Archive for April, 2009

When is enough?

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

tree_huggerI’m a liberal – I make no bones about it.   I believe women are my equals and that people of all shades and sexual proclivities have the same rights that I do.  I believe that governments should exist to serve their people and not merely to maximize opportunities for Capitalists.

In short, on most questions, if there’s a liberal and conservative axis, you’ll find me on the liberal end of things.

But, I have some exceptions – places where liberals might shun me.

If an individual’s committed violent crimes repeatedly and is obviously incorrigible, I see no point in the state locking them up and feeding them for the rest of their never-to-be-paroled life.   Terminate them – and let’s move on.   When you’ve got a cancer, you cut it off.

Guns?   I’m not at all sure that we all need military assault rifles.   But, I do like what the U.S. Second Amendment says … and why it says it.   When governments lose their way, citizens need a way to have their say.

Nanny States?   I think they go way too far sometimes.   As the Buddhists say, ‘Everything in balance’.   Laws should be balanced and mete out the same punishments to both the rich and the poor.  And victim-less crimes should be recognized as the oxymorons that they are.

And I’m all for cultural diversity – to a point.   If your culture believes that you are one of the chosen or the saved and you also believe that I’m not, or if your culture believes that women belong to men, or if your culture believes in slash and burn agriculture, or female genital mutilation, or in casual and needless cruelty to animals, or that some men are just better than others and thus have a right to rule them, then I think it’s probably time for for your culture to go – sorry.

But, if you like to wear a small square hat and dance outside at the new moon, or paint your house bright red, blue and gold, or if carrying a dagger and wearing turban are your thing, or if you are a strict vegetarian or anything else that doesn’t mess with our common biosphere or with other’s folk’s rights, then good on ya, I say.

We all need to live and let live, honor and respect each other and realize that this small planet belongs to all of us.   If your cultural beliefs deprives some people of their freedoms, if your cultural beliefs are messing the with common environment we and all of our descendants are going to have to share, if your cultural beliefs are all about trying to corner and monopolize money, knowledge, political or military power over the rest of us – then bugger off.   How can I make it plainer?

, , , , , , , , , , and are all examples of what I’m talking about.

What’s this rant about?

So what, you wonder, is this little rant about?   Well, it’s about a couple of things that have come together in the last few days.

Just the other day, The U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, pointed out that the government of Pakistan is buckling before pressure from the Taliban.   The most recent and telling example of this was when the Pakistan government ‘allowed‘ the Taliban, who control the Swat Valley and, indeed, much of the northwest of Pakistan, to practice Sharia Law there.   And they, of course, did this hoping that it might result in peace with the Taliban.islamabad-pakistan

Then, just days later, we hear that the Taliban are now taking over areas adjoining the Swat Valley and forcing the people there to adopt the Taliban’s rules and killing or driving off anyone who opposes them.

Mortal Threat

The Pakistani government, in deep denial, is losing ground against the Islamic insurgents and it badly needs to decide which side it is on and get focused.   Clinton said, speaking to U.S. lawmakers, that Pakistan’s government has abdicated to the Taliban in agreeing to impose Islamic law in the Swat valley and the country now poses a “mortal threat” to the world.

I don’t think she’s exaggerating the ‘Mortal Threat’ business.   Pakistan has nuclear weapons (are you paying attention here?) and Pakistan is a weak state literally crumbling before strengthening Taliban insurgent forces.   If that’s not the definition of ‘Mortal Danger’ for the rest of us, I don’t know what is.

Then, finally, a friend of mine sent me the a link to the following video.   I encourage you to stop now, click on the video and then return here to continue reading after you are done.

Click here for the video: 

Got that?  A suitcase full of four pounds of Anthrax?   This guy has very little idea of how to try to get along with other cultures.   And, as someone who considers himself pretty liberal and tolerant, I find myself seriously wondering what we should do about people and movements like this.

Yeah, right!

Yeah, right!

I have a little movie of my own that plays over and over in my head when I think about this stuff.   It involves a time in our not too distant past when other tyrants were on the loose and wanted to take over the world.  Back then, a lot of time was spent trying to appease the beast, trying to see their good side, assuming that if we were nice, they’d be nice to.   And in my little movie, I see Neville Chamberlain getting off the plane from Germany over and over again and proclaiming, “Peace in our Time.

