Friday, April 30, 2010
What a weird week of oil spills, deforestation reports, and giant hydroelectric threats to the forest. I never thought that I might be sitting here in lovely Acre State in the Brazilian Amazônia, having my mood rescued by a display of street art from São Paulo.
But that's exactly what happened when Visionshare's good friend OC Brasileiro sent me his marvelous slide show of the walls and alleys of my old stomping ground of Vila Magdalena.
Irreverent art can be a way to hang on to the humor in our often weird (but wondrous) existence. Thanks bro, I don't know what it all means but ya got me giggling again.
THE FIRST GIANT TO SINK
On March 20, 2001 the world's then-largest oil rig sank off the Brazilian coast following an explosion that killed 11 workers.
According to the BBC report this was not the first large Petrobras oil spill. More background on the Petrobras oil platform disaster is at Wikipedia.
It is really sad to watch the unfolding gulf tragedy and to experience my own conflicting emotions. I do hope this might be the 911 of off-shore drilling. It might be a game changer -- a political sea change as well as an ecological horror.
That's not what happened after the 2001 Brazilian event but one can hope that times have changed.
[UPDATE 30 April 2010: Top White House officials today, echoing calls from the Senate and environmental groups, said any plans to move forward with new offshore drilling were on hold while the Deepwater Horizon spill was dealt with and investigated. Pro-drilling voices were silent replacing, "drill baby, drill" with "hush baby, hush."]
Thursday, April 29, 2010
HAITI AND THE WORLD
Here is a "controlled" burn that is not "out of control" and it might help save the world.
WorldStove founder Nathaniel Mulcahy has just completed two months of work in Haiti, setting up a pilot project that will provide biochar-producing stoves and jobs for the Haitian people. The project was featured in an Earth Day press release from the UN Special Envoy to Haiti (former President Clinton) as an example of "building back better" by incorporating environmental sustainability in the recovery effort.
Via International Biochar Initiative
Before WorldStove, Mulcahy was an award-winning industrial designer creating consumer products for large corporations like Emerson Appliances. Eight years ago, while lying in bed recovering from a life-threatening accident, he realized that he needed to focus his energies on innovative designs to improve the quality of life for people who were less fortunate. The result was his invention of the fuel efficient, low emissions LuciaStove, named after the canine companion who saved his life.
Before WorldStove, Mulcahy was an award-winning industrial designer creating consumer products for large corporations like Emerson Appliances. Eight years ago, while lying in bed recovering from a life-threatening accident, he realized that he needed to focus his energies on innovative designs to improve the quality of life for people who were less fortunate. The result was his invention of the fuel efficient, low emissions LuciaStove, named after the canine companion who saved his life. .
The original breakthrough that set the LuciaStove apart from similar gasifer stoves was Mulcahy’s patented design which uses Bernoulli-principle-driven venturis to create a negative pressure while a flame cap based on Fibonacci spiral geometry prevents oxygen from entering the pyrolysis chamber (this is the shape emblazoned in the World Stove logo). The combination delivers better air control for cleaner combustion of the gases produced from the biomass it uses as fuel. It also produces a nitrogen gas charged biochar (the stove excludes oxygen but not nitrogen) that has a nearly neutral pH (7-7.5) making it ideal for many agricultural applications.
Video showing Lucia in pyrolytic mode courtesy of World Stove
To develop and distribute his invention, Mulcahy founded WorldStove LLC, based in Amherst, Massachusetts (USA) and in Tortona, Italy. Mulcahy says that people are often surprised that such a sophisticated design would be used for such a simple product, a cook stove for developing countries. He answers: “Why should we provide developing nations with stoves that look like cast off scrap? Style or elegance of design usually only involves added thought, not added cost.”
Mulcahy considers it a matter of respect not only to offer a high quality, efficient stove to the world’s poor, but to make sure that the stove is adapted to people’s needs and not the other way around. WorldStove pilot projects in several African countries, Indonesia, and the Philippines have encountered all manner of local conditions that have required changes in the stove setup or manufacturing techniques.
The adaptability of the Lucia stove faced its greatest test in Haiti this winter where Mulcahy carried out a WorldStove Pilot Program in the short space of two months. He not only redesigned the stove to be produced with available tools and materials, but he also completed a camp survey. Crowded camp conditions and the fact that since the quake more children have been forced to take responsibility for cooking made safety a top priority, so Mulcahy developed a Haitian specific pot stand with heat-shield and windscreen to accommodate the wide variety of pots used in Haiti and protect children from burns.
(Photos above: Left: Children have taken on more cooking responsibilities since the earthquake. Right: The blue flame indicates that the Haiti Lucia stove is burning cleanly and efficiently; courtesy of World Stove)
Local versions of the Lucia stove must be tuned to work with available fuels. Peanut shells need different conditions than rice hulls, for instance. An un-tuned stove will smoke and leave behind un-charred material. So, Mulcahy conducted a fuel availability assessment to guide his stove design and dissemination plan. Read the report Fuel Options in Post-Earthquake Haiti here. http://stoves.bioenergylists.org/en/content/fuel-options-post-ea
One of the best moments of Mulcahy’s two months in Haiti was the day he first tuned a locally-built stove to run on the donated pellets. He said, “With only three handfuls of pellets, we cooked a plateful of rice, beans and meat sauce for 21 people.”
Another prize moment was the day that Mulcahy showed up late to a village artisan’s shop only to find the artisan already engaging a crowd of people demonstrating the stove and explaining how the biochar would help restore their soils. “That’s ownership,” Mulcahy said, “and that’s success.” The metal workers started adding lovely decorations of trees and birds to the stoves. Mulcahy said he was told that the pictures represent what will happen if people use the stoves to make biochar – the trees and birds will come back to Haiti.
(Photos above: Left: Nathaniel Mulcahy showing designs that metal workers added to the stove wind screens. Right: The metal workers say that trees and birds will return to Haiti when the soil is rebuilt with biochar; courtesy of World Stove)
Almost a third of the land in Haiti has lost so much topsoil that it is not arable. As a result, Haiti can no longer feed itself and people have fled to the cities where they were most vulnerable during the earthquake. Biochar can be a critical factor not only in restoring topsoil to Haiti but in revitalizing the rural economy.
In preparation for the next phase of the Haiti project, World Stove has established preliminary agreements with 48 agricultural cooperatives that will provide crop waste for pellet production. The farmers will receive a proportionate amount of biochar in return.
Such agreements are part of the WorldStove Five Step Program http://worldstove.com/wp-content/uploads/download/five_step.pdf for integrating stove production and distribution with fuel supplies, crop improvement and job creation. This Five Step model starts with a Stove Hub where stoves are manufactured and progresses to adding a pellet mill and biochar soil-building programs. The model always includes a distribution and exchange program that may use micro-finance, donations or barter, depending on local conditions.
Mulcahy said that the Haiti experience has confirmed the usefulness of the Five Step Program, while adding some new features – like using biochar for much-needed sanitation. Mulcahy built two aerobic composting toilets that use biochar for odor control and composting efficiency. The resulting biochar compost will be used to build soil.
WorldStove is now mapping out the next stage of the Haiti program, working with United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Haitian Government to build stove-manufacturing hubs and create thousands of jobs making pellets and distributing biochar in the rural areas.While this next stage is getting organized, Mulcahy is turning his efforts towards other work, including launching new consumer products for the developed world like a BBQ grill and a home heating furnace. There is also new work in Ghana, Togo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan that had been placed on hold for Haiti. Mulcahy invites anyone who is interested in learning more about next steps in Haiti or contributing to the next phase of activity, to visit the WorldStove website, www.worldstove.com. For updates, you can sign up for the World Stove Twitter feed @WorldStove and YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/WorldStove.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Chandeleur Islands off the southeastern coast of Louisiana on Tuesday - Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
DAMN IT! I really hate to report this. And I take no solace in suspecting that the burning and sinking oil rig on Earth Day (!) was the archetypal message of the folly of our energy policy. Now as the Gulf of Mexico spill of 42,000 gallons per day spreads toward Louisiana, they are considering a "controlled burn" to save the mainland coast.
