Today’s newspaper will be used to wrap fish within a couple of days, they say. But today it’s no less important for that. Of course, people read selectively and notice very different things. I am moderately satisfied with what I gleaned from today’s New York Times, plus the car radio. After my usual four hours with the Sunday Times, I drove through new, mostly unplowed, snow out to buy a Persian rug to hang over my bed. I am satisfied with it too: a Yalameh about 3 by 5 feet with a mainly rose-colored background and a geometric design. I appreciate imperfections in a carpet. I want it to be apparent that human hands made it.
The car radio told me that according to the first reports from Russia, Putin's party is winning 60 percent of the votes. Well, that’s not too bad. Other journalists had predicted a landslide. In the West, 60 percent would be a landslide, but my worry was that the Russian election would be so corrupt that Putin’s party would get 90 percent or so. That may still happen, but it seems less likely. This election definitely cannot be called fair; there has been intimidation, and the opposing candidates have been jailed or beaten for daring to criticize Putin. The former chess master, Garry Kasparov, for example, (see photo) was jailed for running a pro-democracy political demonstration. Still, if the total of opposition parties can win up to 40 percent, given such circumstances, it means there may be hope for democracy within our lifetime.
Maybe the trouble with Russia is that democracy was handed to them on a silver platter by Gorbachev. I was reading an article by Peter Ackerman and somebody else, posted on the Freedom House web site. They analyzed 67 transitions toward democracy around the world, and found that in over 70 percent of the cases, the democratic reforms resulted from grassroots civil resistance rather than a decision from the rulers. Moreover, those newly democratic or partially democratic countries were more likely to succeed and consolidate the reforms if the changes had been won by popular action, rather than the decision of the political leaders. Gorbachev introduced the changes in Russia, and not in response to popular demand. I wouldn’t want to diminish the bravery of the dissidents who did oppose the regime, but in fact they were far from numerous and had almost no impact on the party elite. So when Gorbachev liberalized, nobody appreciated it. Probably what he should have done was to split the Communist Party in two, to build in a legitimate competitive system. But maybe that would not have helped. Unless people demand democracy on their own, they are unlikely to keep it. It may be a long time before the Russians form a popular pro-democratic movement. So far, they are satisfied – possibly because the price of oil is high and they are prospering. Evidently, even in Russia, “it’s the economy, stupid!”
Then in the Times the articles that pleased me most were about algae and innovations to meet the challenges of climate change. Scientists are hard at work in numerous separate labs working to develop the algae energy system. As a biofuel source, it is something like 70 times as efficient as corn, and more compact; it doesn’t crowd out the use of agriculture for food production. The challenge is to find a way to produce fuel for under $2 per gallon. They expect to achieve that, but it will take a few years. The article didn’t write about the use of algae to remove carbon dioxide from smokestacks. That’s actually quite a promising solution, especially for coal-burning plants.
Then Thomas Friedman wrote a column about how students at MIT have formed an organization to seek solutions to the energy problems. And some other universities are working together to develop a new plug-in electric hybrid car. I don’t think the government is putting nearly enough money into research on these problems. But one private project is aiming to produce 1 gigawatts -- enough alternative energy to meet the needs of San Francisco. Even if Bush won’t lift a finger, there are smart, dedicated people who may save us anyhow.