There’s a nice biography/documentary around about the life of Winston Churchill and it makes your skin crawl to see how very long and hard the British tried to ignore the Nazi monster and how, in the end, it almost cost them their freedom.   And without a doubt, it did cost them the loss of a lot of British lives that were lost unnecessarily because of how trusting and unprepared they were when the German Nazis finally took of their ‘Nice Mask’ and showed the world who they really were.

And here in the U.S., we refused to get involved until the Japanese literally brought the party to our shores and, like the British before us, we then suddenly had to get over our idealism and isolationism and start a massive and desperate game of catchup.

Islam is OK

So, what am I saying here?

islamFirst, let’s be clear.   I am not anti Islam.   Of the many millions of Islamic people in the world, it is only small fundamentalist core which wants to push their agendas by any means possible, who believe that terrorism is a valid tool in their struggle to make the world over in the image they want and who believe their every action, no matter how reprehensible, is blessed by their God.  But, I believe that the vast majority of Muslims in this world would simply like to live and get along just like we would.   So understand, please, that it is only these intolerant crazies that I am on about here.

Weapons of mass destruction have changed the face of warfare forever.   The leverage that can be exerted by the use of a biological or nuclear weapon can be totally out of proportion to the size of the group wielding it.   We’re not in the world anymore where we need large armies to fight our conflicts.    We’ve all been very lucky since the end of the  Second World War.   Because, in spite of our many conflicts, we’ve managed to keep the nuclear and biological genies in their bottles so far.


But ask yourself, if the Taliban take over Pakistan and gain control of the weapons there, do you think it is going to turn out well for us?

Yes, I’m a liberal – but I have limits and I think for our own survival, we all should have limits.

If we think we can cure the cancer of radical Islamic fundamentalism, then by all means, we should try.   But, if we don’t think we can cure it, then we are only wasting valuable time while it spreads and becomes more and more intractable.

What should we do?

That’s a tough question. But, while we think about it and consider various half measures, those who want to destroy us and make the world over into a prison of intolerant fundamentalism, wherein women are property and human rights are irrelevant and where we all have to worship as they tell us or die, are moving inexorably forward towards the possession of nuclear and biological weapons.

This is not a place we can allow history to go.

Their culture is toxic to our future and to the future of a world based on multiculturalism,  tolerance, sustainability, science, democracy, religious freedom and human rights for everyone.   They want to take us back to the 7th century – and I, for one, don’t want to go.

In truth, I don’t know what we should do nor when we should do it.   But I see what some have called a ‘clash of civilizations‘ coming.

Some folks think that there must be something more we can do to defuse their animosity.   But, when I look at the deep roots of why they do what they do, I despair that there’s more we can do – save move forward to the final chapter in this story of human history.  The chapter in which we realize that there can be no reconciliation with a blind faith determined to convert the world to its vision or die trying.   A chapter in which we see, finally, that they will keep coming at us relentlessly until they have either won or until their vision of Islam is extinguished from the world.

We are too nice for our own good.   We will wait and wait, hoping for a way out of this quandary, and all the while we’ll be risking that they will acquire deadly weapons of mass destruction.   We may, in our tolerance and goodness, wait too long and suddenly find ourselves in a very desperate world.

But if they cannot be turned from their course, in the end, we will, we must, use whatever force it takes to eliminate their threat to our survival.   In the end, we’ll  recognize that if human civilization has a cancer and we want to advance rather than regress, then the cancer must be cut off for the greater good of the whole.

These are tough thoughts for a liberal to espouse.   But, if you’ve got  better ideas, I’d love to hear them.


– Some additional related stories:  and and

Swine Flu

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
H1N1 virus

H1N1 virus

Readers, all of you, I’m sure, know that Swine Flu is the BIG story out there just now – and that if we’re unlucky, it may get a lot bigger.

I don’t think there’s much I can add to this subject.   If you are concerned about it, and who’s not, then you’ll be out there looking for breaking news.   I am to.

I wish all of us good luck on this one.

Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Key Concepts

  • Food scarcity and the resulting higher food prices are pushing poor countries into chaos.
  • Such “failed states” can export disease, terrorism, illicit drugs, weapons and refugees.
  • Water shortages, soil losses and rising temperatures from global warming are placing severe limits on food production.
  • Without massive and rapid intervention to address these three environmental factors, the author argues, a series of government collapses could threaten the world order.

