Israel’s old certainties crumble in Arab spring fallout
Disintegration of Syria into civil war is latest unwelcome development on Israel’s borders
Syria conflict: Fresh offensive against rebels
Syrian troops have been mobilised in a drive to oust armed rebels from parts of Damascus, a day after a bomb attack that killed three top regime figures
A ‘different phase’ is how many commentators now seem to be describing the state of the Syrian crisis that has built and built like a bloody pressure cooker over the last year and a half, claiming the lives of thousands of innocent people. Massacres that bring back memories of the warcrimes of the Balkans with reports of entire families massacred by Assad backed militias in their own homes. That a conflict that has now clearly escalated into all out civil war, could be ending is clearly a relief to all those on the side of the Free Syrian Army. The bomb that claimed the lives of three senior members of the Assad regime on Tuesday is a watershed moment for sure but a terrifying bellwether of the complex multi dimensional nature of the mixed agendas and tactics of the revolutionaries fighting in what has become known as the Arab Spring, and one that, as Ian Black’s excellent piece in the Guardian on Tuesday elucidates, is not seen so simply in the eyes of the Israeli politicians and Generals.
It’s no accident that Western powers have propped up dictators like Mubarak in the past (Tony Blair described Mubarak as ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’ as recently as February 2011) but attacked those who have threatened the State of Israel such as Assad. Despite championing democracy as the ultimate good and the path through which the rest of the world can achieve freedoms from tyranny, national expediency and geopolitical strategy trump moral grandstanding every time. Western diplomacy has always required a slightly more subtle approach to promoting democracy abroad whilst singing along to the tune of universal suffrage at home. Mubarak once brought Egypt in from the cold and built ties with the Israelis allowing the former to secure lucrative arms contracts with the US and the latter to rest easy at night knowing their western borders would not become a conduit for Palestinian terrorists. Once the tied turned Britain and America were quick to turn their backs. Everything is now in flux and the strategists watch on, waiting for the dust to settle.
The purportedly imminent demise of the Assad regime is going to throw another unpredictable maelstrom of a nation in crisis into the already volatile mix that is the Middle East. Yesterday’s bombing may mark a step change in the war and whilst none of us would weep for the butchers it has slain we should be extremely wary that suicide bombings are a clear indicator of jihadist tactics and a frightening omen of increasing volatility. Without doubt the fighting in Syria is now attracting a growing Islamist element that is flighting alongside secularist elements. They too sense the winds of change and like the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt, they too will want to piggyback on the back of homegrown discontent to bring about the fall of Assad and either leverage power in the new proto-democracy or capitalise on the volatility that proceeds regime change just as Iran did in Iraq.
Whilst I am no proponent of military dictatorship and think Assad’s regime as brutal and suppressive as any suffered by the people’s of Europe behind the Iron Curtain, I think it is both dangerous and a simplistic reading of history to draw parallels with the Arab Spring and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Democracies are mirrors of the peoples who construct them and elect leaders to run them and if nations and their populaces aren’t ready to embrace the democratic principles and emancipate themselves from the fundamentalist dogma of a pervasive religion, then they are perhaps doomed to collapse once more into tyranny. For want of a better analogy; the building blocks on which to build truly democratic institutions simply aren’t present. Iran post 1979 is a case in point.
Western leaders would be wise to treat the developments in Syria with a large degree of concern. Even though it may herald the end of a terrible period in the countries history it may put in place the preconditions for something far worse. We should be careful what we wish for. The Middle East in 2012 is no Eastern Europe 1990.
“If we break through to the other side, if the voting public can see that the long term benefits massively outweigh the short term pain, then a tipping point may be passed and with it a wave of support resulting in a more robust mandate for change.”
