Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Terror Alerts

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine Notebook (March 2007)

One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.
-- J M Coetzee

Count the number of movies these days that play to America's fear of losing its way in the world, and it's a wonder that Congress doesn't appoint an Iraq Study Group drawn from the company of studio executives seated poolside in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. The Hollywood field commanders might not know the difference between an Arab and a Turk, or how much to tip the lieutenant for valet parking the tank, but Western civilization they know to be running low on its stores of weapons-grade triumphalism, and dystopia they recognize as a travel destination no farther away than next month's bomb blast in Paris or Wichita Falls. Such at least was the holiday message brought to Manhattan's Cineplex screens last Christmas with the big-ticket movies storming the objective of an Academy Award, among them Babel, Apocalypto, Blood Diamond, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Good Shepherd, and Children of Men. Twinkling with the glitter of box-office celebrity (Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Clint Eastwood, Clive Owen, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mel Gibson, Robert De Niro), the images of disaster came wrapped in the ribbons of critical acclaim - "nervously plausible future", "frighteningly, violently precarious", a "glorious bummer that lifts you to the rafters, transporting you with the greatness of its filmmaking".

The superlatives speak to the art of reformatting news bulletins as fashion statements. The set designs strive to match the CNN broadcasts from Baghdad, Ramallah, and Darfur, the foregrounds decorated with dead children, burning cars, fortified checkpoints, shattered glass, dismembered corpses, pillars of smoke. The cinematography dotes lovingly on the blood-smeared streets envisioned by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as "the face of the early part of the twenty-first century", the Moroccan desert and the jungles of West Africa seen as projections of the not-too-distant future slouching towards the suburbs of San Diego. Intent upon the composition of metaphors deserving a place in the Book of Revelation, the filmmakers don't give much thought to the problems of character and plot, which is just as well because many of the actors speak in strange tongues (Japanese, Yucatec, Berber, Spanish, Krio), their voices heard as sounds indistinguishable from the twittering of birds in a godforsaken wilderness.

In the absence of coherent narrative or intelligible speech, how then to respond to the elevated terrorist alerts? If in Hollywood as in Washington the authors of political pulp fiction shape the product to reassure or entertain as many people as possible, it's safe to assume that the postcards from the frontiers of the apocalypse admit of at least two interpretations, one of them likely to be preferred by audiences that wish to withdraw our troops from Iraq, the other by theatergoers who support the Bush Administration's plan to send more and heavier hired guns.

The first variant offers the gift redemption. The doomed heroes of Blood Diamond and Children of Men appear in the opening sequences marked with the stigmata of cynicism and despair - Leonardo DiCaprio as a heartless, former mercenary soldier engaged in the illegal diamond trade in Sierra Leone during the civil war in 1999, Clive Owen as an alienated intellectual in the city of London fast-forwarded to the year 2027 and there imagined as a pyramid of industrial wreckage and desolation of lost souls. Owen feels "like shit, all day every day"; DiCaprio inhabits a "shit world" in which "killing is a way of life" embraced by the multinational corporations and revolutionary gangs pillaging a country that "God left a long time ago". Neither man believes himself capable of an act of charity or conscience. The movies prove them wrong; against their will and better judgment both men find themselves transformed into imitations of Christ. From the dead moon of England, Owen rescues a young black woman pregnant with what in the year 2027 has become the miracle of a human birth. He attends the delivery of her daughter in a prison camp reminiscent of present day Gaza, brings mother and child through a shroud of machine-gun fire to a small boat that he rows offshore to a mysterious ship named Tomorrow. The movie ends with Owen dying at the oars, the prow of the ship barely visible in the mist but the music floating up into a major key ripe with the promise of civilization reborn.

DiCaprio also gives up his life for the sake of a child, an eight-year-old African boy captured by rebels, programmed to mouth agitprop, and trained to the practice of serial murder. The boy's father, a simple fisherman, stumbles across a diamond so valuable and rare that its price on the market in Amsterdam must admit the seller to the gardens of an earthly Paradise. DiCaprio sets out to steal the stone, but halfway through the film he meets a beautiful American journalist and succumbs to a change of heart. Love blooms, DiCaprio turns his talent for killing against his former associates and arranges the boy's escape from Africa (together with the father and the diamond) in a light plane lifting off into a Norman Rockwell sunset. DiCaprio stays behind to die of his wounds, but the beautiful journalist doesn't let the world forget the meaning of his sacrifice. She writes a magazine article in which she exposes the wickedness of the African resource wars. The movie ends with an exhortation to the buyers of engagement rings at Cartier and Tiffany to remember that it is up to the consumer to insist that the diamond is conflict-free.

Although most clearly stated in Blood Diamond and Children of Men, the theme of redemption wanders through the existential gloom of Babel, infiltrates the headquarters of the CIA in The Good Shepherd, lurks in the forests of Apocalypto, hides in caves in Letters from Iwo Jima. In The Good Shepherd, Matt Damon discovers the capacity for true emotion taken from him during his long years of service in America's bodyguard of lies; Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in Babel come to recognize in the person of a Moroccan villager the presence of a fellow human being, thus stumbling upon the discovery that there's more to life than money. On Iwo Jima in March 1945, the death of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, like the death of Leonidas the Spartan at Thermopylae in 480 BC, invests the horror of war with the meaning of immortal sacrifice; Mel Gibson's noble savage learns from his trials by combat that the time has come for what the subtitles translate as "a new beginning".

In one way or another, the storylines reiterate Hollywood's Christmas message to worried environmentalists and concerned human-rights activists: Yes, maybe it's true that America is busy at the task of devouring the earth, our global financial markets blind to the wretchedness of the naked and undernourished poor, deaf to the cries of drowning polar bears, but all is not lost. We might know that America is doing things that good people shouldn't be doing, but because we feel bad about it, sorry for the luckless victims of unfortunate circumstance, we haven't been robbed of our humanity. We have feelings, feelings as innocent and fine as the ones worn on the sleeves of this year's Democratic presidential candidates, and because we have feelings, our moral perfections remain intact, and our conscience, like the flag at old Fort McHenry, is still there. The guarantee presumably comes as a comfort to theatergoers looking for the cinematic equivalents of a federal witness protection program.

Audiences seated further to the Republican or Christian right don't need to be told that their hearts are pure or that their cause is just. Both propositions they take on faith and know to be a fact. Through no fault of its own, America now finds itself surrounded by sinister enemies as numberless as the names for grief - by communicable diseases and corrupt Russians as well as by angry Muslims and poisoned oceans - and therefore we're justified in the use of any and all means necessary (no matter how brutal or seemingly barbaric) to cleanse the world of its impurities. To theatergoers secure in the righteousness that all Americans inherit at birth, Hollywood's glorious bummers invite interpretation not as assuagings of doubt but as calls to arms. Behold the world for what it is, a raging of beasts and a writhing of serpents. Get used to it; harden thy resolve; defend the homeland against the deadly imports of unlicensed evil. Know that the war on terror will be with us for the next forty years and that the way forward, in Iraq as in Apocalypto and Children of Men, is through the splashing of blood and the trampling out of the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

The stronger line of film appreciation accords with the geopolitical thinking of President George W Bush, also with the enthusiasms of the Washington warrior intellectuals who continue to hold fast, despite the results of last November's election, to the neoconservative doctrines of forward deterrence and preemptive strike - obliterate Iran's nuclear-weapons laboratories before the mullahs can assemble a bomb, intimidate North Korea, punish China, deploy the tactic of targeted assassination. On the latter point, National Review last August published an article entitled "An Arrow in Our Quiver", in which the author, Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that it was foolish on the part of the United States to make unlawful the loosing of the assassin's arrow, so useful a "policy tool", against foreign heads of state clearly identified as the scum of the earth. Rubin conceded that in some quarters of American opinion "there remains a gut-level revulsion to assassination", but he found the squeamishness more prevalent among the country's effete academics than among "ordinary Americans".

The observation has become a commonplace around Dick Cheney's campfires in Wyoming. As often as not it leads to a series of further remarks about how as a people we've become too rich and too comfortable for our own good, that having gone soft in the head as well as the heart, we've misplaced our joie du combat, forgotten how to take casualties, lost touch with our inner barbarian. John Podhoretz, one of the more ferocious apostles of American empire, addressed the problem in a newspaper column published last summer in the New York Post during the weeks when Israel was sending its raiding parties into southern Lebanon. The Israelis were being condemned in the world press for inflicting disproportionate damage on the city of Beirut, also for leaving behind in the Lebanese countryside a plantation of as many as one million unexploded cluster bombs - small objects resembling a child's toy, stuck in the branches of olive trees, buried in the rubble of what once were villages, strewn across farm fields, orchards, roads, school playgrounds. Taking offense at the suggestion that somehow Israel had committed atrocities, Podhoretz asked a number of momentous questions that could as easily have occurred to Lieutenant General Kuribayashi:

"Could World War II have been won by Britain and the United States if the two countries did not have it in them to firebomb Dresden and nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki?"