The NY Times reports: ‘Controlled Burn’ will be tried for Gulf Oil Spill.
[UPDATE: Dot Earth has started a discussion: Spill Response: Burn Baby Burn]
Yup! Controlled burns to generate energy in coal-fired plants, to clear forests for beef and soy and palm oil production, and now to clear a dangerous oil spill. How else is there to say it? Controlled burns are what have created our global heating problem.
Is oil pumped off-shore of Louisiana or off-shore of Rio de Janeiro the answer to the energy crisis?
[UPDATE 2: (NY Times April, 29) Now they are saying that the spill maybe 5 times larger than initially thought.]
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
No wonder that President Lula and many Brazilian government officials get ticked off when they are lectured by gringos about saving the Amazon. A quick look at the graph above tells why.
I personally can report from nearly 30 years of concern for the ancient trees of the US Pacific Northwest that less than 10 percent of the primary forest is left and the old-growth giants are still being logged. The situation is as bad, some years even worse, north of the border in James Cameron's home country of Canada.
For comparison, although the sheer area of deforestation is greatest in Brazil, it is also true that 80 percent of the primary Amazon forest is still standing. That's an 80% Brazil vs 10% USA percent comparison!
Today the Brazilian problem may cover a larger area but so is the opportunity to do something about the future forest. Giant areas of non-fragmented forest and the greatest biodiversity in the world exist here. Conversely, in North America we have only remnants of primary forests. When a 500 year-old remnant cedar or fir falls in British Columbia or in Oregon it's among the last and pretty much over unless we can wait 500 years to get it back.
The Avatar movement is quite correct. The issue is global. It is not about pointing the finger of shame and blame at the developing world. Indeed, it must be stated again and again that the 20th Century development pattern devastated the environments of the so-called "advanced economies." If this pattern is to be changed for the 21st Century, those who first benefited from the destruction of nature, and continue to cause much of the problem, must change their consumption habits and help pay for a new way in the developing world.
Here is the deforestation story from mongabay.com:
United States has higher percentage of forest loss than Brazil
April 26, 2010
From 2000 to 2005 the world lost over a million square kilometers of forest.
Forests continue to decline worldwide, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). Employing satellite imagery researchers found that over a million square kilometers of forest were lost around the world between 2000 and 2005. This represents a 3.1 percent loss of total forest as estimated from 2000. Yet the study reveals some surprises: including the fact that from 2000 to 2005 both the United States and Canada had higher percentages of forest loss than even Brazil.
Counting forest loss due either to human disturbance or natural causes, the study found that North America lost the most forest of the world's six forest-containing continents. Perhaps surprisingly, thirty percent of total forest loss occurred in North America alone. Combined with South America—the largest extent of tropical forests in the world—the two continents represent half of the world's total forest loss. Africa, in turn, suffered the least forest loss.
Forest loss by nation
Of the seven nations that contain over a million square kilometers of forest—Russia, Brazil, the United States, Canada, Indonesia, China, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—Brazil lost the most total forest during the five year time period.
According to the researchers Brazil lost 26,000 square kilometers (10,038 square miles) per year of its rainforest, and 7,000 square kilometers (2,702 square miles) in its dry tropical forests. Over the five years, total forest loss in Brazil came to 165,000 square kilometers (63,706 square miles). In all this represents 3.6 percent of its total 2000 forest cover: half a percent higher than the global average.
Canada was close behind Brazil: losing some 160,000 square kilometers (61,776 square miles) of its forest cover. However, proportionally Canada's forest loss equals 5.2 percent of the nation's total forest cover: higher than Brazil's percentage and over two points higher than the global average.
But the United States had the greatest percentage loss of the seven nations—even more than Brazil and Canada—losing 6 percent of its forest cover in just five years time, a total of 120,000 square kilometers (46,332 square miles). While fire and beetle infestation played a role in Alaska and the western US, large-scale logging in the southeast, along the western coast, and in the Midwest play a big role in the nation's continuing forest decline.
The researchers write that "the often publicized phenomenon of forest conversion within the humid tropics is observed in our results, but significant GFCL [i.e. global forest cover loss] is evident in all biomes. For example, rates of GFCL in regions such as the southeast United States are among the highest globally."
Article continues at mongabay.com with lots charts and graphics. Check it out.
A little over one year ago (in March 2009) the Times of London reported the now-famous Lula quote: "I am infected by the peace virus."
The Times continued, "President Lula Da Silva of Brazil, who joked recently that he was “infected by the peace virus”, is considering an attempt at becoming the next UN Secretary-General." Both before that moment and surely ever since President Lula has been meeting with everyone.
Well, not quite. In the recent O Globo interview when James Cameron was asked if he had spoken with Brazilian government officials about the Belo Monte dam controversy, he reported that, "I had the impression that the Brazilian government does not want information along Belo Monte lines. I sent a letter to Lula asking a meeting with him or with someone of his energy team. But I had no answer. Still waiting. I would love to talk with the Brazilian government, to hear the other side...."
In the same interview, Cameron went on to say, "I want to talk with President Lula and I decided to have dinner in Washington with Marina Silva, who is a candidate for the Green Party in Brazil. And I will also meet with President Obama. The Kayapo Indians and other indigenous leaders handed me a letter pretty much talking about their problems [that] I intend to deliver a letter to President Obama. I think he can broaden the debate, the issue can lead to discussions about global warming at the UN."
In yet another Cameron interview, this time with Wolf Blitzer at CNN we learn:
BLITZER: All right, let's talk a little bit about your meeting with the president of the United States. What happened? How did that come about?
CAMERON: It was very brief, and I think he just wanted to congratulate me on the success of the film and I drew his attention to some of the things that I was involved in now.
BLITZER: On the environment?
CAMERON: Energy, conservation, the Amazon stuff. And he was very interested. He didn't expect that, I think to be the topic of conversation. But we engaged on that.
Now, let's hope that President Lula can get beyond his well-known aversion to gringo "interference" on the Amazon and also engage.
Monday, April 26, 2010
From from O Globo
Portuguese version here.
James Cameron: "I will take a letter from the Indians for Obama."
Marília Martins - Correspondent
NEW YORK - The Canadian filmmaker James Cameron, 55, director of "Titanic" and "Avatar" and the biggest box-office record in history of cinema to date, came into the campaign against the plant's construction of Belo Monte, after visiting the Kayapo Indians in the region of Altamira, in northeastern Pará He attended a meeting of 80 leaders of indigenous communities in Brazil and received from them the request to deliver a letter to Presidents Lula and Obama.
Cameron held a special screening of his film in New York as part of the sessions of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Rights of the UN. And he gave this exclusive interview to O Globo about his visits to Brazil and his research on the problems of Amazonian tribes.
O GLOBO: How was your experience in the Amazon rainforest?
JAMES CAMERON: It was fantastic. I visited Brazil twice. I was invited by an NGO, Amazon Watch, which works in the Amazon and that led me to Manaus and they informed me about ecological issues in the region. This made me aware of the problems of indigenous communities. They told me about the dam construction. I asked them to give me much information so I could see up close the problems, and could talk about them. I went to Altamira and found a large Indian community. They were having a meeting, there were 80 tribal leaders who came together to discuss issues that were causing most concern, including hydroelectric.
And what did the Indian leaders say?
CAMERON: First, I was excluded from the process, after all, they had no idea who I was. And I traveled over ten hours by boat to find them ... Then they ended up inviting me to join the discussion and talked with me for four hours. They spoke of how they were alarmed by the construction of Belo Monte because they would lose control over their lands, biological life in the rivers would be degraded, it could no longer rise to the level to fish. They explained that the dam will cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem. They will no longer be able to fish or hunt, will lose their land. They are fighting for more than 20 years against this dam. And they are willing to continue the fight against this construction and die, if necessary, to prevent this from happening. This message was very powerful for me.
