Archive for October, 2005

>Turning Guns on Each Other in Class Warfare

2005/10/31 Leave a comment

>by Bill Totten

Nihonkai Shimbun and Osaka Nichinichi Shimbun (October 06 2005)

(I’ve written a weekly column for two Japanese newspapers for the past three years. Patrick Heaton prepared this English version from the Japanese original.)

At the beginning of September, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and Mississippi. During Japan’s typhoon, companies lying in the track of a storm warn their employees to go home early. The number of such warnings seems to be on the rise.

Hurricanes Are Man-made Disasters

The Ise Bay typhoon that hit Aichi and Mie Prefectures forty-six years ago was a terrible catastrophe that cost over five thousand lives in dead and missing. This year, when Katrina struck the US, a strong typhoon made a direct hit on Kyushu, causing nearly thirty people to die. Japan is a land of typhoons. Yet typhoons that cause so much damage through strong winds and rain are also a natural blessing for areas that receive insufficient rainfall. Nothing is more important to humans than water. That is probably why Japanese have always given thanks to the sun and rain at times of seasonal change, and have tried to live in harmony with nature.

In many respects, the hurricane Katrina that recently hit the Gulf coast of the US, resulting in flooding of New Orleans, was not a natural disaster but a man-made one. First, there is the influence of climate shifts from global warming that is increasing the number and scale of storms worldwide. American scientists have been warning for several years that hurricanes will become larger and more forceful because of global warming. The Bush administration has ignored those warnings and even denied that human behavior is causing global warming. The president and vice president withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol with the excuse that there is “little scientific evidence that increased carbon dioxide is the reason for global warming”. I can’t help but conclude that their private financial interests in oil companies are behind their public pronouncements and actions.

Oil Companies over Levies

The New Orleans area was originally surrounded by a large marshland below sea-level. Coastal marshlands used to serve as natural levees against hurricanes, but the United States government has destroyed them gradually but steadily. Even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been warning about hurricanes now for several years, concrete levees have been built in the marshlands that, left unaltered, would have protected people from natural disasters. Canals have also been built for oil drilling and shipping. What has been given priority is not the safety of local citizens and the natural environment, but the interests of the oil industry and other industries. The government has allowed corporations to destroy the greater part of the marshlands to pursue short-term profits. On top of that, the government cut 44 percent of the budget for rebuilding the levees in order to increase the amount of money spent on its anti-terrorism campaign and on the Iraq war.

As may have been reported in the Japanese media, the majority of people who died or became homeless in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were poor people, mostly poor colored people. The government issued an evacuation warning as the hurricane approached to citizens living in the area that would be hit directly. Then the authorities did little else; the people were expected to arrange their own evacuation. In a large country like America, which has practically no public transportation, anyone without an automobile cannot go very far. Because of the government evacuation warning, there was terrible traffic congestion, and the majority of the poor had neither the means to escape nor money for lodging outside the area. The poor had no choice but to stay put and pray they would be safe. The devastation caused by Katrina and other recent hurricanes illustrate vividly how far deregulation, privatization and other anti-social “free market” policies have reduced America to the level of a poor third-world country.

The Poor Suffer Most

In 2002 the newspapers in New Orleans warned that if there were a big hurricane, 100,000 poor individuals in the area who did not have cars would be especially in danger. According to the 2000 census, 36.4 percent of New Orleans residents lived in areas below sea level and had incomes less than the official poverty line. The current definition of poverty in the US is an annual income below $19,300 for a family of four, and $12,334 for a family of two. For comparison, could a family of four living in Japan without public transportation or national health care survive on the same amount of income? How many people in Japan exist at that level? In the United States, 3,700,000, or 12.7 percent of the population, have incomes below the official poverty line. Most of the victims of Katrina were in this category.

The day after Katrina hit, Bush was playing golf. He didn’t appear on television until three days later to address the disaster, and only visited the devastated area after five full days. In the US, the duty of the National Guard in every state is to protect citizens in times of emergency. But one-third of the National Guard of Louisiana and Mississippi had been deployed to Iraq. The National Guard remaining in the area affected by the hurricane acted mostly to protect the properties of the wealthy, not the lives of the poor. As the situation deteriorated, the governor of Louisiana ordered the National Guard to shoot-to-kill anyone involved in looting or violence. National Guardsmen returning from the Iraq war found themselves participating in a class war in Louisiana. Most of the National Guard themselves are from poor backgrounds. In other words, the National Guardsmen had to draw their weapons in their own country against their own kind.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Why I Am Saving The World

2005/10/30 Leave a comment

>So, as a new Dark Age approaches, are you just going to carry on living your life as if nothing has changed? One man decided he couldn’t bury his head in the sand. He explains how he went on a one-man crusade to show that humanity can adapt and survive.

by John-Paul Flintoff

The Sunday Times Magazine (October 16 2005)

I had just dropped my daughter at the nursery when I began to save the world. I mention this detail because it’s important to emphasise that Nancy loves her nursery. If she didn’t, I wouldn’t drive four miles from home – into London’s congestion zone, at a cost of GBP 8 a day. I wouldn’t have found myself in Connaught Square that morning, fretting about newspaper stories suggesting the price of petrol was going up. I wouldn’t have seen a woman sitting inside a peculiar car parked beside me. Nor would I have noticed, on returning to my VW Golf from the nursery, that the car had moved some yards away and the woman had disappeared.

Intrigued, I wandered over and scribbled in my notebook. When I got home I began to investigate what I had seen. It may seem grandiose to describe my actions that morning, and in the days that followed, as “saving the world”. It may be factually incorrect, because I may not have averted global catastrophe after all. You decide – but first get your head round the following, rather terrifying background information. A barrel of oil contains the equivalent of almost 25,000 hours of human labour. A gallon of petrol contains the energy equivalent of 500 hours – enough to propel a three-ton 4×4 along ten miles; to push it yourself would take nearly three weeks. To support economic growth, the world currently requires more than thirty billion barrels of oil a year. That requirement is constantly increasing, owing to population growth, debt-servicing, and the rapid industrialisation of developing countries such as India and China. But we are about to enter an era in which less oil will be available each year. And many believe that industrial society is doomed. Are we really running out?

Well, half of all supplies come from “giant” oilfields, of which 95% are at least 25 years old; fifty percent have been producing for forty years or more. In the North Sea, production peaked in 1999. Late last year, Britain began to import more oil than we export. Worldwide, discoveries of new oilfields peaked in the 1960s; and despite technological advances, new discoveries are at an all-time low. A recent story in The New York Times suggested that oil companies are failing to recoup exploration costs: significant discoveries are so scarce that looking for them is a monetary loser. Not that I normally read The New York Times‘ coverage of the oil business – like most people, I have tended to consider news about the oil industry to be extremely dull. That started to change when it crept out of the business pages and into the general news, and into advertisements. Practically every day, it seemed, a big oil company took a whole page to promote the fact that we are facing a crisis. One, paid for by Chevron, called on readers to help find a solution. I visited Chevron’s website,, where a whirring clock monitored worldwide oil consumption: nearly 1,500 barrels a second. The more I read, the scarier it became. Michael Meacher, who was Britain’s environment minister for six years, is plainly terrified. “The implications are mind-blowing … Civilisation faces the sharpest and perhaps most violent dislocation in recent history”.

