Category Archives: EARTH WATCH

Is Tourism an Antidote to the Global Wave of Nationalism and Xenophobia?

By Stewart M. Patrick – As vacation photos from exotic locales pile up in Facebook and Instagram feeds this summer, it’s easy to take far-flung tourism for granted. Well-heeled friends riding elephants in Thailand or camels in Giza might as well be at the Jersey shore or beside a lake in the Adirondacks. Mass international tourism, like the free flow of goods, services, money and data, has become a hallmark of globalization.

This is neither accidental nor trivial. The ability of those with with means and passports to travel the world is a function of international cooperation. It is also a force for global understanding, a potential antidote to the resurgent nationalism that now infects this era. Achieving such cosmopolitan ideals, however, requires a tourism focused on people-to-relpeople contacts and mutual benefits, rather than perpetuating self-contained bubbles of privilege.

At the dawn of the 20th century, foreign leisure travel required no passports. But it was the province of aristocrats and plutocrats of the sort that populated Henry James novels. The advent of jet travel, followed by package tours and declining airline fares, hastened mass tourism. According to the World Bank, between 1995 and 2017 the number of international tourist arrivals rose more than 250 percent, from slightly above 500 million to more than 1.3 billion, while tourist expenditures more than tripled, from $463 billion to $1.45 trillion. The United Nations estimates that tourism now accounts for 10 percent of global GDP and 7 percent of exports, and supports one out of every 10 jobs. Tourists still flock to Paris and Acapulco, but new, once unimaginable destinations from Antarctica to Zanzibar have also emerged.

Back in 1795, the philosopher Immanuel Kant famously outlined three preconditions for “perpetual peace.” The first two are more well-known: the emergence of self-governing constitutional republics and open international commerce. Kant’s third precondition is more often overlooked. It is the principle of “universal hospitality”: the right of all “citizens of the earth” to visit and be welcomed in all lands, regardless of their country of origin.

Kant believed that humans should act according to moral imperatives regardless of the precise effects of those actions. But his concept of hospitality still carried a utilitarian logic, since if universally practiced it would contribute to a cosmopolitan peace. more>

Updates from Georgia Tech

Tiny Vibration-Powered Robots Are the Size of the World’s Smallest Ant
By John Toon – Researchers have created a new type of tiny 3D-printed robot that moves by harnessing vibration from piezoelectric actuators, ultrasound sources or even tiny speakers. Swarms of these “micro-bristle-bots” might work together to sense environmental changes, move materials – or perhaps one day repair injuries inside the human body.

The prototype robots respond to different vibration frequencies depending on their configurations, allowing researchers to control individual bots by adjusting the vibration. Approximately two millimeters long – about the size of the world’s smallest ant – the bots can cover four times their own length in a second despite the physical limitations of their small size.

“We are working to make the technology robust, and we have a lot of potential applications in mind,” said Azadeh Ansari, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We are working at the intersection of mechanics, electronics, biology and physics. It’s a very rich area and there’s a lot of room for multidisciplinary concepts.”

A paper describing the micro-bristle-bots has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering. The research was supported by a seed grant from Georgia Tech’s Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology. In addition to Ansari, the research team includes George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Jun Ueda and graduate students DeaGyu Kim and Zhijian (Chris) Hao. more>

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Updates from ITU

If we want to solve climate change, water governance is our blueprint
By Elizabeth Taylor – The phrase “fail to prepare or prepare to fail” comes to mind as we enter an era in which governments and communities must band together to mitigate climate change. Part of what makes our next steps so uncertain is knowing we must work together in ways that we have – so far – failed to do. We either stall, or offer up “too little, too late” strategies.

These strategies include cap-and-trade economic incentive programs, like the Kyoto Protocol and other international treaties. Insightful leaders have drawn attention to the issue, but lukewarm political will means that they are only able to defer greenhouse gas emissions-reduction targets in the future. A global crisis demands global commitment. How can we work together to face a universal threat? What of the complex challenges that demand unified monitoring and responses?

One principal impediment is the lack of coherent technical infrastructure.

Currently, our arsenal for facilitating collective action is understocked. Our policies are unable to invoke tide-turning change because they lack a cohesive infrastructure. In the absence of satisfactory tools to make them happen, our policies and pledges become feelgood initiatives rather than reaching full effectiveness.

What tools might lead us to act collectively against climate change? It’s easy to focus on the enormous scale of global cooperation needed, or the up-front investments it will take to mitigate the crisis. But as the writer E.L. Doctorow reminded us, we can’t be intimidated by the process: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night,” he said. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

We don’t have to possess all the answers as we set out to save our communities. We don’t have to know exactly what we will meet along the way. At a minimum, we must only understand how to use our headlights to see the first few feet ahead of us.

So what is the first step on our path?

It is the substance that underpins our industry, health and survival. It remains a central source of conflict around the world, yet it also creates partnerships. Our first step is water.

Water challenges us with issues of scarcity, quality and distribution. It may seem to be a local issue, but combined with local tensions and a globalized economy, water governance is set to become one of our greatest tests of diplomatic finesse and technological synergy.

