Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Time to get back on track

Observation on the destruction wrought by John Major's privatisation of our railways

by Christian Wolmar

New Statesman (January 10 2008)

The real cost of the destruction of British Rail, initiated by John Major's government fifteen years ago, is finally emerging. Both aspects of the double whammy suffered by passengers after Christmas - the engineering overruns and the fare rises above inflation - can be traced to that piece of mindless vandalism that Labour has done so little to repair.

A privatised railway suffers such severe engineering overruns because more work is contracted out to companies which either do not have the expertise or which cut corners, knowing any penalties will cost less than ensuring that work is completed on time.

The work at Rugby to double the track was being overseen by Bechtel, the huge US specialists in project management. Expert at building new schemes, the company proved unequal to the task of carrying out alterations to an existing railway. Network Rail insiders, privately furious at Bechtel, now admit that they have contracted out too much of their management role and need to do more in-house.

The chaos would not have happened under British Rail, for two reasons. First, BR had sufficient engineering expertise in-house to plan and carry out such schemes within the required time. None of my ex-BR contacts could remember such a serious incident in the organisation's history.

Second, because BR was an integrated organisation, the engineering director would never have dared to mess up the railway for several days knowing he would have to face the operations director at a subsequent inquest. There would have been co-ordination throughout the process. Indeed, Network Rail staff tell me Virgin, the train operator, knew the timetable for the work at Rugby was too tight and couldn't be achieved without overrunning. Its warnings fell on deaf ears.

Network Rail is also suffering from the low esteem in which the railway, after privatisation, is held. Its top managers are well regarded, but there is a weakness in middle management, resulting partly from low pay. BR used to run a graduate entry scheme that was greatly oversubscribed. It was abandoned by Railtrack and has been revived only recently by Network Rail.

Nor has the public benefited from privatisation through lower fares. It is true that BR had to increase the price of travel in the same way as today. The difference, though, is that at least there was a political furore and debate each time this happened. Now, fare rises that are above inflation have been built into the economics of the railways for the foreseeable future, a crazy policy, in the light of rail's environmental advantages.

Today, rail travel is subsidised to the tune of more than GBP 5 billion a year. In a white paper issued last July, the government made clear that the priority was to push more of the costs of rail on to passengers rather than taxpayers. Fare rises that are above inflation are a deliberate strategy to reduce costs. They are also intended to "price off" demand, thus reducing the need for investment.

The debacle has shown that the organisation, structure, financing and accountability of the railways are in a complete mess, which no one had much noticed. Such issues attract far less attention than the series of accidents in the early days of privatisation.

The chaotic state of the railways demonstrates many of Labour's shortcomings, both in terms of its obsession with the private sector and its dishonesty in refusing to admit responsibility. No minister appeared on TV to explain either what went wrong at Rugby and Liverpool Street or to justify above- inflation fare rises, relying on the pretence that privatisation passed control to the companies which now own and operate the railways.

Nothing is further from the truth. For the first time in railway history, decisions on investment, franchises and strategy are being made by ministers and civil servants, rather than by rail experts. Moreover, the loss of BR means that no one bats for the railways or thinks how rail can be adapted to 21st-century needs.

Contrast this with France, where SNCF recently celebrated its 70th birthday at the Grand Palais with an exhibition of all the arts. Its boss, Guillaume Pepy, spoke with vision of expanding the country's high-speed rail network and running trains at night to compete with air for the huge courier business of the likes of DHL and FedEx. BR's demise leaves no organisation capable of that sort of vision.

It would be good to believe, after the outraged editorials and calls to re-create BR, that ministers would be moved to tackle the mess on the railways. Don't hold your breath. Yes, there is concern about a lack of accountability at Network Rail, stuck in limbo between the private and public sectors. Indeed, ministers are known to be worried about this, but since Network Rail has a GBP 20 billion debt the Chancellor does not want on his books, don't expect any bold moves.

It is even unlikely that Network Rail's directors will lose much of their six-figure bonuses over the Rugby chaos, as these are based on a variety of performance indicators covering the whole year.

The only way to improve the railways is to re-create BR. Labour would see that as retrograde and risky. In fact, such a brave move would be widely popular and demonstrate that Gordon Brown is different from Tony Blair.

Christian Wolmar is the author of Fire and Steam: a New History of the Railways in Britain (Atlantic Books, GBP 19.99)

Bill Totten

Population Bombs

It's an important issue, but nowhere near the top of the list.

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (January 29 2008)

I cannot avoid the subject any longer. Almost every day I receive a clutch of emails about it, asking the same question. A frightening new report has just pushed it up the political agenda: for the first time the World Food Programme is struggling to find the supplies it needs for emergency famine relief {1}. So why, like most environmentalists, won't I mention the p-word? According to its most vociferous proponents (Paul and Anne Erlich), population is "our number one environmental problem" {2}. But most greens will not discuss it.

Is this sensitivity or is it cowardice? Perhaps a bit of both. Population growth has always been politically charged, and always the fault of someone else. Seldom has the complaint been heard that "people like us are breeding too fast". For the prosperous clergyman Thomas Malthus, writing in 1798, the problem arose from the fecklessness of the labouring classes {3}. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenicists warned that white people would be outbred. In rich nations in the 1970s the issue was overemphasised, as it is the one environmental problem for which poor nations are largely to blame. But the question still needs to be answered. Is population really our number one environmental problem?

The Optimum Population Trust cites some shocking figures, produced by the UN. They show that if the global population keeps growing at current rates, it will reach 134 trillion by 2300 {4}. This is plainly ridiculous: no one expects it to happen. In 2005, the UN estimated that the world's population will more or less stabilise in 2200 at ten billion {5}. But a paper published in Nature last week suggests that that there is an 88% chance that global population growth will end during this century {6}.

In other words, if we accept the UN's projection, the global population will grow by roughly fifty per cent and then stop. This means it will become fifty per cent harder to stop runaway climate change, fifty per cent harder to feed the world, fifty per cent harder to prevent the overuse of resources. But compare this rate of increase to the rate of economic growth. Many economists predict that, occasional recessions notwithstanding, the global economy will grow by about three per cent a year this century. Governments will do all they can to prove them right. A steady growth rate of three per cent means a doubling of economic activity every 23 years. By 2100, in other words, global consumption will increase by roughly 1600%. As the equations produced by Professor Roderick Smith of Imperial College have shown, this means that in the 21st Century we will have used sixteen times as many economic resources as human beings have consumed since we came down from the trees {7}.

So economic growth this century could be 32 times as big an environmental issue as population growth. And, if governments, banks and businesses have their way, it never stops. By 2115, the cumulative total rises to 3200%, by 2138 to 6400%. As resources are finite, this is of course impossible, but it is not hard to see that rising economic activity - not human numbers - is the immediate and overwhelming threat.

Those who emphasise the dangers of population growth maintain that times have changed: they are not concerned only with population growth in the poor world, but primarily with growth in the rich world, where people consume much more. The Optimum Population Trust (OPT) maintains that the "global environmental impact of an inhabitant of Bangladesh ... will increase by a factor of sixteen if he or she emigrates to the USA" {8}. This is surely not quite true, as recent immigrants tend to be poorer than the native population, but the general point stands: population growth in the rich world, largely driven by immigration, is more environmentally damaging than population growth in the poor world. In the US and the UK, their ecological impact has become another stick with which immigrants can be beaten.

But growth rates in the US and UK are atypical; even the OPT concedes that by 2050, "the population of the most developed countries is expected to remain almost unchanged, at 1.2 billion" {9}. The population of the EU-25 (the first 25 nations to join the Union) is likely to decline by seven million {10}.

This, I accept, is of little consolation to people in the UK, where the government now expects numbers to rise from 61 million to 77 million by 2051 {11}. Eighty per cent of the growth here, according to the OPT, is the direct or indirect result of immigration (recent arrivals tend to produce more children) {12}. Migrationwatch UK claims that immigrants bear much of the responsibility for Britain's housing crisis. A graph on its website suggests that without them the rate of housebuilding in England between 1997 and 2004 would have exceeded new households by 30-40,000 a year {13}.

Is this true? According to the Office of National Statistics, average net immigration to the UK between 1997 and 2004 was 153,000 {14}. Let us (generously) assume that ninety per cent of these people settled in England, and that their household size corresponded to the average for 2004, of 2.3 {15}. This would mean that new immigrants formed 60,000 households a year. The Barker Review, commissioned by the Treasury, shows that in 2002 (the nearest available year), 138,000 houses were built in England, while over the ten years to 2000, average household formation was 196,000 {16}. This rough calculation suggests that Migrationwatch is exaggerating, but that immigration is still an important contributor to housing pressure. But even total population growth in England is responsible for only about 35% of the demand for homes {17}. Most of the rest is the result of the diminishing size of households.

Surely there is one respect in which the growing human population constitutes the primary threat? The amount of food the world eats bears a direct relationship to the number of mouths. After years of glut, the storerooms are suddenly empty and grain prices are rocketing. How will another three billion be fed?

Even here, however, population growth is not the most immediate issue: another sector is expanding much faster. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation expects that global meat production will double by 2050 (growing, in other words, at two and a half times the rate of human numbers) {18}. The supply of meat has already tripled since 1980: farm animals now take up seventy per cent of all agricultural land {19} and eat one third of the world's grain {20}. In the rich nations we consume three times as much meat and four times as much milk per capita as the people of the poor world {21}. While human population growth is one of the factors that could contribute to a global food deficit, it is not the most urgent.