Matthew Simmons, a Houston-based energy-industry financier and adviser to George Bush and Dick Cheney, was asked in 2003 if there is a solution. He replied: “The solution is to pray”.

These people are not loonies. Optimists believe that the market – the law of supply and demand – will solve the problem. As oil becomes more expensive, we’ll shift to some other energy source. But do high prices really cut demand? Since early 1999, oil prices have risen by about 350%. Meanwhile, demand growth in 2004 was the highest in 25 years. That’s bad news, because the market won’t push energy companies into pursuing alternative sources of energy until oil reaches considerably higher prices. And then it will be too late to make the switch.

The former oil-industry executive Jan Lundberg reckons the crisis will be sudden. “Market-based panic will, within a few days, drive prices skyward”, he says. “And the market will become paralysed at prices too high for the wheels of commerce and daily living”. So forget the price at the pump: when oil becomes truly unaffordable, you will be more worried about the collapse of distribution networks, and the absence of food from local shops.

Ecologists use a technical term, “die-off”, to describe what happens when a population grows too big for the resources that sustain it. Where will die-off occur this time? Everywhere. By some estimates, five billion of the world’s six billion population would never have been able to live without the blessed effects of fossil fuels, and oil in particular: oil powered the pumps that drained the land, and from oil came the chemicals that made intensive farming possible.

If oil dries up, we can assume, those five billion must starve. And they won’t all be in Africa this time. You too may be fighting off neighbours to protect a shrinking stash of canned food, and, when that runs out, foraging for insects in suburban gardens.

Dr Richard Duncan, of the Institute on Energy and Man, has monitored the issue for years. “I became deeply depressed”, he notes, “when I first concluded that our greatest scientific achievements will soon be forgotten and our most cherished monuments will crumble to dust”. Of course, this isn’t the first time people have predicted imminent apocalypse. During the late 19th century, Londoners feared they would all be killed by the methane in horse manure. But oil is certain to run out eventually, and most experts believe that will happen during the lifetimes of people now living. Pollyannas point out that the size of official oil reserves went up dramatically in the 1980s, and the same will happen again as oil companies discover new oilfields. But geologists say the world has been thoroughly searched already.

Not everyone believes we’re doomed. Cheerier prognostications suggest that our future will more closely resemble 1990s Cuba. The American trade embargo, combined with the collapse of Cuba’s communist allies in eastern Europe, suddenly deprived the island of imports. Without oil, public transport shut down and TV broadcasts finished early in the evening to save power. Industrial farms needed fuel and spare parts, pesticides and fertiliser – none of which were available. Consequently, the average Cuban diet dropped from about 3,000 calories per day in 1989 to 1,900 calories four years later. In effect, Cubans were skipping a meal a day, every day, week after month after year. Of necessity, the country converted to sustainable farming techniques, replacing artificial fertiliser with ecological alternatives, rotating crops to keep soil rich, and using teams of oxen instead of tractors. There are still problems supplying meat and milk, but over time Cubans regained the equivalent of that missing meal. And ecologists hailed their achievement in creating the world’s largest working model of largely sustainable agriculture, largely independent of oil.

Can we steer ourselves towards the Cuban ideal? If so, how?

Well, let me tell you what I did. First I switched exclusively to wind power as the source of my domestic electricity, through a company called Ecotricity, which promises the price will not differ significantly from what I paid before. Then I got a man round to give us a quote for installing double-glazed sash windows. The latest, high-specification glass, I was told, traps domestic heat but allows sunlight to pass through, which means you can turn the thermostat right down in winter. I contacted a company that specialises in solar power. If I acted quickly, I could get government subsidies. I put my name down for a domestic wind turbine – apparently, traffic at the end of my street makes a greater racket, but I would need planning permission. The turbine would cover roughly a third of my electricity needs. The cost: GBP 1,500.

I bought a tray for sprouting seeds (highly nutritious, apparently) and started the long process, as yet unresolved, of persuading my wife that we must dig up our flowerbeds and turn the garden into an allotment. I even got in touch with a local vicar who keeps chickens in his garden, and asked how I might do the same.

Does this really amount to “saving the world”? I’ve saved the best till last. Remember Nancy’s nursery, and the peculiar car I saw in Connaught Square? The car is called a G-Wiz; it runs entirely on electricity, has four seats and storage in the bonnet, and is no bigger than a Smart car. A G-Wiz costs as little as GBP 7,000. It does not incur road tax. It’s in the cheapest insurance bracket, and exempt from the congestion charge. In Westminster you can park for nothing in pay-and-display spaces, or in your local car park, with free electricity to charge the batteries.

The downside? It can’t go faster than forty miles per hour, and the batteries go flat after about forty miles. That didn’t bother me: we’d use it in London, and for trips further afield we could hire a car. There was one problem. Unless local councils install a socket on the pavement, the only people who can run an electric car are the lucky few with off-street parking.

So I started a campaign. I wrote a letter to drop through my neighbours’ doors, explaining about the coming oil crisis and describing the electric car. I promised to write to the council urging it to install electric sockets if at least a few of my neighbours would do the same. Within hours, two names appeared. Over the next couple of weeks, eight others had joined them. With this support, I wrote to my local councillors. For good measure, I sent through government proposals to subsidise that kind of installation by up to sixty percent. Placing my order for the G-Wiz, I popped a non-refundable cheque for GBP 1,250 in the post. I would just have to hope Barnet council comes through before the car arrives.

I felt proud to belong to a district that was saving the world. And, to be honest, I felt rather pleased with myself. I sent for some fake parking tickets to leave on the windows of petrol-guzzling 4x4s. And I wrote a letter to the Saudi oil minister, urging him to invest in alternative energy technology before it’s too late.

It has been a long and tiring campaign. I realise it may not work. I don’t honestly believe most people will be motivated to match my shining example. Eventually, the government will impose the kind of restrictions normally used in wartime. When that happens, we’ll move out of London to begin a new life of genuine self-sufficiency.

Oil isn’t only useful as fuel

Most oil we consume is burnt as fuel. But hundreds of everyday objects are made from petrochemicals. We take them for granted now, but to drive your car, or fly away on a holiday that might just as well have taken place near home, is to burn a valuable resource that can be used to make products like these:

Household: Ballpoint pens, battery cases, bin bags, candles, carpets, curtains, detergents, drinking cups, dyes, enamel, lino, paint, brushes and rollers, pillows, refrigerants, refrigerator linings, roofing, safety glass, shower curtains, telephones, toilet seats, water pipes.

Personal: Cold cream, hair colour, lipstick, shampoo, shaving cream, combs, dentures, denture adhesive, deodorant, glasses, sunglasses, contact lenses, hand lotion, insect repellent, shoes, shoe polish, tights, toothbrushes, toothpaste, vitamin capsules.

Medical: Anaesthetics, antihistamines, antiseptics, artificial limbs, aspirin, bandages, cortisone, hearing aids, heart valves.

