Saturday, December 29, 2007

Teach Immigrants to Drive

We learn a lot as kids, just incidentally, when riding around in the back seat of the family car. Probably people who learn to drive without those childhood experiences make mistakes that we would not. Today I had lunch with some friends from Burma — L, a man in his fifties and V, his daughter, age 25, who had recently passed her . It wasn’t easy, she said. The first test was not successful, so she had tried again. This was understandable, since in Burma she had hardly ever been in a car.

I shuddered slightly, recalling a time forty years ago when the young minister of my church mentioned that he was teaching his Russian bride to drive. “She makes some ridiculous mistakes that you and I would never consider,” he had told me, “because she never had much familiarity with cars in Russia, even as a passenger.”

At lunch today I suggested mildly that the government should offer new free ; it would save lives. But my friends did not agree, so I dropped the subject. It had been tactless of me to propose it anyhow. A month ago L’s wife had died in a car crash, along with her sister and the sister’s baby. Four months before that, his wife’s brother-in-law also had been killed in a car crash. These people were all new immigrants, fresh from , settling in a small North Carolina town. Though inexperienced behind the wheel, they had found jobs and needed to drive to get to work. What a loss!

How frequently do such tragedies occur on the roads? I did a little checking about the subject by Google tonight. Unfortunately, it seems that no one is compiling statistics to compare the driving records of immigrants to those of native-born Americans or Canadians. The only thing that came up excoriated the driving specifically of “ ” — meaning in the United States. There is a big political debate going on about how to handle the influx from Mexico, and this gave plenty of ammunition to the “get-tough” approach. Indeed, the facts were unsettling. According to one study, whereas 5 percent of the population of East Coast states is Hispanic “they are involved in 25% of the fatal traffic accidents.” A number of explanations are offered, including especially the acceptability in Latino culture of driving after heavy drinking. This paper was an eye-opener, to be sure, but focused too narrowly on Hispanics to answer my more general question.

Stymied, I had to search for international comparisons and here I found some surprising facts. According to the World Bank, about 800,000 people die on the world’s road each year. An additional 24 million are injured. The is about 1 percent of GDP in low income countries. It is the ninth leading cause of death today and the World Health Organization predicts that it will be the third leading cause of death worldwide in 2020, right after heart disease.

I learned a lot from a World Bank Power Point presentation, which included the chart shown above. Traffic fatalities occur mainly in countries where cars are not common. Those countries that are heavily motorized — notably in Western Europe and North America — have comparatively low rates of accidents, whereas Asia’s rates are shockingly high.

Moreover, in the affluent highly motorized countries, traffic fatalities per capita have been declining over the past several decades, even as the have increased in those places.

When the causes of motor crashes are investigated, by far the main blame has to be attributed to the driver, not flaws in the vehicle or in the road. Excess speed, alcohol consumption, and the youthfulness of the driver are the most common factors. Nevetheless, safety can be improved markedly by such physical measures as , speed bumps, and reflective strips on the backpacks of bicyclists.

If Asia is now the world’s leader in automotive fatalities, must we expect the situation there to become worse as every family acquires its own car? I am not sure of the answer. If, as I have reported, Canadian fatalities decrease while car ownership increases, will Chinese fatalities also decrease while car ownership increases there? I doubt it. One World Bank study sought to explain the decline in fatalities per vehicle kilometer traveled observed in high-income countries over recent decades. One reason is that pedestrian fatalities declined, but the main factors were the reduction in alcohol use, improved medical services, and a reduction in young drivers. But I would imagine that in Asia, as cars become more commonplace, the proportion of young drivers will increase, rather than decline as in Europe and North America. The World Bank proposes, accordingly, that the important policy to adopt is a system of driver education for youths and a reduction in speed limits in those countries where young people will constitute an increasing share of the driving population.

This is all very interesting but it doesn’t give any clear answer to my question about immigrants to North America. Nevertheless, I’m prepared to stick by my original proposal. Every death costs society. Many people immigrate to such countries as Canada or the United States from areas where cars are uncommon. Their lack of familiarity with common automotive practices makes them especially vulnerable. We should be offering them free driving lessons, just as all first-rate high schools offer drivers education to young people before they set out on the road.

How can we make this happen? I welcome your comments.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Generic Christmas Letter, 2007

Much happiness to you all!

