Friday, December 27, 2013

One Woman’s Brief Annual Report on the State of the World

This is the season for sending greeting cards and emails about one’s foreign journeys and new pets. I am well and did travel a bit in 2013 but I have no pets so I will write about my opinions instead. I have plenty of those. I’d love for you to reciprocate by saying how you suggest we solve the world’s main problems. We cannot do everything, so we must select our issues thoughtfully.

In an emergency, medical teams perform “triage,” sorting the wounded into three groups: those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive; those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive; and those for whom immediate care with available resources may make a crucial difference. This third category receives top priority.

Our current global problems can also be sorted into the three categories and priorized. They are not, as were calamities of the old days, “acts of God,” but the outcome of ill-informed human decisions. Three particular issues are especially urgent; they must be solved if civilization is to continue, and they can be solved if we focus on them. They are (1) weapons and warfare, (2) climate change, (3) the governance of our biosphere. They are all inter-related systems, so whenever we work on one of them we are often addressing the others as well. Here are my priorities for beginning to save the world in January 2014.

1. Weapons and War

To obtain sufficient funding to repair the world, we must reallocate much of the world’s military funding, which consumes about $1.7 trillion per year. Since nuclear weapons are both useless and dangerous, we can disarm those first. Though we worry about a nuclear Iran, North Korea, India, and Pakistan, it’s even more necessary for the five official nuclear states—the US, Russia, France, UK, and China—to disarm their own arsenals now, as they are obliged to do under Article Six of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The non-nuclear states will not indefinitely tolerate the hypocrisy of the nuclear countries—including Israel—as they retain bombs that other countries may not have.

What to do?  Promote the UN proposal to create a Nuclear Weapons Convention to ban the use, and probably also possession, of nuclear weapons by any state.[i]
Moreover, the wars that are taking place in such places as Sudan, Congo, and Syria are possible only because small arms are imported. In April the General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the international trade in conventional arms ranging from rifles to tanks, combat planes, and warships. The treaty will stop arms flowing into conflict regions and reduce human rights abuses. The US has signed it but Canada has not. The treaty does not affect the right to own weapons within a country, but restricts only the international trade.

What to do? Insist that the US Congress ratify the Arms Trade Treaty and that Canada sign and ratify it.

2. Climate Change
Global warming is caused mainly by humankind’s CO2 emissions. A shift to completely renewable energy is technically feasible and would cost barely more than business as usual. Science for Peace co-hosted a visit in 2012 by Mark Jacobson, who described his plan to power the planet entirely with renewables.[ii] Nevertheless, certain industries (especially oil) wield great political clout, making it difficult to achieve the  transition before global warming reaches the tipping point of irreversibility. Natural gas and nuclear have been touted as “bridges” to allow more time for the transition to renewables, but by Jacobson’s calculations they are counterproductive.

Taking economic and political pressures into account, can we make the transition to renewable fuels quickly enough? Probably not. Even if we could cut emissions sharply tonight, the earth would continue warming for years. Actions faster than emission reduction also will be required. We must either remove and sequester some greenhouse gas that is already in the atmosphere, or block some incoming sunshine. Both approaches amount to “geo-engineering.” There are varying degrees of risk involved, but even the most dangerous proposals may seem attractive in five years.

What to do? Let’s shift some of that $1.7 trillion into two safe methods of capturing and sequestering atmospheric carbon, starting now. These two are reforestation and biochar production, both of which remove carbon from the atmosphere for sequestration. Forests provide only temporary sequestration, but biochar’s carbon can be stored in the soil for thousands of years. By some estimates, its optimum use could remove more than ten percent of the CO2 we are emitting annually, and also improve the productivity of soils. That’s a start.

If even stronger interventions become necessary, we might add whichever geo-engineering schemes seem most reversible and least risky, such as possibly spraying sea water into the air to make clouds that reflect some of the sun’s rays. The cheapest and most frequently proposed technology—spraying sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere—is less attractive, for it might deplete the ozone, reduce solar power generation and agricultural productivity, and its effects could not be stopped quickly. No country or group should undertake such a project without the full consent of the entire world, though today no international law prohibits it.

3. Governing the Biosphere
We share the planet with other animals and plants, many of which are endangered by our destruction of habitat and genetic diversity. Oceans are acidifying, lakes are eutrophicating, lands are desertifying and eroding, and species are dying. Yet in most cases, we know of helpful responses that would be technically feasible, but which we cannot effect because of institutional inertia—obstacles in governance. Here I do not mean only legal and political structures, but also economic realities such as banks, corporations, and land-ownership.

Let me illustrate. Over seventy percent of the world’s population favors nuclear disarmament. (Israel is the only country in which less than half do so.) Yet even those of us living in democracies have been unable to make this happen, so we remain at risk.  If, for example, India and Pakistan go to war and exchange 100 nuclear bombs, the smoke from burning cities would blot out the sun and plunge the entire northern hemisphere into darkness lasting years. We would all starve or freeze to death.[iii] How many military leaders realize this fact? I don’t know, but the risk is never discussed. This is a problem in governance.

Another example: Biochar’s effects on the planet are virtually all benign. In massive amounts it could reduce the difficulty of feeding humankind, while it sucked CO2 out of the atmosphere with no known undesirable effects. If you drive through the Rockies, for hundreds of miles you pass red trees killed by pine beetles. It would be possible to fell them, move them downhill with moveable rope structures like ski lifts, make them into biochar on the spot, and bury it, either on-site or on farms, restoring Canada’s depleted soil.

But who would pay for this? There is no significant market for biochar. Any solution has to include a proposal that works in terms of our political economy. If we could introduce legislation requiring that, say, fifty percent of all fertilizer should be biochar, there would suddenly be demand, and we would reduce nitrogen run-off that is eutrophicating our lakes and even the Gulf of Mexico.[iv] So this is a political problem. The businesses that profit from present methods of fertilization would oppose any such idea, and the public is not sufficiently aware of the options to pressure their legislators for change. (Here’s a project for you.)

Another example: one-way streets and no-left-turn signs. These signs require cars and trucks to drive many unnecessary miles every week to their destinations. Theoretically  they ease the flow of traffic. Probably this is sometimes a valid reason, but if engineers re-calculated today the overall costs to society, taking account of the excessive CO2 emissions, their verdicts might often change. Still, if you complain—even to your environmentalist friends—about these institutionalized routines, you will be shocked by their negative responses. No one wants to reconsider traffic flow practices. This is not a technological problem but a lag in governance.

Sometimes governance problems are growing worse, not better. Consider, for example, the shifts taking place in science. Rather than funding research to solve curiosity, universities now encourage scientists to form partnerships with corporations in pursuit of instrumental discoveries that can be patented and sold. New rules governing intellectual property and confidentiality are being imposed all around the world through the World Trade Organization, even though the overall effect is to reduce the amount of fundamental discovery that is generated and made available to other researchers.

Why would universities accept such deleterious institutional changes? Evidently this is  the result of a changing world view in which all human problems are expected to be solved by markets. As one who used to visit communist societies, I consider markets excellent ways of allocating scarce materials. Nevertheless, universities and research labs should promote the unrestricted flow of information, not allocate it on the basis of supply and demand. Some call this commercialized model “neo-liberalism,” but I prefer Joseph Stiglitz’s term for it: “market fundamentalism.”

In 2008 Stiglitz asserted that the economic recession had killed market fundamentalism by revealing that it does not work, just as the fall of the Berlin wall killed communism by proving that it did not work.[v] In 2014, however, I can’t see that market fundamentalism has been killed at all. Indeed, it is reigning—probably because there has been no coherent alternative economic model since the downfall of communism. People don’t have any systemic worldview from which to reply to the assumptions of market fundamentalism, which is in full swing, virtually unchallenged. It is not the only problem in contemporary governance, of course. Many other institutional changes could help us move forward.

What to do? Here are four suggestions: First, let’s hold corporations and global regulatory bodies socially accountable by requiring transparency, the election of a certain percentage of NGOs to their boards, and procedures by which transnational NGOs can challenge their regulations.  International governance needs to become more democratic.

Second, let’s promote direct taxation of carbon fuel. No other single piece of legislation could equal its powerful effect against global warming. Even if we gave all of that money back to the citizens it would still create an incentive for them to reduce their use of fossil fuels.

Third, let’s adopt a “Tobin Tax” (aka “Robin Hood Tax”) on the international flow of money. I’d like to see this paid to the United Nations, so it can carry out the humanitarian, peacekeeping, and regulatory functions necessary in a world in which power and interests extend across borders.

Fourth, let’s collectively assess our global problems, applying “triage.” We cannot do everything, and the vast proliferation of issues leaves us feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed.

The three issues that I have chosen here are inter-related, and if we concentrate on solving them, they will unclog the system that makes us all feel helpless. But you may have other priorities. We can choose our priorities together, and then we can each figure out how to work on them. It will feel great. Happy 2014!


Saturday, September 28, 2013

Weekly Lecture Series 2013-14 Please Come and Bring a Friend!

Vital Discussions of Human Security Lecture Series for 2013-14

Co-Sponsored by University College Health Studies Programme, Canadian Pugwash Group, Science for Peace, and Voice of Women for Peace.

Thursdays, 7-9 pm, Room 179, University College, 15 Kings College Circle, U.of Toronto. All welcome. No charge. Bring your friends! Video will normally be available on the SfP YouTube channel within 1-2 weeks after each talk.

