Category Archives: EARTH WATCH

The Unwanted Wars

Why the Middle East Is More Combustible Than Ever
By Robert Malley – The war that now looms largest is a war nobody apparently wants.

A conflict could break out in any one of a number of places for any one of a number of reasons. Consider the September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities: it could theoretically have been perpetrated by the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group, as part of their war with the kingdom; by Iran, as a response to debilitating U.S. sanctions; or by an Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq.

If Washington decided to take military action against Tehran, this could in turn prompt Iranian retaliation against the United States’ Gulf allies, an attack by Hezbollah on Israel, or a Shiite militia operation against U.S. personnel in Iraq. Likewise, Israeli operations against Iranian allies anywhere in the Middle East could trigger a regionwide chain reaction. Because any development anywhere in the region can have ripple effects everywhere, narrowly containing a crisis is fast becoming an exercise in futility.

The Middle East has become the world’s most polarized region and, paradoxically, its most integrated. That combination—along with weak state structures, powerful nonstate actors, and multiple transitions occurring almost simultaneously—also makes the Middle East the world’s most volatile region. It further means that as long as its regional posture remains as it is, the United States will be just one poorly timed or dangerously aimed Houthi drone strike, or one particularly effective Israeli operation against a Shiite militia, away from its next costly regional entanglement.

Ultimately, the question is not chiefly whether the United States should disengage from the region. It is how it should choose to engage: diplomatically or militarily, by exacerbating divides or mitigating them, and by aligning itself fully with one side or seeking to achieve a sort of balance.

Economically, it ranks among the least integrated areas of the world; institutionally, the Arab League is less coherent than the European Union, less effective than the African Union, and more dysfunctional than the Organization of American States. Nor is there any regional entity to which Arab countries and the three most active non-Arab players (Iran, Israel, and Turkey) belong.

Yet in so many other ways, the Middle East functions as a unified space. Ideologies and movements spread across borders: in times past, Arabism and Nasserism; today, political Islam and jihadism. more>

What’s Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax worth?

By Isabel V. Sawhill and Christopher Pulliam – On both sides of the Atlantic, economic inequality has rocketed up the political agenda and inspired a new wave of populism. Wealth inequality is high and rising in the UK and staggeringly so in the US. The top 1% of American households now have more wealth than the bottom 90%. In the UK, the top 10% holds over half the wealth. The richest 400 individuals in the US average a net worth of $7.2 billion.

How did we get to this point? As Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital, famously argued, a capitalist economy left to its own devices will tend to produce not just inequality but ever-rising inequality of wealth – and the income derived from wealth. The main reason is because the returns earned on assets such as stocks and bonds normally exceed the growth of wages.

Imagine an economy with one capitalist and one wage earner. If the annual rate of return to financial assets is, say, 3%, but wages are only growing by 2%, more and more income ends up in the hands of the capitalist. Wealth then begets more wealth as the capitalist, not needing to spend all of his added income, adds to his existing wealth and reaps ever-growing income from that wealth. Unless a war or other shock destroys his wealth (think depression or the devastation in Europe after the Second World War), or government decides to tax it away, we end up with the rise in wealth inequality that we are now seeing in many rich countries – the US in particular.

There is something deeply disturbing about Piketty’s work. If one takes his thesis seriously, it means that the inequality of wealth and its corollary, income inequality, along with their continued growth, is the new normal. They are baked into a capitalist economy.

Of course, some financial capital gets invested in productive assets that help the economy grow. But productive investment and growth have slowed in recent decades, making it hard to argue that the rise in wealth at the top has benefited everyone. In the meantime, the accumulation of wealth in high-income households is one reason that income inequality is rising so sharply at the very top. While the richest 20% of US households, which benefit from a lot of human capital but not a lot of wealth, saw their market incomes rise by 96% between 1979 and 2016, the top 1% – which receives far more of their income from wealth – saw their incomes rise by a staggering 219%.

In short, growing wealth inequality spawns growing income inequality, so if we care about the latter, we cannot focus only on redistributing income. We need to tackle the accumulation of wealth as well.

What to do? Senator Elizabeth Warren, a serious contender for the US presidency, has proposed a wealth tax. more>

Hello From the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different

By Bill McKibben – Let’s imagine for a moment that we’ve reached the middle of the century. It’s 2050, and we have a moment to reflect—the climate fight remains the consuming battle of our age, but its most intense phase may be in our rearview mirror. And so we can look back to see how we might have managed to dramatically change our society and economy. We had no other choice.

There was a point after 2020 when we began to collectively realize a few basic things.

One, we weren’t getting out of this unscathed. Climate change, even in its early stages, had begun to hurt: watching a California city literally called Paradise turn into hell inside of two hours made it clear that all Americans were at risk. When you breathe wildfire smoke half the summer in your Silicon Valley fortress, or struggle to find insurance for your Florida beach house, doubt creeps in even for those who imagined they were immune.

