Archive for June, 2012

Scientific American, May 25, 2012

Climate scientists think a perfect storm of climate “flips” could cause massive upheavals in a matter of years

Adapted from The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, by Fred Guterl (Bloomsbury USA, 2012).

The eminent British scientist James Lovelock, back in the 1970s, formulated his theory of Gaia, which held that the Earth was a kind of super organism. It had a self-regulating quality that would keep everything within that narrow band that made life possible. If things got too warm or too cold—if sunlight varied, or volcanoes caused a fall in temperatures, and so forth—Gaia would eventually compensate. This was a comforting notion. It was also wrong, as Lovelock himself later concluded. “I have to tell you, as members of the Earth’s family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilization are in grave danger,” he wrote in the Independent in 2006.

The world has warmed since those heady days of Gaia, and scientists have grown gloomier in their assessment of the state of the world’s climate. NASA climate scientist James Hanson has warned of a “Venus effect,” in which runaway warming turns Earth into an uninhabitable desert, with a surface temperature high enough to melt lead, sometime in the next few centuries. Even Hanson, though, is beginning to look downright optimistic compared to a new crop of climate scientists, who fret that things could head south as quickly as a handful of years, or even months, if we’re particularly unlucky. Ironically, some of them are intellectual offspring of Lovelock, the original optimist gone sour.

The true gloomsters are scientists who look at climate through the lens of “dynamical systems,” a mathematics that describes things that tend to change suddenly and are difficult to predict. It is the mathematics of the tipping point—the moment at which a “system” that has been changing slowly and predictably will suddenly “flip.” The colloquial example is the straw that breaks that camel’s back. Or you can also think of it as a ship that is stable until it tips too far in one direction and then capsizes. In this view, Earth’s climate is, or could soon be, ready to capsize, causing sudden, perhaps catastrophic, changes. And once it capsizes, it could be next to impossible to right it again.

The idea that climate behaves like a dynamical system addresses some of the key shortcomings of the conventional view of climate change—the view that looks at the planet as a whole, in terms of averages. A dynamical systems approach, by contrast, consider climate as a sum of many different parts, each with its own properties, all of them interdependent in ways that are hard to predict.

One of the most productive scientists in applying dynamical systems theory to climate is Tim Lenton at the University of East Anglia in England. Lenton is a Lovelockian two generations removed— his mentors were mentored by Lovelock. “We are looking quite hard at past data and observational data that can tell us something,” says Lenton. “Classical case studies in which you’ve seen abrupt changes in climate data. For example, in the Greenland ice-core records, you’re seeing climate jump. And the end of the Younger Dryas,” about fifteen thousand years ago, “you get a striking climate change.” So far, he says, nobody has found a big reason for such an abrupt change in these past events—no meteorite or volcano or other event that is an obvious cause—which suggests that perhaps something about the way these climate shifts occur simply makes them sudden.

Lenton is mainly interested in the future. He has tried to look for things that could possibly change suddenly and drastically even though nothing obvious may trigger them. He’s come up with a short list of nine tipping points—nine weather systems, regional in scope, that could make a rapid transition from one state to another.

Each year, the sun shines down on the dark surface of the Indian Ocean, and moist, warm air rises and forms clouds. This rising heat and the moisture form a powerful weather system, a natural pump that pulls up water and moves it in vast quantities hundreds of miles to the mainland. This is the Indian monsoon, which deposits rainfall on thousands of square miles of farmland. About a billion people, most of them poor, depend for their daily bread on crops that depend in turn on the reliability and regularity of the Indian monsoons.

India is a rapidly developing country with hundreds of millions of citizens who want to move into the middle class, drive cars and cool their homes with air-conditioning. It is also a country of poor people, many who still rely on burning agricultural waste to heat their homes and cook their suppers. Smoke from household fires has been a big source of pollution in the subcontinent, and it could disrupt the monsoons, too. The soot from these fires and from automobiles and buses in the ever more crowded cities rises into the atmosphere and drifts out over the Indian Ocean, changing the atmospheric dynamics upon which the monsoons depend. Aerosols (soot) keep much of the sun’s energy from reaching the surface, which means the monsoon doesn’t get going with the same force and takes longer to gather up a head of steam. Less rain makes it to crops.

At the same time, the buildup of greenhouse gases, coming mainly from developed countries in the northern hemisphere, has a very different effect on the Indian summer monsoons: it acts to make them stronger.

These two opposite influences make the fate of the monsoon difficult to predict and subject to instability. A small influence—a bit more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and a bit more brown haze—could have an out- size effect. Lenton believes that the monsoons could flip from one state to another as quickly as one year. What happens then is not a question that Lenton can answer with certainty, but he foresees two possibilities.

One is that the monsoons grow in force and intensity, but come less frequently. We have already seen hints of this in the newspapers. In the last few years rains have grown erratic and less frequent, but when they do come, they tend to dump an enormous amount of water, and in places where they wouldn’t normally do so. This is almost as bad for farmers as drought, since the rain falls on parched ground with extra force, and much of it runs off without soaking into the ground, and it causes damage to boot by washing away soil and plants. The flooding that devastated Pakistan in 2011 is a case in point. If this trend continued and strengthened in intensity, it would be bad news for the two thirds of the Indian workforce that depends on farming. It would be nasty for the Indian economy—agriculture accounts for 25 percent of GDP. A permanently erratic and harsh monsoon would depress crop yields, increase erosion on farms, and cause a rise in global food prices as India is forced to import more food.

The other possibility is even worse: the monsoons could shut down entirely. This would be an unmitigated catastrophe. A sudden stopping of monsoon rain, which accounts for 80 percent of rainfall in India, could throw a billion people into danger of starvation. It would change the Indian landscape, wiping out native species of plants and animals, force farms into bankruptcy, and exacerbate water shortages that are already creating conflict. The Indian government would almost certainly be unable to cope with a disaster of such proportions. Refugees by the hundreds of millions would stream into big cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore, looking for some hope of survival. It would create a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions. Lenton foresees a similar danger of sudden change in the West African monsoon, the second tipping point.

Tipping point number three in Lenton’s list is the sea ice of the north pole. For years the ice has been thinning and retreating more and more during the summer. Soon it may disappear completely during the summer months. We may already have reached this tipping point—a transition to a new state in which the north pole is ice-free during summer months is already at hand. Eventually the north pole may flip and be free of ice year-round. The knock-on effects of such a transition would be huge—they would cause marked increase of warming at the pole, since open water absorbs more of the sun’s energy than ice-covered seas. The effect of a year-round ice-free north pole would be like heating Greenland on a skillet.

The fourth tipping point is Greenland’s glaciers, which hold enough water to cause sea levels to rise by more than twenty feet. It takes a while for that much ice to melt, of course. Currently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections say it will take on the order of a thou- sand years. Scientists currently don’t have a good handle on how such a big hunk of ice melts. For plenty of reasons it could happen much more quickly—recent observations suggest that the melting has not only exceeded what models predict, but has also begun to accelerate. A marked retreat of ice in coastal areas has led to an infusion of ocean water, which is relatively warm and promotes melting.

All this leads Lenton to conclude that the Greenland ice sheets could make a transition to an alternate state in three hundred years, rather than a thousand or more. Such a quick melting of Greenland would have a knock-on effect on the ocean currents that run up the Atlantic, bringing warmth to northern Europe and Scandinavia, the Atlantic thermohaline circulation. A sudden change in this current could plunge much of Europe back into an ice age. Scientists were getting nervous about this possibility a few years ago, until further research suggested that any switch in current is a long way off—perhaps a thousand years off. Lenton argues that an accelerated melting of Greenland would throw more freshwater on the northern Atlantic than these reassuring calculations have taken into account. “The canary in the coal mine is the Arctic losing its summer sea-ice cover,” says Lenton. “I am really worried about the Greenland ice sheet. It’s already losing mass and shrinking.”