Changing the Paradigm
The manufacture and use of automobiles contributes a staggering 20-25% of global CO2 emissions. Such a sizable percentage would suggest a marked shift in the automobile industry away from current trends is imperative to any global or national strategy to cut emissions. What’s more it is highly likely that by seriously effecting changes in these powerful industries many other CO2 producing industries will fall into line too, encouraged by the positive economies and improvements evolving from carbon neutral transport systems. Positive change begets positive change and that is key to getting the ball rolling in this area.
The production of electric cars is all very well but it’s of no use if those cars are charged every night by electricity derived from fossil fuels. We need now more than ever to introduce the initial economic conditions and catalysts that will lead to a serious and irreversible paradigm shift. Whilst this revolution won’t happen over night, it will, if implemented vigorously and courageously, gather speed as the years unfold, creating as it goes new avenues and new opportunities for development, slowly bringing the public on board as it reaps the benefits. Although there will be pain on the way, the benefits will be reaped in this generation’s lifetime. In the words of the author James Martin abandonment of fossil fuels won’t mean going back to nature but will predicate the rise of ‘eco affluence’, a society that is richer and better off than their predecessors, surrounded by incredible technologies but in a society that is carbon neutral.
Planning for the Future
There seems to be two main avenues for addressing the current predicament – through financial incentives and sanctions (taxing heavy road users, regular flyers, subsidising carbon neutral industries, penalising carbon heavy ones, etc), and through the building of less automobile-centric cities and transport infrastructures. Addressing automobile and aviation greenhouse gas emissions needs short, medium and long term plans, all of which must be developed in detail:
- Short term plans would focus on getting car usage down by using the tax system to penalise heavy road users whilst heavily incentivising and investing in public transport / cycle routes / walking. These kinds of changes can be implemented almost immediately. All that is needed is political will. They will be unpopular at first and to some may seem unfair but community support will follow given time for the medium and long term plans to play out.
- Medium term planning takes place over a decade or two and involve massive long term investment in alternative carbon neutral solutions and the accompanying infrastructures, culminating in more electric cars coming off the production line at affordable prices (amongst other things). There is still much R&D to be done in this field and technical problems to conquer (such as the problem with making effective batteries and tailoring the national grid to deal with the spikes in energy usage from owners charging them). This can partly be done through the tax system but also needs bold and radical adaptation of our cities and transport infrastructures. Industry support is crucial at this stage and the paradigm shift must really be under way for this to take place effectively.
- Long term plans should involve the redesigning and re engineering of entire cities and transport systems, based on an evolving blueprint for a carbon neutral country. This calls for the nurturing of bold and brilliant visionaries. By this point we should be seeing a complete cultural shift away from petrol cars towards a new generation of desirable electric vehicles at every end of the price spectrum. More rail, less roads, recharge points for electric cars and a national grid geared up to produce electricity for a generation of electric vehicles without burning CO2 will accompany this trend.
A Holistic Approach
At present the UK’s residual fuel mix is made up from 35.7% coal; 48.9% natural gas; 5.2% nuclear; 6.5% renewables and 3.7% other fuels. Of this coal is by far the biggest polluter producing 910 g/kWh, with natural gas at 400g/kWh and others in at 600 k/Wh. Nucelar and renewables of course produce zero. Whether we like it or not the former of these has to be featured in any short to medium term plan to drastically reduce carbon emissions. It is important to stress that it won’t necessarily be a permanent solution, as the development of infinitely abundant and clean energy sources such as nuclear fusion may well come to supersede everything else. But this is, for now, a specific arguement and we need to look at the bigger picture, we need a holistic approach.
As already mentioned the heart of the problem is in changing the dominant paradigm by making tough decisions. In the automobile industry many skilled jobs may become redundant but in the case of the automobile industry combustion engines will be replaced by new types of technology and therefore new skillsets will be required. There needs to therefore be a heavy investment in retraining and new training to keep the electorate onside. The dominance of accepted orthodoxies, a misinformed public and myopic politics are the greatest challenges we face in implementing change, but I refer again to James Martin’s premise of ‘eco affluence’; we needn’t be poorer off for this transition, indeed quite the opposite. The problem is in the hardships necessitated by any fundamental upheaval in an economy and the underlying society it supports.