Leisure: cameras, fishing rods, footballs, golf balls, skis, stereos, tennis rackets, tents.

Agriculture: Fertilisers, insecticides, preservatives.

Other: Antifreeze, boats, lifejackets, glue, solvents, motorcycle helmets, parachutes, tyres.

How to survive when the oil runs out

Living without oil, if we don’t start to prepare for it, will not be like returning to the late 1700s, because we have now lost the infrastructure that made 18th-century life possible. We have also lost our basic survival skills. Dr Richard Duncan, of the Institute on Energy and Man, believes that we will return to living in essentially Stone Age conditions. Here is a taste of how to deal with the essentials.

Water: Animal trails lead to water. Watch the direction in which bees fly. Make containers from animal bladders and gourds.

Food: To remove the bitterness from acorns, soak them in a running stream for a few days. The common dandelion is a versatile and delicious plant. Open pine cones in the heat of a fire to release the nuts inside.

Luxuries: Make soap using lye (from hardwood ash) and animal fat. For candles, sheep fat is best, followed by beef. (Pork fat is very smelly and burns with thick smoke.)

Medicine: Use hypnosis for pain control. Frame suggestions positively. Use the present tense. Be specific and use repetition. Keep it simple.

Develop a survivor personality: Survivors spend almost no time getting upset. They have a good sense of humour and laugh at mistakes.

From: When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance and Planetary Survival, by Matthew Stein (Clear Light Books, 2000)

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.,,2099-1813695_2,00.html

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Waiting for the lights to go out

2005/10/29 Leave a comment

>We’ve taken the past 200 years of prosperity for granted. Humanity’s progress is stalling, we are facing a new era of decay, and nobody is clever enough to fix it. Is the future really that black?

by Bryan Appleyard

The Sunday Times Magazine (October 16 2005)

The greatest getting-and-spending spree in the history of the world is about to end. The 200-year boom that gave citizens of the industrial world levels of wealth, health and longevity beyond anything previously known to humanity is threatened on every side. Oil is running out; the climate is changing at a potentially catastrophic rate; wars over scarce resources are brewing; finally, most shocking of all, we don’t seem to be having enough ideas about how to fix any of these things.

It’s been said before, of course: people are always saying the world will end and it never does. Maybe it won’t this time, either. But, frankly, it’s not looking good. Almost daily, new evidence is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a new Dark Age is lying in wait for ourselves and our children.

To understand how this could happen, it is necessary to grasp just how extraordinary, how utterly unprecedented are the privileges we in the developed world enjoy now. Born today, you could expect to live 25 to 30 years longer than your Victorian forebears, up to 45 years longer than your medieval ancestors and at least 55 years longer than your Stone Age precursors. It is highly unlikely that your birth will kill you or your mother or that, in later life, you will suffer typhoid, plague, smallpox, dysentery, polio, or dentistry without anaesthetic. You will enjoy a standard of living that would have glazed the eyes of the Emperor Nero, thanks to the two percent annual economic growth rate sustained by the developed world since the industrial revolution. You will have access to greater knowledge than Aristotle could begin to imagine, and to technical resources that would stupefy Leonardo da Vinci. You will know a world whose scale and variety would induce agoraphobia in Alexander the Great. You should experience relative peace thanks to the absolute technological superiority of the industrialised world over its enemies and, with luck and within reason, you should be able to write and say anything you like, a luxury denied to almost all other human beings, dead or alive. Finally, as this artificially extended sojourn in paradise comes to a close, you will attain oblivion in the certain knowledge that, for your children, things can only get better.

Such staggering developments have convinced us that progress is a new law of nature, something that happens to everything all the time. Microsoft is always working on a better version of Windows. Today’s Nokia renders yesterday’s obsolete, as does today’s Apple, Nike or Gillette. Life expectancy continues to rise. Cars go faster, planes fly further, and one day, we are assured, cancer must yield. Whatever goes wrong in our lives or the world, the march of progress continues regardless. Doesn’t it?

Almost certainly not. The first big problem is our insane addiction to oil. It powers everything we do and determines how we live. But, on the most optimistic projections, there are only thirty to forty years of oil left. One pessimistic projection, from Sweden’s Uppsala University, is that world reserves are massively overstated and the oil will start to run out in ten years. That makes it virtually inconceivable that there will be kerosene-powered planes or petroleum-powered cars for much longer. Long before the oil actually runs out, it will have become far too expensive to use for such frivolous pursuits as flying and driving. People generally assume that we will find our way round this using hydrogen, nuclear, wave or wind power. In reality, none of these technologies are being developed anything like quickly enough to take over from oil. The great nations just aren’t throwing enough money at the problem. Instead, they are preparing to fight for the last drops of oil. China has recently started making diplomatic overtures to Saudi Arabia, wanting to break America’s grip on that nation’s 262 billion barrel reserve.

Even if we did throw money at the problem, it’s not certain we could fix it. One of the strangest portents of the end of progress is the recent discovery that humans are losing their ability to come up with new ideas.

Jonathan Huebner is an amiable, very polite and very correct physicist who works at the Pentagon’s Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. He took the job in 1985, when he was 26. An older scientist told him how lucky he was. In the course of his career, he could expect to see huge scientific and technological advances. But by 1990, Huebner had begun to suspect the old man was wrong. “The number of advances wasn’t increasing exponentially, I hadn’t seen as many as I had expected – not in any particular area, just generally”.

Puzzled, he undertook some research of his own. He began to study the rate of significant innovations as catalogued in a standard work entitled The History of Science and Technology. After some elaborate mathematics, he came to a conclusion that raised serious questions about our continued ability to sustain progress. What he found was that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. In fact, our current rate of innovation – which Huebner puts at seven important technological developments per billion people per year – is about the same as it was in 1600. By 2024 it will have slumped to the same level as it was in the Dark Ages, the period between the end of the Roman empire and the start of the Middle Ages.

The calculations are based on innovations per person, so if we could keep growing the human population we could, in theory, keep up the absolute rate of innovation. But in practice, to do that, we’d have to swamp the world with billions more people almost at once. That being neither possible nor desirable, it seems we’ll just have to accept that progress, at least on the scientific and technological front, is slowing very rapidly indeed.

Huebner offers two possible explanations: economics and the size of the human brain. Either it’s just not worth pursuing certain innovations since they won’t pay off – one reason why space exploration has all but ground to a halt – or we already know most of what we can know, and so discovering new things is becoming increasingly difficult. We have, for example, known for over twenty years how cancer works and what needs to be done to prevent or cure it. But in most cases, we still have no idea how to do it, and there is no likelihood that we will in the foreseeable future.

Huebner’s insight has caused some outrage. The influential scientist Ray Kurzweil has criticised his sample of innovations as “arbitrary”; K Eric Drexler, prophet of nanotechnology, has argued that we should be measuring capabilities, not innovations. Thus we may travel faster or access more information at greater speeds without significant innovations as such.