Thursday Sept 26: Falling in Love with the Earth Stephen Scharper, Associate Professor, School of the Environment, University of Toronto

Thursday Oct 3: Politics of Peace vs. Politics of Empire in the Middle East: Democratic Struggles, Neo-Ottoman AspirationSedef Arat-Koç, Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University

Thursday Oct 10: Neither Conflict nor “Use it or Lose it”: Canada’s Arctic Extended Continental Shelf  Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon, Professor Emerita of Political Science at University of Western Ontario

Thursday Oct 17: Building A Dream: Advocacy and Affordable Housing Dennis Magill, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Toronto

Thursday Oct 24: What Can Time-Use Data Tell Us?  Bill Michelson, S.D. Clark Professor of Sociology, Emeritus

Thursday Oct 31: The Initiative for UN Emergency Peace Service Peter Langille, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria

Thursday Nov 7: Generating Rights for Communities Harmed by Mining Liisa North, Professor Emeritus, York University and Visiting Professor, Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), Quito, Ecuador

Thursday Nov 14: The Industrial Diet in Three Meals Tony Winson, Professor and Associate Chair, Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Guelph

Thursday Nov 21: Whither Well Being: How Secure Can You Be? David Harries, Generalist, Committed to Strategic Foresight

Thursday Nov 28: Compensation, the Value of Life and the War on Terror Emily Gilbert, Associate Professor and Director, Canadian Studies program and Department of Geography, University of Toronto

Dec 5-Jan 2: Holidays: series resumes in New Year

Thursday Jan 9: Education for Democracy in Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead Irving Zeitlin, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Toronto

Thursday Jan 16: Nonviolence as Political Action Jill Carr-Harris, Development worker in India on women’s empowerment.

Thursday Jan 23: Armed Conflict and Food Insecurity: A Global Challenge Mustafa Koç, Professor of Sociology, Ryerson University

Thursday Jan 30: Patents & Progress: What to do about Corrupt Medical Research Practices James R. Brown, Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto

Thursday Feb 6: Building Peace in the 21st Century: Reflections over 30 years Peggy Mason, Formerly Canada’s Ambassador for Disarmament

Thursday Feb 13: Constitution and Strategy: Understanding Canadian Power in the World  Irvin Studin, Assistant Professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto

Feb 20: Reading week: series resumes following week

Thursday Feb 27: Economics of the Global Commons Frank de Jong, President of Earthsharing Canada

Thursday Mar 6: Child Soldier Recruitment in Intra-state Armed Conflicts Vera Achvarina, Assistant Professor, Political Science, University of Toronto

Thursday Mar 13: Taxing for Fairness and Prosperity David Langille, Health Studies, University of Toronto and Work & Labour Studies, York University, Treasurer at Canadians for Tax Fairness

Thursday Mar 20: “Prosecutor:” A film and discussion about Luis Moreno-Ocampo and first trial of the International Criminal Court  Barry Stevens, Film maker

Thursday Mar 27: Seasick: When Oil and Water Don’t Mix  Alanna Mitchell, Journalist and author
Thursday Apr 3: Refugees: Silent Witnesses to War  Mary Jo Leddy, Founder of Romero House for refugees, Adjunct Professor of Theology at Regis College

Video is available for most of the September 2012-April 2013 series and the Spring 2012 series, as well as for some of the Fall 2011 series.

I am one of the most powerful people in the world.

I am one of the most powerful people in the world. Yes, I am! I am a journalist (sort of) and journalists and dramatists are, in my opinion, the most powerful people alive. They influence the way people understand ongoing social life, and all of political life depends on public opinion. 

Admittedly, I am one of the LEAST powerful members of the most powerful group (only about 3000 people read Peace Magazine, compared to a million readers of a big newspaper or even more viewers of a TV newscast) but I know that what I write matters. It is essential for me to get it right, which requires me to listen carefully when someone is telling me something unfamiliar or contrary to my assumptions. 

But the worst, most poisonous, habit of a journalist is to believe that what he or she writes makes no difference. Everything that we do makes a difference--that's true of all human beings, but especially it's true of us, the most powerful people in the world. So I promise to listen to you if you make any sense whatever, and probably to argue with you if you seem not to understand something that I think I do understand. That's my job. What's YOUR job?

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Invitation to weekly lectures in Toronto

Here's the program for my weekly lecture series for the academic year 2012-13.  Please do come!

Vital Discussions of Human Security

Lecture Series for 2012-13 academic year. Co-Sponsored by University College Health Studies Programme, Canadian Pugwash Group, Science for Peace, and Voice of Women for Peace.

Thursdays, 7-9 pm, usually in Rm. 144, University College, 15 Kings College Circle, U.of Toronto. All welcome. No charge.

13-Sept.   Walter Dorn, Chair, Canadian Pugwash Group  (room 052).
Wars Waged by the USA and Canada: Just, Unjust and Everthing In Between

20-Sept.    Ellen Michelson, recent Green Party candidate  (room 052).
Fixing Canada's Electoral System: Four Fallacies

27-Sept.    Danny Harvey, Professor of Geography, University of Toronto.
Global Warming and Human Security: Food and Water

4-Oct.    Barry Wellman, Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto,
Networked individualism

11-Oct.   Helmut Burkhardt, Professor of Physics Emeritus, Ryerson University.
Security for All: But How and at What Price?

18-Oct.   Timothy Donais, Associate Professor of Global Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University.
Peacebuilding and Local Ownership

25-Oct.   Pia Kleber, Prof. of Drama, Comparative Literature, U of Toronto.
A Cultural Approach to Human Security

1-Nov.    John Hannigan, Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto.
Disasters Without Borders: The International Politics of Natural Disaster

8-Nov.     Doug Saunders, Journalist with The Globe and Mail.
The Myth of the Muslim Tide

15-Nov.   Ron Craig, Professor of Communication & Design, Ryerson University.
New Strategies for Dealing with Global Problems

22-Nov.   Lloyd Helferty, Engineering Technologist, Biochar Consultant.
Biochar and Food Security: Dealing with the Droughts

29-Nov.   Peter Bessau, International Affairs, Natural Resources Canada.
International Model Forest Network: Canada's Contribution to Forest Sustainability Since Rio

10-Jan.    Aysan Sev'er, Professor Emerita of Sociology, U. of Toronto
Honour-Killings: Women's Safety in Honour-based Cultures

17-Jan.    John Bacher, Preservation of Agricultural Land, Ontario.
Toward a Billion More Trees in Ontario

24-Jan.    Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Your Canada, Your Constitution, Founder of Democracy Watch, Director of in Toronto.
What Makes Up an Actual, Working Democracy?

31-Jan.    Shawn-Patrick Stensil, Staff of Greenpeace in Toronto.
Lessons from Fukushima: Implications for Nuclear Safety International

7-Feb.    Valerie Zawilski, Associate Professor of Sociology, Western University.
The Sexual Slave Trade in Kosovo

14-Feb.   Seva Gunitsky, Asst. Professor of Political Science, U of Toronto.
Competing Visions of Democracy in the Post-Soviet Space

28-Feb.   J.C. Luxat, Professor of Nuclear Safety, McMaster U, and Richard Denton, M.D. President, Physicians for Global Survival.
The Nuclear Safety Issue

7-Mar.   Gordon Edwards, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
Can We Be Free of Nuclear Weapons and Still Have Nuclear Power?

14-Mar.   Peter Victor, Professor of Environmental Studies, York University.
Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster

21-Mar.   Harriet Friedmann, Professor of Geography, U. of Toronto.
From "Feeding the World" to Sustainable Farming

28-Mar.   Jack Veugelers, Professor of Sociology, U. of Toronto.
The Far Right in France

4-Apr.    Leo Panitch, Professor of Political Science, York University.
The Making of Global Capitalism: The Canadian Model

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I Support Fighting Israel Nonviolently

At least one of my friends has quit the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW), since the group is sharply critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and is now threatening to bomb the Iranian nuclear installations. My friend "D" says the VOW is trying to whip up hatred toward Israel, whereas she herself proceeds by trying to bring Israeli and Palestinian women together and support a dialogue among them. We talked about this by phone yesterday.

After listening quite a while, I said only that I do believe that the effort to bring supplies into Gaza by boat was a constructive, admirable project. D replied that it was done in such a way as to create hatred of Israel. What should be done instead, she said, is to create mutual harmony and friendship among those two communities.

Well, good luck. But today I have replied with the following short note:

Hi, "D":

The commitment not to hate is a spiritually admirable trait. I think it is rarely an effective political method. Contrary to Gandhi's hope, it is very, very rare that nonviolent protest actually changes the hearts and minds of the opponent. What it does do rather often is make the opponent give in because they cannot get their way. Moreover, as Gene Sharp points out constantly, nonviolence is a way of fighting without injuring the opponent. It is, nonetheless, FIGHTING—a non-injurious form of warfare. You don't have to love your opponent to use it. You don't have to be spiritually advanced to use it. Lots of people use nonviolence just because they don't have access to weapons, but it often works for them anyhow. I favor using that approach.

By and large, peaceniks dislike conflict and hope to make it go away somehow. When "conflict resolution" methods have a chance of succeeding, by all means, use them. But in extreme conflicts, they don't work. You can't get your opponent to change his goals, so you  use nonviolent coercive methods instead. I believe the Palestinians should use nonviolent means of pressuring the Israelis. I do not believe there is the slightest chance of winning over Israelis through logical arguments or dialogue.

I have to admire people who stand on the side of justice. Unfortunately,  the Israeli position is unjust, so it is right to oppose them. I don't see much of a middle ground there, but I do believe in using nonviolence.



