Monday, September 05, 2011

nato just destroyed africa's most developed country

Video - Watching NATO crimes against humanity

InformationClearinghouse | Some years ago, in the Indian site, this columnist had written of the NATO militaries as resembling an army of simians. Such a force - if let loose within a confined space – can create immense damage, but are unable to clean up the resultant mess. This is precisely what the world has witnessed in Iraq. Despite more than a decade of sanctions that directly resulted in nearly a million extra deaths during that period ( because of shortages created by the UN-approved measures), the regime of Saddam Hussein was able to provide food, energy and housing to the people of Iraq, whereas eight years after “liberation” by key NATO members, the country and its population are worse off than before the 2003 invasion that led to the execution of Saddam Hussein. As for Afghanistan, after a decade of the world’s most modern military force fighting against a ragtag band of insurgents, more than a third of the country is back in the hands of the Taliban, while a fifth of the rest is on the brink of a similar fate. As a consequence of its failure to subdue this force, NATO is desperately clutching at plans for engaging the “moderate Taliban”, an oxymoron if ever one was created.

Serbia has yet to recover from its brief burst of battle with NATO, and now Libya has joined the lengthening list of countries devastated by the attentions of NATO. Clearly, the top brass in a military alliance designed to do battle in Europe against the USSR were reluctant to close shop. They have therefore redesigned NATO as a military instrument with multiple uses, especially against “asymmetric threats”, a term which refers to countries that have ramshackle militaries. Both Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafy followed the dictates of the NATO powers in surrendering whatever WMD was in their possession, unlike Syria and North Korea, two countries that have been left undisturbed by NATO as a consequence. Clearly, military planners within the alliance are ready for action only against those rivals that have had their conventional capabilities degraded to the point at which they do not represent any significant risk against the alliance. Had George W Bush and Tony Blair truly believed their own rhetoric about Saddam Hussein having WMD, they would never have sent their armies into Iraq the way they did.

As mentioned in these columns, Gaddafy’s fate got sealed when he accepted the advice of his Europe-dazzled sons to disarm and place the survival of his regime in the hands of NATO. Since 2003, Muammar Gaddafy dismantled his WMD program, synchronised his intelligence services with that of NATO and generally accepted each of the prescriptions handed over to him. Had NATO been an alliance that respects reciprocity, all this ought to have made NATO turn as blind an eye to his battle with sections of the population as we have seen in the case of Bahrain, where the ruling family has been given a free hand to sort out the situation. Instead, the situation changed when Nicholas Sarkozy was informed by French banks that Colonel Gaddafy may withdraw the immense bank deposits of Libya from them to institutions in China, and when he learnt that several contracts that French enterprises were expecting to come to them would vanish because Gaddafy wanted to spend less on French military and other toys and more on social services. Libya had to be made an example of, lest other Arab governments think of shifting their money elsewhere than within the NATO bloc as a consequence of the loss of $1.3 trillion by the GCC and its people alone because of the financial fraud perpetrated in 2008 by banks and other financial entities headquartered within the NATO bloc.

These days, companies based within NATO are finding it difficult to retain the monopoly position they have enjoyed, sometimes for generations. In particular, Chinese companies are challenging them in numerous markets, as are companies based elsewhere in Asia, including within South Korea and India. As a consequence, they now rely on military force to retain their privileges. This has been illustrated with commendable transparency in the case of Iraq and Libya. In the latter case, even though the fumes of battle have not ceased (and are unlikely to), oil companies such as ENI and Total are hard at work figuring out the assets they can seize because of the local victories of the Sarkozy-appointed “National Transitional Council”. Interestingly, even though the NTC is a creation of Paris, the UN has accepted it as the legitimate government of Iraq. Indeed,in the 21st century the UN seems to have regressed into the period between 1919 and 1939,when the League of Nations awarded “mandates” to dominant countries that permitted them to rule weaker ones. In the past decade, similar mandates have been proferred in the case of Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. In the case of Libya, President Sarkozy’s takeover of the Libyan state via the creation of the NTC has been similarly legitimized by the UN in an astonishing abdication of principle.

However, just as in other locations, facts on the ground may not follow the script favoured by NATO. In the case of Libya, this columnist has warned for five months that the NATO intervention would only result in civil war and in the steady destruction of the infrastructure that made Libya one of the more prosperous countries in the region. All this is at risk today, as chaos descends in the form of armed gangs set loose by NATO across the country. Not that there is ever any chance of those responsible for such a catastrophe being held accountable by so-called “international” bodies, most of which are now firmly in the control of the NATO powers in a way that their own economies are not. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of civilian deaths have resulted from NATO operations, without even a mild protest from the International Court or the Human Rights Council. Such inaction is leading to the same loss of respect for the UN system as took place in the past with the League of Nations, which became seen as being controlled by a small group for their own purposes.

Whether it is Libya or any other country, each has the right to develop its societal dynamic in its own way. Unless a country poses a threat to others, the way Talban-controlled Afghanistan did, it is not legitimate target for international action. In the case of Libya, since 2003 Colonel Gaddafy disarmed his military of WMD and fully cooperated with the US-led War on Terror. His fate has become a lesson to others who may have been tempted to follow in his path of conciliation with NATO. Small wonder that the other regimes in the sights of NATO - Syria and Iran in particular - are in no hurry to follow the Libyan example. Rather than seek to finish off a leader who buried the hatchet publicly and fully the way Gaddafy did, NATO would have been better advised to show its magnanimity and its willingness to keep agreements in good faith. That would have acted as an incentive for Syria, Iran and even North Korea to follow suit, thereby making the globe a safer place. Today, all three states - understandably – have zero faith in the bona fides of the NATO powers, and as a consequence are each going their own way. Combine this with the economic desolation seen within NATO ( much of which has been caused by the huge spike in military spending caused by foreign adventures), and overall even the medium-term prognosis for NATO is dim, despite the smiles of congratulation at the advance of NATO proxies into Tripoli.

Unlike during the Vietnam war, when the Pentagon extensively sourced its procurement from Asia, the Bush-Cheney team sought to give US entities a monopoly over the supply of the items needed, even items as militarily inconsequential as toothpaste. The result of such an autarchic policy has been a big increase in spending, with the US alone spending more than a trillion dollars in its wars with Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, we have seen this use of the state machinery to block competition across several sectors. The EU, for example, has banned Indian pharmaceuticals from its market, despite the low cost and high quality of medicines produced in India. Just now, the EU has banned Samsung hi-tech products. A time will come when Asia bans German cars and French defense equipment in retaliation for the frequent bans on Asian products on specious grounds. The US and the EU cannot protect their way out of economic trouble. They need to give their citizens access to the benefits of a global market, rather than break every canon that they have been preaching for decades. As for NATO, it will soon become clear that while it may be possible to defeat a ramshackle force with the massive use of airpower, that may not translate into monopoly privileges over Libyan oil reserves. Should China or India come up with better terms than Italian or French companies, the people of Libya will ensure that their government act in a way that protects their interests, rather than only those of NATO. The use of military power for commercial advantage ought to have vanished when the 19th century did. Its reappearance in Iraq and Libya is a worrisome sign that NATO has not learnt the lessons of history.

the decade's biggest scam

commondreams | The Los Angeles Times examines the staggering sums of money expended on patently absurd domestic "homeland security" projects: $75 billion per year for things such as a Zodiac boat with side-scan sonar to respond to a potential attack on a lake in tiny Keith County, Nebraska, and hundreds of "9-ton BearCat armored vehicles, complete with turret" to guard against things like an attack on DreamWorks in Los Angeles. All of that -- which is independent of the exponentially greater sums spent on foreign wars, occupations, bombings, and the vast array of weaponry and private contractors to support it all -- is in response to this mammoth, existential, the-single-greatest-challenge-of-our-generation threat: ["The key to sustaining this Security State bonanza," writes Greenwald, "is keeping fear levels among the citizenry as high as possible... and that is accomplished by fixating even on minor and failed attacks, each one of which is immediately seized upon to justify greater expenditures, expansion of security measures, and a further erosion of rights." (Wikipedia)] "The key to sustaining this Security State bonanza," writes Greenwald, "is keeping fear levels among the citizenry as high as possible... and that is accomplished by fixating even on minor and failed attacks, each one of which is immediately seized upon to justify greater expenditures, expansion of security measures, and a further erosion of rights." (Wikipedia)

"The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It's basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism.