If Greenland flipped into a completely ice-free state, it would cause massive rises in sea level—on the order of six or seven meters. Even if this took three hundred years to happen, “it would be an absolute disaster,” says Lenton, “a real game changer.” At such a rate of sea-level rise, it would be- come more and more difficult to protect coastlines. Low-lying areas would have to be abandoned. That includes cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, not to mention the entire state of Florida and vast swaths of Indochina.

Tipping point number six—the west Antarctic ice sheet—is even scarier. It has enough ice on it to raise sea levels by about eighty meters. The ice is melting, but slowly—most worst-case scenarios give the ice centuries to melt. But there are some niggling doubts about whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could calve into the sea more quickly than expected, as the glaciers contract. If that happened, it would push sea levels up by five meters in as short a time as a century. Most experts consider this unlikely, but if it did happen, Lenton thinks the sheet could flip in as little time as three hundred years—three times faster than most models predict.

Water and ice aren’t the only worries. The Amazon rain forest, the seventh of Lenton’s tipping points, is also in jeopardy. Rain forests are always pretty wet, but they have dry seasons, and those dry seasons turn out to be a limiting factor on the survival of flora and fauna. As loggers reduce the number of trees that produce moisture to feed the gathering rains, the drier the dry seasons get, and the longer they last. Lately dry seasons in the Amazon have gotten more severe and have put a crimp on the survival of many of the trees that form the forest canopy, which is the backbone of the rain-forest ecosystem. As the dry season continues to lengthen, the flora draw more and more water from the soil, which eventually begins to dry out. The trees get stressed and begin to die. There’s more fodder on the forest floor for wildfires. This is not hypothetical; it’s already begun to happen. We saw this during the estimated twelve thousand wildfires that occurred in the Amazon during the drought of 2010. As the forest loses more and more trees, it loses its ability to feed the weather patterns with warm, moist air.

If and when the Amazon flips into a drier state, it would have an big effect of weather patterns. The Amazon is basically a big spot of wet tropics. Knock out the trees and lose that moist air, and the regional circulation pattern changes as well. A similar flip could occur in Canada’s boreal forests (tipping point number eight). A die-off of these forests would release much of the 50 billion to 100 billion tons of carbon now trapped in permafrost.

The basic weather patterns that we’ve grown used to on weather maps are also subject to rapid change. Among them is what’s called El Niño– Southern Oscillation—the ninth and last of Lenton’s tipping points. El Niño involves movement of a blob of warm water on the west side of the Pacific Ocean toward the east, bringing with it moist warm air. When this warm water cools and circulates back westward, El Niño comes to an end and La Niña begins. These two patterns alternate roughly every five years. From observations, scientists have begun to see a more erratic trade-off between these two patterns. They fret that the weather patterns could flip to some different state—perhaps a more frequent switching off between the patterns. That would have a detrimental effect on the Amazon, says Lenton, exacerbating trends that already threaten to destroy the rain forest.

The real nightmare scenario is when all these changes begin to rein- force one another. The Arctic loses its summer sea ice, causing Greenland’s ice to melt and encouraging the boreal forests to change as well. The freshwater runoff changes the thermohaline dynamics and affects the jet stream. The El Niño–Southern Oscillation and the Amazon interact in such a way as to reinforce one another, perhaps affecting the monsoon in India and Africa. “It wouldn’t be such a silly thing to say that if you meddle with one, you might affect the other,” says Lenton. “Which direction the causality would go is not always obvious. We know it’s connected, we know it’s nonlinear, we know they somehow couple together. When you see one change, you see changes in the other.”

“Then we start talking about domino dynamics,” says Lenton. “The worse case would be that kind of scenario in which you tip one thing and that encourages the tipping of another. You get these cascading effects.”

It would take a perfect storm of climate flips to get us to this particular worst-case scenario. If it does come to pass, however, at least it will happen quickly.

Steven Best

 “We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shore of  the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” Carl Sagan

 All inquiries carry with them some element of risk. There is no guarantee that the universe will conform to our predispositions” Carl Sagan

 A fascinating part of the postmodern adventure – the dynamic changes wrought by science, technology, and capitalism that bring mutations in modern thought and society of the last few centuries — is the longing for contact with other planets and extraterrestrial life.[1] As is clear from events at Roswell, New Mexico, during 1947; from a surfeit of books and movies about aliens and UFO conspiracies; from the craze over films like ET (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); from the popularity of TV shows such as The X-Files; from fascination with “ET Highway” and the mysterious Area 51 in Nevada; and from UFOphilic cult groups like Heaven’s Gate, people are weary of lackluster positivism and blockbuster films. Sometimes, when people want real adventure, only aliens will do. Space aliens are the ultimate spectacle, one that an increasing number of people generate for themselves in their inspired longings and imaginations, and there is endless fascination with UFO sightings, alien abductions, and the possibility of life on Mars and other planets. The entertainment industries and mass media feed off and perpetuate this frenzy through movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979), Prometheus (2012) and shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings.

Space aliens are the ultimate “Others,” and thereby prompt reflection on the nature of Homo sapiens. Since H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1898), its frightening radio adaptation by Orson Wells (1938) that sent the nation scurrying in panic, and its popular movie translations (1953, 2005), sci-fi representations have depicted aliens as either benign beings who come to rescue us from social and ecological disaster, as one finds in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), or as malicious monsters whose goal is to enslave humanity or destroy the earth, as represented in Independence Day (1996). These antithetical attitudes stem from a psychological ambivalence human beings have relating to alterity of any kind, earthly or otherwise, and also to their repressed guilt over their own violent and destructive past.[2]

Independence Day, for example, puts human guilt and anxiety on blatant display, as a hoard of malevolent, super-intelligent aliens arrive to colonize the earth to sustain their bloated populations and energy-sucking technologies. If the scenario sounds familiar, it should, for Independence Day is an allegory of what human beings have done to other animal species and the earth for the last ten thousand years, by colonizing land, exterminating species, and devouring natural resources to fuel its ever-expanding empire, population growth, and energy addiction. Independence Day is a veiled anthropomorphic projection of our own murderous, ravaging, and destructive lifeways from our existence onto other-worldly creatures who live to kill and kill to live. In fact, we (humankind generally, but mostly western capitalist cultures) are the parasites who wantonly consume and kill to support our Promethean, growth-oriented, fossil-fuel addicted societies. We are the butchers and bloodsuckers who slice apart billions of bodies and drain the marrow from the earth to support unsustainable lifestyles. We are the aliens estranged from our fellow species and earthly home, We are the parasites drowning in our own wastes and toxic chemicals, as we bulldoze rainforests to feed cattle and replace natural environments with synthetic worlds of glass, steel, and concrete. We are the destroyers, but we have nowhere to run and cannot escape from the collapsing carapace of industrial capitalism and runaway climate change.

