are destroyed, or fail. Societies will begin to buckle under the strain of economic decline and massive refugee flows. Armed conflict may not be the most immediate consequence of these developments, the IPCC notes, but combine the effects of climate change with already existing poverty, hunger, resource scarcity, incompetent and corrupt governance, and ethnic, religious, or national resentments, and you’re likely to end up with bitter conflicts over access to food, water, land, and other necessities of life.
The Coming of Climate Civil Wars
Such wars would not arise in a vacuum. Already existing stresses and grievances would be heightened, enflamed undoubtedly by provocative acts and the exhortations of demagogic leaders. Think of the current outbreak of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, touched off by clashes over access to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (also known as the Noble Sanctuary) and the inflammatory rhetoric of assorted leaders. Combine economic and resource deprivation with such situations and you have a perfect recipe for war.
The necessities of life are already unevenly distributed across the planet. Often the divide between those with access to adequate supplies of vital resources and those lacking them coincides with long-term schisms along racial, ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines. The Israelis and Palestinians, for example, harbor deep-seated ethnic and religious hostilities but also experience vastly different possibilities when it comes to access to land and water. Add the stresses of climate change to such situations and you can naturally expect passions to boil over.
Climate change will degrade or destroy many natural systems, often already under stress, on which humans rely for their survival. Some areas that now support agriculture or animal husbandry may become uninhabitable or capable only of providing for greatly diminished populations. Under the pressure of rising temperatures and increasingly fierce droughts, the southern fringe of the Sahara desert, for example, is now being transformed from grasslands capable of sustaining nomadic herders into an empty wasteland, forcing local nomads off their ancestral lands. Many existing farmlands in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East will suffer a similar fate. Rivers that once supplied water year-round will run only sporadically or dry up altogether, again leaving populations with unpalatable choices.
As the IPCC report points out, enormous pressure will be put upon often weak state institutions to adjust to climate change and aid those in desperate need of emergency food, shelter, and other necessities. “Increased human insecurity,” the report says, “may coincide with a decline in the capacity of states to conduct effective adaptation efforts, thus creating the circumstances in which there is greater potential for violent conflict.”
A good example of this peril is provided by the outbreak of civil war in Syria and the subsequent collapse of that country in a welter of fighting and a wave of refugees of a sort that hasn’t been seen since World War II. Between 2006 and 2010, Syria experienced a devastating drought in which climate change is believed to have been a factor, turning nearly 60% of the country into desert. Crops failed and most of the country’s livestock perished, forcing millions of farmers into penury. Desperate and unable to live on their land any longer, they moved into Syria’s major cities in search of work, often facing extreme hardship as well as hostility from well-connected urban elites.
Had Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad responded with an emergency program of jobs and housing for those displaced, perhaps conflict could have been averted. Instead, he cut food and fuel subsidies, adding to the misery of the migrants and fanning the flames of revolt. In the view of several prominent scholars, “the rapidly growing urban peripheries of Syria, marked by illegal settlements, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, unemployment, and crime, were neglected by the Assad government and became the heart of the developing unrest.”
A similar picture has unfolded in the Sahel region of Africa, the southern fringe of the Sahara, where severe drought has combined with habitat decline and government neglect to provoke armed violence. The area has faced many such periods in the past, but now, thanks to climate change, there is less time between the droughts. “Instead of 10 years apart, they became five years apart, and now only a couple years apart,” observes Robert Piper, the United Nations regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel. “And that, in turn, is putting enormous stresses on what is already an incredibly fragile environment and a highly vulnerable population.”
In Mali, one of several nations straddling this region, the nomadic Tuaregs have been particularly hard hit, as the grasslands they rely on to feed their cattle are turning into desert. A Berber-speaking Muslim population, the Tuaregs have long faced hostility from the central government in Bamako, once controlled by the French and now by black Africans of Christian or animist faith. With their traditional livelihoods in peril and little assistance forthcoming from the capital, the Tuaregs revolted in January 2012, capturing half of Mali before being driven back into the Sahara by French and other foreign forces (with U.S. logistical and intelligence support).
Consider the events in Syria and Mali previews of what is likely to come later in this century on a far larger scale. As climate change intensifies, bringing not just desertification but rising sea levels in low-lying coastal areas and increasingly devastating heat waves in regions that are already hot, ever more parts of the planet will be rendered less habitable, pushing millions of people into desperate flight.
While the strongest and wealthiest governments, especially in more temperate regions, will be better able to cope with these stresses, expect to see the number of failed states grow dramatically, leading to violence and open warfare over what food, arable land, and shelter remains. In other words, imagine significant parts of the planet in the kind of state that Libya, Syria, and Yemen are in today. Some people will stay and fight to survive; others will migrate, almost assuredly encountering a far more violent version of the hostility we already see toward immigrants and refugees in the lands they head for. The result, inevitably, will be a global epidemic of resource civil wars and resource violence of every sort.
Most of these conflicts will be of an internal, civil character: clan against clan, tribe against tribe, sect against sect. On a climate-changed planet, however, don’t rule out struggles among nations for diminished vital resources — especially access to water. It’s already clear that climate change will reduce the supply of water in many tropical and subtropical regions, jeopardizing the continued pursuit of agriculture, the health and functioning of major cities, and possibly the very sinews of society.
The risk of “water wars” will arise when two or more countries depend on the same key water source — the Nile, the Jordan, the Euphrates, the Indus, the Mekong, or other trans-boundary river systems — and one or more of them seek to appropriate a disproportionate share of the ever-shrinking supply of its water. Attempts by countries to build dams and divert the water flow of such riverine systems have already provoked skirmishes and threats of war, as when Turkey and Syria erected dams on the Euphrates, constraining the downstream flow.
One system that has attracted particular concern in this regard is the Brahmaputra River, which originates in China (where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo) and passes through India and Bangladesh before emptying into the Indian Ocean. China has already erected one dam on the river and has plans for more, producing considerable unease in India, where the Brahmaputra’s water is vital for agriculture. But what has provoked the most alarm is a Chinese plan to channel water from that river to water-scarce areas in the northern part of that country.
The Chinese insist that no such action is imminent, but intensified warming and increased drought could, in the future, prompt such a move, jeopardizing India’s water supply and possibly provoking a conflict. “China’s construction of dams and the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters is not only expected to have repercussions for water flow, agriculture, ecology, and lives and livelihoods downstream,” Sudha Ramachandran writes in The Diplomat, “it could also become another contentious issue undermining Sino-Indian relations.”
Of course, even in a future of far greater water stresses, such situations are not guaranteed to provoke armed combat. Perhaps the states involved will figure out how to share whatever limited resources remain and seek alternative means of survival. Nonetheless, the temptation to employ force is bound to grow as supplies dwindle and millions of people face thirst and starvation. In such circumstances, the survival of the state itself will be at risk, inviting desperate measures.
Lowering the Temperature
There is much that undoubtedly could be done to reduce the risk of water wars, including the adoption of cooperative water-management schemes and the introduction of the wholesale use of drip irrigation and related processes that use water far more efficiently. However, the best way to avoid future climate-related strife is, of course, to reduce the pace of global warming. Every fraction of a degree less warming achieved in Paris and thereafter will mean that much less blood spilled in future climate-driven resource wars.
This is why the Paris climate summit should be viewed as a kind of preemptive peace conference, one that is taking place before the wars truly begin. If delegates to COP-21 succeed in sending us down a path that limits global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the risk of future violence will be diminished accordingly. Needless to say, even 2 degrees of warming guarantees substantial damage to vital natural systems, potentially severe resource scarcities, and attendant civil strife. As a result, a lower ceiling for temperature rise would be preferable and should be the goal of future conferences. Still, given the carbon emissions pouring into the atmosphere, even a 2-degree cap would be a significant accomplishment.
To achieve such an outcome, delegates will undoubtedly have to begin dealing with conflicts of the present moment as well, including those in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Ukraine, in order to collaborate in devising common, mutually binding climate measures. In this sense, too, the Paris summit will be a peace conference. For the first time, the nations of the world will have to step beyond national thinking and embrace a higher goal: the safety of the ecosphere and all its human inhabitants, no matter their national, ethnic, religious, racial, or linguistic identities. Nothing like this has ever been attempted, which means that it will be an exercise in peacemaking of the most essential sort — and, for once, before the wars truly begin.
Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2015 Michael T. Klare
Thank goodness I offer a change of scenery, so to speak, tomorrow.
Maybe an open debate is the most important aspect of this important topic – the one about national security.
In December 2002, it gained its name, became a project of The Nation Institute, and went online as “a regular antidote to the mainstream media.“
No bad thing as the ‘media’ is a vast machine and it’s long been difficult, nay impossible, to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps, better expressed as impossible to separate fact from agenda!
TD’s ‘About’ page goes on to add, and again my emphasis:
Tomdispatch is intended to introduce readers to voices and perspectives from elsewhere (even when the elsewhere is here). Its mission is to connect some of the global dots regularly left unconnected by the mainstream media and to offer a clearer sense of how this imperial globe of ours actually works.
Stay with that last thought, the one about having a clearer sense of how this imperial globe works, and I am assuming Tom Engelhardt has in mind the USA when he uses the word “imperial”, for both today and tomorrow. Why? Because in this particular instance I’m not sure that I have ended up with a clearer sense about how the security apparatus works across the USA and much of the rest of the ‘Western world’. I want to explore this very important topic over two days.
