Saturday, March 28, 2015

why chess?

I'm currently working as a chess coach with Chess Ideas. Here is my argument for the value of chess:
Iris Murdoch, novelist and philosopher, wrote that great art requires paying close attention to reality (The Sovereignty of Good). She was comparing great art with the more common fantasy art or a capitulation to wishful thinking.

In chess, as well, you have to focus attentively on the position in front of you and not be swayed by wish fulfilment or a sudden mood swing. Chess poses many problems to solve both in quantity and variety; possibly more so than in other domains. There are a wide variety of tactical themes as well as different schools of thought about strategic play. Furthermore, openings, middle game and end game all have their own particular challenges. To succeed in chess you need to prepare intelligently, think rationally, concentrate deeply, control your emotions and not yield to whim or fancy. From this it follows that many chess players become independent thinkers in other domains.

Choice and activity are important parts of chess. This fits nicely with learning theories which stress the importance of active learning, in contrast to the passive reception of received wisdom. Playing chess expertly against an opponent means committing to making complex decisions at nearly every move. This also involves time management because competitive games are played using a timer. This is good preparation for decision making in some aspects of life.

Chess teaches a discipline. This requires looking deeply into a difficult subject, to strive for depth and something approaching objectivity. At the same time it is a game and like all games is fun. This particular sort of fun emerges from a deep mental workout. Chess can be a motivator to immerse yourself deeply in logical, rational thinking.

Young people can be highly successful at chess. Unlike other areas in life sheer ability nearly always comes out on top, irrespective of age. The current world champion, Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen, is 23 years old.
One of Australia's most promising players, Anton Smirnov, is only 13 years old, amongst the best players of his age in the world! The young can tackle this complex cognitive task and shine against adults, which is wonderful for their self confidence.

Chess is competitive. Competition is a double edged sword, for sure, but it does have a good side. It promotes interest, alertness and elicits high achievement. The rapid feedback acts as a huge spur to solve the problems optimally. Losing at competitive chess can be painful. If the player accepts this challenge long term then it is character building, promoting mental toughness, resilience, will power, determination and persistence.

Chess promotes analytical skills. An important part of chess training is to record and then revisit your games to evaluate and in some cases to annotate in detail. Good players also study chess books out of the necessity to improve. This process develops expert reading, study and analytical writing skills.

As former world champion, Gary Kasparov, points out if you can apply what you have learnt through chess to yourself then chess can be very valuable indeed:
"My argument has always been that what you learn from using the skills you have—analyzing your strengths and weaknesses—is far more important. If you can program yourself to learn from your experiences by assiduously reviewing what worked and what did not, and why, success in chess can be very valuable indeed. In this way, the game has taught me a great deal about my own decision-making processes that is applicable in other areas, but that effort has little to do with natural gifts."
- source

Thursday, March 26, 2015

social forms and the individual

Unknown unknowns: All the things you don't know you don't know

I thought I had understood capitalism, that the bosses owned the means of production and the workers had no option but to sell their labour to the boss. There were rich people, poor people and class struggle.

But I didn't know about Value as a social form and so my real understanding of capitalism was deficient.

Despite my involvement in radical anti-imperialist / communist politics going back to the late 1960s I totally missed that a variety of social forms (formations) that we swim in daily have evolved and materialised from non material things, namely social relations. For example, some people worship money and virtually everyone can't help but adopt a strong interest in money, since it is essential to both survival and a good life. But most people haven't thought through that money originates in a social relation, that is, the need to standardise commodity exchange.

Such social forms are historically contingent, not an inevitable aspects of society. In the late 60s I had looked below the surface of capitalism and understood some of its workings but had missed that there was a lot more happening down there than I had imagined. Sadly, I now realise, my ignorance was and is shared by most other 60s radicals. This ignorance originated in a failure to understand Marx's most important work, “Capital”.


Social forms are things that emerge (materialise) as social artefacts as society evolves. Their origin is social not material. They become part of that society and are often perceived as part of the air we breathe. But it is social function that has brought them about and not the form which has created the social function. They don’t have any necessary permanence beyond that. Social forms in capitalist society include things of major importance such as value, money, capital, the commodity, commodity exchange, the market, rent and interest. These things emerge from a social process and are not set in stone for all time.

What Marx meant by Value as a social form was the capacity of a commodity to be exchanged as an equal. In terms of social or class consciousness some people have a strong sense of boss – worker relations as a social construct, something that can change, but usually do not have the same sense that Value has arisen socially and will not be around forever. You can imagine a society (socialism, communism) where things are produced for people's needs or wants, that people will receive food, medicine and white goods irrespective of their financial status. In such a society Value as a measure of commodities to be exchanged would whither away.

I am taking a lot of short cuts here. I can explain Value in more detail in another post. Marx argues that money (he refers to gold or silver as money) evolves from the commodity. Money eventually evolves as a universal equivalent. Gold has the ideal properties required for money (divisibility, durability etc.)

Hence Value arises through the social process of commodity exchange. Its origin and evolution is through this social process and has nothing to do with any identifiable physical or material properties of commodities. Although value eventually takes a physical form in the shape of money its origin is social.
“No scientist to date has yet discovered what natural qualities make definite proportions of snuff, tobacco and paintings 'equivalents' of one another” (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part 3, p. 130, link)
In time the social forms become more than the expression but the bearers, the motivators, the dominant consideration in the decisions people make in their lives. This is fairly obvious, in the case of money, for instance.


My friend Peter, is trying to develop a theory of ethical and moral value, based on Marx. One of his ideas here is to include the concept of the individual as a social form. In his words:
“I want to isolate, and show the epistemological weaknesses in notions (widespread in both philosophy and psychology, both in the past and today) of the separate, atomistic, private, individual self, as if it is, as if it could be, the basis of value and meaning in society today.

Such a self, I hope to demonstrate, is a by-product of, an abstraction, from material, universal human interaction. And that that self arises, historically, along with money – as a result, initially, of exchange relations, but only becomes individual autonomy (a very abstract and alienated idea of individual freedom and equality, as described by Marx in Capital) with the rise of wage labour as an important part of exchange in capitalism.

The abstraction that is the separate, atomistic, private individual self today sits over, and obscures (what is regarded as ‘outside’ - both behind the backs, but also in front of the noses, of every individual) – the material, social and universal aspect of everyday human interaction. The creative potential of all our human interactions is depleted in the ubiquitous ‘breaking up’ of those interactions into well intentioned, but very separate, atomistic, private, individual selves (deemed to be both real and ‘universal’).

Life is about, we are told, each of us, giving and taking what we need and we want. And that, the give and take, is a natural and ahistorical fact of life - there is no value greater, there is nothing more real, than the good self who strives to live by what is given to us all, according to what we all have inherited, as good, right and true.

I hope to demonstrate that the religious, superstitious and fetishistic abstraction, that is the autonomous individual, works every day, to erode, deplete and render sterile the creative and social opportunities that arise every day in human interaction. Such individualism, insinuated between every one of us, and between our actions, makes us strangers to the immanent nature of universal social need and injustice. The solitary self is a stumbling block that continues, is actively used, to crush real human creativity."
I have some issues with this interpretation of the individual. I will write about those later. What I wanted to do in this post was to explain the meaning of social forms and at least outline the case, from Peter, that such an interpretation of the individual is at least plausible.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: the future of Islam

But this is not a work of theology. It is more in the nature of a public intervention in the debate about the future of Islam. The biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world is precisely its suppression of the sort of critical thinking I am attempting here. If my proposal for reform helps to spark a serious discussion of these issues among Muslims themselves, I will consider it a success
“ISLAM’S borders are bloody,” wrote the late US political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1996, “and so are its innards.”

Nearly 20 years later, Huntington looks more right than ever before.

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, at least 70 per cent of all the fatalities in armed conflicts around the world last year were in wars involving Muslims.

In 2013, there were nearly 12,000 terrorist attacks worldwide. The lion’s share were in Muslim-majority countries, and many of the others were carried out by Muslims.