In many ways, aliens are the new opiate of the people, fantasies of the gullible who leap from any seeming shred of evidence to a devout belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life. The belief in aliens is not necessarily irrational, however; as scientists like Stephen Hawking, Stuart Kaufmann, and Carl Sagan accept the possibility or even likelihood of cosmic intelligence, and astronomer Frank Drake worked out a formula to estimate the number of detectable civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. “Drake’s equation” inspired the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Project that began in the 1960s, lured Sagan’s enthusiastic support first in 1980, and ultimately can be traced back to the Nikola Testla’s pioneering use of radio signals to contact extraterrestrial life in 1899.[3] Whether UFOs are real or not, much of the present craze is fuelled by distrust of the US government and a predilection toward conspiracy theories, such that any official denial of UFOS and alien abductions only encourages some people to believe that it must be true.

For scientists like Carl Sagan, however, contact has been a lifelong desire and no one has done more than he to popularize science and to promote extraterrestrial research. Sagan sought both to advance astronomy through technical means and to communicate with a popular audience with cosmic poetry and by awakening wonder. Where most of his peers would not deign to speak to the lay audience, wrote in execrable technical jargon, and rigidly divorced facts from values as they raked in cash from corporate grants and affirmed the technical mastery of nature, Sagan was a public intellectual who explained astronomy in stimulating terms and made general concepts of science interesting and assessable to the public through his popular books and films.[4]


Sailing the Stars

 “We have heard so far the voice of life on one small world only. But we have at last begun to listen for other voices in the cosmic fugue.” Carl Sagan

Sagan does not use postmodern discourse that we have made sharp breaks in thought, culture, and history from the classical modern period of the eighteenth through the mid or late twentieth century, but clearly he sees the post-1960s era of space travel era as a qualitatively different stage in the modern project of discovery, exploration, and adventure, since “this is the epoch in which we began our journey to the stars.”[5] I myself see space travel as part of the postmodern, rather than modern, adventure, in that, for the first time, human beings fly not only within the planet’s atmosphere, but also beyond it, having broken free of “gravity’s rainbow” (Thomas Pynchon) and earthly constraints in movement and possibilities. Humanity is venturing toward other planets to inhabit and colonize other worlds, perhaps altering the course of human evolution. Indeed, as the modern adventure unfolded in an era of rapid and dramatic discoveries; of bold new mappings of the land, sea, and stars; of startling scientific paradigm shifts; and of rapidly accelerating technological innovation hastening the pace of social change generally and altering life forms and human identities, the postmodern adventure is a continuation of this discovery, voyaging, and transformative process through a mapping of the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond. The term “astronaut” (Gr.: astron, star, and nautikos, ship) literally means one who sails the sea of stars. Yet this continuation of modern exploration dynamics is so qualitatively different, and has such more consequential implications, that it is best understand as a postmodern adventure.

Sagan traces a direct line from Columbus and other early voyagers who sailed the seas and explored new lands — space technicians and astronauts venturing into the sea of stars: “The Voyager spacecrafts are the linear descendants of those sailing-ship voyages of [early modern] exploration.”[6] As Sagan emphasizes, we have already become multiplanet travelers with earth as our home base. Standing on the shores of the cosmic ocean, Sagan feels we should take the plunge into the unknown. This, for Sagan, is the next big human adventure, one that frees us from the shackles of the earth to explore other planets, to build space colonies, to journey to the outer edges of the galaxy and perhaps beyond, as we shift toward post-geocentric, multiplanet identities, such as dramatized in the television and film series Star Trek.

The postmodern adventure would have as profound an impact on human identity as did modern explorations centuries earlier. The exploration of the cosmos, Sagan points out, is a voyage of self-discovery, a cosmic genealogy since we are ultimately born from the stars, beings “starstuff gathering starlight.” When life develops eyes and ears, the cosmos sees and hears; when it develops thought and intelligence, we become, as in a fantastic Hegelian evolution, the cosmos reflecting on itself. But the history of human thinking, as Nietzsche points out, is the history of crude errors, and the falsehoods and lies that prove most useful to life, such as which posit the existence of a God, the soul, the afterlife, and our privileged place on this planet and cosmic narrative. These delusions to which we cling tenaciously, as they soothe our fears, assuage our vanities, and transform our insignificance and nothingness into a sublime drama that enthrones us as the center of ,meaning and value.            

Unlike ancient times, Sagan notes, when everyday life was intimately connected to the celestial sphere, humans living in technoscientific culture have grown so distant from the starry firmament that the infinite space and beyond the earth’s stratosphere seems remote and irrelevant to human life. Focused on building dominator cultures, exploiting other species, and commandeering the earth without restraint or sense of limit, humanity has evolved from humility to hubris, as speciesist and anthropocentric philosophers, theologians, and scientists sunder us from our origins, strip us of our deep interrelationships with other species and embeddedness in and dependency on the ecological foundations of the biocommunity, while expounding endlessly on the twaddle of human uniqueness, destiny, and supremacy.

“Present global culture,” Sagan states, “is a kind of arrogant newcomer. It arrives on the planetary stage following four and a half billion years of other acts, and after looking around for a few thousand years declares itself in possession of eternal truths.”[7]  In his role as SETI enthusiast, Sagan looks not within human society for a revolution in ethics, values, and social institutions, but rather in the other-worldly realm. For he champions the idea that contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would lead to “a profound deprovincialization of the human condition.”[8] It is likely, Sagan believes, that the Watson we might speak to on the other end of the cosmic phone would be far more intelligent and technologically advanced than us, such that we could not but be humbled by our limited minds and relatively primitive technologies. As Rachel Carson, author of the environmental classic, Silent Spring (1963), emphasized, we are still in the Paleolithic stage of science, benighted by our ignorance of ecology and lack of eco-wisdom.         

Breaking decisively from the will to power that deeply informs scientific “neutrality,” Sagan hopes to overcome humanist arrogance, to foster respect for life, and to promote “contact” on a number of levels, not only between humans and extraterrestrial species, but between scientists and the lay public, and amongst scientists themselves. Sagan feels that the present is a time of great danger but also profound opportunity. The danger is that human beings have not learned to direct scientific and technological powers toward peaceful and ecologically-sustainable modes of life; the opportunity is that humanity stands on the threshold of a potential evolutionary advance whereby they could overcome destructive histories and mindsets as speciesism, anthropocentrism, xenophobia, and tribalism, and thereby significantly broaden the boundaries of the ethical community.[9] Indeed, Sagan’s book, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) and Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), is an extended critique of human supremacism, hubris, and alienation, accompanied by a call to dismantle destructive technologies such as nuclear weapons, to end the practice of warfare, to reconnect our isolated existence with the earth and the vast independent, interrelated biocommunity nature.[10]

Unlike eco-primitivists who reject the secular religion that links “progress” to advances in science and technology and long for a return to Paleolithic hunting and gathering cultures, Sagan feels we need more, not less, science to extricate humanity from the mire of self-destruction: “The present epoch is a major crossroads for our civilization and perhaps for our species. Whatever road we take, our fate is indissociably bound up with science. It is essential as a matter of simple survival for us to understand science.”[11] Specifically, Sagan believes that advancing space travel would facilitate overcoming human chauvinism. By learning our place in the cosmos at large, by understanding our cosmic roots, by realizing that we live together on one fragile planet with artificial national boundaries, Sagan hopes we might develop more peaceful and sustainable societies.