Back to TomDispatch.
On the 19th October, Tom published a joint essay, or TomGram as he calls it, with Laura Poitras about her film Citizenfour. This film is about Edward Snowden. The TomGram was called: Laura Poitras and Tom Engelhardt, The Snowden Reboot.
Here is the trailer to the film.
Next to the TomGram. But first a note about hyperlinks. There are many links in the TomGram, many of which offer great insight into the background to the essay. However, there are too many to carry across to my republication so, please, do go across to TomDispatch if you wish to pursue a link or two.
Finally, a thank you to both Tom and Laura for giving me permission to republish.
Tomgram: Laura Poitras and Tom Engelhardt, The Snowden Reboot
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Call me moved. I recently went to the premiere of Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s engrossing new film on Edward Snowden, at the New York Film Festival. The breaking news at film’s end: as speculation had it this summer, there is indeed at least one new, post-Snowden whistleblower who has come forward from somewhere inside the U.S. intelligence world with information about a watchlist (that includes Poitras) with “more than 1.2 million names” on it and on the American drone assassination program.
Here’s what moved me, however. My new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World, ends with a “Letter to an Unknown Whistleblower,” whose first lines are: “I don’t know who you are or what you do or how old you may be. I just know that you exist somewhere in our future as surely as does tomorrow or next year… And how exactly do I know this? Because despite our striking inability to predict the future, it’s a no-brainer that the national security state is already building you into its labyrinthine systems.” And now, of course, such a whistleblower is officially here and no matter how fiercely the government may set out after whistleblowers, there will be more. It’s unstoppable, in part thanks to figures like Poitras, who is the subject of today’s TomDispatch interview. Tom]
Edward Snowden and the Golden Age of Spying
A TomDispatch Interview With Laura Poitras
Here’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! stat from our new age of national security. How many Americans have security clearances? The answer: 5.1 million, a figure that reflects the explosive growth of the national security state in the post-9/11 era. Imagine the kind of system needed just to vet that many people for access to our secret world (to the tune of billions of dollars). We’re talking here about the total population of Norway and significantly more people than you can find in Costa Rica, Ireland, or New Zealand. And yet it’s only about 1.6% of the American population, while on ever more matters, the unvetted 98.4% of us are meant to be left in the dark.
For our own safety, of course. That goes without saying.
All of this offers a new definition of democracy in which we, the people, are to know only what the national security state cares to tell us. Under this system, ignorance is the necessary, legally enforced prerequisite for feeling protected. In this sense, it is telling that the only crime for which those inside the national security state can be held accountable in post-9/11 Washington is not potential perjury before Congress, or the destruction of evidence of a crime, or torture, or kidnapping, or assassination, or the deaths of prisoners in an extralegal prison system, but whistleblowing; that is, telling the American people something about what their government is actually doing. And that crime, and only that crime, has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law (and beyond) with a vigor unmatched in American history. To offer a single example, the only American to go to jail for the CIA’s Bush-era torture program was John Kiriakou, a CIA whistleblower who revealed the name of an agent involved in the program to a reporter.
In these years, as power drained from Congress, an increasingly imperial White House has launched various wars (redefined by its lawyers as anything but), as well as a global assassination campaign in which the White House has its own “kill list” and the president himself decides on global hits. Then, without regard for national sovereignty or the fact that someone is an American citizen (and upon the secret invocation of legal mumbo-jumbo), the drones are sent off to do the necessary killing.
And yet that doesn’t mean that we, the people, know nothing. Against increasing odds, there has been some fine reporting in the mainstream media by the likes of James Risen and Barton Gellman on the security state’s post-legal activities and above all, despite the Obama administration’s regular use of the World War I era Espionage Act, whistleblowers have stepped forward from within the government to offer us sometimes staggering amounts of information about the system that has been set up in our name but without our knowledge.
Among them, one young man, whose name is now known worldwide, stands out. In June of last year, thanks to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden, a contractor for the NSA and previously the CIA, stepped into our lives from a hotel room in Hong Kong. With a treasure trove of documents that are still being released, he changed the way just about all of us view our world. He has been charged under the Espionage Act. If indeed he was a “spy,” then the spying he did was for us, for the American people and for the world. What he revealed to a stunned planet was a global surveillance state whose reach and ambitions were unique, a system based on a single premise: that privacy was no more and that no one was, in theory (and to a remarkable extent in practice), unsurveillable.
Its builders imagined only one exemption: themselves. This was undoubtedly at least part of the reason why, when Snowden let us peek in on them, they reacted with such over-the-top venom. Whatever they felt at a policy level, it’s clear that they also felt violated, something that, as far as we can tell, left them with no empathy whatsoever for the rest of us. One thing that Snowden proved, however, was that the system they built was ready-made for blowback.
Sixteen months after his NSA documents began to be released by the Guardian and the Washington Post, I think it may be possible to speak of the Snowden Era. And now, a remarkable new film, Citizenfour, which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 10th and will open in select theaters nationwide on October 24th, offers us a window into just how it all happened. It is already being mentioned as a possible Oscar winner.
Director Laura Poitras, like reporter Glenn Greenwald, is now known almost as widely as Snowden himself, for helping facilitate his entry into the world. Her new film, the last in a trilogy she’s completed (the previous two being My Country, My Country on the Iraq War and The Oath on Guantanamo), takes you back to June 2013 and locks you in that Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden, Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, and Poitras herself for eight days that changed the world. It’s a riveting, surprisingly unclaustrophic, and unforgettable experience.
Before that moment, we were quite literally in the dark. After it, we have a better sense, at least, of the nature of the darkness that envelops us. Having seen her film in a packed house at the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Poitras in a tiny conference room at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City to discuss just how our world has changed and her part in it.
Tom Engelhardt: Could you start by laying out briefly what you think we’ve learned from Edward Snowden about how our world really works?
Laura Poitras: The most striking thing Snowden has revealed is the depth of what the NSA and the Five Eyes countries [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the U.S.] are doing, their hunger for all data, for total bulk dragnet surveillance where they try to collect all communications and do it all sorts of different ways. Their ethos is “collect it all.” I worked on a story with Jim Risen of the New York Times about a document — a four-year plan for signals intelligence — in which they describe the era as being “the golden age of signals intelligence.” For them, that’s what the Internet is: the basis for a golden age to spy on everyone.
This focus on bulk, dragnet, suspicionless surveillance of the planet is certainly what’s most staggering. There were many programs that did that. In addition, you have both the NSA and the GCHQ [British intelligence] doing things like targeting engineers at telecoms. There was an article published at The Intercept that cited an NSA document Snowden provided, part of which was titled “I Hunt Sysadmins” [systems administrators]. They try to find the custodians of information, the people who are the gateway to customer data, and target them. So there’s this passive collection of everything, and then things that they can’t get that way, they go after in other ways.
I think one of the most shocking things is how little our elected officials knew about what the NSA was doing. Congress is learning from the reporting and that’s staggering. Snowden and [former NSA employee] William Binney, who’s also in the film as a whistleblower from a different generation, are technical people who understand the dangers. We laypeople may have some understanding of these technologies, but they really grasp the dangers of how they can be used. One of the most frightening things, I think, is the capacity for retroactive searching, so you can go back in time and trace who someone is in contact with and where they’ve been. Certainly, when it comes to my profession as a journalist, that allows the government to trace what you’re reporting, who you’re talking to, and where you’ve been. So no matter whether or not I have a commitment to protect my sources, the government may still have information that might allow them to identify whom I’m talking to.
TE: To ask the same question another way, what would the world be like without Edward Snowden? After all, it seems to me that, in some sense, we are now in the Snowden era.
LP: I agree that Snowden has presented us with choices on how we want to move forward into the future. We’re at a crossroads and we still don’t quite know which path we’re going to take. Without Snowden, just about everyone would still be in the dark about the amount of information the government is collecting. I think that Snowden has changed consciousness about the dangers of surveillance. We see lawyers who take their phones out of meetings now. People are starting to understand that the devices we carry with us reveal our location, who we’re talking to, and all kinds of other information. So you have a genuine shift of consciousness post the Snowden revelations.
TE: There’s clearly been no evidence of a shift in governmental consciousness, though.
LP: Those who are experts in the fields of surveillance, privacy, and technology say that there need to be two tracks: a policy track and a technology track. The technology track is encryption. It works and if you want privacy, then you should use it. We’ve already seen shifts happening in some of the big companies — Google, Apple — that now understand how vulnerable their customer data is, and that if it’s vulnerable, then their business is, too, and so you see a beefing up of encryption technologies. At the same time, no programs have been dismantled at the governmental level, despite international pressure.
TE: In Citizenfour, we spend what must be an hour essentially locked in a room in a Hong Kong hotel with Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, and you, and it’s riveting. Snowden is almost preternaturally prepossessing and self-possessed. I think of a novelist whose dream character just walks into his or her head. It must have been like that with you and Snowden. But what if he’d been a graying guy with the same documents and far less intelligent things to say about them? In other words, how exactly did who he was make your movie and remake our world?
LP: Those are two questions. One is: What was my initial experience? The other: How do I think it impacted the movie? We’ve been editing it and showing it to small groups, and I had no doubt that he’s articulate and genuine on screen. But to see him in a full room [at the New York Film Festival premiere on the night of October 10th], I’m like, wow! He really commands the screen! And I experienced the film in a new way with a packed house.
