Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The oblique nature of the impact of climate change

One of the things I've hammered on about this year regarding the impact of climate change is how many of the impacts of climate change will not be reported in the newspaper as impacts of climate change, but rather as political or social crises. In fact, there has even been an explicit push to stop people from even trying to connect political crises to climate change. When UN Secretary General Ban Moon-Ki argued in June (citing the arguments my friend Stephan Faris made in the Atlantic Monthly last year) that climate change was exacerbating resource conflicts in Darfur that drive the slaughter going on there, Idean Salehyan shot back in Foreign Policy that blaming the situation in Darfur on climate change in effect was letting the politicians in Khartoum off the hook. You can judge Salehyan's arguments on their merits, but what is certain is that insofar as people embrace his perspective that proximate political causes should always have explanatory and moral priority over background long duree causal factors like climate change, it will be impossible to really create any political consensus about the impact of climate change.

As I was trying to figure out why this is so, it occurred to me that the impact of climate change can perhaps best be thought of as an inversion of the genius marketing slogan of the chemical company BASF: "We don't make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better." In the case of climate change, you might say, "Climate change doesn't make problems. It makes a lot of the problems you have worse." And that seems to about right for describing the impact of climate change in Darfur, and also underscores why climate change, short of the most catastrophic scenarios, is unlikely to be a big problem in places which are otherwise politically, socially, and economically healthy. In places that are already stressed, however, climate change will ratchet up the leverage, and in some instances will function as the proverbial last straw, precipitating political, social, and economic collapses, that will be reported as such.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Anne-Louise, 1923-2007

My grandmother died today, or maybe it was tomorrow, I don't know.

The last time I saw her was in 2005 in Copenhagen. I saw her half a dozen times since I moved back from Europe ten years ago, and I was acutely conscious every time I departed from her that this was very possibly going to be the last time I would see her, and I tried for that reason to make a mental image of the moment. So the last time was at her flat, overlooking the Oresund, and we sat and had tea and talked about my children and my work. She quickly became tired, so I had to go.

It's self-indulgent to feel existential when someone close to you dies. Or perhaps the self-indulgence of the existentialists was to go around cultivating as a constant personal style that feeling you have when someone close to you dies. Still, the existentialists have all the good quotes that describe the feeling of limitation that death brings home, and also the struggle to deny those limitations. One of my favorite expressions of this, which for some reason came to me today, is from Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky:
Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.
It all seems limitless, but it's not. Which is why the most important thing is to keep one's own moral compass in good order every day, and without exceptions. Because soon it will all be over, and all that will matter, really, is whether you maintained that compass. And one thing I can say without the slightest equivocation is that keeping such compass was something my grandmother did as effectively as anyone I have known, and she did so without ever being sanctimonious.

Requiescat in pace, Mormor.

Times gets my story, two days later

Following on my posting from three days ago, the Times of London, a Rupert Murdoch outfit, explains the "revisionism" that lies behinds Bush's claims about Vietnam. It's Sorley and Moyar alright, as well as their various readers in Bush regime. Money:

In Triumph Forsaken, published last year, the historian Mark Moyar claimed that South Vietnam could have survived had the Americans not acquiesced in the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, plunging the country into an “extended period of instability and weakness”.

Moyar is now working on a book about the second half of the war, in which he argues: “In the offensive of 1975, the North Vietnamese are moving around huge conventional forces that would have been pulverised by our air power.” By then, however, Hanoi was well aware that America was turning against the war and doubted that the US military would be able to act decisively.

Supporters of the Iraq war have also been delving into Lewis Sorley’s book, A Better War, which was rereleased in paperback this year. The war, Sorley wrote, “was being won on the ground even as it was being lost at the peace table and the US Congress”.

Needless to say, the Murdoch outfit doesn't bother to point out that these two "revisionists" aren't really scholars, just like herbologists aren't really doctors.