My year has been wonderful — because it was so full of excellent . I’m still influenced by an epiphany I experienced at age seven. My grandmother was teaching our Sunday School class and someone asked her what heaven was. She explained that it was a place where you can go after dying, and there will be no problems whatever. Anything you wish for, you will immediately get. I decided that I’d refuse to go to such a boring place. I’d want lots of difficult problems. And I still do.

When people hear this, they ask me how many problems I require. Until this year I have replied, “About as many as the world offers now.” But I was wrong. In 2007 the world has offered more and more of them and I have felt even more interested and happy. Normally there is a shortage of wonderful opportunities to make a difference, but now they are abundant. Hence I’m willing to share some of my top issues with you.

There are still the . Unfortunately, fewer people realize how dangerous they are, so this compounds the problem. We anti-nuclear weapons activists have to work even harder, especially to effect before there’s an accidental detonation. (Let me know if you care to tackle this, since I can provide useful information.) Oddly, those old warriors, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and George Schultz have joined Robert McNamara in campaigning against nuclear weapons. And both Obama and Edwards are on their side. Not Hillary, though.

But to me 2007 brought a huge new challenge: the looming prospect of climate change. I got interested, paradoxically, when some dear friends joined the ““ movement and induced me to read about that. I concluded that the impending shortage of oil won’t be a serious problem, as my friends believe, but that the continued and growing use of it is the real problem. So I have devoted most of my time to the search for solutions to , which I offer herewith.

The best solutions came from a splendid book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, by a British journalist, (see photo). You must see Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and read Monbiot’s book before you do another thing in 2008! Then you and I have to make some lifestyle changes to reduce .

Fortunately, Monbiot shows that we can continue living comfortably (albeit with a few noticeable changes) as we handle these problems. We won’t have to retire to mud huts to save the planet from burning. However, we must drastically limit . Sir ’s search for solutions notwithstanding, there are no near prospects that planes can run on renewable resources. Accordingly, I will no longer fly unless the reason is urgent and of compelling importance. No more family visits or holidays abroad. I’m trying to get my computer set up with video-conferencing equipment so we can have coffee klatches for five people for free. That should compensate for a lot – but not for the hugs I’ll miss. I traveled to Ottawa, to Montreal, and to Atlanta via New York by train and will soon go to Florida by train too. Car trips with one or two passengers are morally okay. I rode to Nova Scotia with my friends Adele and Peter Buckley to celebrate ’s 50th anniversary. But I need to go to Russia for research on a long-stalled book, and for that I may have to fly unless I can find a freighter that accepts arthritic 76-year-olds. Most don’t.

Then there’s the food issue. Some say we should eat locally, but I’m not willing to jeopardize the livelihood of poor producers who send us mangoes, chocolate, and coffee. (You can take on solving that problem if you want to.)

However, I did get conscientious about eating meat from animals. Beef is worst, so I won’t eat much of it or veal anymore. But even milk cows fart and burp , so I am moving toward soy milk and cheese from sheep and goats. I cannot ascertain how much less methane sheep and goats produce, but so far I still eat their meat. And also pigs, poultry, and fish, none of which are ruminants. Methane is about eight times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than .

Individually, these are the main contributions we can make right now. We’ll have to make big institutional changes to reduce greenhouse gases sufficiently. We have to choose between two solutions: versus . I prefer the latter. (To read an explanation and justification for this preference, see the December issue of Scientific American.) As a member of Science for Peace, I organized a Carbon Tax committee that meets for dinner in a restaurant once a month to hear a speaker on the subject. As soon as we are well-informed, we’ll launch a campaign to make the general public aware and stimulate political demand. In January we will begin training ourselves to give twenty-minute Power Point lectures on carbon dioxide taxation in church basements. We have a petition almost ready to go.

This group now includes several real experts and, apart from endorsing carbon taxation, we don’t always agree. There are three main controversies; they concern biofuels, nuclear power, and economic growth.

We all do agree that from corn is a terrible idea, if only because it is taking land out of production for food. But it is inefficient too; you only get 1.3 times as much energy out of the ethanol as you put into producing it. One of our members argues that no biofuel can be sustainable, but some of us disagree. Soon there is coming a technology for making ethanol from products. The efficiency will be much greater than that of corn-based ethanol and it’s sustainable, but I admit that it cannot be anywhere near adequate to solve our energy shortage.

Then there’s the question of nuclear power. Everyone knows that there are dangers involved, but some people think the demand for energy is increasing so fast that it is hard to argue against constructing new . The alternative is , but those of us who want neither it nor nuclear have to show that there are ways to develop alternative fuels quickly enough to make up for the looming deficiency. That’s still possible, but a huge challenge.