"What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?"

"And as for the United States, what if we have every tool at our disposal to win a war - every weapons system we could want manned by the most superbly trained military in history - except the ability to match or exceed our antagonists in ruthlessness?"

Neither Mr Rubin nor Mr Podhoretz should have much trouble finding work in Hollywood, if not as technical advisers updating the list of America's enemies, then as library scouts looking for doomsday scenarios (the sack of Corinth, the Albigensian Crusade) that haven't already been made into dystopian romance by Steven Spielberg or converted into self-fulfilling prophecies by the military strategists in Washington. During the same week that I was making the rounds of Manhattan's movie screens, the New York Times was reporting a boom in the American arms trades - next year's Pentagon budget pegged at $560 billion, together with an additional $100 billion in supplemental spending that President Bush is likely to seek this spring for Iraq and Afghanistan; gains of thirty and forty percent in last year's stock prices for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. None of the industry spokesmen foresaw a dwindling of the profit margins as a result of the unhappiness in Congress about the bungling of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The gentleman from Lockheed Martin figured that the Democrats couldn't bear the risk of being seen as disloyal Americans abandoning our troops in time of war: "You certainly cannot deny that there is a lot of uncertainty in the world-North Korea, Iran, Iraq. The Democratic Congress will see the reality of the dangerous world we live in, and will make decisions accordingly".

So strong is the demand for the myth of the apocalypse that the Pentagon is giving away or selling at steep discounts its old, unused, or unwanted weapons (secondhand helicopters, torpedoes, M16 rifles, utility landing craft, missiles, ammunition, patrol boats, jet aircraft, and a wind tunnel) to smaller countries (Pakistan, Jordan, Guatemala, Yemen, Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Portugal) that otherwise might be forced to content themselves with conflict-free merchandise and therefore be unable to stage the blood-smeared spectacles that inspire Hollywood to feats of glorious filmmaking.

Whether made in Washington or California, the images of disaster confirm the presence of a monstrous enemy in opposition to whom or what or which America can define itself both as the Old Testament Father in Heaven and the New Testament Son on the Cross. Both interpretations assume that we're the world's designated good guys, released from the prison of history and therefore free to imagine that our era will never pass, that our day will never die. The delusion constitutes the necessary instrument of power than no self-respecting military empire can afford to be without.

Lewis H Lapham is the National Correspondent for Harper's Magazine.

Bill Totten

Friday, March 30, 2007

Sail Transport for the Good/s of the Future

by Juniper Elk

For ten years, the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium has been committed to the halting of car culture expansion. Bicycles are rather familiar to the readers of the Auto-Free Times, as are buses and other mass-transit alternatives. Unfortunately, even if our individual transportation needs are met sustainably, many of us find ourselves using products and services delivered many miles to our locale aboard polluting tankers and semi-trucks.

Trans-oceanic shipping via sail is a viable alternative for our sustainable future. In the past, for centuries, traders and explorers used the power of Mother Nature's breath to propel them great distances over sea. This art, lifestyle and economic keystone has been reduced in recent times to a mere recreational activity. As we look towards the day when toxic gases are no longer habitually spilled from the apparatus of our human culture, and people are reinvested in their local strengths and ecosystem, we must consider the role sail freight and transport will play in maintaining healthy connections around the world. Here in Arcata, California we see the potential for sail trading, as navigable waters stretch towards citrus, coffee and cocoa regions to the South, tropical fruits to the Southeast, treasured spices and culture to the East, and a wealth of indigenous crafts and flourishing sea foods to the North. These products serve to enrich our lives. Receiving them under real time conditions and with the understanding that they are sent from the hands which produced them, in exchange for that which we as recipients have to offer, promises to rekindle our human potential for creation and pride.

When we reduce the scale of such a project to a self-contained marine bio-region such as the Puget Sound area of Washington State and British Columbia, we see that launching such a venture now is feasible, inspiring and helpful in beginning to untangle the corporate knot of global "free" trade. Without alternatives to big-business' exploitive labor and policies and their pollutive shipping, we are either at the mercy of their reforms or cut off from these goods via conscious abstinence. And besides, before the mass forced extinction of native livelihoods, boat trade and cultural exchange in this area had been traditional via kayaks and canoes for millennia.

Let us all truly consider a fossil-fuel free world. May we have the capacity and know-how to venture to distant places and maintain healthy, mutually beneficial relations with local economies around the globe. Hemp may return for canvas and rope. Let us start to visualize the role that sails, and the wind that drives them, will play in the glorious future we fight for. The Earth and her atmosphere are ready for us to live amongst her and in awe and praise of her power. Sail freight and transport are integral to our sustainable future.

For more information contact the Sail Transport Network at

Culture Change mailing address: Post Office Box 4347 , Arcata , California 95518 USA
Telephone (and fax) 1-215-243-3144



Culture Change was founded by Sustainable Energy Institute (formerly Fossil Fuels Policy Action), a nonprofit organization.

Bill Totten

A Stunning Contrast

The Descent of the US; the Rise of Latin America

by Philip Agee in Havana

(March 14 2007)

Anyone following the news in recent times cannot be unaware of the wave of progressive change sweeping Latin America and the Caribbean. For many lonely years Cuba held high the torch through its exemplary programs to provide universal health care and education, both gratis, along with world class cultural, sports and scientific achievements. Although you won't find a Cuban today who says things are perfect, far from it, probably all would agree that compared with pre-revolutionary Cuba there is a world of improvement. All this they did against every effort by the United States to isolate them as an unacceptable example of independence and self-determination, using every dirty method including infiltration, sabotage, terrorism, assassination, economic and biological warfare and incessant lies in the cooperating media of many countries. I know these methods too well, having been a CIA officer in Latin America in the 1960s. Altogether nearly 3500 Cubans have died from terrorist acts, and more than 2000 are permanently disabled. No country has suffered terrorism as long and consistently as Cuba.

All through the years, beginning even before taking power in 1959, the Cuban revolution has needed to have intelligence collection capabilities in the US for defensive purposes. Such was the fully justified mission of the Cuban Five, jailed since 1998 with long sentences after conviction for various crimes in Miami where they had no chance for a fair trial. Convictions were for conspiracy to commit espionage to murder. Nevertheless their sights were exclusively set on criminal terrorist planning in Miami for operations against Cuba, activities ignored by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. They neither sought nor received any classified US government information. Their cases are still on appeal, and will be for years to come, but their completely biased convictions rank with the legal lynching in the 1920's of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the anarchist immigrants, as among the most shameful injustices in US history. Freedom for the Cuban Five should be the cause of everyone for whom fairness, human rights and justice are important, both in the United States and around the world, joining in the activities of the 300 Free the Five solidarity committees in ninety countries.

Current US policy with its means and goals can be found in the nearly 500-page 2004 report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba together with an update published in 2006 that has a secret annex. A fundamental goal, the same in 2007 as I remember it was in 1959, is isolation of Cuba to keep this bad example from spreading, and the current policy if successful, would mean no less than Cuban annexation to the US and complete dependence, in fact if not in law, as Cubans rightfully claim. Other fundamental goals from 1959 are still, nearly fifty years later, to foment an internal political opposition and to cause economic hardship in Cuba leading to desperation, hunger and despair. It is no exaggeration to call these goals genocidal.

Yet, US economic warfare of nearly fifty years against Cuba hasn't worked even though the Cubans who keep book estimate its cost at more than $80 billion. After the Cuban economy's free fall in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it began to recover in 1995. By 2005 growth was 11.8% and in 2006 it was 12.5%, the highest in Latin America. Some sectors have surpassed their development levels of the late 80s, before the collapse, and others are nearly back. Cuba's exports of services, nickel, pharmaceutical and other products are booming, and try as it may, the US has not been able to stop this.

In the end US efforts to isolate Cuba have also totally failed. In September 2006 Cuba was elected, for the second time, to lead the Non-Aligned Movement of 118 countries, and two months later, for the 15th consecutive year, the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the US economic embargo of Cuba, this time 183 to 4. In 2007 Cuba has diplomatic or consular relations with 182 countries. Havana meanwhile is the site of seemingly endless international conferences on every imaginable theme with thousands of people from around the world attending. And not least, Cuba in recent years has been hosting more than two million foreign tourists annually at its world-class resorts. Far from isolating Cuba, the US has isolated itself.