The thing to understand about these sorts of "revisionists" is that they start with a contemporary political axe to grind, and then go find a historical "revision" to make that will support that contemporary political agenda. That doesn't make their claims about the past necessarily wrong, but it does mean that they are going into the research inclined to cherry-pick evidence in order to support their thesis -- a thesis motivated not by an understanding of the past en soi, but rather by contemporary political concerns.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hurricane tracks

A beautiful image of the global storm tracks of typhoons, worldwide, 1980-2005:

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Vietnam/Iraq analogy and the historical profession

Bush operatives are announcing that the President plans to make a major foreign policy speech next week in which he will, like Giuliani in last month's Foreign Affairs, claim that the lesson of the Vietnam War for today's war in Iraq is that we must stay the course:

"Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price to American credibility -- but the terrorists see things differently," Bush plans to tell a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, according to speech excerpts released late Tuesday by the White House.

Bush will argue that the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam had dire consequences for the people in that region and so would a withdrawal from Iraq.

"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush will say. "Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps,' and 'killing fields.'"

Where does Bush get this stuff from, you might well ask. Certainly, the vast majority of mainstream professional historians scoff at these views of Vietnam. The LA Times article, for example, cites Bob Dallek's sputtering reaction:

Historian Robert Dallek, who has written about the comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, accused Bush of twisting history. "It just boggles my mind, the distortions I feel are perpetrated here by the president," he said in a telephone interview.

"We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn't work our will," he said.

"What is Bush suggesting? That we didn't fight hard enough, stay long enough? That's nonsense. It's a distortion," he continued.

Dallek of course is right that what Bush is saying is arrant historical nonsense, motivated by a desire to lay political blame for the disaster on his opponents. Dallek is also right that "the disaster is the consequence of going in, not getting out." But I am afraid that these points are largely irrelevant.

What's critical here is that Bush is drawing his history not from the professional historians, but from an alternative, parallel universe of historical knowledge. Specifically, the two works that lie in the background to Bush's "lessons of Vietnam" are A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam by Lewis Sorley, whose job is as a Member of Board of Governors at the Reagan Ranch; and Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 by Mark Moyar, who currently serves as an adjunct instructor at the Marine Corps college in Quantico, having been unable to secure regular academic appointment.

The epistemic community of professional academic historians tends to dismiss the knowledges expressed in these works with words like "amateur," "unrigorous," "journalistic," "hack" and so on. In fact, what Dallek's fulminating animadversions suggest is that the scholarly community does not really understand that works such as these are best understood as (asymmetric) competitors for the hearts and minds of the American public. Dalek's comments reminded me of the helpless hand-wringing at the dinner I attended at the Society for History of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) last year. "How could we [professional diplomatic historians] have let the Iraq war happen?" one historian asked, in all seriousness. Embedded in her rhetorical question was the assumption that it was the historians assembled in that hall that were the actual arbiters of the nation's understanding of its own historical past. What she misunderstood (or perhaps did not know) was that she and her professional peers are neither the only nor (arguably) the most influential producers of knowledge about this nation's past.

To dismiss writers like Sorley and Moyar as producers of somehow sub-legitimate forms of knowledge is thus to miss the point. In fact, they are members of an alternative history movement, one which produces knowledge that is at least as impactful on popular and policy-maker conceptions of the past as anything produced in the academy. This alternative history industry occupies a similar epistemic place relative to professional historians that the holistic medicine movement does to the doctors in the AMA: we professional historians may view the ideas expressed in these books as crackpot quackery, but this professional opinion doesn't stop millions of people from rejecting the professionals' diagnoses, and instead adopting the quacks' recommendations.