TE: But how did you experience him the first time yourself? I mean you didn’t know who you were going to meet, right?
LP: So I was in correspondence with an anonymous source for about five months and in the process of developing a dialogue you build ideas, of course, about who that person might be. My idea was that he was in his late forties, early fifties. I figured he must be Internet generation because he was super tech-savvy, but I thought that, given the level of access and information he was able to discuss, he had to be older. And so my first experience was that I had to do a reboot of my expectations. Like fantastic, great, he’s young and charismatic and I was like wow, this is so disorienting, I have to reboot. In retrospect, I can see that it’s really powerful that somebody so smart, so young, and with so much to lose risked so much.
He was so at peace with the choice he had made and knowing that the consequences could mean the end of his life and that this was still the right decision. He believed in it, and whatever the consequences, he was willing to accept them. To meet somebody who has made those kinds of decisions is extraordinary. And to be able to document that and also how Glenn [Greenwald] stepped in and pushed for this reporting to happen in an aggressive way changed the narrative. Because Glenn and I come at it from an outsider’s perspective, the narrative unfolded in a way that nobody quite knew how to respond to. That’s why I think the government was initially on its heels. You know, it’s not everyday that a whistleblower is actually willing to be identified.
TE: My guess is that Snowden has given us the feeling that we now grasp the nature of the global surveillance state that is watching us, but I always think to myself, well, he was just one guy coming out of one of 17 interlocked intelligence outfits. Given the remarkable way your film ends — the punch line, you might say — with another source or sources coming forward from somewhere inside that world to reveal, among other things, information about the enormous watchlist that you yourself are on, I’m curious: What do you think is still to be known? I suspect that if whistleblowers were to emerge from the top five or six agencies, the CIA, the DIA, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and so on, with similar documentation to Snowden’s, we would simply be staggered by the system that’s been created in our name.
LP: I can’t speculate on what we don’t know, but I think you’re right in terms of the scale and scope of things and the need for that information to be made public. I mean, just consider the CIA and its effort to suppress the Senate’s review of its torture program. Take in the fact that we live in a country that a) legalized torture and b) where no one was ever held to account for it, and now the government’s internal look at what happened is being suppressed by the CIA. That’s a frightening landscape to be in.
In terms of sources coming forward, I really reject this idea of talking about one, two, three sources. There are many sources that have informed the reporting we’ve done and I think that Americans owe them a debt of gratitude for taking the risk they do. From a personal perspective, because I’m on a watchlist and went through years of trying to find out why, of having the government refuse to confirm or deny the very existence of such a list, it’s so meaningful to have its existence brought into the open so that the public knows there is a watchlist, and so that the courts can now address the legality of it. I mean, the person who revealed this has done a huge public service and I’m personally thankful.
TE: You’re referring to the unknown leaker who’s mentioned visually and elliptically at the end of your movie and who revealed that the major watchlist you’re on has more than 1.2 million names on it. In that context, what’s it like to travel as Laura Poitras today? How do you embody the new national security state?
LP: In 2012, I was ready to edit and I chose to leave the U.S. because I didn’t feel I could protect my source footage when I crossed the U.S. border. The decision was based on six years of being stopped and questioned every time I returned to the United States. And I just did the math and realized that the risks were too high to edit in the U.S., so I started working in Berlin in 2012. And then, in January 2013, I got the first email from Snowden.
TE: So you were protecting…
LP: …other footage. I had been filming with NSA whistleblower William Binney, with Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor Project, people who have also been targeted by the U.S., and I felt that this material I had was not safe. I was put on a watchlist in 2006. I was detained and questioned at the border returning to the U.S. probably around 40 times. If I counted domestic stops and every time I was stopped at European transit points, you’re probably getting closer to 80 to 100 times. It became a regular thing, being asked where I’d been and who I’d met with. I found myself caught up in a system you can’t ever seem to get out of, this Kafkaesque watchlist that the U.S. doesn’t even acknowledge.
TE: Were you stopped this time coming in?
LP: I was not. The detentions stopped in 2012 after a pretty extraordinary incident.
I was coming back in through Newark Airport and I was stopped. I took out my notebook because I always take notes on what time I’m stopped and who the agents are and stuff like that. This time, they threatened to handcuff me for taking notes. They said, “Put the pen down!” They claimed my pen could be a weapon and hurt someone.
“Put the pen down! The pen is dangerous!” And I’m like, you’re not… you’ve got to be crazy. Several people yelled at me every time I moved my pen down to take notes as if it were a knife. After that, I decided this has gotten crazy, I’d better do something and I called Glenn. He wrote a piece about my experiences. In response to his article, they actually backed off.
TE: Snowden has told us a lot about the global surveillance structure that’s been built. We know a lot less about what they are doing with all this information. I’m struck at how poorly they’ve been able to use such information in, for example, their war on terror. I mean, they always seem to be a step behind in the Middle East — not just behind events but behind what I think someone using purely open source information could tell them. This I find startling. What sense do you have of what they’re doing with the reams, the yottabytes, of data they’re pulling in?
LP: Snowden and many other people, including Bill Binney, have said that this mentality — of trying to suck up everything they can — has left them drowning in information and so they miss what would be considered more obvious leads. In the end, the system they’ve created doesn’t lead to what they describe as their goal, which is security, because they have too much information to process.
I don’t quite know how to fully understand it. I think about this a lot because I made a film about the Iraq War and one about Guantanamo. From my perspective, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. took a small, very radical group of terrorists and engaged in activities that have created two generations of anti-American sentiment motivated by things like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Instead of figuring out a way to respond to a small group of people, we’ve created generations of people who are really angry and hate us. And then I think, if the goal is security, how do these two things align, because there are more people who hate the United States right now, more people intent on doing us harm? So either the goal that they proclaim is not the goal or they’re just unable to come to terms with the fact that we’ve made huge mistakes in how we’ve responded.
TE: I’m struck by the fact that failure has, in its own way, been a launching pad for success. I mean, the building of an unparallelled intelligence apparatus and the greatest explosion of intelligence gathering in history came out of the 9/11 failure. Nobody was held accountable, nobody was punished, nobody was demoted or anything, and every similar failure, including the one on the White House lawn recently, simply leads to the bolstering of the system.
LP: So how do you understand that?
TE: I don’t think that these are people who are thinking: we need to fail to succeed. I’m not conspiratorial in that way, but I do think that, strangely, failure has built the system and I find that odd. More than that I don’t know.
LP: I don’t disagree. The fact that the CIA knew that two of the 9/11 hijackers were entering the United States and didn’t notify the FBI and that nobody lost their job is shocking. Instead, we occupied Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. I mean, how did those choices get made?
Laura Poitras is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, and artist. She has just finished Citizenfour, the third in a trilogy of films about post-9/11 America that includes My Country, My Country, nominated for an Academy Award, and The Oath, which received two Emmy nominations. In June 2013, she traveled to Hong Kong with Glenn Greenwald to interview Edward Snowden and made history. She has reported on Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA for a variety of news outlets, including the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times. Her NSA reporting received a George Polk award for National Security Reporting and the Henri Nannen Prize for Services to Press Freedom.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.
Copyright 2014 Laura Poitras and Tom Engelhardt.
On first reading the TomGram I found myself nodding vigorously, metaphorically speaking, with the whole thrust of the essay.
Then what appeared to be small uncertainties started appearing in my mind.
Those will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”
Thus spoke Thomas Jefferson who died nearly 200 years ago (April 13th, 1743 – July 4th, 1826).
But some essays that have passed my eyes in the last few days have profoundly disturbed me. Because they illustrate, well to me anyway, the parlous state of wisdom in today’s world. Or better put, the parlous state of truth and integrity in today’s world.
The first essay was the latest one from Tom Engelhardt over at TomDispatch. Normally I republish TomDispatch essays in full, with permission I hasten to add, because they seem such a fine commentary of where we are as a ‘modern’ society. I used the word ‘we’ in the context of a global ‘we’.
But the latest essay was so disheartening that I couldn’t bring myself to republish it in full. Plus, if I am to be brutally honest (in line with the theme of today’s blog post!) I didn’t want to ‘make waves’ as a non-US citizen albeit a valid US resident (Green Card holder). I want to live freely and openly in the USA for the rest of my natural days!
Then in the last twenty-four hours up popped the latest essay from George Monbiot and I was struck by the harmony, the terrible harmony, between Tom and George.
See if you agree with me.
Tom Engelhardt published on Tuesday a TomGram about American Intelligence. It was called Failure Is Success – How American Intelligence Works in the Twenty-First Century.
Here’s a flavour of Tom’s essay.
What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters. You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities. Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it. Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of “spycraft” gains its own name: LOVEINT.
You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet. You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order. You break into the “backdoors” of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts. You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies). Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt. Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.
Then a few paragraphs later, Tom holds up his mirror:
Whatever the case, while taxpayer dollars flowed into your coffers, no one considered it a problem that the country lacked 17 overlapping outfits bent on preventing approximately 400,000 deaths by firearms in the same years; nor 17 interlocked agencies dedicated to safety on our roads, where more than 450,000 Americans have died since 9/11. (An American, it has been calculated, is 1,904 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack.) Almost all the money and effort have instead been focused on the microscopic number of terrorist plots — some spurred on by FBI plants — that have occurred on American soil in that period. On the conviction that Americans must be shielded from them above all else and on the fear that 9/11 bred in this country, you’ve built an intelligence structure unlike any other on the planet when it comes to size, reach, and labyrinthine complexity.