More than 30,000 Cuban doctors and health workers are saving lives and preventing disease in 69 countries, many in the most remote and difficult areas where few or no local doctors will go. Meanwhile 30,000 young foreigners from dozens of countries are studying medicine in Cuba on full scholarships. All were selected from areas lacking doctors, and all are committed to return to these areas in their home countries to practice.

In education the Cuban literacy program known as "Yes I can" has been adopted in nearly thirty countries on five continents where thousands more Cuban volunteers are teaching. Through this program, in Spanish, Portuguese, English, Creole, Quechua and Aymara, some two million people have learned to read and write, most of whom continue their education afterwards through a variety of other programs.

Thanks to these international assistance programs, Cuban prestige and influence, and international solidarity with Cuba, have never been greater. It was to defend these worthy programs that the five Cubans, unjustly convicted, went to Miami in the 1990s.

Then in 1999 came Hugo Chavez, the US's latest worst nightmare in the region, admittedly following the Cuban example in Venezuela, with its enormous income from petroleum, to establish what he calls a Socialism for the 21st Century with a foreign policy of regional integration under his innovative Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, ALBA, excluding the United States altogether. The program is already underway through institutions such as Mercosur in trade, Petrocaribe, Petroandino and Petrosur in the energy sector, the Banco del Sur in finance, and Telesur in electronic media.

Another program under ALBA is Operacio'n Milagro (Operation Miracle) for offering free eye surgery to people unable to afford it for cataracts, glaucoma, diabetes and other vision problems. It began in 2004 as a joint Cuban-Venezuelan effort to bring Venezuelans by air to Cuba cost free for operations. Within two years 28 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean were participating, and operations restoring sight numbered 485,000 of whom 290,000 were Venezuelans. Jet liners loaded with patients come and go from Havana everyday, but by early 2007 thirteen modern eye clinics were being built in Venezuela, and several had already performed thousands of operations there. Other clinics were being established in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti, all with Cuban planning and staffing. The ten-year goal of Operacio'n Milagro is to restore sight to six million people of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the program is expanding to Africa.

The Cuban example of so many years, and now Venezuela, have also recently inspired the peoples of Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Nicaragua to elect progressive leaders. Most have rejected the 1990's "Washington Consensus" and the neo-liberal model along with determined US efforts to establish a hemispheric free trade zone. All are developing grassroots social and economic programs, each in its own way, aimed at improving the quality of life for all, especially the long-excluded majorities of their populations where this injustice prevailed. Although achievements in Cuba continue to shine, the torch of revolution in the region has effectively passed from the towering figure of Fidel, ailing at eighty, to Chavez, a military man and teacher inspired by Simo'n Boli'var and Jose' Marti'.

Reflecting on these new hopes for hundreds of millions in such a vast region, one cannot avoid recalling the old professor, Pro'spero, addressing his class for the last time in Ariel, the classic essay by Jose' Enrique Rodo', still read by students in Latin America. In borrowing from The Tempest, and urging his students to follow the soaring spirit of virtue and good, represented by Ariel, and to reject the crass materialism of the US personified by Caliba'n, Pro'spero drew a contrast between Latin American idealism and the United States that is as valid today as in 1900 when the essay first appeared.

While Latin America is fast moving in progressive directions, almost unimaginable less than ten years ago, in contrast the United States, at least since the Reagan era, has been moving step by step toward a Fascism for the 21st Century. And the pace has quickened in the last six years of Republican government under George W Bush with passage of the Patriot Act under emergency circumstances just after the attacks on the Twin Towers in September 2001, and then adoption in 2006 of the Military Commissions Act, both with substantial support from Congressional Democrats. Other legislation supports this trend.

The US Federal Government now has legal powers to secretly monitor one's communications, whether by telephone, ordinary mail, e-mail, or fax, plus your bank accounts, credit cards, the web sites you visit, and the books you buy or read in libraries. Torture, secret prisons, kidnapping, and jailing indefinitely without trial or recourse to courts through habeas corpus - all are now legal. So is "extraordinary rendition" whereby US captives are delivered to other governments where they will likely be tortured and possibly assassinated. Investigations by the European Parliament have identified around 1200 secret CIA flights carrying these people through European airports to secret prisons. To qualify for this treatment, anyone in the world, US citizens and any others, only need be designated by the government as an "illegal enemy combatant" whose only definition is someone who has "purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States". Hostilities or a hostile act can be interpreted as almost anything that opposes US policies, from a speech expressing solidarity with Cuba to a picket line protesting the war in Iraq. If an "enemy combatant" ever gets a trial, it will not be by a jury of peers but by a US military court that can use hearsay and evidence obtained under torture.

These powers reminiscent of the Nazi regime are not just a global US Sword of Damocles waiting to fall on perceived enemies. The full range of repression has been going on since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 with plenty of evidence coming from the prisons and concentration camps of Bagram, Abu Graib and Guanta'namo as well as from testimony of various released innocents swept up in the process. It is an on-going worldwide application of fascist power in a non-defined, nebulous "war on terrorism" that has no end or geographical limits. Since September 2001 the Bush government has given one specious reason after another for what it believes are the motives of Islamic terrorism, never admitting that it is a reaction and resistance to US imperial policies, starting with US support for Israel's continued occupation and colonization of Arab lands and Israel's refusal to return to its borders before the Six-Day War in 1967.

By 2006 the US had designated some 17,000 people around the world as "enemy combatants", according to press reports. Combine this repression with gargantuan contracts to private US firms, as in Iraqi security and "reconstruction", along with forcing the Iraqi government, always with eyes on the prize, to contract highly prejudicial thirty-year "production sharing agreements" to American and British oil majors, excluded from Iraq before the invasion, plus historic lows in trade union power, and you have the marriage of government and corporate power that Mussolini, who invented the word in 1919, described as the essence of fascism. The one bright spot are the recent indictments of thirteen CIA people in Germany and 26 others in Italy for kidnapping and other violations of their laws. They will never be brought to trial, of course, but the indictments are refreshing developments.

Protection of terrorists who serve US interests is still another feature of American Fascism of the 21st Century. There are many examples, especially among Cuban exiles, but two stand out from the others: Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles. Both have long, well-documented pedigrees as international terrorists, but one of their joint crimes was historic: the first bombing in flight of a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere. It was Cubana flight 455 that on October 6th 1976 exploded just after takeoff from Barbados killing all 73 people on board.

Bosch and Carriles, both of whose CIA careers began around 1960, planned the bombing in Caracas and provided the explosives to two Venezuelans recruited by Posada. These two were discovered, convicted, and sentenced to long prison terms. Not so with Bosch and Posada who were protected by then-Venezuelan President Carlos Andre's Pe'rez who has his own history of working with the CIA. Although they were both arrested and tried separately in Venezuelan courts as the intellectual authors of the crime, neither was convicted.

Bosch was found not guilty and released in 1988, returned to Miami but was arrested for an old parole violation. The Justice Department then ordered his deportation as an "undesirable" and as "the most dangerous terrorist" of the Western Hemisphere. But Jeb Bush, son of then-President Bush, persuaded his father in 1990 to quash Bosch's deportation order. Since then Bosch has lived freely in Miami where he gives television interviews in which he makes every effort to justify terrorism against Cuba.

For his part Posada's trial in Venezuela never ended because in 1985 he escaped from prison, fled the country, and soon turned up in El Salvador working in the CIA's Contra terrorist operation against Nicaragua. When this ended he stayed underground in Central America and from the early 1990's organized more terrorist operations against Cuba. In 2005 he was arrested in Miami for illegal entry to the US, and although he admitted to the New York Times to terrorist bombings of hotels and other tourist facilities in Cuba, in one of which an Italian tourist died, he has only been indicted for lying to the FBI and in his request for naturalization. The Bush administration refuses to certify him as a terrorist so that he can be tried as such, at the same time ignoring Venezuela's extradition request as a fugitive from justice, alleging absurdly that he might be tortured there. His treatment suggests that he will eventually be pardoned by Bush, perhaps on Christmas Eve of 2008 just before leaving the White House, just as his father on Christmas Eve of 1992 pardoned former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and various CIA officers for crimes in the 1980's Iran-Contra scandal, thus precluding their trials scheduled to begin the following month.

One need not dwell on the obvious. The conviction of the Miami Cuban Five for their anti-terrorist efforts, in contrast with the official protection of terrorists like Bosch and Posada, speaks volumes on the US as the pre-eminent state sponsor of international terrorism.