What's more, these counter-historians understand, perhaps at a deeper level than most professional historians, that defining popular conceptions of key historical events is crucial for enabling current policy-making. (In this case, winning the political battle to stay in Iraq all but requires redefining in the American popular imagination what it means to fight an endless land war in Asia -- an image currently defined by the "quagmire" image of the Vietnam War.) The American Right realized in the 1980s that they had lost control of academic producers of historical knowledge. Academic historians were no longer producing historical knowledge that was usable by the Right. What the Right needed to do, therefore, was to set up a parallel knowledge production industry. While rehearsing the history of right-wing think tanks and their wingnut funders would take a long time, suffice it to say that the historical knowledge which fuels the political agenda of the American Right is today only rarely produced by academic historians. Instead, most of the historical knowledge circulating on the Right has been produced by knowledge entrepreneurs from outside the academy, working in think tanks, for opinion journals, and "independently."

This "historical knowledge industry" understands that the battle to dominate popular conceptions of key historical events does not take place by getting articles published in peer-reviewed journals, but rather by producing knowledge in formats and venues that reach wide popular audiences as well as the political-appointee community inside the Beltway. It likely pains professional historians to hear this, but the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal (as well as relatively unwonky policy journals like Foreign Affairs and The Weekly Standard) are far more influential in defining popular understandings of key episodes in the nation's past than are the articles published in the American Historical Review, the Journal of Cold War Studies or Diplomatic History.

Denying Moyar a teaching spot at a research university may hurt his ego, but it scarcely limits his influence. Indeed, looking at Moyar's Amazon blog for Triumph Foresaken, what's striking is how the book has apparently received not a single positive review from a reputable academic journal, but has received raves from places like The Weekly Standard, New York Sun, The Wall Street Journal (op-ed pages), Marine Corps Gazette, ForeWord Magazine, the National Review, as well as from A-list conservative bloggers like Glenn Reynolds and Powerline. Moyar may by a Rodney Dangerfield in the academy, but he is also a far more effective public intellectual than practically anyone attending SHAFR.

At some point soon I'll try to find time to spell out in detail what all this means, institutionally and methodologically, for academic historians. But the basic point is simple. Professional historians need to wake up to the fact that the commanding historiographical heights are not to be found in our own professional academic journals, but rather are the op-ed pages of America's top newspapers, on talkshows, and in blogs. Maybe it's obvious, but it's worth saying explicitly: if you actually want to affect policy, you need to publish things that policy-makers will read.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Best. Movie. Line. Ever.

"The end of the world is nigh, the game is up":

The future will be like the past

Adam Gopnik, in the course of a business-as-usual-brilliant discussion of Philip K. Dick, has the following astute gloss on Dick's essential insight about the future:
The future will be like the past, in the sense that, no matter how amazing or technologically advanced a society becomes, the basic human rhythm of petty malevolence, sordid moneygrubbing, and official violence, illuminated by occasional bursts of loyalty or desire or tenderness, will go on.
The sense that the future will be like the past, and in particular that the "backward" parts of the world offer a more realistic vision of the future than the "advanced" parts, was the basic message we tried to communicate in our course this Spring on deviant globalization.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Iraq's destruction of all national sense of political proportion

Josh Marshall makes a great point about how the biggest strategic danger of the situation in Iraq is the way it is sucking all the oxygen out of discussions about all the myriad other global challenges facing the U.S.

What is not debatable however is that there is more going on in the world -- more opportunities and more threats -- than what happens in the few hundred mile radius around the ancient capital of Baghdad. There is, as we can see, Russia, which still has a few thousand nuclear warheads which could cause some serious headaches. There's China, a vast economic and potential military power that will bulk larger and larger in our lives over the course of this century. There's Pakistan, India, half a billion people to our south speaking Spanish and Portuguese. The list goes on and on....

In hotspots around the world, there's a vacuum, as the world sort of rushes past us. In many ways this is the greatest danger in Iraq, not that our future as a nation is at stake in staying (as the right would have it) or even that it's necessarily at stake in leaving but that our engagement with the country has fixed us with a dangerous national myopia which is letting many other problems fester unattended for going on a decade.