It’s quite an achievement, especially when you consider its one downside: it has a terrible record of getting anything right in a timely way. Never have so many had access to so much information about our world and yet been so unprepared for whatever happens in it.
Tough words indeed!
But it gets worse.
Let’s focus for a moment, however, on a case where more is known. I’m thinking of the development that only recently riveted the Obama administration and sent it tumbling into America’s third Iraq war, causing literal hysteria in Washington. Since June, the most successful terror group in history has emerged full blown in Syria and Iraq, amid a surge in jihadi recruitment across the Greater Middle East and Africa. The Islamic State (IS), an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which sprang to life during the U.S. occupation of that country, has set up a mini-state, a “caliphate,” in the heart of the Middle East. Part of the territory it captured was, of course, in the very country the U.S. garrisoned and occupied for eight years, in which it had assumedly developed countless sources of information and recruited agents of all sorts. And yet, by all accounts, when IS’s militants suddenly swept across northern Iraq, the CIA in particular found itself high and dry.
The IC seems not to have predicted the group’s rapid growth or spread; nor, though there was at least some prior knowledge of the decline of the Iraqi army, did anyone imagine that such an American created, trained, and armed force would so summarily collapse. Unforeseen was the way its officers would desert their troops who would, in turn, shed their uniforms and flee Iraq’s major northern cities, abandoning all their American equipment to Islamic State militants.
Nor could the intelligence community even settle on a basic figure for how many of those militants there were. In fact, in part because IS assiduously uses couriers for its messaging instead of cell phones and emails, until a chance arrest of a key militant in June, the CIA and the rest of the IC evidently knew next to nothing about the group or its leadership, had no serious assessment of its strength and goals, nor any expectation that it would sweep through and take most of Sunni Iraq. And that should be passing strange. After all, it now turns out that much of the future leadership of IS had spent time together in the U.S. military’s Camp Bucca prison just years earlier.
All you have to do is follow the surprised comments of various top administration officials, including the president, as ISIS made its mark and declared its caliphate, to grasp just how ill-prepared 17 agencies and $68 billion can leave you when your world turns upside down.
Leaving Tom to offer the following sorry conclusions:
Clearly, having a labyrinth of 17 overlapping, paramilitarized, deeply secretive agencies doing versions of the same thing is the definition of counterproductive madness. Not surprisingly, the one thing the U.S. intelligence community has resembled in these years is the U.S. military, which since 9/11 has failed to win a war or accomplish more or less anything it set out to do.
On the other hand, all of the above assumes that the purpose of the IC is primarily to produce successful “intelligence” that leaves the White House a step ahead of the rest of the world. What if, however, it’s actually a system organized on the basis of failure? What if any work-product disaster is for the IC another kind of win.
Perhaps it’s worth thinking of those overlapping agencies as a fiendishly clever Rube Goldberg-style machine organized around the principle that failure is the greatest success of all. After all, in the system as it presently exists, every failure of intelligence is just another indication that more security, more secrecy, more surveillance, more spies, more drones are needed; only when you fail, that is, do you get more money for further expansion.
Keep in mind that the twenty-first-century version of intelligence began amid a catastrophic failure: much crucial information about the 9/11 hijackers and hijackings was ignored or simply lost in the labyrinth. That failure, of course, led to one of the great intelligence expansions, or even explosions, in history. (And mind you, no figure in authority in the national security world was axed, demoted, or penalized in any way for 9/11 and a number of them were later given awards and promoted.) However they may fail, when it comes to their budgets, their power, their reach, their secrecy, their careers, and their staying power, they have succeeded impressively.
You could, of course, say that the world is simply a hard place to know and the future, with its eternal surprises, is one territory that no country, no military, no set of intelligence agencies can occupy, no matter how much they invest in doing so. An inability to predict the lay of tomorrow’s land may, in a way, be par for the course. If so, however, remind me: Why exactly are we supporting 17 versions of intelligence gathering to the tune of at least $68 billion a year?
So over to George Monbiot. Yesterday, he published an essay in the UK’s Guardian newspaper entitled: Bomb Everyone. I am going to republish this in full, with the kind permission of George.
Humanitarian arguments, if consistently applied, could be used to flatten the entire Middle East
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 1st October 2014
Let’s bomb the Muslim world – all of it – to save the lives of its people. Surely this is the only consistent moral course? Why stop at blowing up Islamic State, when the Syrian government has murdered and tortured so many? This, after all, was last year’s moral imperative. What’s changed?
How about blasting the Shia militias in Iraq? One of them selected 40 people from the streets of Baghdad in June and murdered them for being Sunnis(1). Another massacred 68 people at a mosque in August(2). They now talk openly of “cleansing” and “erasure”(3), once Islamic State has been defeated. As a senior Shia politician warns, “we are in the process of creating Shia al-Qaida radical groups equal in their radicalisation to the Sunni Qaida.”(4)
What humanitarian principle instructs you to stop there? In Gaza this year, 2,100 Palestinians were massacred: including people taking shelter in schools and hospitals. Surely these atrocities demand an air war against Israel? And what’s the moral basis for refusing to liquidate Iran? Mohsen Amir-Aslani was hanged there last week for making “innovations in the religion” (suggesting that the story of Jonah in the Qu’ran was symbolic rather than literal)(5). Surely that should inspire humanitarian action from above? Pakistan is crying out for friendly bombs: an elderly British man, Mohammed Asghar, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, is, like other blasphemers, awaiting execution there after claiming to be a holy prophet(6). One of his prison guards has already shot him in the back.
Is there not an urgent duty to blow up Saudi Arabia? It has beheaded 59 people so far this year, for offences that include adultery, sorcery and witchcraft(7). It has long presented a far greater threat to the west than Isis now poses. In 2009 Hillary Clinton warned in a secret memo that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban … and other terrorist groups.”(8) In July, the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, revealed that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, until recently the head of Saudi intelligence, told him: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”(9) Saudi support for extreme Sunni militias in Syria during Bandar’s tenure is widely blamed for the rapid rise of Isis(10,11). Why take out the subsidiary and spare the headquarters?
The humanitarian arguments aired in parliament last week(12), if consistently applied, could be used to flatten the entire Middle East and West Asia. By this means you could end all human suffering, liberating the people of these regions from the vale of tears in which they live.
Perhaps this is the plan: Barack Obama has now bombed seven largely-Muslim countries(13), in each case citing a moral imperative. The result, as you can see in Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan,Yemen, Somalia and Syria, has been the eradication of jihadi groups, of conflict, chaos, murder, oppression and torture. Evil has been driven from the face of the earth by the destroying angels of the west.
Now we have a new target, and a new reason to dispense mercy from the sky, with similar prospects of success. Yes, the agenda and practices of Isis are disgusting. It murders and tortures, terrorises and threatens. As Obama says, it is a “network of death”(14). But it’s one of many networks of death. Worse still, a western crusade appears to be exactly what it wants(15).
Already Obama’s bombings have brought Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, a rival militia affiliated to Al Qaeda, together(16). More than 6,000 fighters have joined Isis since the bombardment began(17). They dangled the heads of their victims in front of the cameras as bait for war planes. And our governments were stupid enough to take it.
And if the bombing succeeds? If – and it’s a big if – it manages to tilt the balance against Isis, what then? Then we’ll start hearing once more about Shia death squads and the moral imperative to destroy them too – and any civilians who happen to get in the way. The targets change; the policy doesn’t. Never mind the question, the answer is bombs. In the name of peace and the preservation of life, our governments wage perpetual war.
While the bombs fall, our states befriend and defend other networks of death. The US government still refuses – despite Obama’s promise – to release the 28 redacted pages from the Joint Congressional Inquiry into 9/11, which document Saudi Arabian complicity in the attack on America(18). In the UK, in 2004 the Serious Fraud Office began investigating allegations of massive bribes paid by the British weapons company BAE to Saudi ministers and middlemen. Just as the crucial evidence was about to be released, Tony Blair intervened to stop the investigation(19). The biggest alleged beneficiary was Prince Bandar, mentioned above. The Serious Fraud Office was investigating a claim that, with the approval of the British government, he received £1bn in secret payments from BAE(20).
And still it goes on. Last week’s Private Eye, drawing on a dossier of recordings and emails, alleges that a British company has paid £300m in bribes to facilitate weapons sales to the Saudi National Guard(21). When a whistleblower in the company reported these payments to the British ministry of defence, instead of taking action it alerted his bosses. He had to flee the country to avoid being thrown into a Saudi jail. Smirking, lying, two-faced bastards – this scarcely begins to touch it.
There are no good solutions that military intervention by the UK or the US can engineer. There are political solutions in which our governments could play a minor role: supporting the development of effective states that don’t rely on murder and militias, building civic institutions that don’t depend on terror, helping to create safe passage and aid for people at risk. Oh, and ceasing to protect and sponsor and arm selected networks of death. Whenever our armed forces have bombed or invaded Muslims nations, they have made life worse for those who live there. The regions in which our governments have intervened most are those which suffer most from terrorism and war. That is neither coincidental nor surprising.
Yet our politicians affect to learn nothing. Insisting that more killing will magically resolve deep-rooted conflicts, they scatter bombs like fairy dust.
21. Richard Brooks and Andrew Bousfield, 19th September 2014. Shady Arabia and the Desert Fix. Private Eye.
Two journalists reporting from two very different countries separated by thousands of miles.