Monday, August 08, 2011

Hiroshima Day speech 2011

Psychologists tell us that happiness comes from giving yourself over to a cause greater than yourself. Well, do I have a humdinger of a cause for you!  Thirty years ago millions of people were engaged in it: to abolish nuclear weapons. In Toronto the movement was centered in this church. Upstairs in the chapel we founded the Canadian Disarmament Information Service. A hundred persons a day came through, picking up flyers and holding press conferences. We were all busy; sometimes I slept on the floor upstairs. I recommend such activism to everyone. I promise it will make you happy.

Previous activists had already achieved the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, and several Nuclear Weapons Free Zones–regions where countries pledge not to manufacture, acquire, test, or possess nuclear weapons. NWFZs were created Latin America in 1968, the South Pacific in 1986, Southeast Asia in 1995, Central Asia in 2006 and Africa in 2009. Nuclear-weapon states pledge not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the parties to NWFZs. In 2009 when the African NWFZ came into force, NWFZs covered 56% of the Earth's land area; however only 39% of the world's population lives in NWFZs. So we still have work to do.

The 1980s brought some big breakthroughs, thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, who listened closely to Western peace researchers in Pugwash, IPPNW, and the Federation of American Scientists. But in the West, grassroots activists had more impact.

When Reagan and Gorbachev met in Iceland in 1986 they came within a hairsbreadth of agreeing to abolish all nuclear weapons—but unfortunately, Reagan couldn’t bear to give up his Star Wars project. Later, they did reach sign the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty— the INF—which eliminated ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 300-3,400 miles. That soothed lots of nerves in Europe—maybe prematurely.

More treaties followed. The START treaty of 1994, barred both the US and Russia from deploying more than 6,000 nuclear warheads. About 80 percent of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence were removed.

Then in 2003 came the Moscow Treaty or so-called SORT Treaty, which limited both sides to between 1700 and 2200 deployed warheads apiece. But after that, a decade passed with no further progress. People had stopped pushing, not realizing that the dangers still exist. There were 65,000 nuclear warheads on the planet in 1985 and still about 22,000 in 2010.

At least 2600 strategic nuclear warheads are on high alert. They could be launched and explode on their targets in less than one hour, even in response to a false alarm, which is not an uncommon event. At least 20 mishaps have occurred that might have started an accidental nuclear war.

There are other dangers too. Nuclear power plants produce plutonium, which could be stolen and made into nuclear weapons. Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have nuclear weapons. Iran and Burma may be trying to get them, as are some non-state actors. The prospects for disarmament depends on the recognized nuclear weapons states, keeping their pledge disarm. And we need a more powerful regulatory body that’s able to monitor and enforce compliance.

Finally, there’s the danger of nuclear darkness. The highest danger of war today involves India and Pakistan. If 100 bombs of Hiroshima size were detonated in a small war between just those two states, the smoke would block about 10 percent of the sunlight and shorten the growing season, causing starvation for much of the world and destroying 45% of our ozone layer. A large nuclear war would make the Earth uninhabitable. We have work to do.

There are some new grounds for hope. Obama and Medvedev  reached the NewSTART Treaty.  Unfortunately, because the military-industrial complex is so powerful, the Senate allocated a huge amount to upgrade existing nuclear weapons facilities. However (goody-goody!) the current pressure to reduce the US budget may have one beneficial side effect—cutting those very expenditures.

Here are some assignments for you to work on:
  • CTBT. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. It has not entered into force, largely because the United States has not ratified it. Obama will bring it up for ratification, and we should send good vibes his way for that.
  • Arctic NWFZ. The Canadian Pugwash Group is working to create a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Arctic. They have a website, which explains the project. Go visit it and help by talking it up with your friends.
  • Middle East Conference for NWFZ. The 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference resolved to work toward creating a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. What is required now is for some state to offer to host the meeting in 2012 and settle an agenda and venue. Some of you, please work on that.
  • Nuclear Weapons Convention, is the most important item on the world’s agenda. A model convention already exists, which you can read online. It would bind states never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, otherwise acquire, deploy, stockpile, retain, or transfer” nuclear materials or delivery vehicles and not to fund nuclear weapons research. Further, they would destroy any nuclear weapons they possess.
    Not surprisingly, most Nuclear Weapons States say they are not ready for this yet.

Probably Douglas Roche’s proposal is the most promising way forward. He would have a core group of countries call their own conference and invite interested states. This work could evolve into a full-scale international conference.

Canada has a knack for this kind of thing. The “Ottawa Process” is how the Landmines Treaty came about. Let’s do it again. Let’s ask our government to invite experts from like-minded states to Ottawa to start work on something truly stupendous. Just think how much happiness we will create in the world that way, for them and for us!  Let’s go for it.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

News from the International Peace Bureau

The International Peace Bureau (IPB) sends out a newsletter every month, recounting its member organizations’ activities and especially significant developments in the world that reflect the prospects for peace. You can read them at Here are some of the events that have been mentioned during the last few months:
  • Several of the items dealt with the arms trade. For example, in March it was noted that Myanmar’s new budge allocates nearly 24 percent to defence, but only 1.3 percent to health. At about the same time, China announced that it was raising its defence budget in 2011. It was noted elsewhere that that arms sales, especially by Russia and China, are continuing to penetrate Latin America. On the other hand, these are not the most militarized regions in the world. Instead, the Bonn International Center for Conversion, which publishes a Global Militarization Index, declared the Middle East to hold that deplorable record, while India is the world’s largest importer of arms according to SIPRI, and Sweden tops the lost of arms exports per capita in 2010 ­even higher than Israel and Russia.
  • Although the Nobel Peace Committee maintains strict secrecy about its nominees, the Norwegian lawyer Fredrik Heffermehl stated that four Americans (Richard Falk, David Krieger, Betty Reardon, and Gene Sharp) and one Canadian (Douglas Roche) are among the ten he considers eligible to be shortlisted. He also made a list of persons he considers ineligible—though his criteria are apparently not the same as those of the committee that awards the prize. IPB itself nominated Douglas Roche, so we are certain that he is on the short list.
  • April 12 was the Global Day of Action on Military Spending. IPB co-organized the world-wide event along with the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. Here are some of the actions: The Foundation for Peace in Barcelona produced a powerful video on military spending versus the Millennium Development Goals. Activists in Medellin, Colomia leafleted subway stations, while in Athen, protesters invited passers-by to indicate where they would spend government money. The Japanese NGO Peace Boat docked in the Philippines, where atomic bomb survivors held events with local groups on the costs of war. In London, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade did a die-in at the steps of the Treasury building. In Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, activists did a walk for peace through a community devastated by cuts in social spending. In Corvallis, Oregon, Veterans for Peace set up in front of the library and asked people to indicate their own budget priorities. The indie pop group Peachcake composed a song for the day.  The Toronto event was a Science for Peace-sponsored forum in which Professor Sergei Plekhanov of York University, Bill Robinson, and John Siebert discussed the trends and Canada’s own military spending habits. Reports of these and many other events are available on the IPB website,
  • The International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms met with the Simons Foundation in Vancouver in March and produced the Vancouver Declaration, which affirms that nuclear weapons are incompatible with international humanitarian law. They cannot comply with fundamental rules forbidding the infliction of indiscriminate and disproportionate harm.
  • A large najority of the 28 NATO nations supports the withdrawal of American tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, or will not block a consensus decision on this issue. Only three NATO-countries (France, Hungary and Lithuania) say they oppose withdrawal.
  • The IPB network held a meeting in Dublin in April, calling for international days of action against the wars in Afghanistan and in Libya. It was decided that more attention needs to be directed to the role of NATO in the global South and in the Arctic.
  • A new organization, the Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN) was launched in May. It comprises 30 former senior political, diplomatic, and military leaders from 13 countries in the region. See its website,
  • IPB will collaborate in a new online human rights training course for members and volunteers from European youth organizations. See
  • In May over 2500 peacemakers, educators, and community organizers met in Newark New Jersey for a three-day summit on peace education. Three Nobel peace laureates were on the program: the Dalai Lama, Shirin Ebadi, and Jody Williams. Alyn Ware’s report of the event is available at and Metta Spencer’s report is at For additional information see
  • The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its yearbook, which showed the continuing cuts in US and Russian nuclear forces are offset by long-term force modernization programs.
  • June 25 was the Global Day of Action for Nuclear Abolition, coordinated by ICAN. More than 140 actions were registered in 25 countries, such as flash mobs, protests at nuclear weapons bases, public forums, art activities, and street theatre.
  • In June Nobel Peace Prize nominee Douglas Roche carried out a three-week global speaking tour, which convinced him that “the world is moving into a new stage in the long quest to eliminate nuclear weapons....In the discussions surrounding my lectures to university students, think tanks, and civil society groups, it became clear to me that the intellectual case for nuclear deterrence is crumbling.”
  • David Vine’s new book, Island of Shame, reveals the way the United States conspired with Britain to expel Diego Garcia’s indigenous people and deport them to slums in Mauritius and the Seychelles, where most live in dire poverty to this day.
  • The annual IPB conference will take place in Potsdam October 29-30, 2011. On the 29th there will be a special day with speeches and discussions especially honoring the centenary of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Alfred Hermann Fried (1864-1921). The event will be held in German and English with interpretation. If interested in attending, contact Reiner Braun at

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Games, Theodicy, and The Tree of Life

Yesterday I got into an argument with a woman friend, whom I'll call “Aysa.” We were in a restaurant with another woman friend, who didn't get into the dispute, partly because she had not seen The Tree of Life, which had set Aysa and me off onto our dispute.

We both loved the film, about half of which was a tour of the cosmos—gorgeous images of galaxies, volcanoes, dinosaurs, cells, and blood flowing through capillaries, The rest of the movie was an astonishing exploration of theodicy: the theological effort to justify God's ways to humankind. We hear the thoughts and overt interactions of a Texas family as they try to make sense of life's vicissitudes.