A third controversy concerns economic growth. Some members of our group (and environmentalists at large) believe that the capitalist economy cannot continue to grow, since everything we manufacture uses up finite natural resources and destroys the world’s inter-dependent ecosystems.

But if we want to retain (and I certainly do) we will have to sustain economic growth, since every business must bring in more money than it spent, so as to repay the investors with interest. Without economic growth, firms will collapse, one by one.

Recognizing this fact, there are some in our group who would even switch to some form of localized communism to stop economic growth, though it would also reduce consumption. Any such change would also halt economic development in the poorest countries of the world, so I would never support such a change. Economic development is the key to reducing and producing a healthy, educated, democratic global society.

Fortunately, it will be possible to have economic growth without destroying the environment. In Third World countries the poorest people are now making real progress for the first time through the spread of micro-credit and micro-finance systems. (See ). More efficient technologies can hasten such growth.

In our affluent societies the trend is toward “” of the economy by the growth of the knowledge sector. Almost no friends of mine actually manufacture anything tangible, but as professionals we are prosperous and our economies are growing. Our output consists, not of things, but of ideas, which we sell to each other or to corporations or the government. As for consumption, the same de-materialization goes on. “The good life” no longer consists of acquiring multiple homes, fashionable clothes, or wine cellars, but of practicing yoga, listening to tiny iPods, and getting psychotherapy sessions. Money changes hands, but with little use of raw materials. The increasing need not involve an increased “through-put” of physical stuff. But I have not brought all of my friends round to this way of thinking.

Clearly, the future of humankind depends on the policies we adopt. This challenge excites me. Yet climate change does not depend wholly on our success in reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. There are several other variables in the equation. For example, the soil and oceans are huge carbon sinks. Whenever a plow turns over a furrow and exposes the to the air, the carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Left alone, the roots would retain the CO2 for a generation or more. is bad; farmers need to develop alternative methods, as for example by not tilling the soil and keeping groundcover growing all the time. And herds of animals should be kept bunched tightly together and moved around together; their movements maintain the health of the soil. (See Savory, Holistic Management.)

Knowledge is changing fast as research continues to explore the factors determining climate change. For example, in my blog I wrote about a NOVA show that portrayed “” as one of the great dangers we now confront. The writers said that water vapor, gases, contrails from airplanes, and particulates in the atmosphere blanket south Asia during the dry season with “.” These presumably block out some of the sunshine, having an overall cooling effect on the planet that partially offsets the warming effect of greenhouse gases. This means that the true effect of greenhouse gases would be even worse were these pollutants removed from the air, as we must certainly try to do, if only for the sake of our health. The “global dimming” theory was bad news, presenting a dilemma: Clean up the pollution or die even faster from global warming.

But I was mistaken – or rather, NOVA was mistaken. Subsequent research reveals that the brown clouds have several ingredients that have differing effects on the climate. The clouds do cool the atmosphere, but the particulates largely add to the warming of the planet. Hence if we remove the from Asia’s developing industrial economy, we will help to cool the planet instead of worsening our problem. And one way to help cool the planet might be to increase the cloud cover by spraying water vapor.

This brings us to the topic of . Every delay in reducing greenhouse gases decreases the chance that we’ll keep the planet’s heating below two degrees – the threshold number where terrible, possibly irreversible changes must be expected. That being so, there is every reason to begin developing alternative ways of saving the planet. A number of different technological innovations have been proposed for cooling Earth. My favorite is ’s “,” which would soak up the carbon from the atmosphere, so that it can be buried. This would be expensive, but with enough of these structures at work, the atmosphere could be restored to pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide.

There are several other such engineering proposals, such as one scheme that would put mirrors in outer space to deflect light away from the planet and thereby keep it cooler. I have written about these in my blog throughout the year.

I haven’t said much about my personal life, which has been generally rewarding. I had a cataract removed from one eye. I continue to work on the development of a movie or TV series about a Green Cross team. (There are grounds to hope for success on this latter project, but the eggs have not hatched, so I won’t count the chickens yet.) I am surrounded tonight by poinsettias, the gifts from my warm and interesting friends, who assembled here last night for dinner. On New Years Day, I’ll celebrate with even more others here too.

May you have many fascinating problems throughout the New Year!



Friday, December 21, 2007


Only recently have I learned the expression: “to .” I have done it a couple of times in my life, but only furtively, expecting to be caught looking cheap. (In fact, that would have constituted lead-pipe evidence that I was cheap.)