Last year, McClatchy characterized this threat in similar terms: "undoubtedly more American citizens died overseas from traffic accidents or intestinal illnesses than from terrorism." The March, 2011, Harper's Index expressed the point this way: "Number of American civilians who died worldwide in terrorist attacks last year: 8 -- Minimum number who died after being struck by lightning: 29." That's the threat in the name of which a vast domestic Security State is constructed, wars and other attacks are and continue to be launched, and trillions of dollars are transferred to the private security and defense contracting industry at exactly the time that Americans -- even as they face massive wealth inequality -- are told that they must sacrifice basic economic security because of budgetary constraints.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

colonial libyan carve-up council met in paris...,

uruknet | The "Friends of Libya" conference held in Paris Thursday signaled the beginning of the imperialist carve-up of the oil-rich North African country.

Jointly chaired by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, the conference included participation by those countries which provided the fire-power under the umbrella of NATO and using a United Nations resolution as a cover to bring down the government of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in a six-month war for "regime change." These include the US, France, Britain, Italy and Qatar. All of them are jockeying to reap the greatest possible return on their "investment" of bombs and missiles that have claimed thousands of lives and left much of Libya’s infrastructure in ruins.

Also attending will be Germany, Russia, China, India and Brazil, which abstained on the UN Security Council resolution utilized as a legal fig leaf for the colonial-style war. These countries all fear that their significant investments and deals in Libya will be lost to the intervening Western powers.

In all, the conference included 31 heads of state, 11 foreign ministers and the leaders of the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League, along with the chief figures in the NTC, Justafa Abdul-Jalil, who until February was Gaddafi’s justice minister, and Mahmoud Jibril, a free-market economist who was the Gaddafi regime’s point man on attracting foreign investment.

On the eve of the conference, President Sarkozy cast the meeting in lofty terms, telling a gathering of French ambassadors in Paris that it would "turn the page on dictatorship and combat to open a new era of cooperation with a democratic Libya."

As Sarkozy spoke, however, combat was very much continuing in Libya, with NATO warplanes carrying out fresh bombardments of the coastal city of Sirte, a stronghold of Gaddafi loyalists, and Bani Walid, a desert town to the west, which is also under control of forces supporting the ousted regime. As the NATO-led rebels continued their siege of the two cities, the NTC extended until September 10 the deadline for its ultimatum for the residents of Sirte to surrender or face an all-out military assault. NATO’s strategy may be to starve the city into submission.

Meanwhile, reports of massacres and atrocities carried out by the guardians of the new "democratic Libya" continue to mount, many of them directed against the large numbers of sub-Saharan African migrant workers who have been killed, abused and detained solely on the basis of the color of their skin.

The "friends" came to Paris not to discuss aid to Libya, but rather the lifting of economic sanctions imposed under the Gaddafi regime and the unfreezing of Libyan assets in foreign banks, measures designed to get money and resources flowing out of the North African country

On the day of the summit, the French daily Liberation published the copy of a letter written in Arabic, purportedly from a representative of the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, promising to cede to France 35 percent of its oil in return for its support. The Sarkozy government played the leading role in securing the UN resolution last March and got the jump on its NATO allies by ordering French air strikes before the Western alliance as a whole began bombarding the country.

The letter, dated April 3, states: "With regard to the oil agreement struck with France as a token of this Council’s gratitude, at the London summit, we, in our capacity as legitimate representative of Libya, have delegated to brother Mahmud [Shammam, the NTC’s media minister] the power to sign this agreement allocating 35 percent of total crude oil to the French in exchange for its total, permanent backing for our Council."

The letter, which also asked for France to expedite arms deliveries, was addressed to the emir of Qatar, the Persian Gulf sheikdom that has acted as a liaison between the NTC and the Western powers, with a copy to Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary general.

Quoting an earlier statement of Sarkozy insisting that France was acting in accordance with a "universal conscience" simply to "protect the civilian population," Liberation comments: "Be that as it may, the French oil corporations might benefit amply from the military campaign."

selective colonial wars for control of key resources..,

craigmurray | There is no cause to doubt that, for whatever reason, the support of the people of Sirte for Gadaffi is genuine. That this means they deserve to be pounded into submission is less obvious to me. The disconnect between the UN mandate to protect civilians while facilitating negotiation, and NATO’s actual actions as the anti-Gadaffi forces’ air force and special forces, is startling.

There is something so shocking in the Orwellian doublespeak of NATO on this point that I am severely dismayed. I suffer from that old springing eternal of hope, and am therefore always in a state of disappointment. I had hoped that the general population in Europe is so educated now that obvious outright lies would be rejected. I even hoped some journalists would seek to expose lies.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

The “rebels” are actively hitting Sirte with heavy artillery and Stalin’s organs; they are transporting tanks openly to attack Sirte. Yet any movement of tanks or artillery by the population of Sirte brings immediate death from NATO air strike.

What exactly is the reason that Sirte’s defenders are threatening civilians but the artillery of their attackers – and the bombings themselves – are not? Plainly this is a nonsense. People in foreign ministries, NATO, the BBC and other media are well aware that it is the starkest lie and propaganda, to say the assault on Sirte is protecting civilians. But does knowledge of the truth prevent them from peddling a lie? No.

It is worth reminding everyone something never mentioned, that UNSCR 1973 which established the no fly zone and mandate to protect civilians had

“the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution;”

That is in Operative Para 2 of the Resolution

Plainly the people of Sirte hold a different view to the “rebels” as to who should run the country. NATO have in effect declared being in Gadaffi’s political camp a capital offence. There is no way the massive assault on Sirte is “facilitating dialogue”. it is rather killing those who do not hold the NATO approved opinion. That is the actual truth. It is extremely plain.

I have no time for Gadaffi. I have actually met him, and he really is nuts, and dangerous. There were aspects of his rule in terms of social development which were good, but much more that was bad and tyrannical. But if NATO is attacking him because he is a dictator, why is it not attacking Dubai, Bahrain, Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, or Uzbekistan, to name a random selection of badly governed countries?

“Liberal intervention” does not exist. What we have is the opposite; highly selective neo-imperial wars aimed at ensuring politically client control of key physical resources.

Wars kill people. Women and children are dying now in Libya, whatever the sanitised media tells you. The BBC have reported it will take a decade to repair Libya’s infrastructure from the damage of war. That in an underestimate. Iraq is still decades away from returning its utilities to their condition in 2000.

I strongly support the revolutions of the Arab Spring. But NATO intervention does not bring freedom, it brings destruction, degradation and permanent enslavement to the neo-colonial yoke. From now on, Libyans like us will be toiling to enrich western bankers. That, apparently, is worth to NATO the reduction of Sirte to rubble.

taxpayers bent-over big-time in solyndra bankruptcy...,

Bloomberg | The Obama administration let $385 million in taxpayer support for Solyndra Inc. take a back seat to funds from new investors in an unsuccessful effort to keep the solar-panel manufacturer operating.

The Energy Department decided the January refinancing represented the “highest probable net benefit” for the government, according to a government document obtained by Bloomberg News. Investors provided the company $75 million that became senior debt, ahead of all but $150 million of the federal government’s stake.

Solyndra said on Aug. 31 that it will file for bankruptcy reorganization next week in Wilmington, Delaware. The administration’s agreement to subordinate the government aid to new investment may add fuel to criticism by Republicans who have said President Barack Obama spent too much money pushing a favored company in the name of green energy.

“Solyndra is just the latest casualty of the Obama administration’s failed stimulus,” Republican Representatives Fred Upton of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Cliff Stearns of Florida said in an Aug. 31 statement. “We smelled a rat from the onset,” they said of the backing for Solyndra.

The company is evaluating options including selling itself or licensing its technology, David Miller, a spokesman for the closely held company, said this week. The company suspended operations, and about 1,100 full-time and temporary employees have been dismissed.
Mounting Troubles

Should the company be liquidated, $385 million owed to the U.S. will be subordinated to the $75 million invested this year, according to the document dated Jan. 3.

Miller didn’t return a call and e-mail sent outside business hours seeking comment on the refinancing agreement.

At the time of the January refinancing, the government had already advanced $460 million in loan guarantees and decided to continue investing in an effort to fend off threatened bankruptcy.

The document traces Solyndra’s mounting financial troubles and the Obama administration’s decision to maintain its bet on the future of the Fremont, California-based company.

