Thursday, 14 April 2011

Renewable Energy Denialism

On a recent Riz Khan show two participants made their cases for and against renewable energy respectively. The 'against' participant has recently written a book dispelling what he terms the 'myth' of renewable energy and green options as a global conspiracy of lefties that are bent on destroying good old American pie no holds barred growth, in favour of an over-regulated, over-controlled economic order that is choked out of all freedom. It's all a myth that it creates more jobs than non-renewables he rails, citing that government subsidies actually underlies most of the jobs in renewable energy.

And so, there is nothing wrong with the global economic order, the global climate or the global monopoly of non-renewable fossil fuels companies that are integral to geopolitical stability precisely because growth as we know it is intimately dependent on the provision of cheap energy, high emission loads and the odd disaster here and there. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the recent nuclear disaster in Japan come to mind, yet he does not factor in the accounting of these disasters and the daily damage that is being done to global ecosystems worldwide, with devastating consequences for the future survival of mankind. UN Habitat has declared that 12 out of the 24 ecosystems that are critical for human survival are seriously degraded, and with a projected extra 2 billion people expected to be living on the planet by 2030 we are moving into a resource constrained world that cannot support the same type of growth that the world has undergone over the past 200 years i.e. growth that assumes limitless abundance of resources and an unlimited capacity for ecosystems to absorb waste and human expansion. Instead, we are being forced to negotiate the limits of our growth more deeply.

And there are large costs involved in using and producing fossil fuel energy - but these costs are externalised to the environment and the poorer countries and regions of the globe (such as Africa and Asia) where population growth will be greatest. They are not factored into the cost models of non-renewable energy sources. It is merely assumed that these costs do not exist at best, or they do not matter at worst. Yet they do matter, as rising sea surface temperatures and desertification, drought and natural disasters intensify, often in the poorest, most populous regions of the planet. And this 'myth' is itself core to the argument for non-renewable fossil fuel energy and nuclear energy sources, and for a very good reason. If we were to account for the damage that fossil fuels are directly responsible for in terms of ecosystem damage and loss of ecosystem services the costs rise exponentially so quickly that our brains are unable to handle them. That is, the costs are so large that they appear ridiculous - in the same way as astronomical numbers do ... they are too large for our small brains to comprehend, so we dismiss them using a sleight of mind - we pretend that because the values are so large that somehow the chances of these costs being realised are low. We try to unthink it away, so to speak - yet it is wishful thinking. There is no low probability chance of disaster associated with these numbers. To the contrary, we are already experiencing the horrors of conflict and war associated with declining resources such as water, arable land and grazing lands, and this will only intensify in the future that we face.

A similar example is how the 'small chance of catastrophic failure' in the global markets due to the creation of mind-bendingly perverse financial products such as sub-prime mortgages, was ignored outright, despite the many naysayers who raised their voices and opinions hoping to enforce more regulation in the sector. The chance of catastrophic failure was difficult to envisage during economic boom times, and the 'spoilers' were heckled for their lack of faith in the ability of markets to magically self-regulate themselves. Indeed, financiers and economists placed more faith in the ability of the market to regulate itself than most religious zealots could muster up for their religions in a lifetime, and when the collapse came the bankers who created the crisis were themselves the recipients of huge subsidies - drawn from tax-payers contributions - to save their 'too large to fail' businesses. That is, as explained by Raj Patel in 'The Value of Nothing' the benefits were commercialised while the costs were socialised. We subsidized the very same bankers who failed to maintain stability in the market and by 2009 they were again paying themselves huge bonuses, oblivious to the suffering and loss they created amongst homeowners (whose taxes weren't used to bail them out of debt, but rather the bankers). 

And so it is with non-renewable sources of energy - the real costs are externalised, that is; ecologised and then socialised ... and the real victims of fossil fuel use are so poor and their governments so dependent on aid that they have no recourse in the equation of global power. 