One of the toughest things for people to do is to anticipate sudden change. Typically we project the future by extrapolating from trends in the past. Much of the time this approach works well. But sometimes it fails spectacularly, and people are simply blindsided by events such as today’s economic crisis.

For most of us, the idea that civilization itself could disintegrate probably seems preposterous. Who would not find it hard to think seriously about such a complete departure from what we expect of ordinary life? What evidence could make us heed a warning so dire—and how would we go about responding to it? We are so inured to a long list of highly unlikely catastrophes that we are virtually programmed to dismiss them all with a wave of the hand: Sure, our civilization might devolve into chaos—and Earth might collide with an asteroid, too!

For many years I have studied global agricultural, population, environmental and economic trends and their interactions. The combined effects of those trends and the political tensions they generate point to the breakdown of governments and societies. Yet I, too, have resisted the idea that food shortages could bring down not only individual governments but also our global civilization.

I can no longer ignore that risk. Our continuing failure to deal with the environmental declines that are undermining the world food economy—most important, falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures—forces me to conclude that such a collapse is possible.


World’s major rivers ‘drying up’

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Water levels in some of the world’s most important rivers have declined significantly over the past 50 years, US researchers say.

They say the reduced flows are linked to climate change and will have a major impact as the human population grows.

The only area with a significant increase in water flows was the Arctic due to a greater snow and ice melting.

The study was published in the American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) Journal of Climate.

Rainfall patterns ‘altered’

From the Yellow river in northern China to the Ganges in India to the Colorado river in the United States – the US scientists say that the major sources of fresh water for much of the world’s population are in decline.

The researchers analysed water flows in more than 900 rivers over a 50-year period to 2004.

They found that there was an overall decline in the amount of water flowing into the world’s oceans.

Much of the reduction has been caused by human activities such as the building of dams and the diversion of water for agriculture.

But the researchers highlighted the contribution of climate change, saying that rising temperatures were altering rainfall patterns and increasing rates of evaporation.

The authors say they are concerned that the decline in freshwater sources will continue with serious repercussions for a growing global population.

While some major rivers, including the Brahmaputra in South Asia and the Yangtze in China, have larger water flows, there is concern that the increased volume comes from the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas.

This means that in future these rivers might decline significantly as the glaciers disappear.

To the original…

Climate Change Means Shortfalls In Colorado River Water Deliveries

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

The Colorado River system supplies water to tens of millions of people and millions of acres of farmland, and has never experienced a delivery shortage. But if human-caused climate change continues to make the region drier, scheduled deliveries will be missed 60-90 percent of the time by the middle of this century, according to a pair of climate researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

“All water-use planning is based on the idea that the next 100 years will be like the last 100,” said Scripps research marine physicist Tim Barnett, a co-author of the report. “We considered the question: Can the river deliver water at the levels currently scheduled if the climate changes as we expect it to. The answer is no.”

Even under conservative climate change scenarios, Barnett and Scripps climate researcher David Pierce found that reductions in the runoff that feeds the Colorado River mean that it could short the Southwest of a half-billion cubic meters (400,000 acre feet) of water per year 40 percent of the time by 2025. (An acre foot of water is typically considered adequate to meet the annual water needs of two households.) By the later part of this century, those numbers double.

The paper, “Sustainable water deliveries from the Colorado River in a changing climate,” appears in the April 20 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Oxfam warns of climate disasters

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

The number of people hit by climate-related disasters is expected to rise by about 50%, to reach 375m a year by 2015, the UK-based charity Oxfam says.

Current humanitarian systems are barely able to cope, an Oxfam study contends.

It warns agencies are in danger of being overwhelmed by events such as flooding, storms and drought.

The group called for a radical shift so that humanitarian aid is sent impartially, instead of on the basis of political or other preferences.

Oxfam’s Rob Bailey told the BBC a big increase was needed in aid spending, but that the problem was not just about the amount of money.

“We need to see that money spent in better ways,” he said.


Living Outside The Box: New Evidence Shows Going Abroad Linked To Creativity

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Living in another country can be a cherished experience, but new research suggests it might also help expand minds. This research, published by the American Psychological Association, is the first of its kind to look at the link between living abroad and creativity.