Two, there were actually some solutions. By 2020, renewable energy was the cheapest way to generate electricity around the planet—in fact, the cheapest way there ever had been. The engineers had done their job, taking sun and wind from quirky backyard DIY projects to cutting-edge technology. Batteries had plummeted down the same cost curve as renewable energy, so the fact that the sun went down at night no longer mattered quite so much—you could store its rays to use later.

And the third realization? People began to understand that the biggest reason we weren’t making full, fast use of these new technologies was the political power of the fossil-fuel industry. Investigative journalists had exposed its three-decade campaign of denial and disinformation, and attorneys general and plaintiffs’ lawyers were beginning to pick them apart. And just in time. more>

The Dictators’ Last Stand

differencebetween.netWhy the New Autocrats Are Weaker Than They Look
By Yascha Mounk – It has been a good decade for dictatorship. The global influence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian countries, China and Russia, has grown rapidly.

For the first time since the late nineteenth century, the cumulative GDP of autocracies now equals or exceeds that of Western liberal democracies. Even ideologically, autocrats appear to be on the offensive: at the G-20 summit in June, for instance, President Vladimir Putin dropped his normal pretense that Russia is living up to liberal democratic standards, declaring instead that “modern liberalism” has become “obsolete.”

Conversely, it has been a terrible decade for democracy. According to Freedom House, the world is now in the 13th consecutive year of a global democratic recession. Democracies have collapsed or eroded in every region, from Burundi to Hungary, Thailand to Venezuela. Most troubling of all, democratic institutions have proved to be surprisingly brittle in countries where they once seemed stable and secure.

In 2014, I suggested in these pages that a rising tide of populist parties and candidates could inflict serious damage on democratic institutions. At the time, my argument was widely contested. The scholarly consensus held that demagogues would never win power in the long-established democracies of North America and western Europe. And even if they did, they would be constrained by those countries’ strong institutions and vibrant civil societies.

Today, that old consensus is dead. The ascent of Donald Trump in the United States, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has demonstrated that populists can indeed win power in some of the most affluent and long-established democracies in the world. And the rapid erosion of democracy in countries such as Hungary and Venezuela has shown that populists really can turn their countries into competitive authoritarian regimes or outright dictatorships. The controversial argument I made five years ago has become the conventional wisdom.

But this new consensus is now in danger of hardening into an equally misguided orthodoxy. Whereas scholars used to hope that it was only a matter of time until some of the world’s most powerful autocracies would be forced to democratize, they now concede too readily that these regimes have permanently solved the challenge of sustaining their legitimacy.

The new orthodoxy is especially misleading about the long-term future of governments that promise to return power to the people but instead erode democratic institutions. These populist dictatorships, in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, share two important features: first, their rulers came to power by winning free and fair elections with an anti-elitist and anti-pluralist message. Second, these leaders subsequently used those victories to concentrate power in their own hands by weakening the independence of key institutions, such as the judiciary; curtailing the ability of opposition parties to organize; or undermining critical media outlets.

It is too early to conclude that the populist dictatorships that have arisen in many parts of the world in recent years will be able to sustain themselves in power forever. In the end, those who are subject to these oppressive regimes will likely grow determined to win back their freedom. more>

This Is Your Brain on Nationalism

The Biology of Us and Them
By Robert Sapolsky – To understand the dynamics of human group identity, including the resurgence of nationalism—that potentially most destructive form of in-group bias—requires grasping the biological and cognitive underpinnings that shape them.

Such an analysis offers little grounds for optimism.

Our brains distinguish between in-group members and outsiders in a fraction of a second, and they encourage us to be kind to the former but hostile to the latter. These biases are automatic and unconscious and emerge at astonishingly young ages. They are, of course, arbitrary and often fluid.

Today’s “them” can become tomorrow’s “us.” But this is only poor consolation. Humans can rein in their instincts and build societies that divert group competition to arenas less destructive than warfare, yet the psychological bases for tribalism persist, even when people understand that their loyalty to their nation, skin color, god, or sports team is as random as the toss of a coin.

At the level of the human mind, little prevents new teammates from once again becoming tomorrow’s enemies.

The human mind’s propensity for us-versus-them thinking runs deep. Numerous careful studies have shown that the brain makes such distinctions automatically and with mind-boggling speed. Stick a volunteer in a brain scanner and quickly flash pictures of faces. Among typical white subjects in the scanner, the sight of a black man’s face activates the amygdala, a brain region central to emotions of fear and aggression, in under one-tenth of a second.

In most cases, the prefrontal cortex, a region crucial for impulse control and emotional regulation, springs into action a second or two later and silences the amygdala: “Don’t think that way, that’s not who I am.” Still, the initial reaction is usually one of fear, even among those who know better.

For all this pessimism, there is a crucial difference between humans and those warring chimps. The human tendency toward in-group bias runs deep, but it is relatively value-neutral. Although human biology makes the rapid, implicit formation of us-them dichotomies virtually inevitable, who counts as an outsider is not fixed. In fact, it can change in an instant. more>

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>