Was the conversation was only with the Indians?
CAMERON: No. I also talked with scientists who studied the environment of the Amazon for many years. I have read many studies about the effects of the dam on the seasonal cycles of the region, the flow of rivers, on the estimates of production of 11,000 megawatts that can turn just 3000 megawatts in over half of the year because of the ecological effects [the dry season]. And I think this is a low production for the $R 16 (9.2 USD) billion that the project will cost [the government estimate has been revised to $R 19.6 (11.2 USD) billion and the private sector is $R 30 (17.2 USD) billion]. That is, I learned that Belo Monte is inefficient from the standpoint of a cost-benefit analysis. I repeat: I'm just repeating here what I was told by Brazilian environmental organizations such as the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) and other groups such as Conservation International.
But there is an energy crisis in Brazil and Belo Monte is one option to ensure energy supply.
CAMERON: Yes, there is an energy crisis and the country needs to increase energy production to sustain its growth, to supply the major cities. But do not think the dam is the answer to this crisis. And you know why? Because the energy of Belo Monte will not supply the cities. It will be directed to the aluminum industry, it will supply multinational companies such as Alcoa. ... Brazilian taxpayers will be subsidizing this industry with their tax benefits that do not even benefit the local population and the profits still go overseas. I think this is shocking! I think that most Brazilians do not know that.
Do you think there is little debate in Brazil about Belo Monte?
CAMERON: I think the whole process is not transparent. The debate did not involve the communities who will lose their homes and their land, the benefits of construction will not be allocated to these communities, do not include the 25,000 Indians who are in the region. And the benefits will not go either to the Brazilian people, who are paying taxes. Who gave the political permission to do this? The profits go to the banks and for foreign companies! Does this makes sense?
But we must find solution to the current Brazilian energy crisis ...
CAMERON: This is a problem that concerns not only Brazil but the whole world. The solutions to the energy crisis must be global because the crisis is worldwide and is the result of misguided energy policies. The solution should be in terms of renewable energy. Brazil has three times more solar energy than Germany and yet, for some reason I do not understand, Germany is the world leader in solar energy. How is this possible? Because the rivers of Brazil are seen as a kind of stream of gold which feeds the country and connects its regions. But I will use a strong metaphor: if the Brazilian rivers are the arteries that bring life to the nation, building dams is putting fats into the arteries: this will eventually lead to strokes and heart attacks. The dam is not the right answer! Rivers are a very fundamental and very important for Brazil, but they must flow to get through life. Rivers can not be blocked for damaging the environment. And I do not want anyone to just take my word: I ask that you seek sources of [scientific] information.
You spoke with Brazilian government officials?
CAMERON: I had the impression that the Brazilian government does not want information along Belo Monte lines. I sent a letter to Lula asking a meeting with him or with someone of his energy team. But I had no answer. Still waiting. I would love to talk with the Brazilian government, to hear the other side, but was very careful with all the information I collected and I'm commenting here. You're now at a UN event on ecology. What is your agenda as a militant in defense of a green economy?
CAMERON: I have an agenda. I'm not trying to make more money with "Avatar." The film is already a success. I'm not a businessman. My goal is to be faithful to my conscience, my sense of ethics as a human being. I want to make this world better for my children. I have five children and they are all very aware of these problems. I see a lot of denial, a lot of alienation, and I also see that there is an urgent need to act, to face challenges and prevent a global catastrophe because of global warming.
But you know that the U.S. is the biggest polluter on the planet, along with China, and that Brazil has one of the greenest on the planet. Brazil has moved its fleet to alcohol and as a matrix of the least-polluting energy production in the world.
CAMERON: Sure! I know it! I'm not accusing anyone. The U.S. is a big polluter and historically made many mistakes, and a time when these catastrophic effects were not known. And we have much to do here. But I think the Amazon rainforest is vital for Brazil and for the world and I think the U.S. should contribute to its conservation, including helping economically. I know there are economic forces working against it.
What organizations do you consider to be heard in this debate?
CAMERON: All the environmental organizations. You see, my concern is that the Brazilian people be well informed. There seems to be a case. I know that Brazil is a democracy and if the Brazilian people consider that the construction of this plant is a good deal, we'll all accept. But I think the Brazilian people are not being well informed about what is behind the construction of this dam. The people I met in Brazil have a great sensitivity to the ecology. The country has a wonderful forest, a treasure trove of biodiversity, the Brazilians are happy people, friendly, welcoming, [full of] good-will. One of the forest people of my film was directly inspired by the Brazilian Kayapo. The Amazon was a source of inspiration for my story and when I was researching I found that indigenous issues were not a thing of the past but the present. I found that there still happen massacres of entire communities. I want to make a 3D documentary about the Kayapo Indians and their struggle against the dam.
And you also work to educate Americans?
CAMERON: Sure! I think this is a global issue that people need to pressure their governments to fight global warming, to respect the rights of indigenous peoples, to bring this matter to a truly global debate, so that people are educated not to pollute and to respect the environment and require of their leaders a position of defense of ecology. In the U.S., we have much work before there is awareness, of course.! Therefore, I decided to work to expand the debate, bring the matter to whom I can take, for whom I have access. Therefore, I want to talk with President Lula and I decided to have dinner in Washington with Marina Silva, who is a candidate for the Green Party in Brazil. And I will also meet with President Obama. The Kayapo Indians and other indigenous leaders handed me a letter pretty much talking about their problems [that] I intend to deliver a letter to President Obama. I think he can broaden the debate, the issue can lead to discussions about global warming at the UN.
In a São Paulo hotel room far from nature's realities, two leading lights of the forest, Marina Silva and James Cameron, continue a process of beaming the message to the world. They share their understandings and love for the forest and in the process give voice and meaning to the many who call the forest their home.
One of the central themes of the Marina Silva campaign for President of Brazil is that policy discussions need to be based on an open, transparent and participatory process. What follows is a living example, full of the chaos of clicking cameras, no teleprompter, not managed and scripted as a polished and set product. It's very unique to see what is usually a very private conversation presented as an open dialogue.
The discussion about forest policy is to the point and essential but it was the exchange about the challenge of giving expression to the beauty and depth of the forest experience that touched my heart. I hope that you can take the time to watch it all unfold -- step-by-step moving from a mental analysis to heartfelt expression.
Tolstoy said famously, "If you want to be universal, sing the song of your village." Marina Silva and James Cameron, each in their specially refined and unique roles, are singing the song of their childhood homes and bringing its vision to our "grown-up reality." From the depths of the shady and hidden places in the forest a light is coming to the world.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
Friday, April 23, 2010
If one asks this question from the point-of-view of Africa, much of which is convulsing after centuries of ruthless exploitation and resource extraction, the political and ecological views often seem dismal -- war, famine and crisis management.
However, a small but proverbial light at the end of a very dark tunnel may be emerging from grass-roots work with local farmers such as the promising projects of the Biochar Fund which seek to transform traditional agriculture into a tool for healing and recovery. The key is to focus on how people and nature might work together for the benefit of all. People of place are assisted in attaining the most democratic of all reforms -- the ability to help themselves and in the process to provide carbon capture and sequestration services for all of us.
The people-vs-nature polarity that dominated the conquests by "civilization"of indigenous people, the more recent spread of industrialism and even the 20th Century conservation ideologies of preserving the environment from people. But the paradigm no longer points the way toward progress. People and nature have never been separate except where there have never been people, which today is nowhere.Clinging to this false dichotomy of separation of people and nature is what makes possible the war between the two. Slowly, we are arriving at another understanding that people and nature are connected and that both have rights.
This transcendence of the old-school natural-vs-social ecology argument has arrived with the 21st Century emphasis on sustainability. But it is also true that there are many problems that people-of-the-land have no control over, such as melting glaciers. One response has been to replace the old people-vs-nature polarity with another dominant theme from the past -- rich vs poor. And this theme has its own set of contradictions which were evident at the Peoples' World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth's Rights, including rejections of proposals whereby rich countries might off-set their carbon emissions with payments for avoided deforestation in developing countries (REDD).