The major disguise used to cloak this US program of worldwide aggression from the 1980s to the present has been "promotion of democracy", a hypocritical claim used ad nauseum by Presidents, Secretaries of State and others that has never fooled anyone. It has always been clear that the "democracy promotion" programs of the National Endowment for Democracy, the State Department, the Agency for International Development and associated foundations and agencies are nothing more that attempts to foment and strengthen internal political forces in countries around the world that will be under US control and will protect and cater to US interests. Their origins are in the CIA's political operations starting in the 1940s, and they have included the overthrow of democratically elected governments and the institution of unspeakable repression as in Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973 to name only two of many examples.

To be sure there has been, and is, important and worthy resistance in the US to this developing fascism both within Congress and among private organizations and individuals. But it has been mostly isolated attempts of a defensive and rear-guard nature, with little mention in the corporate media. Bills have been introduced in Congress to ease or end the economic blockade of Cuba, to amend the worst of the repressive laws, even to impeach Bush and Cheney, but they seem unlikely ever to prevail or become law. The two parties, actually competing branches of a one-party state, have simply adopted ever more extreme measures to maintain their monopoly of power.

Even the judicial system, once perhaps the last hope for enforcing the Constitution, has been riddled with neo-conservatives who ignore it. Take only the appeal of the Miami conviction by the Cuban Five. The original three appellate judges of Atlanta's 11th Circuit issued a compelling 93-page unanimous decision upholding the defense position that no fair trial of self-admitted Cuban agents was possible in Miami's prevailing anti-Cuban atmosphere and that the trial venue should have been moved. Nevertheless the other ten judges of the Circuit voted to hear another appeal and then unanimously overturned the first decision with only two of the original three judges voting against (the third had retired). That ten of the thirteen Circuit Court judges would uphold Miami as a place where Cuban agents could get a fair trial is a good example of how morally and intellectually corrupt the federal judiciary has become.

So these are grim days indeed for the United States and by extension for its allies, starting with its junior partner, the UK, and extending through NATO. There have been other periods of shameful repression in the US, like the years following World War I, but never with a global reach like this.

Predictably US prestige around the world, what there ever was of it, has disappeared, replaced by contempt and scorn. Testimony to this is the repudiation of Bush and what he stands for expressed by so many thousands in the streets protesting his presence as he traveled around Latin America attempting to lure five countries away from regional integration. What a contrast with the enlightened, idealistic, and progressive social and political movements now flowering in Latin America!


Philip Agee, 72, was a CIA secret operations officer in Latin American from 1960 to 1969. He is the author of the best-selling Inside the Company: CIA Diary (Penguin Books, 1975) plus other books and articles. Deported in 1977 by the UK and four other NATO countries, he has lived since 1978 with his wife in Hamburg, Germany. He travels frequently to Cuba and South America for solidarity and business activities, and in 2000 he started an online travel service to Cuba:

Bill Totten

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Lethal Solution

We need a five-year freeze on biofuels, before they wreck the planet.

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (March 27 2007)

It used to be a matter of good intentions gone awry. Now it is plain fraud. The governments using biofuel to tackle global warming know that it causes more harm than good. But they plough on regardless.

In theory, fuels made from plants can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by cars and trucks. Plants absorb carbon as they grow - it is released again when the fuel is burnt. By encouraging oil companies to switch from fossil plants to living ones, governments on both sides of the Atlantic claim to be "decarbonising" our transport networks.

In the budget last week, Gordon Brown announced that he would extend the tax rebate for biofuels until 2010. From next year all suppliers in the UK will have to ensure that 2.5% of the fuel they sell is made from plants - if not, they must pay a penalty of 15 pence a litre. The obligation rises to five per cent in 2010 {1}. By 2050, the government hopes that 33% of our fuel will come from crops {2}. Last month George Bush announced that he would quintuple the US target for biofuels {3}: by 2017 they should be supplying 24% of the nation's transport fuel {4}.

So what's wrong with these programmes? Only that they are a formula for environmental and humanitarian disaster. In 2004 this column warned that biofuels would set up a competition for food between cars and people. The people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are, by definition, richer than those who are in danger of starvation. It would also lead to the destruction of rainforests and other important habitats {5}. I received more abuse than I've had for any other column, except when I attacked the 9/11 conspiracists. I was told my claims were ridiculous, laughable, impossible. Well in one respect I was wrong. I thought these effects wouldn't materialise for many years. They are happening already.

Since the beginning of last year, the price of maize has doubled {6}. The price of wheat has also reached a ten-year high, while global stockpiles of both grains have reached 25-year lows {7}. Already there have been food riots in Mexico and reports that the poor are feeling the strain all over the world. The US department of agriculture warns that "if we have a drought or a very poor harvest, we could see the sort of volatility we saw in the 1970s, and if it does not happen this year, we are also forecasting lower stockpiles next year". {8} According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the main reason is the demand for ethanol: the alcohol used for motor fuel, which can be made from both maize and wheat {9}.

Farmers will respond to better prices by planting more, but it is not clear that they can overtake the booming demand for biofuel. Even if they do, they will catch up only by ploughing virgin habitat.

Already we know that biofuel is worse for the planet than petroleum. The UN has just published a report suggesting that 98% of the natural rainforest in Indonesia will be degraded or gone by 2022 {10}. Just five years ago, the same agencies predicted that this wouldn't happen until 2032. But they reckoned without the planting of palm oil to turn into biodiesel for the European market. This is now the main cause of deforestation there and it is likely soon to become responsible for the extinction of the orang utan in the wild. But it gets worse. As the forests are burnt, both the trees and the peat they sit on are turned into carbon dioxide. A report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics shows that every tonne of palm oil results in 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or ten times as much as petroleum produces {11}. I feel I need to say that again. Biodiesel from palm oil causes TEN TIMES as much climate change as ordinary diesel.

There are similar impacts all over the world. Sugarcane producers are moving into rare scrubland habitats (the cerrado) in Brazil and soya farmers are ripping up the Amazon rainforests. As President Bush has just signed a biofuel agreement with President Lula, it's likely to become a lot worse. Indigenous people in South America, Asia and Africa are starting to complain about incursions onto their land by fuel planters. A petition launched by a group called biofuelwatch, begging western governments to stop, has been signed by campaigners from 250 groups {12}.

The British government is well aware that there's a problem. On his blog last year the environment secretary David Miliband noted that palm oil plantations "are destroying 0.7% of the Malaysian rain forest each year, reducing a vital natural resource (and in the process, destroying the natural habitat of the orang-utan). It is all connected". {13} Unlike government policy.

The reason governments are so enthusiastic about biofuels is that they don't upset drivers. They appear to reduce the amount of carbon from our cars, without requiring new taxes. It's an illusion sustained by the fact that only the emissions produced at home count towards our national total. The forest clearance in Malaysia doesn't increase our official impact by a gram.

In February the European Commission was faced with a straight choice between fuel efficiency and biofuels. It had intended to tell car companies that the average carbon emission from new cars in 2012 would be 120 grams per kilometre. After heavy lobbying by Angela Merkel on behalf of her car manufacturers, it caved in and raised the limit to 130 grams. It announced that it would make up the shortfall by increasing the contribution from biofuel {14}.

The British government says it "will require transport fuel suppliers to report on the carbon saving and sustainability of the biofuels they supply". {15} But it will not require them to do anything. It can't: its consultants have already shown that if it tries to impose wider environmental standards on biofuels, it will fall foul of world trade rules {16}. And even "sustainable" biofuels merely occupy the space that other crops now fill, displacing them into new habitats. It promises that one day there will be a "second generation" of biofuels, made from straw or grass or wood. But there are still major technical obstacles {17}. By the time the new fuels are ready, the damage will have been done.

We need a moratorium on all targets and incentives for biofuels, until a second generation of fuels can be produced for less than it costs to make fuel from palm oil or sugarcane. Even then, the targets should be set low and increased only cautiously. I suggest a five-year freeze.

This would require a huge campaign, tougher than the one which helped to win a five-year freeze on growing genetically modified crops in the UK. That was important - GM crops give big companies unprecedented control over the foodchain. But most of their effects are indirect, while the devastation caused by biofuel is immediate and already visible.

This is why it will be harder to stop: encouraged by government policy, vast investments are now being made by farmers and chemical companies. Stopping them requires one heck of a battle. But it has to be fought.

You can join the campaign at


1. HM Treasury, March 2007. Budget 2007, Chapter 7.

2. Department for Transport, 21st December 2005. Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) feasibility report. Executive Summary.