Huebner has so far successfully responded to all these criticisms. Moreover, he is supported by the work of Ben Jones, a management professor at Northwestern University in Illinois. Jones has found that we are currently in a quandary comparable to that of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass: we have to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place. Basically, two centuries of economic growth in the industrialised world has been driven by scientific and technological innovation. We don’t get richer unaided or simply by working harder: we get richer because smart people invent steam engines, antibiotics and the internet. What Jones has discovered is that we have to work harder and harder to sustain growth through innovation. More and more money has to be poured into research and development and we have to deploy more people in these areas just to keep up. “The result is”, says Jones, “that the average individual innovator is having a smaller and smaller impact”.

Like Huebner, he has two theories about why this is happening. The first is the “low-hanging fruit” theory: early innovators plucked the easiest-to-reach ideas, so later ones have to struggle to crack the harder problems. Or it may be that the massive accumulation of knowledge means that innovators have to stay in education longer to learn enough to invent something new and, as a result, less of their active life is spent innovating. “I’ve noticed that Nobel-prize winners are getting older”, he says. “That’s a sure sign it’s taking longer to innovate”. The other alternative is to specialise – but that would mean innovators would simply be tweaking the latest edition of Windows rather than inventing the light bulb. The effect of their innovations would be marginal, a process of making what we already have work slightly better. This may make us think we’re progressing, but it will be an illusion.

If Huebner and Jones are right, our problem goes way beyond Windows. For if innovation is the engine of economic progress – and almost everybody agrees it is – growth may be coming to an end. Since our entire financial order – interest rates, pension funds, insurance, stock markets – is predicated on growth, the social and economic consequences may be cataclysmic.

Is it really happening? Will progress grind to a halt? The long view of history gives conflicting evidence. Paul Ormerod, a London-based economist and author of the book Why Most Things Fail, is unsure. “I am in two minds about this. Biologists have abandoned the idea of progress – we just are where we are. But humanity is so far in advance of anything that has gone before that it seems to be a qualitative leap.”

For Ormerod, there may be very rare but similar qualitative leaps in the organisation of society. The creation of cities, he believes, is one. Cities emerged perhaps 10,000 years ago, not long after humanity ceased being hunter-gatherers and became farmers. Other apparently progressive developments cannot compete. The Roman empire, for example, once seemed eternal, bringing progress to the world. But then, one day, it collapsed and died. The question thus becomes: is our liberal-democratic-capitalist way of doing things, like cities, an irreversible improvement in the human condition, or is it like the Roman empire, a shooting star of wealth and success, soon to be extinguished?

Ormerod suspects that capitalism is indeed, like cities, a lasting change in the human condition. “Immense strides forward have been taken”, he says. It may be that, after millennia of striving, we have found the right course. Capitalism may be the Darwinian survivor of a process of natural selection that has seen all other systems fail.

Ormerod does acknowledge, however, that the rate of innovation may well be slowing – “All the boxes may be ticked”, as he puts it – and that progress remains dependent on contingencies far beyond our control. An asteroid strike or super-volcanic eruption could crush all our vanities in an instant. But in principle, Ormerod suspects that our 200-year spree is no fluke.

This is heartily endorsed by the Dutch-American Joel Mokyr, one of the most influential economic historians in the world today. Mokyr is the author of The Lever of Riches and The Gifts of Athena, two books that support the progressive view that we are indeed doing something right, something that makes our liberal-democratic civilisation uniquely able to generate continuous progress. The argument is that, since the 18th-century Enlightenment, a new term has entered the human equation. This is the accumulation of and a free market in knowledge. As Mokyr puts it, we no longer behead people for saying the wrong thing – we listen to them. This “social knowledge” is progressive because it allows ideas to be tested and the most effective to survive. This knowledge is embodied in institutions, which, unlike individuals, can rise above our animal natures. Because of the success of these institutions, we can reasonably hope to be able, collectively, to think our way around any future problems. When the oil runs out, for example, we should have harnessed hydrogen or fusion power. If the environment is being destroyed, then we should find ways of healing it. “If global warming is happening”, says Mokyr, “and I increasingly am persuaded that it is, then we will have the technology to deal with it”.

But there are, as he readily admits, flies in the ointment of his optimism. First, he makes the crucial concession that, though a society may progress, individuals don’t. Human nature does not progress at all. Our aggressive, tribal nature is hard-wired, unreformed and unreformable. Individually we are animals and, as animals, incapable of progress. The trick is to cage these animal natures in effective institutions: education, the law, government. But these can go wrong. “The thing that scares me”, he says, “is that these institutions can misfire”.

Big institutions, deeply entrenched within ancient cultures, misfired in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933, producing years of slaughter on a scale previously unseen in human history. For Mokyr, those misfirings produced not an institutionalism of our knowledge but of our aggressive, animal natures. The very fact that such things can happen at all is a warning that progress can never be taken for granted.

Some suggest that this institutional breakdown is now happening in the developed world, in the form of a “democratic deficit”. This is happening at a number of levels. There is the supranational. In this, either large corporations or large institutions – the EU, the World Bank – gradually remove large areas of decision-making from the electorate, hollowing out local democracies. Or there is the national level. Here, massively increased political sophistication results in the manipulation, almost hypnotising, of electorates. This has been particularly true in Britain, where politics has been virtualised by new Labour into a series of presentational issues. Such developments show that merely calling a system “democratic” does not necessarily mean it will retain the progressive virtues that have seemed to arise from democracy. Democracy can destroy itself. In addition, with the rise of an unquantifiable global terrorist threat producing defensive transformations of legal systems designed to limit freedom and privacy, the possibility arises of institutional breakdown leading to a new, destructive social order. We are not immune from the totalitarian faults of the past.

The further point is that capitalism is one thing, globalisation another. The current globalisation wave was identified in the 1970s.

It was thought to represent the beginning of a process whereby the superior performance of free-market economics would lead a worldwide liberalisation process. Everybody, in effect, would be drawn into the developed world’s 200-year boom. Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that it hasn’t happened as planned. The prominent Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul argues in his book The Collapse of Globalism that globalisation is, in fact, over and is being replaced by a series of competing local and national interests. Meanwhile, in his book Why They Don’t Hate Us, the Californian academic Mark LeVine shows that the evidence put forward by globalisation’s fans, such as the World Trade Organization, conceals deep divisions and instabilities in countries like China and regions like the Middle East. Globalisation, he argues, is often just making the rich richer and the poor poorer. It is also destroying local culture and inspiring aggressive resistance movements, from student demonstrators in the West to radical Islamicists in the Middle East. Progress is built on very fragile foundations.

Or perhaps it never happens at all. John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, is the most lucid advocate of the view that progress is an illusion. People, he says, are “overimpressed by present reality” and assume, on the basis of only a couple of centuries of history, that progress is eternal. In his book Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, he argues that human nature is flawed and incorrigible, and its flaws will be embodied in whatever humans make. Joel Mokyr’s institutions, therefore, do not rise above human nature: they embody it. Science, for Gray, does indeed accumulate knowledge. But that has the effect of empowering human beings to do at least as much damage as good. His book argues that, far from being a medieval institution as many have suggested, Al-Qaeda is a supremely modern organisation, using current technology and management theory to spread destruction. Modernity does not make us better, it just makes us more effective. We may have anaesthetic dentistry, but we also have nuclear weapons. We may or may not continue to innovate. It doesn’t matter, because innovation will only enable us to do more of what humans do. In this view, all progress will be matched by regress. In our present condition, this can happen in two ways. Either human conflict will produce a new ethical decline, as it did in Germany and Russia, or our very commitment to growth will turn against us.