By December 2010, “Solyndra had only about a month of cash on hand and faced bankruptcy absent continued funding” from the department, according to the papers.

After “a due-diligence effort” to “determine if the company still had a viable business,” the Energy Department concluded it “believes that the restructuring plan represents the best possible course of action to achieve the highest return on its invested capital.”
Liquidation Value

The company’s liquidation value of its collateral was $91 million to $99 million in December, before the refinancing, which would have provided less than a 22 percent return to the government, the document shows.

By subordinating $385 million of the government loan to $75 million from investors, the government calculated that Solyndra’s conservative enterprise value this year would be $240 million to $360 million. At what it considered a more traditional valuation multiple, the government saw the value as $480 million.

The company had tapped into the loan guarantees offered by the Energy Department to build a photovoltaic panel facility and help add 1,000 jobs, according to the papers.

three things that must happen...,

Video - Bob Marley Revolution

Alternet | Transforming the United States into something closer to a democracy requires: 1) knowledge of how we are getting screwed; 2) pragmatic tactics, strategies, and solutions; and 3) the “energy to do battle.”

The majority of Americans oppose the corporatocracy (rule by giant corporations, the extremely wealthy elite, and corporate-collaborator government officials); however, many of us have given up hope that this tyranny can be defeated. Among those of us who continue to be politically engaged, many focus on only one of the requirements—knowledge of how we are getting screwed. And this singular focus can result in helplessness. It is the two other requirements that can empower, energize, and activate Team Democracy— a team that is currently at the bottom of the standings in the American Political League.

1. Knowledge of How We are Getting Screwed
Harriet Tubman conducted multiple missions as an Underground Railroad conductor, and she also participated in the Union Army’s Combahee River raid that freed more than 700 slaves. Looking back on her career as a freedom fighter, Tubman noted, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” While awareness of the truth of corporatocracy oppression is by itself not sufficient to win freedom and justice, it is absolutely necessary.

We are ruled by so many “industrial complexes”—military, financial, energy, food, pharmaceutical, prison, and so on—that it is almost impossible to stay on top of every way we are getting screwed. The good news is that—either through independent media or our basic common sense—polls show that the majority of Americans know enough about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Wall Street bailouts, and other corporate welfare to oppose these corporatocracy policies. In the case of the military-industrial complex, most Iraq War polls and Afghanistan War polls show that the majority of Americans know enough to oppose these wars. And when Americans were asked in a CBS New /New York Times survey in January 2011 which of three programs—the military, Medicare or Social Security—to cut so as to deal with the deficit, fully 55 percent chose the military, while only 21 percent chose Medicare and 13 percent chose Social Security.

In the words of Leonard Cohen, “Everybody knows that the deal is rotten.” Well, maybe not everybody, but damn near everybody.

But what doesn’t everybody know?

2. Pragmatic Tactics, Strategies and Solutions
In addition to awareness of economic and social injustices created by corporatocracy rule, it is also necessary to have knowledge of strategies and tactics that oppressed people have historically used to overcome tyranny and to gain their fair share of power.

Even before the Democratic-Republican bipartisan educational policies (such as “no child left behind” and “race to the top”) that cut back on civics being taught in schools, few Americans were exposed in their schooling to “street-smart civics”—tactics and strategies that oppressed peoples have historically utilized to gain power.

For a comprehensive guide of tactics and strategies that have been effective transforming regimes more oppressive than the current U.S. one, read political theorist and sociologist Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, which includes nearly 200 “Methods of Nonviolent Actions.” Among Sharp’s 49 “Methods of Economic Noncooperation,” he lists over 20 different kinds of strikes. And among his 38 “Methods of Political Noncooperation,” he lists 10 tactics of “citizens’ noncooperation with government,” nine “citizens’ alternatives to obedience,” and seven “actions by government personnel.” Yes, nothing was more powerful in ending the Vietnam War and saving American and Vietnamese lives than the brave actions by critically thinking U.S. soldiers who refused to cooperate with the U.S. military establishment. Check out David Zeigler’s documentary Sir! No Sir! for details.

For a quick history lesson on “the nature of disruptive power” in the United States and the use of disruptive tactics in fomenting the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, and other democratic movements, check out sociologist Frances Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. Piven describes how “ordinary people exercise power in American politics mainly at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.” In the midst of the Great Depression when U.S unemployment was over 25 percent, working people conducted an exceptional number of large labor strikes, including the Flint, Michigan sit-down strike, which began at the end of 1936 when auto workers occupied a General Motors factory so as to earn recognition for the United Auto Workers union as a bargaining agent. That famous victory was preceded and inspired by other less well-known major battles fought and won by working people. Check out the intelligent tactics (and guts and solidarity) in the 1934 Minneapolis Truckers Strike.

For an example of “the nature of creative power” that scared the hell out of—and almost triumphed—over the moneyed elite, read The Populist Moment by historian Lawrence Goodwyn. The Populist movement, the late-19th-century farmers’ insurgency, according to Goodwyn, was the largest democratic movement in American history. These Populists and their major organization, commonly called the “Alliance,” created worker cooperatives that resulted in empowering economic self-sufficiency. They came close to successfully transforming a good part of the United States into something a lot closer to a democracy. As Goodwyn notes, “Their efforts, halting and disjointed at first, gathered form and force until they grew into a coordinated mass movement that stretched across the American continent ... Millions of people came to believe fervently that the wholesale overhauling of their society was going to happen in their lifetimes.”

In Get Up, Stand Up, I include the section “Winning the Battle: Solutions, Strategies, and Tactics.” However, a major point of the book is that, currently in the United States, even more ignored than street-smart strategies and tactics is the issue of morale, which is necessary for implementing these strategies and tactics. So, I also have a section “Energy to Do Battle: Liberation Psychology, Individual Self-Respect, and Collective Self-Confidence.”

3. The Energy to Do Battle
The elite’s money—and the influence it buys—is an extremely powerful weapon. So it is understandable that so many people who are defeated and demoralized focus on their lack of money rather than on their lack of morale. However, we must keep in mind that in war, especially in a class war when one’s side lacks financial resources, morale becomes even more crucial.

Activists routinely become frustrated when truths about lies, victimization and oppression don’t set people free to take action. But having worked with abused people for more than 25 years, it doesn’t surprise me to see that when we as individuals or a society eat crap for too long, we become psychologically too weak to take action. There are a great many Americans who have been so worn down by decades of personal and political defeats, financial struggles, social isolation and daily interaction with impersonal and inhuman institutions that they no longer have the energy for political actions.

Other observers of subjugated societies have recognized this phenomenon of subjugation resulting in demoralization and fatalism. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Ignacio Martin-Baró, the El Salvadoran social psychologist and popularizer of “liberation psychology,” understood this psychological phenomenon. So did Bob Marley, the poet laureate of oppressed people around the world. Many Americans are embarrassed to accept that we, too, after years of domestic corporatocracy subjugation, have developed what Marley called “mental slavery.” Unless we acknowledge that reality, we won’t begin to heal from what I call “battered people’s syndrome” and “corporatocracy abuse” and to, as Marley urges, “emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”

food prices and humans rioting...,

TechnologyReview | What causes riots? That's not a question you would expect to have a simple answer.

But today, Marco Lagi and buddies at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, say they've found a single factor that seems to trigger riots around the world.

This single factor is the price of food. Lagi and co say that when it rises above a certain threshold, social unrest sweeps the planet.

The evidence comes from two sources. The first is data gathered by the United Nations that plots the price of food against time, the so-called food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. The second is the date of riots around the world, whatever their cause. Both these sources are plotted on the same graph above.

This clearly seems to show that when the food price index rises above a certain threshold, the result is trouble around the world.

This isn't rocket science. It stands to reason that people become desperate when food is unobtainable. It's often said that any society is three square meals from anarchy.

But what's interesting about this analysis is that Lagi and co say that high food prices don't necessarily trigger riots themselves, they simply create the conditions in which social unrest can flourish. "These observations are consistent with a hypothesis that high global food prices are a precipitating condition for social unrest," say Lagi and co.

In other words, high food prices lead to a kind of tipping point when almost anything can trigger a riot, like a lighted match in a dry forest.

On 13 December last year, the group wrote to the US government pointing out that global food prices were about to cross the threshold they had identified. Four days later, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in protest at government policies, an event that triggered a wave of social unrest that continues to spread throughout the middle east today.