3. George W Bush. 23rd January 2007. State of the Union Address.

4. The US Energy Information Administration gives US gasoline consumption for October 2006 (the latest available date) at 287,857,000 barrels. If this month is typical, annual consumption amounts to 3.45 billion barrels, or 145 billion gallons.

In the state of the union address, Bush proposed a mandatory annual target of 35 billion gallons.

5. George Monbiot, 23rd November 2004. Feeding Cars, Not People. The Guardian.

6. Nils Blythe, 23rd March 2007. Biofuel demand makes food expensive. BBC Online.

7. Eoin Callan and Kevin Morrison, 5th March 2007. Food prices to rise as biofuel demand keeps grains costly. Financial Times.

8. Keith Collins, chief economist, US Department of Agriculture. Quoted by Eoin Callan and Kevin Morrison, 5th March 2007, ibid.

9. Food and Agriculture Organisation, December 2006. Food Outlook 2.

10. UNEP and UNESCO, February 2007. The Last Stand of the Orangutan. State of Emergency: Illegal Logging, Fire and Palm Oil in Indonesia's National Parks.

11. Wetlands International, 8th December 2006. Bio-fuel less sustainable than realised


13. David Miliband, 14th July 2006. Malaysian Diary.

14. Commission Of The European Communities, 7th February 2007. Results of the review of the Community Strategy to reduce CO2 emissions from passenger cars and light-commercial vehicles. COM 19 final.

15. HM Treasury, ibid.

16. E4Tech, ECCM and Imperial College, London, June 2005. Feasibility Study on Certification for a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation. Final Report.

17. Robert F Service, et al, 16th March 2007. Cellulosic Ethanol: Biofuel Researchers
Prepare to Reap a New Harvest. Science 315, 1488. DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5818.1488

Copyright (c) 2006

Bill Totten

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dangerous denial

If all the people of the world had the same living style as the average American, the holocaust would have already visited us.

by C E Karunakaran

Frontline (Volume 24 Issue 04 (February 24 2007)

India's National Magazine, from the publishers of The Hindu

"I'll tell you one thing I'm not going to do is, I'm not going to let the United States carry the burden for cleaning up the world's air, like the Kyoto Treaty would have done. China and India were exempted from that treaty." So said the then presidential hopeful, George W Bush, in October 2000, to Al Gore, in a televised debate. Al Gore could have responded, "I am sure you would be happy to let the United States carry the responsibility for polluting the world's air the most". He did not, being the other presidential hopeful.

After all, Al Gore, who only three years earlier represented the US in the Kyoto discussions and had authored a book on global warming, could not have been unaware of what Andrew Kerr of the World Wide Fund for Nature pointed out: "The United States is responsible for almost half of the increase in world carbon dioxide in the past decade. That increase is greater than the increase in China, India, Africa and the whole of Latin America."

Nor could he have been unaware that with a little over four per cent of the world's population, the US was responsible for 35 per cent of the total historic emissions of carbon dioxide - the principal driver of global warming - in the post-industrial era. Or about the fact that the average American was then emitting seven times as much carbon dioxide as the average Chinese and twenty times as much as the average Indian. But then, he refrained from pointing this out in the debate, or for that matter any time after that, including in his latest movie An Inconvenient Truth - a commendable effort that has initiated more public debate in the US on the seriousness of the climate change issue than probably any other single trigger before it.

To describe climate change as serious is now generally accepted to be an understatement - catastrophic is more like it. It is variously described as the ultimate weapon of mass destruction and a threat worse than terrorism or nuclear war. To understand why it is so, one should look at some basic facts. Global warming is caused primarily by the very foundation on which modern civilisation is built - the burning of coal, oil and gas. So much so, a real solution to the problem would include lifestyle changes, something that goes against the grain of the consumer culture and the socio-economic system built on it. Our earth has not seen anything like this build-up of carbon dioxide for over half a million years. If this continues, by the end of the century the earth will be hotter than at any other time in the last two million years.

It is already too late to avoid major consequences because of the inertia of the ecosystem - even if no more carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases are emitted by humankind from tomorrow, the earth will continue to warm up for some decades, the sea will continue to rise for some centuries and the ice sheets will continue to adjust for thousands of years. The world is already facing up to increasing sea intrusions, floods, storms, droughts, heat waves, disease transmissions and environmental refugees. The percentage of the world's population affected by weather disasters has doubled between 1975 and 2001 and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that climate change of the last thirty years already claims 150,000 lives annually.

The coming years - resulting from what has already been done, not to speak of further emissions - will be worse, even catastrophic in some instances. An insurance specialist estimates that insurance losses due to extreme weather events are increasing by ten per cent a year against the world economic growth of three per cent, and that even by 2010 insurance companies could be charging annual rates of twelve per cent, forcing many to drop out.

There is the additional threat of runaway warming because of warming crossing some threshold and triggering positive feedback - such as frozen peat bogs thawing and releasing huge quantities of methane, which is twenty times more powerful than carbon dioxide in causing global warming.

The magnitude of the impending crisis is best expressed in the words of Dr James Hansen, the highly regarded director of the NASA Institute for Space Studies, that we are "near a tipping point, a point of no return, beyond which the built-in momentum and feedbacks will carry us to levels of climate change with staggering consequences for humanity and all of the residents of this planet". He also points out: "The earth's history suggests that with warming of two to three degrees Celsius the new equilibrium sea level will include not only most of the ice from Greenland and West Antarctica, but a portion of East Antarctica, raising sea level of the order of 25 metres (80 feet)".

How far can we go?

If the damage is so threatening and the risk so foreboding, how does one assess the future of this planet and where does one draw the line and say, this far we can pollute our atmosphere and somehow manage its consequences - keeping fingers crossed about positive feedbacks - but beyond this would be unacceptable chaos? Does the developing situation provide a window and a plausible time frame for humankind to mend its ways and step back before this line?

Scientists, activists and policymakers have been grappling with this issue and have now come to a broad understanding of where this line is to be drawn, taking into account all relevant factors. This consensual Lakshman Rekha is a two degrees Celsius warming over and above the pre-industrial global average temperature. Of this, the earth has already reached the 0.8 degrees Celsius mark and is currently warming up by 0.2 degrees Celsius a decade. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body entrusted by the nations of the world to guide them on the science of climate change, forecasts that by the end of this century the probable temperature rise will be in the range of 1.8 to 4.0 degrees Celsius if we go along business as usual.

It cannot, obviously, be business as usual. Far from it. In fact, far even from the Kyoto Protocol - agreed to in 1997 but coming into force only in 2005 with the US opting out - which asked the industrial North to bring down its emissions from its 1990 levels by 5.2 per cent before 2012; the developing South was exempted. One scenario, which holds a risk of 9 to 26 per cent of crossing the two degrees Celsius mark, demands that the total man-made emissions should start declining from 2010 and reach one quarter of the starting level within thirty years and keep declining further - a mind-boggling challenge. Other, less demanding, scenarios have a higher risk of crossing the Lakshman Rekha. It is unfortunate that even major environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are falling into the trap of advocating the less demanding scenarios on the grounds that more than that would not be politically acceptable. "How much reality can you take?" George Monbiot asks them in his book Heat.

Reality takes time to sink in, but it is happening. Comments such as "in the years to come this issue will dwarf all the others combined. It will become the only issue" and "forty years from now George Bush will not be remembered for Iraq, but will be remembered in near apocalyptic terms. He'll be the denier-in-chief who failed to acknowledge, much less confront, the coming ecological catastrophe" are no longer considered outlandish.

Many would wonder what makes the denier-in-chief such a denier in the face of such tremendous challenge from the environment; in the face of a scientific consensus so wide that a review of all - more than 900 - peer-reviewed articles on climate change published over a ten-year period ending 2003 did not throw up a single one that contradicted the IPCC position on human-induced global warming. Such a denier that he would go to the extent of pressuring scientists of federal agencies to fudge climate science in their reports.

The long and short answer to the question is corporate profits. It was to be expected in this neoliberal world that in the months before the Kyoto conference, an industry association of the fossil industry would spend $13 million on a series of television advertisements to alarm the American public about an economic collapse if emission commitments were taken on, and a representative of this association, present at Kyoto as part of a huge industry lobby, would say with satisfaction: "We think we have raised enough questions among the American public to prevent any numbers, targets or timetables to achieve reductions in gas emissions being agreed here ... What we are doing, and we think successfully, is buying time for our industries by holding up these talks". It was to be expected that they would contribute far more to the election kitty of Bush and Dick Cheney than to any presidential campaign until then. It is to be expected that buying time - and buying politicians and pliable scientists - is still on their agenda, climate-friendly posturing notwithstanding.