There is love, cruelty, and death. Aysa thought that the film's message was Christian, but I thought it was universal, addressing the questions that everyone considers—at least everyone who tries to believe that the universe has meaning and that it's run by a beneficent god. One of the family's three sons even flings the same insult at God as the biblical Job had uttered, saying that God is not good, so why should He be obeyed? And the film’s reply, I think, was the same as Jehovah had given to Job as a voice from the whirlwind; Where were you when I created the stars, the mountains, the volcanoes, and all the creatures? I think He meant: Do you dare to question me, the author of the universe! You could not understand if I did explain myself. You must simply trust me. In the story, nevertheless, God does not punish Job for his audacity, but prefers his bold approach to that of the visitors who come to see Job and invent lame excuses for the Almighty, unfairly blaming Job for his own misfortunes.

I have always accepted only half of God's reply. Surely it was wrong of God to let Satan put Job through all those horrible tests just to prove that one man—and perhaps only one man, Job--would remain faithful however much he suffered. That seems deeply wrong to me. But the rest of the speech from the whirlwind made perfect sense to me. If God has a huge beneficent plan in the works that will take eons to complete, surely it would involve having certain things happen now that would seem unreasonable to us in terms of our own limited vision and intellectual capacities. If I am going to see this universe as benign at all, run by a well-meaning God, then I must accept the whole of it, not just the pleasant parts, And I must simply trust that there is a good reason for the unpleasant parts which I cannot fathom. I can't be grateful for the sweet unless I accept the bitter too.

The film shows the cosmos and makes us awed by the majestic intelligence managing it. The whole thing is so magnificent that we must recognize ourselves humbly as fully as wondrous an invention as the dinosaurs and feel grateful for being a part of it, even for a short time. We are part of nature, part of the plan, and we can never know where the whole thing is going or why. Just trust it.

Or don't trust it, if that's your preference. Aysa chooses not to trust it, reverting to the same objections that other non-believers always do: the argument about evil. If God were good, he would not allow the horrors of X to exist, (Fill in X with whatever unpleasantness bothers you most. To me, X is birth. Even animals must suffer terribly in birth.)

To Aysa, X was the Dalits of India. She had gone to a slum in Delhi and had seen “Untouchables” living under bridges, drinking water polluted with effluent from the latrines up above them. Initially she adduced this as proof that God is not good. But soon she changed her interpretation, saying that it was not God who had created the horrors of the caste system and poverty, but human beings.

I replied that God had created human beings too, and had made us stupid enough to need a lot of improvement. It makes no more sense to blame humankind for the evil of caste and poverty than to blame God for making dinosaurs that eat other animals.

Does that sound as if I endorsed the perpetuation of evil? Did I seem to be saying that, because caste and poverty exist, we should accept them instead of trying to overcome them? I hope not. I explained that I see those social evils as problems and I believe we must each choose certain problems as our own and devote ourselves to trying to solve them. I spoke admiringly of my friend Jean Dreze, an eminent economist who lives among the poorest people of India. He shares what he has with them, and works to overcome their poverty by legislative lobbying. His campaign has succeeded in getting laws passed guaranteeing each family the right to a paid job a certain number of hours per year. Now he's working to guarantee everyone the right to enough food to survive, no matter what. He has chosen a wonderful problem to address. Aysa herself has also chosen an urgent problem – to overcome violence against women. And I have a great problem too: overcoming war.

But, I proclaimed, I thank God for my problems! In explaining, I recounted one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.

My grandmother was our Sunday School teacher that day. One of the other kids asked her what heaven was. She replied: “It's a wonderful place where you can go after you die, if you have been very good. It is perfect and it lasts forever. You will get anything you want without having to work or make any effort. There will be no struggle, no difficulty, no problems.”

I decided immediately: I refuse to go there. it would be hell! Nothing to do, no problems to solve. Never! I want lots of good, interesting, important problems to work on, whether I succeed in solving them or not. I’ve never changed my mind. But how many problems do we need? And how difficult or easy should they be?

Aysa saw my basic point and agreed that we might want to have a few challenges to keep life interesting, but certainly not such horrible ones as the misery of the Dalits. Their suffering still proved to her that God must be cruel.

To me it only proved that the universe is a marvelous game. The definition of a game is that people choose particular obstacles and try to overcome them. They adopt specific problems. In this universe, there’s a wide variety of problems—some chosen voluntarily, others inflicted on you. Some are easy, others hard. While you’re working on a problem, you don’t usually feel joyous, but considerable stress. The mountain climber whose rope is fraying feels terror, I suppose, but it’s a challenge she has chosen voluntarily.

The most useful course I ever took was from Karl Popper. He said that the progress of science (actually, even the arts, and certainly human society) involves continuous problem-solving in which you never prove what is true, but only disprove what is false, one theory at a time, eliminating errors and thereby getting closer to the truth. You never reach the truth, but just keep getting closer by finding crucial problems to solve. A genius, he said, is someone with an excellent nose for problems.

But you’d think that problems were scarce, considering how many people pick small, puny ones. Crossword puzzles instead of eradicating poverty or war or violence against women. People say they want to get away and avoid problems by traveling abroad, or lying on the beach. What a meaningless life!

My favorite theologian was not a religious writer at all but the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he never referred to “God” at all but said that “Life” gives unique duties to each one of us. We can look for them eagerly and take them up voluntarily, or try to avoid them. Meaningful living is the avid quest for the special problems directed to us, moment by moment by “Life.” The amazing thing is that one can be satisfied working on such problems even in the worst circumstances imaginable. Frankl had spent the war as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, and he took his responsibility to be that of helping others find the meaning of their own lives, identifying the challenges that they were supposed to take on. Of course, everyone knows how horrible the concentration camps were, but Frankl recalls periods of serenity or even exaltation there. Sometimes the only option is to suffer. Then just suffer willingly, as well as possible. I remember when I was giving birth to my son. The only thing I had to do was painful, so I remember saying, “Okay, God. Bring it on. I will see how well I can do it.”

That made it a “game”: choosing the obstacles to work on. It was not fun, of course, but the best games are hard. Often life imposes them on us, but we can choose them anyhow. So long as we can’t get out of a concentration camp, we can choose it as a problem to address with all our heart.

The Dalits are not just passive victims either. They are working on problems too. Doug Saunders, the Globe and Mail correspondent, writes about them in his book, Arrival City. The slums of Delhi are terrible, but better, he says, than the rural villages from which the inhabitants migrated. Moreover, slum dwellers all around the world don’t stay in the same slum forever. They go back and forth to the countryside, they send remittances to their families, they find better jobs and better houses, and they bring their relatives to live with them. The Dalits are on the way up, albeit living for the moment under the bridges of their “arrival city.”

But slums present a fine problem to anyone else who chooses to work on improving them. Caste and poverty are horrible and, as Aysa insists, they are made by human beings. Ignorant human beings.

So our job is to fix ourselves and to repair other ignorant human beings too. We all require improvement. Social problems are the best challenges. Thank God for my superb problems! And there are plenty more to go around. Help yourself to a few.

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Friday, July 01, 2011

After the G-20, Re-Thinking Turmoil

Metta Spencer
At a meeting tonight on bad policing at G20, I rudely noted that demonstration organizers also had duty to make all protesters pledge nonviolence. This was not received well. They said it was up to the cops to make people behave. I said it's up to all of us. Gandhi stopped all demonstrations for a year after protesters acted up. His satyagrahis had to be EXTREMELY disciplined. Everyone tonight considered it impossible to keep order.

Janet Vickers and CF like this.

Robin Collins
Good for you.

Metta Spencer
Hi, Robin. Of course, I wasn't defending the crimes of the police, but it's a matter of doing more than blaming them.

Robin Collins
We should remember that the initial criticism was of the cops in the first day(s) for letting people run around doing silly (destructive) things; then the police were brought in and apparently were instructed to respond with a heavy hand. Isn't there something in-between?

Metta Spencer
Good question. The speaker tonight was Peter Rosenthal, the lawyer for Jaggi Singh in this case. Of course there is plenty of room to criticize the cops but we can't make them responsible for keeping everyone from breaking the law. Actually, I didn't speak up much until the end because I didn't go to the G20 marches and don't know enough about them.

Good for you. The peace movement and anti-globalist movements have lost all crediblity precisely because its members refuse to renounce the use or advocacy or condoning of violence. The appalling moral slide of the human rights movement in the last 10 years is to blame as well, with its indefensible notion of "defensive jihad" and support of various victims who advocate warfare and excuse terrorism. The flotilla movement has also been provocative and knowingly inciting violence to make a point. The old movement concept of "direct action" versus "non-direct action" has been utterly eroded. You don't have to have gone to the G20 marches to see the reckless disregard for non-violence principles and the cynical indifference to the problem of violence in general -- I had many Twitter debates with Canadian radicals at that time.

Andrew Bartholomew Chaplin
I have special admiration for real anarchists: nothing is more difficult. If you are a true anarchist you govern yourself and expect to others to do the same. If people govern themselves, there is nothing to worry about. Hope isn't just a town in British Columbia.

Wodek Szemberg
The truth not addressed is that—as any experienced and dedicated demonstrator knows—no demonstration has ever been successful unless it has been violently broken up by the police or it has managed to undermine public order in some manner. I wasn't there but I just have a sneaking feeling that many of the people who were wrongly arrested, have and will retell the story of their arrests at many dinner parties. And will wear the memory of their participation in the G20 demonstrations as a badge of honor.