By far the most numerous victims of Muslim violence — including executions and lynchings not captured in these statistics — are Muslims themselves.

Not all of this violence is explicitly motivated by religion, but a great deal of it is. I believe that it is foolish to insist, as Western leaders habitually do, that the violent acts committed in the name of Islam can somehow be divorced from the religion itself.

For more than a decade, my message has been simple: Islam is not a religion of peace.

When I assert this, I do not mean that Islamic belief makes all Muslims violent. This is manifestly not the case: There are many millions of peaceful Muslims in the world.

What I do say is that the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam.

Moreover, this theologically sanctioned violence is there to be activated by any number of offences, including but not limited to apostasy, adultery, blasphemy and even something as vague as threats to family honour or to the honour of Islam itself.

It is not just al-Qa’ida and Islamic State that show the violent face of Islamic faith and practice.

It is Pakistan, where any statement critical of the Prophet or Islam is labelled as blasphemy and punishable by death.

It is Saudi Arabia, where churches and synagogues are outlawed and where beheadings are a legitimate form of punishment. It is Iran, where stoning is an acceptable punishment and homosexuals are hanged for their “crime”.

As I see it, the fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.

It simply will not do for Muslims to claim that their religion has been “hijacked” by extremists. The killers of Islamic State and Nigeria’s Boko Haram cite the same religious texts that every other Muslim in the world considers sacrosanct.

Instead of letting Islam off the hook with bland cliches about the religion of peace, we in the West need to challenge and debate the very substance of Islamic thought and practice.

We need to hold Islam accountable for the acts of its most violent adherents and to demand that it reform or disavow the key beliefs that are used to justify those acts.

As it turns out, the West has some experience with this sort of reformist project. It is precisely what took place in Judaism and Christianity over the centuries, as both traditions gradually consigned the violent passages of their own sacred texts to the past.

Many parts of the Bible and the Talmud reflect patriarchal norms, and both also contain many stories of harsh human and divine retribution. As President Barack Obama said in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast last month, “Remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Yet today, because their faiths went through a long, meaningful process of Reformation and Enlightenment, the vast majority of Jews and Christians have come to dismiss religious scripture that urges intolerance or violence.

There are literalist fringes in both religions, but they are true fringes. Regrettably, in Islam, it is the other way around: It is those seeking religious reform who are the fringe element.

Any serious discussion of Islam must begin with its core creed, which is based on the Koran (the words said to have been revealed by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed) and the hadith (the accompanying works that detail Mohammed’s life and words).

Despite some sectarian differences, this creed unites all Muslims. All, without exception, know by heart these words: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Mohammed is His messenger.” This is the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith.

The Shahada might seem to be a declaration of belief no different from any other. But the reality is that the Shahada is both a religious and a political symbol.

In the early days of Islam, when Mohammed was going from door to door in Mecca trying to persuade the polytheists to abandon their idols of worship, he was inviting them to accept that there was no god but Allah and that he was Allah’s messenger.

After 10 years of trying this kind of persuasion, however, he and his small band of believers went to Medina, and from that moment, Mohammed’s mission took on a political dimension.

Unbelievers were still invited to submit to Allah, but after Medina, they were attacked if they refused. If defeated, they were given the option to convert or to die. (Jews and Christians could retain their faith if they submitted to paying a special tax.)

No symbol represents the soul of Islam more than the Shahada. But today there is a contest within Islam for the ownership of that symbol. Who owns the Shahada? Is it those Muslims who want to emphasise Mohammed’s years in Mecca or those who are inspired by his conquests after Medina? On this basis, I believe that we can distinguish three different groups of Muslims.

The first group is the most problematic. These are the fundamentalists who, when they say the Shahada, mean: “We must live by the strict letter of our creed.”

They envision a regimen based on Shariah, Islamic religious law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version. What is more, they take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else.

I shall call them Medina Muslims, in that they see the forcible imposition of Shariah as their religious duty. They aim not just to obey Mohammed’s teaching but also to emulate his warlike conduct after his move to Medina. Even if they do not themselves engage in violence, they do not hesitate to condone it.

It is Medina Muslims who call Jews and Christians “pigs and monkeys”. It is Medina Muslims who prescribe death for the crime of apostasy, death by stoning for adultery and hanging for homosexuality. It is Medina Muslims who put women in burqas and beat them if they leave their homes alone or if they are improperly veiled.

The second group — and the clear majority throughout the Muslim world — consists of Muslims who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence.

I call them Mecca Muslims. Like devout Christians or Jews who attend religious services every day and abide by religious rules in what they eat and wear, Mecca Muslims focus on religious observance. I was born in Somalia and raised as a Mecca Muslim. So were the majority of Muslims from Casablanca to Jakarta.

Yet the Mecca Muslims have a problem: Their religious beliefs exist in an uneasy tension with modernity — the complex of economic, cultural and political innovations that not only reshaped the Western world but also dramatically transformed the developing world as the West exported it.

The rational, secular and individualistic values of modernity are fundamentally corrosive of traditional societies, especially hierarchies based on gender, age and inherited status.

Trapped between two worlds of belief and experience, these Muslims are engaged in a daily struggle to adhere to Islam in the context of a society that challenges their values and beliefs at every turn.

Many are able to resolve this tension only by withdrawing into self-enclosed (and increasingly self-governing) enclaves. This is called cocooning, a practice whereby Muslim immigrants attempt to wall off outside influences, permitting only an Islamic education for their children and disengaging from the wider non-Muslim community.

It is my hope to engage this second group of Muslims — those closer to Mecca than to Medina — in a dialogue about the meaning and practice of their faith.

I recognise that these Muslims are not likely to heed a call for doctrinal reformation from someone they regard as an apostate and infidel.

But they may reconsider if I can persuade them to think of me not as an apostate but as a heretic: one of a growing number of people born into Islam who have sought to think critically about the faith we were raised in. It is with this third group — only a few of whom have left Islam altogether — that I would now identify myself.

These are the Muslim dissidents. A few of us have been forced by experience to conclude that we could not continue to be believers; yet we remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future. The majority of dissidents are reforming believers — among them clerics who have come to realise that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.

How many Muslims belong to each group? Ed Husain of the US Council on Foreign Relations estimates that only 3 per cent of the world’s Muslims understand Islam in the militant terms I associate with Mohammed’s time in Medina.

But out of well over 1.6 billion believers, or 23 per cent of the globe’s population, that 48 million seems to be more than enough. (I would put the number significantly higher, based on survey data on attitudes toward Shariah in Muslim countries.)

In any case, regardless of the numbers, it is the Medina Muslims who have captured the world’s attention on the airwaves, over social media, in far too many mosques and, of course, on the battlefield.

The Medina Muslims pose a threat not just to non-Muslims. They also undermine the position of those Mecca Muslims attempting to lead a quiet life in their cultural cocoons throughout the Western world. But those under the greatest threat are the dissidents and reformers within Islam, who face ostracism and rejection, who must brave all manner of insults, who must deal with the death threats — or face death itself.

For the world at large, the only viable strategy for containing the threat posed by the Medina Muslims is to side with the dissidents and reformers and to help them to do two things: first, identify and repudiate those parts of Mohammed’s legacy that summon Muslims to intolerance and war, and second, persuade the great majority of believers — the Mecca Muslims — to accept this change.

Islam is at a crossroads. Muslims need to make a conscious decision to confront, debate and ultimately reject the violent elements within their religion.

To some extent — not least because of widespread revulsion at the atrocities of Islamic State, al-Qa’ida and the rest — this process has already begun. But it needs leadership from the dissidents, and they in turn stand no chance without support from the West.

What needs to happen for us to defeat the extremists for good? Economic, political, judicial and military tools have been proposed and some of them deployed. But I believe that these will have little effect unless Islam itself is reformed.

Such a reformation has been called for repeatedly at least since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent abolition of the caliphate. But I would like to specify precisely what needs to be reformed.