It is in this overall context of the urgent need for phase-shift action - and of the forces ranged against it - that one should assess how multinational and multidimensional action to contain climate change can move forward and be effective. Even one intransigent nation - as the US is now - can spoil the show for everybody. But, first, the question whether it is technically, socially and economically feasible to achieve a drastic reduction in energy use in such a short time needs to be addressed. The consensus is that it is. The efficient use of energy, renewable energy, hybrid and hydrogen cars, revised taxes and incentives, lifestyle changes such as more use of public transport, and many other measures are possible if there is a will. The much-quoted Stern Review, prepared for the United Kingdom government by the former chief economist of the World Bank, makes the point that it would cost much less to lessen climate change than to live with it.

This is self-evident, but the real question is who is to bear this cost of lessening as well as living with climate change. The atmosphere can take only so much more pollution by greenhouse gases if the warming is not to cross the two-degree mark, and this scarce space is being filled up sixty per cent of the time by the industrialised countries, which hold less than twenty per cent of the world's population. Those countries would like to see the grandfathering approach, by which, if one had polluted the most in the past - such as occupying eighty per cent of the space so far - one gets the largest share of the dumping ground.

There is only one small problem. Industrial countries have reached their level of development riding on low-cost fossil fuels, while developing countries need to do the same to reduce their poverty levels and cannot afford the higher cost climate-friendly technologies in the short to medium term. Their economic growth rates, and therefore their emissions growth, are also of a higher order compared with industrial countries. Grandfathering does not suit them.

It is this dichotomy between luxury emissions and survival emissions that led to the principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities', which was agreed to by the nations of the world - the US included - in the historic 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the first collective step the nations of the world took to deal with this issue.

There is then the responsibility approach. In other words, the polluter pays. After all, the average American consumed and emitted 43 times as much carbon as the average Indian during the ninety years after 1900. There is also the capability approach, by which those who are more capable of handling mitigation and adaptation take on the larger share of the burden. Then there is the global commons approach - the atmosphere, the dumping ground of carbon dioxide - is a common resource that belongs to all citizens of the world. A free ride on it is possible only if it has unlimited capacity, which is certainly not the case. Most countries have laws that recognise equal rights to common pool resources.

Carbon debt

One can look at the dimensions of this principle of equal rights to global commons through a simple exercise of allocating the atmospheric dumping space equally among the 6.5 billion people on the earth and saying to each one: here is your box, you are allowed to park your emissions there for the rest of the century. This is because the world will run out of its available carbon emission budget for this century - under the precautionary scenario of not exceeding two degrees Celsius warming - in just a quarter of the time under normal circumstances. So, if such boxes are allocated, the average American will run out of his box in much less than ten years and will have no option but to pile into those of everybody else around.

There is no international policeman yet to guard anyone's box. If there is one, the average Chinese might say, "Don't come anywhere near my box, its size is too small for my future need of development, as I am growing very fast" and the Bangladeshi might say, "At my current level of emission, I will take quite a few centuries to fill up my box. So, why don't I rent part of my box to you and use the money for my development?"

Countries like India and China are finding that at the rate at which they are growing - at three times the growth rate of developed nations - and the rate at which their atmospheric space is getting poached by larger emitters, there is just not enough space for them to reach their development goals even if a per capita allocation is made now and some rent collection is made possible. If only the boxes had been allotted in the 1950s - when human-induced emission build-up was even measured - and were well guarded, the world would be a very different place today, even in terms of societal structures.

The Asians, the Africans and the Latin Americans are, therefore, entitled to ask the G-8 nations to pay back the carbon debt owed to them because of occupying the global commons disproportionately. An assessment made by Christian Aid in 1999 pointed out that the debt owed on this count by the rich nations to the highly indebted poor countries is of the order of three times the conventional debt the latter owe the former, and the rich countries continue to incur a debt of $13 trillion a year to the poorer nations.

Such considerations of equity in sharing global commons are nowhere in the picture in serious negotiations between countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change even as several environmentalists have been campaigning actively for equity in broader terms. India's Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) was among the earliest to flag the issue by pointing out the inequity in per capita emissions.

The most visible campaign is by the UK-based Global Commons Institute on the concept of contraction and convergence, by which the international community first agrees to a single per capita allowance to converge on and the time for convergence. The North countries will have to contract their emissions and the South countries can increase their emissions and converge to that agreed level within the agreed time; thereafter, all countries together will reduce the per capita emissions uniformly to levels needed to avoid climate disaster.

There are two issues with this formula for equity. It does not take into account the atmospheric emission space already grabbed by the North and it does not provide adequate room for the essential development needs of the South. As was pointed out by Christian Aid at the recent 12th Conference of Parties in Nairobi, the South's rapid growth trajectory is such that its emissions alone will cross the line of total global emissions allowable under the precautionary two-degree scenario by the year 2020 even if the North's emissions suddenly become zero. In other words, the situation has reached such a stage - mainly because of the historic emissions and also because of the scandalous neglect of critical action by the Northern nations in the last decade or so - that the South has no room to manoeuvre now and has to choose between its development and saving the planet.

Emissions & development

EcoEquity, the campaigner for a realistic approach to devising a climate framework, considers the basket of equity principles relevant to mitigation-sharing to be equal rights to global commons, polluter pays, capacity-based burden-sharing and need-based resource-sharing. On the basis of these principles, it has developed the concept of Greenhouse Development Rights, by which the first priority of a Southern nation will be its development and all the mitigation action taken by it will be paid for by the North until the former reaches a certain level of development. The North will, of course, drastically cut down on its own emissions as also pay for the emission reductions all over the globe.

A point to note is that the current linkage between emissions and economic development needs to be broken as quickly as possible, for developing countries like India and China cannot hope to reach anywhere near the current levels of per capita North emissions before peaking in a couple of decades and getting on to the down slope. Investment in such a drastic shift to newer technologies is beyond the capacity of developing countries and can only be borne by the developed world.

This is but one possible framework. But the real question is, how is any framework to be agreed upon and implemented in a world where the largest polluter is still in a denial mode, other developed countries make cosmetic reductions and demand that developing countries start shouldering responsibility, and the developing countries steadfastly refuse to do so? The G-77 countries and China have a deep distrust of the progressive-sounding European Union and refuse to fall for any bait to take on emission commitments for fear that it will be a 'bait and switch' strategy - as pointed out by one analyst - to land them finally with grandfathered commitments.

It is dawning gradually on the Northern countries that anything less than equal rights to the atmosphere will not take the negotiations anywhere. There is a realisation that time is running out fast. According to one projection, if global emissions are peaked in 2010 and taken downward thereafter, a 2.6 per cent per annum reduction would help the world to keep within the two degrees Celsius warming limit. If, however, this peaking is delayed by ten years, the reduction will have to be by a drastic 6.7 per cent per annum to achieve the same result.

Some activists hope that this exigency will now drive all countries to move towards an acceptable solution, and practical wisdom suggests that it can only be an equity-based one to be endurable. It is this realisation that led the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution of the UK to recommend the contraction and convergence strategy in its report of 2000 and the government's Energy White Paper of 2003 to accept it implicitly in projecting future UK emissions.

The insurance industry is the earliest in the business community to recognise the seriousness of global warming and the most concerned to find a quick solution because it impacts its bottom line directly. Looking for a real-world solution that will truly work, The Chartered Insurance Institute of the UK had no hesitation in accepting per capita emission convergence.

But there is a more pressing concern, often ignored - the threat of social disruptions and warfare. Large sections of the global population will get displaced by the impact of climate change and will have to compete for resources. A 2003 report commissioned by the Pentagon warned that nuclear arms will proliferate as people fight for resources as a result of global warming. "Every time there is a choice between starving and raiding, humans raid". Pointing out that "disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life", it cautioned the Bush administration that climate change could "challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately".

India laid back

It is in this context that India's laid-back attitude in international negotiations - our emissions are small, our per capita emissions are very small and we cannot divert attention from other priorities - does not stand scrutiny any longer. If India thinks it should grab as much atmospheric space for as long as possible, it should remember that the advanced countries are grabbing much larger spaces at the same time, making future restrictions a fait accompli for one and all. Besides, the economy gets more and more entangled in path dependence - the more you invest in fossil technologies, the less viable it becomes to switch to a non-carbon path.

More importantly, its people stand to lose heavily if climate change gets out of hand. The fate of a-sixth of the world's population cannot be left in the hands of a few self-absorbed politicians of the West. It is high time the Government of India took on a proactive role in shaping the future order of greenhouse emissions and climate adaptations. It should, along with China, work to build a consensus among G-77 to put on the table a radically new approach to emissions sharing and adaptation as compared with Kyoto.