None of this means that we should forget about it. Even if there were no environmental pressures caused by population growth, we should still support the measures required to tackle it: universal sex education, universal access to contraceptives, better schooling and opportunities for poor women. Stabilising or even reducing the human population would ameliorate almost all environmental impacts. But to suggest, as many of my correspondents do, that population growth is largely responsible for the ecological crisis is to blame the poor for the excesses of the rich.


1. A WFP official, speaking at the World Economic Forum, cited by Gillian Tett and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, 26th January 2008. Food supplies too scarce to meet relief needs. The Financial Times.

2. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, 1990. The Population Explosion. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1990.

3. Thomas Malthus, 1798. Essay on the Principle of Population.

4. Optimum Population Trust, 2007. Too many people: Earth's population problem

5. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005. World Population Prospects. The 2004 Revision.

6. Wolfgang Lutz, Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov, 20th January 2008. The coming acceleration of global population ageing. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature06516

7. Roderick A Smith, 29th May 2007. Lecture to the Royal Academy of Engineering. Carpe Diem: The dangers of risk aversion. See Appendix 1. Reprinted in Civil Engineering Surveyor, October 2007.

8. Optimum Population Trust, 30th May 2006. Mass migration damaging the planet. Press release.

9. Optimum Population Trust, 2007. Too many people: Earth's population problem

10. ibid.

11. BBC Online, 23rd October 2007. Population 'to hit 65m by 2016'.

12. Optimum Population Trust, 2007. Migration: UK.

13. Migrationwatch UK, 13th June 2006. Briefing paper 7.7: The impact of immigration on housing demand.

14. ONS, cited by Optimum Population Trust, 2007. Migration: UK.

15. Kate Barker, March 2004. Final report of Delivering stability: securing our future housing needs. Chart 1.3, p16.

16. Kate Barker, ibid, page 16.

17. Population trends for England can be found here:
As only some years are given, I took the average growth rate over 1991-2001, divided it by 2.3 and then expressed it as a percentage of total housing demand in 2000.

18. UNFAO, 2006. Livestock's Long Shadow, page xx.

19. ibid, page xxi.

20. ibid, page 12.

21. ibid, Table 1.5, page 15.

Copyright (c) 2006

Bill Totten

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ambition, Power and the Clintons

Return to Triangulation

by Ralph Nader (January 26 / 27 2008)

For Bill and Hillary Clinton, the ultimate American dream is eight more years. Yet how do you think they would react to having dozens of partisans at their rallies sporting large signs calling for EIGHT MORE YEARS, EIGHT MORE YEARS?

Don't you have the feeling that they would cringe at such public displays of their fervent ambition which the New York Times described as a "truly two-for-the-price-of-one" presidential race? It might remind voters to remember or examine the real Clinton record in that peaceful decade of missed opportunities and not be swayed by the sugarcoating version that the glib former president emits at many campaign stops.

The 1990s were the first decade without the spectre of the Soviet Union. There was supposed to be a "peace dividend" that would reduce the vast, bloated military budget and redirect public funds to repair or expand our public works or infrastructure.

Inaugurated in January 1993, with a Congress controlled by the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton sent a small job-creating proposal to upgrade public facilities. He also made some motions for campaign finance reform which he promised during his campaign when running against incumbent George H W Bush and candidate Ross Perot.

A double withdrawal followed when the Congressional Republicans started roaring about big spending Democrats and after House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Majority Leader, George Mitchell, told Clinton at a White House meeting to forget about legislation to diminish the power of organized money in elections.

That set the stage for how Washington politicians sized up Clinton. He was seen as devoid of modest political courage, a blurrer of differences with the Republican opposition party and anything but the decisive transforming leader he promised to be was he to win the election.

He proceeded, instead, to take credit for developments with which he had very little to do with such as the economic growth propelled by the huge technology boom.

Bragging about millions of jobs his Administration created, he neglected to note that incomes stagnated for eighty percent of the workers in the country and ended in 2000, under the level of 1973, adjusted for inflation.

A brainy White House assistant to Mr Clinton told me in 1997 that the only real achievement his boss could take credit for was passage of legislation allowing twelve weeks family leave, without pay.

There are changes both the Clinton Administration actively championed that further entrenched corporate power over our economy and government during the decade. He pushed through Congress the NAFTA and the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements that represented the greatest surrender in our history of local, state and national sovereignty to an autocratic, secretive system of transnational governance. This system subordinated workers, consumers and the environment to the supremacy of globalized commerce.

That was just for starters. Between 1996 and 2000, he drove legislation through Congress that concentrated more power in the hands of giant agribusiness, large telecommunications companies and the biggest jackpot-opening the doors to gigantic mergers in the financial industry. The latter so-called "financial modernization law" sowed the permissive seeds for taking vast financial risks with other peoples' money (that is, pensioners and investors) that is now shaking the economy to recession.

The man who pulled off this demolition of regulatory experience from the lessons of the Great Depression was Clinton's Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, who went to work for Citigroup - the main pusher of this oligopolistic coup - just before the bill passed and made himself $40 million for a few months of consulting in that same year.

Bill Clinton's presidential resume was full of favors for the rich and powerful. Corporate welfare subsidies, handouts and giveaways flourished, including subsidizing the Big Three Auto companies for a phony research partnership while indicating there would be no new fuel efficiency regulations while he was President.

His regulatory agencies were anesthetized. The veteran watchdog for Public Citizen of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr Sidney Wolfe, said that safety was the worst under Clinton in his twenty nine years of oversight.

The auto safety agency (NHTSA) abandoned its regulatory oath of office and became a consulting firm to the auto industry. Other agencies were similarly asleep - in job safety (OSHA) railroads, household product safety, antitrust, and corporate crime law enforcement.

By reappointing avid Republican Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, Mr Clinton assured no attention would be paid to the visible precursors of what is now the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Mr Greenspan, declined to use his regulatory authority and repeatedly showed that he almost never saw a risky financial instrument he couldn't justify.

Mr Clinton was so fearful of taking on Orrin Hatch, the Republican Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that he cleared most judicial appointments with the Utah Senator. He even failed to put forth the nomination of sub-cabinet level official, Peter Edelman, whose credentials were superb to the federal appeals court.

Mr Edelman resigned on September 12th 1996. In a memo to his staff, he said, "I have devoted the last thirty-plus years to doing whatever I could to help in reducing poverty in America. I believe the recently enacted welfare bill goes in the opposite direction."

Excoriated by the noted author and columnist, Anthony Lewis, for his dismal record on civil liberties, the man from Hope set the stage for the Bush demolition of this pillar of our democracy.

To justify his invasion of Iraq, Bush regularly referred in 2002 and 2003 to Clinton's bombing of Iraq and making "regime change" explicit US policy.

But it was Clinton's insistence on UN-backed economic sanctions in contrast to just military embargo, against Iraq, during his term in office. These sanctions on civilians, a task force of leading American physicians estimated, took half a million Iraqi children's lives.

Who can forget CBS's Sixty Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl's tour through Baghdad's denuded hospitals filled with crying, dying children? She then interviewed Mr Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeline Albright and asked whether these sanctions were worth it. Secretary Albright answered in the affirmative.

Bill Clinton is generally viewed as one smart politician, having been twice elected the President, helped by lackluster Robert Dole, having survived the Lewinsky sex scandal, lying under oath about sex, and impeachment. When is it all about himself, he is cunningly smart.

But during his two-term triangulating Presidency, he wasn't smart enough to avoid losing his Party's control over Congress, or many state legislatures and Governorships.

It has always been all about him. Now he sees another admission ticket to the White House through his wife, Hillary Clinton. EIGHT MORE YEARS without a mobilized, demanding participating citizenry is just that - EIGHT MORE YEARS.

It's small wonder that the editors of Fortune Magazine headlined an article last June with the title, "Who Business is Betting On?" Their answer, of course, was Hillary Clinton.


Ralph Nader is the author of The Seventeen Traditions (Harper, 2007)

Bill Totten

The danse macabre of US-style democracy

Of the presidential candidates I have interviewed,
only George C Wallace, governor of Alabama, spoke the truth

by John Pilger

New Statesman (January 24 2008)

The former president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere once asked, "Why haven't we all got a vote in the US election? Surely everyone with a TV set has earned that right just for enduring the merciless bombardment every four years." Having reported four presidential election campaigns, from the Kennedys to Nixon, Carter to Reagan, with their Zeppelins of platitudes, robotic followers and rictal wives, I can sympathise. But what difference would the vote make? Of the presidential candidates I have interviewed, only George C Wallace, governor of Alabama, spoke the truth. "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the Democrats and Republicans", he said. And he was shot.

What struck me, living and working in the United States, was that presidential campaigns were a parody, entertaining and often grotesque. They are a ritual danse macabre of flags, balloons and bullshit, designed to camouflage a venal system based on money, power, human division and a culture of permanent war.