That leads to an obvious thought. If high food prices condition the world for social unrest, then reducing the prices should stabilise the planet.

But what can be done to reverse the increases. Lagi and co say that two main factors have driven the increase in the food price index. The first is traders speculating on the price of food, a problem that has been exacerbated in recent years by the deregulation of the commodities markets and the removal of trading limits for buyers and sellers.

The second is the conversion of corn into ethanol, a practice directly encouraged by subsidies.

Those are both factors that the western world and the US in particular could change.

Today, the food price index remains above the threshold but the long term trend is still below. But it is rising. Lagi and co say that if the trend continues, the index is likely to cross the threshold in August 2013.

If their model has the predictive power they suggest, when that happens, the world will become a tinderbox waiting for a match.

educate, organize, resist, and agitate

Video - cows with guns...,

u.n.: small-scale farming could double the world's food production

Slashfood | The United Nations released a whopper of a report today. In the midst of soaring global food and oil prices, the agency let loose a public stunner: World hunger and climate change cannot be solved with industrial farming. So much for seed-giant Pioneer Hi-Bred's "We Feed The World" slogan. Yowch.

The U.N. study makes it clear -- small-scale farmers can double food production in 10-years by using simple farming methods. According the The Guardian, insect-trapping plants in Kenya or weed-eating ducks in Bangladesh's rice paddies may be the way to feed the world's burgeoning population.

"To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. Today's scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production in regions where the hungry live," says Olivier De Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report.

De Schutter told the Wall Street Journal that promoting natural farming techniques is the only sustainable way to guard against future food crisis.

"We set up our farming techniques in the 1920s when we thought there would be a never-ending supply of cheap oil," he said. "Developing farming in a way which makes it less addicted to fossil energy is much more promising."

For more global stories that affect us all, check out the AOL News United Nations site.

The agroecological methods mentioned throughout the report sure sound like organic farming to us, but ag writer Jill Richards says there are subtle differences separating the two terms. Agroecology increases soil quality, biodiversity and can make farms more resilient to climate change, but it also values indigenous farming methods, she says.

"A net global increase in food production alone will not guarantee the end of hunger (as the poor cannot access food even when it is available), and increase in productivity for poor farmers will make a dent in global hunger. Potentially, gains in productivity by smallholder farmers will provide an income to farmers as well, if they grow a surplus of food that they can sell," she writes.

So are we on the verge of an agricultural sea change? asks WSJ reporter Caroline Henshaw.

"As leaders debate how to combat record food prices and producers struggle to meet rapidly growing demand, the world is looking for a new agricultural revolution," Henshaw writes.

We think today's U.N. report might give that revolution the mighty shove it needs.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

simply try and understand....,

The Imminent Crash of Oil Supply

Countercurrents | Look at the graph below and worry. It was drawn by the United States Department of Energy (Energy Information Administration) in 2009.

What does it imply? The supply of the world's most essential energy source is going off a cliff. Not in the distant future, but within two years. Production of all liquid fuels, including oil, will drop within 20 years to half what it is today . And the difference needs to be made up with "unidentified projects" – in other words, we face a potential ‘rank shortage'. According to this graph, we stand on the edge of a precipice, with no prior warning from either the industry or governments, which ostensibly protect the public interest.

The original graph was prepared for a US Department of Energy meeting in spring, 2009.

Take a good look at what it says:

• We are past the peak of oil production and there are maybe 750 billion barrels of conventional oil left. Conventional oil will be substantially gone in 20 years, and there is nothing secure to replace it;

• Total petroleum production from all presently known sources, conventional and unconventional, will remain "flat" at approximately 83 mbpd for the next two years and then will proceed to drop for the foreseeable future, at first slowly but by 4% per year after 2015.

• Demand will begin to outstrip supply in 2012, and will already be 10 million barrels per day above supply in only five years. The United States Joint Forces Command concurs with these findings.

• 10 million bpd is equivalent to half the United States ' entire consumption. To make up the difference, the world would have to find another Saudi Arabia and get it into full production in five years, an impossibility. See The Oil Drum

the seige on gaddafi's fuel supply

BBCNews | The BBC has learned that David Cameron set up a secret unit within Whitehall to mount covert economic operations against Colonel Gaddafi.

The so-called "Libya oil cell" helped block fuel supplies to Tripoli while ensuring that petrol and diesel continued to get through to the rebels in the east.

Whitehall officials said the unit - made up of a handful of civil servants, ministers and military figures - played a crucial role in starving the regime's war effort of fuel while making sure that the rebels could continue taking the fight to Gaddafi.

The unit was the brain child of the international development minister, Alan Duncan.
Discreet operation

The former oil trader convinced the prime minister in April that part of the solution to the conflict lay in oil. He persuaded the national security council that Gaddafi would defeat the rebels unless they got access to fuel and he was deprived of it.

So the secret cell was established in two discreet operations rooms in the Foreign Office where intelligence about oil and fuel movements was gathered and information and advice provided to the government and Nato.

The unit was headed up initially by a senior admiral, and then later by a senior government official, both of whom attended national security council meetings.

The cell advised Nato to blockade the port of Zawiya to prevent smugglers bringing in tankers full of fuel for Gaddafi's war effort.

They helped identify which oil tankers that Nato should interdict. They also helped locate other routes the smugglers were using to get fuel into Libya overland from Tunisia and Algeria.

The cell also provided intelligence to the rebels so they could cut off the supply of crude oil from the Nafusa mountains to Gaddafi's refinery at Zawiya.
'Tap turned off'

It also ensured that the sanctions regime against Libya was redrawn so that the rebels could get access to fuel from overseas.

And it encouraged London-based oil traders to sell fuel to the rebels in Benghazi by trying to minimise the risk they would take by having to wait for payment. It also ensured that the oil traders knew who to contact within the rebel hierarchy.

One Whitehall source said: "If you didn't have the fuel, you couldn't win the war. So our aim was to starve the west of fuel and make sure the rebels could keep going.

"Gaddafi had lots of crude but he couldn't refine it. So he had to rely on imported fuel. And we turned off that tap."

It emerged last night that Mr Duncan had once worked with Vitol, the oil company that provided fuel to the rebels. But Whitehall sources said there was no conflict of interest because the Libya oil cell had no commercial relationship with the company.

the siege of leningrad

DailyMail | The German siege of Leningrad lasted 900 days from September, 1941 to January, 1944. During that time 800,000 people, nearly a third of the population at the siege’s beginning, starved to death. Roughly one in three. Many of them in the streets.
Terrible times: Citizens of Leningrad after the German bombing in the winter of 1941

Terrible times: Citizens of Leningrad after the German bombing in the winter of 1941

Twenty years later I visited Leningrad. They took me to see the front line - a canyon gashed out of the landscape lined with shattered ruins of houses - as if a giant excavator had taken a mouthful of the city. Because we were still in the city, that was the shock. The Germans got that close.

The Leningraders still bore the signs. Here were so many old and shrivelled faces. Often you saw the flash of steel teeth. Dentists’ amalgam had run out early. The city’s stunning architecture (after all, it was, and now again is, St Petersburg) looked sadly worn except for certain restored cathedrals and palaces.

Few people outside realised what the siege was like. For years afterwards Stalin kept it dark. Deaths were underestimated. Its party leaders were purged. There were to be no other heroes of the war besides himself.

After the Khrushchev thaw, a new legend was propagated of a Leningrad whose heroic citizens unflinchingly disregarded the bombs and shells and starved quietly as willing sacrifices to defend the cradle of the Revolution.

Then, with the collapse of communism, archives began to open with their police records and siege diaries. This book seeks to tell objectively what really happened. It is a stark shocking tale.

The toll of that first winter is staggering. Leningrad was totally unprepared for siege - as Russia was for the German attack. It took only 12 weeks for the German and Finnish armies to cut off the city. In that time the evacuation of civilians and obtaining of food supplies were hugely bungled.

Andrei Zhdanov, the city’s Communist Party chief, actually telephoned Stalin to tell him that their warehouses were full - in order that he should look prepared. So several relief food trains were diverted elsewhere.

Over a million children and dependants were still in the city when the ring closed. In all there were 3.3 million mouths to feed.

Quite soon the bread ration had to be halved. By mid-November manual workers received 250 grams a day, the rest only half of that. But the bread had been adulterated with pine shavings. So people were existing (or failing to) on 400, even 300 calories.