Some experts have already divided the Southern countries into four groups, ranging from newly industrialised to the least developing - with China in Group 2 (rapidly industrialising) and India in Group 3 (other industrialising) - to devise differential commitments and resources for them. There is nothing essentially wrong in this, though it would suit the North very well to see the G-77 split. It is in the interests of India and China to work out a formula that is seen as equitable by the poorest nations of the world and thus preserve the unity of the South in future parleys.

There is no escaping that any future parley should focus on not merely emissions reductions and sharing of reductions but very largely on just recompense for the damage already done to the atmosphere, which is now hurting the poor of the world through increased droughts and storms and vector diseases, and will unavoidably hurt them more in the future, and has compromised their future development as well by depriving them of their atmospheric space. In other words, pay back of carbon debt. This needs to be strongly established as a matter of right and not as charity or aid.

It follows that any fund set up for climate change adaptation should contribute directly to poverty reduction and development of the affected nations and not depend on complicated formulae to establish climate change-related damage or adaptation need. Development is the best instrument to build adaptation capability.

There is cynicism among some environmental activists of the North that any resource ploughed into the Southern countries as settlement of carbon debt will be largely gobbled up by the privileged groups of those countries - even as they have swallowed most of the benefits of globalisation - and will not reach the real poor of those countries who need it most and, more than that, who have earned the largest part of the carbon credit.

The cynicism is justified, even if it sounds paternalistic when linked to emission sharing among nations. The huge social divide that exists in India and several other countries is also a huge carbon divide. It is not very difficult to imagine how much of a carbon debt the urban upper middle class Indian who runs two cars and four air-conditioners owes to the rural working woman who treks for hours to fetch head-loads of shrub every day for the kitchen fire and whose daughter uses a flickering kerosene lamp to pore over her schoolwork. It is the latter who has saved, and continues to save, this planet and all of us from a worse disaster than we all face now. If all the people of the world had the same living style as the average American, the holocaust predicted for the distant future would have already visited us.

Is there a chance that she will one day stand up and demand her carbon debt? She will, one day. One must hope that the day comes soon, as only then there is hope for the climate change issue to be finally addressed. No government under the present world order can be expected to take the courageous step to foreground intergenerational as well as intra-generational equity - the only solution that will work - in addressing this complex issue unless it is forced to do so from below.

It is the ordinary people of different countries, collaborating with each other, who can ultimately bring about the social change needed to prevent effectively the environmental disaster that looms ahead, a problem caused by "the greatest market failure the world has seen", according to Sir Nicholas Stern, the author of the Stern Review, a problem sought to be tackled through the same market forces in this neoliberal world.

Civil society in the developing world has a key role to play in creating among the common man awareness of the magnitude, complexity and social dimensions of this crisis, in which the very future of humankind is at stake unless urgent action is taken.

C E Karunakaran is an activist with the Centre for Ecology and Rural Development, Puducherry.

Bill Totten

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Singing the Vegetable Opera

by Jim Kunstler (March 05 2007)

The jive-finance economy had a few acidic burps last week - or, at least, that's how it may seem in the days ahead as the equity markets finally upchuck the toxic notional junk "money" they have been gorging on in recent years. Has there ever been a financial collapse with brighter or louder warning signals?

I suppose the expectation (or hope) is that the quasi-mythical "plunge protection team" - a "working group" of federal reserve officials and bankers - will jump in and administer some soothing pepto-bismol, but frankly I don't see how that's possible this time. The poison at the bottom is a fetid mass of "non-performing" mortgages, billions upon billions of loans that strapped borrowers are not paying back, loans which, in the meantime, have been rolled over, rebundled into jive "securities" (ha!) and sold, and rolled over again and used as "leverage" for massive exotic bets and bloated arbitrages involving mere abstract figments of electronic digital pulses completely removed from any reality-based productive investment activity.

Among the leaders at the supply end of this racket has been General Motors - that's right, the company that used to manufacture cars, the company about which one plutocrat once remarked what was good for [it] was good for the country. In fact, General Motors' main source of earnings for a long time now has been money-lending, not car-making (which only loses money). They started decades ago with GMAC, their own car-loan operation - which makes sense if you are serious about selling cars - but in the 1990s, with foreigners way out-selling GM's shitty cars, the company's financial wizards decided to venture into home loans and thus Ditech was born.

That's right, Ditech, the outfit that advertised incessantly on TV, promising that house-buyers could sleepwalk their way into mortgage approvals - and thus frustrate all the smarmy, over-fed, punctilious bankers who obstructed such requests with pain-in-the-ass qualifying protocols and burdensome paperwork. Last week GM put off filing regular required financial reports because of disarray in its Ditech operation. Ditech is responsible for as much as $80 billion in mostly sub-prime house loans - that is, given to people with dubious prospects for repayment. But GM's Ditech is but one of scores of entities now choking on non-performing paper (and many of Ditech's rivals are now bankruptcy road kill).

What makes matters far worse is that all this wildly reckless lending has been in the service of a suburban sprawl-building juggernaut that will itself represent another layer of grotesque liability for the United States. The crash of the house-selling bubble, based on absurd asset inflation for things built badly in the wrong places, is coinciding exactly with a permanent oil crisis that will only exacerbate the locational disadvantages of houses built in the newest and furthest suburbs.

Evidence now conclusively shows that Saudi Arabia's oil production was down eight percent in 2006 over 2005 {1}, even while the number of oil rigs went up substantially - indicating that the Kingdom is drilling as fast as it can and still losing ground. (Production slipped from 9.9 to about 8.4 million barrels a day.) Mexico's Cantarell field is crashing (minimum fifteen percent annual decline and possibly much steeper rate, meaning in a year or two the US will cease getting oil imports from its number two foreign supplier). The North Sea is crashing, too. Russia is about show steep decline. Iran is past peak. Iraq, as every six-year-old knows, is the world's clusterfuck poster child. Indonesia (OPEC member) is now a net oil importer. Venezuela is past peak and full of loathing for the US. Nigeria is collapsing politically. No amount of corn is going save the Happy Motoring utopia, and that's really all our economy is now based on.

When the financial markets factor all this in - and they really haven't yet - I think we'll see a lot more of what they like to call "downside action". These things are all connected. The housing bubble was set into motion by $10-a-barrel oil at the turn of the millennium. Perhaps as much as half the jobs created since then have been in house-building, house-selling, house-buyership-enabling, house furnishing, and other things house-related. The whole final suburban blow-out enterprise has been a fantastic blunder. Now it's unraveling and the only "performing" loans will be the ones paid to the accounts receivable department in hell.

It ought to be an interesting week in the markets.




See also "Subprime bust forces families from homes" by Adam Geller, Associated Press (March 25 2007)

Bill Totten

Is Wikipedia the New Town Hall?

by Pat Aufderheide

In These Times (March 12 2007)

Public broadcasting everywhere is in crisis, and in part it's because technology seems to be turning pubcasters into dinosaurs. In fact, not just them, but all broadcasters. Consider the business leaders: NBC formally declared itself an "Internet company" and is slashing its analog TV investments. Mega-media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace last year and is now considering dumping his satellite assets because he's looking forward to wireless digital TV. Pubcasters used to be providers of trusted information. But when bloggers are so busy linking to each other that they hardly have time to watch television or read newspapers, is the mainstream media - even the PBSes and NPRs - becoming irrelevant?

No wonder pubcasters are suffering heartburn these days. But why should the rest of us care about their problems? Because communications make up the circulatory system of public life in a democracy - and for almost a century mass media have been central to the public sphere.

The public sphere is the informal part of our lives where we manage the quality of our shared culture. Church, the post office, sidewalks, Starbucks, the water cooler - they are all places in the physical world (or what our digerati friends like to call "meat space") where people bring along their experience with the media. It is an informally structured set of social relationships, where power can be mobilized against large institutions such as the state and large corporations.

Mass media have acted as a pseudo-public sphere. Broadcast news services were stand-ins for our collective, top-priority concerns of public life. Popular programs were, similarly, pseudo-public culture, distilled examples of how a culture understands itself - or at least as corporate broadcasters would like it to.

Public broadcasting has been a protected, if compromised, zone that provides some higher-quality opportunities for people to learn about each other and their problems, and to share a common cultural experience of consuming the same media. But public broadcasting is still a stand-in for public communication, because it is a mass medium. The broadcasters speak to the many, who then talk to each other.

Can digital media change this? Can new technologies bring media made by, with and for the public? Could pubcasters be part of it?