And it gets worse ... the pro-fossil fuel expert on the show went so far as to suggest that there was lots of oil still available in the Middle East, but that because they are not allowed full access to these regions they cannot tell for sure. Are you following this? Because I sure didn't. It sounds tautological to me, a bit of circular logic - there is lots of oil because nobody knows?? Go figure, the jury is still out on that kind of logic. He rounded that argument off by expounding the merits of mining shale for oil - celebrating the new ecologically devastating technological advances associated with 'fracking' as it is known. As I write there is a campaign to oppose a plan for 'fracking' in the ecologically unique Little Karoo, which it seems has not undergone a full and proper environmental assessment that was open to the public. 

Lastly, that a bunch of lefty-oriented greenies are somehow behind a global conspiracy to render our energy markets subject to a new socialist paradigm is a load of tripe. Really, how can a network of greenies who earn peanuts to do the jobs they do, often with precariously funded organisations, take on the globally hegemonic fossil fuels industry? It's truly a David and Goliath situation, and multinational energy companies have far more resources at their disposal to mount campaigns of disinformation and to buy up competing technologies. All the greenies have on their side is the ability to influence public opinion and thereby to force governments to adopt a clear stance on the needs of their citizens, present and future. Their mandate is to make governments think about the needs of future generations and whether our current rates of exploitation are sustainable. They hardly have the reach and means to fuel global conspiracies against the Goliaths of our time.

At a recent workshop I observed a discussion about why China has put 38% of its recovery package into green and renewable energy technology development. The answer would surprise most people. It is not just concerns over the environment that is driving China's direction. It is the need to position China to be a world leader in the next, already emerging wave of technological development i.e. technological innovation to cope with living in a resource constrained world under pressure from exponentially increasing global populations - most of whom will live in cities. Just as the semi-conductor revolution changed the world and created new markets, so too will the green technology and renewable energies revolution change the way we live and behave. Developing the skills and capacity to be at the forefront of this new wave of technological development is about more than just saving ecosystems, it is also about maintaining technological and trade dominance in the future. That is why China is putting such a large portion of its money into funding development in these sectors. Subsidizing jobs in the sector now will pay itself back many times over in the not-too-distant future. This is true of all emerging technologies that have become fundamental to the way we live, work and recreate. It is the role of governments and states to see this far into the future and prepare their nations for it - arguing that renewable energies need to be developed only in the current marketplace, without any assistance, is akin to arguing the same for nuclear energy, defence technology, the semi-conductor industry etc. They all received assistance from institutions in their conception and establishment, and it is no different for renewable energies.

The International Energy Agency announced in 2008 that the price of oil was not coming down. This is changing the economic 'feasibility' of non-renewable energies rapidly, and will continue to do so, even if you don't believe in ideas of 'oil peak' or 'coal peak'. The fact is that the costs of producing fossil fuel based energy is rising - even before we consider the costs that are externalised to the environment and society - and will continue to do so in the future. If we can make billions of dollars available at the drop of a hat to bail out bankers, and yet overlook the necessary requirements to survive the future we will bring about the collapse of civilisation as we know it. All things must adapt to survive, and so must we. Fossil fuels won't last forever, and we need to be able to adapt to much more concentrated and sizeable future societal needs if 'civilisation' as we know it is to survive intact. These needs will be exponentially greater than our current needs, and running at full steam now will compromise the ability of future generations to survive. A balanced approach towards energy is required. The common understanding of energy transitions is that historically they have occurred over long periods of time. However, if we look to the trend towards decentralised technology offerings, especially in the telecommunications and internet markets, it may well be that the next energy transition might go viral and occur over a much shorter time frame, 'leapfrogging' us - so to speak - into a new future. Whatever type of transition eventually unfolds will depend on us, as we have the power to choose, and we must choose wisely and carefully and not run roughshod over the debates that favour alternatives lest we lose our ability to adapt and compete in an overpopulated, resource-constrained future.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

On Burkha's, Euro-Nationalism, Anonymity & The Internet

The French ban on burkha's in public spaces seems a confused response to the vaunted ideals of democratic tolerance that have echoed through the ages since the French revolution. Even now, one can find inscriptions of "Liberte, Fraternite and Egalite" inscribed on the various buildings that dot the French landscape. The French revolution is credited with stimulating global changes, including the fight against slavery, and as such it has occupied a special place in the imagination of oppressed peoples everwhere and throughout the ages. It is a mandatory textbook study for many children and teenagers everywhere in the world and often captures their imaginations in profound ways, depending on the context within which they reside. Freedom means a great deal to those who've never had it. To those who have it, it can sometimes go unnoticed.