If we can properly align local and global water governance and management, we can prepare the tools, the organizational blueprint and the political momentum needed to solve climate change. more>

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The exploitation time bomb

Worsening economic inequality in recent years is largely the result of policy choices that reflect the political influence and lobbying power of the rich.
By Jayati Ghosh – Since reducing inequality became an official goal of the international community, income disparities have widened. This trend, typically blamed on trade liberalization and technological advances that have weakened the bargaining power of labor vis-à-vis capital, has generated a political backlash in many countries, with voters blaming their economic plight on ‘others’ rather than on national policies. And such sentiments of course merely aggravate social tensions without addressing the root causes of worsening inequality.

But in an important new article, the Cambridge University economist José Gabriel Palma argues that national income distributions are the result not of impersonal global forces, but rather of policy choices that reflect the control and lobbying power of the rich.

The driving force behind these trends is market inequality, meaning the income distribution before taxes and government transfers. Most OECD countries continually attempt to mitigate this through the tax-and-transfer system, resulting in much lower levels of inequality in terms of disposable income.

But fiscal policy is a complicated and increasingly inefficient way to reduce inequality, because today it relies less on progressive taxation and more on transfers that increase public debt. For example, European Union governments’ spending on social protection, health care and education now accounts for two-thirds of public expenditure, but this is funded by tax policies that let off the rich and big corporations while heavily burdening the middle classes, and by adding to the stock of government debt. more>

The world is running out of time

By Bertrand Badré – In 2015, the international community launched a renewed effort to tackle collective global challenges under the auspices of the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21). But after an initial flurry of interest, the progress that has been made toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and tackling climate change has tapered off. Around the world, many seem to have developed an allergy to increasingly stark warnings from the UN and other bodies about accelerating species extinctions, ecosystem collapse, and global warming.

Now is not the time to debate whether progress toward global goals is a matter of the glass being half-full or half-empty. Soon, there will no longer even be a glass to worry about. Despite global news coverage of civic and political action to address our mounting crises, the underlying trends are extremely frightening.

For decades, most of the major economies have relied on a form of capitalism that delivered considerable benefits. But we are now witnessing the implications of the Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman’s famous mantra: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

A corporate-governance model based on maximizing shareholder value has long dominated our economic system, shaping our accounting frameworks, tax regimes, and business-school curricula.

But we have now reached a point where leading economic thinkers are questioning the fundamentals of the prevailing system. Paul Collier’s The Future of CapitalismJoseph E. Stiglitz’s People, Power, and Profits, and Raghuram G. Rajan’s The Third Pillar all offer comprehensive assessments of the problem.

A capitalist system that is disconnected from most people and unmoored from the territories in which it operates is no longer acceptable. Systems do not work in isolation. Eventually, reality asserts itself: global trade tensions reemerge, populist nationalists win power, and natural disasters grow in frequency and intensity.

Simply put, our approach to capitalism has exacerbated previously manageable social and environmental problems and sowed deep social divisions. The explosion in inequality and the laser focus on short-term results (that is, quarterly earnings) are just two symptoms of a broken system. more>

Nuclear Weapons Are Getting Less Predictable, and More Dangerous

By Patrick Tucker – On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to discuss, among many things, the prospect of a new, comprehensive nuclear-weapons treaty with Russia and China.

At the same time, the Pentagon is developing a new generation of nuclear weapons to keep up with cutting-edge missiles and warheads coming out of Moscow. If the administration fails in its ambitious renegotiation, the world is headed toward a new era of heightened nuclear tension not seen in decades.

That’s because these new weapons are eroding the idea of nuclear predictability.

Since the dawn of the nuclear era, the concept of the nuclear triad — bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles — created a shared set of expectations around what the start of a nuclear war would look like.

If you were in NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado and you saw ICBMs headed toward the United States, you knew that a nuclear first strike was underway. The Soviets had a similar set of expectations, and this shared understanding created the delicate balance of deterrence — a balance that is becoming unsettled.

Start with Russia’s plans for new, more-maneuverable ICBMs. Such weapons have loosely been dubbed “hypersonic weapons” — something of a misnomer because all intercontinental ballistic missiles travel at hypersonic speeds of five or more times the speed of sound — and they create new problems for America’s defenders.

“As I stand here today, I don’t know what that solution set looks like,” Gen. Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at an Air Force Association event in April. “If you’re going Mach 13 at the very northern edge of Hudson Bay, you have enough residual velocity to hit all 48 of the continential United States and all of Alaska. You can choose [to] point it left or right, and hit Maine or Alaska, or you can hit San Diego or Key West. That’s a monstrous problem.”