The tendency remains to see future possibilities as zero-sum or win-lose because that's the way it's been and continues to be. Naomi Klein has an excellent report of the challenges. initiatives and visions put forth at Cochabamba. Chief among them is the vision that a more democratic approach may offer the process to break the logjam that gave the world the failures of COP-15.
In Copenhagen, leaders of endangered nations like Bolivia and Tuvalu argued passionately for the kind of deep emissions cuts that could avert catastrophe. They were politely told that the political will in the north just wasn't there.
More than that, the United States made clear that it didn't need small countries like Bolivia to be part of a climate solution. It would negotiate a deal with other heavy emitters behind closed doors, and the rest of the world would be informed of the results and invited to sign on, which is precisely what happened with the Copenhagen accord.
When Bolivia and Ecuador refused to rubberstamp the accord, the US government cut their climate aid by $3m and $2.5m respectively. "It's not a freerider process," explained US climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing. (Anyone wondering why activists from the global south reject the idea of "climate aid" and are instead demanding repayment of "climate debts" has their answer here.)
Pershing's message was chilling: if you are poor, you don't have the right to prioritise your own survival. When Morales invited "social movements and Mother Earth's defenders … scientists, academics, lawyers and governments" to Cochabamba for a new kind of climate summit, it was a revolt against this experience of helplessness, an attempt to build a base of power behind the right to survive.
The Bolivian government got the ball rolling by proposing four big ideas: that nature should be granted rights that protect ecosystems from annihilation (a "universal declaration of Mother Earth rights"); that those who violate those rights and other international environmental agreements should face legal consequences (a "climate justice tribunal"); that poor countries should receive various forms of compensation for a crisis they are facing but had little role in creating ("climate debt"); and that there should be a mechanism for people around the world to express their views on these topics ("world people's referendum on climate change").
Democracy as a crisis response surely has its detractors. Recently James Lovelock, co-creator of the Gaia Hypothesis and climate visionary, was interviewed by Leo Hickman in the Guardian:
It is obvious, both from talking to Lovelock and reading his work, particularly his most recent books, that he doesn't have the highest opinion of mankind's capabilities to see the long game and act accordingly.
"I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle as complex a situation as climate change," he responds, when asked whether we are up to the task as a species of tackling climate change. "We're very active animals. We like to think, 'Ah yes, this will be a good policy,' but it's almost never that simple. Wars show this to be true. People are very certain they are fighting a just cause, but it doesn't always work out like that. Climate change is kind of a repetition of a wartime situation. It could quite easily lead to a physical war."
Hopelessness is a response, one senses, never far from a Lovelock audience. He is not one to toss around crumbs of comfort when he believes they're not justified, and displays a great deal of contempt for what he believes to be the naive idealism and ideologies of much of the current environmental movement – a significant proportion of which still looks up to him with a certain reverence. For example, it was his high-profile switch a few years ago to promoting nuclear energy as the best hope for saving ourselves that helped convince many environmentalists to rethink their instinctive opposition to this technology. Now, he says, he is not convinced that any meaningful response to "global heating", as he likes to call it, can be achieved from within the modern democracies of the western world.
"We need a more authoritative world," he says resolutely. "We've become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say. It's all very well, but there are certain circumstances – a war is a typical example – where you can't do that. You've got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running it. They should be very accountable too, of course – but it can't happen in a modern democracy. This is one of the problems.
"What's the alternative to democracy? There isn't one. But even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold.
His views on carbon emissions trading, as is being touted by the EU and others, are equally dismissive: "I don't know enough about carbon trading, but I suspect that it is basically a scam. The whole thing is not very sensible. We have this crazy idea that we are setting an example to the world. What we're doing is trying to make money out of the world by selling them renewable gadgetry and green ideas.
But Lovelock is not a bundle of total despair. In an earlier interview with NEW SCIENTIST magazine he was asked:
So are we doomed?
There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste - which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering - into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.
Would it make enough of a difference?
Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit.
The best part of a biochar strategy is that farmers and gardeners of every type -- rich and poor, large and small, technologically advanced and simple -- can do it.
So, maybe a people of the land reconnected with ancient indigenous wisdom approach does hold the secret to our most promising future. When stripped of political ideologies and posturing, the reconnection of people to land, to indigenous wisdom, and to each other was the most intriguing and deeper theme of the People's World Climate Conference.
Do we dare say, YES WE CAN?
Surfing the Internet yesterday in search of an Earth Day message, I kept returning to the news of the oil rig burning off the Louisiana coast. The visuals are stunning and poignant -- a tragedy for nature and for the injured and lost workers. Now comes damage control to contain the spill of pollution and then to contain the spill of politics. Probably there will be a search for who to blame and then the lawsuits. But our never-ending quest for energy forms that are expensive only to nature and the vulnerable to fuel unending material development truly implicates everyone. The message, beyond the blame, is, I believe, that we've got to ask "how much is enough?" and find better routes toward good and fulfilling lives.
Here is this morning's update from CNN and speculations as to what might come next (a major spill?) from the NY Times. Mega-energy systems seem generally to contain embedded disasters, accidents waiting to happen. For the good of all, let's hope that this one can be contained.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
The all-time top 40 nature photos selected by the International League of Conservation Photographers:
Click on any photo for details.
[UPDATE April 24: The Christie Green Auction of prints of these photos raised USD1.3 million for environment non-profits.]
How were these 40 chosen? The ILCP explains the process:
The exercise of selecting the Top Forty Nature Photographs of all time in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day is both an honor and a tremendous challenge. It may not be possible to for anyone to create a definitive selection of the forty “best” or “most important” nature photographs, if only due to the vast variety of criteria that must be considered. We decided to try anyway.
The International League of Conservation Photographers, a fellowship of the top professional conservation photographers working today, was recruited to nominate nature photographs that the member photographers considered to be “the best,” in whatever way they chose to define it. They were encouraged, however, to consider factors such as aesthetics, uniqueness, historical and scientific significance, or contribution to conservation efforts. The photographers were not permitted to self-nominate.
The Top Forty nominations, which represent a diverse spectrum of styles and genres and span over 100 years of the history of photography, are presented here. We hope you enjoy them, and that you will express your thoughts about the images that have meaning for you in each image's "comments" section at ILCP top 40 Flickr set.
Christies, the famous and fabulous art auction house, is holding their Inaugural "Green Auction" for these prints with benefits going to support Conservation International, Oceana, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Central Park Conservancy.
More info on the Earth Day auction is here.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
[AND OFF AGAIN UPDATE: Brasilia, April, 20 - AP - The bidding had been suspended for a second time late Monday, but the Brazilian government appealed and the auction started as planned. A winner was selected, but the result was not announced because of the new court ruling in favor of the Amigos da Terra environmental organization.
Opponents organized protests across Brazil on Tuesday to condemn the project. Amazon Watch, a San Francisco-based group that works to protect the rain forest and the indigenous people living there, said thousands of people are engaging in coordinated protests in nine cities, including in Altamira, which would be partially flooded by the Belo Monte reservoir.
The group said boats full of indigenous people began arriving to establish a permanent village to block the dam's construction.]
SAO PAULO, April 19 (Reuters) - "Brazil's electric energy agency Aneel said late on Monday it had suspended the auction of the 11,000 megawatt Belo Monte hydroelectric dam that was scheduled for midday (1500 GMT) on Tuesday."
"Brazil's attorney general is appealing the injunction. In the past, it has been common for the government to overturn injunctions just minutes before large, politically sensitive tenders or privatizations of state assets."