Deconstructing Economic Orthodoxies and Dismantling Fossil Fuel Hegemonies
The state of the global economy and national deficit imply a barrier to change but they actually offer an opportunity. Fiscal conservatism isn’t the answer, although markets should and do play a role. If Britain can strike out alone in heavily investing in science and R&D, taxing carbon production heavily in industry to avoid unnecessary burdens placed on the taxpayer then it is likely we will be emulated. Competition is a driver of international markets. If the perception is that we are etching out a place as market leaders is what will become a trillion dollar industry, this will stimulate competition abroad. Long termism must trump short term obsessions about the defecit and the markets. We need to separate the economic problems from the imperative of long term investment. We must gear our economies not around deficit reduction but a restructuring and reorganisation of principles. A green industry needs to be at the heart of our economic planning. We need to break free of the bloated financial sector that has made us vulnerable and is the cause of so much public dissent.
Heavy investment in the electric car industry and all the necessary infrastructure to roll it out on a large scale will undoubtedly face stiff opposition from the motoring industry as well as the oil industry. These corporate hegemonies hold incredible political as well as financial power but they don’t directly control government policy (yet). But at their hearts all corporations are guided by the singular principle of making money for their shareholders and not some archaic religiosity towards an oil based transport industry. If they think there is money to be made in an electric car industry they will increase investment and production. If we break through to the other side, if the voting public can see that the long term benefits massively outweigh the short term pain, then the tipping point may be passed and with it a wave of support resulting in a more robust mandate for change. As benefits begin to emerge so this support will swell. New tech will result, creating new industries and exciting new opportunities for wealth creation producing economic feedbacks and ushering in the new paradigm.
Emerging Technologies and the Dangers of Biofuel Dependency
Already there are emerging technologies which seek to bridge the gap between the actual deployment of electric cars and the long term problem of adapting electricity grids to deal with the massive spikes in electricity use when people get home around 6pm to charge their cars. The technology giant Intel is already working with SAP and ESB on producing a smart tablet that will link into your calendar and charge your car according to your suspected journey time the next day. What’s more is that it will link to the grid and know when is the best time to charge your battery. The technology is out there and with huge developments in the efficiency of batteries we can expect to have the tools not only to replace the combustion engines with its electric equivalent but to actually produce a vehicle of comparable performance that is cheaper to run and less prone to breakdown.
There is a danger that we can neglect the electric car and go down the path of adopting biofuels like ethanol. Whilst cutting carbon dioxide emissions putting all our eggs in the ethanol / methanol biofuel basket has huge long term risks. Huge swathes of land are cut down to grow the corn, causing more deforestation and negatively impacting on food stocks in a time of globally burgeoning populations and worldwide economic stagnation. Whilst the development of genetically engineered crops will help to ease this fuel / food crop competition for space, the rising frequency and scale of droughts may well counter it out. Electric cars require additional electricity from the grid but we at least have the option of where we source this electricity. With biofuels we do not. The risks are too great. We must look at holistic approaches and not short term fixes.
The Electric Car Revolution
Short term compromises will be needed to bridge the difficult transition to clean energies which will come. If we can reduce CO2 by adopting a new generation of nuclear thorium reactors combined with more wind / solar / hydro power generation then we can seriously look at cutting fossil fuels out of the picture entirely, paving the way for a truly smart grid powered exclusively by abundant and carbon neutral energy sources. The electric car is only one part of this grand picture but its large scale deployment will be a powerful driver not only of economic models of change but of cultural / societal shifts in attitude. The paradigm shift needs its symbolism, its iconography of change. The electric car may just be it.
We often talk about the sanctity of democracy in the West. It’s as if merely questioning this system of governance and its underlying efficacy is deemed a form of moral blasphemy.