Pet owners swapped cats in order to avoid eating their own. There wasn’t a dog to be seen. Only the zoo preserved its star attractions, like ‘Beauty’ the hippopotamus, with special rations of hay.

People searched desperately for substitute food. Cottonseed cake (usually burned in ships’ boilers), ‘macaroni’ made from flax seed for cattle, ‘meat jelly’ produced from boiling bones and calf skins, ‘yeast soup’ from fermented sawdust, joiners’ glue boiled and jellified, toothpaste, cough mixture and cold cream - anything that contained calories. They even licked the dried paste off the wallpaper.

The Black Market flourished openly on street stalls with ever rising prices. A fur coat fetched fewer and fewer kilograms of flour. Meanwhile the Party chiefs and their friends and connections, continued to look well fed to general resentment.

The first news that people had died from starvation met with incredulity: ‘Not the one I know? In broad daylight? With a Masters Degree?’

But before long people were concealing deaths in the family, hiding the bodies so that the deceased’s ration card could be used until it expired. Husbands and fathers helped to feed their families posthumously.

It was a very severe winter - temperatures of minus 35 degrees. Trams froze in their tracks. Buildings burned for days - fire services ceased to function. Factories closed, hospitals were overwhelmed, cemeteries could not keep pace. Bodies, shrouded but uncoffined, were dragged through the streets on sleds. At one cemetery gate a corpse propped upright with a cigarette in its mouth extended a frozen arm and finger as a sign post to the newest mass graves.
Commemoration: A Russian guard of honour marches at a ceremony for the 61st anniversary of the end of the siege

Commemoration: A Russian guard of honour marches at a ceremony for the 61st anniversary of the end of the siege

Of course there was a crime wave, mainly of adolescent muggers thieving food and ration cards. One 18-year-old killed his two younger brothers for their cards. Another murdered his granny with an axe and boiled her liver. A 17-year-old stole a corpse from a cemetery and put it through a mincer.

Rumours of cannibalism abounded. Amputated limbs disappeared from hospital theatres. Police records released years later showed that 2,000 people were arrested for cannibalism; 586 of them were executed for murdering their victims. Most people arrested however were women. Mothers smothered very young children to feed their older ones.

The spring of 1942 brought a thaw and with it edible dandelions and nettles. The population, now much reduced, set about raising vegetables.

what price kindness?

TheScientist | Here is the mystery: if evolution is a game of survival of the fittest, how to explain the persistence of traits which reduce individuals’ success at passing on their genes? Behold the stinging bee, the toilsome ant, the nurturing sterile mole rat. Consider the social amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum, in which altruistic stalk cells give their lives so their brothers can climb them to the tip of the cooperative spire and be carried away to better fortunes by a felicitous wind. Darwin was mesmerized by the apparent paradox of altruism in a nature “red in tooth and claw,” and proclaimed that absent a solution, his entire theory was suspect. Ever since, field biologists, mathematicians, geneticists, game theorists, psychologists, and of course philosophers have been trying to crack the mystery of the origins of kindness.

Price was one of them, and a man who came to the problem late in his career. He had worked as a chemist on the Manhattan Project, as an engineer at Bell Labs, as a systems analyst at IBM, and as a writer living in Greenwich Village. In 1967 he left his job, family, and country behind and moved to England to try to solve the altruism conundrum. Within less than six months, untrained in the field and working entirely alone, he wrote an equation that would come to bear his name. Where science had offered either the narrowness of nepotism (kin selection) or the clannishness of the tribe (group selection) as possible explanations for the evolution of altruism, the “Price equation” would provide a multilevel selection approach that would allow for both, and more. By partitioning selection into its different components—particularly for traits like altruism where interests apparently conflict between different levels of biological organization—the equation would ultimately find a central role in social evolution theory. Altruism could come about in different ways and via different routes.

But of course this was biological “kindness,” measured by the result of an action rather than its intention, so was there any true bearing on humans? It was this question that would ultimately lead Price to the streets of London, where, like a guardian angel, he tended to the homeless. And this question remains a challenge today, as we use neurogenetics, endocrinology, mathematical modeling, and fMRI to try to “find” kindness, empathy, and altruism in humans. The Price of Altruism puts this lofty quest in historical context, going back to Darwin and a cast of colorful characters—the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, the mathematical genius John von Neumann, and many others—who also sought the origins of altruism. Ultimately, Price’s suicide, among the unfortunate homeless of London whom he had striven to save, sheds more light on how difficult it is to find scientific solutions to deep human mysteries. A window onto the majesty of the scientific method alongside its limitations is the legacy that this entirely unique and dramatic life leaves behind.

Friday, September 02, 2011

america's big step back...,

NYTimes | A Silicon Valley maker of solar power arrays that was started with high hopes and $527 million in loans from the federal government said on Wednesday that it would cease operations. The failure of the company — and the loss to taxpayers — is likely to renew the debate in Washington about the wisdom of clean energy subsidies and loan guarantees.

President Obama praised the company, Solyndra, for its advanced technology during a visit last year. But in a statement on Wednesday, Solyndra said its business had run into trouble because of difficult global business conditions, including slowing demand for solar panels, and stiff competition.

The Energy Department, which approved the funding, said China’s subsidies to its solar industry were threatening the ability of Solyndra and other American manufacturers to compete. The price of a solar array, measured by cost per watt of capacity, has fallen 42 percent since December 2010, the agency said.

Two other American solar companies, Evergreen Solar and SpectraWatt, also sought bankruptcy protection in August, and both said competition from Chinese companies had contributed to their financial problems.

In the case of Solyndra, some experts said that regardless of the competition, the company’s unique designs, which were expensive to manufacture, were to blame for its failure.

Solyndra was promised loans of up to $535 million under a guarantee program authorized by Congress as part of the 2009 stimulus package. The Energy Department has made more than 40 promises of guarantees, of which Solyndra was the first. It has committed $18 billion in guarantees and expects to allocate several billion dollars more by the time the program finishes at the end of September. Fist tap brotherbrown.

a giant step forward for china...,

Technology Review | To see the future of solar power, take an hour-long train ride inland from Shanghai and then a horn-blaring cab trek through the smog of Wuxi, a fast-growing Chinese city of five million. After winding through an industrial park, you will arrive at the front door of Suntech Power, a company that in the few years since its founding has become the world's largest maker of crystalline-silicon solar panels.

Solar panels cover the entire front face of the sprawling eight-story headquarters. Nearly 2,600 two-meter-long panels form the largest grid-connected solar façade in the world. Together with an array of 1,800 smaller panels on the roof, it can generate a megawatt of power on a sunny day. It's expected to produce over a million kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year--enough for more than 300 people in China.

In 2001, when Suntech was founded, all the solar-panel factories in China operating at full capacity would have taken six months to build enough panels for such a massive array. Suntech's first factory, which opened in 2002, cut that time to a little more than a month. Today, the company can make that many panels in less than one 12-hour shift. By the end of this year, the workers could be done by lunchtime. Suntech's production capacity has increased from 10 megawatts a year in 2002 to well over 1,000 megawatts today. Chinese solar manufacturing as a whole has increased its capacity from two megawatts in 2001 to over 4,000 megawatts.

That rapid growth, fueled by relentless cost cutting, has allowed Chinese manufacturers to overtake those in the United States, Japan, and Germany in less than a decade to become the biggest source of solar panels in the world. Worldwide, Chinese solar panels accounted for about half of total shipments in 2009. And that share is expected to grow this year. Of the 10 largest solar-panel manufacturers, half are based in China. In 2007, U.S. manufacturers supplied 43 percent of the panels for a solar rebate program in California. The rest came almost exclusively from Japan and Germany; only 2 percent came from China. Now Chinese companies supply 42 percent of the panels, and the U.S. share has dropped to 15 percent according to an analysis by Nathaniel Bullard of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

no REALLY, how WILL you humans feed yourselves?

Video - More human for humans

Alternet | Come October, Atlas won't be shrugging, he'll be groaning as global population passes the 7 billion mark. Until very recently, demographers predicted that these numbers would peak in 2050 at just over 9 billion and then start to decline. The latest research, however, suggests that despite declining fertility across much of the world, population will continue to rise through this century to over 10 billion people.

With famine spreading in Somalia, another food crisis gripping North Korea, global food prices near a record high, and climate change threatening to reduce future harvests, the question continues to nag: are we outstripping our capacity to feed ourselves?