So the French ban on the burkha can be expected to raise both the ire and support of those who have contrary positions on this new development in the constitution of French identity. And indeed, that is what it is. It is a proclamation of what is French and what is not. That is, a law such as this begins to determine the boundaries of national identity and relegates it to the realm of legislature, and not society.

And when culture and religion start to become regulated by law, ironically, secularity itself is threatened as secularity relies on tolerating and respecting a variety of religious, traditional and cultural beliefs that are in operation in the public sphere. Secularity is not the eradication of religion from the public sphere in total. Indeed, it can be argued that this can never be achieved. Imagine if all religious symbols were removed from the public domain - church steeples that resemble the cross, chains of crosses, tattoos of crosses ... nose rings with the aum sign and the like ... it would render the public domain a sterile, modernist pharmacy of nothing but brand logos and symbols (which can - in my view - be twice as offensive as anything religious - at least religious iconography is coupled with deep historical lines and is integral to tradition and culture).

I find it hard to envisage a world where church bells are done away with but McDonald's arches are celebrated. It would be a perverse inversion of what we hold dear and what we celebrate within the public sphere ... a world of brands, devoid of historical and cultural meaning, perhaps even replacing them. But perhaps, this is what we will have to get used to - a world where corporate and brand slogans dominate the public sphere but a prayer is banned. I am not religious by any means, but I do have a cross tattooed across my back, and its symbology has been extremely comforting to me and is interwoven with my personal identity. To me, having this tattoo etched into my skin was an act of liberation, of wearing my personal cross where it belonged ... behind me. In front of me I am led through the heart, and behind me is all the pain. It's a reminder to move into the future with love and to carry my own burden. All this meaning inscribed in a simple tattoo that years later looks like something that might have been the product of boredom in a prison cell, or a gang initiation. Whoever sees it may project whatever they like into it, but it is ultimately mine, and will always be, as I am the one who wears it every day. It is part of my body and my identity and were it to be removed by force it would be a violation of the sanctity of my body and my freedom to be who I want to be.

In my lifelong interaction with (and embedded within) the Islamic community I have learnt many things that go against the Orientalist, western notion of what constitutes Islam, and I have developed a deep respect for the fundamental beliefs that Islam professes. Indeed, there has been a migration towards deeper orthodoxy in Islam over the past thirty years, yet Islam is not alone in this trend. The same is true of religions across the world. Changes in the world that have brought modernity onto the doorstep of almost every nation has threatened traditional cultures, religions and the beliefs and values associated with them, causing them to entrench their beliefs deeper and to dig their heels in -so to speak- in the face of changes that threaten to overwhelm them. Going into 'purdah', or wearing the veil, emerged as a viral phenomenon in my lifetime, spreading into Islamic cultures that never before adopted Saudi dress or rigidly followed Sharia law. Initially, when these trends emerged the moderates in Islam were the first to notice it, and to distance themselves from it in terms of how they led their own lives.

Yet at the same time they tolerated it, and with good reason. Anyone who has been party to conversations with women who wear the veil will get a very different version than that professed by observers residing in Europe and the west in general. While some women are forced into wearing the burkha - an act which is unmistakably a violation of women's rights - there are also many women who choose to wear the burkha. Ironically, they choose to wear the burkha to obtain a freedom of their own i.e. a freedom from being regarded as a sexual object in the public domain, and being interacted with on the basis of that sexuality. Many women who have chosen the burkha (the vast majority of those which I interacted with were converts to Islam) regard it as a liberation from being sexualised in the public domain. It is an irony, because the idea that women in Islamic cultures have no rights and are the mere victims of outdated patriarchal traditions that seek to 'own' a woman's body resides more strongly in the minds of those who have had very little contact with Islam - another product of the Orientalism that has assailed the Arab and Eastern regions. Yet the women who choose the burkha choose it precisely to escape the very same patriarchal treatment that feminists seek to eradicate i.e. being viewed as an object that can be owned, enslaved and traded in the public and private spheres. This is not to romanticise the veil or to excuse the actions of Taliban-oriented groups who seek absolute control of men over women, often under the threat of violence, but to emphasize that Islam is not monolithically a bunch of gun and whip-toting Talibanis that seek to play God in daily life. There are many women in Islam who make the choice to wear the veil, and they should not be denied the opportunity or right to this choice.