Travelling with Robert Kennedy in 1968 was eye-opening for me. To audiences of the poor, Kennedy would present himself as a saviour. The words "change" and "hope" were used relentlessly and cynically. For audiences of fearful whites, he would use racist codes, such as "law and order". With those opposed to the invasion of Vietnam, he would attack "putting American boys in the line of fire", but never say when he would withdraw them. That year (after Kennedy was assassinated), Richard Nixon used a version of the same, malleable speech to win the presidency. Thereafter, it was used successfully by Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the two Bushes. Carter promised a foreign policy based on "human rights" - and practised the very opposite. Reagan's "freedom agenda" was a bloodbath in central America. Clinton "solemnly pledged" universal health care and tore down the last safety net of the Depression.

Nothing has changed. Barack Obama is a glossy Uncle Tom who would bomb Pakistan. Hillary Clinton, another bomber, is anti-feminist. John McCain's one distinction is that he has personally bombed a country. They all believe the US is not subject to the rules of human behaviour, because it is "a city upon a hill", regardless that most of humanity sees it as a monumental bully which, since 1945, has overthrown fifty governments, many of them democracies, and bombed thirty nations, destroying millions of lives.

If you wonder why this holocaust is not an "issue" in the current campaign, you might ask the BBC, or better still Justin Webb, the BBC's North America editor. In a Radio 4 series last year, Webb displayed the kind of sycophancy that evokes the 1930s appeaser Geoffrey Dawson, then editor of the Times. Condoleezza Rice cannot be too mendacious for Webb. According to Rice, the US is "supporting the democratic aspirations of all people". For Webb, who believes American patriotism "creates a feeling of happiness and solidity", the crimes committed in the name of this patriotism, such as support for war and injustice in the Middle East for the past 25 years, and in Latin America, are irrelevant. Indeed, those who resist such an epic assault on democracy are guilty of "anti-Americanism", says Webb, apparently unaware of the totalitarian origins of this term of abuse. Journalists in Nazi Berlin would damn critics of the Reich as "anti-German".

Moreover, his treacle about the "ideals" and "core values" that make up America's sanctified "set of ideas about human conduct" denies us a true sense of the destruction of American democracy: the dismantling of the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus and separation of powers. Here is Webb on the campaign trail: "[This] is not about mass politics. It is a celebration of the one-to-one relationship between an individual American and his or her putative commander-in-chief." He calls this "dizzying". And Webb on Bush: "Let us not forget that while the candidates win, lose, win again ... there is a world to be run and President Bush is still running it". The emphasis in the BBC text actually links to the White House website.

None of this drivel is journalism. It is anti-journalism, worthy of a minor courtier of a great power. Webb is not exceptional. His boss Helen Boaden, director of BBC News, sent this reply to a viewer who had protested the prevalence of propaganda as the basis of news: "It is simply a fact that Bush has tried to export democracy [to Iraq] and that this has been troublesome".

And her source for this "fact"? Quotations from Bush and Blair saying it is a fact.

Bill Totten

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Has global warming really stopped?

Response to a controversial article on
which argued global warming has stopped

by Mark Lynas

New Statesman (January 14 2008)

On 19 December the New Statesman website published an article {1} which, judging by the 633 comments (and counting) received so far, must go down in history as possibly the most controversial ever. Not surprising really - it covered one of the most talked-about issues of our time: climate change. Penned by science writer David Whitehouse, it was guaranteed to get a big response: the article claimed that global warming has 'stopped'.

As the New Statesman's environmental correspondent, I have since been deluged with queries asking if this represents a change of heart by the magazine, which has to date published many editorials steadfastly supporting urgent action to reduce carbon emissions. Why bother doing that if global warming has 'stopped', and therefore might have little or nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions, which are clearly rising?

I'll deal with this editorial question later. First let's ask whether Whitehouse is wholly or partially correct in his analysis. To quote:

"The fact is that the global temperature of 2007 is statistically the same as 2006 as well as every year since 2001. Global warming has, temporarily or permanently, ceased. Temperatures across the world are not increasing as they should according to the fundamental theory behind global warming - the greenhouse effect. Something else is happening and it is vital that we find out what or else we may spend hundreds of billions of pounds needlessly."

I'll be blunt. Whitehouse got it wrong - completely wrong. The article is based on a very elementary error: a confusion between year-on-year variability and the long-term average. Although carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing each year, no-one ever argued that temperatures would do likewise. Why? Because the planet's atmosphere is a chaotic system, which expresses a great deal of interannual variability due to the interplay of many complex and interconnected variables. Some years are warmer and cooler than others. 1998, for example, was a very warm year because an El Nino event in the Pacific released a lot of heat from the ocean. 2001, by contrast, was somewhat cooler, though still a long way above the long-term average. 1992 was particularly cool, because of the eruption of a large volcano in the Philippines called Mount Pinatubo.

'Climate' is defined by averaging out all this variability over a longer term period. So you won't, by definition, see climate change from one year to the next - or even necessarily from one decade to the next. But look at the change in the average over the long term, and the trend is undeniable: the planet is getting hotter.

Look at the graph below {2}, showing global temperatures over the last 25 years. These are NASA figures, using a global-mean temperature dataset known as GISSTEMP. (Other datasets are available, for example from the UK Met Office. These fluctuate slightly due to varying assumptions and methodology, but show nearly identical trends.) Now imagine you were setting out to write Whitehouse's article at some point in the past. You could plausibly have written that global warming had 'stopped' between 1983 and 1985, between 1990 and 1995, and, if you take the anomalously warm 1998 as the base year, between 1998 and 2004. Note, however, the general direction of the red line over this quarter-century period. Average it out and the trend is clear: up.

Note also the blue lines, scattered like matchsticks across the graph. These, helpfully added by the scientists at (from where this graph is copied), partly in response to the Whitehouse article, show eight-year trend lines - what the temperature trend is for every eight-year period covered in the graph.

You'll notice that some of the lines, particularly in the earlier part of the period, point downwards. These are the periods when global warming 'stopped' for a whole eight years (on average), in the flawed Whitehouse definition - although, as astute readers will have quickly spotted, the crucial thing is what year you start with. Start with a relatively warm year, and the average of the succeeding eight might trend downwards. In scientific parlance, this is called 'cherry picking', and explains how Whitehouse can assert that "since [1998] the global temperature has been flat" - although he is even wrong on this point of fact, because as the graph above shows, 2005 was warmer.

Note also how none of the eight-year trend lines point downwards in the last decade or so. This illustrates clearly how, far from having 'stopped', global warming has actually accelerated in more recent times. Hence the announcement by the World Meteorological Organisation on 13 December, as the Bali climate change meeting was underway, that the decade of 1998-2007 was the “warmest on record”. Whitehouse, and his fellow contrarians, are going to have to do a lot better than this if they want to disprove (or even dispute) the accepted theory of greenhouse warming.

The New Statesman's position on climate change

Every qualified scientific body in the world, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the Royal Society, agrees unequivocally that global warming is both a reality, and caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. But this doesn't make them right, of course. Science, in the best Popperian definition, is only tentatively correct, until someone comes along who can disprove the prevailing theory. This leads to a frequent source of confusion, one which is repeated in the Whitehouse article - that because we don't know everything, therefore we know nothing, and therefore we should do nothing. Using that logic we would close down every hospital in the land. Yes, every scientific fact is falsifiable - but that doesn't make it wrong. On the contrary, the fact that it can be challenged (and hasn't been successfully) is what makes it right.

Bearing all this in mind, what should a magazine like the New Statesman do in its coverage of the climate change issue? Newspapers and magazines have a difficult job of trying, often with limited time and information, to sort out truth from fiction on a daily basis, and communicating this to the public - quite an awesome responsibility when you think about it. Sometimes even a viewpoint which is highly likely to be wrong gets published anyway, because it sparks a lively debate and is therefore interesting. A publication that kept to a monotonous party line on all of the day's most controversial issues would be very boring indeed.

However, readers of my column will know that I give contrarians, or sceptics, or deniers (call them what you will) short shrift, and as a close follower of the scientific debate on this subject I can state without doubt that there is no dispute whatsoever within the expert community as to the reality or causes of manmade global warming. But even then, just because all the experts agree doesn't make them right - it just makes them extremely unlikely to be wrong. That in turn means that if someone begs to disagree, they need to have some very strong grounds for doing so - not misreading a basic graph or advancing silly conspiracy theories about IPCC scientists receiving paycheques from the New World Order, as some of Whitehouse's respondents do.

So, a mistaken article reached a flawed conclusion. Intentionally or not, readers were misled, and the good name of the New Statesman has been used all over the internet by climate contrarians seeking to support their entrenched positions. This is regrettable. Good journalism should never exclude legitimate voices from a debate of public interest, but it also needs to distinguish between carefully-checked fact and distorted misrepresentations in complex and divisive areas like this. The magazine's editorial policy is unchanged: we want to see aggressive action to reduce carbon emissions, and support global calls for planetary temperatures to be stabilised at under two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Yes, scientific uncertainties remain in every area of the debate. But consider how high the stakes are here. If the 99% of experts who support the mainstream position are right, then we have to take urgent action to reduce emissions or face some pretty catastrophic consequences. If the 99% are wrong, and the one percent right, we will be making some unnecessary efforts to shift away from fossil fuels, which in any case have lots of other drawbacks and will soon run out. I'd hate to offend anyone here, but that's what I'd call a no-brainer.