But now that I have enough money to buy appropriate gifts, my heart is not in it. I visited an indoors craft show a few weeks ago that covered at least one city block. It seemed vulgar, somehow. Most things were created with imagination and high quality; it was only the excess that disturbed. I did buy a vase and a mug, but then my friend Rheta mentioned the word “regifting,” and my imagination soared. What a wonderful idea!

This is not my manifesto opposing or . I celebrate both. I will never join your Marxist revolution. (I’ve been in too many Communist countries to be taken in by that.) And I believe it is not necessary for us to deprive ourselves much in order to live in harmony with nature. We just need to substitute the purchase of more pleasures for unneeded physical commodities. So imagine how regifting can help with that!

A large fraction of all occur at Christmas, when it is extremely common to find that our intended recipients “already have everything.” But it is possible to stop almost all of these Christmas purchases without depriving our loved ones of the fun of Christmas presents. We all have things that we could give up without regret — not just cheesy things, either. If we just circulated our surplus things around, the stores could close at Christmas and we’d be reducing our by a huge amount. (I wish I could calculate just how much, but your imagination will approximate the missing number.) When we’re talking about saving the planet, this could be a big, big contribution.

I read a couple of blogs by other people who “admit” to regifting, as if they were owning up to something embarrassing. One of them, by a woman named Eileen, includes a list of possible mistakes, to help other would-be regifting perpetrators keep from being caught out. She reminds us to make sure the cards from our original donors have been removed before we re-wrap. And she advises against regifting to people in the same social network. Thus, if your gift came from a family member, it’s safe to regift it to a co-workers, but not to another family member. That makes sense. Probably you wouldn’t like to see your cousin unwrap the very same earrings that you gave to your sister the night before. Or maybe you wouldn't mind.

Anyway, let’s lighten up about it. Regifting is not a shameful practice but a real contribution to the planet. There are lots of ways to make sure we aren’t unnecessarily elevating the “through-put” of natural resources. One way is to give each other items such as bottles of that we’d buy ourselves and use up anyhow. Or buy gift certificates for things that require , such as massages, concerts, or weekend meditation workshops.

But regifting is just as good. It’s not necessarily to re-wrap an item that came to you as a gift either. It can be a book or a record that you bought for yourself but no longer need to keep. We’ll just stop taking account of the monetary value of the gift by announcing that we will be giving “second-hand” items as a matter of principle this year, and that we hope our friends will do the same for us.

I have made this declaration to my friends. I truly think they will prefer that anyhow. And instead of feeling cheap, we can donate the money we saved to a worthy cause, such as planting trees. The UN wants to be planted within a year, so I’ve sent them some money to help out, and you can too. In every respect, Mother Earth will be the winner.

And keep the wrappings simple, please. A pretty paper bag can be re-used in your recipient’s next regift-wrapping session.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Fun in the Carbon Tax Committee

For several months I’ve been organizing a series of dinners in the Sky Dragon Cantonese restaurant for people who favor imposing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions to reduce climate change. is my group, and this is one of its committees. When we feel sufficiently well-informed on the topic, we’ll fan out across the city, offering to speak on the radio, to high school classes, or in church basements to whip up public enthusiasm for our cause.

There were about a dozen of us at the start, but as I invite energy experts to come and give us a talk, each one joins the group on a continuing basis. Hence both the size and sophistication of the conversation are increasing. Nobody can get a chance anymore to say everything he would like so, after each dinner, I get e-mails from two or three participants, amplifying their remarks. I pass these on to the whole group, often taking the opportunity to add my two cents. This blog entry is not a summary, but rather a follow-on commentary to last Thursday’s enjoyable dinner. But I won’t disclose whole names, since I’ve been told this can offend people sometimes.

Our speaker on Thursday was new to the group, so he started with more basic arguments than usual. Those participating have already made up their minds that carbon taxation is highly desirable, but David began by asking very simple questions, such as “Is climate change really a problem?” and by mentioning the names of some writers who actually deny that it is a problem – e.g. Bjorn Lomborg, a trade book writer who has virtually zero credibility among climatologists. (I saw him on the Colbert Report once and thought that Stephen was embarrassed about having invited him.) Anyway David forged ahead, as if to convince the remaining skeptics among us.

And indeed, there was one skeptic – and perhaps even two. Both of them are somewhat new to the group. Their skepticism remained apparently impervious to correction, but no one made an issue of it or stalled the conversation to linger over a dispute that would irritate the rest of us.