The good news is that the harvests this year promise to be bountiful. The bad news is that this increased grain production may still not be enough. The worse news is that millions more mouths to feed, over the long term, will increase pressure on the world's farmers to squeeze more and more food from less and less arable land.

In 2010, the world dipped into food reserves to make up for a 60-million-ton shortfall in grain production. This year, predicts the Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown, farmers will have to produce 100 million additional tons to meet last year's needs plus the increased demand. Based on a number of factors – better harvests in Russia versus droughts in China and the U.S. Midwest – Brown expects only an increase of about 80 million tons for 2011. The bottom line: food prices will continue to rise.

But that's just the short term. Most estimates of grain needs in 2050 suggest that production will have to increase by 70 percent. That means somehow conjuring a billion-plus tons of grain from the already strained resource base of Mother Earth.

There are basically four schools of thought on how to feed the world. The biotech crowd believes that genetic modification will eventually spur another Green Revolution that will dramatically boost yield per acre. The organics faction believes that industrial farming techniques have drained the aquifers and robbed the topsoil of nutrients, among other ecological ills, and only natural farming techniques can restore soil fertility and produce sustainable yields. Somewhere in the middle is the status-quo-plus gang, which believes that improvement of current practices can meet the needs of a growing world. And the fourth school is…well, I'll get to that in a moment.

how are you going to feed yourselves?

CSMonitor | Food and people. Thomas Malthus posed them as two forces rarely in balance. Plentiful food encourages population growth. A booming population devours more food than can be produced.

Students who learn of Malthus’s grim prediction usually take away two lessons. The first is the sharp contrast between arithmetic and geometric progression. Food supplies grow slowly, Malthus said. But consumers multiply like rabbits. A geometric progression outstrips an arithmetic one every time.

The second lesson is about why Malthus’s catastrophe hasn’t occurred. Most scholars think it is because the 19th-century Anglican parson didn’t have sufficient regard for technology and innovation. From the “green revolution” to global trade, from drip irrigation to entrepreneurial ingenuity, Homo sapiens learn and improve. We farm better, manage resources more carefully, and as education increases, birthrates fall.

A wise species – which is what “sapiens” means, after all – avoids a crash. That’s the story so far. But every rise in global food prices, every scene of malnutrition and starvation revives the old Malthusian fear. Malthus himself was careful not to predict when a judgment day would come. He simply noted a distinction between unlimited progress, of which he was skeptical, and “progress where the limit is merely undefined.” In other words, the jury may still be out.

Even if there hasn’t been one big catastrophe, there have been many regional ones since Malthus’s day. Famine in China, for instance, killed as many as 40 million people between 1958 and 1961. Bangladesh, Biafra, Ethiopia, and a dozen other regions suffered terrible food shortages in the 20th century. But these were not Malthusian events where a population outgrew its sustenance. Bad decisions – political incompetence, wars, brutal experiments such as Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” – were to blame.

We have about 40 years before the jury renders its final verdict on Malthus. The population of the planet is currently 6.9 billion. By 2050, it will hit 9.2 billion, according to the US Census Bureau. Because of declining birthrates, population specialists believe that will be the peak. Whether you think more population growth is good or bad, that’s the predicted trajectory.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

quandary of the hyperactive agent-detection defect

Video - Richard Dawkins clowns the arch-bishop of Canterbury.

Guardian | In the last 10 years or so, the rise of American evangelicalism and the menace of Islamist fundamentalism, along with developments in physics and in theories of evolution and cosmogony, have encouraged a certain style of aggressive, often strident atheistic critique. Books such as Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great have sold in the millions. Beyond the unlikely success of these books, there has also been the spread of atheist and secularist websites and blogs, some of them intellectually respectable, others more dogmatic and limited (ie, pretty atrocious). The events of 11 September 2001 were the obvious spur. In The End of Faith, the American writer Sam Harris argued that as long as America remains swamped in Christian thinking, it will never defeat militant Islamism, since one backward religious system cannot prevail over another backward religious system. Atheism would be the key to unlock this uneasy stalemate. Academics such as Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have broader projects, perhaps – for them, the removal of our religious blinkers will result in a proper appreciation of the natural world, and of science's ability to describe and decode it.

I can't be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them. For these writers, and many others, "religion" always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the more relaxed or progressive versions of Christianity are not in their argumentative sights. Along with this curious parochialism about the varieties of religious belief comes a simplistic reading of how people actually hold those beliefs. Terry Eagleton and others have rightly argued that, for millions of people, religious "belief" is not a matter of just totting up stable, creedal propositions ("I believe that Jesus is the son of God", "I believe that I will go to heaven when I die", and so on), but a matter of more unconscious, daily practice ("Now it is time to kneel down, face Mecca and pray"). This kind of defence of the deep embeddedness of religious practice has been influenced by Wittgenstein – for whom, say, kissing an icon was a bit like loving one's mother; something that cannot be subjected to an outsider's rational critique. Wittgenstein was obviously right, though this appeal to practice over proposition can also become a rather lazy way, for people like the Catholic Eagleton, of defending orthodox beliefs via the back door – as if a bishop encouraged his flock by saying, in effect: "It doesn't matter what you believe. Religion is not about propositions, but about practices. So stick at those practices: just keep on doing the church flowers and turning up every Sunday."

We know that plenty of people hold religious beliefs that are also propositions – they stand up and recite creeds on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; they can tell you who will be punished in hell, and how; they believe that Allah is the one God, and so on. Prayer itself is a proposition: it proposes that God exists, and can be communicated with. Rather than simply declaring all religious belief to be non-propositional, which is manifestly untrue, it would be more interesting to examine what might be called the practice of propositional beliefs. We know that people believe all kinds of things, as propositions. But how do they believe them? In this area, the New Atheism has nothing very interesting to say, except to wish away all such beliefs.

But people's beliefs are often fluctuating and changing – it is why people lose their faith, or convert to faith in God. If you spend any time asking people what they believe, how they believe, and why they believe the propositions they espouse in church or temple or mosque, you find that there is nothing very straightforward about propositional belief. Recently, I spent some time with two Christian believers, both ordained. One is an academic theologian and university chaplain, the other a religious affairs journalist. The academic theologian was walking with me in a university town, and began a sentence, "I believe." And then he caught himself, and added: "I don't know what I believe, at the moment." A few weeks later, I met the religious affairs journalist, who had for several years been a parish priest. During the course of our conversation, he asserted: "It is impossible to be a serious Christian and believe in heaven and hell." When I, who was raised in a strongly and conventionally religious home, expressed surprise and suggested that once one stops believing in heaven one might as well stop believing in God, he said, more vehemently: "It's exactly the opposite: not believing in heaven and hell is a prerequisite for serious Christian belief." Trapped in the childhood literalism of my background, I had not entertained the possibility of Christian belief separated from the great lure and threat of heaven and hell.

why god is the best punisher

ReligionBelief&Behavior | why, if selfish behavior became especially costly in human history, evolution did not favor a simpler solution for suppressing selfishness other than God: “why invoke … the cognitively costly and seemingly excessive deterrence of belief in all-knowing, all-powerful agents, rather than just improve accuracy or globally reduce confidence in the ability to defect?” (p. 61). This is exactly the right question to ask, it presents the greatest challenge to SPH, and it remains unanswered by their analysis. I propose that there are several good reasons why God – or other supernatural agents – make the best deterrents against selfishness.

First, the cognitive science of religion suggests that supernatural beliefs are not “cognitively costly.” They may be behaviorally costly, but beliefs in supernatural agency and supernatural consequences are the cognitive default, and are most easily accessed (Atran, 2004; Boyer, 2001; Purzycki et al., 2011). Other solutions, if they are (or once were) rivals, might therefore have been trumped simply by ease of supernatural cognition (whatever the reasons for it).