Yet together they illustrate the very low regard for truth, for truth and integrity I should add, held by two major western Governments. That old saying of never underestimate the power of unintended consequences is hammering inside my head.
What very strange times we live in just now.
The sooner the concepts of truth and integrity are adopted by those with the power, money and influence, the sooner this world will turn away from what looks eminently like future self-destruction.
Let’s turn to dogs for some examples of beautiful ways of living.
A personal viewpoint after reading Tom’s essay Is Climate Change a Crime Against Humanity?
Last Thursday, July 3rd, I republished a post, what Tom calls a Tomgram, from TomDispatch comparing the USA’s attitude to the very small risk of a country exploding a weapon of mass destruction, WMD, over American soil to the 95% risk of the USA being harmed from the effects of climate change. Here’s an extract from the central part of Tom’s essay:
So here’s a question I’d like any of you living in or visiting Wyoming to ask the former vice president, should you run into him in a state that’s notoriously thin on population: How would he feel about acting preventively, if instead of a 1% chance that some country with weapons of mass destruction might use them against us, there was at least a 95% — and likely as not a 100% — chance of them being set off on our soil? Let’s be conservative, since the question is being posed to a well-known neoconservative. Ask him whether he would be in favor of pursuing the 95% doctrine the way he was the 1% version.
After all, thanks to a grim report in 2013 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we know that there is now a 95% -100% likelihood that “human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming [of the planet] since the mid-20th century.” We know as well that the warming of the planet — thanks to the fossil fuel system we live by and the greenhouse gases it deposits in the atmosphere — is already doing real damage to our world and specifically to the United States, as a recent scientific report released by the White House made clear. We also know, with grimly reasonable certainty, what kinds of damage those 95% -100% odds are likely to translate into in the decades, and even centuries, to come if nothing changes radically: a temperature rise by century’s end that could exceed 10 degrees Fahrenheit, cascading species extinctions, staggeringly severe droughts across larger parts of the planet (as in the present long-term drought in the American West and Southwest), far more severe rainfall across other areas, more intense storms causing far greater damage, devastating heat waves on a scale no one in human history has ever experienced, masses of refugees, rising global food prices, and among other catastrophes on the human agenda, rising sea levels that will drown coastal areas of the planet.
Tom’s essays had many great links to background research papers and other supporting material. The penultimate link was embedded (my italics) in this sentence: “In the case of a major exchange of such weapons, we would be talking about “the sixth extinction” of planetary history.” That linked to the Amazon page describing the book, released earlier this year, of the same name written by Elizabeth Kolbert, as follows:
A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes
Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.
Here’s an interview of Elizabeth Kolbert taken from the Democracy Now programme. It’s a tad under 20 minutes so easy to put aside a little of your time to watch it.
Published on Feb 11, 2014
February 2014 on Democracy Now!
In the history of the planet, there have been five known mass extinction events. The last came 65 million years ago, when an asteroid about half the size of Manhattan collided with the Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and bringing the Cretaceous period to an end. Scientists say we are now experiencing the sixth extinction, with up to 50 percent of all living species in danger of disappearing by the end of the century. But unlike previous extinctions, the direct cause this time is us — human-driven climate change. In “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” journalist Elizabeth Kolbert visits four continents to document the massive “die-offs” that came millions of years ago and those now unfolding before our eyes. Kolbert explores how human activity — fossil fuel consumption, ocean acidification, pollution, deforestation, forced migration — threatens life forms of all kinds. “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion,” Kolbert writes. “The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, is well known for her reporting on global warming as a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, which led her to investigate climate species extinction. Her new book is The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. In 2006, she wrote Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.
Make no mistake, that short video interview doesn’t pull any punches. Just as Kolbert’s book. It is very tempting to want to hide, to close one’s ears and eyes and pretend it’s all a bad dream and, soon, we will awaken to a bright, new dawn.
(Now for something really lovely! It’s 1:40pm on Sunday, 6th)
I took a quick break to think about my next sentence. I was looking for some words that would encourage us all to do something! Because as John Hurlburt recently wrote: “Failure to act condemns us to death as a species of fools.”
In that short break I saw that someone else had signed up to follow Learning from Dogs. That person describes herself as Elsie Bowen-Dodoo. Her blog is called BowenDiaries. On her About page, Elsie writes:
Elsie Bowen-Dodoo. Living life with a purpose. Persevering to inspire all races.
I write to inspire people hoping that they reading my articles and stuff will be touched to do something positive in their lives.
We really can all make this world a better place to live in.
Talent should not be wasted.
This is the picture on Elsie’s home page.
So here’s my take on where we, as in all mankind, are at.
- We have to turn our backs on growth, greed and materialism.
- Each of us must place caring for our planet our highest priority in life.
- Each of us must be alive to making a positive difference.
- Being true to what we know is right will set us free.
- This will also create ripples of positive energy that will set others free.
- That is the only sustainable way to go.
Let me close by returning to dogs. After all this blog is called Learning from Dogs! By recognising, of course, that these are challenging times. As we are incessantly reminded by the drumbeat of the doom-and-gloom news industry every hour, frequently every half-hour, throughout the day. A symphony of negative energy.
Yet right next to us is a world of positive energy. The world of dogs. A canine world full of love and trust, playfulness and relaxation. A way of living that is both clear and straightforward; albeit far from being simple. As anyone will know who has seen the way dogs interact with each other and with us humans.
In other words, dogs offer endless examples of positive behaviours. The wonderful power of compassion for self, and others, and of loving joy. The way to live that we humans crave for. A life full of hope and positive energy that keeps the power of negativity at bay.
That is the only way forward!
A powerful essay by Tom Engelhardt from his blogsite TomDispatch.
Regular readers of Learning from Dogs know that essays from TomDispatch often find their way onto these pages. They are republished with the generous permission of Tom and I endeavour to select those essays that shine a new light on a current issue. No less so than with today’s essay, first published over on TomDispatch on May 22nd, 2014.
Just a note before you start reading Tom’s very important essay. That there are many links to papers, articles and other references throughout the essay. (I know, they took me a couple of hours to set up!) Could I recommend strongly that you ‘click’ on each link and make a note of the references you wish to read at a later time. I shall be referring to some of them next week when I comment more generally on this fabulous essay.
Tomgram: Engelhardt, Is Climate Change a Crime Against Humanity?
The 95% Doctrine
Climate Change as a Weapon of Mass Destruction
Who could forget? At the time, in the fall of 2002, there was such a drumbeat of “information” from top figures in the Bush administration about the secret Iraqi program to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and so endanger the United States. And who — other than a few suckers — could have doubted that Saddam Hussein was eventually going to get a nuclear weapon? The only question, as our vice president suggested on “Meet the Press,” was: Would it take one year or five? And he wasn’t alone in his fears, since there was plenty of proof of what was going on. For starters, there were those “specially designed aluminum tubes” that the Iraqi autocrat had ordered as components for centrifuges to enrich uranium in his thriving nuclear weapons program. Reporters Judith Miller and Michael Gordon hit the front page of the New York Times with that story on September 8, 2002.
Then there were those “mushroom clouds” that Condoleezza Rice, our national security advisor, was so publicly worried about — the ones destined to rise over American cities if we didn’t do something to stop Saddam. As she fretted in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer on that same September 8th, “[W]e don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” No, indeed, and nor, it turned out, did Congress!
And just in case you weren’t anxious enough about the looming Iraqi threat, there were those unmanned aerial vehicles — Saddam’s drones! — that could be armed with chemical or biological WMD from his arsenal and flown over America’s East Coast cities with unimaginable results. President George W. Bush went on TV to talk about them and congressional votes were changed in favor of war thanks to hair-raising secret administration briefings about them on Capitol Hill.
In the end, it turned out that Saddam had no weapons program, no nuclear bomb in the offing, no centrifuges for those aluminum pipes, no biological or chemical weapons caches, and no drone aircraft to deliver his nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (nor any ships capable of putting those nonexistent robotic planes in the vicinity of the U.S. coast). But what if he had? Who wanted to take that chance? Not Vice President Dick Cheney, certainly. Inside the Bush administration he propounded something that journalist Ron Suskind later dubbed the “one percent doctrine.” Its essence was this: if there was even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, it must be dealt with as if it were a 95%-100% certainty.
Here’s the curious thing: if you look back on America’s apocalyptic fears of destruction during the first 14 years of this century, they largely involved three city-busting weapons that were fantasies of Washington’s fertile imperial imagination. There was that “bomb” of Saddam’s, which provided part of the pretext for a much-desired invasion of Iraq. There was the “bomb” of the mullahs, the Iranian fundamentalist regime that we’ve just loved to hate ever since they repaid us, in 1979, for the CIA’s overthrow of an elected government in 1953 and the installation of the Shah by taking the staff of the U.S. embassy in Tehran hostage. If you believed the news from Washington and Tel Aviv, the Iranians, too, were perilously close to producing a nuclear weapon or at least repeatedly on the verge of the verge of doing so. The production of that “Iranian bomb” has, for years, been a focus of American policy in the Middle East, the “brink” beyond which war has endlessly loomed. And yet there was and is no Iranian bomb, nor evidence that the Iranians were or are on the verge of producing one.