Nevertheless, both of the skeptics sent me e-mails later, elaborating on their opinions. Norm’s letter crackled with reproach. He thought that the committee, as a putatively scientific group, had been improperly closed-minded and dismissive of . Perhaps this allegation stung the others but not me. I don’t know how long one should leave a question open, but I accept ’s assumption that it is normal for scientists to adopt a common perspective as long as they can rationally fight off those who would challenge it. I am comfortable being normal, even ordinary, in this situation. If the IPCC scientists are not deluded, our predicament is urgent and it makes no sense to dawdle.

But in his letter, Norm adduced the argument proposed by , an economist who had criticized the . I downloaded two articles by Nordhaus and struggled unsuccessfully to read them. (One needed to be a genuine economist to follow the argument.) I infer, perhaps wrongly, that Nordhaus is a skeptic about the economic dangers of not acting swiftly to combat climate change. His critique was based on claiming that Sir Nicholas Stern had chosen the wrong to plug into his model, and hence had overestimated the future economic disasters resulting from today's delayed reactions.

Maybe so, but when the newspaper says the Arctic will be free of ice in the summer by 2012, I should think that prediction would galvanize most people, whether they understand discount rates or not. Something alarming is going on. Who could reasonably doubt that today?

I lost a little time in preparing a response to Norm’s plaintive cry today because I thought this Nordhaus chap to whom he referred was the same one whose book I read a week ago. Not so. That was , who, along with his co-author Michael Shellenberger, wrote a book called . I wrote a blog about it earlier, but I fished it out of the pile and had another look today. Nordhaus and Shellenberger are also addressing climate change, all right, but they hardly present a dozen numbers in the whole book. Their argument (which William Nordhaus might even accept, for all I know) is that environmentalists are mistaken in calling for a . We can have growth and prosperity by investing in breakthrough technologies that do not pollute. I already agreed with this opinion, but would not have been convinced by their book alone, which was deficient in the kind of precision that William Nordhaus deployed with excess.

If I must defend my open-mindedness about climate change, I can point to two new arguments that I do take seriously. (Well, at least I don’t reject them outright.) One is a point that made: that the earth – the dirt under our feet – is a major carbon sink. To the extent that we overlook that factor by focusing instead on the amount of carbon being emitted , our calculations and possibly even our policies may be wrong. When I read that, I began to look into agriculture and found that exposing the earth to the atmosphere by keeps the earth from retaining carbon as it should. I will go back to that literature in more detail in a couple of weeks and probably will write about it. But in the meantime, I claim that it proves I am not reductively treating carbon emissions as the only thing requiring societal reform. Farming has to change too.

And I will display yet another proof of my fair-mindedness. Hans, the other skeptic in the group, announced that it was not really a fact that oil was a fossil fuel. Everyone gasped, presumably concluding that the poor guy was truly uneducated. But I knew what he meant, and the next day I received a lengthy letter from him explaining his perspective. I had known that some Russians believe that oil was not created by the compression of biomass (dinosaurs and other detritus from their era) but rather from the compression of certain types of rocks deep in the earth. What I had not known was that this opinion is apparently the standard theory throughout Russia. I am prepared to keep an open mind on the question.

Besides, there are thousands of papers on the subject, and evidently someone demonstrated in a laboratory that it is possible to produce oil in that way. According to this theory, then, there won’t be any lasting shortage of oil because it is continuously being produced and can be found in lots of additional places on earth. This would definitely contradict the theorists but I don’t see that it offers any solution to climate change. Even if there’s an infinite supply of oil, and even if it is not made from fossils, we can’t keep burning the stuff much longer.

I went back to David’s speech. Yes! There was something in it that I had wanted to elaborate last Thursday night. He had been presenting a moderate view about addressing climate change. He showed one of those “wedge diagrams” that visually depict how a set of small improvements can collectively turn the whole growth curve from a downward to an upward trajectory. One of these wedges he called of the economy.

I love that expression! De-materialize! I had never heard it before, but I’d expressed the argument repeatedly in arguing against the idea that we require a no-growth economy. Actually, to have a prosperous economy, most of our jobs must grow in the “knowledge” sector. We professionals – every one of us around that table – earn good incomes by thinking, not by manufacturing anything physical whatever. Our jobs have “de-materialized,” though the GNP just keeps going up and up. That's growth, but it’s ideas that we produce, not things. To the extent that we are paid for, and in turn pay for, ideas instead of physical products, there can be less ““ of physical resources.