If nothing else, Sagan argues, contact with extraterrestrial life would teach us that it is possible for advanced technological civilizations to endure; beyond that, such civilizations might offer important knowledge about how we might survive our own suicidal technocapitalism. A satellite-mediated contact would mean “that someone has learned to live with high technology, that it is possible to survive technological adolescence. That alone, quite apart from the contents of the message, provides a powerful justification for the search for other civilizations.”[12] It would mean, in other words, that there is no inherent logic of technological destruction, no necessary path, as Theodor Adorno put it, from the slingshot to the atom bomb, and that human beings can develop sciences and technologies that are advanced, sustainable, peaceful, and life-promoting, instruments of Eros rather than destructive forces of Thanatos. Other scientists, however, disagree, and speculate that we have not encountered advanced extraterrestrials because none successfully survived the challenges posed by technologies far more advanced than the consciousness that spawned them.


Vegans: Space Aliens, Compassionate Earthlings, or Lifestyle Narcissists?

 “Once intelligent beings achieve capacity for self-destruction, the selective advantage of intelligence becomes more uncertain.” Carl Sagan

Sagan’s novel Contact (1985) and its film adaptation (1997) concerns the struggles Dr. Ellie Arroway encounters in her passionate search for extraterrestrial intelligence. A brilliant scientist with a promising career, she has marginalized herself by focusing on issues considered disreputable by many of her peers. But when contact is actually made, her beliefs are vindicated and the position of Homo sapiens – as the only alleged thinking beings in the universe — is changed irrevocably.

Able to decode “the message” from outer space, scientists realize that it is a blueprint for constructing a machine for rapid space (and perhaps time) travel. The machine is built, and Ellie and her team make contact, but their entire trip and conversation takes only twenty minutes. Lacking evidence that their dialogue with aliens were real, their testimony is rejected by a committee of their peers. We are left to wonder for ourselves whether her encounter was real or imagined, what possibilities for communication with aliens exist in real life, and the implications such contact might have for human beings.

Contact is a literary mapping of Sagan’s scientific ideas. Both the book and film versions dramatize encounters with a vastly superior cosmic intelligence and prompt reflection on the limitations of science and human understanding, and the fragility of life on the “pale blue dot.”[13] Contact is a symptom that human beings and the scientific community are starting to raise seriously the question: are we alone? The fact that NASA has sent cosmic messages in a radio-satellite bottle shows that there is at least some belief in the possibility of alien life.

Following Sagan’s scenario (where the first images aliens picked up were those of a Hitler rally), it is somewhat amusing and embarrassing to consider that the messages that might be received are not those representing our greatest achievements in science, philosophy, and art, but rather the most insipid products of (in particular) American mass culture. If aliens were to receive the sounds and images of The Bachelorette, The Jerry Springer Show, The Rush Limbaugh Show, The Glen Beck Program, and Wheel of Fortune, rather than the dialogues of Plato, the sonatas of Mozart, the sensitivities of Romantic poets, and the equations of Einstein, they might wonder, indeed, if there is intelligent life on earth and pass us by.

The highly evolved cosmic beings Sagan describes are from planet Vega, and thus could legitimately be called “Vegans.” Is it merely a coincidence that “vegans” are also earthlings who are considered utterly alien to human cultures dominated by speciesism (for ten thousand years at least) and flesh-eating (a tradition stretching back millions of years)? Isn’t it the case that for the vast majority of humanity vegans are perceived and treated as if they are from another galaxy? And thus are shunned, ridiculed, and ostracized. Why is it that vegans are treated with contempt, mistrust, and disrespect, whereas liberal cultures, at least, seem to better tolerate other forms of difference and deviate/from the norm? Among other reasons, ethical vegans are vilified  because they raise repressed feelings of guilt in  carnivores, because implicitly or explicitly they stand in judgment against those whose trivial pleasures are satisfied through the torture and death of others, because they challenge the speciesist assumptions that animals are mere resources for humans to use for their purposes and thus call into question human supremacy, and because they exclude themselves in the most basic of human rituals, which is to consume the corpse of murdered animals in the company of others.

Sagan says nothing about the diet of the Vegans — indeed, they seem to be disembodied spirits — but their level of wisdom, spiritual insight, care for the world, and compassion is something for which every ethically and philosophically oriented vegetarian here on earth should strive, and in principle represent. In practice, however, while vegans may have made huge changes in their diet and relation to animals, this does not translate into personal spiritual growth or interpersonal relations in general, as vegans retain every perfidious habit, truculent trait, and abominable behavior toward other humans as corpse consumers, In fact, with their religious-style vegangelicism, their moral fundamentalism, their facile one-dimensional “solutions” to complex problems, and their cultish cultures, vegans can be more flawed in their humanity that those upon whom they heap criticism. This, the main thing earthly vegans have in common with cosmic Vegans is the status of alterity and being “alien” to the earth and its dominant cultures and ideologies.


The Politics of Science

“We humans have already precipitated extinctions of species on a scale unprecedented since the end of the Cretaceous Period. But only in the last decade has the magnitude of these extinctions become clear, and the possibility raised that in our ignorance of the interrelations of life on Earth we may be endangering our own future.” Carl Sagan

Much of Contact concerns the politics of science, the competitive forces behind scientific discovery, and the hegemony of patriarchy in the scientific world. Contact also takes on the theme of the conflict between religious faith and science, , as well as a battle going on within science between the hegemony of positivism and more speculative theories exploring the possibility of unknown dimensions of space and time.

Sagan, of course, has always been an ardent critic of mysticism, superstition, and fundamentalism, and he champions scientific rationality and experimental methods as the means of gathering truth.[14] But he is hardly a narrow positivist and has always embraced a philosophical and ethical version of science that encourages a sense of connectedness with life and awe for the cosmos. Sagan does not promote religion, nor does he embrace a mechanistic paradigm that drains all meaning and poetry from the universe, and ethical responsibility and values from science. Sagan seeks a rapprochement between science and religion, arguing that an authentic religion is open to the discoveries of science, as a valid science is informed by a religious-like sense of wonder. Unlike religion, of course, science is not content with mystery and seeks to unravel the secrets behind the wonder.[15]

While the novel is far clearer on the reality of contact, the film leaves the issue of whether or not contact was made open to judgment. While the political and scientific dogmatists conclude that she fantasized her experiences, it is possible, according to black hole theory that Ellie slipped through another spacetime dimension. While no one believes her in the hearings, we are left to make our own decision, and many will no doubt embrace the idea of unknown beings and spacetime dimensions potentially available to human experience, a multiplicity of parallel universes about which superstring theorists and others speculate.[16]

The most critical theme of Contact concerns less the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence than the reality of an earthly technological rationality so narrow and one-dimensional that it is destroying the evolutionary opulence from which it emerged. The main message of Contact is that human beings have to overcome their hubris and recognize that they are not the most important, or certainly the only, life form on earth and likely within the cosmos at large. In the film, Ellie says if she gets to ask only one question to the Vegans, it will be this: “How is it that you are so technologically advanced, and yet have not destroyed yourself?” How can a culture, in other words, be technologically advanced, peaceful, and sustainable all at once?[17]

In their dialogue with Ellie, the Vegans frankly state that they see us as backwards socially, economically, and technologically, and knew our planet was in serious trouble when they received televised images of Hitler’s speeches. We learn that the Vegans are cosmic shepherds, part of a community of space beings who for billions of years have cooperated in stopping the dissipation of the universe by recycling galaxies through black holes.

Sagan advances an interesting hypothesis that may explain why we have not yet  communicated with advanced beings in space: “Once intelligent beings achieve technology and the capacity for self-destruction of their species, the selective advantage of intelligences becomes more uncertain.” If technology is to be an evolutionary adaptive advantage rather than a fatal flaw, Sagan suggests, we need new adaption strategies and new forms of learning and evolution; life becomes uncertain in the age of advanced technology.