In many ways democracy as a concept can be viewed as an irresistible force that appeals to our sense of right and wrong, but as a survival system it may infact be majorly flawed. When democratic governments are faced with complex long term structural issues that demand massively unpopular solutions their tendency will always be towards populism and postponement not informed brinkmanship and tough decision making.
Many people may argue more sanguinely that democracy is indeed flawed but ‘it’s the best system we have’ and besides, the alternatives aren’t worth considering. Whilst I don’t disagree with the moral impetus upon which this assumption is based I do think it is somewhat presumptuous given the circumstances we now find ourselves in. The ramifications of democratic governments collectively failing to prevent runaway climate change are surely more chilling than the consequences any abandonment of democracy may precipitate.
We are now living in an era known as the anthropocene within which humanity is effecting changes to the earth’s ecosystems at such a rate as to actually constitute a completely new geological era. Extinction rates are soaring hundreds of times above normal ‘background’ levels and we are changing the composition of our atmosphere at such an alarming rate that science can barely keep up with the task of explaining all the highly intricate and complex interconnections within the biosphere and the scale to which all of them are now becoming unbalanced.
The most ethically and morally challenging dilemma our species has ever had to face
As a system which relies on consensus and the support of a national electorate, democracy is at present failing catastrophically to slow emissions to anywhere near the most conservative of emissions quotas scientists suggest to prevent runaway climate change. Could it be that it is the unquestioning idolatary that democracy has attained in the West that may be blinding us to the moral imperative of our species very survival and of considering an alternative system to one based on consensus? If this is true then the inability of democratic systems to mitigate these unprecedented man made threats to our planet’s biosphere and prevent runaway climate change is perhaps the most ethically and morally challenging dilemma our species has ever had to face.
The heart of the problem lies in the fact that the majority of public opinion in modern democracies across the globe (including huge swathes of supposedly intellectual opinion) just doesn’t regard the issue high as important enough to put it anywhere near the top of the political agenda and there are still shameful numbers that do not even believe in man made climate change at all, despite the overwhelming evidence. These sentiments are mirrored by – or perhaps in some ways, a result of – the popular press, themselves powerful drivers of public opinion. And without popular support, the engines of democracies simply cannot build up enough momentum to effectively legislate to curb emissions, regardless of those in the public arena who attempt to push the issue higher up the agenda.
But why is this? Where is our sense of collective dread at the prospect of mass extinction within maybe as little as a century? Are we that blinded to things that aren’t immediately relevant to us? Surely when we may have as little as a decade or two to bring rising emissions under control one would expect a sense of emergency and alarm manifesting itself on a wider scale?
The truth behind this intransigence lies not only in the shortcomings of democratic systems to implement unpopular change, but is fundamental to the way our very brains work.
The catastrophic problem with a short term mindset
The failure of democratic systems to deal with the long term problems of climate change is largely part down to the short term nature of parliamentary cycles which necessarily infringe and constrain its policy making apparatus. Although electoral cycles are fundamental to any democracy as they allow the people to regularly exercise their will and elect their own representatives, the imbue upon our politicians a vote winning mindset that undermines any sense of long term outlook and casts it as idealism. The result is a political class that think in four or five year cycles. From this trend naturally follows the horse trading we see in all democracies, in which ones ideals are traded for concessions to another more pressing ideal; any deviation from this model is simply untenable and impotent. And so we are stuck in a system fundamentally myopic and incapable of making changes on the basis of events twenty, thirty or even one hundred years down the line.
But this short termism isn’t just endemic to democratic systems; it is hardwired into the human brain.
Our inability to grasp the concept of what scientists call ‘deep time’ whereby events unfold over thousands or even millions of years, is not down just to a lack of individual intelligence or even understanding; it is a byproduct of our evolutionary heritage. We have no need to react to the movement of glaciers or tectonic plates but predators do move a lot faster and so our human minds have evolved to have a short term bias. It is this inability to react to long term threats that may well be our undoing. It is somewhat of an amusing irony then, that natural selection, in producing something as devloped and sophisticated as the human brain, may have inadvertently left us with the evolutionary baggage of our own demise.