But one member of the group – a very smart economist named Peter – said that he is about to publish a book about how to run a no-growth economy. He insists that the use of natural resources is continuing to increase, even in a “knowledge-based economy” such as our own. If that is true, it must be because people are buying luxury items instead of basic necessities. One can get along with much less nowadays if we try. But if people keep flying around the world just to lie on a beach in the wintertime, there will be a continuing depletion of resources. That’s the only explanation I can consider plausible, if my economist friend Peter is correct.

There was one more brief debate at the Thursday dinner between Helmut and me. He asserted, as is his wont, that from is no solution whatever to our impending shortage of fuel. Everyone nodded, including me. He challenged me, asking whether I agreed. Yes, I did. (I had some qualifications but didn’t want to slow down the conversation by stating them.) But Helmut said that I was contradicting my previous statement, for I had told him that I liked more than him.

I let that pass, though it had made everyone laugh. Soon, however, there was a conversation going about how bad are. At that point I mentioned that this was the context of my statement about liking Ted Turner. He had been pleading for acceptance of ethanol production in the developed countries, for that would enable farmers to become sufficiently prosperous to accept an end to farm subsidies, and this in turn would rescue the poor farmers in the less developed countries. I buy that argument – at least if we’re talking about , which need not use up food supplies such as corn. Everyone nodded, recognizing that I had not been totally irrational in my enthusiasm for Turner’s approach.

Today Helmut wrote me again, explaining that no biomass source of energy is sustainable. He acknowledged that cellulosic ethanol is okay, but it only amounts to a drop in the bucket. Perhaps he’s right. But he doesn’t have numbers for that assertion in the paper he just published. I’ll wait for the numbers to appear. It seems very likely that cellulosic ethanol will have a much better energy input/output ratio than ethanol from corn, sugarcane, or any other similar product.

This is where my times goes, thinking about such matters. But Christmas is approaching and I must start doing seasonal things. I must find out the EREOI of .


Friday, December 14, 2007

Democracy’s Opponents

One might expect that everyone in the world would support the spread of democracy. After all, it supports economic development and diminishes violence – both between democratic states, and internally, by reducing state violence against citizens.

But not everyone likes democracy. It always surprises me to hear a nice person underestimate its value, but I encounter that experience quite often. What I want to explore, then, is why so many people nowadays actually oppose the .

Probably most of their misgivings concern the processes by which democracy is being spread to other countries nowadays. There are two main methods.

In the first approach, a belligerent democratic country (usually the United States) militarily attacks a non-democratic country or carries out a covert operation to overthrow its authoritarian rulers and usher in a democracy that is expected to be more pliant. The histories of and offer several examples that are fresh in our memories. The results are unfavorable. Even if a democratic regime is successfully imposed through the use of violence or manipulation by the CIA, we no longer expect it to take root. Failure is so frequent that public opinion around the world has come to consider it better to leave a alone than try to impose a democracy on it.

But the second (and fortunately more common) approach by which democracies arise nowadays is through grassroots . A recent study published by revealed that more than 70 percent of the during the last phase of democratization’s third wave have been the outcome of organized civil protests. Since the of 2004-2005 these uprisings are being called “color revolutions” — orange, rose, and lately in Burma, “saffron.”

Of course, not all of these opposition movements succeed in ousting the dictator or establishing a good democratic government in power; in fact, one must all too often feel disappointed in the outcome. However, the Freedom House study reports that the transitions toward democracy that have resulted from these popular grass-roots movements have been markedly more successful in establishing genuine freedom than those in which the change was initiated from the top by the rulers themselves. (I think, for example, that the reason why Russia has reverted to authoritarian governance is that it was , not a popular movement, that initiated the democratic reforms. If people do not claim democracy for themselves, others cannot easily give it to them.)

Organizing a democratic opposition movement is always difficult in an authoritarian regime. The dictators invariably suppress the kind of public discussion that would enable citizens to mobilize against them. Today the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, North Korean, and other authoritarian rulers are especially intent upon preventing any color revolution in their own countries.

And in this regard they are becoming quite successful. In previous years one could reasonably expect that economic development would, by itself, automatically lead to democracy. That is no longer necessarily the case. The regimes are systematically the flow of information among citizens by and other news outlets, tapping phones, and officially monitoring e-mail and Internet communications. Yahoo now complies with the Chinese government’s demand for information about certain dissident users; as a result, several democratic organizers have been sent to prison.