Metta Spencer
I have to wonder what you mean by "successful," Wodek. Would you say the G20 demonstrations were successful? Or that Gandhi's demonstrations were unsuccessful? What do you suppose people are trying to achieve by demonstrating? Even Rosenthal agreed that the whole reputability of the G20 demonstration was blackened by the Black Bloc. I don't think the demonstrators required for their own "success" that the G20 disband or change its policies that weekend, so I'm not sure what success is to them either, but surely I don't know what you mean by it.

And in a sense I agree with Andrew. What I was calling on people to do was to monitor each other and manage the civility of our own activities without having to be controlled by the police. You could see that as anarchism, though surely the history of anarchism is dominated mainly by violence. Rosenthal says that Jaggi Singh is an anarchist, which explains why he has acquired several criminal convictions, I guess.

Robin Collins
I doubt much was achieved by the group of violent demonstrators -- what was their objective? It wasn't in revolt against a Nazi state. Was it to "prove” the state was violent by its response to their own provocations? Nobody believes that story, even when the police overdid it. There is more ego in the bandana boys than politics, methinks.

Metta Spencer
Yes. I think probably what Wodek means by "success" is getting media coverage. If that is the only name of the game, then he is right — but only because the media only cover shocking things. If that is success, then it comes at a terrible price — that the demonstrators put moral principles aside in order to get attention. That's not what I want to accomplish with a protest movement.

Francisco J. Wulff
I strongly agree with CF above. I don´t believe in going to the police and picking a fight as a form of protest, or burning cars in the street or destroying private property. What is the substance of such actions? How does that contribute to building a better society? Same with these fleets of "humanitarian assistance" going off to Gaza, hoping to be "attacked" by the Israelis. Is that the best we can do to make the points of humanitarian causes???

Anyway, thank you, Metta Spencer, for bringing up this issue, which has been bothering me for a while. I have not yet seen anybody else arguing your point, which is a shame.

Diane Katz
Couldn't agree with you more, Francisco.

Metta Spencer
Actually, I see the flotilla as a truly nonviolent activity. I know people who are on it, and they are trying to bring things into Gaza such as wheelchairs. I do not believe they are trying to provoke the Israelis into attacking them, and if they are attacked, the people I know certainly will not respond with violence or destructive behavior at all. So I see them as truly Gandhian in their mission.

Diane Katz
If the flotilla movement really had humanitarian assistance at its heart, rather than just making a political statement, they would be sending aid to Benghazi instead. But the sad fact is violence works, at least as far as getting attention goes. If there is a quiet, peaceful demonstration, the media aren't interested. They thrive on confrontation. Quite depressing, actually.

Metta Spencer
I didn't say they weren't trying to make a political statement. I think they ARE. But when injustice is going on, then a peaceful demonstration as a political statement is a good thing. That is not the same thing as attacking anyone or inviting attack. A couple of weeks ago at an arms bazaar in Ottawa my friends lay down on the pavement at the gate to try to prevent traffic going in. The police there were friendly and arrested no one. That's the way a demonstration ought to go. And in my opinion it is entirely justified. Money spent on weapons in the world would EASILY meet all the millennium development goals if diverted to civilized, humanitarian purposes.

Francisco J. Wulff
I'm sorry Metta, but I think that they are either very naive or worse. There is an open way to deliver real assistance to Gaza without this drama, but it has to go through Israeli checks (or through Egypt, which apparently is quite an open border now). What Israel won't allow is a direct, uncontrolled supply, because they fear it would be used to smuggle weapons. Although the Egyptian situation makes this whole thing a moot point, I can understand the Israeli concerns. And I don't understand why decent humanitarians would not be willing to go through a checkpoint.

Metta Spencer
Sorry, Franicisco, but that's not accurate. Not everything the Gazans need is allowed in, even at checkpoints. Cement, for example. Previous deliveries of wheelchairs have still not reached their destination, but are impounded somewhere unknown. The ocean is not the property of Israel and it is illegal for anyone to blockade Gaza. I think if you look more deeply into the true circumstances, you will conclude that Israel is perpetrating far more injustice on the Palestinians than vice versa. Because of that, I am supporting the flotilla myself.

Diane Katz
There was only one boat where there was violence, where there were the Turkish militants. I found out later that Ivan's cousin’s boyfriend was the first attacked, beaten, and thrown overboard. (He was in the IDF.) He had multiple fractures and spent several months in hospital and rehab. Why? Anyway, Israel said repeatedly that if the flotilla docks in israel, they will inspect the cargo and then send it straight to Gaza. I don't have a problem with the flotilla, if it's nonviolent, even if I don't agree with the necessity if it.

Francisco J. Wulff
I think the peace movement loses credibility when activists forget basic common sense. Lying down in an Ottawa street to protest an arms bazaar is great; attacking police officers at the G20 and spray-painting ther helmets and visors is stupid. Delivering humanitarian assistance in conflict areas is an act of great courage and self-sacrifice; choosing the most dangerous way just to make a debatable political point does not seem like a good idea.

Metta Spencer

I believe in civil disobedience as a political action when it involves disobeying an unjust law or custom. As Gandhi said, "Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good."

Diane Katz
With your recent demonstration, I think that's great. Wouldn't it be great if nonviolence was contagious? If people actually listened to the other side and heard other voices? But I'm afraid that's La La Land.

Francisco J. Wulff

I fully agree with that!

Metta Spencer
Look at the history of Gandhi's Quit India movement, or at the US civil rights movement. They both involved civil disobedience designed to expose the injustice of existing laws. Sitting-in at a segregated lunch counter, for example. Yes, the protesters could have found their lunch someplace else so why did they offend people by insisting on sitting at the whites' lunch counter? Because they wanted to expose the injustice of segregation and the violence that was used to enforce it.

Francisco J. Wulff
Yes, but I really don't believe that is comparable to the Gaza situation, where the wrongfulness of the law is far less clear to me, and where there are many other legal avenues still open and untried.

Metta Spencer
And, Frank, I agree that the "peace movement loses credibility when activists forget basic common sense." The trouble is, it is not the "peace movement" that broke windows or set cars on fire in Toronto. It was thugs from outside, and they did destroy the credibility of the peace movement, There were many thousands of peaceful marchers that day, whose actions were made to look violent because of 75 Black Block thugs. The organizers of the demonstration should have made if abundantly clear from the outset that anyone participating must agree to certain rules of nonviolent, nondestructive behavior. That is my point: that the organizers bear some of the responsibility for the blackened reputation that came out of the day. They accepted the principle of "diversity of tactics,” meaning that every contingent of demonstrators could decide for themselves what tactics to use, including damaging property.

As for Gaza, I don't think you're very well informed, Frank. The abuses are vastly disproportionate. However, I don't think we're going to reach an agreement about the facts via Facebook. I think you've not questioned as much as you might.

Diane Katz
Actually, the Israelis do have a right to inspect the ships, and they certainly have a duty to protect their citizens. The cement is prevented because they use it to build tunnels to smuggle weapons. Unfortunate because it stops needed construction. Have you any idea how much stuff is confiscated by Hamas and how much they control the supply of goods?

If Gaza wasn't controlled by Hamas and other militants things would be vastly better. You need to put a lot of blame on their leadership. Things are much better in the West Bank. Not as good as it should be, but still a big improvement.

Metta Spencer
Today's Globe and Mail has a big piece on the flotilla, interviewing one of the participants. I happen to know some of the others and would have gone along too if I were 20 years younger and in better physical condition. I recommend this article:

I am no expert on international law and I know the question is disputed as to whether Israel has a right to inspect the ships. Here is one article a week ago on it: However, I consider it an injustice and, even if it is legal, it is wrong — so cooperating with it would be wrong too. I would never vote for Hamas — but I don't know of any party in the Israeli government that I would vote for either. Certainly Diane is right that everything would be better if the antagonists would listen to each other.

Diane Katz

I think one of the most courageous people I've heard of is the doctor from Gaza (who now lives in Toronto) who lost three of his daughters during the war in Gaza two years ago. He worked in Israel, did some of his training there, and has many Israeli friends. Instead of hating (which would be totally understandable), he wants to heal, and build bridges to peace. All strength to him.

Allison Lee-Clay
That was why I walked away from the Legal Observers project: nobody would talk about a pledge for nonviolence, there was too much glee about confrontational non-productive mayhem, I was told to sign a weird silence doc & I was informed I ...wasn't there to testify about crimes I saw on both sides.

The icing on the cake was that we were there to protect the demonstrators, but not the Public & nobody would guarantee that the Legal Team would actually do *anything* for volunteer observers. Really soured me on the whole process.

Metta Spencer

Wow, Allison. What's really shocking. I'm forwarding this conversation to Peter Rosenthal. He ought to hear this one!

And Diane, I too admire that doctor from Gaza. He lives in Toronto now and I ought to interview him. However, he is suing the government of Israel and someone asked him if that was consistent with his decision not to hate. He said yes, that people must be held accountable for their actions, and that has nothing to do with whether your love them or hate them. I think that's right too. Actually, I should add that I never heard his statement myself and am only reporting hearsay. My statement would not be acceptable testimony in a law court. I think I heard it right, but who knows?

Diane Katz
I agree. The government should also apologize, which it has not yet done. However the citizens of Israel should also be free to sue Hamas for their persistent rocket attacks into their towns, but what would be the point? It's not like they have a credible legal system. At least the doctor will get justice. The courts in Israel regularly find against the government and for the Palestinians. He would probably get an Israeli lawyer who will take the case pro bono. He's got plenty of support.

Metta Spencer
Glad to hear good things about the Israeli justice system.