On the ethical front, Gray’s most potent contemporary example is torture. For years we thought the developed world had banished torture for ever or that, if it occasionally happened here, it was an error or oversight, a crime to be punished at once. Not being torturers was a primary indicator of our civilised, progressive condition. But now suicide terrorism has posed a terrible question. If we have a prisoner who knows where a suitcase nuclear weapon is planted and refuses to talk, do we not have the right to torture him into revealing the information? Many now reluctantly admit that we would. Even the means of his torture has been discussed: a sterilised needle inserted beneath the fingernail. Having suffered this pain for a few seconds when having an anaesthetic injection prior to the removal of a nail, I can personally attest that it would work.

The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is now arguing for giving proper legal status to torture. “Torture is a matter that has always been unacceptable, beyond discussion. Let’s not pretend, those days are passed. We now have ticking-bomb terrorists and it’s an empirical fact that every civilised democracy would use torture in those circumstances.” Dershowitz doesn’t like the “surreptitious hypocrisy” that allows torture but pretends it doesn’t. Look, he says, at the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al-Qaeda planner captured in 2003 in Pakistan. American interrogators subjected him to “water-boarding”, effectively threatening him with drowning. This wasn’t classified as torture because he wasn’t hurt, but of course it was.

Dershowitz thinks a legal basis for torture would prevent abuses like the horrors perpetrated in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. If, for example, Tony Blair or George Bush had to sign a torture warrant, the whole business would be kept visible and legal. For Gray, torture represents obvious regress. Dershowitz partly agrees but argues that progressives must be ready to do deals. “Terrorism is a major step backwards in civilisation. Hitler was a major step backwards. Sometimes we have to step backwards too to combat such things. But progress happens in other areas. A generation now growing up may have to accept more security measures and less privacy, but in other areas like sexual conduct we are making progress. I don’t think overall we are making a step back.”

Progress, therefore, is faltering but, on aggregate, it moves in the right direction. Hitler was defeated and judicial torture may, in time, defeat terrorism. We just have to accept that three steps forward also involves two steps back. The point is to keep the faith.

But what if it is just faith? What if the very “fact” of progress is ultimately self-destructive? There are many ways in which this might turn out to be true. First, the human population is continuing to rise exponentially. It is currently approaching 6.5 billion, in 1900 it was 1.65 billion, in 1800 it was around a billion, in 1500 it was 500 million. The figures show that economic and technological progress is loading the planet with billions more people. By keeping humans alive longer and by feeding them better, progress is continually pushing population levels. With population comes pollution. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming caused by human activity is happening. According to some estimates, we will pass the point of no return within a decade. Weather systems will change, huge flooding will occur, and human civilisation if not existence will be at risk. This can be avoided if the US and China cut their carbon-dioxide emissions by fifty percent at once. This won’t happen, as they are fighting an economic war with progress as the prize. There are many other progress-created threats. Oil is one diminishing resource, and fresh water is another, even more vital one. Wars are virtually certain to be fought to gain control of these precious liquids.

In addition, antibiotic drugs are currently failing through overuse. No new generation of medicines is likely to be available to replace them in the near future. People may soon be dying again from sore throats and minor cuts. The massive longevity increase in the 20th century may soon begin to reverse itself.

Joel Mokyr’s response to all this is that our open-knowledge societies will enable these problems to be solved. John Gray replies: “This is faith, not science”. We believe we can fix things, but we can’t be sure. And if we can’t, then the Earth will fix them herself, flicking the human species into oblivion in the process.

Of course, the end of the world has been promised by Jews, Christians, Muslims and assorted crazies with sandwich boards for as long as there has been a human world to end. But those doomsdays were the product of faith; reason always used to say the world will continue. The point about the new apocalypse is that this situation has reversed. Now faith tells us we will be able to solve our problems; reason says we have no answers now and none are likely in the future. Perhaps we can’t cure cancer because the problem is simply beyond our intellects. Perhaps we haven’t flown to the stars because our biology and God’s physics mean we never can. Perhaps we are close to the limit and the time of plenty is over.

The evidence is mounting that our two sunny centuries of growth and wealth may end in a new Dark Age in which ignorance will replace knowledge, war will replace peace, sickness will replace health and famine will replace obesity. You don’t think so? It’s always happened in the past. What makes us so different? Nothing, I’m afraid.

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.,,2099-1813695_1,00.html

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Interview: Carlo Petrini

2005/10/28 Leave a comment

>The Ecologist (April 01 2004)

While Slow Food is a global movement involving tens of thousands of people, at its heart is one man – Carlo Petrini. It is Petrini’s belief that pleasure and principles can go together that marks Slow Food out, making it neither a dull and worthy activist organisation, nor an effete society of culinary snobs. Petrini held this belief for many years before Slow Food was born. In the early 1970s he was a militant student and the creator of Italy’s first radical independent radio station. He also established a folk-music festival that did more than just put musicians on the stage; it sent them singing traditional regional songs into people’s houses. Everything Petrini has done dispels the notion that saving the world has to be a depressing mission. Nowhere could this be clearer than in the way Slow Food started. Almost 25 years ago Petrini and some friends wanted to encourage people to take an interest in and to protect the unique foods of their regions. However, they didn’t set up an office and launch a campaign. They opened a restaurant. The food and wine were good but not overpriced. Dinners rich in local specialities would stretch all night. People would come from all around to enjoy the food and the company, and as they did so they realised why it was so important. Most of all though, they were reminded how important it is to have fun. In this exclusive interview, Petrini describes what it is that makes Slow Food so special.

The Ecologist: How would you define the Slow Food concept?

Carlo Petrini: An eco-gastronomic movement. We were born as a gastronomical association, paying attention to the traditional pleasures of the table and wine, in order to oppose in some way the crazy speed of the ‘fast life’ – the way of life and food production that leads to the homogenisation of flavour and erosion of culture. However, we quickly realised that the flavours we wanted to save were closely connected to the work of people – of farmers, who with their ancient knowledge are the true custodians of biodiversity and the land. We had this fundamental realisation of the connection between sustainable agriculture and gastronomic culture. Anyone who thinks of themselves as a food lover but does not have any environmental awareness is naive. Whereas an ecologist who does not enjoy the pleasures of culture certainly has a sadder life.

What is the greatest threat to Slow Food?

I do not foresee any great threats to Slow Food, unless someone decides to really throw a stick into the wheels. Slow Food is a movement made up of people (almost 100,000 in five continents). As long as there are people who think like us, who reject unsustainable production methods and want to eat healthy and satisfying food, then we will have a place in society. I do not like to talk about Slow Food as something that stands in opposition to other things. We go calmly along our own path, convinced that efforts to create a better world begin with how one grows one’s food and end with how one consumes it.

Isn’t Slow Food just another middle-class fad?