To organize a non-violent pro-democracy movement is not costly, when compared to armed resistance movements, but it does require access to means of communication and an opportunity to plan strategies. Other countries can help. There are foundations in a number of countries that operate with government funding, but at arms-length from the government, so that their support cannot be controlled by any particular party or politically powerful interest group. In Canada, this organization is the Montreal-based group, . In the United States, there is the . In Britain there’s the . In Sweden there’s the Olof Palme Foundation. The European Union itself is now founding such an organization, notably with the support of the former Czech president Vaclav Havel. Norway spends large sums helping nonviolent movements in dictatorships, for example by funding a radio station that broadcasts into Burma in various Burmese languages. The US organization gave $25 million to the group of young people called who organized the movement that ousted . This was many months after the US had failed to oust that authoritarian ruler by bombing Belgrade. Finally, they had learned how to do it right.

Nor surprisingly, dictatorships are trying to limit the influence of these foundations. For example, Russia does not license these government-funded democracy support organizations to set up offices, nor for that matter even similar, but privately-funded, groups such as the Foundation.

Though these actions on the part of dictators must be expected, what is surprising is that so many fine citizens living in democracies such as Canada are also ambivalent or even opposed to supporting nonviolent pro-democracy movements abroad. I have to count many of my friends among these critics.

I think their misgivings arise from understandable reactions against the Bush administration’s repeated calls for “” in dictatorial countries — meaning violent intervention by a US-led coalition. We have learned that violent methods are worse than useless.

Nonviolent movements must always reflect the will of the people themselves, not outsiders. A pro-democracy movement can never succeed, even if it is given unlimited money from abroad, unless it truly represents the wishes of its own citizenry. And, as recent experience shows, Canada and other democratic countries cannot help by sending military supplies or troops. Cell phones, radio transmitters, computers, and photocopiers, yes. Tanks and helicopters, no. We can help by increasing the range of choice available to them , but the people must be in charge of their democracy movement themselves, if it is to succeed.

The goal of promoting democracy has been tainted by association with the US military approach. If you speak of helping spread democracy nowadays, you may be considered some kind of right-wing zealot. That is unfortunate. The people of Burma, for example, need our support. The world will be better for all of us when everyone enjoys freedom and has some influence over the decisions made by their government.

So we need to renew our commitment to democracy everywhere in the world. To be sure, it’s not a perfect system. Indeed, as said, it’s the worst form of government except all the others that have ever been tried. That’s good enough for me.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Democracy in a Safer World

Woodrow Wilson justified entering World War I by promising that it would “.” I think he had it backward. It is democracy that will make the world safe. Well, at least safer.

Nowadays we have lots of worries about the world and how to save it — or even whether it can be saved. But oddly, we don’t pay much attention to the factor that can best brighten the human prospect: . Here I want to celebrate it instead of taking it for granted.

There is no one single definition of democracy, but the core experience that it embodies is that of freedom. Indeed, some organizations, such as , use the terms interchangeably. Scholars who do quantitative comparative research on governments usually classify them as democratic by rating them on four factors: 1) the protection of , especially the rights of minorities; 2) existence of free and fair competitive ; 3) and association; and 4) adherence to a .

However it is measured, democracy is a relative, not an absolute condition. There has never been a perfect democracy, though some states are definitely more democratic than others. Moreover, we must not expect that democracies will necessarily make better political decisions than other forms of government. People are fallible, both individually and in their collective decisions. However, if the citizens lack accurate information because the press distorts the truth, they are more likely to make serious political mistakes.

Let’s consider democratization historically. As T. H. Marshall pointed out, democracy arose in England in three different stages. The 18th century mostly saw the development of civil rights. The 19th century was about the establishment of political rights; and the 20th century was about social and economic rights. Initially only upper class persons enjoyed them, but today ordinary citizens in all high-scoring democratic countries can exercise all three types of rights freely.

Moreover, democracy has spread geographically, According to Freedom House’s latest survey, in 2006 there were 90 free countries, 58 partly free countries, and 45 countries that are not free. If we divide up the human population into those three categories it works out this way: 47 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in a free country; 30 percent live in a partly free country; and 23 percent live in countries that are not free.

Globally, democracy has spread in three successive waves. †he first one occurred in the century between 1826- 1926 in Europe, North America, and the Pacific. Then, after World War I, there was a reverse wave or trough as several European states collapsed and dictatorships came to power, particularly in Italy, Greece, Poland, the Baltic republics, and Germany.