Diane Katz
The justice system is much more liberal than the government. Plenty of Israeli Arab judges, too. It won’t surprise you to know that Israelis don't think much more of their government than you do. But they do love their country, warts and all. (big generalizations here)

Martha Goodings

Metta, i totally agree, although it is not a popular view. Thinking it is up to the cops to make people behave is an idea that not even worthy of kindergarden students

Allison Lee-Clay
I tried starting 'Pacifist Pledge' idea a while ago, which would include a clear-to-draw-and-identify logo that one could (like a Peace sign) apply to one's garment at a demonstration. Along with signing up on Facebook, it could help register one's nonviolent & community-respectfully non-destructive intentions. I got hung up on whether the logo should be a peace sign with wings or something clearer and more creative.

Peaceworks Canada
Some of the media has seriously distorted the picture about what went down concerning the inspections of these boats last year. My fear is that if allowed to land, in reference to Diane's earlier comment, the story will become one-sided. That would not serve the cause for peace now, and never has. The CBG committee has tried every possible avenue available to them to have the Tahrir inspected and sealed, both before setting sail, and later upon arrival, without success. They have even invited Israeli inspectors to come and have a look. There were some frivolous legal attempts made to stall the departure of the boats but so far the participants in the Flotilla have done, and have sworn to do, nothing illegal—please see the oath they took— 'The Red Line' on Bob Lovelace's postings from the boat. Blame is not the answer, a nonviolent action of civil disobedience, which comes from moral indignation at a given set of circumstances however, allows individual citizens to respond from their truest selves. That is why civil disobedience is so successful. We are all (most of us) at heart, caring beings. I will post Bob's blog link later

Metta Spencer
There’s excellent news! Egypt will help the Gaza flotilla.

Allison, I think it's an interesting idea—to wear a badge showing that you're committed to non-violence. Still, I'm not sure I would wear one. At least, I'd have to attach some footnotes. That is, while I am 95% committed to nonviolence (well, close to it!) there are times when I would use violence to protect life. For example, I was in favor of the No-Fly-Zone in Libya, though not in favor of bombing the airfields first and not in favor of fighting the rebels' war for them. I would have favored putting peacekeepers between the two sides and warning both sides not to fire on the other. That would have given an opportunity for negotiations to begin. It might have involved shooting a few people, though. It would, however, have saved citizens' lives, especially in Benghazi, where Gadhafi had promised to go house to house, killing everyone.

Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan

I used to do peacekeeper or marshal training for mass demos. It was the way our movement kept its 'nonviolent contract' with the community, since we always had people joining in (we encouraged it), but who may not have reflected well on how they would act if violence broke out. We always maintained a link between organizers and police, and had legal observers too. I don't know if these systems were in place at G20. It would be good if organizers understood the importance of having an integrated entity ready to deal with 'black blocs' counter demonstrators, and any of the many forms of violence which can occur in crowds. We constantly did scenario development and trained for it, it was a real discipline.

Metta Spencer
This is SO important, Yeshua. Thanks for sending it. I will forward it to Rosenthal, who may have some influence with the organizers of such events. I certainly don't have any myself, for I don't think the Toronto people are serious about nonviolence at all.

Allison Lee-Clay
I wasn't informed about nonviolence/pacifism training: in fact I was highly disappointed that I heard nothing about it and I got huge scornful or sneering earfuls about my lack of respect for the 'importance of violence' and 'diversity of tactics' (which I consider a misuse of the term 'diversity'). Moral relativism and equivocations about how 'smashing up somebodys's storefront isn't "violence"! makes me sick with disgust. I can't figure if they're ... stupidly childish remedy-tantrum fits, or just social-psychologically PR-naive assholes.

Somehow the Black Bloc managed to make violence sound as 'morally upstanding' as abortion killings to the ears of their admirers. It does Canadians and our causes no service to let Black Bloc push us out of the press and into the fringes.

Failure to plan is planning to fail. I would enjoy taking a pacifism course & it would feel more morally uplifting than the complete downer I got from the Legal Observer G20 training day.

Robin Collins
We were watching Woody's Allen's new film Midnight in Paris last night. Good film, a lot of fun.... There's a sequence in the film that refers to one of film-maker Bunuel's films
in which the characters cannot leave a room. The sequence is a metaphor for the
confines of Franco Spain (the time of Bunuel's film), but also the resistance
many of us have (some more than others) of getting out of our convenient lives
and standing up for principles, i.e. the inconvenience of "just walking out of the
room". It doesn't matter the nature of the politics.

Today, my thoughts shot back to you, Metta, and your observations at the meeting the
other day when you found yourself virtually alone among activists when you
raised the problem of motives or appropriateness of actions of some people at
recent protests (G20). Your even raising the issue was heresy to some folks.

I've been in similar situations over the years. And my observation is simply
this. While I once sat on the "radical left" side of things, and I don't put
myself in that basket any more, still I don't feel that my basic assumptions
have changed much—but now I am more self-critical, I think I am more careful
in my thinking, and I am critical of tactics employed or knee-jerk thinking used
within the "left" or "peace movement". I am surprised to find that many within
these groups or that stratum often take very reactionary positions on
critical issues. That's maybe what has struck me most, recently. From another
era, people would have difficulty distinguishing some of these views from
extreme right-wing views. Many have abandoned democratic principles in order to
defend or embrace politicized positions based on an "anti-imperialist",
"anti-globalist" point of view. The result is a sympathy, in practical terms,
for dictatorships, or for defending them. (As a former Maoist in the late 70s, I
am aware of how that works! Enemy of my enemy is my friend...)

Even on the Rwanda genocide, which I think is a great barometer for
distinguishing political views, I find there are surprising assessments made, in
retrospect, about what should have been done. Many of the more radical seem to
argue that nothing could be done (because it should have been "prevented"...),
and relying on US troops to stop the genocide could never be justified (because
of US ulterior motives). Outside of these groups, of course, that would be
considered insane. In truth, it's the politics of "anti-imperialism" writ large.
And it's because anti-imperialism is dogma -- it is not a coherent rational
explanation that is particularly useful in solving or even explaining much about
current problems, at least in practical terms.

[I remember a breakthrough for me many years ago was when I stood at a
microphone and criticized some intervention (I can't even remember which one,
probably NATO/Serbia) and Geoffrey Pearson, who was on the panel, said back to
me: "That's fine, but would you DO?" I was very flustered, and I remember
answering that his answer "wasn't fair"! I always appreciated him for
humiliating me, and we became pretty good friends over the years.]

Now dictators and thugs are assessed on the basis of their relationship to the
US or other powers—but mostly the US— (Gadaffi is "OK-ish" because he was
once a Soviet ally, and anti-US.) The Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions were OK
because the regimes [they overthrew] were pro-West regimes. The Libyan situation must be a sign of imperial ambitions, not defence of civilians in Benghazi. All manner of effort
is employed to prove that oil is behind the conflict, and that it has nothing to
do with the Arab spring. There is a ton of retrospective analysis that is
fundamentally nonsense. (I am not diminishing the problems that have arisen
since NATO has decided to remove Gadaffi, likely outside of the UN mandate.)

And there is this effort to "explain" the evils of imperialism to people who
doubt these assessments are legitimate (a laughable, patronizing use of time).
Or worse, to launch ad hominems at critics of the "anti-imperialist" analysis.
It's as if there is this room that a large number of peace activists cannot bear
to step out of. When raising objections, more often than not, critics of the
mainstream leftish approach have been asked to shut up.

I have had a large number of discussions off and on-line with people on both
sides of this debate. Outside of the radical left (whatever that means) I don't
think that very many people actually embrace the "anti-imperialist" analysis.
They at least temper their assumptions about US motives with some doubt.

But you, someone who seems willing to step outside the room without much
hesitation, must have noticed the same problem over the years. Any thoughts? Is
it worse now than, say, ten years ago?

Metta Spencer
As to whether these tendencies are more common nowadays, I can't be sure. i'm not in public gatherings as often now as I probably was 15 years ago. However, Ken also read your letter and thinks that "anti-imperialism" peaked ten years ago during the biggest anti-globalization struggles. Of course, it isn’t surprising that it revives whenever there is an anti-G20 demonstration.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Einstein on Cosmic Religion

I want to quote this passage of Albert Einstein, which was published in
"Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms,”
(Mineola, N.T.: Dover, first published in 1931)

p 46: The religions of all the civilized peoples, especially those of the Orient, are principally moral religions. An important advance in the life of a people is the transformation of the religion of fear into the moral religion. But one must avoid the prejudice that regards the religions of primitive peoples as pure fear religions and those of the civilized races as pure moral religions. All are mixed forms, though the moral element predominates in the higher levels of social life. Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of the idea of God.

Only exceptionally gifted individuals or especially noble communities rise essentially above this level; in these there is found a third level of religious experience, even if it is seldom found in a pure form. I will call it the cosmic religious sense. This is hard to make clear to those who do not experience it, since it does not involve an anthropomorphic idea of God; the individual feels the vanity of human desires and aims, and the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought. He feels the individual destiny as an imprisonment and seeks to experience the totality of existence as a unity full of significance. indications of this cosmic religious sense can be found even on earlier levels of development—for example, in the Psalms of David and in the Prophets. The cosmic element is much stronger in Buddhism, as, in particular, Schopenhauer’s magnificent essays have shown us.

The religious geniuses of all times have been distinguished by this comic religious sense, which recognizes neither dogmas nor God made in man’s image. Consequently there cannot be a church whose chief doctrines are based on the cosmic religious experience. It comes about, therefore, that precisely among the heretics of all ages we find men who were inspired by this highest religious experience; often they appeared to their contemporaries as atheists, but sometimes also as saints. Viewed from this angle, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are near to one another.