Clearly Sagan is warning that our current society, intensely driven by science, technological innovation, insatiable profit and growth imperatives, and deadly state rivalries is irrational, unsustainable, and disastrous. Sagan is also suggesting, however, that things could  be different, that we need not be embarking on a path of omnicide if, among other things, we related to the earth and its myriad life forms in a more respectful and compassionate way.  

Sagan feels that if a successful technological culture exists somewhere in space, we would have much to learn. Thus, he concludes, we ought to fund the space program. Sagan claims that funding for projects like SETI would cost no more than a new military plane and would not jeopardize needed spending on social programs here on earth. He is certainly aware of the need to take care of pressing social problems on earth, as evident in his citation of Anaximenes speaking to Pythagoras: “To what purpose should I trouble myself in searching out the secrets of the stars, having death and slavery continually before my eyes?”[18] Yet if space programs are relatively inexpensive, Sagan feels that there is no conflict between exploring space and improving society.

Nevertheless, Sagan’s reasoning is flawed by two non sequitors. First, simply because a civilization is technologically advanced enough to make contact with earth and survive a threshold of complexity, it does not follow that it is benign. Rather, as Battlestar Galactica (1978-2010), War of the Worlds, and Independence Day reminds us, advanced species may seek to destroy us or survive parasitically through appropriating human and earthy energy sources. In response, however, Sagan might reasonably ask: how is that a civilization that turns on other species would not also turn on itself? Perhaps only a species at war with itself, such as Homo sapiens, would wage war on other species, or vice versa.

Second, it does not follow that simply because sagacious aliens have crucial knowledge and wisdom to offer, that we would accept it, as if philosophy rather than profit, growth, and efficiency imperatives do not rule this planet. This points to a key flaw in Sagan’s work, namely the abstract detachment from the all-too-worldly hegemonic power of global capitalism, state repression, social conditioning, culturally  enforced ignorance, crude utilitarian values, and the domination of technical knowledge over the values, ethics, wisdom, philosophy, and holistic thinking that Sagan himself embodi

Moreover, assuming earthlings were by and large open to acquiring wisdom, philosophical insight, and spiritual knowledge, it hardly follows that the most plausible path to enlightenment lies in contact with the erudite spirits drifting in deep space. As interesting and paradigm-shattering as contact would be, our world cannot wait light years for a cosmic Godot to save us from self-destruction. Nor, in fact do we require a black hole Buddha or supernova Socrates to manifest in the Milky Way through a wormhole portal, since the wisdom and learning we need to dismantle dominator societies, to harmonize our existence with other species and the earth, and to develop sustainable cultures has can already be found in ancient Eastern and modern Western traditions alike. It is not much that the storehouse of knowledge lacks knowledge of ecology or advanced technologies but rather that capitalist social relations and elite interests block progressive applications of holistic medicine or alternative energies in order to reinforce the status quo that serves their political and economic interests so well, suffering individuals, dying species, and collapsing ecosystems be damned.

Finally, while Sagan is infectious in his utopian optimism about the emancipatory possibilities of technology and science, he seriously underestimates the dialectic and dark side of accelerated technoscience innovation — such as theorized by a critical tradition stretching from the Romantics and Luddites to Martin Heidegger and the Frankfurt School to postmodernists and primitivists. The hegemony of technology over nature is problematic enough, let alone as controlled by market forces, sociopaths, and nihilistic whose sole concerns are profit, power, and conquest.

 Sagan does not recognize that the causes of warfare, domination, and ecological crisis stem not simply from dysfunctional primate behaviors or arrogant humanism, but also from the objectifying, and domineering logics of technocracy, bureaucracy, and capitalism. Most conspicuously, Sagan divorces all levels of crisis and catastrophe in contemporary society from the institutional imperatives of a global capitalist economic system dominated by elite monopoly powers who control resources, media, communication systems, and have governments and armies at their beck and call to quell dissent and silence opposition.

To gain an adequate understanding of the catastrophe radiating triumphant and the critical crossroads at which humanity currently stands, however, we have to appreciate how radically we have colonized the earth in so short a time. Here Sagan’s very useful device is a cosmological time line from the Big Bang to the present.[19] If we squeeze the entire history of the universe into a year of time, such that the Big Bang begins on January 1st, we gain a remarkable perspective: the Renaissance does not begin until 11:59:59 and the industrial revolution arrives at the first second of the New Year. Sagan’s conceptual exercise reminds us how rapidly human beings have colonized this planet, how quickly we have depleted and destroyed it, how little time is left, and how radical the evolutionary leap must be lest we ourselves succumb to the black hole of extinction crisis we have opened on this once vital and fecund planet.


[1] On the concept of “postmodern adventure,” see Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium. New York: Guilford Books, 2001. The notion of the postmodern adventure underscores that we are in a tempestuous period of transition and metamorphosis, propelled by transmutations in science, technology, and capitalism. This critical analysis seeks to grasp continuities and discontinuities with the earlier modern era, while mapping striking changes, threats, and promises now before us. The postmodern adventure involves leaving behind the assumptions and procedures of modern theory and embracing a dynamic and ongoing encounter with novel theories, sciences, technologies, cultural forms, communications media, experiences, politics, and identities – all fraught with both opportunities and dangers. Thus postmodern discourse to have theoretical and political weight, it must be articulated concretely with the profound alterations of the day. At stake is the development of modes of social theory and cultural criticism adequate for capturing salient aspects of our contemporary predicament, and connecting them with projects of social transformation.

[2]. One might find it ironic that many people yearn for contact with the ultimate Other, space aliens, as they harbor racist and sexist sentiments toward members of their own kind, and speciesist biases toward their evolutionary ancestors in the animal kingdom. But aliens fill a huge gap in the human psyche that earthly forms of alterity cannot. By clinging to a belief in aliens, people nourish the hope that we are not alone in the universe and perhaps our existence is not meaningless.

[3] “The Drake equation is closely related to the Fermi paradox in that Drake suggested that a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations would form, but that the lack of evidence of such civilizations (the Fermi paradox) suggests that technological civilizations tend to disappear rather quickly…..The astronomer Carl Sagan speculated that all of the terms, except for the lifetime of a civilization, are relatively high and the determining factor in whether there are large or small numbers of civilizations in the universe is the civilization lifetime, or in other words, the ability of technological civilizations to avoid self-destruction. In Sagan’s case, the Drake equation was a strong motivating factor for his interest in environmental issues and his efforts to warn against the dangers of nuclear warfare” (

[4] Here we should recognize the contribution Sagan has made to society in his capacity as a liaison between the scientific and public worlds. Unlike so many of his peers, Sagan broke free from the sterile enclaves of science to address a lay public; he communicated difficult concepts in simple and interesting terms. He aroused public interest not only in astronomy and the planetary probes of NASA. It was most unfortunate that many of his ingrate peers denied him admission into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, unable to comprehend that one could be both a serious scientist and a popular public intellectual. This is an exemplary case of the elitism of science and its rarified separation and detachment from the general public.

[5] Carl Sagan, Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980, p. 284.

[6]  Cosmos, p. 121.

[7]  Cosmos, p.  276.

[8]  Cosmos, p.  259.

[9] See Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

[10] For the documentary films made on each book, see Cosmos ( and A Pale Blue Dot ( The latter documentary is an unauthorized attempt to produce a documentary based on Sagan’s book.

[11] Cosmos, p. xvii.

[12] Cosmos, p. 251.