Sunday, April 18, 2010
On, Off, On... Friends and Foes Regroup over Brazil's Belo Monte Power Plant
Written by Sabrina Craide
Saturday, 17 April 2010 18:56
Wednesday, April 14, a federal judge in Altamira, Pará, issued an injunction halting the auction scheduled for April 20 to award construction contracts for the Belo Monte dam and power plant. The judge also revoked the environmental license that was issued by the Environmental Protection Institute (Ibama).
The next day, the institute's licensing director, Pedro Alberto Bignelli, declared that the construction will not have a direct impact on indigenous peoples in the region, contrary to what the judge, Antonio Carlos Almeida Campelo, said in his ruling.
Bignelli and Campelo are disputing whether or not Belo Monte infringes article 176 of the Brazilian constitution, which states that each time water resources in indigenous lands are used, specific legislation is required.
The judge, Campelo, says article 176 is pertinent. Bignelli says it is irrelevant as there is no "direct impact on indigenous peoples," only indirect impacts that are exactly what the license deals with by establishing the need for 40 environmentally-friendly preparatory tasks before the actual construction begins.
The government legal office (Advocacia Geral da União - AGU) filed a countersuit seeking to annul the injunction that suspended the auction and license.
On Friday, Brazil's National Agency of Electrical Energy (Aneel) issued a statement announcing that the auction for the construction of Belo Monte's hydroelectric would be held as scheduled. Thanks to a decision by the Federal Regional Court (TRF), which overturned the injunction blocking the auction.
At the same time, a former president of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), Mércio Gomes, has gone public attacking Belo Monte. According to Gomes, the project for the dam is a mess and will "profoundly" affect around a thousand Indians in the Arara, Juruna and Xikrin ethnic groups, not to mention riverside inhabitants.
Gomes explained that during the dry season the dam will reduce the flow of the river to the point where it will make boat traffic impossible. Lower river levels will also result in the proliferation of algae that will mean fewer fish and more diseases, such as malaria.
"The ecology of the whole region will be deeply affected," declared Gomes, who is now a professor of anthropology at a federal university in Rio de Janeiro.
Canadian filmmaker James Cameron never made a secret of the fact that the inspiration for Pandora, the fictitious, paradisiacal location of Avatar, was a tropical rainforest (although the movie was made in New Zealand).
To make amends, last month Cameron was in the Brazilian tropical rainforest, visiting the city of Manaus during the International Forum on Sustainability. At that time, the governor of the state of Amazonas, Eduardo Braga, revealed that he and Cameron discussed filming a sequel to Avatar (to be called Avatar 2 - surprise!) in the Brazilian Amazon.
According to Braga, Cameron had mentioned filming in the jungle in Venezuela. "Why not here in our jungle?" thought the governor. So, he started asking about the possibility. "We are talking, negotiating. I have even spoken to Al Gore about this. Who knows, suddenly we may be filming Avatar 2 right here," declared Braga.
Last week, Cameron was back in Brazil, this time in the jungle on the Xingu River near the site of the proposed hydroelectric power plant and dam known as Belo Monte. This time, in the company of Indians who stand to see their land and culture washed away behind the dam,
James Cameron was wearing a brightly colored indigenous headpiece and war paint on his face and he declared that the construction of Belo Monte (construction contracts are scheduled to be awarded on April 20) looked pretty much like what happened in his movie: a battle between natural innocence and civilized greed.
Belo Monte will be the third largest hydroelectric power plant in the world and will be located right smack in the jungle. Unfortunately right smack on top of indigenous groups as well. It is a very controversial project.
Opponents point out that it may dry up over 100 kilometers of the Xingu River. And there is the possibility that, due to seasonal variations, the power plant may actually generate at maximum capacity (11,233 MW) for only a few months each year, during the rainy season. But during the dry season may generate as little as 700 MW.
Brazil faces an energy dilemma. Electricity demand has just passed what it was before the international financial crisis. GDP growth this year and for the next few years is forecast to come in somewhere above 4% (maybe even more). Which means rising demand.
There are plans for the construction of thirteen new dams in the pipeline, waiting for environmental licenses and other bureaucratic procedures (procedures president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has angrily complained about).
In the past, Brazil has made up for temporary energy shortfalls with old, dirty, expensive thermoelectric power plants. It does not want to continue doing that - certainly not on a permanent basis. Brazil needs more energy soon - without a lot of delays.
Which brings up another problem at Belo Monte: if it is to be built, construction has to begin during the rainy season. The rainy season is fast coming to an end so if the work does not start soon it will have to wait until at least the end of this year.
And then, of course, there are a lot of people who just do not want to see it built at all. They came out in force on Monday, April 12, in Brasília and marched to the Ministry of Mines and Energy.
As promised, James Cameron was there, along with some of the human stars in his Avatar: Sigourney Weaver and Joel David Moore. There were also Brazilians from the artistic world, indigenous groups and civic organizations.
They all signed a petition that claimed: "The construction of Belo Monte would mean death to the river, the people and the forest."
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on the other hand, once again criticized opposition to Belo Monte. Lula said the construction project complied with environmental regulations and that international NGOs were wrong to oppose the power plant.
"I see that a whole bunch of NGOs from all over the world are renting boats so they can go up to Belém and stop the construction of the dam. Well, I want to make it clear that no one is more concerned with taking care of the Amazon and our Indians than we are," said the president.
"You know, these are people from countries that have already destroyed all their forests and now they come down here and meddle in our affairs because they think they know what is best for us."
Lula went on to point out that the present project for the Belo Monte dam reduced the size of the reservoir by two-thirds. "Obviously the project has been modified. The lake is only a third of what it was and that is exactly so we can guarantee that all the environmental protection rules have been obeyed."
More from the NY Times
Cameron says knowing the history of displacing the Lakotas in the US and its consequences is a big part of his motivation..
Thursday, April 15, 2010
A Brazilian judge has halted public bidding on contracts to build the Belo Monte dam. This is a big victory in that it shows what a coalition of indigenous peoples, environmentalists and celebrities like James Cameron can achieve. And it's small because it's only a delay and everyone will have to return for the next rounds, again and again.
The standard problem is that while the enviros, Indians and their allies must return to the same battle or defend endlessly the victories of preservation, when the mega-developers or deforesters get their way it's permanent.
We can only expect the pressure to worsen in the next decades as both economic development and population produce accelerated impacts. This is why it is terribly important to discover a new and sustainable approach for the 21st Century. This quest is the big struggle and we have already entered the battlefield.
[UPDATE April 16, 2010: BRAZIL -- A judge on Friday overturned a decision that could have delayed construction of a huge Amazon dam opposed by environmentalists, Indians and the director of Avatar. The judge reversed a decision to suspend contract bidding scheduled for next week and also overturned the suspension of the environmental license for the 11,000-megawatt Belo Monte dam. Federal prosecutors said an appeal would be filed. James Cameron, director of the blockbuster movie, asserted that government pressure played a role in the quick court reversal. -- The Associated Press]
"Awe-inspiring" says David Pescovitz at boingboing: "German guitarist Joscho Stephan is perhaps the world's greatest living Gypsy jazz guitarist. When my friend Marina Gorbis turned me on to him this morning, I asked if she thinks he may even be better than the Gypsy legend himself, Django Reinhardt. "Well, Stephan can use all his fingers," she said. Fair enough. The other guys in the clip aren't bad either. Joscho Stephan"
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World
"There is no one solution to the problem of war. But biology suggests — and quantitative studies support — the notion that if testosterone is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, then the birth control pill may be the ultimate prescription for peace."
The provocative work of Hayden and Potts is attracting lots of web attention. Here's an excellent Shambhala SunSpace interview and a fascinating video with Hayden and Potts.
And now an article via Truthout
Make Birth Control, Not War
Monday 12 April 2010
by: Thomas Hayden and Malcolm Potts
The human tendency toward war is based on biology, but the right family planning policies can redirect the world toward peace.