Josh could further have further pointed out that Iraq is distracting us not just from other overt political challenges, but also from the dangers associated with massive global financial imbalances, and from emerging threats ranging from climate change to engineered biohazards. The measure of Iraq's deformation of the national dialog is not so much that the GOP candidates are falling over themselves to see who can make the most blood-curdling cry for escalation, but rather that none of the leading candidates in either party seem to have much of any foreign policy beyond some position on the so-called GWOT. It's sad, really, how much the sense of policy and political proportion has dribbled away, like a dry wadi, into the Mesopotamian sands.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Picture of the day

Saõ Paulo: an apartment building for the wealthy overlooks a favela, ironically called Paraisópolis (Paradise city):
Photo credit: Luiz Arthur Leirão Vieira (Tuca Vieira). Hat tip: JB.

And here's the view of that same building, from the favela:

And here's the same neighborhood from afar:

Best movie line ever: "Napalm in the morning"

Andrew Sullivan does it, so I think I will too: my favorite movie lines ever.

Here's as good a place to start as any:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Statistic of the day

Los Angeles cleanup crews removed 27 million square feet of graffiti last year, up from 21 million square feet in 2005, officials said. In other areas of Los Angeles County, 13 million square feet of walls and other surfaces were cleaned, 4 million more than in the previous year, county public works records show.

Learning the wrong historical lessons: Giuliani edition

In his ghost-written piece for Foreign Affairs, Rudy Giuliani compares the situation in Iraq today to that in Vietnam in the early 1970s and draws the following historical lesson:
America must remember one of the lessons of the Vietnam War. Then, as now, we fought a war with the wrong strategy for several years. And then, as now, we corrected course and began to show real progress. Many historians today believe that by about 1972 we and our South Vietnamese partners had succeeded in defeating the Vietcong insurgency and in setting South Vietnam on a path to political self-sufficiency. But America then withdrew its support, allowing the communist North to conquer the South. The consequences were dire, and not only in Vietnam: numerous deaths in places such as the killing fields of Cambodia, a newly energized and expansionist Soviet Union, and a weaker America. The consequences of abandoning Iraq would be worse.
Let's take this apart sentence by sentence. I suppose few people would argue with the assertion that we fought the first years of the Vietnam War with the wrong strategy. The notion that we showed "real progress" in the early 1970s, however, is transparent nonsense. While the death rate for Americans dropped, the political legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government never came anywhere close to stability, and the carnage in the Vietnamese countryside only grew worse. Second, the North Vietnamese ability to impose political terms on Thieu in the South were only becoming more effective. Indeed, they had extracted a concession from the United States that denied South Vietnam's separate sovereignty from the North. When Thieu refused to accept this, Nixon felt compelled to commence the Christmas Bombing of North Vietnam. Rudy's ghostwriters may feel they can assert that by the early 1970s we had succeeded in defeating the North Vietnamese, but without getting into the details, suffice to say that engaging in a massive escalation in Year 7 of a war is an odd choice for a military that feels it has already won. Third, while it's true that American withdrawal of funding accelerated the collapse of the Thieu regime, the conquest of the South by the ARNV would not have happened so quickly if Thieu's regime was not politically collapsed to begin with. Fourth, the implied idea that if only we had stayed things would have turned out better for the United States ignores that dire moral impact that the heedless killing of millions of Asian peasants was having on American political culture, not to mention the fact that the price of the war was bankrupting the country. Fifth, the idea that the Soviet Union was "energized" by the U.S. defeat in Vietnam ignores already well down the path toward economic implosion that would eventually do it in, and shows the way in which the neocon right still doesn't understand that it was containment, not rollback, that won the Cold War. Sixth, the suggestion that "the killing fields of Cambodia" was part of the aftermath of our withdrawal from Vietnam carefully elides the fact that it the U.S. supported Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for those killing fields, whereas it was the Vietnamese Communists who opposed and eventually ousted Pol Pot. Finally, the notion that the consequences of leaving Iraq would be worse than those we faced after leaving Vietnam is (in addition to being bare, unsupported assertion) predicated on the (frankly, criminally insane) assumption that (a) things would have been better if we had stayed in Vietnam past 1973, and (b) that things turned out so bad for us. Wait guys, didn't we win the Cold War after we left Vietnam? Just checking.