[13] Both versions dramatize encounters with a vastly superior cosmic intelligence and prompt fascinating reflection on the limitations of science and human understanding, and the fragility of life on the “pale blue dot.” Much of Contact concerns the politics of science, the competitive forces behind scientific discovery, and the hegemony of patriarchy in the scientific world. Contact also takes on the theme of the conflict between religious faith and science, between two competing interpretations of the world, as well as a battle going on within science between the hegemony of positivism and more speculative theories exploring the possibility of unknown dimensions of space and time. Sagan, of course, has always been an ardent critic of mysticism, superstition, and fundamentalism, and he champions scientific rationality and experimental methods as the means of gathering truth. But he is hardly a narrow positivist and he has always embraced a philosophical and ethical version of science that encourages a sense of awe for the cosmos. While Sagan does not promote religion, nor does he embrace a mechanistic positivism that drains all meaning and poetry from the universe, and ethical responsibility and values from science. Sagan seeks a rapprochement between science and religion, arguing that an authentic religion is open to the discoveries of science, as a valid science is informed by a religious-like sense of wonder. Unlike religion, of course, science is not content with mystery and seeks to unravel the secrets behind the wonder.

[14]. See, for example, his critique of irrationalism in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

[15]. Sagan’s ideas about religion and science are laid out in the confrontation between Ellie and religious fundamentalists in Chapter 10 of Contact. See especially the end of novel where she and the fundamentalist reach some surprising agreements.

[16]. For those disinclined to believe her (and Sagan also by implication), a likely conclusion to draw is that the reckless and gullible governments of the world squandered a trillion dollars on a sophisticated tinker-toy, once again ignoring the plight of real citizens here on earth. Such a conclusion, quite unintentionally, would contradict Sagan’s passionate efforts to promote interest in space exploration and more funding and support for programs like SETI. Whatever conclusion the audience draws from the film, Sagan clearly wants us to accept the rationality of funding space travel and attempts to make contact.

[17] This is an important part of the film, but one can’t help but notice that in her extraterrestrial dialogue, the question is never raised. Rather, following the novel, Hollywood embodies cosmic alterity in the image of Ellie’s father (apparently a gesture of kindness from the aliens) and delivers a largely banal discussion. It is also worth pointing out that in the novel a team of researchers from various countries travel to Vega, whereas in the film Ellie goes it alone

[18] Cosmos, p. 263.

[19] Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977, pp. 13-17.

Featured below us a stimulating debate over the pros and cons of the university tenure system. Of course the conservatives and neoliberals promoting the corporatization of the tenure system want it gone — not because it favors research over teaching, but  because it gives some protection for academic free speech (a very faulty and tenuous thing, often flagrantly violated) over total conformism (which prevails regardless), and because those who think universities should be run like a business want to replace experienced tenured professors with highly exploited part-time and adjunct instructors who work for little pay and no benefits. For a comprehensive history of academic free speech and repression, over 30 case studies of academic repression, the rapid corporatization of the university, the economic and politically motivated move to destroy the tenure system, and the shocking decline in the values and quality of “higher education,” see my edited anthology, Academic Repression: Reflections on the Academic-Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2010, 590 pages).


The Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2012

“Should Tenure for College Professors Be Abolished?”

At some point, discussions about the quality of higher education in the U.S. come around to the subject of tenure. And the disagreement could hardly be more stark.

Critics of tenure for college professors say it is ruining the education of millions of students. In pursuit of tenure, they say, professors have become experts at churning out research of questionable value while neglecting their teaching duties.

On top of that, critics say, tenure has become the tool of a stifling orthodoxy in academia, rewarding only those whose views on curriculums, administration and finances are in line with the status quo.

Proponents of tenure say it’s the only way to preserve the quality of higher education in this country. It sets the bar high for professors, supporters say, ensuring that only the very best are retained.


And, they say, it gives professors the freedom to pursue the groundbreaking research that advances knowledge in so many fields, and the security to challenge administrators and students to do their best.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a writer and the author of “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For,” argues that tenure for college professors should be abolished. Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois and president of the American Association of University Professors, counters that tenure should be retained.

I. Yes: It’s Bad for Students

By Naomi Schaefer Riley

There are a lot of problems with tenure for college professors, but they all lead to the biggest one: It isn’t good for students.

NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY: “Tenure has created and enforced a system that rewards research over teaching.”

That’s because tenure, by giving professors permanent jobs largely on the basis of the work they have published, has created and enforced a system that rewards research over teaching.

There is clear evidence that research is more highly valued than teaching throughout the higher-education system. According to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Higher Education, the more time college professors spend in the classroom, the less they get paid. This was true not only at large research universities, but also at small liberal-arts colleges.

Professors have gotten the message, busily churning out research for a growing number of publications that in most cases are read by next to no one.

Meanwhile, much of the teaching is being done by the people at the bottom of the academic ladder, the adjuncts. They make up more than half of college faculty today, and their effect on student learning has been well documented: An increase in adjuncts on campus produces both lower graduation rates and more grade inflation.

Adjuncts are under more pressure than other professors to make a good impression on students, because they are judged by student evaluations and nothing else; thus the grade inflation. But they also have less time than professors to engage with students; thus the lower graduation rates. Adjuncts typically have no offices and often no office hours, and in many cases they are running from one campus to the next to make a living.

A New System

The best way to improve the quality of education for college students is to get professors to focus more on teaching. And to do that we need to ditch the tenure system and start evaluating professors on the basis of their teaching ability, without any guarantee that they will keep their jobs if they don’t continue to measure up over the years.

Some professors claim that universities must reward research rather than teaching because there is no objective measure for good teaching. So we need some objective stand-in, the argument goes, and published articles offer a good proxy.

This is plainly false. Good teaching involves preparation for lectures and discussions, extensive work in grading and a lot of contact with students. Those are all elements that students as well as faculty colleagues and school administrators could recognize and reward if they chose to.

For instance, to evaluate grading you might try looking at the substance of comments that students receive. Many professors simply write things like “great” or “unclear” on a paper or exam, rather than writing more-enlightening comments, much less correcting students’ prose.

Evaluations of professors’ teaching should be done by their colleagues as well as administrators and even young alumni in addition to students—and they should be conducted regularly. Teaching is a dynamic profession. Just because you taught a class well at 30 doesn’t mean you will do so at 60, and just because you are teaching well at 60 doesn’t mean you were born with the skills to teach.

We need to reward good teaching regularly, not give permanent job security for what professors have accomplished up to a given point, as tenure does.

Freedom Without Dissent

Professors often defend tenure because they say it protects academic freedom. But in practice, tenure has plainly failed on this count. Universities today are perhaps the most intellectually uniform institutions in the country, and tenure is the biggest reason for that.

In every department, from physics to music, faculty vote to give tenure to clones of themselves, and those clones stay in their cozy places for decades.

Tenured professors indeed have the freedom to research obscure niches in their fields that are of little interest or value to the vast majority of their students—as many do. But real dissent—in the form of ideas that challenge both academics and students to study issues in very different ways and perhaps arrive at conclusions that are uncomfortable for many—is rarely allowed to go very far, because dissenters don’t get tenure.

And the stifling influence of the tenured extends beyond the classroom. Every battle in higher education, whether it’s over the curriculum or how the money is spent or the politics of university administration, is a battle of attrition. The faculty, thanks to tenure, will always win. They will outlast any university president, any governor, any trustee, any regent, any parent and any student. They are why meaningful reform of any sort is virtually impossible. Once again, the people who suffer most in the end are the students.

Ms. Riley is a writer and the author of “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.” She can be reached at

II. No: It Offers Crucial Protection

By Cary Nelson

There was a time when the myth of deadwood in universities was no myth: Tenure sometimes protected faculty who should not have been hired in the first place.