Second, God works because God is “excessive.” Error management theory (EMT) shows that assessment mechanisms that aim for the true probability of an event (e.g., the true probability p of detection for cheating) will be suboptimal because, given some distribution of mistakes (centered around estimates of p), half the time we will overestimate p (and get away with it), and half the time we will underestimate p (and get caught). Therefore, simply “improving accuracy” (in estimating p), as S&M suggest, will not necessarily help. Indeed, if false negative errors (assuming secrecy and getting caught) are more costly than false positive errors (assuming detection and missing a reward), then only exaggerated estimates of the probability of detection (e.g., a false belief that supernatural agents are watching you) will avoid the worst errors. EMT thus suggests that the best solution to avoiding the problem of detection is a mechanism that overestimates the true probability of detection. If humans are already overconfident about their likelihood of getting away with cheating, as S&M argue, then the counter-balancing bias would need to be greater still. Their concern that God is a “seemingly excessive” deterrent is prescient – the threat of punishment may need to be excessive, such as an omniscient and omnipotent God, as this is the only way (or at least one good way) to make overconfident humans avoid dangerous mistakes (Johnson, 2009b).

Third, one response to the EMT argument above is to accept the point – we need biased, not accurate, assessment – but to invoke a non-religious cognitive bias to correct the problem instead of God. However, as S&M already point out, the problem arises in part because of overconfidence in avoiding detection, so we cannot simultaneously postulate a bias in underconfidence in avoiding detection as well. God offers an alternative tool to solve the problem in a different way.

Fourth, cognitive biases might act as cautionary mind-guards, but they suffer two weaknesses: (1) a cognitive bias may suppress selfishness but has no consequences, whereas God suppresses selfishness and punishes if cheating is discovered; (2) a cognitive bias only affects individuals, with no external validation, whereas a belief in supernatural punishment is a shared aspect of culture that is reinforced by the whole community and bolstered by explanations of multiple events.

Fifth, the empirical evidence suggests that people do expect supernatural punishment for selfish behavior (even atheists in some cases), while there is a lack of evidence for alternative psychological mechanisms (only overconfidence, as noted, which works in the opposite direction).
Sixth, some empirical evidence suggests that religious beliefs are more effective at suppressing selfish behavior and promoting cooperation than equivalent non-religious beliefs (e.g., Sosis & Bressler, 2003). So even if alternative mechanisms exist now or in the past, religion may have had the competitive edge in selection.

Seventh, God offers better detection. Since humans are limited by the laws of nature, real-world detection is by no means certain to occur. By contrast, supernatural agents, though variable in power and motives, are peculiar precisely because of their ability to be in many places at one time and to have access to people's thoughts and actions. No human can match the detection abilities of God.

Eighth, God offers better punishment. We might fear detection by other humans, but how bad can the consequences be? Typical punishments are some form of sanction, which may deter some, but not all. Even major punishments such as death are somewhat finite. The thing about God is that God's punishments can be significantly worse than any earthly punishments that humans could inflict: they are certain, possibly worse than death, and infinite. No human can match the punishing abilities of God.

Ninth, supernatural punishment may trump other solutions, even good ones, because of a range of evolutionary constraints (Johnson, 2009a; McKay & Dennett, 2009): (1) economics – a fear of supernatural agency may have been biologically cheaper or more efficient to select or sustain than alternatives; (2) history – a capacity for supernatural beliefs may have been more readily available, especially given the recent evolution of theory of mind (itself necessary for beliefs in supernatural agents and agency), which gave rise to the very problem we are trying to solve (the increased costs of selfishness with social transparency); (3) adaptive landscape – fear of detection and punishment by supernatural agents may have been a small step up the local fitness peak from fear of detection and punishment by human agents, even if better solutions from, say, corrective cognitive biases occupy higher fitness peaks beyond uncrossable valleys in the adaptive landscape.

To summarize this section, supernatural agents may be the only way (or at least one good way) of scaring people into avoiding costly social mistakes, especially given the human overconfidence in avoiding detection that S&M identify. “Simple prudence” (S&M, 2011), “cautious action policies” (McKay & Dennett, 2009), or even relying on our “conscience,” may not be good enough. As long as people believe it (an important caveat, of course), deterrence by supernatural agents is vastly superior to any alternative. In the ideal type (an all-powerful God), supernatural punishment solves several tricky game theoretical problems: (1) cheats are automatically detected (God is omniscient); (2) cheats are automatically punished (God is omnipotent); (3) there are no “second-order free riders” (God does the punishing); (4) there are no reprisals against punishers (no vigilantes are needed); and (5) there are fewer first-order free riders (reducing the necessity and thus the costs of real-world monitoring and punishment). The ideal type may be rare because in traditional societies supernatural agents typically do not have the full complement of powers as above, but the theoretical logic remains even if there is variance in the extent of supernatural agent capabilities and the extent to which people believe in them. Despite variation, supernatural agents are much better than humans at solving the game theoretical problems of cooperation.

supernatural punishment: what traits are being selected?

ReligionBrain&Behavior | In their critical analysis of supernatural punishment (SP) theories, Schloss and Murray (2011) tease apart two distinct but often conflated adaptationist approaches to religion: those that argue that religious belief enhances cooperation (cooperation enhancement, CE), and those that say that it helps people to withstand the temptation to cheat, helping them avoid the costs of being punished (punishment avoidance, PA). They also make a distinction between individual selection and group selection. However, they pay little attention to the traits that are the targets of selection: evolved psychological dispositions, flexible behavioral strategies, or culturally transmitted norms. These three types of traits roughly correspond to three styles of evolutionary approach to human behavior: evolutionary psychology, behavioral ecology, and dual inheritance theories (Smith, 2000). Each has a different expected temporal scale in which adaptive change takes place – this constrains the plausibility of particular hypotheses and their mutual compatibility.

Evolutionary psychologists explain our behavioral repertoire as a result of evolved psychological adaptations, which were shaped in ancestral environments. Let us examine PA accounts from this perspective. If belief in SP is an ancient adaptation, we would expect it to have emerged in small, egalitarian groups, where there is a tendency to punish all defection. The strong connection between detection and defection costs in such societies is said to favor the evolution of God-fearing psychological mechanisms. However, the purported egalitarianism of ancient human groups is to some extent an idealization, because evidence for social inequality, in the form of lavish beadwork in children's burials, dates back at least to the Upper Paleolithic (Vanhaeren & d'Errico, 2005). It is unlikely that in such societies everyone would have faced the same risk of being punished. Also, ethnographic parallels show that at least some small-scale egalitarian societies (e.g. Ju’/hoansi, Kalahari hunter-gatherers) practice mainly low-cost forms of punishment, including gossip and jokes at the expense of the offender (Wiessner, 2005). The low cost of punishment (for both offender and punisher) seems incompatible with PA. As Wiessner (2005, p. 135) says: “[this] informal means of punishment would be ineffective or insufficient in a larger-scale society with less mobility.” Taken together, it seems unlikely that PA emerged in ancestral environments. For the evolutionary psychologist, CE thus remains the only viable option, but it then still remains unclear, as Schloss and Murray aptly point out, why religion, rather than other forms of group-level activities, would enhance cooperation. Indeed, the plenitude of Upper Palaeolithic mobiliary art, such as Magdalenian Venus figurines, and their geographic clustering in distinct styles suggest that art may have been used to affirm group identity and group commitment (De Smedt & De Cruz, in press).

Behavioral ecology takes the current environment as the relevant context of adaptation, and builds models on the basis of expected utility of different behaviors. As organisms are expected to optimize their behavioral repertoire to their ecological and social contexts, this approach predicts little or no mismatch between expected and actualized fitness benefits. Forms of CE that see religion as costly signaling are compatible with this approach, because it expects individuals to make flexible, optimal choices, which could include a choice for a religious affiliation that allows for costly signaling. However, this places limitations on the explanatory scope of SP theories. They cannot explain, for example, why hunter-gatherers or medieval villeins would be religious, since there is little point in the costly signaling of one's membership in a religious community if there is no freedom of religious choice. After all, a “free market” of religious groups is a relatively recent and not globally widespread phenomenon, mainly restricted to northern America (Finke & Stark, 1989). Many European countries have state-funded churches with low levels of expected commitment, which makes competition by smaller high-commitment religious groups harder. Prior to the eighteenth century, religious choice was quasi nonexistent, as the treatment of religious minorities in Europe exemplifies – one need but think of the massacre of the Cathars in southern France, or the historical persecution of Protestants. There is still no freedom of religion for the present-day Iraqi housewife. So, although behavioral ecology allows for CE, it seems to be limited in explanatory scope.