So what are the alternatives open to us.
Whether we like it or not, autocracies don’t tend to work in cycles at all as they’re politicians aren’t elected in and out of office. These systems are therefore better suited to enact programmes whose turnaround time is long term. With an executive informed by rationalism and scientific objectivity, instead of an inexpert, myopic and emotionally driven electorate, we could potentially mitigate against climate changes worst effects on our species. But whilst the changes this kind of legislative impunity could usher in could well prove decisive in halting warming, they could also backfire in the most disastrous way. This is where the paradox of the benign dictatorship rears its ugly head.
To combat climate change it is argued that a more autocratic system is needed to enact and push through fundamental legislation without challenge or popular dissent, but if we take the old truism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely then we are presented with a very unpredictable situation. Could we be sure that any future benign one party state would stay the course and commit unconditionally to the long and difficult task of curbing climate change when faced with the self interest of individuals and the trappings of short term power. These are inherent human issues and it could be argued that because of the degrees of power bestowed upon individuals, autocracies are perhaps just, if not more, susceptible to the trappings of the short term mindset than any democratic system.
But there is another problem.
The problems of a nationalistic bias
Unfortunately for us the solution to discovering a way of mitigating against runaway climate change is multilateral and not unilateral and it is in this final point that I think given the current lack of any overarching and powerful international body (the UN is unable to prevent its members going to war with Middle Eastern countries and in this sense is largely impotent and incapable of effecting change in itself) democracy as a framework for change becomes almost completely untenable. Because democratic are inherently nationalistic in that they rely on the support of electorates within their own borders, they are also inherently inward looking. As Woodrow Wilson once put it, ‘foreign policy is domestic policy with its top hat on’. National democratic governments will only push their electorates so far (in other words, not far enough to lose power).
Today China is the worlds second most powerful economy and in the not too distant future it will be the largest. It is also a one party state and a one of the key players in the deadlock in international climate talks. For the time being China refuses to budge on agreeing any significant leeway on emissions targets, having pointed out that the majority of man made CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was put up there by the West in the decades following the industrial revolution. Its contention is that unless it can be significantly compensated for this profligate and profitable period of history in which western nations advanced and it stood still, then now its China’s turn. Although this argument does carry significant moral weight it fails to see the harsh reality of the present situation. If China’s industrial revolution continues unchecked at its present rate and climate talks remain in deadlock with no effective framework agreed on curbing targets internationally, we will inevitably get runaway climate change. Perhaps in as little as twenty or thirty years. China is cutting its nose off to spite its face.
It seems unlikely that America and Europe, beguiled as their governments have become by corporate power, can ever convince their electorates to tolerate hugely unpopular and financially punitive policies that will prevent something that significant numbers of them still don’t even believe is happening. Any hope of a real paradigm shift seems even more unlikely in the wake of a banking crisis and global recession. More unlikely still is the prospect that these governments can cooperate and legislate multi-laterally through currently infective bodies like the UN and the IPCC to set significant and legally binding targets to curb emissions, putting the ball back in China’s court.
A path of no return?
If a non-democratic form of government is needed then how will we reconcile this with our belief in the sanctity of representation, equality and human rights and what kind of alternative will we adopt? To what degree can we justify our own species’ survival by jesttisoning a method of governence that is the closest thing we have in the West to an international belief system. Would we be able to return to a democracy when our global economy is decidedly more green and we have weaned ourselves off fossil fuels, or would this be a path of no return?
Democracy has allowed us to express ourselves and live a life of choices and freedom that was unthought of throughout most of human history. Is it our cruel fate that this freedom to choose has resulted in us being left with no choice at all.