And in reference to claims that the new law is an attempt to 'free' Muslim women of their shackles the reality is that women who both deeply believe in wearing the veil, and those forced to wear it, will now have little or no access to the public domain in the shape and form they wish to appear in. That is, in contradiction to the aim of liberation, these women will now become ever more confined to their homes, unable to go out into the public sphere and interact with society. Surely that is bound to further entrench the isolation and opportunities for oppression of women in Islam rather than helping to bring about their freedom. You cannot 'force' someone into your notion or conception of freedom. You have to allow them to negotiate it on their own terms. That, is freedom.

Yet there is more that disturbs me about the ban on the burkha in France than the rights of women in Islam, or any other veil wearing religion for that matter. It is the right to be anonymous in the public sphere. I know that this is not a guaranteed right, and I don't know much of the history or philosophy that might be associated with it, but I feel it is a right that we will only miss once it has been taken away. One platform in which anonymity is celebrated is the internet, and this has opened up a vast array of potentialities and actualities for expressing dissident positions, new opinions, whistle-blowing and for exposing wrongdoing. Indeed, even the now famous hacker group is named anonymous. Isn't it a logical step that if anonymity is no longer allowed in the public sphere (i.e. physical public sphere) then pretty soon it will be eradicated from the virtual public sphere. And imagine the power that can be lost through this - indeed, the very same power of expression that has found transmission across various communications platforms and helped bring about the uprisings in the middle east would be challenged. The only winners in this equation will be states and governments, who will increasingly be able to regulate, threaten and control its citizens and what forms their opinions are allowed to take in entering the public sphere. It is not a large stretch of the imagination to understand this ... the freedom to be anonymous in the public sphere is as important as the freedom to be an aggressively public identity. The two comprise a necessary duality for pluralism and freedom to exist.

Even mass protests rely on the anonymity that numbers afford the congregated masses and emboldens them to speak their views (or take action) without fear of being targeted as an individual. That is why it is an anarchist tradition to take to the streets in urban gear that can easily be transformed to hide one's identity from the state. This itself has proved a profound and critically relevant avenue for expression, no matter how destructive a shape or form it can take.

Yet ultra-nationalism, in itself a right-wing view of nationalism, would have both the freedom of religion and the freedom to remain anonymous in the public sphere eradicated from society. Some may disagree with my diagnosis and prognosis, but in my view it is clear is that once boundaries are declared on nationalism it follows the slippery slope towards fascism and extremism. Once one group - even the majority - take ownership of the national identity, public violence is not far off. In this case the arrests are a form of state violence against women who choose to wear the veil, and it will be met by extremist violence that will use this new law to justify its violence as a response to oppression. Bear in mind that in Islam it is a duty to fight for the oppressed. In many ways this makes it unique amongst religions and the Judeo-Christian traditions. Both sides that are divided by the law banning the burkha will be prejudiced and victimised by the law. It is a lose-lose proposition.