Mark Lynas is a climate change writer and activist, author of the acclaimed book High Tide (Picador, 2004) and fortnightly columnist for the New Statesman. He was selected by National Geographic as an 'Emerging Explorer' for 2006, and blogs on www.marklynas.orghttp://

Bill Totten

Eating As If the Climate Mattered

by Bruce Friedrich

AlterNet (January 23 2008)

Last week in our nation's capital, the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) held a climate change conference focused on solutions to the problem of human-induced climate change. And in Paris the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, held a press conference to discuss to discuss "the importance of lifestyle choices" in combating global warming.

Notably, all food at the NCSE conference was vegan, and there were table-top brochures with quotes from the UN report on the meat industry, discussed more below. And the IPCC head, Dr Rajendra Pachauri declared, as the AFP sums it up, "Don't eat meat, ride a bike, and be a frugal shopper".

The New York Times, also, seems to be jumping on the anti-consumption bandwagon. First they ran an editorial on New Year's Day stating that global warming is "the overriding environmental issue of these times" and that Americans are "going to have to change [our] lifestyles ..." The next day, they ran a superb opinion piece by Professor Jared Diamond about the fact that those of us in the developed world consume 32 times as many resources as people in the developing world and eleven times as much as China.

Diamond ends optimistically, stating that "whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable".

It is reasonable for all of us to review our lives and to ask where we can cut down on our consumption - because it's necessary, and because living according to our values is what people of integrity do.

Last November, United Nations environmental researchers released a report that everyone who cares about the environment should review. Called "Livestock's Long Shadow", this 408-page thoroughly researched scientific report indicts the consumption of chickens, pigs, and other meats, concluding that the meat industry is "one of the ... most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global" and that eating meat contributes to "problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity".

The environmental problems of meat fill books, but the intuitive argument can be put more succinctly into two points:

* A 135-pound woman will burn off at least 1,200 calories a day even if she never gets out of bed. She uses most of what she consumes simply to power her body. Similarly, it requires exponentially more resources to eat chickens, pigs, and other animals, because most of what we feed to them is required to keep them alive, and much of the rest is turned into bones and other bits we don't eat; only a fraction of those crops is turned into meat. So you have to grow all the crops required to raise the animals to eat the animals, which is vastly wasteful relative to eating the crops directly.

* It also requires many extra stages of polluting and energy-intensive production to get chicken, pork, and other meats to the table, including feed mills, factory farms, and slaughterhouses, all of which are not used in the production of vegetarian foods. And then there are the additional stages of gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing transportation of moving crops, feed, animals, and meat-relative to simply growing the crops and processing them into vegetarian foods.

So when the UN added it all up, what they found is that eating chickens, pigs, and other animals contributes to "problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity", and that meat-eating is "one of the ... most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global".

And on the issue of global warming, the issue the New York Times deems critical enough to demand that we "change [our] lifestyles" and for which Al Gore and the IPCC received the Nobel peace prize, the United Nations' scientists conclude that eating animals causes forty percent more global warming than all planes, cars, trucks, and other forms of transport combined, which is why the Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook (Rodale, 2007) says that "refusing meat" is "the single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint" [emphasis in original].

There is a lot of important attention paid to population, and that's a critical issue too, but if we're consuming eleven times as much as people in China and 32 times as much as people in the third world, then it's not just about population; it's also about consumption.

NCSE, IPPC, and the UN deserve accolades for calling on people to stop supporting the inefficient, fossil fuel intensive, and polluting meat industry. The head of the IPCC, who received the Nobel Prize with Mr Gore and who held last week's press conference in Paris, puts his money where his mouth is: He's a vegetarian.

The NCSE's all-vegan 3,000-person conference last week also sends positive signal that other environmentalists would be wise to listen to. Thus far, among the large environmental organizations only Greenpeace ensures that all official functions are vegetarian. Other environmental groups should follow suit.

It's empowering really, when you think about it: By choosing vegetarian foods, we're making compassionate choices that are good for our bodies, and we're living our environmental values at every meal.

Find out more at, and find recipe tips, meal plans, and more at


Bruce Friedrich is vice president for campaigns at PETA. He has been a progressive activist for more than twenty years.

Copyright (c) 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten

Monday, January 28, 2008

Will the food run out?

Observations on aid

by Tom Marchbanks

New Statesman (January 17 2008)

The weekly shop and the morning loaf of bread are becoming more expensive, but while most of us may barely have noticed, rising food prices are hitting the world's developing nations hard.

Global reserves of cereals are at an all-time low, mounting food costs have sparked riots in Mexico and there are hunger warnings across sub-Saharan Africa. A seldom-mentioned casualty of the price surge, though, has been the aid agencies, which are struggling to buy in food aid. With prices predicted to remain high, they are increasingly seeking new ways to feed the world's hungry.

The boom in global food prices, in part driven by demand for biofuels, is stretching resources at the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). Over the past five years, the agency's food procurement bill has rocketed by fifty per cent, according to Robin Lodge, spokesman for the organisation.

"There has been a cost increase across the board in major grains and pulses, such as maize, wheat and rice", he says. The escalating price of grains, described as agri-inflation among economists, has been rapid. The price of wheat, for example, doubled in 2007.

Paul Horsnell, head of commodities research at Barclays Capital, blames increased use of land for biofuels, reduced supply and an insatiable demand for food and animal feed from the world's emerging markets. "Biofuels, China and some poor harvests have been a recipe for a very sharp rise in grain prices", he says.

The WFP's finances are further hit by record oil prices. This impacts on grain prices by pushing up the cost of fertiliser and also adding to the agency's food-aid distribution expenses.

"Transport costs have soared over the past few years, adding enormously to our costs; also the rates shipping companies charge have increased. We are being hit all round", says Lodge.

The WFP's problems are unlikely to diminish since, in the long term, global warming will push up food prices, predicts John Ingram of Global Environmental Change and Food Systems, an organisation which monitors environmental change and food security. "Climate change is going to make things more difficult", he says.

The influences of climate change are already evident; as the US and Europe search for alternative carbon-neutral energy sources, land is diverted from food to fuel crops. "It's not rocket science to say that if you take land out of food production, the price of food will go up", says Ingram.

Another impact of global warming on the cost of food is the projected increase in extreme weather events, such as Australia's continuing drought and the serious floods of 2007 across Africa. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by 2100 we will experience heavier rainstorms, causing soil erosion and crop damage; droughts producing lower crop yields; and widespread soil salination from rising sea levels.

Responding to the growing crisis, Jacques Diouf, director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, is demanding urgent steps to boost crop production. The UN agency is also seeking to address the problem from the other direction - by seeking means to prevent shortages, rather than simply managing them. "We look at ways of mitigation", says Lodge. "We are trying to increase farmers' yields by providing a ready market".

Handing out vouchers or small amounts of cash to stimulate local trade, rather than shipping in and distributing food aid, is one method increasingly used by the WFP. It has also started to buy directly from farmers, creating a stable market price that encourages production.

"World commodity prices are high, but this is not reflected at the farm gates. By being on the spot, we can guarantee a price", explains Lodge.

Nonetheless, the WFP is warning governments that if official development assistance doesn't keep up with rising food prices, the agency will be unable to maintain current levels.

"The bottom line is that if the donations remain static, we cannot feed all the people we are feeding at the moment. And unless donations go up, we may have to cut programmes", says Lodge.

Bill Totten

Overpopulation and peak oil: The perfect storm

by Jim Lydecker

Napa Valley Register (January 18 2008)

Americans have recently become aware of converging crises that can end life as we know it, though experts have been warning us for many years.

For example, many economists have been warning for decades of the severe consequences resulting from runaway national debt and an imbalance of trade. And the current mortgage/liquidity crisis was first discussed in the early 1990s by a number of financial experts.

Global warming, a phenomenon universally accepted as fact within the past five years, was first discussed by the Swedes in the 19th century. Several papers published at Stockholm University warned of global warning with the advent of the industrial age.

For a variety of reasons, humans usually don't react to problems until they become crises. All these crises are semi-connected, where one will trigger one or more of the others. However, there are two crises marching toward us now, shoulder-to-shoulder, that will trigger every other, both large and small. At best, they will end our industrial civilization. At worst, they may depopulate most of our species. These two comrades-in-arms, overpopulation and peak oil, are of such complex magnitude, no amount of financial or scientific commitment may stop them. They are creating the perfect storm of which there may be no survival.

The ever-quickening rise in oil prices partly attributed to the ever-weakening dollar. However, oil prices would still be increasing as demand outstrips supply. The slide down peak oil is unstoppable.

Most want to believe oil is limitless. The fact of the matter is it's a finite resource, a geological gift of nature, half of which we've run through in less than 150 years. You only have to look as far as the mature, collapsing fields as the North Sea, Mexico's Cantarell, Alaska's North Slope, Russia's Caspian and various Middle Eastern countries to know we are in deep trouble. In December's OPEC meetings, it was made public that they were supplying fifteen percent less than two years ago despite pumping as fast as they can. The massive Saudi field, Ghawar - by far the world's largest - has only been able to maintain its five-million-barrel-a-day output by injecting nine million barrels of sea water daily. It's said as goes Ghawar, so goes Saudi Arabia.

No substance is more interwoven into life as oil. Most of us see it as gasoline and believe more fuel-efficient autos will save the day. This is a fallacy as cars take much oil to manufacture, so if we replace all gas guzzlers with fuel-efficient vehicles, it will make matters worse. And using grain-produced ethanol is proving to be a mistake. Agriculture is one of the most oil-intensive industries and the more we grow, the quicker we use oil up.