CARY NELSON: ‘Tenure compels hiring committees to take a close look at every case they consider.”

Those days are gone. With the excess teaching talent available today, tenure now is the ultimate quality check, ensuring that universities retain the very best of a highly qualified pool of teachers.

It also encourages those teachers to stay intellectually curious and take chances with unconventional work, something no system that doesn’t offer long-term security can accomplish.

For more than 40 years, the number of new Ph.D.s has outstripped the number of teaching jobs available, allowing ruthlessly selective hiring. Five hundred to a thousand candidates for a single faculty position is not uncommon. Yes, there remain dysfunctional faculty, but it’s no longer a systemic problem, despite the fact that most critics of tenure still make the outdated argument that it is.

Of course, hiring committees sometimes make mistakes, and when they do, the tenure system allows them to correct those mistakes. But tenure also compels the committees to take a close look at every case they consider, because they are probably going to have to live with the decision they make for a very long time. That level of commitment, and the weight it brings to the tenure decision, wouldn’t be there in a system that relied on contracts that came up for renewal every few years. I know that I have not been a terribly kind tenure decider. If a candidate is just good, not excellent, I vote “no.”

Protecting the Risk Takers

Critics of tenure argue that the system rewards research, not teaching. But pay comparisons indicating that research is more highly valued can be faulty: Professors in some fields are simply paid more than those in other disciplines, regardless of the amount of research they do, and different fields lend themselves to different proportions of classroom and research time. So direct lines between pay and classroom time are difficult to draw.


My best estimate is that only 10% of American colleges and universities have serious research expectations for tenure. And every institution needs the research that 10% of American faculty do if everyone’s teaching is to stay up-to-date.

Tenure doesn’t guarantee that every faculty member is courageous, but it protects those who are. Not every faculty member will speak out against bad plans proposed by powerful administrators, but tenure protects those who do from retaliation. Not every faculty member takes risks in challenging students, but many do. Tenure protects faculty from the ideological wrath of students, parents and politicians.

The tenure system even offers some protection to those who don’t have tenure. It helps establish a campus climate in which free expression is both tolerated and valued. It establishes a system in which long-term, intellectually unconventional and innovative work can be rewarded. It guarantees colleges and universities a core of faculty members who have the kind of institutional commitment and memory that makes good decisions and successful collaboration possible. Multiyear contracts can’t do the same. They provide repeated opportunities to get rid of those who rock the boat. Multiyear contracts can keep people intellectually cautious.

The Best Stay Fresh

If you make good hiring decisions and then revisit them at tenure time, you will rarely find the faculty members who meet those tests going stale. You will be selecting colleagues who remain intellectually curious and passionate about their teaching and research throughout their careers. There is no evidence that tenure encourages conformity, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Curriculums change regularly because faculty members embody their changing disciplines. What’s more, most good job candidates are doing cutting-edge work, not simply reproducing what their tenured colleagues already do.

Despite the benefits tenure provides, it is difficult to find supporters. Tenured or tenure-eligible faculty members have declined from two-thirds to less than one-third of the teaching force since 1975. At many elite institutions, tenure is secure, but elsewhere it is disappearing. Faculty consequently may lose control of the curriculum and the hiring of teachers. They are already losing the support for academic freedom and spirited teaching that tenure protects.

We will eventually see a resulting decline in the quality of what has been the best higher-education system in the world, as the people capable of designing a college curriculum and staffing it lose authority over the areas of their professional expertise. The history of American higher education demonstrates that the quality of teaching and research is greatest when faculty are secure in their freedom to inquire, speak, teach and publish. No one has shown that anything other than tenure can produce that result.

Mr. Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois and president of the American Association of University Professors. He can be reached at

Media Lens, June 19, 2012

Whatever happened to the green movement? It’s been 50 years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, a powerful book about the environmental devastation wreaked by chemical pesticides. Since then we’ve had the rise and fall – or at least the compromised assimilation – of green groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Forum For the Future.

Last week, the Independent marked the half-century with a well-meaning but frankly insipid ‘landmark series’ titled ‘The Green Movement at 50’. But there’s a glaring hole in such coverage; and, indeed, in the ‘green movement’ itself: the insidious role of the corporate media, a key component of corporate globalisation, in driving humanity and ecosystems towards the brink of destruction.

The acclaimed biologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson puts the scale of the crisis bluntly:

‘We’re destroying the rest of life in one century. We’ll be down to half the species of plants and animals by the end of the century if we keep at this rate.’

And yet ‘very few people are paying attention’ to this disaster. Wilson, who is 82, directed his warning to the young in particular:

‘Why aren’t you young people out protesting the mess that’s being made of the planet? Why are you not repeating what was done in the ‘60s? Why aren’t you in the streets? And what in the world has happened to the green movement that used to be on our minds and accompanied by outrage and high hopes? What went wrong?’

The trouble is that most of what the public hears about politics, including environmental issues, comes from the corporate media. This is a disaster for genuine democracy. As discussed in a recent alert, the media industry is made up of large profit-seeking corporations whose main task is to sell audiences to wealthy advertisers – also corporations, of course – on whom the media depend for a huge slice of their revenues. It’s blindingly obvious that the corporate media is literally not in the business of alerting humanity to the real risk of climate catastrophe and what needs to be done to avert it.

Last month, leading climate scientist James Hansen, who was the first to warn the US Congress about global warming in 1988, observed that:

‘President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course.’

Hansen added:

‘The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow. […] Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.’

If adequate action doesn’t happen soon, says Hansen, it’s ‘game over for the climate’.

Always Stuck On Square One

And yet even liberal media outlets repeatedly present as fact that there has been government ‘failure’ to respond to climate change. They do very little to report that big business, acting through and outside government, and the corporate media itself, has been fighting tooth and nail to prevent the required radical action.

Indeed, media debate on how best to respond to environmental crisis has barely moved in a generation. For years, the public has been assailed by the same anodyne editorials urging ‘the need for all of us to act now’. Meanwhile, for obvious reasons, corporate media organisations are silent about the inherently biocidal logic of corporate capitalism. They are silent about the reality that politics in the US and UK is largely ‘a two-party dictatorship in thraldom to giant corporations,’ as Ralph Nader has observed (interview with Paul Jay, The Real News Network, November 4, 2008). They are silent about the role of the mass media, especially advertising, in normalising the unthinkable of unrestrained consumption. The corporate media, including its liberal media wing, is a vital cog of the rampant global capitalism that threatens our very existence.

But – and here some of our readers start to protest or scratch their heads – surely the Guardian is immune to such political and commercial pressures? After all, it is owned by the non-profit Scott Trust, as the paper’s editors and journalists are fond of reminding their audience. But delve a little deeper and you will see that the newspaper is managed and operated by influential bigwigs with extensive ties to the establishment, ‘mainstream’ political parties, finance and big business (as we discussed at greater length in our book, Newspeak in the 21st Century, Pluto Press, London, 2009).

The truth is the Guardian is just as grubbily commercial as other corporate media organisations. In fact, a media insider revealed to us recently that the Guardian has a confidential business plan to address its current massive loss-making (a common affliction in today’s newspaper industry with the increasing leakage of advertising from papers to the internet). He told us that when a media website is ranked in the top 10 in the United States, the floodgates of online advertising open and its coffers start to fill. The online Guardian has therefore been marketing itself to US audiences as heavily as it can. Its stringently-moderated Comment is Free website is one of the crucial elements of that strategy. The Guardian is now at the threshold of accessing lucrative sums in advertising revenue.