Dual inheritance theories examine human behavior as a product of culturally transmitted norms that have effects on genetic fitness, and that can thus become part of a feedback loop. This approach is the most congenial to the possibility of group selection. In particular, groups must be distinct from each other and form cohesive wholes for group selection to occur. Group selection also requires that the fitness benefits of altruistic groups over selfish groups must outweigh the fitness benefits of selfish individuals over altruistic individuals within mixed groups (Sterelny, 1996). Human cultures, with their ethnic markers and distinct languages, do exhibit high between-group variation, and considerable within-culture homogeneity, allowing for group selection to occur. It is within this context that we can situate Norenzayan and Shariff's (2008) argument that belief in supernatural sanction is a group-level adaptive cultural response to life in large societies, where interactions between unrelated and unacquainted agents become increasingly important. However, as they themselves point out, the presence of large, cooperative and not very religious groups indicates that secular institutions like the police can be equally successful in instilling cooperation. From the perspective of dual inheritance theory, PA seems thus not very likely, since people in at least some societies (e.g. agnostic Scandinavian countries) can withstand the temptation to cheat when effective punitive mechanisms are present without belief in divine punishment.

While different SP theories are not all mutually incompatible, some of them may be so because of their divergent assumptions about the temporal scale on which selection acts and which traits are the targets of selection. Depending on the style of evolutionary approach one chooses, contrasting SP theories can be fleshed out. However, like most SP theorists, Schloss and Murray and remain inexplicit about whether psychological mechanisms, behavioral strategies or cultural traits play the most prominent role in their review of the evolution of religious behavior.

no seriously, how ARE you humans going to feed youselves?

Alternet | Come October, Atlas won't be shrugging, he'll be groaning as global population passes the 7 billion mark. Until very recently, demographers predicted that these numbers would peak in 2050 at just over 9 billion and then start to decline. The latest research, however, suggests that despite declining fertility across much of the world, population will continue to rise through this century to over 10 billion people.

With famine spreading in Somalia, another food crisis gripping North Korea, global food prices near a record high, and climate change threatening to reduce future harvests, the question continues to nag: are we outstripping our capacity to feed ourselves?

The good news is that the harvests this year promise to be bountiful. The bad news is that this increased grain production may still not be enough. The worse news is that millions more mouths to feed, over the long term, will increase pressure on the world's farmers to squeeze more and more food from less and less arable land.

In 2010, the world dipped into food reserves to make up for a 60-million-ton shortfall in grain production. This year, predicts the Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown, farmers will have to produce 100 million additional tons to meet last year's needs plus the increased demand. Based on a number of factors – better harvests in Russia versus droughts in China and the U.S. Midwest – Brown expects only an increase of about 80 million tons for 2011. The bottom line: food prices will continue to rise.

But that's just the short term. Most estimates of grain needs in 2050 suggest that production will have to increase by 70 percent. That means somehow conjuring a billion-plus tons of grain from the already strained resource base of Mother Earth.

There are basically four schools of thought on how to feed the world. The biotech crowd believes that genetic modification will eventually spur another Green Revolution that will dramatically boost yield per acre. The organics faction believes that industrial farming techniques have drained the aquifers and robbed the topsoil of nutrients, among other ecological ills, and only natural farming techniques can restore soil fertility and produce sustainable yields. Somewhere in the middle is the status-quo-plus gang, which believes that improvement of current practices can meet the needs of a growing world. And the fourth school is…well, I'll get to that in a moment.

evolutionary accounts of belief in supernatural punishment

ReligionBrain&Behavior | Although largely unaddressed by evolutionary theory for more than a century after Darwin, over the last decade a wide range of adaptationist, byproduct, and memetic explanations have emerged for various recurrent features of religious belief and practice. One feature that has figured prominently in adaptationist accounts of religion is belief in the reality of moralizing, punishing supernatural agents. However, there is at present no unified theory of what fitness-relevant feature of the selective environment to which this cognitive predisposition is adapted. We distinguish two divergent and often conflated approaches to supernatural punishment theory which hypothesize the adaptive character of such beliefs arise from the fact that they increase cooperation or decrease the cost of incurring punishment for norm violations. We evaluate these, and group and individual selectionist versions, in view of game theoretic models, experimental studies, and ethnographic data in light of which each proposal is plausible but with which none is fully concordant.

stratification and supernatural punishment: cooperation or obedience?

ReligionBrain&Behavior | Schloss and Murray (S&M) have provided an insightful and important contribution to our understanding of the role of supernatural punishment in the evolution of religious systems. Future researchers will need to pay particular attention to their refinements of the cooperation enhancement (CE) and punishment avoidance (PA) approaches. While S&M acknowledge “considerable empirical support that … belief in supernatural sanctions [is associated with] recent, cosmopolitan religions” (p. 57) their approach could be further refined through greater attention to the role of social, economic and political stratification in the shaping of religious doctrine (Cronk, 1994). We argue that stratification and hierarchy are the critical elements in producing a cognitive ecology and social structure in which punishing gods can thrive.

Humans are famously obedient to authority (e.g., Milgram, 1963), and there is a great deal of empirical evidence that males in particular possess cognitive adaptations to assess dominance status and modify behavior accordingly. A number of visible traits including stature (Hensley, 1993), eye color (Kleisnera, Kočnara, Rubešováb, & Flegra, 2010), and facial structure (Mueller & Mazur, 1996) have been shown to signal dominance, and humans seem to use auditory clues as well. Subordinate men, for instance, unconsciously adjust their vocal pitch to that of a dominant conversation partner (Gregory & Webster, 1996; see also Gregory & Gallagher, 2002; Puts, Gaulin, & Verdolini, 2006; Puts, Hodges, Cárdenas, & Gaulin, 2007). Thus, humans seem to have a number of psychological adaptations that allow us to perceive and navigate status hierarchies effectively.
Hierarchy and stratification are important but not ubiquitous in human societies (Dubreuil, 2010), and there is considerable variation even among types of societies that are often painted with broad strokes. For example, hunter-gatherers are frequently labeled as egalitarian, but many such groups include some stratification (Kelly, 1995). Status differences based upon sex and age are particularly common (e.g., Hart and Pilling, 1979). Stratification may have its greatest incidence in larger human societies, but its seeds are present even among the smallest, most homogeneous groups.

Stratification is maintained through mechanisms of social control. Coercion is one obvious way to maintain control, but it can be costly. Manipulation through the use of signals is often a less costly and less risky alternative. As Schloss and Murray (2011) note, judgmental gods and judgment-based afterlife beliefs are not universal. Considerable evidence exists that such beliefs are rare among hunter-gatherer, small-scale, and egalitarian societies, and common among food producing, large-scale, and hierarchical societies. Swanson (1960) may have been the first to note an association between stratification and the belief in supernatural powers that reward and punish individuals according to how well they behave (see also Peregrine, 1996). Similarly, Roes and Raymond (2003) found an association between social complexity and the belief in moralizing gods. Most recently, Dickson, Olsen, Dahm, and Wachtel (2005) found an association between subsistence type (a common proxy for degree of stratification) and the belief that the quality of one's experience in the next life is contingent upon how one behaves in this one. While only 10% of food collecting societies maintain such beliefs, nearly 90% of plow agricultural societies have them. As societies become more socially, economically, and politically stratified, punitive, judgmental gods and judgmental afterlife beliefs become much more common.
Hierarchies can also serve to protect individuals from those lower in rank. If a worker objects to something her boss is telling her to do, the boss can always appeal to the hierarchy: “I, too, am just following orders.” When the top of the hierarchy is occupied by a capricious, omniscient, incorporeal being whose primary concern is obedience, a ruler's accountability is reduced even further. By enforcing the divinely prescribed order of things, the ruler is merely doing his or her job.

The hierarchical approach creates a framework in which the CE and PA approaches can be seen as working together. The CE viewpoint suggests that the threat of supernatural punishment enhances cooperation among all members of religious groups. An unstated assumption is that this cooperation benefits all participants. While the hierarchical perspective does not contradict that argument, it suggests that costs and benefits may be distributed unequally – those nearer the top of the hierarchy may benefit much more than those at the bottom. The PA account suggests that individuals subscribe to beliefs that include supernatural punishment in order to avoid real world punishment. In the hierarchical view, elites are using the threat of supernatural punishment as an inexpensive means of encouraging non-elites to follow the rules, but real-world punishment is, of course, a fallback option.

One of the predictions of the hierarchical perspective has already been supported: there is indeed a cross-cultural association between social stratification and belief in judgmental gods. We also predict a relationship at the individual level between the degree to which people believe in the hierarchical system and the strength of their beliefs in supernatural punishment.