Oil is necessary for drugs and pharmaceuticals, energy, fertilizers and pesticides, chemical production and everything plastic. With the advent of oil came a revolution in medicine, agriculture (where two percent of the population now feeds the rest of us, while it was the opposite in 1850), transportation, information, machinery and industrial production. Never before has life changed so much and oil was directly responsible for this modernization.

If peak oil is the sharpshooter with modern industrial civilization in its crosshairs, overpopulation is the hangman with the noose around our necks.

In 1850, the world population lingered at one billion; in America it was 23 million. The world population is now closing in on seven billion while here it nears 310 million. It was oil, and its cousin natural gas, that allowed the population to grow to unprecedented proportions as quickly as it did. As oil is depleted, it's correct to assume the population will decrease proportionately.

In 1974, the government released a study (NSSM 200) that concluded the world population needed to be decreased drastically for humans to survive after peak oil without dire consequences. This was followed by the Carter administration's Global 2000 document that said an immediate goal of less than two billion worldwide is necessary. Others suggest a world of no more than 500 million is more realistic.

Knowing so much about a near future of mass migration, epidemics, famines, society collapse and die-offs of biblical proportions, one should ask: Why are we not making population and oil conservation the primary issues? I always wonder why towns are proud welcoming in the first born of the year when, in the overall scope of things, having a baby is the most selfish thing a person can do. Why encourage our species to breed ourselves toward extinction?

Energy and population are the two subjects you never hear politicians discuss. Columnists, on the left and right, have recently written how it is only OK to talk about conserving oil and decreasing population until it's too late.


Lydecker lives in Napa.)

Napa Valley Register Copyright (c) 2007

Bill Totten

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tom Hanks' Charlie Wilson Movie ...

... An Imperialist Comedy

by Chalmers Johnson (January 06 2008)

AlterNet (January 08 2008)

I have some personal knowledge of Congressmen like Charlie Wilson (Democrat, Texas, 1973-1996) because, for close to twenty years, my representative in the 50th Congressional District of California was Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now serving an eight-and-a-half year prison sentence for soliciting and receiving bribes from defense contractors. Wilson and Cunningham held exactly the same plummy committee assignments in the House of Representatives - the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee plus the Intelligence Oversight Committee - from which they could dole out large sums of public money with little or no input from their colleagues or constituents.

Both men flagrantly abused their positions - but with radically different consequences. Cunningham went to jail because he was too stupid to know how to game the system - retire and become a lobbyist - whereas Wilson received the Central Intelligence Agency Clandestine Service's first "honored colleague" award ever given to an outsider and went on to become a $360,000 per annum lobbyist for Pakistan.

In a secret ceremony at CIA headquarters on June 9 1993, James Woolsey, Bill Clinton's first Director of Central Intelligence and one of the agency's least competent chiefs in its checkered history, said: "The defeat and breakup of the Soviet empire is one of the great events of world history. There were many heroes in this battle, but to Charlie Wilson must go a special recognition." One important part of that recognition, studiously avoided by the CIA and most subsequent American writers on the subject, is that Wilson's activities in Afghanistan led directly to a chain of blowback that culminated in the attacks of September 11 2001 and led to the United States' current status as the most hated nation on Earth.

On May 25 2003, (the same month George W Bush stood on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under a White-House-prepared "Mission Accomplished" banner and proclaimed "major combat operations" at an end in Iraq), I published a review in the Los Angeles Times of the book that provides the data for the film Charlie Wilson's War. The original edition of the book carried the subtitle, "The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History - the Arming of the Mujahideen". The 2007 paperbound edition was subtitled, "The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times". Neither the claim that the Afghan operations were covert nor that they changed history is precisely true.

In my review of the book, I wrote,

"The Central Intelligence Agency has an almost unblemished record of screwing up every 'secret' armed intervention it ever undertook. From the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953 through the rape of Guatemala in 1954, the Bay of Pigs, the failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, the 'secret war' in Laos, aid to the Greek Colonels who seized power in 1967, the 1973 killing of President Allende in Chile, and Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra war against Nicaragua, there is not a single instance in which the Agency's activities did not prove acutely embarrassing to the United States and devastating to the people being 'liberated'. The CIA continues to get away with this bungling primarily because its budget and operations have always been secret and Congress is normally too indifferent to its Constitutional functions to rein in a rogue bureaucracy. Therefore the tale of a purported CIA success story should be of some interest.

"According to the author of Charlie Wilson's War, the exception to CIA incompetence was the arming between 1979 and 1988 of thousands of Afghan mujahideen ("freedom fighters"). The Agency flooded Afghanistan with an incredible array of extremely dangerous weapons and 'unapologetically mov[ed] to equip and train cadres of high tech holy warriors in the art of waging a war of urban terror against a modern superpower [in this case, the USSR]'.

"The author of this glowing account, [the late] George Crile, was a veteran producer for the CBS television news show 60 Minutes and an exuberant Tom Clancy-type enthusiast for the Afghan caper. He argues that the US's clandestine involvement in Afghanistan was 'the largest and most successful CIA operation in history', 'the one morally unambiguous crusade of our time', and that 'there was nothing so romantic and exciting as this war against the Evil Empire'. Crile's sole measure of success is killed Soviet soldiers (about 15,000), which undermined Soviet morale and contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the period 1989 to 1991. That's the successful part.

"However, he never once mentions that the 'tens of thousands of fanatical Muslim fundamentalists' the CIA armed are the same people who in 1996 killed nineteen American airmen at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole in Aden Harbor in 2000, and on September 11 2001, flew hijacked airliners into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon."

Where Did the "Freedom Fighters" Go?

When I wrote those words I did not know (and could not have imagined) that the actor Tom Hanks had already purchased the rights to the book to make into a film in which he would star as Charlie Wilson, with Julia Roberts as his right-wing Texas girlfriend Joanne Herring, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos, the thuggish CIA operative who helped pull off this caper.

What to make of the film (which I found rather boring and old-fashioned)? It makes the US government look like it is populated by a bunch of whoring, drunken sleazebags, so in that sense it's accurate enough. But there are a number of things both the book and the film are suppressing. As I noted in 2003,

"For the CIA legally to carry out a covert action, the president must sign off on - that is, authorize - a document called a 'finding'. Crile repeatedly says that President Carter signed such a finding ordering the CIA to provide covert backing to the mujahideen after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24 1979. The truth of the matter is that Carter signed the finding on July 3 1979, six months before the Soviet invasion, and he did so on the advice of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in order to try to provoke a Russian incursion. Brzezinski has confirmed this sequence of events in an interview with a French newspaper, and former CIA Director [today Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates says so explicitly in his 1996 memoirs. It may surprise Charlie Wilson to learn that his heroic mujahideen were manipulated by Washington like so much cannon fodder in order to give the USSR its own Vietnam. The mujahideen did the job but as subsequent events have made clear, they may not be all that grateful to the United States."

In the bound galleys of Crile's book, which his publisher sent to reviewers before publication, there was no mention of any qualifications to his portrait of Wilson as a hero and a patriot. Only in an "epilogue" added to the printed book did Crile quote Wilson as saying, "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And the people who deserved the credit are the ones who made the sacrifice. And then we fucked up the endgame." That's it. Full stop. Director Mike Nichols, too, ends his movie with Wilson's final sentence emblazoned across the screen. And then the credits roll.

Neither a reader of Crile, nor a viewer of the film based on his book would know that, in talking about the Afghan freedom fighters of the 1980s, we are also talking about the militants of al Qaeda and the Taliban of the 1990s and 2000s. Amid all the hoopla about Wilson's going out of channels to engineer secret appropriations of millions of dollars to the guerrillas, the reader or viewer would never suspect that, when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, President George H W Bush promptly lost interest in the place and simply walked away, leaving it to descend into one of the most horrific civil wars of modern times.

Among those supporting the Afghans (in addition to the US) was the rich, pious Saudi Arabian economist and civil engineer, Osama bin Laden, whom we helped by building up his al Qaeda base at Khost. When bin Laden and his colleagues decided to get even with us for having been used, he had the support of much of the Islamic world. This disaster was brought about by Wilson's and the CIA's incompetence as well as their subversion of all the normal channels of political oversight and democratic accountability within the US government. Charlie Wilson's war thus turned out to have been just another bloody skirmish in the expansion and consolidation of the American empire - and an imperial presidency. The victors were the military-industrial complex and our massive standing armies. The billion dollars' worth of weapons Wilson secretly supplied to the guerrillas ended up being turned on ourselves.

An Imperialist Comedy

Which brings us back to the movie and its reception here. (It has been banned in Afghanistan.) One of the severe side effects of imperialism in its advanced stages seems to be that it rots the brains of the imperialists. They start believing that they are the bearers of civilization, the bringers of light to "primitives" and "savages" (largely so identified because of their resistance to being "liberated" by us), the carriers of science and modernity to backward peoples, beacons and guides for citizens of the "underdeveloped world".

Such attitudes are normally accompanied by a racist ideology that proclaims the intrinsic superiority and right to rule of "white" Caucasians. Innumerable European colonialists saw the hand of God in Darwin's discovery of evolution, so long as it was understood that He had programmed the outcome of evolution in favor of late Victorian Englishmen. (For an excellent short book on this subject, check out Sven Lindquist's "Exterminate All the Brutes".)