Lastly, the idea that somehow public safety will be improved is sheer nonsense - showing the lower portion of ones face in public will not make the public sphere any safer. I have yet to see a suicide bombers head wired to explode. In contrast, the law will in fact have the opposite effect of drawing extremists to France and will make the public domain more vulnerable. And when the attacks sound out, the Islamophobic voices will roar out even more viciously, and a downward spiral of social fragmentation will ensue to further depths of depravity in a Eurozone that has seen the right emerge as a substantive voice in recent years. Europe, for all its veneer of civilisation, seems to sway to the right whenever its finances are under threat. It is never far away from the barbarism it once exported all over the world, so maybe it should come as no surprise that yet again it claims to liberate those from other cultures when in fact it enslaves them. The failure of Europe's' 'civilising missions' are still with us today and are plain to see for all those who have suffered under colonial rule, yet the colonisation hasn't stopped - it has moved deeper, to colonise the spaces in our minds and those of our bodies. It is a deep humiliation - added to a litany of recent slights against Islam in Europe - and I fear that it augers no good.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Farce of Imposed Meta-Narratives

It is a tired narrative that has emerged in rejection of military intervention in Libya. It is typically constituted of a four part meta-narrative that (1) attacks the UN vote for resolution 1973 itself, (2) raises the question of the weapons testing and sales agenda of the military industrial complex of the west, (3) questions the validity of the Libyan rebels as a legitimate opposition, and finally, (4) points out the apparent contradictions in embarking on military intervention in Libya and not in Gaza, Ivory Coast, Bahrain, etc. This four part narrative usually stops there, and offers no alternatives or strategic insights into how the crisis in Libya can be resolved, neither does it adequately deal with why Libyans themselves have consistently and without exception called for help from the international community. Instead, the four part narrative is presented as though it itself is enough of an analysis from which to move forward. It therefore deserves closer scrutiny.

Firstly, that only ten out of fifteen nations voted in favour of the intervention with the five most populous countries in the world (China, Russia, Brazil, Germany and India included) abstained from the vote. Note that these countries did not veto or vote against the UN resolution 1973 but merely abstained from voting in favour. There are many reasons why these abstentions have been interpreted as voting against the resolution but these interpretations are false. An abstention is not a veto, and in most articles I have read these abstentions have been treated as though these countries reject outright the intervention in Libya. If they did, they had a good chance to show it on the international stage and failed to do so. Moreover, countries such as Russia and China have human rights issues of their own to answer for, and do not have a good record of protecting the rights of their own citizens, much less those of other countries. In fact, their actions are driven by their own lust for power.

How quickly one forgets that the Chinese government essentially forced the South African government to refuse the Dalai Lama entry into South Africa, despite the fact that the Dalai Lama was a long-term supporter of the struggle against apartheid who was a signee to the international petition against the Rivonia trial. Looking to China and Russia as moral authorities on human rights is a joke. They are concerned with how their geopolitical power can be strengthened, and furthering their own international and national agendas. Pretending that somehow they have adopted a moral or principled position is a misrepresentation - they are simply playing politics. If they strongly objected to the intervention both could have easily vetoed the action. They chose to abstain rather than to take a clear position. Surely this indicates - at best - that they were unsure about intervention rather than opposed to it.

Secondly, that the evils of the techno-industrial-military complex of the West is a key driver behind the intervention must be collated with reality. The reality is that there are plenty other wars to test weapons in, and with much less international attention and hence more room for error. It does not make sense to test weapons under the watchful eye of the entire international community. Part two of this argument is that the techno-industrial-military complex needs to make sales in a recession. However, the costs of implementing a no-fly zone over Libya are nowhere near the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where one could reasonably argue that weapons sales are keeping the TIM complex alive. On both counts, invoking the familiar spectre of the TIM complex where Libya is concerned isn't completely honest in itself. Indeed, the US military was reluctant to go into Libya, perhaps because an intervention in Libya did not make economic sense or alternatively to flex its muscles to the Obama presidency that has been so critical of Guantanamo Bay and the war on Iraq in rising to the office of president in the USA. The simplistic manner in which this TIM narrative is promulgated in the case of Libya indicates a reliance on knee-jerk analysis rather than analysis that is based on close inspection of the intricate factors that are at play where Libya is concerned.