No. Gastronomic pleasures are and should be for all. We work for quality food to be as widespread as possible. For too long gastronomy has had this aura of elitism, of not being serious, of emphasising only the playful and luxurious. Gastronomy is a serious science that includes the production of food, agriculture, land economy, sociology and anthropology. Not for nothing are we building a University of Gastronomic Science, where all these sciences will be studied with a rigorous interdisciplinary approach: it is essential we give an academic dignity to gastronomy. In the end, we are talking about one of the only things in life that is impossible to give up: food. It is crazy that the study of food has been reduced to the fields of nutrition and food technology, which are now completely in the grasp of an inhuman industry. Gastronomic pleasure can be experienced eating fejoada in a favela: it’s a physiological fact, not a luxury of the rich.

Can Slow Food feed the world’s hungry?

This is a complex problem. World hunger is a question that involves processes much bigger than us and powers that are difficult to overcome. But our approach has been recognised by the UN as innovative and useful in the fight against world hunger, and we are now an official UN Food and Agriculture Organisation partner. Restoring traditional production techniques strengthens the communities that have become victims of a global production system and the industrialisation of food. You see, when one loses a flavour, one loses a recipe. When one loses a recipe, one loses the knowledge of the use of a natural product. And when one loses this knowledge, one loses the ability to cultivate that product. As a result, we are slowly losing animal breeds and varieties of vegetables, and this means communities lose the capacity to maintain themselves – the whole fabric of society disintegrates and the scene is set for dependence upon multinational products. This is happening everywhere, but I think that in many areas hard hit by extreme poverty there are still the necessary conditions for restarting a way of life that is more acceptable – beginning with small-scale agriculture, and including the restoration of traditional foods from around the world.

Can the Slow Food concept be expanded to become a world view?

Well, it’s obvious that I believe Slow Food could become a global way of thinking. We are not against globalisation per se. We believe in a virtuous form of globalisation, where shortened distances become an advantage – a way to exchange experiences, for example, in which a people united across the earth celebrate the diversity of our traditional cultures and their specific values. The Slow Cities project works along similar lines, but I think it applies more easily to rich countries, where the rhythm and quality of life are becoming more and more unsustainable – just like the mass production of food. There are many initiatives that help us achieve what we support: we want to be very pragmatic and not limit ourselves to philosophising. I’m thinking of the importance of revitalising rural communities, not only from an economic point of view but also from a social one. We need to recreate the right conditions to allow the countryside to be a place where it is beautiful to live, one that gives pleasure and a good income. Our presidia projects are set up to save specific products, varieties and techniques, but ultimately the aim is to create a new ‘rurality’ – in the rich West as well as in developing countries – that is respectful of diversity and local cultures.

What would happen if every farmer worked to Slow Food principles?

Things would work much better. We are often accused of being nostalgic for the good old days, promoting a return to a way of life and production in the countryside that would not be able to survive the pressures of the modern world. Rather, I think that the old values of a rural society, quickly rejected and thrown away in the name of progress, could still be very useful and still very modern if applied again. It does not seem Utopian to me that we can recreate rural environments that are beautiful to live in, where the landscape is looked after, where food is well produced and there is local and seasonal distribution. It is not impossible to believe we can return to the countryside, that our farmers can become cultured again, strong in the knowledge they have developed for centuries and that has been forgotten in only fifty years.

Is it really better to throw ourselves blindly into the new, or should we look discerningly behind us and try to understand the errors we have made? How can consumers bring Slow Food into their lives?

Slow Food is for everybody. Consumers can bring this idea into their lives simply by seeking to explore, to learn and to know. Our organisation does this: it educates everyone, at every level. This is one of our principle missions. But this alone is not enough. I’d say that the most useful thing that can be done is rebuilding a direct relationship between consumers and producers. There will never be a Slow Food brand on any product. There are already too many brands around and they create confusion. It is up to people to apply their ideas, their knowledge, their learning. The producer’s duty is to teach and communicate what they do, while the consumer has the duty to get informed and to use their consumer power. It is only with education and with a return to a more human dimension of production that this ‘virtuous cycle’ can be created.

People work long and late and get home tired: how can they embrace Slow Food?

In my opinion we have never had so much time at our disposal as we do nowadays. It is up to us to organise it in the best way in order to live in the best way possible. Everything is faster: shouldn’t time move faster too? Maybe we just fill up our lives with useless things, without ever knowing what our priorities are. And if we talk about practical things, good old traditional food teaches us how to save time without giving up on quality. There are recipes such as minestrone and slow cooked pasta sauces that once prepared can last for a week. Then there is the use of leftovers, which in certain cooking traditions has given life to extraordinary dishes. Ravioli and pizza, for example, were originally created to stop people having to throw leftovers away.

You are setting up a gastronomic university. What about educating children about Slow Food?

It is never too late to learn. The University of Gastronomic Science will be the highest acknowledgment of an ongoing, daily, widespread educational process that takes place within our convivia all over the world, in different shapes and forms and for all ages. For example, in Italy we have “Master of Food” evening courses for all members who want to deepen their knowledge about the secrets of food production and who want to learn to recognise quality by training their senses and experimenting with tasting. For the Master of Food degree there are 450 teachers around Italy, who in the space of a few short years have held more than 1,200 courses for over 24,000 people. Furthermore we have been officially recognised by Italy’s Ministry of Education so we can hold courses in schools, for teachers and children. At the last international Slow Food meeting in Naples we institutionalised an initiative that had already been done in the US and in Australia: school gardens. The motto was “a garden in every school”, so children can learn to cultivate local varieties, to follow the rhythm of the seasons and to cook what they have grown. This seems to me to be the most natural way of rebuilding a relationship with the earth and with food – a relationship that has been dramatically broken, like a severed umbilical chord.

What’s your idea of a perfect lunch?

My perfect lunch depends on where I find myself. Products and recipes of the area and in the local tradition; from the starters to the drinks; in any place in the world.

Mail To: Slow Food, Via Della Mendicita Istruita 8, 12042 Bra (Cuneo), Italy

Or visit:

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Thirty Steps to an Oil Free World

2005/10/27 1 comment

>Our addiction to oil is not inevitable.
We can all take steps to kick the habit.

The Ecologist

What you can do:

1. Walk, cycle, take public transport or consider a car-pool whenever possible.

2. Reduce your travel by air.

3. If you need a car, buy the most fuel-efficient (currently Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Insight – both hybrid cars that use petrol and electricity) or one that runs on bio-diesel or natural gas.

4. Service your car regularly – keeping the engine tuned and your car tyres at the maximum recommended air pressure saves petrol.

5. Live as close to work as possible.

6. Shop locally rather than in out-of-town superstores.

7. Buy regionally and seasonally produced organic food whenever possible.

8. Switch your investments away from fossil fuel to renewable energy companies, or exercise your right as a shareholder to pressure energy companies to make the transition to renewables.

9. Boycott the products of companies like Esso that are obstructing the transition to renewables.

What the government can do:

10. Lobby your political representatives to press them to act, and vote accordingly.

11. Accept a target of phasing out oil and gas use within fifty years.

12. Discontinue all direct and indirect subsidies to the oil and gas industry.

13. Refuse licenses for the exploration and development of new oil and gas reserves.

14. Provide investment, grants, and tax breaks for the development and purchase of clean renewable alternatives to oil and for energy efficient vehicles.