Finally, of course, there was al-Qaeda’s bomb, the “dirty bomb” that organization might somehow assemble, transport to the U.S., and set off in an American city, or the “loose nuke,” maybe from the Pakistani arsenal, with which it might do the same. This is the third fantasy bomb that has riveted American attention in these last years, even though there is less evidence for or likelihood of its imminent existence than of the Iraqi and Iranian ones.
To sum up, the strange thing about end-of-the-world-as-we’ve-known-it scenarios from Washington, post-9/11, is this: with a single exception, they involved only non-existent weapons of mass destruction. A fourth weapon — one that existed but played a more modest role in Washington’s fantasies — was North Korea’s perfectly real bomb, which in these years the North Koreans were incapable of delivering to American shores.
The “Good News” About Climate Change
In a world in which nuclear weapons remain a crucial coin of the realm when it comes to global power, none of these examples could quite be classified as 0% dangers. Saddam had once had a nuclear program, just not in 2002-2003, and also chemical weapons, which he used against Iranian troops in his 1980s war with their country (with the help of targeting information from the U.S. military) and against his own Kurdish population. The Iranians might (or might not) have been preparing their nuclear program for a possible weapons breakout capability, and al-Qaeda certainly would not have rejected a loose nuke, if one were available (though that organization’s ability to use it would still have been questionable).
In the meantime, the giant arsenals of WMD in existence, the American, Russian, Chinese, Israeli, Pakistani, and Indian ones that might actually have left a crippled or devastated planet behind, remained largely off the American radar screen. In the case of the Indian arsenal, the Bush administration actually lent an indirect hand to its expansion. So it was twenty-first-century typical when President Obama, trying to put Russia’s recent actions in the Ukraine in perspective, said, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”
Once again, an American president was focused on a bomb that would raise a mushroom cloud over Manhattan. And which bomb, exactly, was that, Mr. President?
Of course, there was a weapon of mass destruction that could indeed do staggering damage to or someday simply drown New York City, Washington D.C., Miami, and other East coast cities. It had its own efficient delivery systems — no nonexistent drones or Islamic fanatics needed. And unlike the Iraqi, Iranian, or al-Qaeda bombs, it was guaranteed to be delivered to our shores unless preventive action was taken soon. No one needed to hunt for its secret facilities. It was a weapons system whose production plants sat in full view right here in the United States, as well as in Europe, China, and India, as well as in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and other energy states.
So here’s a question I’d like any of you living in or visiting Wyoming to ask the former vice president, should you run into him in a state that’s notoriously thin on population: How would he feel about acting preventively, if instead of a 1% chance that some country with weapons of mass destruction might use them against us, there was at least a 95% — and likely as not a 100% — chance of them being set off on our soil? Let’s be conservative, since the question is being posed to a well-known neoconservative. Ask him whether he would be in favor of pursuing the 95% doctrine the way he was the 1% version.
After all, thanks to a grim report in 2013 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we know that there is now a 95%-100% likelihood that “human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming [of the planet] since the mid-20th century.” We know as well that the warming of the planet — thanks to the fossil fuel system we live by and the greenhouse gases it deposits in the atmosphere — is already doing real damage to our world and specifically to the United States, as a recent scientific report released by the White House made clear. We also know, with grimly reasonable certainty, what kinds of damage those 95%-100% odds are likely to translate into in the decades, and even centuries, to come if nothing changes radically: a temperature rise by century’s end that could exceed 10 degrees Fahrenheit, cascading species extinctions, staggeringly severe droughts across larger parts of the planet (as in the present long-term drought in the American West and Southwest), far more severe rainfall across other areas, more intense storms causing far greater damage, devastating heat waves on a scale no one in human history has ever experienced, masses of refugees, rising global food prices, and among other catastrophes on the human agenda, rising sea levels that will drown coastal areas of the planet.
From two scientific studies just released, for example, comes the news that the West Antarctic ice sheet, one of the great ice accumulations on the planet, has now begun a process of melting and collapse that could, centuries from now, raise world sea levels by a nightmarish 10 to 13 feet. That mass of ice is, according to the lead authors of one of the studies, already in “irreversible retreat,” which means — no matter what acts are taken from now on — a future death sentence for some of the world’s great cities. (And that’s without even the melting of the Greenland ice shield, not to speak of the rest of the ice in Antarctica.)
All of this, of course, will happen mainly because we humans continue to burn fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate and so annually deposit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at record levels. In other words, we’re talking about weapons of mass destruction of a new kind. While some of their effects are already in play, the planetary destruction that nuclear weapons could cause almost instantaneously, or at least (given “nuclear winter” scenarios) within months, will, with climate change, take decades, if not centuries, to deliver its full, devastating planetary impact.
When we speak of WMD, we usually think of weapons — nuclear, biological, or chemical — that are delivered in a measurable moment in time. Consider climate change, then, a WMD on a particularly long fuse, already lit and there for any of us to see. Unlike the feared Iranian bomb or the Pakistani arsenal, you don’t need the CIA or the NSA to ferret such “weaponry” out. From oil wells to fracking structures, deep sea drilling rigs to platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the machinery that produces this kind of WMD and ensures that it is continuously delivered to its planetary targets is in plain sight. Powerful as it may be, destructive as it will be, those who control it have faith that, being so long developing, it can remain in the open without panicking populations or calling any kind of destruction down on them.
The companies and energy states that produce such WMD remain remarkably open about what they’re doing. Generally speaking, they don’t hesitate to make public, or even boast about, their plans for the wholesale destruction of the planet, though of course they are never described that way. Nonetheless, if an Iraqi autocrat or Iranian mullahs spoke in similar fashion about producing nuclear weapons and how they were to be used, they would be toast.
Take ExxonMobil, one of the most profitable corporations in history. In early April, it released two reports that focused on how the company, as Bill McKibben has written, “planned to deal with the fact that [it] and other oil giants have many times more carbon in their collective reserves than scientists say we can safely burn.” He went on:
The company said that government restrictions that would force it to keep its [fossil fuel] reserves in the ground were ‘highly unlikely,’ and that they would not only dig them all up and burn them, but would continue to search for more gas and oil — a search that currently consumes about $100 million of its investors’ money every single day. ‘Based on this analysis, we are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become “stranded.”‘
In other words, Exxon plans to exploit whatever fossil fuel reserves it possesses to their fullest extent. Government leaders involved in supporting the production of such weapons of mass destruction and their use are often similarly open about it, even while also discussing steps to mitigate their destructive effects. Take the White House, for instance. Here was a statement President Obama proudly made in Oklahoma in March 2012 on his energy policy:
Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75% of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.
Similarly, on May 5th, just before the White House was to reveal that grim report on climate change in America, and with a Congress incapable of passing even the most rudimentary climate legislation aimed at making the country modestly more energy efficient, senior Obama adviser John Podesta appeared in the White House briefing room to brag about the administration’s “green” energy policy. “The United States,” he said, “is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world and the largest producer of gas and oil in the world. It’s projected that the United States will continue to be the largest producer of natural gas through 2030. For six straight months now, we’ve produced more oil here at home than we’ve imported from overseas. So that’s all a good-news story.”
Good news indeed, and from Vladmir Putin’s Russia, which just expanded its vast oil and gas holdings by a Maine-sized chunk of the Black Sea off Crimea, to Chinese “carbon bombs,” to Saudi Arabian production guarantees, similar “good-news stories” are similarly promoted. In essence, the creation of ever more greenhouse gases — of, that is, the engine of our future destruction — remains a “good news” story for ruling elites on planet Earth.
Weapons of Planetary Destruction
We know exactly what Dick Cheney — ready to go to war on a 1% possibility that some country might mean us harm — would answer, if asked about acting on the 95% doctrine. Who can doubt that his response would be similar to those of the giant energy companies, which have funded so much climate-change denialism and false science over the years? He would claim that the science simply isn’t “certain” enough (though “uncertainty” can, in fact, cut two ways), that before we commit vast sums to taking on the phenomenon, we need to know far more, and that, in any case, climate-change science is driven by a political agenda.
For Cheney & Co., it seemed obvious that acting on a 1% possibility was a sensible way to go in America’s “defense” and it’s no less gospel for them that acting on at least a 95% possibility isn’t. For the Republican Party as a whole, climate-change denial is by now nothing less than a litmus test of loyalty, and so even a 101% doctrine wouldn’t do when it comes to fossil fuels and this planet.
No point, of course, in blaming this on fossil fuels or even the carbon dioxide they give off when burned. These are no more weapons of mass destruction than are uranium-235 and plutonium-239. In this case, the weaponry is the production system that’s been set up to find, extract, sell at staggering profits, and burn those fossil fuels, and so create a greenhouse-gas planet. With climate change, there is no “Little Boy” or “Fat Man” equivalent, no simple weapon to focus on. In this sense, fracking is the weapons system, as is deep-sea drilling, as are those pipelines, and the gas stations, and the coal-fueled power plants, and the millions of cars filling global roads, and the accountants of the most profitable corporations in history.
All of it — everything that brings endless fossil fuels to market, makes those fuels eminently burnable, and helps suppress the development of non-fossil fuel alternatives — is the WMD. The CEOs of the planet’s giant energy corporations are the dangerous mullahs, the true fundamentalists, of planet Earth, since they are promoting a faith in fossil fuels which is guaranteed to lead us to some version of End Times.