When imperialist activities produce unmentionable outcomes, such as those well known to anyone paying attention to Afghanistan since about 1990, then ideological thinking kicks in. The horror story is suppressed, or reinterpreted as something benign or ridiculous (a "comedy"), or simply curtailed before the denouement becomes obvious. Thus, for example, Melissa Roddy, a Los Angeles film-maker with inside information from the Charlie Wilson production team, notes that the film's happy ending came about because Tom Hanks, a co-producer as well as the leading actor, "just can't deal with this 9/11 thing".

Similarly, we are told by another insider reviewer, James Rocchi, that the scenario, as originally written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, included the following line for Avrakotos: "Remember I said this: There's going to be a day when we're gonna look back and say 'I'd give anything if [Afghanistan] were overrun with Godless communists'". This line is nowhere to be found in the final film.

Today there is ample evidence that, when it comes to the freedom of women, education levels, governmental services, relations among different ethnic groups, and quality of life - all were infinitely better under the Afghan communists than under the Taliban or the present government of President Hamid Karzai, which evidently controls little beyond the country's capital, Kabul. But Americans don't want to know that - and certainly they get no indication of it from Charlie Wilson's War, either the book or the film.

The tendency of imperialism to rot the brains of imperialists is particularly on display in the recent spate of articles and reviews in mainstream American newspapers about the film. For reasons not entirely clear, an overwhelming majority of reviewers concluded that Charlie Wilson's War is a "feel-good comedy" (Lou Lumenick in the New York Post), a "high-living, hard-partying jihad" (A O Scott in the New York Times), "a sharp-edged, wickedly funny comedy" (Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times). Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post wrote of "Mike Nichols's laff-a-minute chronicle of the congressman's crusade to ram funding through the House Appropriations Committee to supply arms to the Afghan mujahideen"; while, in a piece entitled "Sex! Drugs! (and Maybe a Little War)", Richard L Berke in the New York Times offered this stamp of approval: "You can make a movie that is relevant and intelligent - and palatable to a mass audience - if its political pills are sugar-coated".

When I saw the film, there was only a guffaw or two from the audience over the raunchy sex and sexism of "good-time Charlie", but certainly no laff-a-minute. The root of this approach to the film probably lies with Tom Hanks himself, who, according to Berke, called it "a serious comedy". A few reviews qualified their endorsement of Charlie Wilson's War, but still came down on the side of good old American fun. Rick Groen in the Toronto Globe and Mail, for instance, thought that it was "best to enjoy Charlie Wilson's War as a thoroughly engaging comedy. Just don't think about it too much or you may choke on your popcorn." Peter Rainer noted in the Christian Science Monitor that the "Comedic Charlie Wilson's War has a tragic punch line". These reviewers were thundering along with the herd while still trying to maintain a bit of self-respect.

The handful of truly critical reviews have come mostly from blogs and little-known Hollywood fanzines - with one major exception, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. In an essay subtitled "Charlie Wilson's War celebrates events that came back to haunt Americans", Turan called the film "an unintentionally sobering narrative of American shouldn't-have" and added that it was "glib rather than witty, one of those films that comes off as being more pleased with itself than it has a right to be".

My own view is that if Charlie Wilson's War is a comedy, it's the kind that goes over well with a roomful of louts in a college fraternity house. Simply put, it is imperialist propaganda and the tragedy is that four-and-a-half years after we invaded Iraq and destroyed it, such dangerously misleading nonsense is still being offered to a gullible public. The most accurate review so far is James Rocchi's summing-up for Cinematical: "Charlie Wilson's War isn't just bad history; it feels even more malign, like a conscious attempt to induce amnesia".


Chalmers Johnson is the author of the Blowback Trilogy - Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (paperbound edition, January 2008).

Copyright (c) 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten

"Re-learning" what we've forgotten

by Chris Maser

Culture Change (January 06 2008)

Editor's note: This is Chris Maser's Part Three of his series for Culture Change. I ate this one up, because ever since I read a 1987 article in Discover magazine by Jared Diamond, about hunter-gatherers' working only a few hours a day a few days a week, I've been aware that our modern way of life is not what it's cracked up to be. In Maser's article there is solid anthropological insight applicable to our current challenge as a dysfunctional society facing extinction. In his eighteen maxims, he concludes with "Placing material wealth, as symbolized by the money chase, above spirituality, nature, and human well-being is the road to social impoverishment, environmental degradation, and the collapse of societies and their life-support systems". -- Jan Lundberg

If we all treat one another with the best principles of human relationships, it is analogous to complying with Nature's biophysical principles by taking responsibility for our own behavior. In other words, if I want to become acquainted with you, it is incumbent on me to determine how I must treat you in order to allow, even encourage, you to reciprocate in kind. Thus, for me to receive the best service, it is my responsibility to initiate a good relationship with the person serving me. Likewise, to have an adequate supply of quality resources in the form of ecoogical services from Nature to run our cities, we must take care of the land in a way that perpetuates the natural capital we require for a quality life. Here, the bottom line is that, by treating one another - as well as the land - with respect, we are uniting the two disparate entities into a single, self-reinforcing feedback loop of complementary services that can be perpetuated through time.

To bring this about, however, we need to view one another and ourselves differently, which necessitates a brief, generalized visit to the hunter-gatherers of olden times. If you are wondering why we need to visit the hunter-gatherers, the answer is simple: to understand what we have forgotten - how to live in harmony with one another and the land.

What the hunter-gatherers knew

The hunting-gathering peoples of the world - Australian aborigines, African Bushman, and similar groups - represent not only the oldest but also perhaps the most successfully adapted human beings. Virtually all of humanity lived by hunting and gathering before about 12,000 years ago. Hunters and gatherers represent the opposite pole of the densely packed, harried urban life most people of today experience. Yet the life philosophy of those same hunter-gatherers may hold the answer to a central question plaguing humanity at it enters the 21st century: Can people live harmoniously with one another and Nature?

Until 1500 AD, hunter-gatherers occupied fully one-third of the world, including all of Australia, most of North America, and large tracts of land in South America, Africa, and northeast Asia, where they lived in small groups without the overarching disciplinary umbrella of a state or other centralized authority. They lived without standing armies or bureaucratic systems, and they exchanged goods and services without recourse to economic markets or taxation.

With relatively simple technology, such as wood, bone, stone, fibers, and fire, they were able to meet their material requirements with a modest expenditure of energy and had the time to enjoy that which they possessed materially, socially, and spiritually. Although their material wants may have been few and finite and their technical skills relatively simple and unchanging, their technology was, on the whole, adequate to fulfill their needs, a circumstance that says the hunting-gathering peoples were the original affluent societies. Clearly, they were free of the industrial shackles in which we find ourselves as prisoners at hard labor caught seeming forever between the perpetual disparity of unlimited wants and insufficient means.

Evidence indicates that these peoples lived surprisingly well together, despite the lack of a rigid social structure, solving their problems among themselves, largely without courts and without a particular propensity for violence. They also demonstrated a remarkable ability to thrive for long periods, sometimes thousands of years, in harmony with their environment. They were environmentally and socially harmonious and thus sustainable because they were egalitarian, and they were egalitarian because they were socially and environmentally harmonious. They intuitively understood the reciprocal, indissoluble connection between their social life and the sustainability of their environment.

Sharing was the core value of social interaction among hunter-gatherers, with a strong emphasis on the importance of generalized reciprocity, which means the unconditional giving of something without any expectation of immediate return. The combination of generalized reciprocity and an absence of private ownership of land has led many anthropologists to consider the hunter-gatherer way of life as a "primitive communism", in the true sense of "communism", wherein property is owned in common by all members of a classless community.

Even today, there are no possessive pronouns in aboriginal languages. The people's personal identity is defined by what they give to the community: "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am" is a good example of the "self-in-community" foundation that gives rise to the saying in Zulu, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: "It is through others that one attains selfhood". {1}

Hunter-gatherer peoples lived with few material possessions for hundreds of thousands of years and enjoyed lives that were in many ways richer, freer, and more fulfilling than ours. These nomadic peoples were (and are) economical in every aspect of their lives, except in telling stories. Stories passed the time during travel, archived the people's history, and passed it forward as the children's cultural inheritance. {2}

These peoples so structured their lives that they wanted little, required little, and found what they needed at their disposal in their immediate surroundings. They were comfortable precisely because they achieved a balance between what they needed and/or wanted by being satisfied with little. There are, after all, two ways to wealth - working harder or wanting less.

The !Kung Bushmen of southern Africa, for example, spent only twelve to nineteen hours a week getting food because their work was social and cooperative, which means they obtained their particular food items with the least possible expenditure of energy. Thus, they had abundant time for eating, drinking, playing, and general socializing. In addition to which, young people were not expected to work until well into their twenties and no one was expected to work after age forty or so. {3}

Like the hunter-gatherers of old, the sense of place for the self-sufficient, nomadic Bedouins ("desert dwellers" in Arabic) is a seasonal journey. With respect to socializing, however, Bedouins have long had specific meeting places. In the desert of Sinai, an acacia tree still serves as a landmark and meeting place that offers shelter and social contact to travelers. The "makhad" (which means "the meeting place around the acacia tree") is a traditional Bedouin meeting place, where, according to their customs of friendship and hospitality, all who pass through the desert are welcomed. In fact, there is a particular acacia tree in the Sinai desert at the oasis garden of Ein-Khudra (an oasis mentioned in the Bible) that has been cultivated continuously by the same Bedouin family for over a thousand years.