15. Increase investment in public transport.

16. Pedestrianise city centres and introduce congestion charges in cities.

17. Require car makers to ensure an escalating proportion of their vehicle fleet sales consists of petrol-free vehicles.

18. Increase minimum energy efficiency standards for vehicles.

19. Change tariff policies on imports to support the local consumption of goods (particularly food) that have been produced locally.

What businesses can do:

20. Phase out subsidies to industrial food production, which is petrol-intensive, and support conversion to organic methods instead.

21. Oil and gas companies should commit to converting themselves into renewable energy companies, and redirect their investments accordingly.

22. Car makers should commit to mass-manufacture cars now that run on hydrogen fuel cells or other renewable fuels, and that use lighter materials.

23. Companies should convert their truck and car fleets to the lowest petrol-consuming vehicles available.

24. Companies should provide incentives for employees to leave their cars at home and use public transport instead, reduce air travel, and promote telecommuting.

25. Companies should site their offices close to public transportation.

26. Retailers should adopt a purchasing policy that provides preference to goods from short supply routes and regional markets.

27. Companies should shift freight out of trucks and onto rail and waterways.

28. Farmers should convert from industrial to organic farming methods.

29. The plastics and packaging industries should replace their use of oil with corn, soybean, potato starch or limestone derivatives.

30. The clothing industry should use vegetable starch and natural fibres, such as wool and cotton, instead of oil derivatives in their products.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Our Own Nuclear Salesman

2005/10/26 Leave a comment

>The government’s chief scientist appears to have succumbed to politics

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (October 25 2005)

I report this with sadness: Sir David King has lost his bottle. Until a few weeks ago, the chief scientific adviser looked to me like one of the few brave souls in the British government. In an article in Science at the beginning of last year, he argued that “climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today – more serious even than the threat of terrorism” and criticised the Bush administration for “failing to take up the challenge”. {1} In response, he was viciously attacked by the Exxon-sponsored climate change denier Myron Ebell. {2} Being viciously attacked by Myron Ebell is something to which all self-respecting scientists should aspire.

Last month he was attacked again, and this time he deserved it. At a meeting of climate change specialists, Sir David announced that a “reasonable” target for stabilising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 550 parts of the gas per million parts of air. It would be “politically unrealistic”, he said, to demand anything lower. {3}

Simon Retallack, from the Institute for Public Policy Research, stood up and reminded Sir David what his job was. As chief scientist, his duty is not to represent political reality – there are plenty of advisers schooled in that art – but to represent scientific reality. Retallack’s own work, based on the latest science, shows that at 550 parts per million the chances of preventing more than two degrees of global warming are just ten to twenty percent. {4} To raise them to eighty percent, carbon concentrations will have to be stabilised at 400 parts. Two degrees is the point beyond which most climate scientists predict catastrophe: several key ecosystems are likely to flip into runaway feedback; the biosphere becomes a net source of carbon; global food production is clobbered and two billion people face the risk of drought. All very reasonable, I’m sure.

Sir David replied that if he recommended a lower limit, he would lose credibility with the government. As far as I was concerned, his credibility had just disappeared without trace. By shielding his masters from uncomfortable realities, he is failing in his duties as both scientist and adviser. Anyone who has studied the BSE crisis knows how dangerous the cowardice of scientific counsellors can be.

As if to prove that his nerve has gone, on Friday Sir David made his clearest statement yet that he sees nuclear power as the answer to climate change. With the right carbon taxes, he said, nuclear power would become cheaper than coal. “It’s important we do take the public with us on the environmental debate”, he said. “That is why I’m trying to sell it”. {5}

Sir David may have political reasons for “trying to sell” new nuclear power stations – at the Labour Party conference Tony Blair said he wants to re-examine the nuclear option {6} – but he would, I suspect, have as much trouble identifying a scientific case as he had at the meeting last month. The figures leave him stranded.

Let us forget, for the moment, that nuclear power spreads radioactive pollution, presents a target for terrorists and leaves us with waste that no government wants to handle. Like Sir David I believe that while all these problems are grave, they are not as grave as climate change. Let us concentrate on the money.

It seems clear that new nuclear power stations will not be built unless the government supports them. A recent review by the economics consultancy Oxera shows that even if you exclude the cost of insurance and include the benefits of emissions trading (which attaches a price to carbon dioxide), “a programme of public assistance … would be needed to boost predicted [rates of return] to a level that is acceptable to private investors”. The consultants suggested that GBP 1.6 billion of grants might be enough to tip the balance in favour of a new nuclear programme. {7}

The first “even if” is a big one. Private insurers will not cover the risk. Three international conventions limit investors’ liability and oblige governments to pick up the bill on their behalf. {8} According to a report commissioned by the European Parliament, the costs of a large-scale nuclear accident range from 83 billion euros to 5.5 trillion. {9} They would have to be met by us.

But let us also forget the costs of insurance. If the public sector (or for that matter, given that funds are limited, the private sector) invests in nuclear power, is this the best use to which the money can be put? This is the question addressed in a new paper by the physicist Amory Lovins. {10}

He begins by examining the terms of reference used by people like David King, who compare nuclear power “only with a central power plant burning coal or natural gas”. If the costs of construction come down and if the government offers big enough subsidies and makes carbon emissions sufficiently expensive, Lovins says, nuclear power might be able to compete with coal. “But those central thermal power plants are the wrong competitors. None of them can compete with windpower … let alone with two far cheaper resources: cogeneration of heat and power, and efficient use of electricity”.

Ten cents of investment, he shows, will buy either 1 kilowatt-hour of nuclear electricity; 1.2 to 1.7 of windpower; 2.2 to 6.5 of small-scale cogeneration; or up to 10 of energy efficiency. “Its higher cost than competitors, per unit of net carbon dioxide displaced, means that every dollar invested in nuclear expansion will worsen climate change by buying less solution per dollar”. And, because nuclear power stations take so long to build, it would be spent later. “Expanding nuclear power would both reduce and retard the desired decrease in carbon dioxide emissions”. {11}

Already, the market is voting with its wallet. “In 2004 alone”, Lovins notes, “Spain and Germany each added as much wind capacity – two billion watts – as nuclear power is adding worldwide in each year of this decade”. Though the nuclear industry in the US has guzzled 33 times as much government money as wind {12} and has “enjoyed a regulatory system of its own design for a quarter-century”, it hasn’t fulfilled a single new order from the electricity companies since 1973. {13} And, unlike nuclear power stations, wind, cogeneration and energy efficiency will all become much cheaper.

It’s certainly a good idea, as people like Sir David recommend, to have a “diversified energy portfolio”. But, as Lovins points out, “this does not mean … that every option merits a place in the portfolio purely for the sake of diversity, any more than a financial portfolio should include bad investments just because they’re on the market”. Building new nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom would be a political decision, not a scientific one.