I have identified five precepts central to Islam that have made it resistant to historical change and adaptation. Only when the harmfulness of these ideas are recognised and they are repudiated will a true Muslim Reformation have been achieved.

Here are the five areas that require amendment:

1. Mohammed’s semi-divine status, along with the literalist reading of the Koran.

Mohammed should not be seen as infallible, let alone as a source of divine writ. He should be seen as a historical figure who united the Arab tribes in a premodern context that cannot be replicated in the 21st century. And although Islam maintains that the Koran is the literal word of Allah, it is, in historical reality, a book that was shaped by human hands. Large parts of the Koran simply reflect the tribal values of the 7th-century Arabian context from which it emerged. The Koran’s eternal spiritual values must be separated from the cultural accidents of the place and time of its birth.

2. The supremacy of life after death.

The appeal of martyrdom will fade only when Muslims assign a greater value to the rewards of this life than to those promised in the hereafter.

3. Sharia, the vast body of religious legislation.

Muslims should learn to put the dynamic, evolving laws made by human beings above those aspects of Shariah that are violent, intolerant or anachronistic.

4. The right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law.

There is no room in the modern world for religious police, vigilantes and politically empowered clerics.

5. The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

Islam must become a true religion of peace, which means rejecting the imposition of religion by the sword.

I know that this argument will make many Muslims uncomfortable. Some are bound to be offended by my proposed amendments. Others will contend that I am not qualified to discuss these complex issues of theology and law. I am also afraid — genuinely afraid — that it will make a few Muslims even more eager to silence me.

But this is not a work of theology. It is more in the nature of a public intervention in the debate about the future of Islam. The biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world is precisely its suppression of the sort of critical thinking I am attempting here. If my proposal for reform helps to spark a serious discussion of these issues among Muslims themselves, I will consider it a success.

Let me make two things clear. I do not seek to inspire another war on terror or extremism — violence in the name of Islam cannot be ended by military means alone. Nor am I any sort of “Islamophobe”.

At various times, I myself have been all three kinds of Muslim: a fundamentalist, a cocooned believer and a dissident. My journey has gone from Mecca to Medina to Manhattan.

For me, there seemed no way to reconcile my faith with the freedoms I came to the West to embrace. I left the faith, despite the threat of the death penalty prescribed by Shariah for apostates.

Future generations of Muslims deserve better, safer options. Muslims should be able to welcome modernity, not be forced to wall themselves off, or live in a state of cognitive dissonance, or lash out in violent rejection.

But it is not only Muslims who would benefit from a reformation of Islam. We in the West have an enormous stake in how the struggle over Islam plays out. We cannot remain on the sidelines, as though the outcome has nothing to do with us.

For if the Medina Muslims win and the hope for a Muslim Reformation dies, the rest of the world too will pay an enormous price — not only in blood spilled but also in freedom lost.

This essay is adapted from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. From the Wall Street Journal, here

a new inconvenient truth

President Obama is wrong when he links climate change to extreme weather events.

Roger Pielke jnr gave expert testimony to the US Senate that hurricanes have declined by 20% since 1900

In response a Democrat senator, Raul Grijalva, has launched an investigation into him as a paid dupe of the oil and gas companies.

Pielke's new book, The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change documents the evidence.

The witch hunt against Pielke jnr is documented here

Pielke points out that Democrats are just as irrational as Republicans, that the narrative that Republicans are the main source of nutty ideas is exposed

Extract from a review of Piele jnrs new book:
... Pielke published a piece about climate change and natural disasters on the then-new website of statistician Nate Silver. The gist of the piece was that the rising cost of natural disasters (such as hurricanes) was the result not of an increase in the severity of those events, but of an increase in wealth: “We’re seeing ever-larger losses simply because we have more to lose—when an earthquake or flood occurs, more stuff gets damaged.” Based on that mild-mannered thesis, Slate branded Pielke a “climate-change denialist,” Daily Kos characterized him as a “climate disinformer,” and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called him a “known irresponsible skeptic.”

In making his point about politicians telling stretchers about the weather, Pielke points to a 2013 speech by Obama in which the president said, “In a world that’s getting warmer than it used to be, all weather events are affected by it—more extreme droughts, floods, wildfires, and hurricanes.”

Saturday, March 14, 2015

What Marx said about the individual in "The German Ideology"

I've been discussing, mainly with Peter, and thinking about the concept of the individual. What is an individual? One avenue has been to clarify what Marx said about this. What follows is a summary of part of his writings. There will be other posts about Marx and other authors to follow, on this topic.

The German Ideology was written in 1845-6, when Marx was 27 or 28 yo. I mention this because some argue there are significant differences between the young Marx and the older Marx.

Part of the Feuerbach section of The German Ideology
Individuals, Class and Community

Here is my summary:

The context is a discussion of the rise of the trading or mercantile class (burghers) in antagonism to the feudal class. Over time the trading class develops into the bourgeoisie or propertied class. Traders and bourgeois compete intensely with each other but are also compelled to unite with each other in their struggle to overthrow the feudal class.

Marx says clearly that individuals arise historically before classes. In footnote 2 Marx specifically rejects the formulations that "each is all", "that bourgeois is only a specimen of the bourgeois species" and "that the class of bourgeois existed before the individuals constituting it".

Individuals act as individuals, including competing with each other, but as classes develop they discover they are members of a class.
"The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, become subsumed under it."
As class society develops individuals become "subsumed" to their class. Subsume means to be incorporated into something more comprehensive. Social classes are more comprehensive than individuals. This process includes being subjected to all sorts of (bad) ideas. Marx's words here are, "We have already indicated several times how this subsuming of individuals under the class brings with it their subjection to all kinds of ideas, etc."

Marx is clear about the sort of society (communism, a society without a ruling class) we would need for this process of individuals being subsumed to classes to come to an end:
"This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class"
As capitalism develops one of the main things denying individual freedom is the division of labour which develops as part of the capitalist system

To abolish division of labour and to make personal freedom possible requires a true community where an individual has the means of cultivating his gifts in all direction through free association with others in the community.

But community under capitalism is illusory except for the privileged. For the majority it becomes a new fetter because of capitalist social relations, which includes barriers arising from wealth disparity and the above mentioned division of labour.

Consequently, under capitalism within individual life there appears a division between the personal, on the one hand, and that which is determined by the division of labour, arising from the needs of the capitalist system, on the other hand. Persons are still persons but their personality is largely determined by their position in class society.

Under capitalism where individuals end up is largely "accidental" (random). You don't develop as a fully free individual because to survive under capitalism means you have to slot yourself somewhere into the capitalist inspired division of labour.

Individuals might think they are free because where they end up is accidental but in reality they are less free (than under earlier social systems) because they are subject to "the violence of things". Perhaps this anticipates Marx's later analysis of commodity relations, which describes the replacement of human relationships with the relationship between things.

Proletarians have no control over their social destiny, they are sacrificed from youth and their condition of life is forced upon them

Only revolutionary proletarians are free individuals since they understand the need to overthrow capitalism

What is called personal freedom is controlled by the existing productive forces and forms of intercourse at any particular time

My comment on this summary:

Today, in a relatively wealthy society such as Australia, people who fit the Marxist description of "proletarians", eg. teachers who don't own the means of production, have all sorts of freedoms that were not present when this was written, 170 years ago. People can work hard in a profession they choose, pay off the mortage (20+ years), have a family, send their kids to elite Private schools if they can afford it, choose their entertainment, donate to charities or volunteer to help the poor, travel the world and retire at 60 or younger to relax in their declining years. Such a life is lived by many. It is the best that capitalism can offer the proletarians of today.

People usually feel that they choose their profession as free individuals. However, I feel that Marx is right and that this feeling is at best only partly true. People find a niche, a "good job" (engineer, maths professor, social worker) within the capitalist system that meets their needs for money (can't live without it), social status / satisfaction. But this division of labour is largely determined by social and educational background. Not many lawyers come out of government schools. Once they are in a good job then people rationalise their position. "My job is socially useful and of benefit to others". Alternatively, "I have worked hard all my life and will enjoy the benefits of my hard work". In the meantime the capitalists do what they do best, find ways to invest and accumulate more capital (James Packer casinos, Twiggy Forest mining, Bill Gates computing etc.). They live in a totally different world. The class division is very real but over time most of us just come to accept it, that is the way things are, get on with your life. But why should we accept it? A better society can be imagined and was imagined by Marx, even though there have been all sorts of problems when revolutions try to go there.

So, we don't have the true community that Marx envisaged. James Packer isn't going to invite me over to his mansion for a cuppa tea and give me advice about how to earn my next million so I can retire early too. I don't have the same sort of freedom that he has to choose my developmental path. This did come about accidentally. He was Frank Packer's son and I wasn't. There was something more involved here than a free choice to become filthy rich. The ability of people to do their own creative and rewarding thing, whatever it is, is severely constrained by their income.

However, it appears to be exaggerated rhetoric to claim that community under capitalism is illusory. People join various clubs (footy, book, chess, Facebook etc.) and enjoy themselves with friends. This is not an illusion. I think Marx is suggesting we can do better, much better, that we need to open our eyes wider and see the injustice and exploitation in society as a whole and get to the root of that.

In capitalist society, we all have to live parallel lives as Marx suggests, one personal (private family, friendship circle, personal introspection) and one public (our life at work where we earn the money to continue or standing in a queue at Centre Link)

One common criticism of Marx centres around his alleged lack of recognition of the individual, the lack of individual freedom in the Soviet Union during the Stalin years, for example.

What I notice here about the text is that Marx does provide quite a bit of wriggle room for the bourgeoisie to be individuals both through competition (which can't be avoided within capitalism) and choice. He specifically rejects the formulation "that bourgeois is only a specimen of the bourgeois species".

It is true, however, that proletarians, in relatively wealthy Australia, have more wriggle room and some, although limited, freedom of choice, than is suggested in Marx's writing of 170 years ago.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Hurry, more democracy everywhere against barbarism

Demonstrators hold a sign reading 'Hurry, more democracy everywhere against barbarism' as they gather at Place de la Nation during the unity rally 'Marche Republicaine' on January 11, 2015 in Paris in tribute to the 17 victims of a three-day killing spree by homegrown Islamists.

This is a far better slogan than "Je suis Charlie".

Friday, January 16, 2015

Charlie quotes and links

Assholes deserve to be shunned, not murdered with cruel delight. But being murdered doesn't make their behaviour any more reasonable. It doesn't make them heroes to emulate
- Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo: Assholes can't be heroes
Maurice Sinet, 80, who works under the pen name Sine, faces charges of "inciting racial hatred" for a column he wrote last July in the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. ...

"L'affaire Sine" followed the engagement of Mr Sarkozy, 22, to Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of an electronic goods chain. Commenting on an unfounded rumour that the president's son planned to convert to Judaism, Sine quipped: "He'll go a long way in life, that little lad."

A high-profile political commentator slammed the column as linking prejudice about Jews and social success. Charlie Hebdo's editor, Philippe Val, asked Sinet to apologise but he refused, exclaiming: "I'd rather cut my balls off."

Mr Val's decision to fire Sine was backed by a group of eminent intellectuals, including the philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy, but parts of the libertarian Left defended him, citing the right to free speech
- French cartoonist Sine on trial on charges of anti-Semitism over Sarkozy jibe (Jan 2009)
And why have you been so silent on the glaring double standards? Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark?
- As a Muslim, I’m fed up with the hypocrisy of the free speech fundamentalists
Olivier Cyran, who worked for Charlie from 1992 to 2001:
Doubtless I had neither the patience nor the strength of heart to follow week after week the heartbreaking change that has occurred in your team after the turn of September 11, 2001. I did not part with Charlie Hebdo when suicide planes hit your editorial, but the Islamophobic neurosis that has gradually taken hold of your pages from that day has affected me personally because I remember the good times I had spent in this newspaper during the 1990s. The devastating laugh "Charlie" I had loved now sounded in my ears like the laughter of the fool or a pig who wallows in his shit . So far I have not criticised your racist newspaper. But since today you proclaim loudly your pure anti racism and without reproach, the time has perhaps come to seriously consider the matter
- "Charlie Hebdo " not racist ? If you say so ... (Dec., 2013

My comment: Evelyn Beatrice Hall (misattributed to Voltaire) ("I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it") said it better than George Brandis ("People have the right to be bigots in a free country") but both were right.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Charlie, limited

The focus has been on free speech, which is, of course, very relevant. But like the author below I think there should be more focus on our relative indifference to the massacres in the "less developed" world. eg. Egypt (military overthrow of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood, followed by fresh massacres), Syria (200,000 + dead, 3.5 million refugees). In particular Obama's hands off policies in Syria have led to the creation of a monster (Daesh aka IS or ISIL) within a monster (Assad's Syria). Evil forces, also including Putin, have moved in to fill the vacuum left by the retreat of the USA. Daesh / Islamism can only be defeated at its source. See my earlier blog, Weep for Charlie ... but also pay more attention to Syrian cartoonist, Raed Fares
I do not forget the front cover of Charlie Hebdo issue N°1099, in which it trivialized the massacre of more than a thousand Egyptians by a brutal military dictatorship which has the approval of the USA and of France, carrying a cartoon with a text declaring “Slaughter in Egypt. The Koran is shit: it doesn't stop bullets.” The cartoon showed a Muslim man riddled with bullets that had passed through a copy of the Koran, with which he had been trying to protect himself. Perhaps some find this funny. In their time too, the English colonists in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, thought it funny to have photographs of themselves taken, with wide smiles and rifle in hand, a foot on the corpses of the still-warm and bleeding bodies of the native people they had hunted.

Rather than funny, that cartoon to me seems violent and colonialist, an abuse of the fictitious and manipulated western freedom of the press. How would people react if I were to design a magazine cover bearing the following text: “Slaughter in Paris. Charlie Hebdo is shit: it doesn’t stop bullets” and made a cartoon of the deceased and gunned-down Jean Cabut holding a copy of the magazine in his hands? Clearly that would be outrageous: the life of a Frenchman is sacred. The life of an Egyptian (or Palestinian, Iraqi, a Syrian, etc.) is “humoristic” material. For that reason I am not Charlie, because for me, the life of each one of those Egyptians massacred is as sacred as is any of those caricaturists assassinated today.
- José Antonio Gutiérrez D.
7 January, 2015
Full article here

Monday, January 12, 2015

Weep for Charlie ... but also pay more attention to Syrian cartoonist, Raed Fares

I can certainly identify with the grief, anger and further preparation against home grown terrorist attacks in the "civilised" west. But I also think this needs to be compared with the so little understanding and commitment of what needs to be done in Syria. The problem of fundamentalist inspired terrorism can only be solved at its source. It's the old story of do we fish the babies out of the water or make the effort to stop those who are throwing the babies in further upstream (from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist)

The Daesh (aka ISIS, ISIL) is the monster created within the monster of Assad's Syria.
The Syrian cartoonist, Raed Fares, survived a Daesh assassination attempt in January 2014... the would-be assassins fired at Fares 46 times. Twenty-seven bullets struck the wall behind him; 17 hit his car. Only two struck him. They shattered seven bones in his shoulder and ribs and punctured his right lung.

Assad's brutality in the face of the Arab Spring inspired Syrian revolution has created 200,000 plus deaths and 3.5 million refugees. Today we witness so much grief and preparation for terrorism at "home". By contrast there is little understanding and commitment of what needs to be done in Syria.

"Obama's Rwanda" (Raed Fares)

This NYT article about Raed Fares, Radio-Free Syria, is very good. It includes one section about Obama's failure in Syria:
“Three years ago, America could have saved thousands of lives,” Bayyoush went on. To them, what they needed seemed simple in hindsight: antiaircraft missiles, airstrikes against Assad, a no-fly zone. All of these options would have offered potential solutions. Their model for U.S. intervention was Libya, where airstrikes in support of the opposition helped to depose Qaddafi. Later the country descended into civil war. Fares acknowledged that Libya was hardly a success story, yet at least, he said, the United States had intervened to protect the Libyan people. In Syria, Assad was free to systematically imprison and kill the moderate leaders the United States was now looking for. “One by one, they were disappeared,” he said.

“Can I speak?” said Hamada, who is with the Fifth Regiment of the Free Syrian Army. “I told the Americans I met in Jordan: ‘If you help us, there will be no extremism in Syria at all. If you’re too late, there will be a time when neither you nor we will have any control.' ” According to a senior retired U.S. military leader, who asked not to be named because he is no longer in the service, the delay in backing the Free Syrian Army led to the death of moderate military leaders. “If we had helped those people earlier, it could’ve gone differently,” he said. “A lot of the good leaders are dead now. They’ve been caught between rocks and hard places and ground into dust.”

The recent strikes against ISIS in Syria frustrated the Free Syrian Army commanders on two counts. First, unlike that of the United States, the F.S.A.'s primary foe was the regime. “The regime has launched chemical attacks and many more massacres than ISIS has,” Bayyoush said. Second, they had been warning the United States against the growth of ISIS for more than a year. “A year and a half ago, ISIS started activating cells,” Hamada said. “If America had helped us in the beginning, there would be no ISIS.” But the growth of ISIS wasn’t simply America’s fault. The Free Syrian Army bore its own responsibility. “These extremist groups formed because we were weak within the Free Syrian Army,” he said
Some more Raed Fares cartoons, they are all located in one place here, Liberated Kafranbel:

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: How to Answer the Paris Terror Attack

Recent interview on ABC with Hirsi Ali here

How to Answer the Paris Terror Attack
The West must stand up for freedom—and acknowledge the link between Islamists’ political ideology and their religious beliefs

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali

After the horrific massacre Wednesday at the French weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, perhaps the West will finally put away its legion of useless tropes trying to deny the relationship between violence and radical Islam.

This was not an attack by a mentally deranged, lone-wolf gunman. This was not an “un-Islamic” attack by a bunch of thugs—the perpetrators could be heard shouting that they were avenging the Prophet Muhammad. Nor was it spontaneous. It was planned to inflict maximum damage, during a staff meeting, with automatic weapons and a getaway plan. It was designed to sow terror, and in that it has worked.

The West is duly terrified. But it should not be surprised.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from such a grisly episode, it is that what we believe about Islam truly doesn’t matter. This type of violence, jihad, is what they, the Islamists, believe.

There are numerous calls to violent jihad in the Quran. But the Quran is hardly alone. In too much of Islam, jihad is a thoroughly modern concept. The 20th-century jihad “bible,” and an animating work for many Islamist groups today, is “The Quranic Concept of War,” a book written in the mid-1970s by Pakistani Gen. S.K. Malik. He argues that because God, Allah, himself authored every word of the Quran, the rules of war contained in the Quran are of a higher caliber than the rules developed by mere mortals.

In Malik’s analysis of Quranic strategy, the human soul—and not any physical battlefield—is the center of conflict. The key to victory, taught by Allah through the military campaigns of the Prophet Muhammad, is to strike at the soul of your enemy. And the best way to strike at your enemy’s soul is through terror. Terror, Malik writes, is “the point where the means and the end meet.” Terror, he adds, “is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose.”

Those responsible for the slaughter in Paris, just like the man who killed the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, are seeking to impose terror. And every time we give in to their vision of justified religious violence, we are giving them exactly what they want.

In Islam, it is a grave sin to visually depict or in any way slander the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims are free to believe this, but why should such a prohibition be forced on nonbelievers? In the U.S., Mormons didn’t seek to impose the death penalty on those who wrote and produced “The Book of Mormon,” a satirical Broadway sendup of their faith. Islam, with 1,400 years of history and some 1.6 billion adherents, should be able to withstand a few cartoons by a French satirical magazine. But of course deadly responses to cartoons depicting Muhammad are nothing new in the age of jihad.

Moreover, despite what the Quran may teach, not all sins can be considered equal. The West must insist that Muslims, particularly members of the Muslim diaspora, answer this question: What is more offensive to a believer—the murder, torture, enslavement and acts of war and terrorism being committed today in the name of Muhammad, or the production of drawings and films and books designed to mock the extremists and their vision of what Muhammad represents?

To answer the late Gen. Malik, our soul in the West lies in our belief in freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The freedom to express our concerns, the freedom to worship who we want, or not to worship at all—such freedoms are the soul of our civilization. And that is precisely where the Islamists have attacked us. Again.

How we respond to this attack is of great consequence. If we take the position that we are dealing with a handful of murderous thugs with no connection to what they so vocally claim, then we are not answering them. We have to acknowledge that today’s Islamists are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in the foundational texts of Islam. We can no longer pretend that it is possible to divorce actions from the ideals that inspire them.

This would be a departure for the West, which too often has responded to jihadist violence with appeasement. We appease the Muslim heads of government who lobby us to censor our press, our universities, our history books, our school curricula. They appeal and we oblige. We appease leaders of Muslim organizations in our societies. They ask us not to link acts of violence to the religion of Islam because they tell us that theirs is a religion of peace, and we oblige.

What do we get in return? Kalashnikovs in the heart of Paris. The more we oblige, the more we self-censor, the more we appease, the bolder the enemy gets.

There can only be one answer to this hideous act of jihad against the staff of Charlie Hebdo. It is the obligation of the Western media and Western leaders, religious and lay, to protect the most basic rights of freedom of expression, whether in satire on any other form. The West must not appease, it must not be silenced. We must send a united message to the terrorists: Your violence cannot destroy our soul.

Ms. Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, is the author of “Infidel” (2007). Her latest book, “Heretic: The Case for a Muslim Reformation,” will be published in April by HarperCollins

Thursday, January 08, 2015

response to Charlie Hebdo attack

Holding up pencils in a free speech demonstration in Barcelona

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine, published every Wednesday, that was founded in 1969 though it stopped publishing between 1981 and 1992. Known best for its illustrations and provocative imagery, the magazine aims to mock all forms of authority, from politicians to religion to the military. Its ideological roots are left-wing and atheist — with religion in all its forms a constant target.

In 2006, the paper reprinted images of the Prophet Mohamed that had appeared in a Danish magazine a year before. The next year, it published a picture of Mohamed crying, with the tagline “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” The Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, among other similar religious bodies, filed slander charges at the time, but a French court cleared the paper.

The magazine’s offices were set on fire by a molotov cocktail in November 2011 after it published a cartoon of the Prophet Mohamed saying “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.” The firebomb forced the publication to relocate to their current offices in the 11th borough of Paris. Editorial staff were often threatened: The magazine’s director, Stephane Charbonnier (better known to readers under his illustration pen name of Charb), had a personal bodyguard. A French man was arrested in 2012 after he called on a jihadist site to have Mr. Charbonnier decapitated. Mr. Charbonnier was among those killed Wednesday.
Stephane Charbonnier after the 2011 bombing. “It is perhaps a bit pompous to say so but I prefer to die on my feet than live on my knees.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Indigenous violence and its enablers

I have bought Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence by Stephanie Jarrett. It has been the subject of disagreement between John Van Tiggelen in The Monthly (Thinking Backwards) and Gary Clark in Quadrant (Speaking out on Aboriginal Violence). Here is an interview with the author.

Stephanie Jarrett spoke of her research and the book it produced, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence, with Quadrant Online‘s Roger Franklin. Never shrinking from the grim truths of Indigenous violence, its tradition and tragic, ongoing consequences, her book is a demand for a change in both attitudes and policies. What follows is an edited transcript of their exchange:

Q: Why did you write this book? It would seem to fall into the “brave” category in that merely raising the topic of Indigenous violence will earn you a long list of ardent enemies.

A: My profession entails a responsibility to uphold truth, despite my primary political orientation, and any personal discomfort and attack that may follow. I see little point in post-graduate studies specialising in political science at one of Australia’s finest universities if I do not hold to this principle.

I am committed to the liberal-democratic principles of universal individual human rights and non-relativism regarding violence. My left-leaning feminism increases my outrage against the oppressions endured by remote Aboriginal women. Through my research, I came to understand that Aboriginal self-determination is a key causal factor in the persistent, high levels of violence against Aboriginal women.

I also saw the necessity for this book for the following reasons. There is a persistent non liberal-democratic, cultural relativist approach among white professionals regarding Aboriginal violence. There remains a denial of the violence in pre-contact Australia, despite scholarly works detailing this violence. There is an evasion of the implications that traditional violence has for self-determination policies. Above all, I wrote this book as my contribution towards a less violent future for Aboriginal Australians.

Q: Are there truths that cannot be uttered?

A: No there are not. All truths need to be told so that we understand more fully the range of human behaviour, beliefs and norms, how negative behaviours and norms develop and are exacerbated, and how to address them. Nevertheless while the book depicts violent events, I abbreviated some awful descriptions, because the point being made was amply clear enough. In my field work, I experienced hearing harsh truth on a physical level, when I witnessed that [any given] weekend’s violent events were an amusing topic for conversation. I found this so upsetting that I went into flight mode, wanted to leave the area, my visual and auditory senses wanted to shut down, and my heart raced. For me, this was an early signal that I might be witnessing a norm about violence very different from my own.

Writing uncomfortable truths may have a downside, possibly augmenting stereotypes. However denying the truth does this even more so, as we are in desperate need of compassionate, non-racist Australians to engage with the problem of Aboriginal violence.

Q: In exploring your topic, one guesses that a substantial weight of documentary evidence must have been more or less readily available. Was it difficult to find your sources? Why has nobody tapped them before?"

A: There is ample documentation of pre- and early contact traditional violence from across Australia, including by early French navigators, First Fleet officers, explorers, missionaries and anthropologists. Such accounts are publicly accessible in bookshops, libraries and online. Stephen Webb’s palaeopathological study of skeletal remains is categoric evidence of commonplace cranial and other bone injuries caused by assault in pre-contact Australia for thousands of years.

There is also accessible documentation of continuing traditional violence, such as submissions for the recognition of customary law from Aboriginal communities to the Australian Law Reform Commission. There are recent, fine scholars who have tapped into this evidence, most notably Joan Kimm, Louis Nowra, and Peter Sutton. However this evidence is still being denied or evaded, and the strategies indicated by the pre-contact origins of today’s violence have yet to be faced up to.

Q: So, what is the solution?

A: The last three chapters explore potential solutions. In developing responses to Aboriginal violence in communities, we need to acknowledge that while alcohol and welfare dependency are exacerbators, the violence is underpinned by traditional norms and practices that make it particularly difficult to overcome. This limits the impact of outside interventions against violence in communities separated from mainstream society.

Acquisition of the liberal-democratic lower tolerance for interpersonal violence is essential. This requires regular, positive interaction with mainstream people. The permit system needs to be removed for this to occur. Voluntary integration, plus the skills and opportunities for successful participation in mainstream life, are also needed. My final chapter presents strategies to overcome the policy-created separation between remote Aboriginal communities and mainstream Australia.

The Aboriginal-initiated, voluntary Family Re-Settlement Program in New South Wales of the 1970s, where mainstream communities provided welcome and support for Aboriginal families establishing a new life in a city, is exemplary here. The program ceased when funding stopped because it was deemed assimilationist. Hopefully we are now more enlightened.

Q: What part does welfare dependency, if any, play in fostering violence?

A: I adhere to the principle of the need for a robust welfare state. Compassion and welfare for those in need are fundamental to the viability of liberal democracies. Even conservative governments in most Western democracies uphold this, at least until recently.

Welfare dependency is a step too far. It defines welfare-supported people capable of working but [who], for various reasons, shun employment. Welfare dependency locks away vulnerable people, such as many remote community people, from the demanding but character- and esteem-building path of employment. Being work-ready and available for mainstream employment requires the adoption of many mainstream norms and behaviours, including self-esteem building education and skills, and a reduction in the use of, and toleration for, violence.

Furthermore, as described in my book, welfare is sadly compatible with a range of bad behaviours, including violence, because it provides financial support to those unwilling to change negative behaviours, and provides no incentive to change negative behaviours.

Q: One need not venture too far off the beaten track to witness the consequence of violence in Indigenous life. How could so many people professing their concern for Aboriginal betterment have remained so blind for so long?

A: A key reason is the guilt white Australians carry for the injustices and losses Aboriginal people suffered under white colonisation. For many caring, well-educated white Australians, the primary task is to address these past colonial wrongs. For them, cultural respect, cultural rights, cultural relativism even for violence, “never criticise”, and a sense of “otherness” more than our shared humanity, are uppermost. These inhibit perception that intra-community violence needs mainstream attention. They blunt national outrage and the sense that it is even our concern. As one service provider said, “we have left it in their hands”. Gary Johns’ recent article in The Australian makes this amply clear. As a nation, we are outraged and saddened by the horrific rape and murder of the young Indian woman in New Delhi. We are a caring people, but we are largely mute about the many horrific instances of rape, assault and murder of remote Aboriginal women.

Q: What is the worst example of violence you came across?

A: Numerous incidents could be chosen as “the worst”. Here are three. Dieri marriage ceremonies, which included pack rape against the kidnapped, screaming young bride, documented by Howitt over 100 years ago, is one example. In a mid 19th century example first recorded in writing by T.G.H. Strehlow, two or three “Aranda” young men were immediately executed for accidentally committing a grave sacrilege. The execution consisted of twisting the young men’s necks so much that their vertebrae became dislocated. A more recent example reported in 1998 by Tony Koch in The Courier Mail, is the brutal rape by an adult male of a tiny Cape York girl when she was just 17 months old. Her injuries were so horrific that she needed a colostomy bag, and she became socially withdrawn. No smiles, no play, no talking, the little girl stopped showing almost any emotion.

Q: The attitude, especially amongst those who inhabit academia and bureaucracy, often seems to regard Aborigines as a quaint form of bipedal fauna. How much does this reflect the tyranny of low expectations?

A: I am sure that most academics and bureaucrats would deny this, would have no conscious sense of it, and would view such an attitude as racist. However, your question does raise uncomfortable truths.

As late as 2000, South Australia had a Department for Environment, Heritage and Aboriginal Affairs. This suggests an attitude in high places that Aboriginal people are closer to nature than non-Aboriginal people. As the Rev Dr Steven Etherington wrote in his 2007 article, Western people yearn for less stressful, less busy lives. We yearn for a greater spiritual connection to the environment, we want Aboriginal people to keep living such lives for us, and we turn away from the harsh consequences this has for Aboriginal people.

The result is a perverse tyranny of low expectations, in that by devaluing the mainstream world, we find it difficult to consider that remote Aboriginal people could or should aspire to it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

reviews of "Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from Nature" by Vaclav Smil

Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature by Vaclav Smil

My limited goal here was initially to extract factual information from the reviews of Vaclav Smil's book about the real environmental state of the planet. I then added other information from the reviews which gave some impression of the flavour of the book.

From the Bill Gates review:

The biosphere means all plant and animal life in the air, ground and oceans.

How much life is in the biosphere? The dry mass (take out the water) of all living things equals 1.6 trillion metric tons.

What percentage of the biosphere's primary productivity - the plant life generated by photosynthesis - is consumed by humans? Roughly we harvest 17% of each year's new growth (may be as low as 15% or as high as 25%)

12% of the Earth's land mass is now devoted to farmland.

The dry mass of all living humans = 125 million metric tons
The dry mass of all domesticated animals = 300 million tons
The dry mass of all wild vertebrates = 10 million tons

Dry mass of:
  • Plants = 1100 Gt
  • Bacteria = 500 Gt
  • Protists = 10 Gt
  • Fungi = 5 Gt
  • Animals = 2.5 Gt
From one of the amazon reviews (Chad M):
  • about 40% of all terrestrial phytomass - trees, brush, grass - has been removed by human activity
  • land and ocean mammals are at 10% of historic levels

Smil examines all harvests -- from prehistoric man's hunting of megafauna to modern crop production -- and all uses of harvested biomass, including energy, food, and raw materials (official blurb)

the ocean's zoomass or animal matter is perhaps that most vulnerable area in next few decades, according to the author. This is well described in the final chapter (amazon reviewer)

Smil surprises with a somewhat optimistic final chapter on long-term trends. He ends with a set of recommendations, well supported by the evidence in this book, that we need to stabilize our global population, eat less meet, waste less food, share the world's resources more equitably, and manage the demand for wood (amazon reviewer)

The collective weight of all domestic animals destined to be our meat is 25 times the weight of all wild animal on earth (amazon reviewer)

Smil gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story. (Bill Gates)

It is amazing how little meat was available in most diets as recently as 1800: just a few kilograms per year, versus about 100 kg of meat per year in an average American diet today. (The average Indian, by contrast, eats about 10 kg of meat each year.) The world now harvests far more crops to feed animals that produce meat, dairy, and eggs than to feed humans. (Bill Gates)

But in some ways we've been less responsible in the sea than on land. We don't harvest a high percentage of all the life in the sea, but we concentrate on a very few species—especially carnivorous fish, like cod and tuna. Smil writes that most of the traditionally targeted species and major fishing areas are now being fished to capacity if they're not already overfished, near collapse, or collapsing (Bill Gates)

I was a bit surprised that he didn't talk more about innovations that will help avoid some of the problems he's concerned about. For example, he writes a lot about the impact of meat-eating on the biosphere. Producing meat is very inefficient: To get 1 kg of edible meat from a cow, you have to feed it about 10 kg of grain. But he doesn't mention the possibility of making alternatives to meat, which could reduce the inefficiency and the need for additional crops (Bill Gates)

I truly appreciate the work that has gone into this volume, and I am impressed by the diligence and attentiveness of the author in his pursuit of perfect human biomass impact calculation. As a scientific study it is thorough and boring. While it offers an overview, it contributes little to our understanding – save for the elusive numbers. And it is the numbers, I feel, which are the true protagonists here (Anna Krzywoszynska)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

environmental talking points and references

This is an appeal for myself and others to study more rigorously the real state of the world, ie. the environmental world and its connections to the political, ethical, philosophical and economic worlds. My study is incomplete but I feel I have done enough to make some valid points and to map out a path of further study. At the least, this article is an annotated reading list which indicates the general direction of my thinking at this stage.

It is difficult to separate your hopes and world view (we all carry around and rely on bullshit detectors, filters and blinkers) from an objective assessment of what is really happening in the world.

At one extreme there is a world view which I will call "deep Green" that we are rushing towards environmental Armageddon. At the other extreme you find cheery technological optimism, that any problems created by our technological advance can also be solved by further technological progress.

In history we find people who have made extreme predictions and have ended up looking foolish. See The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth's Future
"University of Illinois economist Julian Simon challenged Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was and wager up to $1,000 on whether the prices of five different metals would rise or fall over the next decade. Ehrlich and Simon saw the price of metals as a proxy for whether the world was hurtling toward apocalyptic scarcity (Ehrlich’s position) or was on the verge of creating greater abundance (Simon’s).

Ehrlich was the country’s, and perhaps the world’s, most prominent environmental Cassandra. He argued in books, articles, lectures, and popular television programs that a worldwide population explosion threatened humanity with “the most colossal catastrophe in history” and would result in hundreds of millions of deaths from starvation and dire shortages not just of food but all types of raw materials.

Simon, who passed away in 1998, was a population optimist. A disciple of conservative University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, Simon believed the doomsayers’ models gave little or no credit to the power of efficient markets and innovative minds for developing substitutes for scarce resources and managing out of crises. He went so far as to claim that population growth should “thrill rather than frighten us.”
Although Paul Ehrlich's extreme predictions were wrong and the bet was won by Julian Simon it does not follow logically that there may be extreme environmental concerns that we should be dealing with urgently. I think the only valid response to those ringing alarm bells about environmental issues is to investigate deeply the real state of the world. This is a different response to ridiculing alarmists who have been wrong in the past.

Humans are contrasted to nature by the deep Green side of the discussion. I feel that the humans - nature division is a false dichotomy which leads to a contamination of language. Words such as wilderness, sustainability, biodiversity and ecology need to be looked at carefully.

Wilderness is a human social, religious construct. This is powerfully argued from within the environmental movement by William Cronon in The Trouble with Wilderness. The concept of wilderness tends to reinforce a polarised human-nature dichotomy with nature worship on one side and arrogant human "mastery" of nature on the other.

Biodiversity appears to be a plural concept, a pseudo scientific term, partly invented for environ-political reasons, which can't be clearly defined (see James MacLaurin and Kim Sterelny's What is Biodiversity?). No doubt, biodiversity is a "good thing" but there isn't just one biodiversity but a plurality.

Is ecology a science, or, what sort of science is ecology? Mark Sagoff suggests that it isn't a science (What Does Environmental Protection Protect?), that holistic systems ecology is a figment of the environmental imagination, that ecological concepts such as structure, function, stability, resilience (emergent holistic properties) are more or less meaningless terms. In his vision the whole debate about invasive species is a distraction since species migrating is a natural process anyway. However, I lean to those who seem to be more expert on this issue such as Daniel Simberloff, who specifically reject Mark Sagoff's views and who appear to have studied the issue more closely:
"Sagoff [Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 18 (2005), 215–236] argues, against growing empirical evidence, that major environmental impacts of non-native species are unproven. However, many such impacts, including extinctions of both island and continental species, have both been demonstrated and judged by the public to be harmful"
A better descriptor of where we are at is co-evolution in the Anthropocene.
"The Anthropocene is an informal geologic chronological term that marks the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth's ecosystems" (Wikipedia).
This recognises that we are both part of nature, an evolutionary product, as well as recognising our unique influence over nature, both good and bad.

How can this issue be better framed? Humans who are a part of nature, a tool making product of natural evolution, are destroying huge amounts of the rest of nature and this is bad in its own right (in a spiritual or aesthetic sense) as well as incredibly dangerous for human quality of life too (anthropogenic global warming and other issues - ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, nitrogen cycle, phosphorous cycle, global freshwater use, change in land use, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading and chemical pollution). The claim is that we are shitting in our own nest and that is aesthetically ugly and dangerous for our own health.

"Tread lightly on the Earth". This is an ascetic and / or anti consumerist position. eg. Mahatma Gandhi. Poverty ennobles and wealth corrupts. But it turns out that in India Mahatma Gandhi is highly respected for his nationalistic, non violent and humanistic outlooks but less respected for his ascetic, deprivation and traditional viewpoints, that the caste system is natural, akin to an ecological niche. Once again, the modernist beliefs in equality undermines the position of letting things stay as they are. See Shome, Siddhartha's The New India versus the Global Green Brahmins.

But anti-consumerism, for those who are currently advantaged, can be argued from a non Gandhi position as well. See the Vaclav Smil references below.

Pascal Bruckner has written a philosophical critique and addressed the House of Lords about the promotion of fear and mother earth as a sacred object by deep Green ideology. I would see this as an important contribution to human political psychology but one which does not claim to begin to investigate the real state of the physical world.

There is no static balance in nature. Irreversible change has always been the real state of the natural world. See Alston Chase's In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature where he critiques the biocentric viewpoints that "There is a balance of nature", 'that nature can be "healthy' or "unhealthy" ' in a similar sense to the human body being healthy or unhealthy, that "in the beginning all was perfect" (a Garden of Eden or Golden Age) and that "Nature is sacred".

Rambunctious Garden is a good metaphor for an environmental future. Not the only metaphor but a good metaphor. This is the title of a book by Emma Marris. Subtitle: Saving Nature in a Post Wild World. She is saying that nurturing nature in the big cities is an important part of the path we go down. It fits my preferred vision of human-nature co evolution in the Anthropocene. However, it does seem to be written more from the point of view of how to think about nature rather than an attempt to assess the real state of the world:
Every single chapter challenged my thinking about how we classify and define what is natural, what’s worth saving, why, and how to got about it. However, I must admit, I began reading with the expectation of spending some time communing with, well, nature. But this book dwells less on experiential factors and more on the meta: it dives deeply into the thinking and philosophical frameworks that undergird the conservation of nature today.
Anthropogenic global warming has received more attention than any other issue of late. A reasonable solution to the anthropogenic global warming issue has been articulated: massive increase in R&D in non carbon energy sources, including nuclear (see The Climate Fix by Roger Pielke jnr; The Long Death of Environmentalism by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus).

I agree with the Shellenberger / Nordhaus article which concludes with 12 theses, 8 approaches that won't work and 4 approaches that will work.

Eight approaches that won't work:
  1. better, louder climate science won't transform the global energy economy
  2. fear / scare tactics backfire
  3. environmental justification won't work
  4. anti consumerism won't work
  5. regulation / pricing schemes won't achieve a clean energy economy
  6. climate change is not a traditional pollution problem
  7. a soft energy path (reduced green energy) is a dead end
  8. internalising fossil fuel cost won't work
Four approaches that will work:
  1. R&D into clean energy
  2. embrace nuclear power
  3. the State needs to invest in clean energy
  4. Big, centralised energy is the way to go, not Small is beautiful
But ocean acidification is a relatively understated problem which may lead to extreme marine life destruction through destruction of coral reefs. (see Elizabeth Kolbert's "Ocean Acidification"). Roger Pielke snr has long warned against the issue of ocean acidification as have scientists concerned about the future of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Several writers have pointed out that the widening gap between the world's rich and the world's poor (both in terms of money and access to energy) over rides environmental concerns. See Chris Foreman's On Justice Movements: Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor. Roger Pielke's iron law is correct, "that when policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emission reductions, it is economic growth that will win out every time" (The Climate Fix, p. 46).

Thomas Wells, in Debating Climate Change: The need for economic reasoning also argues that a pragmatic approach is far more likely to succeed than moralising about the state of the earth.

Poor people and indigenous people, "the wretched of the earth", usually desire modernity. Listen to Marcia Langton's Boyer lectures about how the mining industry, for all their faults, has done more for Australian aboriginals than the Australian government. You can't leave out the poor in your environmental considerations.

The problem with "the noble savage" metaphor is that our progressive Enlightenment values such as equality of women, non violent raising of children, against capital punishment, for democracy are repelled by the values of tribal hunter gatherer societies, once we scrutinise them carefully. Modern people aren't prepared to give up modern values and so "the noble savage" metaphor fails.

Bjorn Lomborg built his reputation initially around his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg began by trying to refute Julian Simon's optimism for the future but ended by agreeing with him. Following that he developed the Copenhagen Consensus forums about the best way to spend money to solve world problems. However, Lomborg has come under a lot of criticism for inaccuracies in his work (which he fails to acknowledge) and promoting short term issues over longer term issues. I must admit that I like a lot of what Lomborg does but feel that the criticisms developed at Kare Fog's website, Lomborg Errors, do significantly weaken his case.

There are a few books around about the threat to biodiversity. If you prefer one written by an actual scientist then see Edward O Wilson's, The Future of Life (2003). Others, written by journalists without a strong background in science, include The Sixth Extinction (2014) by Elizabeth Kolbert and The Song of the Dodo (1997) by David Quammen).

I read Edward O Wilson's 12 dot point "strategy aimed at the protection of most of the remaining ecosystems and species" which is on pp. 160-64 of his book along with some other parts of his Ch 7 "The Solution". In summary:
  • Salvage the hotspots, 1.4% of the Earth's land surface protects 44% of known vascular plants and 36% of known mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
  • Keep intact the 5 remaining frontier forests
  • Cease all logging of old growth forests
  • Save lakes and river systems
  • Define and save marine hotspots, eg. coral reefs
  • Complete the mapping of the world's biological diversity
  • include the full range of the world's ecosystems, eg. deserts, arctic tundras
  • make conservation profitable
  • use Genetic Engineered crops
  • initiate restoration projects, from the current 10% of protected land up to 50%
  • use zoos and botanic gardens to breed endangered species
  • support population planning
I still feel that technological risk taking is a sensible way for the human race to proceed (the proactionary principle critique of the precautionary principle,
People’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when restrictive measures are proposed: Assess risks and opportunities according to available science, not popular perception. Account for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of opportunities foregone. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high expectation value. Protect people’s freedom to experiment, innovate, and progress.
R&D, nuclear power and genetic engineering are important parts of the solution. Humans are a tool making species and irreversible change has always been normal. But technological optimism as a blind faith is not a good outlook. Be neither a religious environmental alarmist nor a religious technological optimist. Rather explore the facts of the real state of the earth, without hype.

The Planetary Boundaries analysis asserts that we are headed towards environmental tipping points in a number of fields: climate system, ocean-acidification, ozone depletion, phosphorous levels, land use change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen levels, freshwater use, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. For some critical discussion of this view see Nordhaus, Schellenberger and Blomqvist. The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence. They assert that in most cases these are not "tipping points" in a global sense but need to be evaluated according to local conditions. However, they do agree that Climate Change and Ocean-acidification are in grave danger of reaching tipping points.

So, which authors are on the track of documenting the real state of the world? How will issues such as rich-poor gap, energy, biodiversity, global warming etc. work themselves out in the future? I've become very interested in the writings of Vaclav Smil who has written Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from nature (2012) and Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 years (2008). I've only read selected extracts from these books so far and feel that he is neither an environmental alarmist or denier but someone striving to work out the real state of the world.

Some of Smil's other writings (about energy, nitrogen / food and oil - see references) could provide extremely valuable background knowledge about how to think about these issues.


Brand, Stewart. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands and Geo-engineering are Necessary.

Bruckner, Pascal. 2013. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings.

Bruckner, Pascal. Against Environmental Panic.

Bruckner, Pascal. 2013. Address to House of Lords

Chase, Alston. 2001. In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature

Cronon, William. 1995. The Trouble with Wilderness.

Foreman, Chris. 2013. On Justice Movements: Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor.

Kolbert, Elizabeth 2014 "Ocean Acidification"

Kolbert, Elizabeth 2014. The Sixth Extinction

Langton, Marcia. 2012. The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom.

Lomborg, Bjorn. 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist

Lomborg Errors. (Kare Fog)

Marris, Emma. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post Wild World

MacLaurin, James and Sterelny, Kim. 2008. What is Biodiversity?

Nordhaus, Ted; Schellenberger, Michael; Blomqvist, Linus. The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence.

Pielke jnr, Roger. 2010. The Climate Fix

Planetary Boundaries.

Proactionary Principle.

Quammen, David. (1997) The song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (1997)

Sabin, Paul. 2013. The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth's Future

Sagoff, Mark. 2013. What Does Environmental Protection Protect?

Shellenberger, Michael and Nordhaus, Ted. 2011. The Long Death of Environmentalism

Shome, Siddhartha. 2012. The New India versus the Global Green Brahmins.

Simberloff, Daniel. 2005. Non-native Species DO Threaten the Natural Environment!

Simberloff, Daniel. 2013. Invasive Species: What everyone needs to know

Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production.

Smil, Vaclav. 2008. Oil: A Beginner's Guide.

Smil, Vaclav. 2008. Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years

Smil, Vaclav. 2010. Energy Myths and Realities.

Smil, Vaclav. 2012. Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from Nature

Soule, Michael. 1985. What is Conservation Biology?

Wells, Thomas. Debating Climate Change: The need for economic reasoning.

Wilson Edward O. 2003. The Future of Life