These "oasis gardens" are remarkably fertile and filled with abundance, which reflects the Bedouin's love of and respect for their desert home. The makhads are a socially recognized commons in that they help to sustain the nomadic lifestyle - acting as a fixed point around which the nomadic journey revolves. {4}

Hunter-gatherers also had much personal freedom. There were, among the !Kung Bushmen and the Hadza of Tanzania, for instance, either no leaders or only temporary leaders with severely limited authority. These societies had personal equality in that everyone belonged to the same social class and had gender equality. Their technologies and social systems, including their economies of having enough or a sense of "enoughness", allowed them to live sustainably for tens of thousands of years. One of the reasons they were sustainable was their lack of connection between what an individual produced and that person's economic security, so acquisition of things to ensure personal survival and material comfort was not an issue.

In the beginning, nomadic hunters and gatherers, who have represented humanity for most of its existence, probably saw the world simply as "habitat" that fulfilled all of their life's requirements, a view that allowed the people to understand themselves as part of a seamless community. For example, the Apache word "Shi-Ni", is used for "land" and "mind", an indication of how closely the people were united to the land. With the advent of herding, agriculture, and progressive settlement, however, humanity created the concept of "wilderness", and so the distinctions between "tame" (equals "controlled") and "wild" (equals "uncontrolled") plants and animals began to emerge in the human psyche. Along with the notion of tame and wild plants and animals came the perceived need to not only "control" space but also to "own" it through boundaries in the form of corrals, pastures, fields, and villages. In this way, the uncontrolled land or "wilderness" of the hunter-gatherers came to be viewed in the minds of settled folk as "unproductive", "free" for the taking, and/or as a threat to their existence.

Agriculture, therefore, brought with it both a sedentary way of life and a permanent change in the flow of living. Whereas the daily life of a hunter-gatherer was a seamless whole, a farmer's life became divided into "home" and "work". While a hunter-gatherer had intrinsic value as a human being with respect to the community, a farmer's sense of self-worth became extrinsic, both personally and with respect to the community as symbolized by, and permanently attached to "productivity" - a measure based primarily on how hard a person worked and thus produced in good or services.

In addition, the sedentary life of a farmer changed the notion of "property". To the hunter-gatherers, mobile property, that which one could carry with them (such as one's hunting knife or gathering basket) could be owned, but fixed property (such as land) was to be shared equally through rights of use, but could not be personally owned to the exclusion of others and the detriment of future generations. This was such an important concept, that it eventually had a word of special coinage, "usufruct". According to the 1999 Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, "usufruct", is a noun in Roman and Civil Law. Usufruct means that one has the right to enjoy all the advantages derivable from the use of something that belongs to another person provided the substance of the thing being used is neither destroyed nor injured.

So the dawn of agriculture, which ultimately gave birth to civilizations, created powerful, albeit unconscious, biases in the human psyche. For the first time, humans clearly saw themselves as distinct from and - in their reasoning at least - superior to the rest of Nature. They therefore began to consider themselves as masters of, but not as members of, Nature's biophysical community of life.

To people who lived a sedentary life, like farmers, land was a commodity to be bought, owned, and sold. Thus, when hunter-gatherer cultures, such as the American Indians, "sold" their land to the invaders (in this case Europeans), they were really selling the right to "use" their land, not to "own" it outright as fixed property, something the Europeans did not understand. The European's difficulty in comprehending the difference probably arose because, once a sedentary and settled life style is embraced, it is almost impossible to return to a nomadic way of life, especially the thinking that accompanies it.

We, as individuals, may therefore despair when we contemplate the failure of so many earlier human societies to recognize their pending environmental problems, as well as their failure to resolve them - especially when we see our local, national, and global society committing the same kinds of mistakes on an even larger scale and faster time track. But the current environmental crisis is much more complex than earlier ones because modern society is qualitatively different than previous kinds of human communities. Old problems are occurring in new contexts and new problems are being created, both as short-term solutions to old problems and as fundamentally new concepts. Pollution of the world's oceans, depletion of the ozone layer, production of enormous numbers and amounts of untested chemical compounds that find their way into the environment, and the potential human exacerbation of global climate change were simply not issues in olden times. But they are the issues of today.

There are lessons we, as a society today, can re-learn from the people who once lived - and the few who still live - a hunter-gatherer way of life. I say, "relearn" because, as writer Carlo Levi once said, "the future has an ancient heart".

What we must "re-learn"

1. Life's experiences are personal and intimate.

2. Sharing life's experiences by working together and taking care of one another along the way is the price of sustainability.

3. Cooperation and coordination, when coupled with sharing and caring, precludes the perceived need to compete, except in play - and perhaps in story telling.

4. The art of living lies in how we practice relationship - beginning with ourselves - because practicing relationship is all we humans ever do in life.

5. Leisure is affording the necessary amount of time to fully engage each thought we have, each decision we make, each task we perform, and each person with whom we converse in order to fulfill a relationship's total capacity for a quality experience.

6. Simplicity in living and dying depends on and seeks things small, sublime, and sustainable.

7. There is more beauty and peace in the world than ugliness and cruelty.

8. Any fool can complicate life, but it requires a certain genius to make and keep things simple.

9. For a group of people to be socially functional, they must be equally informed about what is going on within the group; in other words, there must be no secrets that are actually or potentially detrimental to any member of the group.

10. Separating work from social life is not necessary for economic production - and may even be a serious social mistake.

11. By consciously limiting our "wants", we can have enough to comfortably fulfill our necessities as well as some of our most ardent desires - and leave more for other people to do the same.

12. Simplicity is the key to contentment, adaptability, and survival as a culture; beyond some point, complexity becomes a decided disadvantage with respect to cultural longevity, just as it is to the evolutionary longevity of a species.

13. The notion of scarcity is largely an economic construct to foster competitive consumerism and thereby increase profits, but is not necessarily an inherent part of human nature. (We need to overcome our fear of economically contrived scarcity and marvel instead at the incredible abundance and resilience of the Earth.)

14. Linking individual well-being strictly to individual production is the road to competition, which in turn leads inevitably to social inequality, poverty, and environmental degradation.

15. Self-centeredness and acquisitiveness are not inherent traits of our species, but rather acquired traits based on a sense of fear and insecurity within our social setting that fosters the perceived need of individual and collective competition, expressed as the need to impress others.

16. Inequality based on gender and/or social class is a behavior based on fear disguised as "social privilege".

17. Mobile property, that which one can carry with them, can be owned, whereas fixed property - such as land, which may be borrowed - is to be shared equally through rights of generational use, but can not be personally owned to the detriment of future generations.

18. Placing material wealth, as symbolized by the money chase, above spirituality, nature, and human well-being is the road to social impoverishment, environmental degradation, and the collapse of societies and their life-support systems. {3}

So, where are we today? We are the exact antithesis of the hunter-gatherers in many respects: (1) who we are, (2) how we obtain resources, (3) what we own, (4) our connection with Nature, and (5) who benefits and who pays. I am, however, going to focus on our connection with Nature, because, in a sense, the others are embodied in the characteristics of that relationship.

The hunter-gatherers knew themselves to be an inseparable part of Nature and therefore did their best to honor Nature by blending in with the seasonal cycles of birth and death, of hunter, gatherer, and hunted. Through their spirituality and myths, they sought to understand the "Nature Gods", appease them, and serve them so they might continue to be generous in the future.

We city folks, on the other hand, have all but lost our conscious connection with Nature, in part because a number of modern religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, consider humanity to be separate from and above all other life on Planet Earth. In addition, we live in protective "boxes" of one sort or another wherein our daily necessities are transported - including our experience of the outer world via television. Consequently, we rarely experience the night sky, the seasonal flights of migrating geese, or the wide-open spaces that are as yet uncluttered by the trappings of humanity. And those city folks who do hunt, normally do so with high-powered rifles that make their game into the abstractions of sport and trophies - not lives taken with reverence for the necessity of food.

The hunter-gatherers lived lightly upon the land, honoring its cycles, being patience with Nature's pace, taking only what they needed, and thereby allowing the land to renew itself before they took from it again. In this way, generations passed through the millennia, each tending to be at least as well off as the preceding one.

Because we have a propensity to see Nature as a commodity to be competitively exploited for our immediate benefit, we are, at best, short-changing the generations of the future by passing forward unpaid environmental bills and, at worst, blatantly stealing their inheritance and thus setting all generations on a course toward environmental bankruptcy. The first is irresponsible, the latter unconscionable. While the hunter-gatherers lived an effective life, we are focused almost totally on efficiency. And they are not the same thing!