Close your eyes for a moment and cast your mind back to the dominant news stories of early 2010. The economy in tatters? Certainly. Global stalemate on climate negotiations and unbreakable gridlock in Congress? Of course. And don't forget the terror — on Christmas Eve, 2009, a lone Nigerian man boards an airplane in Lagos and travels some 18 hours toward Detroit in what can only have been a dizzying combination of anxiety, fear and elation, and a grandiose sense of his own destiny. It all ends with a little ineffectual fumbling in the underpants, cut short by the heroism of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's fellow passengers.
The official response to the underwear bomber reveals the usual inability of large bureaucracies to connect the dots or take meaningful action on real threats. Instead of understanding and reassessment, we get yet another late, inappropriate and costly escalation in airport security and political infighting about the treatment of Abdulmutallab — all of it embedded in an unacknowledged but resolute refusal to see the bigger picture.
Meanwhile, the real killing continues to elude the headlines. It is on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in Afghanistan's Helmand Province where allied Western soldiers struggle with the almost impossible task of attacking the Taliban without killing civilians. It is in Darfur and the Congo, where death tolls are in the millions, not the thousands, and it is in Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims meet. Here is primeval warfare in full abundance, where bands of men are knit together by ancient bonds of shared violence. They are motivated to kill their neighbors systematically and deliberately, not just by lust for land and resources but also by hatred of the "other" and a too-seldom acknowledged love of war and warring ways. It is in these places, and scores of others where the violence simmers just below the surface, that people live close to one of the darkest realities of human nature.
Humans — human males, really — are not peaceful animals. They are in fact a spectacularly violent species, and very nearly uniquely so. Despite high-minded modern wishes and the received wisdom of three generations of anthropologists and sociologists, warfare is not an aberration in human development, nor is it a learned, culturally determined behavior. War and its ancillary behaviors — including racism, slavery, mass rape and the subjugation of women — are not cultural problems and thus do not have neat, sociological solutions. Along with terrorism, these most destructive of human behaviors derive clearly and directly from our biology, bequeathed to us by an evolutionary pathway that we share with just one other extant species, the chimpanzees.
War, simply put, is in our genes. It is a complex behavior built up out of a series of emotions and impulses that are, in general, expressed more in men than in women, and more in young men than in old. It arose early in our evolutionary history because the most violent of our pre-human male ancestors had more offspring than their more peaceful or timid competitors; it has been with us as long as we have been a species and in all probability will be with us as long as we remain one. Our warlike impulses cannot be stopped with enhanced airport imaging, extrajudicial treatment of terrorism suspects or any attempt at a literal "war on terror."
From biology, medicine, history, literature, political theory, sociology and evolutionary psychology, a clear picture emerges: War is a biological behavior. As robust science demonstrates — and common sense and the experience of warriors around the world and throughout history attest — war is part of the human condition. But does this mean that war is inevitable and peace an unattainable dream?
Emphatically, and demonstrably, no. Most of the world, despite economic challenges, is remarkably peaceful, and as improbable as it seems, the past century has actually been the most peaceful in known human history. The last soldiers who experienced the horrors of trench warfare in France have died, the guns are silent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the leaders of Pakistan and India are trying to talk to one another. The Vikings, who once personified the merciless terror of war for an entire continent, have become the Scandinavians, as resolute as anyone in the quest for tolerance at home, and peace and openness around the world.
Crucially, war's deep roots in our evolutionary past do not condemn us to a future as filled with warfare as our history has been. On the contrary, recognizing and accepting the centrality of war in human nature sheds new light on real, practicable policy prescriptions that can help make war less common in the future and less brutal when it does occur. Humans are complex, adaptable animals. And all genes, behavioral or not, are influenced by their environments. If humans truly want peace, they must seek to understand the biology of war and use that understanding to devise policies — chief among them, improved access to family planning services that can control some demographic drivers of war — so as to help the biology of peace win out.
The idea that warlike violence is not innate actually arose just recently. It can be traced back to Rousseau, and found full-throated proponents in Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ashley Montagu and other post-World War I anthropologists. Understandably shocked by the horrors of trench warfare and poison gas, these generally clear-minded academics sought evidence to distance humankind from such barbarism, and they found it — or so they thought — in an updated notion of the Noble Savage and the idea that civilization represents a fall from some earlier state of grace. But archaeologists such as Steven LeBlanc of Harvard and Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois at Chicago have found supposedly peaceful societies riddled with violence. Careful investigation reveals histories of murder and long-standing, pervasive and brutally lethal warfare in Mead's Pacific Islanders, the Copper River Inuit, the !Kung people of the Kalahari and many other purportedly "peaceful" societies. As LeBlanc writes in his clarifying 2003 book, Constant Battles, "Prehistoric warfare was common and deadly, and no time span or geographic region seems to have been immune."
Remarkably, the idea that violence and warfare are the fault of culture, not biology, remains widespread in academic circles. As recently as 1986, 20 international scholars drafted the Seville Statement on Violence at a UNESCO meeting asserting that, among other things, "It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature." Several scientific associations, including the American associations of psychology, of anthropology and of sociology, voted to endorse the Seville Statement. But true science proceeds by observation, experiment and debate, and not by endorsing written statements. And the evidence — which we examined fully in our recent book, Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World — reveals a very different story.
In 2009, fossil hunters in Ethiopia found "Ardi," a nearly complete skeleton of a 4.4 million-year-old ape with a brain slightly larger than that of a chimpanzee. She lived in an open savannah and walked upright, even though she still had an opposable toe, as chimps do, to climb trees. Identified as Ardipithecus ramidus, like other fossils such as the famous "Lucy," Ardi is not a "missing link" in the sense of a literal ancestor, but a cousin, a nearby branch on the tree of human evolution. Yet all the apes have a common ancestor, and Ardi is almost certainly descended from the branch of the ape family that gave rise to chimps and humans. We suggest that this chimp-human ancestor lived in small bands of related males who controlled a defined territory — just as do chimpanzees and virtually every hunter-gatherer society ever studied. And we suggest that war began when those ancestral males first banded together and, as present-day chimpanzees and more recent hunter-gatherers still do, left their territory, found a member of another troop and set about killing it in the most vicious way possible.
At its most basic, we define war as a form of organized violence in which groups of males band together and intentionally set out to kill members of their own species. Many species are violent, of course, and may appear to enjoy hunting and killing "for sport," as humans do. Quite a few predators hunt and kill in packs or coordinated teams. But it is exceedingly rare that they should intentionally hunt and kill members of their own species, as opposed to the occasional and largely accidental deaths that result from male mating competitions. Wolves may do so on occasion, and hyenas, and perhaps one or two other species. But when it comes to warring behavior as a regular, integral part of life, no species come close to human beings and chimpanzees. Taken with the reality that war has been a constant feature of human behavior around the world and throughout time, this commonality of humans and the chimps suggests very strongly that war is an inherited behavior that first evolved in a common ancestor we shared more than 7 million years ago.
So how did war first evolve? As Jane Goodall, Richard Wrangham and others have shown, we share with chimps, our closest living biological relatives, the bizarre propensity to attack and kill others of our own species. Chimpanzees live, as humans did for the vast majority of evolutionary time, in male-dominated social groups in which the males are all blood relatives and only females move between troops. The dominant males largely monopolize mating opportunities and take the best food and other resources. Younger males are left either to work their way up the in-group hierarchy or attempt surreptitious matings with females of their own troop or others — high-stakes strategies that often end in a beating or worse. But, in a unique evolutionary innovation, these young males can also band together and launch attacks on isolated members of neighboring out-groups, ultimately eliminating these "enemies" and securing the territory, resources and females they require to survive and pass on their genes.
Today, we see remarkably similar patterns of territorial raiding, brutal attacks and, ultimately, campaigns of extermination in both humans and chimpanzees. Just as the most successfully violent alpha male chimpanzees have more mates and more offspring than the losers, genetic surveys show that the great human warriors of history have left outsized impacts on the human gene pool. One study published in 2003 estimated that Genghis Khan has 16 million living descendants worldwide. It takes little imagination to see the evolutionary benefit of warfare to Khan and his cohorts, and it leads to the uncomfortable realization that we are all, by definition, the descendants of the victors in conflicts over resources, territory and the right to mate.