“Gaining experience in foreign cultures has long been a classic prescription for artists interested in stimulating their imaginations or honing their crafts. But does living abroad actually make people more creative?” asks the study’s lead author, William Maddux, PhD, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, a business school with campuses in France and Singapore. “It’s a longstanding question that we feel we’ve been able to begin answering through this research”


Students Least Informed About Environmental Science Are Most Optimistic

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Will problems associated with environmental issues improve in the next two decades? According to an analysis of student performance on PISA 2006–an international assessment of 15-year-olds–students who are the best informed about environmental science and the geosciences are also the most realistic about the environmental challenges facing the world in the next 20 years. Meanwhile, students who are least informed in these areas are the most wildly optimistic that things will improve.

These attitudes are among the results presented in Green at 15?, a study done by sociologist David Baker and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University, in collaboration with a team of researchers at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, an international organisation that helps governments tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalised economy. A PISA assessment is done every three years. PISA 2006 focused on science, assessing the knowledge and skills of more than 400,000 students in 57 countries around the world.


Agent S, anyone?

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

Serratia has dark history in region

Army test in 1950 may have changed microbial ecology

Serratia is a bacterium that some doctors and residents of the Bay Area have been familiar with for many years.

In 1950, government officials believed that serratia did not cause disease. That belief was later used as a justification for a secret post-World War II Army experiment that became a notorious disaster tale about the microbe.

serratiaThe Army used serratia to test whether enemy agents could launch a biological warfare attack on a port city such as San Francisco from a location miles offshore.

For six days in late September 1950, a small military vessel near San Francisco sprayed a huge cloud of serratia particles into the air while the weather favored dispersal.

Then the Army went looking to find out where it landed. Serratia is known for forming bright red colonies when a soil or water sample is streaked on a culture medium — a property that made it ideal for the bio-warfare experiment.

Army tests showed that the bacterial cloud had exposed hundreds of thousands of people in a broad swath of Bay Area communities including Sausalito, Albany, Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro, San Francisco, Daly City and Colma, according to reports that later were declassified. Soon after the spraying, 11 people came down with hard-to-treat infections at the old Stanford University Hospital in San Francisco. By November, one man had died. Edward Nevin, 75, a retired Pacific Gas and Electric Co. worker recovering from a prostate operation, had succumbed to an infection with Serratia marcescens that attacked his heart valves.


– Research thanks to California Refugees In New Zealand

Drowning in plastic: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of France

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

There are now 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre of the world’s oceans, killing a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year. Worse still, there seems to be nothing we can do to clean it up. So how do we turn the tide?

Way out in the Pacific Ocean, in an area once known as the doldrums, an enormous, accidental monument to modern society has formed. Invisible to satellites, poorly understood by scientists and perhaps twice the size of France, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not a solid mass, as is sometimes imagined, but a kind of marine soup whose main ingredient is floating plastic debris.

It was discovered in 1997 by a Californian sailor, surfer, volunteer environmentalist and early-retired furniture restorer named Charles Moore, who was heading home with his crew from a sailing race in Hawaii, at the helm of a 50ft catamaran that he had built himself.

For the hell of it, he decided to turn on the engine and take a shortcut across the edge of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a region that seafarers have long avoided. It is a perennial high pressure zone, an immense slowly spiralling vortex of warm equatorial air that pulls in winds and turns them gently until they expire. Several major sea currents also converge in the gyre and bring with them most of the flotsam from the Pacific coasts of Southeast Asia, North America, Canada and Mexico. Fifty years ago nearly all that flotsam was biodegradable. These days it is 90 per cent plastic.

‘It took us a week to get across and there was always some plastic thing bobbing by,’ says Moore, who speaks in a jaded, sardonic drawl that occasionally flares up into heartfelt oratory. ‘Bottle caps, toothbrushes, styrofoam cups, detergent bottles, pieces of polystyrene packaging and plastic bags. Half of it was just little chips that we couldn’t identify. It wasn’t a revelation so much as a gradual sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong here. Two years later I went back with a fine-mesh net, and that was the real mind-boggling discovery.’

Floating beneath the surface of the water, to a depth of 10 metres, was a multitude of small plastic flecks and particles, in many colours, swirling like snowflakes or fish food. An awful thought occurred to Moore and he started measuring the weight of plastic in the water compared to that of plankton. Plastic won, and it wasn’t even close. ‘We found six times more plastic than plankton, and this was just colossal,’ he says. ‘No one had any idea this was happening, or what it might mean for marine ecosystems, or even where all this stuff was coming from.’


– Research Thanks to Robin S.