Perhaps we need a new category of weapons with a new acronym to focus us on the nature of our present 95%-100% circumstances. Call them weapons of planetary destruction (WPD) or weapons of planetary harm (WPH). Only two weapons systems would clearly fit such categories. One would be nuclear weapons which, even in a localized war between Pakistan and India, could create some version of “nuclear winter” in which the planet was cut off from the sun by so much smoke and soot that it would grow colder fast, experience a massive loss of crops, of growing seasons, and of life. In the case of a major exchange of such weapons, we would be talking about “the sixth extinction” of planetary history.
Though on a different and harder to grasp time-scale, the burning of fossil fuels could end in a similar fashion — with a series of “irreversible” disasters that could essentially burn us and much other life off the Earth. This system of destruction on a planetary scale, facilitated by most of the ruling and corporate elites on the planet, is becoming (to bring into play another category not usually used in connection with climate change) the ultimate “crime against humanity” and, in fact, against most living things. It is becoming a “terracide.”
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (from which some of this essay has been adapted). He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt
There are so many strong and fundamental points raised in this essay from Tom that I am going to return to them next week. (Will give it a rest for July 4th!)
An open letter reply to Patrice Ayme.
Two days ago I published a rather introspective post called The temptation to turn ever inwards. It was the result of reading three disturbing essays about the ‘affairs of man’; essays by Tom Engelhardt, Jim Wright and George Monbiot. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting a great response either in the form of ‘Likes’ or written replies. However, the first reply, a long reply, came in from Patrice Ayme. I made the decision to reply to Patrice via a new post; ergo today’s post. Since making that decision a further comment came in from Sue Dreamwalker, also republished today.
What I am going to do is to reproduce Patrice’s comment but interspersed with my replies.
The biosphere evolved over billions of years. Now it is taken over by critters who live for just a few years. Solution? Make it so that said critters live longer, thus attaching a greater value upon survival.
I presume that the ‘said critters’ refer to humans? The average lifespan of humans has increased hugely. From a life expectancy of 30 years  at birth in Medieval Britain, back in the 13th Century, to an average of 67.2 years for humans worldwide in 2010. 
That’s an increase of 124% in a little over 700 years. Yet despite that incredible increase in lifespan, humans have shown no interest in attaching a greater value to their survival: far from it! One might even muse that humans have attached a greater value to those things that actively harm our survival.
For all the (over-) elaborate set-up of dear Monbiot, it’s simpler than that. Instead of going back to Baby Thatcher, Baroness god save the queen knows what, let’s grab a clear and present example.
I’m unclear as to what is meant by “the over-elaborate set-up” but as a long-time reader of Mr. Monbiot‘s essays I applaud both his commitment to the highest standards of journalism and to the UK’s Guardian newspaper for publishing so many of them over the years. I would invite Patrice to give an example of over-elaboration coming from the pen of George Monbiot.
Britain, and many of the Brits, say our dear friend Chris Snuggs, a participant to your, and my, site, have said that they hated Europe, because Europe was not democratic enough. However, one of the latest improvement of the European Constitution is now effective: the head of the EC, the European Commission, is now to be elected by the just elected European PARLIAMENT. Guess what?
Chameleon Cameron, came out of the woodworks to bark, in the clearest way, that it was out of the question to do things differently from before, and now dare to have the European Parliament to elect (what is basically) the European Prime Minister.
Never mind that Britain voted for that European Constitutional change.
Never mind that in representative democracies, the leaders of the executive are elected by Parliament.
So what do we see here?
Contradiction within moods and thoughts systems (Britain agreed to the democratic change, and now does not). We also see erroneous ideas imposed (leaders of the executive says Cameron should be nominated undemocratically, that’s erroneous).
The same sort of things is also perking up in Iraq: the USA caused the mess there, committing several major war crimes in the process. Precisely because those war crimes were not prosecuted, a strong push has been exerted on Obama to duplicate Bush, and go back to attack Iraq some more.
Thus, it is simple: there bad ideas out there, and they need to be destroyed. And bad moods too (an example of bad moods is the enormity that the American population was made, by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc., into an accomplice of the most major war crime there is, war of aggression. Now that this war is in the process of being lost, some clamor to have the war pursued with renewed vigor.
We are now the stewards of the biosphere, whether we like it, or not. We can’t just sit on our rumps, strokes dogs, and whine we will attend to our garden (Voltaire style). By doing nothing, we leave criminals such as Bush, or their spirit, or their mood, in power. And thus we become accomplices.
There is total agreement for the idea that humans are the stewards of the biosphere. But if the “sit on our rumps, strokes dogs and whine we will attend to our garden” is aimed at me, as it appears to be, then I strongly disagree. Living as simple a life as we can is a long way from “doing nothing”.
So go out there, and engage in combat, bad moods, and bad ideas. That’s what even very old alpha monkeys, covered with age spots, do. We don’t want to let very old monkeys be examples of moral rectitude we cannot emulate.
A last point: Monbiot does not realize the contradiction he engages in. In the guise of criticising the opposition, he puts it on a pedestal, and engages in its very propaganda. Monbiot, and many like him, bemoan a “shift towards conservatism”. Nothing could be more false. People who destroy the biosphere are NOT conservatives. They play conservatives on TV. In truth, they are just the opposite. They are destructionists.
I am of the opinion, totally so, that George Monbiot is not playing at conservatism.
So, dear reader, there is little in the comment from Patrice that has me nodding my head. Don’t get me wrong! Patrice Ayme is an individual of extreme intellect as even a dip into his blog will confirm. I am a regular reader of the writings over at that place.
However, there is one major stumbling block for me, one that I have communicated privately to the said Patrice, and that is the issue of anonymity. Because Patrice Ayme is a nom-de-plume. Despite following ‘his’ writings for some time and sharing the occasional private email, I have almost no idea about who the person is. Yes, ‘his’ writings are often very strong and highly critical of many aspects of modern life, especially the American political system. But that is not unique. There is a long line-up of writers doing the same, and doing the same over their signatures: Tom Engelhardt, Jim Wright and George Monbiot and many, many others
For me, hiding one’s identity so securely behind a ‘virtual’ mask yet writing so passionately about many of the issues critically affecting the future of mankind, doesn’t work. If one can’t or won’t be honest about who they are, then better, perhaps, that they keep their thoughts and ideas close to them. There is no shortage of people openly being critical about the American Government and much else across the world, and being critical openly.
Later, Sue of Sue Dreamwalker added a comment. That resonated perfectly with me and it, too, is reproduced in full.
Paul sometimes I despair at how Mankind plays out his life in the world Paul… We bemoan lots as we sit in our homes as the virus of hate, greed, and disaster pours into our living rooms via the BLACK BOX of FEAR tricks… Which helps depress, make us anxious, fearful,…. It insights anger, aggression and the spiral of thought escalates out via the Web… Internet at our fingertips- instant reactions…
Some times I wonder as I ponder… at the soup being remixed… as only this week we hear of ISIS another branch of the terrorists we are now supposed to fear… As the UK now makes friends with its long time enemy Iran.. reinstating diplomatic relationships again.. The Saga runs on an on… With Oil as the major players .
That’s why turning inward is sometimes Paul the only thing we can do… As we can only live our lives… While I so want to save the world.. The world has also got to want to save itself…
I can only live my own life and stop the petty squabbles, the judgements, the criticisms as I mend my own world to live at peace within it…
Once we all realise its our thoughts which in fact we send out, in fear, in anger, as we judge and condemn that are reflected back …
WE create the world.. We consume its products, We want to live in the lifestyles that demand this World to exploit others for riches.. And yet condemn the conditions of the haves and have nots…
We have lost sight of our basic values in life Paul…
So yes I often retreat inwards… I have too.. Because I worry too much about the kind of Earth we are leaving our Grandchildren to grow up in…
In final reply to Patrice, I shall reproduce this well-known quotation :
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.“
1. “A millennium of health improvement“. BBC News. 1998-12-27.
2. CIA Factbook.
3.This saying is widely attributed to Voltaire, but cannot be found in his writings. With good reason. The phrase was invented by a later author as an epitome of his attitude. It appeared in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the pseudonym Stephen G. Tallentyre.
A run of essays that, collectively, deeply disturb me.
My seventieth birthday is fewer than six months away. Indeed, it will be just a little over two weeks after we celebrate the second anniversary of our arrival to this beautiful homestead back on October 25th, 2012. Two years: Seventy years! Time seems to run through one’s fingers like the proverbial sand. It’s difficult to avoid the irony that comes with recognising the two journeys. The one journey bringing me to living here on our rural Oregonian acres, with stunning scenery, wonderful animals and so much love in the air. The other journey bringing me to the realisation that this is the Autumn of my life and the sense, the keen sense, of my own mortality.
What, may you ask, has brought this feeling, these words, to the surface?
Well, I’ll tell you.
It’s been the coincidence of essays from three authors across the ‘blogosphere’ that I have recently read. Taken together, they paint a picture that disturbs me. Very much so. They sing out to me that mankind is spiralling ever downwards to oblivion and that the dark forces of greed, power and control will never be stopped; well not by man that is!
Here are the links to those essays.
The first was from Tom Englehardt. It was an essay entitled: A Record of Unparalleled Failure published on June 10th. That opened:
The United States has been at war — major boots-on-the-ground conflicts and minor interventions, firefights, air strikes, drone assassination campaigns, occupations, special ops raids, proxy conflicts, and covert actions — nearly nonstop since the Vietnam War began. That’s more than half a century of experience with war, American-style, and yet few in our world bother to draw the obvious conclusions.