This makes it harder for U.S. leaders, in the crucial minutes before a potentially civilization-ending nuclear strike, to understand just what kind of weapon is inbound. more>

Updates from ITU

AI for Good’ or scary AI?
By Neil Sahota and Michael Ashley – Some futurists fear Artificial Intelligence (AI), perhaps understandably. After all, AI appears in all kinds of menacing ways in popular culture, from the Terminator movie dynasty to homicidal HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Though these movies depict Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) gone awry, it’s important to note some leading tech scholars, such as George Gilder (author Life After Google), doubt humans will ever be able to generate the sentience we humans take for granted (AGI) in our machines.

As it turns out, the predominant fear the typical person actually holds about AI pertains to Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI).

Specialized, ANI focuses on narrow tasks, like routing you to your destination — or maybe one day driving you there.

Much of what we uncovered when cowriting our new book, Own the A.I. Revolution: Unlock Your Artificial Intelligence Strategy to Disrupt Your Competition, is that people fear narrow task-completing AIs will take their job.

“It’s no secret many people worry about this type of problem,” Irakli Beridze, who is a speaker at the upcoming AI For Good Global Summit and heads the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, told us when interviewed for the book.

“One way or another, AI-induced unemployment is a risk we cannot dismiss out of hand. We regularly see reports predicting AI will wipe out 20 to 70 percent of jobs. And we’re not just talking about truck drivers and factory workers, but also accountants, lawyers, doctors, and other highly skilled professionals.” more>

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Why the US bears the most responsibility for climate change, in one chart

By Umair Irfan – Humans are pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate. But climate change is a cumulative problem, a function of the total amount of greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the sky. Some of the heat-trapping gases in the air right now date back to the Industrial Revolution. And since that time, some countries have pumped out vastly more carbon dioxide than others.

The wonderful folks at Carbon Brief have put together a great visual of how different countries have contributed to climate change since 1750. The animation shows the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions of the top emitters and how they’ve changed over time.

What’s abundantly clear is that the United States of America is the all-time biggest, baddest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet.

That’s true, despite recent gains in energy efficiency and cuts in emissions. These relatively small steps now cannot offset more than a century of reckless emissions that have built up in the atmosphere. Much more drastic steps are now needed to slow climate change. And as the top cumulative emitter, the US bears a greater imperative for curbing its carbon dioxide output and a greater moral responsibility for the impacts of global warming.

Yet the United States is now the only country aiming to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. more>

Hate Speech on Social Media: Global Comparisons

Violence attributed to online hate speech has increased worldwide. Societies confronting the trend must deal with questions of free speech and censorship on widely used tech platforms.
By Zachary Laub – A mounting number of attacks on immigrants and other minorities has raised new concerns about the connection between inflammatory speech online and violent acts, as well as the role of corporations and the state in policing speech. Analysts say trends in hate crimes around the world echo changes in the political climate, and that social media can magnify discord. At their most extreme, rumors and invective disseminated online have contributed to violence ranging from lynchings to ethnic cleansing.

The same technology that allows social media to galvanize democracy activists can be used by hate groups seeking to organize and recruit. It also allows fringe sites, including peddlers of conspiracies, to reach audiences far broader than their core readership. Online platforms’ business models depend on maximizing reading or viewing times.

Since Facebook and similar platforms make their money by enabling advertisers to target audiences with extreme precision, it is in their interests to let people find the communities where they will spend the most time.

Users’ experiences online are mediated by algorithms designed to maximize their engagement, which often inadvertently promote extreme content.

Some web watchdog groups say YouTube’s autoplay function, in which the player, at the end of one video, tees up a related one, can be especially pernicious. The algorithm drives people to videos that promote conspiracy theories or are otherwise “divisive, misleading or false,” according to a Wall Street Journal investigative report.

“YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century,” writes sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. more>

China’s Belt and Road: The new geopolitics of global infrastructure development

By Amar Bhattacharya, David Dollar, Rush Doshi, Ryan Hass, Bruce Jones, Homi Kharas, Jennifer Mason, Mireya Solís, and Jonathan Stromseth – The growing strategic rivalry between the United States and China is driven by shifting power dynamics and competing visions of the future of the international order. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a leading indicator of the scale of China’s global ambitions.

Originally conceptualized as a “going out” strategy to develop productive outlets for domestic overcapacity and to diversify China’s foreign asset holdings, Beijing later branded the effort as its “Belt and Road Initiative.” While the initiative began with a predominantly economic focus, it has taken on a greater security profile over time.

China’s initiative has attracted interest from over 150 countries and international organizations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. This is due, in part, to the fact that the initiative is meeting a need and filling a void left by international financial institutions (IFI) as they shifted away from hard infrastructure development. But there is a real possibility that the BRI will follow in the footsteps of the IFIs, encounter the same problems, and falter.

BRI shouldn’t be seen as a traditional aid program because the Chinese themselves do not see it that way and it certainly does not operate that way. It is a money-making investment and an opportunity for China to increase its connectivity.

The initiative has a blend of economic, political, and strategic agendas that play out differently in different countries, which is illustrated by China’s approach to resolving debt, accepting payment in cash, commodities, or the lease of assets. The strategic objectives are particularly apparent when it comes to countries where the investment aligns with China’s strategy of developing its access to ports that abut key waterways. more>