How can this cosmic religious experience be communicated from man to man, if it cannot lead to a definite conception of God or to a theology? It seems to me that the most important function of art and of science is to arouse and keep alive this feeling in those who are receptive.

Thus we reach an interpretation of the religion of science to religion which is very different from the customary view. From the study of history, one is inclined to regard religion and science as irreconcilable antagonists, and this for a reason that is very easily seen. For any one who is pervaded with the sense of causal law in all that happens, who accepts in real earnest the assumption of causality, the idea of a Being who interferes with the sequence of events in the world is absolutely impossible. Neither the religion of fear nor the social-moral religion can have any hold on him A God who rewards and punishes is for him unthinkable, because man acts in accordance with an inner and outer necessity, and would, in the eyes of God, be as little responsible as an inanimate object is for the movements which it makes.

Science, in consequence, has been accused of undermining morals—but wrongly. The ethical behavior of man is better based on sympathy, education, and social relationships, and requires no support from religion. Man’s plight would, indeed, be sad if he had to be kept in order through fear of punishment and hope of rewards after death.

It is, therefore, quite natural that the churches have always fought against science and have persecuted its supporters. But, on the other hand, I assert that the cosmic religious experience is the strongest and the noblest driving force behind scientific research. No one who does not appreciate the terrific exertions, and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer creations in scientific thought cannot come into being, can judge the strength of the feeling out of which alone such work, turned away as it is from immediate practical life, can grow. What a deep faith in the rationality of the structure of the world and what a longing to understand even a small glimpse of the reason revealed in the world there must have been in Kepler and Newton to enable them to unravel the mechanism of the heavens, in long years of lonely work!

Anyone who only knows scientific research in its practical applications may easily come to a wrong interpretation of the state of mind of the men who, surrounded by skeptical contemporaries, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered over all countries in all centuries. Only those who have dedicated their lives to similar ends can have a living conception of the inspiration which gave these men the power to remain loyal to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is the cosmic religious sense which grants this power.

A contemporary has rightly said that the only deeply religious people of our largely materialistic age are the earnest men of research.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Nonviolence: A CBC Radio series (Including with me)

Mary Wiens, a producer for CBC's “Metro Morning” radio show, produced a series of seven-minute programs about nonviolent struggle, which were recently broadcast over the course of a week. She came to my home and interviewed me, among others. The whole series is now available for  you to hear on-line. I am in the first and third segments, if that matters. I think the whole series is a valuable contribution, reminding listeners that nonviolent struggle requires planning and commitment.

Here's the link to the whole series of five segments;


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CBC Interviews Me About Russia

CBC News producer Jennifer Clibbon, who has lived and worked in Russia periodically since the mid-1980s, published this interview with me on the CBC web site. (See She was especially interested in the state of civil society and the future of democratic reform in Russia today. 

CBC News: Gorbachev has been uncharacteristically critical of the regime of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in recent weeks, calling it arrogant and undemocratic. After years of being quiescent when Putin was president, why do you think he is positioning himself as an opponent now?

Metta Spencer: I think he was so relieved initially to see [former president Boris] Yeltsin replaced that he was willing to give Putin the benefit of all doubts for a long time, especially since Putin never said anything rude about Gorbachev himself. Also, we must bear in mind how popular Putin was — and remains. Yes, he cheats in elections, but even if he did not, he would probably win; about 70 per cent of the population say they basically approve of what he has done.

Gorbachev said once that there are even some benefits to having an authoritarian regime, though he didn't specify what he meant by that. I've heard other Russians say they admire the orderliness that Putin imposed after the utter chaos of Yeltsin's rule.

Of course, the economy has done far better under Putin than under Yeltsin or Gorbachev, so people are appreciative. In reality, most of the easier economic situation that came with Putin occurred because of the increasing price of oil.

Possibly, the proximate reason for Gorbachev's irritation with Putin occurred when he tried to form a new social democratic party. Putin refused to register it. Of course, no opposition parties are allowed much publicity on TV or the press, but it was pretty shocking to have Gorbachev's proposed party refused permission even to form.

In any case, clearly, Gorbachev has made up for lost time in criticizing the Putin-Medvedev tandem government. If his aides used to be mild in criticizing them to me, today, they are vigorous critics, primarily complaining about the loss of freedom of speech and the press under Putin, as compared to Gorbachev's earlier nemesis, Yeltsin.

Among pro-democracy, peace and other grassroots activists in Russia, what are the primary concerns about the direction of democratic reform?

It's not the direction of reform that worries them. It's the total absence of reform. Protesters go out into the street and get beaten up or even jailed, as, indeed, happened to a former deputy prime minister of Russia, Boris Nemtsov, a few months ago. Then they go out into the streets and demonstrate again — and again. They are remarkably courageous.

Unfortunately, although President Medvedev sounds like a Western liberal democrat in his speeches, there is no evidence that his words have any effect in the practical workings of the Russian state. One may hope that a brand new law designed to reform the crooked police system will improve the quality of law enforcement, but the best-known human rights leaders — such as Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, Lev Ponomarev, Oleg Orlov, and Garry Kasparov — all consider the changes merely cosmetic or imitation. We shall learn the results soon enough.

What's the state of NGO and grassroots activism today in Russia? Which groups are the most effective and why?

There are quite a few civil society organizations. However, after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Putin became worried about the prospect of a similar movement against his regime, and he correctly identified NGOs as potential sources of opposition. Hence, he introduced laws prohibiting those groups that do any political work from accepting foreign funds.

On the other hand, there are non-politically active organizations that the regime wants to encourage. For the most part, these are volunteer groups that perform social services of some kind that the government might otherwise have to provide: aid to disabled persons, restoration of park lands, and the like. A couple of years ago, a measure was passed that provides governmental funding to some civil society organizations. That has helped significantly.

As he turns 80, we have a chance to recall Gorbachev's career and achievements. He has been called a "world changer." What, in your view, are his primary accomplishments?

He changed the world's map and probably saved most human beings from a fiery death in a nuclear inferno. He stopped controlling the Eastern European countries and enabled them to create their own democratic regimes.

He began the process of democratizing the Soviet Union by holding the first truly free elections to legislative bodies. Eschewing violent methods of rule, he allowed civil society organizations to emerge and express new ideas, including nationalistic values that in the end destroyed the unity of the state. He reduced militarization — especially the nuclear arms race — and supported multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.

He supported the rule of law and the rights of human beings everywhere. He began the work of revising the Soviet constitution with the New Union Treaty, which would have guaranteed no special role for officials of the Communist Party. However much of a mess Russia is today, it is nowhere near as tyrannical as the Soviet Union in which Gorbachev himself had spent most of his life.

In Russia, Gorbachev is not viewed as favourably as in the West. Critics point to the fact that he did crack down on national secessionist movements, defended the supremacy of the Communist Party and continued harassment of dissidents. How would you assess this difference in opinion?

Very few people were killed in police actions against separatist movements. I remember seeing him wade into crowds in the Baltic states, seeking to persuade citizens in face-to-face dialogue that they should remain within the Soviet Union. When he failed to persuade them, he allowed them to go.

As for the other republics, there had been a referendum a short time before the Union broke up, and a substantial majority of the population in all those areas expressed a preference to stay in the Union. It was not Gorbachev but Yeltsin who broke up the Soviet Union — and it was animated by personal animosity, not a considered reasonable response.

I know many former dissidents. After Gorbachev came to power, most of them chose to leave the country and were permitted to do so. Moreover, I know Fyodor Burlatsky quite well. He was put in charge of the De Burght Conference, which negotiated new rules of religious freedom. He asked Gorbachev to free all prisoners who were being incarcerated because of their religious commitments, and Gorbachev did so.

It is not accurate to say that he continued harassment of dissidents. Those dissidents who remained in the country were joined by a multitude of formerly acquiescent citizens who wanted to be regarded as dissidents; they formed an organization called Democratic Russia and followed both Yeltsin and Sakharov in opposing Gorbachev.

As for defending the supremacy of the Communist Party, that was the farthest thing from Gorbachev's intention. As early as 1986, he was holding meetings with advisers to plan a transition to a democratic system of governance in which the [Communist Party] would be only one of several parties and in which it would have no special role to play beyond running candidates for office.

He did not favor abolishing Article 6 of the constitution at the point when the radical democrats asked for it. That would have stripped the party of its special role. However, at that point, the radical democrats were a minority and could not have carried the motion. To attempt such an action at that early date would have provoked the entrenched party members to fight against all reforms. Gorbachev's preferred approach was to wait until the New Union Treaty could be negotiated, which would have had exactly the effect of ousting the old-guard party officials. Unfortunately, those officials understood what was about to happen to them, and only a day or so before the New Union Treaty was to be adopted, they attempted the August coup.

You have been a peace activist since the 1960s. How important is Gorbachev's legacy in nuclear disarmament and the end of the Cold War?

There has never been a political leader in history who has understood so much about the dangers of warfare and the urgency of replacing it with peaceful forms of governance. It was Gorbachev — definitely not [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan — who started the initiatives toward nuclear disarmament. He was willing to get rid of all existing nuclear weapons and plan ways of preventing new ones from being built.
I have no doubt that he has saved humankind from a nuclear Holocaust that would certainly have taken place by now. It will be the work of our generation and probably the next one to fulfill his visionary plans, which can give civilization a chance to survive and flourish. No politician in history deserves more praise and gratitude. Indeed, I can think of no one who even comes close.

Pundits have talked of a new Cold War under Putin and Medvedev and focused on the behind-the-scenes rearmament and crackdown on grassroots activism. Do you think this is overstated?