We are all descended, in other words, from particularly successful rapists, murderers and brigands. Human males today bear the marks of this legacy in the behaviors and impulses that still spur us on to lethal conflict — including the widespread and devastating association between war and rape — even when other solutions are both available and preferable.
There is no doubt that other apes, like people, can be empathetic. They will help one another or slow down a march so a sick or wounded animal can catch up. In her important 2009 book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of University of California, Davis, underscores the ability of human mothers to assist one another in the long, arduous task of raising children. How can such intensely social, empathic animals also kill other members of their own species? We postulate that the key that unlocked the full fury of war was an evolved psychological mechanism that allows us to dehumanize (or "dechimpanzize") those we would attack. Tragically, human history is replete with episodes of dehumanizing behavior.
A famous Stanford prison experiment shows that nice young students randomly assigned in a psychology experiment to be "prison guards" will adopt and exploit these roles in a couple of days and emotionally abuse people randomly assigned to play the role of "prisoners." The study lasted only a few days, but the behavior was little different from that of American soldiers in Abu Ghraib abusing Iraqi prisoners. Dehumanizing our enemies is not an aberration — it is default human behavior. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, reporting from the Congo, recently described a woman who, while she was being raped by soldiers, screamed to warn her neighbors. In revenge, her assailants cut off one leg with a machete, cooked the meat and ate it while the woman almost bled to death and her children looked on. When they tried to force her child to eat her mother's flesh, he refused, saying "shoot me." They did. Seemingly, the human ability to dehumanize others knows no limits — and most certainly has not disappeared from our shared evolutionary repertoire.
We go into more detail on the potential mechanisms for our evolved ability to dehumanize and kill our fellow humans in our book. But for a flavor of those root causes, let us suggest that the male sex hormone, testosterone, is in some ways the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Testosterone levels are highest in men aged 19 to 30, a span that tracks closely the age distribution of convictions for violent crimes. Testosterone levels rise not just among men playing team sports but also their fans — and one need look no further than the passionate partisanship of team sports to see the "in-group" versus "out-group" dynamic that underlies both the camaraderie and cruelty of warfare. Women also secrete testosterone, but at about one-tenth the male level. Intriguingly, women's testosterone output does not change in response to competition.
In 2008, the world suffered the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. Like war, the global financial crisis had many specific and technical causes. But it was ultimately driven, in the words of one financial adviser in the City of London, by "a lot of alpha males with testosterone streaming out of their ears." This apparently flippant remark was actually an insightful analysis of the global crisis. Evolutionary psychologists Coren Apicella from Harvard and colleagues found that men with high testosterone levels make riskier investments, and others have observed that women make better investment managers over the long term than do men. The multimillion-dollar bonuses Wall Street bankers pay themselves, which for good reason infuriate the rest of society, can be best understood as a (predominantly male) troop displaying intense internal loyalty and total blindness to the outside world.
Six months after the publication of Sex and War, we were comforted to read two papers in Science. Two separate studies — Samuel Bowles writing one, and Adam Powell, Stephan Shennan and Mark Thomas the other — used different methodologies from ours but came to the conclusions we had.
Bowles, an economist and behavioral scientist who studies altruistic behavior, used a computer model of between-group competition together with a database of archaeological and ethnographic rates of adult mortality from warfare. His study supports the notion of "parochial altruism," in which humans developed the ability to be altruistic within an in-group, however defined, and callously violent to those outside it. In fact, Bowles' work suggests that the human compassion and altruism most people value today was made possible by the existence of warfare — that cooperation for both defense and offense within the group allowed the most successfully violent of our ancestors to flourish.
Powell and his co-authors focus on the evolution of technological and cultural complexity, as evidenced by the appearance of art, sophisticated tools — including such potential weapons as bows, boomerangs and spear-throwers — and long-distance trade. Their main purpose is to explain patterns of "modern" behavior in Africa and Eurasia. But in the process, they show convincingly that population growth and other demographic features may hold the key to some of our most complex behaviors.
Each particular war and battle has its own history and specific sets of grievances, turning points and precipitating triggers and personalities. But there is also a set of factors — social, political and environmental — that many wars and violent conflicts have in common. In fact, these shared characteristics are so common that statistical modeling of social, economic and environmental conditions can result in stunningly accurate predictions of armed conflict and unrest.
Briefly, the factors that seem most likely to increase the probability of open war or armed conflict include:
* Environmental stress and/or resource limitation.
* Extreme economic disparity within or between groups and lack of
opportunities, especially for young men.
* Subjugation of women and a culture of male dominance.
* A high proportion of young males relative to older males.
All of these factors interact in one way or another with the warlike biology of the human male, and each is influenced quite directly by population growth rate, and as a result, population age structure or the relative ratios of young to old in a society.
We argue in Sex and War that our warring behaviors are essentially a hangover from our evolutionary past. It also seems clear that these behaviors have been rendered wildly maladaptive in the dual modern contexts of stable societies with social norms that condemn wild warring on the one hand and allow weapons of mass destruction on the other. (With simple technology, the impulses of war can kill hundreds or thousands; with nuclear and biological weapons, they can potentially kill us all.)
But the problem with evolved traits is that they neither know nor care when they're no longer wanted. And as catastrophically troublesome as our warrior genes often are today, the conditions in which they rose to prominence also persist. Our prescription for a more peaceful future follows directly from that observation: To limit the damage from unchecked warfare, humanity must understand and limit the physical, cultural and demographic conditions that make it most likely to occur.
War is the ultimate zero-sum game. Whether one side or another wins, and no matter what short-term economic stimulation comes to pass, war represents a squandering of resources and the greatest imaginable waste of human effort, ingenuity and life. We cannot argue that wars are never justifiable or necessary. But whatever utility this unique set of behaviors once had, human culture and morality have moved beyond the point where wars of extermination are acceptable, and killing technologies have become far too deadly, and indiscriminately so, for our warring impulses to be given free rein.
But can humans change? The answer, thank goodness, is that we can — and in fact we already have. As mentioned earlier, the 20th century was more peaceful than any other, both in terms of the number of people directly involved in warfare and in the percentage of adult males dying in armed conflict. As just one example, the Soviet Union suffered the greatest casualties of World War II — perhaps 15 million died, representing 8 percent of the population. As unimaginably horrific as those losses were, they are small compared to violent death rates in hunter-gatherer societies. Among the hunter-gatherers of New Guinea, studies show, from 5 to 30 percent of adults typically die from raids and wars; in the Yanomamo of the northern Amazon basin, a staggering four out of 10 adults have participated in killing another person and 20 percent of people over 40 have lost a parent, child or sibling to violence.
Just as there are many factors that initiate wars, there are also many factors that can in theory be tweaked or refined to make war less likely. The clarifying lens of biology helps show that one factor influences them all: The population growth rate turns out to be a crucial component in the biology of war, for reasons both direct and indirect.
Foremost, growing populations are young populations, and young men are the true engines of war. They provide the recklessness and bravery, the intense inward loyalty and outward hostility, and the other raw behavioral "material" that can be shaped easily into small, tightly bonded fighting units, which in turn can be built up into armies of millions with each soldier still fighting, ultimately, for the men at his side. At the same time, women in rapidly growing populations are women spending a great deal of time having and raising children — and not, usually, taking an equal role in politics at any level outside the home. Careful statistical studies show that the probability of violent conflict increases as the ratio of young men in a society rises above that of older men, and that the probability of war falls as the percentage of women involved in local politics rises.
More tangentially, growing populations stress their environments and lead to competition for increasingly scarce natural resources. The link between environmental instability and violent conflict is made frighteningly clear in a 2009 study by researchers at Stanford University, New York University, Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. Extrapolating from historical correlations of temperature rise and increased armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers project that expected climate change alone could spur a 60 percent increase in armed conflicts by 2030. That projection, if it came true, would translate to an additional 459,000 deaths from war in just two decades, and that is without taking population growth into account — in the fastest-growing region of the world.