Thirdly, that the Libyan rebels are rag-tag groups consisting of "radical Islamists, royalists, tribalists and secular middle class activists" that are disorganised in all respects except for the fighting abilities of radical Islamists (as claimed by Mamdani in a recent article on the politics of humanitarian intervention). What escapes me is how this analysis excludes defected Libyan army soldiers and colonels who joined the rebels after being asked to fire upon their own people and defend the regime. In fact, the defected army members are now holding untrained rebels back from the frontlines as they have become an undisciplined liability and put operations at risk. The idea that somehow radical Islamists are the only ones with military training and are leading the charge is rubbish. If there were a significant number of radical Islamists - i.e. especially Al Qaeda members - we would be seeing a much more organised response from the rebels - indeed, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have not seen this. It is largely Libyan army defectors who are the fighting core of the Libyan rebels and while there is plenty of evidence to support this view, there is scarce evidence to support the view that radical Islamists constitute the main fighting force on the ground.

The fourth part of the anti-intervention meta-narrative conflates conflicts from all over the Middle East and Africa and questions why interventions haven't been taken in Syria and Bahrain, and earlier in attacks on Gaza. This narrative itself ignores one simple issue - that in none of these cases have clear calls for international intervention been made by the people who are being directly affected by violence. Libyans called for intervention - not just the rebels or citizens of Benghazi, but defected Libyan diplomats, government representatives, army members and the like. Each conflict must be judged on its own merits and not every situation warrants an intervention, especially when nobody in those countries is calling for intervention.

It was not an isolated call from a disparate group of rebels that led to intervention. On the night that the UN resolution was passed for intervention the citizens of Benghazi were out in great numbers, braving the horrific onslaught that Gaddafi had promised would be visited upon them - ready to die in the streets, so to speak. To pretend that a lopsided civil war wasn't already underway in Libya is a blinkered view of the crisis. Moreover, to promulgate the vain notion that intervention somehow scuppered what would have been a 'natural' revolution is also nonsense - how do the proponents of this view 'know' that we wouldn't have witnessed brutal massacres from an intolerant regime instead, and ended up with a situation where Libyans spend another 42 years under the heel of an autocratic regime. What magical, mystical formula do they use to arrive at a conclusion about what would have transpired? I would like to know, because if this surety can be bottled it will no doubt change the world. You cannot use the future as evidence when the present is so overwhelmingly complex and to make the argument that intervention is getting in the way of a more natural process of revolutionary change is not an argument that can be made with any level of certainty. What is clear, is that Benghazi would have fallen under Gaddafi's then imminent attack - having surrounded Benghazi - and it is equally likely that it would have all ended right there for Libyans.

To my mind, the four part meta-narrative, composed of its subsidiary narratives, doesn't match the full spectrum of observations that can be made on the Libyan crisis. Generally, it tends to discount what current difficulties Libyans are facing - and the help Libyans themselves have appealed for - in favour of a more grand meta-analysis that sees Western intervention in Arab countries as inevitably leading to civil war. Cast within the blinkered visors of the overarching meta-narrative this meta-analysis is so powerful that ordinary people and the specificities of context are glossed over, to the detriment of nobody other than Libyans themselves, whose voices are increasingly being drowned out by the voices of dissent emerging from people who never bothered to provide any kind of critique of Libya or the Middle East before. Indeed, these same academics, experts and activists utterly and completely failed to predict the widespread uprisings in the Middle East - most of their work characterised people of the region as being tribalist, family oriented and hence incapable of secular democratic action at the scales that we have seen emerge. So why should their view be trusted now that the water has broken and the new that is being birthed is something they could never concieve of before? 

Last year in June, I sat through an interesting presentation by Zakia Salim - a Morroccan born sociologist now at Rutgers university - who was investigating the changing identities of Arab and Moroccan youth, and was struck by how traditional notions of identity were being dissolved. She joked in amazement at how much had changed since she'd lived in Morroco herself, asking;

"Who were they to change without my permission?"

Perhaps the tired analyses that paint the Arab world as 'tribalist and Islamist', with no concerns for society, but only for family and clan are themselves quickly being eroded, and without the permission of our esteemed academic commentators whose conception of the Arab world has perhaps become stuck in time and has not moved with the changes on the ground. After all, very few of them actually live and work in the countries that constitute their favourite subject matter - and perhaps that is why their favoured recourse is to the discourse on global hegemony, irrespective of what the specific contextual issues at play might be.