One should never be complacent. Certainly, there is mistrust between the Russian government — and even the Russian people — and liberal Westerners. I don't consider this so-called new Cold War to be as dangerous as the old one, but Putin and Medvedev intend to re-assert their 'sphere of interest' by showing that no more states that had belonged to the former Soviet Union will be able to join NATO. In a way, I don't blame them.

I don't think there should be spheres of interest that any superpower can dominate, but I also think that the U.S. should not have pushed its alliance up to the borders of Russia. There is plenty of blame to go around for the breakdown in relations between Russia and the West, but I would allocate quite a big portion of it to the United States, both for expanding NATO and for setting up missile defence systems that would weaken Russia's defensive system.

But the U.S. cannot be blamed for the crackdown on grassroots activism. I believe in supporting pro-democracy movements abroad to carry out non-violent actions in pursuit of political rights and civil liberties. I think our government should always support our own values, though we should not meddle by directly trying to influence the outcome of partisan conflicts abroad. For example, we can help support a free media abroad but not fund political parties, in my opinion. All pro-democracy political movements must be led by the people themselves, not by foreigners.

Gorbachev warned about the possibility of civil unrest in Russia similar to the kind we are seeing in the Arab world right now? Are the conditions really ripe for that kind of a popular explosion in Russia?

I almost wish it were true that Russians want freedom enough to struggle non-violently for it, in the style of the Egyptian youth. But so far as I can tell, there is general acceptance of authoritarianism in Russia, even by most young people. I think that travel abroad would help sensitize them to the opportunities that are being denied them. And on a large scale, I would like to see hundreds or thousands of Skype discussion groups set up between Westerners and Russians, each one on a specific topic of interest to certain individuals and designed to take place once a month for a year.

You'd have four music teachers in Omsk, say, talking to four music teachers in Sudbury for an hour every month. After one year, thousands of Russians would have a real sense of what freedom is like. They'd have foreign friends — and so would we. I think they would want more democracy for themselves and would have some better sense of how to pursue it.


Dilemmas of Nuclear Power

As a member of the steering committee of the International Peace Bureau, I went to Barcelona a couple of weeks ago for a meeting. I knew that some members already expected us to call for nuclear reactors to be shut down, world-wide, and I wasn’t ready to vote on that issue. I said that it would take me another month of serious study to reach a decision for myself, so the matter was referred to a committee for further study. Though I’m not on the committee, I will have to vote at the next meeting, if not before. Until now I had delayed taking a position because I know how complex the issue is, and I doubt that I can become sufficiently knowledgeable to trust my own conclusions.

But I’ve been reading and re-reading articles. Even now my judgment has to be tentative, for I may change my mind, but here’s the way the situation looks to me now.

The existing nuclear power plants around the world are not equally risky, but we must recognize that not a one of them can be called really safe. If the risk of such catastrophes as Chernobyl and Fukushima were the only factors to take into account, almost everyone would agree to shut them down. There are other inherent dangers in nuclear power as well, such as the challenge of hiding of radioactive wastes away for tens of thousands of years, and the danger that some of the wastes may be stolen and used for a nuclear weapon by terrorists or some enemy state. The potential for proliferation of weaponry should give everyone serious concerns about proceeding with these plants.

But there are three other types risk that must be considered and balanced against the nuclear ones:
  1. the impending shortage of fuel on which our standard of living (perhaps even the survival of billions of human beings) depend;
  2. the risks of alternative sources of energy, such as the health hazards of burning coal and the environmental dangers of “fracking” the earth to remove natural gas; and
  3. looming climate crisis, which also threatens the survival of billions of us.
If we reject nuclear power completely, can we develop other sources of fuel quickly enough to sustain modern civilization? And if we reject nuclear power, will our use of other sources of energy heat the planet so much that its self-regulatory feedback system will be ruined?

Different analysts reach different conclusions. Optimistic studies say that it is barely possible, but even they do not say it will be easy to get along without nuclear power. I will refer here to several articles from the Internet, plus one in The Economist of March 26th, pp 79-81.

At present only about 14 percent of the world’s energy comes from nuclear sources, though the amount varies significantly from one country to another. In France it is 80 percent; in the US, 20 percent, in Japan, 30 percent. It would not be difficult to make up the difference if we had to shut all power plants down, but there would be several disadvantages. For example, we might depend on coal, which when burned emits soot, sulfur and mercury, already killing far more people per kilowatt hour than nuclear does. It also would warm the planet appreciably, whereas we must reduce global warming to less than 2 degrees C, mainly by reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 44 billion tonnes by 2020.

The most ambitious actions that countries could take would bring the emissions down to about 49 billion donnes, leaving a gap of 5 billion tonnes. Nuclear power can reduce emissions by only about 2 billion tonnes—but that’s a significant amount when we consider the devastating effects on the planet of failing to limit warming.

However, nuclear power is expensive. A Canadian researcher, Trevor Findlay, has reviewed the prospects for a “nuclear renaissance”—the renewed growth of that industry, and has decided that it is unlikely to occur. When planners begin comparing the real costs of various types of energy, they often change their minds and abandon plans for a new power reactor. That was true even before the Fukushima disaster, and now if there are to be new plants they will probably cost even more because additional safety features must be built in.

The most promising alternative to nuclear power would be natural gas, which is mostly methane. According to The Economist, it will do more than renewables to limit the world’s carbon emissions. It emits far less CO2 than coal and 30-40 percent less greenhouse gas than gasoline-driven cars. Natural gas has become plentiful recently because of new technologies of extraction. It is possible to drill into a seam of shale and then drill sideways, curling around as necessary to reach the gas. Fortunately, methane also costs less and pollutes less than petroleum engines. But it too has disadvantages—including its toxicity, its explosiveness, and the costliness of the pipelines that it requires. Still, because it is plentiful, it is going to be used more in the future and it is hard to argue against that prospect, especially since it can be used as a “baseload” fuel, unlike the renewables solar or wind power, which are hard to store and are produced only when the sun shines or the wind blows.

But natural gas will not save us. So far as I can ascertain, the world is highly unlikely to reduce carbon emissions enough to restrain climate change to bearable levels. It is actually too late now to make the changes that are required. We will have to choose between burning coal, with its detrimental health and climatic effects, or nuclear, with other detrimental effects on health, the environment, and the proliferation of nuclear weaponry. And even the use of coal and nuclear will probably not suffice to limit climate change.

Yet I do not despair yet. There are several grounds for hope. If future carbon emissions remain disastrously high, there are ways of removing it from the ambient atmosphere and sequestering it. A huge campaign of re-forestation would go far toward that goal, and changes in agricultural practices can also help a great deal. For example, no-till farming keeps the carbon in the soil instead of exposing it to the atmosphere. Moreover, the widespread but appropriate production and burial of biochar would enable us to sequester about 12 percent as much carbon dioxide each year as we emit through the use of fossil fuels.

Moreover, there are grounds for hope even if we find it necessary to use nuclear power. Nuclear technology has been moving through several stages of improvement. The existing power plants in the world are Generation Two. There are well-developed designs for certain Generation Three plants, though none have been built yet. And within twenty years or even less, Generation Four plants can be ready.

It is these fourth generation reactors that give cause for hope. As the eminent climate scientist James Hansen has noted,

“They can burn nuclear waste, turning our biggest headache into an asset. The much smaller volume of waste from fourth generation reactors has a lifetime of a few centuries, rather than tens of thousands of years. The fact that fourth generation reactors will be able to use the waste from third generation plants changes the nuclear story fundamentally, making the combination of third and fourth generation plants a much more attractive energy option than third generation itself would have been.”

The most promising of these upcoming forms of nuclear power is the “thorium reactor.” A ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium and 3.5 million tons of coal. It is an abundant metal and a highly efficient fuel source, all forms of which can be used as fuel—unlike natural uranium, which must be highly refined before it can be used in nuclear reactors. The best use of thorium would be in a network of tiny underground nuclear reactors, too small to require the enormous security system that a full-sized nuclear power plant needs.

Thorium solves the non-proliferation problem, for its reactors produce only a small amount of plutonium. Even traces of unburned U-233 in a thorium reactor are more difficult to convert to a usable nuclear weapon than Uranium 235 or Plutonium 239. The waste from burning thorium in a reactor is dramatically less radioactive than conventional nuclear waste. Such waste would only need to be locked up for about five percent as long as most nuclear waste.

Unlike uranium and plutonium, thorium is not fissile. It cannot sustain a nuclear reaction once it has been started but fizzles out unless it receives ongoing boosts to keep it going. For this it could be mixed with other fuels or kept running by an ongoing particle beam. If that particle beam stops, the whole reactor would stop; it could not melt down. There is no chance of a Chernobyl-type accident. It can dispose of weapons–grade plutonium and can also be developed as a fuel for many conventional reactors to prevent production of any further plutonium as a by-product.

It would seem, then, that the fourth generation reactors solve all the problems that alarm us. Their fuel sources are abundant and safe; they can be used to burn up the waste products remaining from current nuclear reactors; they will produce much less waste than today and it can be more easily managed; and they are not suitable ingredients for nuclear weapons. If that is so, and especially since they will enable us to cut carbon dioxide emissions markedly and limit climate change, why should we object to them?

The existing nuclear power plants are dangerous. No more of them should be built, and some of them should be dismantled—which will happen to many of them anyway because of their age.  But I cannot in conscience argue against the development of fourth generation nuclear power plants. We are going to need all possible ways of getting by with the fuel resources available to us, and keeping our planet from cooking. Fourth generation nuclear plants seem potentially useful for that purpose. Unless some new information comes my way that challenges the findings I’ve mentioned above, I will vote at the next IPB meeting to support the production of fourth generation nuclear power.

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