I don't normally agree with Greg Djerejian on foreign policy, but his summation of Rudy's position as "Walt Rostow meets the Sopranos" is just right.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The complexity of modern life

A very cool Japanese video that does an amazing job (to the sound of Norwegian electronica) of capturing the insane complexity that subtends that banal everydayness of modern urban life.

Hat tip: AH.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Statistic of the day

From a review of Alan Weisman's The World Without Us:
There is six times more plastic by weight on the sea's surface than there is plankton.
As my grandmother used to say, "Ca va mal finir."

Friday, August 03, 2007

The left then and now

Hedrick Hertzberg, attending YearlyKos, makes the following acute observation about this generation's antiwar crowd versus the one that protested Vietnam:
I think the difference between today’s left and yesterday’s is partly explained by the difference between the wars that have energized them. Vietnam was, as Bob Dole might say, a “Democrat war.” You couldn’t protest it just by putting your energies into electing Democrats, and of course you couldn’t do it by trying to elect Republicans, who liked the war even more. You had to go to the left of the Dems, and if you hadn’t happened to have already acquired a moral/political compass, you might keep going till you ended up at the feet of Chairman Mao. This war is an all-Republican affair. And this generation, thank God, is perfectly content to stick with Chairman Howard.
The Republicans are trying desperately to turn assign the blame for the Iraq catastrophe more widely (or, ideally, to pin the blame entirely on the "Defeaticrats") but this war is transparently Mr. Bush's war that the effort is almost certainly bound to fail. Indeed the effort to do so seems increasingly farcical, in the "18th Brumaire" sense of the word.

19 million South Asian climate refugees -- THIS YEAR

The AP describes the impact of this year's freakishly heavy South Asian monsoon:
At least 186 people have been killed and 19 million driven from their homes as heavy monsoon rains triggered floods, destroyed crops and submerged roads across a wide swath of northern India and Bangladesh.
William Gibson famously observed in 1999 that, "The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed." Most people have taken that statement to be an optimistic reference to the diffusion of high technology. But the same insight applies in a negative way to the arrival of climate change impacts.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Climate of Fear: Bangladesh and India

This article on the impact of climate change in Bangladesh is six months old, but does a nice job of showing how its is the multiple systemic failures in Bangladesh that make it particularly vulnerable to climate change:

Every year these waterways burst their banks as rainwater and ice melt sluice down from the Himalayas towards the Bay of Bengal.

Cyclones and tornadoes pummel the coast annually, bringing further misery to a country slightly larger than England, yet crammed with 145 million people. Local sea levels appear to be rising, and summer temperatures climbing, causing droughts in the north west.

The result is a "perfect storm" of environmental factors that could make Bangladesh the first significant country to be destroyed by climate change. "Bangladesh is in such a difficult position because all these factors — geographical, demographic, political and climatic — have conspired together," said Atiq Rahman, head of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and an IPCC member. "It is a test case for the rest of the world."

He predicts that if the sea rises by a metre — as some scientists say it will by 2100 — a quarter of Bangladesh will be submerged, forcing 30 to 40 million people from their homes.

As floods have pushed sea- water far inland, contaminating paddy fields and water supplies, thousands of farmers, like Mr Gain, have turned their paddy fields into shrimp farms. They earn more cash, but are less well-off because they no longer have their own food supplies. That leads to malnutrition and disease.

The obvious horror in all this is the looming humanitarian catastrophe. But from an analytical perspective, the really frightening question is: where will all those refugees go? Some will flood into the overcrowded Bangladeshi cities of the North, but many are likely to go (or attempt to go) to India, a country itself acutely vulnerable to climate-related crises. In other words, even aside from the direct impact of climate change on India itself, the impact of climate change on its neighbors is likely to cripple India's growth and stability.