The second occurred after World War II, notably with the occupation of Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan, and Korea. Also there were new democracies in Latin America and where newly emerging countries won independence from colonial regimes such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Nigeria, and Ghana. Also, Israel was founded as a democracy during that wave.

But this second wave was followed by a second trough from about 1958 to 1975. Authoritarian regimes came to power throughout Latin America and in almost all the newly independent African countries. Freedom declined in Pakistan and Korea, Greece, and Turkey.

Then in 1974 the third wave of democratization began in Portugal. In the eighties, regimes all over Europe, Asia, and Latin America were turning free, and then in 1989, with the collapse of the former communist states of Eastern Europe, the most amazing wave of democracy began to crest. When the Soviet Union itself broke up, the 1990s were marked by the proliferation of new democracies.

Today, we are probably in the trough — or at best a plateau — following the third wave. Freedom House, which assesses all countries every year with surveys, using a check list of about 200 items, notes that the number of free countries reached its high point in 1998 and has not changed much since then. They call this disappointing period one of “freedom stagnation.” Some of the most repressive states declined further last year: Burma, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Eritrea, and Iran. Moreover, there is a concerted effort on the past of several authoritarian states, including Russia, Venezuela, China, Iran, and Zimbabwe, to roll back the big democratic achievements of the past thirty years.

Still, social scientists are continuing to study the social conditions that go with freedom. The main areas of research involve the connection between democracy and economic development, on the one hand, and between democracy and peace, on the other.

In 1959 Seymour Martin Lipset published a highly influential paper, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy,” in which he argued that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances it will sustain democracy.” He did not claim that a nation’s was necessarily a prerequisite, for it might occur at the same time as democratization, which it would then help to sustain. Virtually every subsequent study of the determinants of democracy has identified economic development as a powerful factor.

We are now sure that a flourishing economy improves the prospects for democracy. What became controversial was whether we could add this phrase: “and vice versa.“ In other words, does democracy also improve the prospects for economic development? Does the causal relationship run in both directions? Marxists, especially the Chinese leaders, emphatically deny it, arguing instead that they must defer democratization so that the centralized government can push the economy forward. They believe that democracy — at least if introduced prematurely — will not help but actually hinder economic development.

This question is still being debated, but argues that democracy is good for the economy. Sen is a Nobel laureate in economics and he addressed this question in a book titled Development as Freedom. He insists that democracy is both a means and an end. As he and his colleague have shown, no has ever occurred in a democracy. Politicians know perfectly well that they will lose their posts if voters begin starving. Thus political freedom promotes economic security.

But democracy is not merely a means to security, according to Sen, but also an end in itself. Others often ask, “Do democracy and basic political and civil rights help to promote the process of development?” He thinks this question misses the larger point, since these rights actually constitute development. Being free to choose is an important aspect of human well-being. If someone gives you everything you need but gives you no choice, you will not consider it as a favor. We want democracy, not just because we’ll make better decisions, but because the wrong decisions will at least be our own mistakes. From Sen’s perspective, China might conceivably get rich without actually developing.

So we want democracy because it promotes economic security and also because it is supports people in fulfilling their personal capacities and aspirations. But to me there’s a third astonishing reason for wanting democracy: the quest for peace.

Back in 1785 (see photo) published an essay, Perpetual Peace, in which he suggested that if all nations were to become republics, war would end, since most people would never vote to go to war except in self-defence. There would no longer be any aggressors to start wars.

Oddly, his ““ theory has won much empirical support. Hundreds of studies have been published on the subject since published the first statistical analysis of the relationship in 1964. It seems clear now that democracies almost never go to war against other democracies. (Any exceptions involve only new democracies less than about three years old, where the political culture has not taken root yet.) Democracies do make war against non-democracies, and of course non-democracies also make war against each other.

Furthermore, as has shown, democracies are unlikely to kill their own citizens. Rummel invented the term “,” which refers to “the murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.” He estimates that six times as many people have been killed by governmental officials than have died in battle. But democide is vastly more common in countries run by concentrated political power than in democracies.

So if all the countries in the world were well-established democracies, economic security, personal freedom of choice, and peace would prevail, both between and inside nations. Therefore, would anyone in his right mind not want to ?

Yes, lots of people, unfortunately. Lots.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Today’s Fine Fish Wrap

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 , 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 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, , for example, (see photo) was jailed for running a pro-democracy . 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 . I was reading an article by and somebody else, posted on the 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 and 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 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 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.