Growing populations, especially in poorer areas, also tend to overburden existing infrastructure and outstrip the available employment. This leads to high operating costs for businesses and lost opportunities for individuals. Educational opportunities are lost for the same reasons, and in many cultures, it is girls who lose out first when education is rationed.
There is no one solution to the problem of war. But biology suggests — and quantitative studies support — the notion that if testosterone is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, then the birth control pill may be the ultimate prescription for peace.
It is sobering to think of how many millions of our forebears died of sword and siege and famine, but it is also heartening to realize that humans have already found many ways to rein in our most violent impulses. In light of the true, root, biological causes of warfare, it becomes obvious that there is much more humans can and should be doing now.
Let's look again at some of the main predictors of war in the light of one particularly well-known conflict, the alternating battles and standoffs between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Young men, in general, are motivated to fight for resources, or in revenge for those killed, or because they feel a sense of injustice, and those emotional cues surely help motivate young Palestinians to risk their lives firing rockets at Israel, or to become suicide bombers on Israeli streets. Israel's desire to stop such attacks is understandable.
Interestingly, the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat showed very clearly what it takes to truly stop terrorism. In 1972, the terrorist group Black September, based in Beirut, gained world attention by killing Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. But Arafat had his eye on the possibility of gaining observer status at the United Nations. Afraid Black September might launch more high-profile raids and undermine his U.N. ambitions, the PLO flew eligible young female volunteers to Beirut and offered militant members of Black September $3,000, an apartment with a TV, long-term employment and $5,000 if they married and had a child. The offer was overwhelmingly accepted, and Black September as a terrorist movement collapsed almost overnight.
Since the Six-Day War in 1967, the population of the Occupied Palestinian Territory has grown from just over 1 million to 3.9 million. The average woman there has about five children, and the U.N. estimates that by 2050 the Palestinian population could reach a mind-boggling 8.8 million to 11.8 million. Two-thirds of the current population is under age 25, giving rise to an unemployed, volatile, testosterone-fueled group of young men — an endless source of terrorists. Adding to their frustrations, and their motivation to lash out, Arab society discourages premarital sex, and unemployed men don't have the resources needed to marry.
The world is not going to pay young Palestinians to marry. But we do have options. Gaza has few jobs and virtually no natural resources. Already, Palestinians pull more water out of the ground than falls from the sky, and their drinking water is increasingly saline. Palestinians also have a strong entrepreneurial tradition, however, and, like Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s, could build a future in their overcrowded space by living by their brains. Israel may understandably want to build a wall around Gaza, but without the free flow of goods, capital and ideas — and education at all levels for both sexes — the problem of Palestinian terrorism will get worse, not better.
In the early 1990s, one of us spent time in Gaza working with an Arab colleague to develop family planning services. Palestinian women wanted help from the international community, but no government or donor would provide the modest support needed to improve access to family planning. That opportunity to improve the lot of Gazans was lost, and the situation has deteriorated to the point where today's radical Palestinians claim, "the Palestinian womb is the one weapon that Palestinians have." In a tragic sense, they are right. But as a strategy for building a better future, rapid population growth could not be more wrong.
There is a popular notion that education and rising economic fortunes lead to decreasing family size. We argue elsewhere that, conversely, decreased family size is actually a prerequisite for economic growth and social stability. We suggest that the cases of China, South Korea and Thailand, and even post-revolution Iran, present particularly powerful examples. In each of these cases, governments realized early on that rapid population growth threatened their continued peace, stability and prosperity. In China by coercive means, and more by top-down social consensus building in South Korea, Thailand and Iran, these countries were able to slow population growth rates dramatically, and each has had a more prosperous-than-expected outcome as a result.
Other problems persist of course. But even in Iran, with its incongruously antagonistic government and truncated economy, the benefits of slowing population growth are plain to see. There are now more women in the University of Tehran than men, and while Iran's chaotic president may support terrorist groups, young Iranians are not strapping on explosive vests and killing people — they are marching peacefully in the streets demanding more openness, democracy and peace.
In his 2009 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Barack Obama noted, quite correctly, that "security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family." He did not, however, mention his single most significant contribution to world peace to date: reversing the Bush-era policy of refusing U.S. development funds to any agency supporting the availability of family planning. And it doesn't matter whether the goal is specifically to build peace — that result will come if the policies succeed and women in the most impoverished areas of the world are simply able to determine their own family size.
We have argued that offering women a range of family planning is always associated with falling family size. This assertion has recently been validated by the analysis of what might be called a natural experiment. In Kenya between 1970 and the early 1990s, considerable emphasis was put on improving access to family planning, and average family size fell from 8 to 5. But then the focus was taken off of family planning, and health professionals migrated to work on the AIDS epidemic.
Kenya's fertility decline stalled as contraceptive use fell, and unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions increased dramatically. In 1990, it was estimated that the population of Kenya would grow from 23.5 million then to 54 million in 2050. As a result of the stalled fertility decline, today's estimate for 2050 population has been raised to 83 million. Already, the ethnic violence following the disputed presidential election of December 2007 has undermined generations of peaceful coexistence and friendship within Kenya; population increases of this magnitude could well turn Kenya into a failed state like its neighbor, Somalia. If population growth is not slowed again in Kenya, the results will be as horrifying as they are avoidable: Ethnic violence related to diminished access to resources will increase, and a once shining light for stability and prosperity in Africa will have been snuffed out for generations because of the lack of attention to family planning over the past 15 years.
In fact, we have just come through a "lost decade" of family planning — and by extension, a lost decade for building peace in the world. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East, this lost emphasis on both domestic and international family planning programs is already having tragic consequences. The latest research shows that a "contraception gap" between rich and poor — already a common phenomenon around the world — is widening in those countries where the poor are already most vulnerable. (The wealthy have always been more able to find ways to separate sex from reproduction.) As the unmet demand for family planning continues to rise throughout the most impoverished nations, so too will the disparities in family size between rich and poor. Inevitably and as a direct consequence, the inequalities in education, health, employment and income will also continue to widen, infrastructure will continue to crumble, and the risk of food insecurity, environmental catastrophe and devastating warfare will continue to rise.
Ultimately, the decision to support family planning efforts comes down to making a moral choice. The profound success of humanitarian aid efforts and improved nutrition and health care for many in the developing world is greatly to be admired and celebrated. But in decreasing infant mortality, we have engendered a grim unintended consequence — millions of women throughout the developing world are now able to bear healthy children safely, but have no access to safe and effective contraception.
A prominent evolutionary biologist recently shared with one of us his recent realization that when it comes to vaccination and other means of preventing tropical illness, "to provide these measures without providing family planning assistance is tantamount to homicide/genocide." As important as it obviously is to work for greater health and longer life, we could not agree more emphatically that to do so without also giving people the ability to determine family size is to condemn them to an increased likelihood of overpopulation, poverty and environmental degradation, as well as a dramatic and quantifiable increase in the likelihood of bloody conflict.
It is not just perverse and foolhardy from a national security standpoint to pursue policies that increase the likelihood of famine, unemployment and war; it is morally wicked, on a historically vast scale, to condemn untold hundreds of millions of fellow humans to longer lives of decreasing opportunity and increasing misery. This is, of course, not an argument against health care and hygiene throughout the developing world, and it is emphatically no brief for eugenics or forced or coercive abortion, sterilization or contraception.
It is, rather, the strongest possible argument for the immediate, universal provision of the means of family planning and maternal health care, so that women throughout the world can have the freedom to choose the family size that's best for them. Those individual choices, made freely and without coercion, will inevitably lead to more stability, peace and prosperity. If those millions of women are denied the means to choose for themselves, then choice will diminish for the rest of us. We will all have continued population increase, a devastated environment and the looming prospect of a future just as bloody and war-filled as our past.