Given the historical record, those conclusions should be staring us in the face. They are, however, the words that can’t be said in a country committed to a military-first approach to the world, a continual build-up of its forces, an emphasis on pioneering work in the development and deployment of the latest destructive technology, and a repetitious cycling through styles of war from full-scale invasions and occupations to counterinsurgency, proxy wars, and back again.
The second was from another American, Jim Wright, who is the author of the blog Stonekettle Station. Jim describes himself as:
I’m a retired US Navy Chief Warrant Officer. Nowadays I live in Alaska where I spend most of my time working in my woodshop or fishing. I occasionally consult for the Military. I have delusions of becoming a full time writer – or conquering the universe, whichever is easier…
Thanks to Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism, I followed a link to a recent essay from Jim under the title of Absolutely Nothing, published on the 14th June.
I’m not going to quote from it, not because I don’t approve of his essay, far from it, but because there are many tough, profane words and I do not wish inadvertently to upset my readers. But it is very strongly recommended.
The third essay is from fellow Englishman, George Monbiot, whose work has been regularly republished on Learning from Dogs.
While his essay is not specifically about war, unlike the other two, it does, nonetheless, contribute to my feelings of not wanting to engage with anything that is outside being a better husband, landowner and animal lover. It is called The Values Ratchet and is republished here with the generous permission of George Monbiot.
The Values Ratchet
June 10th, 2014
How to ensure that nations slide ever further into selfishness, and ever further to the right.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th June 2014
Any political movement that fails to understand two basic psychological traits will, before long, fizzle out. The first is Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Coined by the biologist Daniel Pauly, it originally described our relationship to ecosystems(1), but it’s just as relevant to politics. We perceive the circumstances of our youth as normal and unexceptional – however sparse or cruel they may be. By this means, over the generations, we adjust to almost any degree of deprivation or oppression, imagining it to be natural and immutable.
The second is the Values Ratchet (also known as policy feedback). If, for example, your country has a public health system which ensures that everyone who needs treatment receives it without payment, it helps instil the belief that it is normal to care for strangers, and abnormal and wrong to neglect them(2,3). If you live in a country where people are left to die, this embeds the idea that you have no responsibility towards the poor and weak. The existence of these traits is supported by a vast body of experimental and observational research, of which Labour and the US Democrats appear determined to know nothing.
We are not born with our core values: they are strongly shaped by our social environment. These values can be placed on a spectrum between extrinsic and intrinsic. People towards the intrinsic end have high levels of self-acceptance, strong bonds of intimacy and a powerful desire to help other people. People at the other end are drawn to external signifiers, such as fame, financial success, image and attractiveness(4). They seek praise and rewards from others.
Research across 70 countries suggests that intrinsic values are strongly associated with an understanding of others, tolerance, appreciation, cooperation and empathy(5,6,7). Those with strong extrinsic values tend to have lower empathy, a stronger attraction towards power, hierarchy and inequality, greater prejudice towards outsiders and less concern for global justice and the natural world(8,9). These clusters exist in opposition to each other: as one set of values strengthens, the other weakens(10,11).
People at the extrinsic end tend to report higher levels of stress, anxiety, anger, envy, dissatisfaction and depression than those at the intrinsic end of the spectrum(12,13,14). Societies in which extrinsic goals are widely adopted are more unequal and uncooperative than those with deep intrinsic values. In one experiment, people with strong extrinsic values who were given a resource to share soon exhausted it (unlike a group with strong intrinsic values), as they all sought to take more than their due(15).
As extrinsic values are strongly associated with conservative politics, it’s in the interests of conservative parties and conservative media to cultivate these values. There are three basic methods. The first is to generate a sense of threat. Experiments reported in the journal Motivation and Emotion suggest that when people feel threatened or insecure they gravitate towards extrinsic goals(16). Perceived dangers – such as the threat of crime, terrorism, deficits, inflation or immigration – trigger a short-term survival response, in which you protect your own interests and forget other people’s.
The second method is the creation of new frames, structures of thought through which we perceive the world. For example, if tax is repeatedly cast as a burden, and less tax is described as relief, people come to see taxation as a bad thing that must be remedied(17). The third method is to invoke the Values Ratchet: when you change the way society works, our values shift in response. Privatisation, marketisation, austerity for the poor, inequality: they all shift baselines, alter the social cues we receive and generate insecurity and a sense of threat.
Margaret Thatcher’s political genius arose from her instinctive understanding of these traits, long before they were described by psychologists and cognitive linguists: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”(18) But Labour and the Democrats no longer have objects, only methods. Their political philosophy is simply stated: if at first you don’t succeed, flinch, flinch and flinch again. They seem to believe that if they simply fall into line with prevailing values, people will vote for them by default. But those values and baselines keep shifting, and what seemed intolerable before becomes unremarkable today. Instead of challenging the new values, these parties keep adjusting. This is why they always look like their opponents, with a five-year lag.
There is no better political passion killer than Labour’s Zero-Based Review(19). Its cover is Tory blue. So are the contents. It promises to sustain the coalition’s programme of cuts and even threatens to apply them to the health service(20). But, though it treats the deficit as a threat that must be countered at any cost, it says not a word about plugging the gap with innovative measures such as a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, a land value tax, a progressively-banded council tax or a windfall tax on extreme wealth. Nor does it mention tax avoidance and evasion. The poor must bear the pain through spending cuts, sustaining a cruel and wildly unequal social settlement.
At the end of last month, Chris Leslie, Labour’s Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, promised, like George Osborne, that the cuts would be sustained for “decades ahead”(21). He asserted that Labour’s purpose in government would be to “finish that task on which [the Chancellor] has failed”: namely “to eradicate the deficit”. The following day the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, sought to explain why Labour had joined the political arms race on immigration. In doing so, he revealed that his party will be “radical in reforming our economy” in support of “a determinedly pro-business agenda”(22). They appear to believe that success depends on becoming indistinguishable from their opponents.
It’s not quite as mad as the old tactic among some Marxist groups of promoting inequality and injustice in the hope that popular fury would lead to revolution, but it’s not far off. Quite aside from the obvious flaw (what’s the sodding point of voting for a party that offers no substantial change in policy?), it evinces a near-perfect psychological illiteracy. When a party reinforces conservative values and conservative ideas, when it fails clearly to expound any countervailing values, when it refuses to reverse the direction of the Values Ratchet, what outcome does it expect, other than a shift towards conservatism?
1. Daniel Pauly, 1995. Anecdotes and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome of Fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10. 10:430.
2. Stefan Svallfors, 2010 Policy feedback, generational replacement, and attitudes to state intervention: Eastern and Western Germany, 1990-2006, European Political Science Review, 2, 119-135.
3. Tom Crompton, September 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. WWF-UK. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf
4. Tim Kasser, November 2011. Values and Human Wellbeing. The Bellagio Initiative. http://www.bellagioinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Bellagio-Kasser.pdf
5. Shalom H. Schwartz, 2006. Basic Human Values: Theory, Measurement, and Applications. Revue Française de Sociologie, 47/4. http://bit.ly/1hL1JFJ
6. Frederick Grouzet et al, 2005. The structure of goal contents across fifteen cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 800-816. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/89/5/800/
7. Tom Crompton, September 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. WWF-UK. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf
8. Tim Kasser, November 2011. Values and Human Wellbeing. The Bellagio Initiative. http://www.bellagioinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Bellagio-Kasser.pdf
9. Kennon M. Sheldon and Charles P. Nichols, 2009. Comparing Democrats and Republicans on
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Values. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2009, 39, 3, pp. 589–623.
10. Tim Kasser, November 2011. Values and Human Wellbeing. The Bellagio Initiative. http://www.bellagioinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Bellagio-Kasser.pdf
11. Tom Crompton, September 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. WWF-UK. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf
12. Tim Kasser, 2014. Changes in materialism, changes in psychological well-being: Evidence from three longitudinal studies and an intervention experiment. Motivation and Emotion, 38:1–22. doi: 10.1007/s11031-013-9371-4
13. Kennon M. Sheldon and Tim Kasser, 2008. Psychological threat and extrinsic goal striving. Motivation and Emotion, 32:37–45. Doi: 10.1007/s11031-008-9081-5 http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2008_SheldonKasser_MOEM.pdf
14. Tim Kasser, November 2011. Values and Human Wellbeing. The Bellagio Initiative. http://www.bellagioinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Bellagio-Kasser.pdf
15. Kennon M. Sheldon, and Holly McGregor, 2000. Extrinsic value orientation and the “tragedy of the commons.” Journal of Personality, 68, 383–411. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-6494.00101/abstract;jsessionid=A7F705A627AE58C7814C6AC62749E128.f03t04
16. Kennon M. Sheldon and Tim Kasser, 2008. Psychological threat and extrinsic goal striving. Motivation and Emotion, 32:37–45. Doi: 10.1007/s11031-008-9081-5 http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2008_SheldonKasser_MOEM.pdf
17. Tom Crompton, September 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. WWF-UK. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf
20. “We will be cutting departmental spending in 2015-16 and not raising it, with no more borrowing to cover day-to-day spending”
“The fundamental principle of the Zero-Based Review is that all spending is in scope and all budgets will be challenged. The review will cover all areas of public spending, including those that have been protected in the current Spending Review such as health”.
Sometimes, nay too many times, one has to wonder about the human race and where it is heading!
If after all these thousands of years man continues failing to learn from history, perhaps we should try something different?
Learn from dogs!