So what has happened to the man who once bravely did battle with the new Inquisition? A memo sent by Tony Blair’s private secretary, Ivan Rogers, a month after Sir David’s article was published in Science, instructed him to stop criticising the Bush administration on the grounds that it “does not help us achieve our wider policy aims”. {14} Mock interviews Sir David conducted with his political minders, which were found by a journalist on a disk dropped by his press secretary, show him learning to recite the government’s line. {15} Could he have had his arm twisted over the nuclear issue too?

I hope not, and I hope he can produce some robust figures to support his contentions. But I fear that the government’s chief scientist is mutating into its chief spin doctor.


1. David King, 9th January 2004. Climate Change Science: Adapt, Mitigate, or Ignore? Science, Vol 303, Issue 5655.

2. Myron Ebell, 8th November 2004. The Today programme.

3. David King, 21st September 2005. Speech to the Decarbonising the UK conference, Church House, Westminster.

4. Simon Retallack, October 2004. Setting a Long Term Climate Objective. Institute for Public Policy Research.

5. David Adam, 21st October 2005. Chief scientist backs nuclear power revival. The Guardian.

6. Tony Blair, 27th September 2005. Speech to the Labour Party conference.

7. Oxera, 1st June 2005. Financing the nuclear option: modelling the costs of new build.

8. The 1960 Paris Convention, 1963 Vienna Convention and 1988 Joint Protocol.

9. Oosterhuis, F (2001), Energy subsidies in the European Union. Final Report, European Parliament, July 2001, cited by the European Environment Agency, 2004. Energy subsidies in the European Union.

10. Amory B Lovins, 11th September 2005. Nuclear power: economics and climate-protection potential. The Rocky Mountain Institute.

11. ibid.

12. Table 4: (Effective subsidy (USD/KWh)). European Environment Agency, 2004. Energy subsidies in the European Union.

13. Amory B Lovins, ibid.

14. Roger Highfield, 8th March 2004. Downing St ‘gags chief adviser on global warming’. The Telegraph.

15. ibid.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>How to concoct a conspiracy theory

2005/10/25 Leave a comment

>Short Cuts

by Thomas Jones

London Review of Books, Vol 27 No 20 (October 20 2005)

The first rule when concocting a conspiracy theory is not to make any claims that can be proved not to be true. It won’t do, for example, to assert that John Kennedy was shot by Jackie Kennedy, because it’s clear from the film footage of the assassination that he wasn’t. Of course, you could make a case for that footage being faked, but how then would you account for eyewitness reports? Best not to go there. A decent conspiracy theory is made up of hard facts; the invention lies in drawing the connections. For example: Diana, Princess of Wales and campaigner against landmines, died in mysterious circumstances in Paris in August 1997; in July 1998, Brazil’s star striker, Ronaldo, fell mysteriously ill the night before the World Cup final at the Stade de France in Paris, a match in which France defeated Brazil 3-0; on the same day, David Ginola, retired French footballer and sometime L’Oreal model, became the new face of the anti-landmine movement. So far, so unconnected. But now let’s posit the existence of a mysterious secret organisation working tirelessly and ruthlessly to improve the fortunes of French footballers, an organisation so shadowy that not even the players themselves know of its activities or existence.

So far as I know, this theory has no subscribers – yet. Though I’m sure it would acquire a few thousand if Dan Brown were to write a novel based on it. Conspiracies lend themselves well to works of fiction: plots make for good plots. The best conspiracy-theory novels – Gravity’s Rainbow, for example – contain more fact than at first seems credible. But lots of people are dispiritingly willing to believe any old nonsense. This doesn’t much matter when the nonsense is The Da Vinci Code. It’s more of a problem when it’s something like the most notorious and pernicious fictional conspiracy-theory document of the 20th century, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The Protocols, which poses as an instruction manual for Jewish world domination, was first published in 1903, serialised in a St Petersburg newspaper by Pavel Krushevan. Much of the text was plagiarised from Maurice Joly’s 1864 satire, Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu, which in turn was substantially plagiarised from Eugene Sue’s novel Les Mysteres du peuple (1849-56), in which the conspirators are not Jews but Jesuits. The Protocols was taken up by Tsar Nicholas II, Hitler and Henry Ford, who in the 1920s had half a million copies of it printed, even though it had been conclusively shown to be an anti-semitic fraud in 1921.

There is a striking paradox here: as in most racist conspiracy theories, the people accused of possessing vast, clandestine power in fact belonged to a relatively powerless and vulnerable minority. A few months before publishing The Protocols, Krushevan helped instigate the Kishinev pogrom by blaming the murder of a Christian boy, who was in fact killed by one of his relatives, on the Jews. In the riots that followed, nearly fifty Jews were killed, hundreds were injured, and more than seven hundred houses were looted or destroyed over the course of three days. The police and military didn’t intervene.

In Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (Fairleigh Dickinson, 2005), Bat Ye’or

“… describes Europe’s evolution from a Judeo-Christian civilisation, with important post-Enlightenment secular elements, into a post-Judeo-Christian civilisation that is subservient to the ideology of jihad and the Islamic powers that propagate it. The new European civilisation in the making can be called a ‘civilisation of dhimmitude’. The term ‘dhimmitude’ comes from the Arabic word dhimmi. It refers to subjugated, non-Muslim individuals or people that accept a restrictive and humiliating subordination to an ascendant Islamic power to avoid enslavement or death.”

Martin Gilbert praises Eurabia as “a warning to Europe not to allow the anti-American and anti-Israel pressures of Islam to subvert Europe’s true values: vibrant democracy, humanitarian free thinking and social fair dealing”. Tell that to the Muslim detainees in Belmarsh Prison. Daniel Pipes says that “Bat Ye’or has traced a nearly secret history of Europe over the past thirty years, convincingly showing how the Euro-Arab Dialogue has blossomed from a minor discussion group into the engine for the continent’s Islamisation”. You may never have heard of the Euro-Arab Dialogue, but that only goes to show how powerful it is. And according to Niall Ferguson, “future historians will one day regard her coinage of the term ‘Eurabia’ as prophetic. Those who wish to live in a free society must be eternally vigilant. Bat Ye’or’s vigilance is unrivalled.”

Western Europe is in danger from Islamic extremism, as was demonstrated in London on 7 July this year, and in Madrid on 11 March 2004. But if there’s a threat to our freedom and democracy, it is posed not by the suicide bombers but by government reaction to the bombings: the summary public execution of Jean Charles de Menezes; the proposal to extend the legal period of detention without trial for terrorist suspects from fourteen days to three months. The ‘Islamisation’ of Europe seems a very distant prospect to me. Ye’or would probably put my denial down to ‘dhimmitude’. In a review of Ye’or’s previous book, Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilisations Collide (2002), Melanie Phillips said that “there are … alarming signs of attempts in the West to shut down such discussions on spurious grounds of prejudice. This is, of course, itself a prime example of the condition of ‘dhimmitude’ which Bat Ye’or so graphically describes.”

The second rule to bear in mind when putting together a conspiracy theory is that in order to hold water it needs to be circular, or rather spiral, so that any criticism can be sucked in and turned into evidence in its favour.

Thomas Jones is an editor at the London Review of Books.

Copyright LRB Ltd, 1997-2004

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized