Category Archives: EARTH WATCH

Are human rights anything more than legal conventions?

BOOK REVIEW

Human Rights: From Morality to Law, Author: John Tasioulas.
The Law of Peoples, Author: John Rawls.

By John Tasioulas – Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation.

Since the middle of the previous century an elaborate architecture of human rights law has emerged at the international, regional and domestic levels, one that is effective to wildly varying degrees. But, ultimately, this legalistic approach is unsatisfactory.

To begin with, the law does not always bind all those we believe should abide by human rights. For example, some states have not ratified human-rights treaties, or have ratified them subject to wide-ranging exceptions (‘reservations’) that blunt their critical edge. A country such as Saudi Arabia can have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council yet persist in severe forms of gender discrimination.

Moreover, the international law of human rights, like international law generally, almost exclusively binds states. Yet many believe that non-state agents, such as corporations, whose revenues in some instances exceed the GDP of all but the wealthiest nations, also bear grave human-rights responsibilities.

Whether I’m right or not, I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. more> https://goo.gl/AXTYg3

Now it’s time to prepare for the Machinocene

BOOK REVIEW

Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism, Author: Huw Price.

By Huw Price – One way or another, then, we are going to be sharing the planet with a lot of non-biological intelligence. Whatever it brings, we humans face this future together. We have an obvious common interest in getting it right. And we need to nail it the first time round. Barring some calamity that ends our technological civilization without entirely finishing us off, we’re not going to be coming this way again.

If we are to develop machines that think, ensuring that they are safe and beneficial is one of the great intellectual and practical challenges of this century. And we must face it together – the issue is far too large and crucial to be tackled by any individual institution, corporation or nation. Our grandchildren, or their grandchildren, are likely to be living in a different era, perhaps more Machinocene than Anthropocene.

Our task is to make the best of this epochal transition, for them and the generations to follow. We need the best of human intelligence to make the best of artificial intelligence. more> https://goo.gl/dHx4jd

Parliamentary Democracies Are Just Better at Resisting Populism

By Leonid Bershidsky – Recent and upcoming political upheavals in a number of countries provide some evidence that the institutional design of democracies can be critically important.

A clear advantage is emerging for countries that don’t directly elect a president: They are more likely to resist the wave of populism sweeping the West.

Where there are no direct presidential elections, populists must win many individual elections over many cycles in order to rise to a nation’s chief executive; Donald Trump seized the White House in his first run for public office. It took less than 17 months.

When a country’s constitution provides for the direct election of a president, even with largely ceremonial powers, a strong leader with a lot of political weight can quickly turn things around and make the office more powerful, and more dangerous, than written laws allow. more> https://goo.gl/nmQGCC

In defense of hierarchy

By Stephen C Angle, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Julian Baggini, Daniel Bell, Nicolas Berggruen, Mark Bevir, Joseph Chan, Carlos Fraenkel, Stephen Macedo, Michael Puett, Jiang Qian, Mathias Risse, Carlin Romano, Justin Tiwald and Robin Wang – Good and permissible hierarchies are everywhere around us.

Yet hierarchy is an unfashionable thing to defend or to praise.

We live in a time when no distinction is drawn between justified and useful hierarchies on the one hand, and self-interested, exploitative elites on the other.

First, bureaucratic hierarchies can serve democracy. Bureaucracy is even less popular these days than hierarchy. Yet bureaucratic hierarchies can instantiate crucial democratic values, such as the rule of law and equal treatment.

There are at least three ways in which usually hierarchical constitutional institutions can enhance democracy: by protecting minority rights, and thereby ensuring that the basic interests of minorities are not lightly discounted by self-interested or prejudiced majorities; by curbing the power of majority or minority factions to pass legislation favoring themselves at the expense of the public good; and by increasing the epistemic resources that are brought to bear on decision-making, making law and policy more reflective of high-quality deliberation. Hence democracies can embrace hierarchy because hierarchy can enhance democracy itself.

Yet in recent decades, these civic hierarchies have been dismantled and often replaced with decentralized, competitive markets, all in the name of efficiency. This makes sense only if efficiency and effectiveness (usually assumed to be measured in economic terms) are considered the overriding priorities.

But if we make that assumption, we find ourselves giving less weight to values such as the rule of law, democratic legitimacy or social equality. Hence, we might sometimes prefer the democratically accountable hierarchies that preserve those values even over optimal efficiency. more> https://goo.gl/PDDv12

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The rise of personalist rule

By Torrey Taussig – Over the last decade, authoritarians have pushed back against the world’s prevailing democratic order. For the 11th year in a row, Freedom House has announced an overall drop in freedom worldwide.

Most countries today (55 percent) are considered not free or partly free according to the civil liberties and political rights citizens enjoy. At the same time, highly personalized regimes are taking control of autocratic and even democratic political systems.

There are four primary reasons that personalist systems can lead to more aggressive foreign policies.

First, the inherent characteristics of the kinds of individuals who become personalist rulers—ambitious, cut-throat and divisive—drive them to pursue more adventurist international goals than leaders of other kinds of regimes.

Second, personalist leaders perceive lower costs of fighting than leaders of democracies or more constrained autocratic systems because they have fewer normative aversions to force, do not internalize the costs of fighting, and view force as more effective than other tools of statecraft.

Third, personalist leaders do not fear defeat to the extent that other leaders do because of the lack of strong institutions able to punish the leader for his mistakes.

Fourth, subordinates to personalist leaders are typically unwilling to challenge a leader’s personal biases, leading to profound “groupthink” and overestimation of the likelihood of victory. more> https://goo.gl/D32rxA

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Updates from Aalto University

Launch times draw near for Aalto satellites
By Jaan Praks – The Aalto-2 satellite, designed and built by students, is ready and waiting to be launched inside the Cygnus space shuttle at the Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex in the US.

On 22 March, the shuttle will be launched with an Atlas V booster rocket up to the orbiting international space station, where the astronauts will release it later to orbit independently.

Aalto-2 will take part in the international QB50 Mission, the aim of which is to produce the first ever comprehensive model of the features of the thermosphere, the layer between the Earth’s atmosphere and space. Dozens of satellites constructed in different countries will also be part of the mission.

Construction of the Aalto-2 satellite began in 2012 as a doctoral project when the first students graduated as Masters of Science in Technology after working on the Aalto-1 project.

Since the start of the Aalto-1 project in 2010 and the Aalto-2 project two years later, around a hundred new professionals have been trained in the space sector. The impact is already visible in the growth of space sector start-up companies. more> https://goo.gl/yKLrez

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No easy answers: why left-wing economics is not the answer to right-wing populism

By Zack Beauchamp – Since World War II, Western European politics has been structured by the ideals of social democracy. From Germany to France to Sweden to Italy, every nation adopted some version of the basic social democratic vision — a mixed-market economy defined by both private property and deep government involvement, with high levels of taxation and sometimes stifling government regulation of the private sector, in exchange for a generous social welfare system that offers things like universal health care and free or heavily subsidized education.

By most measures, though, Europe’s social and economic programs provide their citizens with better standards of living than can be found in the US. That, however, hasn’t kept the parties that advocate and defend those policies most vigorously from steadily losing votes.

The American welfare state has always been weaker than its counterparts around the West. Correspondingly, you see the highest rates of inequality in the developed world, with 3 million American children living on less than $2 a day and a health care system that ranks dead last in the respected Commonwealth Fund’s measures of performance among 11 developed countries.

The uncomfortable truth is that America’s lack of a European-style welfare state hurts a lot of white Americans. But a large number of white voters believe that social spending programs mostly benefit nonwhites. As such, they oppose them with far more fervor than any similar voting bloc in Europe. more> https://goo.gl/nfAZ7s

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The century of American global domination of language is over

BOOK REVIEW

That’s the Way it Crumbles—The Americanization of British English, Author: Matthew Engel.

(glasbergen.com)By Cassie Werber – While some argue that the infiltration of American English is constantly speeding up, Lynne Murphy, a reader in linguistics at the University of Sussex, says that in fact the great era of American English as the language of the world was the 20th century, and it’s over.

“American culture (and words) could easily spread in the 20th century because it was hard to produce and distribute recorded entertainment, but the US had the capacity and the economy and the marketing savvy to do so,” Murphy wrote in a recent blog.

What’s changed in the 21st century, she suggests, is that the internet has re-formed our relationship with media, making audiences less purely receptive, and more able to seek out the content that interests them. Ultimately, she argues, there’s more “exchange of words between people, rather than just reception of words from the media.”

Now, Britain is seeing “a huge torrent” of language from the US, and being constantly changed by it. more> https://goo.gl/L84Ikg

Updates from Georgia Tech

Four-Stroke Engine Cycle Produces Hydrogen from Methane and Captures CO<sub2
By John Toon – When is an internal combustion engine not an internal combustion engine? When it’s been transformed into a modular reforming reactor that could make hydrogen available to power fuel cells wherever there’s a natural gas supply available.

By adding a catalyst, a hydrogen separating membrane and carbon dioxide sorbent to the century-old four-stroke engine cycle, researchers have demonstrated a laboratory-scale hydrogen reforming system that produces the green fuel at relatively low temperature in a process that can be scaled up or down to meet specific needs. The process could provide hydrogen at the point of use for residential fuel cells or neighborhood power plants, electricity and power production in natural-gas powered vehicles, fueling of municipal buses or other hydrogen-based vehicles, and supplementing intermittent renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics.

Known as the CO2/H2 Active Membrane Piston (CHAMP) reactor, the device operates at temperatures much lower than conventional steam reforming processes, consumes substantially less water and could also operate on other fuels such as methanol or bio-derived feedstock. It also captures and concentrates carbon dioxide emissions, a by-product that now lacks a secondary use – though that could change in the future.

Unlike conventional engines that run at thousands of revolutions per minute, the reactor operates at only a few cycles per minute – or more slowly – depending on the reactor scale and required rate of hydrogen production. And there are no spark plugs because there’s no fuel combusted. more> https://goo.gl/h4K7fV

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Backing into World War III

By Robert Kagan – Think of two significant trend lines in the world today. One is the increasing ambition and activism of the two great revisionist powers, Russia and China.

The other is the declining confidence, capacity, and will of the democratic world, and especially of the United States, to maintain the dominant position it has held in the international system since 1945. As those two lines move closer, as the declining will and capacity of the United States and its allies to maintain the present world order meet the increasing desire and capacity of the revisionist powers to change it, we will reach the moment at which the existing order collapses and the world descends into a phase of brutal anarchy, as it has three times in the past two centuries.

The cost of that descent, in lives and treasure, in lost freedoms and lost hope, will be staggering. History shows that world orders do collapse, however, and when they do it is often unexpected, rapid, and violent.

The late 18th century was the high point of the Enlightenment in Europe, before the continent fell suddenly into the abyss of the Napoleonic Wars. In the first decade of the 20th century, the world’s smartest minds predicted an end to great-power conflict as revolutions in communication and transportation knit economies and people closer together. The most devastating war in history came four years later. The apparent calm of the postwar 1920s became the crisis-ridden 1930s and then another world war.

Where exactly we are in this classic scenario today, how close the trend lines are to that intersection point is, as always, impossible to know. Are we three years away from a global crisis, or 15?

That we are somewhere on that path, however, is unmistakable.

And while it is too soon to know what effect Donald Trump’s presidency will have on these trends, early signs suggest that the new administration is more likely to hasten us toward crisis than slow or reverse these trends.

It will be more than a shame if Americans were to destroy what they created—and not because it was no longer possible to sustain but simply because they chose to stop trying. more> https://goo.gl/cGZ3En