1. Barbara Nussbaum. 2003. Ubuntu. Resurgence 221:13.

2. Sally Pomme Clayton. 2003. Thread of Life. Resurgences 221:29.

3. The foregoing discussion of hunter-gatherers is taken from:

(1) the Foreword, Introduction, and first eight chapters of the 1998 book Limited Wants, Unlimited Means edited by John Gowdy and published by Island Press, Washington, DC. The authors are as follows: Foreword by Richard B Lee, Introduction by John Gowdy, Chapter 1 by Marshall Sahlins, Chapter 2 by Richard B Lee, Chapter 3 by Lorna Marshall, Chapter 4 by James Woodburn, Chapter 5 by Nurit Bird-David, Chapter 6 by Eleanor Leacock, Chapter 7 by Richard B Lee, and Chapter 8 by Ernest S Burch, Jr;

(2) Rebecca Adamson. People who are Indigenous to the Earth. 1997. YES! A Journal of Positive Futures, Winter: 26-27;

(3) Gus diZerega. 1997. Re-thinking the Obvious: Modernity and Living Respectfully with Nature. Trumpeter 14: 184-193;

(4) Richard K Nelson. 1983. Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. Pages 214-215;

(5) Stephanie Mills. 2001. Words for the Wild. Resurgence 208:38-40; and

(6) Roderick Frazier Nash. 2003. Wild World. Resurgence 216:36-38.

4. The foregoing discussion about the nomadic Bedouins is based on: Will Cretney. 2000. A Nomadic Journey. Resurgence 203: 24-25.


This essay is condensed from Chris Maser's 2004 book The Perpetual Consequences of Fear and Violence: Rethinking the Future. Maisonneuve Press, Washington, DC. 373 pages.

Chris has written several books that are showcased on his website, Chris lives in Corvallis, Oregon. He is a consultant on environmental land-use development, sustainable communities and forestry.

Further Reading:

"Ancient innovations for present conventions toward extinction" by Jan Lundberg, Culture Change Letter #161, June 10 2007:

Bill Totten

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Fantasy of Endless Consumption

by Sudhanva Deshpande (December 25 2007)

Almost suddenly, the lower middle class has become a subject of Hindi films.

Consider the film Ta Ra Rum Pum. A racing car driver falls in love with, and eventually marries, a pianist, the daughter of a rich businessman. The hero is profligate, spending lavishly on parties and other luxuries. But this is not a problem, because the hero keeps winning every race he enters and because he buys everything on credit.

Till, one day, he runs into the evil driver at a race, and has a crash. He loses ten races on the trot, and is finally sacked by the team he races for, which promptly employs the evil driver. The installments begin to pile up, and eventually, the couple lose all they had.

Till the utterly predictable happens: the hero gets back to the race track, beats evil driver, salvages his name and career, and eventually moves back into the same fancy house he and his family had to vacate an hour earlier. This time, with the pledge that he will not buy things on credit.

The film itself is terrible. But sometimes, it is more fun to look at what a film could have been. Every narrative is pregnant with other possibilities; whether the end is tragedy or farce could well depend on which Marx wrote the screenplay, Karl or Groucho.

Ta Ra Rum Pum is a fantasy. It is a fantasy because it tells us, in the end, that our consumption need not be financed by debt. This is of course ridiculous, as anyone who has salivated at the latest plasma TV or a three-bedroom apartment knows. What used to be thought of as consumer durables are no longer so durable - the latest music system, or car, or refrigerator muscles out models released barely a couple of years ago.

In an earlier day and age, the middle class' craving for consumption was satisfied by foreign trips, and by dowry. No more. No more do you have to wait for a rich uncle to return from London or Dubai with flashy goggles, a Walkman, and a bottle of Johnny Walker. No more is extortion through marriage the only way to acquire a Bajaj scooter of dubious fuel-efficiency. Not that these avenues, benign as well as benighted, are no longer in use. Just that these are no longer the only ones available. Your bank calls you on Diwali-eve to give you a pre-approved loan of half a million rupees. What for, you ask. The call centre employee at the other end is incredulous: "You mean don't want to buy anything?"

Debt servicing becomes a critical part of the monthly budget. Some cope, some don't. Those who do, trapeze from one high-paying job to the next higher-paying job. Consumption has to be kept up. The only way to do so is to ensure that you don't hang around in the same company too long. This is of course the very opposite of what our fathers and uncles believed in. In those Five Year Plan days, you joined a company and grew with it. Today, though, if you want to keep up with servicing your debt, fidelity to job is anathema.

Companies evolve all sorts of ways to retain employees. Perquisites and paid holidays are what the upper end of the spectrum get. At the lower end, things are murkier. After courts ruled that companies cannot coerce employees to remain by making them sign bonds, companies - especially in the IT sector - make potential employees pay for getting jobs. You pay, say, forty or sixty or eighty thousand rupees at the time of joining, and the company pays you your salary, plus, say, two thousand rupees per month - this is from the money you paid at the point of joining. Forty thousand divided by two thousand is twenty - so you are compelled to stay with the company for at least twenty months. As soon as those twenty months are over, though, you are ready to move to another job.

Whatever else you may or may not do, though, living without debt is not an option. Be forever unsatisfied, Shah Rukh Khan tells us: do not be santusht (satisfied). The size of the moneyed middle class may be a matter of dispute, but the survival of corporations, and of consumer capitalism itself, depends upon the ability of corporations to draw more and more people into the web of consumption, whether they can afford it or not. Accordingly, the middle class - or, more precisely, the lower middle class - is suddenly thrusting itself into our imagination, via films and television.

The film I began with, Ta Ra Rum Pum, becomes interesting for this reason: it actually depicts the experience of the lower middle class, lusting after consumption but unable to service the resultant debt.

The career of the most interesting screenplay writer currently working in the Hindi film industry could be explained by this fact, that he is able to capture the experience of the lower middle class. I am talking about Jaideep Sahni, and his filmography includes Company, Bunty aur Bubli, Khosla ka Ghosla, Chak de India. Company, a story of a lower middle class Bombay boy who rises to become a gangster; Bunty aur Bubli, a story of two small-town lower middle class kids and their adventures on the margins of illegality; Khosla ka Ghosla, a story of a lower middle class family struggling to get back the plot of land they have sunk in their lives savings to buy; and Chak de India, a story of a lower middle class hockey player who fights, along with a bunch of mostly lower middle class girls, to redeem his reputation as a patriot.

The lower middle class of Jaideep Sahni's films is very different from the middle class of the old Basu Chatterjee-Amol Palekar films, largely because the nature of the middle class itself has changed, along with their attitudes, perceptions, aspirations and frustrations. That much is obvious enough. What is not so immediately obvious is that while Jaideep Sahni's middle class is upwardly mobile - or at least aspires to be upwardly mobile, using means fair and not so fair - the world they inhabit is, in the end, a world of fantasy. It is a world where a family has to neither sell its old house nor take a home loan to buy a new one, or a world where India can achieve sporting success on the world stage purely on the basis of grit and determination.

But the relationship between the upper and lower middle class is not without its own tensions either. The upper middle class have only disdain for the lower middle class. One recent film explores this tension quite pointedly: Bheja Fry, a take off on the French film Le Diner de cons. The premise of the film is simple: a bunch of wealthy friends get together every Friday and invite an "idiot" and make fun of him. The "idiot" obviously does not realise he is being made fun of. What Bheja Fry is able to depict beautifully is the utter disdain that the upper middle class has for the lower middle, its callousness, its self-centeredness, and its complete inability to see anything from the other's point of view, even if the other happens to be your own wife.

Yet, this lower middle class still has to be drawn into the cycle of endless consumption. In one sense, that is the great drama being played out on Indian television as well. Consider the so-called "reality shows" and "talent hunts". There is nothing "real" about them at all, nor is the purpose of the shows to hunt talent.

But that is not the point. Look at the individuals you see on these shows: most of them are from smaller towns, and most of them belong resolutely to the lower middle class. It is critical that this class be dished out the fantasy of unimaginable fame and unimaginable riches, even if that fantasy is to last merely a moment. In its ephemerality, in fact, the fantasy mimics the act of consumption itself: the moment of consumption is the very moment of utter boredom, the very moment when one has to start looking for the next moment of climactic release, the next moment of fantasy.

It is only fitting then, that the instrument of drawing the lower middle class into the fantasy of fame, riches and endless consumption is the ubiquitous mobile phone. The illusion of "reality" is made possible by the mobile phone, by the act of "voting". That the act of voting is simultaneously an act of consumption (you have to first buy a mobile phone, then you have to buy a pre- or post-paid plan, then you have to vote, for which again you pay) is neither coincidental nor trivial. The only reality in the reality shows is the reality of consumption. And who takes part in this reality of consumption? Overwhelmingly, it is the lower middle class, otherwise hidden from public view in cities like Solapur or Siliguri or Silchar.

To draw the lower middle class into the cycle of endless debt is critical, because that is the only thing that will sustain the endless consumption of the wealthy.

One final point about Hindi cinema. The fact that these kind of films are being made today is directly related to the multiplex boom. Only the multiplex, with its higher ticket prices per seat as well as with its multiplicity of screenings, makes possible the margins that enable such, relatively small budget and somewhat offbeat films, possible. In turn, the multiplex is itself made possible by the middle class's increased ability to spend on ephemeral consumption. And the multiplex, which originated in the affluent sections of our metros, has now moved to other areas as well: to the less affluent sections in the metros, as well as to non-metros. In other words, the condition that makes these films possible in the first place - the multiplex model of revenue generation - is also predicated on the very phenomenon the films reflect - the drawing of the lower middle class into the fantasy of endless consumption.


Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, and works as editor with LeftWord Books, New Delhi. He can be reached at

Bill Totten