Certainly new technologies have created such opportunities for "many-to-many" communication, and people are leaping upon it. The pace of change is extraordinary. The blogosphere is doubling every six months, as measured in the number of weblogs. It's a multilingual and multicultural environment. Social networking has exploded. Traffic on MySpace, which two years ago was insignificant, had already by early 2006 far outstripped traffic to traditional news Web platforms such as the New York Times and CNN.

What used to be the audience is gradually being supplanted by a new entity - a wildly fluctuating set of networks of people engaged in issues and topics and passions who seize upon communications media to make their networks real and make things happen. Yesterday's screen talked to you; you talk through today's screens, whether through Skype or on your video-enabled cellphone. Yesterday you listened to the news; now you link to it on your blog. Yesterday you watched the movie; now you make a video, put it on YouTube and link it to your Facebook account. Never before have there been so many opportunities for publics to communicate, critique and create media.

But will this new open environment actually generate public media - media for public knowledge and action, media that helps a public into being and nourishes it? There's reason for some enthusiasm. In a new book, The Wealth of Networks {1}, legal scholar Yochai Benkler makes a powerful argument that DIY (do it yourself) media offer unprecedented opportunities for truly public communication. Communications can now, finally, visibly be the constitutor of public life.

This is not merely an idea. Today, everybody has a blog - there are at least seventy million. They are growing by the minute, and they are growing around the world. Blogs, it turns out, are socializing machines. Writers want readers and get them by linking up with other bloggers, and so blogs form complex clouds of social relationships.

What about the public part, though? Are they actually fueling conversations about issues that affect the public in ways that allow publics to form and act? Consider a traditional role of public media: to serve as a watchdog on power. The blogosphere has acted in this way, transcending at times political partisanship.

For instance, when Senators Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Barack Obama (D-Illinois) proposed the creation of a searchable database of all federal government contracts and grants over $25,000, political bloggers of all stripes loved the idea. It would be a treasure trove for anti-corruption research. Then suddenly one senator put a "secret hold" on the bill, stalling it.

The blogosphere erupted, especially Republicans and libertarians. Bloggers told people to contact their senators. Everyone did. Bloggers also pooled efforts to flush out the secret-holder - Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) - and the outcry forced him to lift the hold. Mainstream media reported on the event. The bill was passed. And the Office of Management and Budget, which will maintain the database, had a meeting with bloggers to ask for their continued support for efforts to monitor spending.

How about the provision of reliable information, another function of public media? Wikipedia is surprisingly good proof that collaborative work by amateurs can provide balanced and reliable information, and even become a vigorous site of public debate and negotiation. Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia of whatever information people want to explain to other people. It's wide open to anyone, has more than three million articles in 125 languages ... and only three employees, counting founder Jimmy Wales. Everyone else is a volunteer, donating money, time and energy - many of them briefly. They follow a few clear rules, including one that calls for a "neutral point of view" - not objectivity but a fair representation of different perspectives.

A Wikipedia entry is a living and constantly changing organism, reflecting the current state of negotiations between people of vastly differing opinions on a subject. For instance, the entry on abortion reflects constant input, monitored and edited by others of differing views.

How accurate is Wikipedia? That depends on the strength of the publics that gather around the topics that are covered. But what's shocking is how accurate it is. Science entries are more accurate than entries in history. Facts that stand alone do better than those for which the meaning changes dramatically in context. But the community of active contributors does a lot for accuracy. When Alex Halavais, a professor of interactive communication at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, deliberately entered errors - some minor, some middling - into thirteen widely differing Wikipedia entries, all were corrected within three hours.

What is so exciting about Wikipedia isn't just the generation of new information, but the creation of active publics around the creation of knowledge for publics. People who have certain entries on their watch lists are part of a public in which there can be vigorous disagreement but shared interest in addressing an issue.

Wikipedia and blog actions take some explaining. How can you get reliability out of a mass of unreliable actions? James Surowiecki, an economics writer at the New Yorker, gives it away in the title of his book, The Wisdom of Crowds {2}. He analyzed the research literature on group decision-making and exposed the counter-intuitive fact that crowds can in fact be wise, under certain conditions. In fact, time and again when asked to solve a problem, groups of people who individually and without consultation pool their opinions - even when their expertise varies widely and includes real experts - seem regularly to come up with answers that are at least as good as that of the most accurate member of the group.

Not all crowds or groups, though. They need to be diverse, not in a politically correct sense but in the sense of a great variety of kinds of knowledge. You need the ignoramuses along with the smart alecs. They need to guard against being influenced by what they think others are going to say. They need to have ways to aggregate their knowledge. They need to be able to coordinate their actions based on that knowledge.

Now people can make their own media, share it with others and aggregate what interests them, and rank this material. That is a "wisdom of crowds" recipe for decentralized, collaborative media creation.

Plenty of policy roadblocks remain in the way: How will we allocate this spectrum in the future? How will commercial and noncommercial providers of Internet access structure their networks? How will today's inequalities be translated into the online environment? How will we safeguard the public from violation of privacy and fraud while maintaining equality of access? But this is a thrilling if also terrifying time for public media. Pubcasters could be leaders in developing new platforms.

And some pubcasters are toying with the idea of playing a role as facilitator of open public media spaces. For instance, Minnesota Public Radio has turned its listeners into sources and generators of new stories with Public Insight Journalism. StoryCorps is generating grassroots oral histories for public radio. The Independent Television Service and Boston TV station WGBH are both hosting "mashup" sites for online video. They're all demonstration sites that let us glimpse the possibilities of public media made by and for the public itself.





Patricia Aufderheide, a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, was culture editor of In These Times from 1978 to 1982. Now a senior editor of the magazine, her most recent book is The Daily Planet: A Critic on the Capitalist Culture Beat.

(c) 2007 In These Times

Bill Totten

Monday, March 26, 2007

Amazing Mental Rot

by Jim Kunstler (March 19 2007)

From the Florida Sun-Sentinel:

Retired Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, speaking at a Futures Industry Association annual conference here on Thursday, said the problems of the subprime mortgage market had more to do with home prices than easy credit.

"If we could wave a wand and housing prices go up ten percent, the subprime mortgage problem would disappear", he said.

What kind of a rock does this fucking idiot Alan Greenspan live under?

The median price for a house in my region of the US (northeast) was $380,000 in the third quarter of 2006. Median annual income, meanwhile, was about $46,000. If, by some miracle (in a land of negative savings) someone with an income of $46,000 had managed to save enough to make a twenty percent down payment ($76,000) on the aforesaid median-priced house and got a thirty-year mortgage for the remainder ($314,000) at seven percent interest, his monthly payment would be $2089. Add to that $250 a month in local property and school taxes and insurance and that brings it up to $2339. That adds up to $28,068 a year in house payments. Let's say the poor bastard pays $8,000 a year in combined income tax and FICA witholding. That leaves him with a grand total of $9,932 for everything else. Then there's the yearly cost of owning a car, including installment payments, insurance, gasoline, and maintenance: around $6,000 a year. Oh yeah, if he's a prudent fellow, he's got health insurance, let's say a practically useless high-deductible policy costing $3,000 a year. That leaves approximately $57 a week for groceries, laundry, the collection plate at church, and everything else. (Too bad he can't afford cable TV and the Internet.)

So, if housing prices went up ten percent, how fucked would Mr Median Income be?

Of course, the scenario above was based on the most conservative type of mortgage. If Mr Median Income had gotten a creative mortgage, let's say a no money down, interest only, payment option, adjustable rate mortgage, he would have been a little more solvent until the re-set. Then after enjoying the place for a year or so, he'd either have to sell it pronto, or default on his payments. And because all his payment option shortfalls would have been back-loaded onto the principal, the mortgage obligation would be more like $400,000 now. This is a bummer, selling into a down market.

I guess Alan Greenspan is right. If the price of houses only went up ten percent a year, or every half a year, or maybe every month, guys like Mr Median Income could stay ahead of the game. Of course, sooner or later under conditions of perpetually rising house prices, houses would have to be priced out of everybody's range except for Donald Trump, Paris Hilton, and a handful of other lucky, beautiful people who dwell in the perfumed ethers above the pathetic lumpenprole median zone. Perhaps by then, Mr Median Income would have won the grand prize on American Idol - or better yet, crapped out and won an Oscar for best supporting actor instead - and then he would be a beautiful, rich-and-famous celebrity with the ability to buy as many houses as he ever wanted.

I wonder if the new Fed Chairman, Mr Ben Bernanke is as wise as Mr Greenspan? Let's hope so.

See also "Subprime bust forces families from homes" by Adam Geller, Associated Press (March 25 2007)

Bill Totten