With humanity heading for the climate abyss, it’s time for the green movement and those on the left to wake up to the reality that the Guardian, and the rest of the liberal-corporate media, is not in favour of the kind of radical change that is desperately needed.

The Sound Of A Door Closing Forever

Despite an endless series of escalating alarms from Mother Nature indicating the urgency of the climate crisis, no serious action is being undertaken to avert catastrophe. Whenever the corporate media bothers to report the latest sign of climate threat, it usually does so in passing and without proper analysis of the likely consequences, and what can and should be done. And then the issue is simply dropped and forgotten.

For example, the head of the International Energy Agency recently warned that the chance of limiting the rise in global temperatures this century to 2 degrees Celsius (2°C) above pre-industrial levels is reducing rapidly.

‘What I see now with existing investments for [power] plants under construction…we are seeing the door for a 2 degree Celsius target about to be closed and closed forever,’ Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, told a Reuters’ Global Energy & Environment Summit.

‘This door is getting slimmer and slimmer in terms of physical and economic possibility,’ he warned.

According to the IEA, around 80 per cent of the total energy-related carbon emissions permissible by 2035 to limit warming to 2°C have already been taken up by existing power plants, buildings and factories.

The 2°C limit was agreed in 2010 at the UN climate summit in Cancún, Mexico. Why 2°C? The Reuters report explains:

‘Scientists say that crossing the threshold risks an unstable climate in which weather extremes are common…’

Tragically, the current trend in greenhouse gas emissions means that rising carbon dioxide emissions may well produce a 2°C rise as early as 2050 and a 2.8°C rise by 2080.

If there is ever any ‘mainstream’ discussion of ‘climate risk’, it is usually couched in terms of this ‘safe limit’ of 2°C warming. This was a major theme of the most recent UN climate summit in Durban in December 2011. For example, Louise Gray, environment correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, wrote that:

‘UN scientists have stated that emissions need to peak and start coming down before 2020 to stand a chance of keeping temperature rise within the “safe zone” of 2C.’

Lord Julian Hunt, former head of the UK Met Office, pointed out the best current estimate for global temperature rise by 2100 is 3.5°C and said that the ‘international consensus’ is that it ‘should be limited to 2C’.

And a Guardian editorial declared:

‘The race to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2C is still winnable if there is a big change in the pace,’ although conceding that ‘a 3-4C rise looks the most likely outcome.’

Few voices disagree with this framing of the climate debate and what the ‘safe’ target should be. But Chris Shaw, a social sciences researcher at the University of Sussex, is one exception. Shaw has been investigating how international climate change policy is being driven by the ideological notion of a single global dangerous limit of 2°C warming. In reality, however, such a precise limit cannot be supported by the complexities of climate science. For example, low-lying coastal regions such as Bangladesh and Pacific islands are clearly more vulnerable to likely sea-level rises than elevated inland regions. Also, 2°C warming would be more harmful to some ecosystems than others; coral reefs may bleach out of existence once the oceans warm by as little as 1°C. Additionally, because of geographical variation in the effects of climate change, 2°C global average warming means that some parts of the world would actually experience as much as 4°C-5°C warming.

Shaw’s analysis shows how the ‘two degree dangerous limit’ framework of debate and policy-making has constructed climate change ‘as a problem solvable within existing value systems and patterns of social activity.’ In other words, corporate globalisation is not up for challenge. He stresses that even if we had a perfect forecast of future climate change and our vulnerability to it, ‘deciding what counts as dangerous is still a value choice because what is considered to be an acceptable risk will vary between individuals and cultures.’ The 2°C-limit ideology ‘elevates the idea of a single dangerous limit to the status of fact, and in so doing marginalises egalitarian and ecological perspectives’.

This propaganda process of marginalising sane alternatives has been no accident. As Shaw rightly observes:

‘Since the Second World War, the prevailing consensus has been that all problems can be solved through the expert application of industrial technologies, rather than real changes in how we live our lives or, more fundamentally, in human consciousness. The two degree limit perpetuates this approach by diverting attention away from questions about the political and social order.’

Shaw concludes:

‘What should be a political debate about how we want to live becomes reduced to a series of expert calculations about “how much CO2 can we continue emitting before we warm the world by two degrees?” or “what will be the effect on GDP of reducing emissions by 20 per cent?” Consequently, we are invited to see the world as a kind of planetary machine that requires engineering management and maintenance by experts.’ (Email, June 18, 2012)

Climate activist and independent journalist Cory Morningstar observes that the first suggestion to use 2°C as a critical temperature limit for climate policy was not even made by a climate scientist. Rather it was put forward by the well-known neoclassical economist, W. D. Nordhaus:

‘Nordhaus has been one of the most influential economists involved in climate change models and construction of emissions scenarios for well over 30 years, having developed one of the earliest economic models to evaluate climate change policy. He has steadfastly opposed the drastic reductions in greenhouse gases emissions necessary for averting global catastrophe, “arguing instead for a slow process of emissions reduction, on the grounds that it would be more economically justifiable.”’

Morningstar, initiator of the grassroots group Canadians for Action on Climate Change, has carefully traced the cynical machinations of corporate ‘environmentalism’. She highlights the little-known fact that, rather than a 2°C target, the original ‘safe limit’ was given as just 1ºC by the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases in 1990. But an unholy alliance of corporate interests resulted in it being buried and replaced by the higher target.

She adds:

‘As a consequence of such interference by many powerful players who sought to ensure the economic and political power structure would not be threatened, adaptation surfaced as the primary goal in international climate science and policy, effectively replacing the goals of prevention and mitigation from the 1980s.’

Morningstar warns of making false friends in the struggle to avert the climate chaos ahead:

‘The mainstream environmental movement no longer inspires nor leads society to an enlightened existence – it simply bows down to the status quo.’

Too many of these mainstream groups have, she says, essentially ‘teamed up’ with the very same corporations that need to be challenged; the same corporations who:

‘greenwash summits and caused such social injustice and environmental degradation in the first place and continue to lobby and bully to maintain the status quo of corporate dominance today.’

Chris Shaw points out that powerful policy actors, notably the European Union, have imposed the simple metric of the two degree limit which ‘is then parroted uncritically by the media and NGOs. The danger is that the concept communicates a fallacious sense of certainty.’ (Email, May 24, 2012)

He sums up:

‘The argument reduces to this – defining what counts as dangerous is a value choice, not an expert calculation. The neoliberal globalization agenda cannot accommodate almost seven billion different opinions [i.e. the global population] about how much warming should be risked in the name of continued economic growth.’

And so the ideology that best fits within the neoliberal agenda of corporate globalisation – in other words, a single warming limit – is the framework that prevails. Shaw says that ‘a new way of talking and thinking about climate change is long overdue’ and intends to set out options for this at his blog.


Contraction And Convergence

In a rare exception in the corporate media, an article by the Independent’s science editor Steve Connor at least allowed James Hansen a few short paragraphs to spell out the dangers of the 2ºC threshold – if not the economic-growth ideology that lies behind it – and what is really required instead:

‘The target of 2C… is a prescription for long-term disaster …we are beginning to see signs of slow [climate] feedbacks beginning to come into play.

‘Ice sheets are beginning to lose mass and methane hydrates are to some degree beginning to bubble out of melting permafrost.’

Along with other scientists and climate campaigners, Hansen believes the focus should be on limiting the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – now at around 390 parts per million (ppm) and rising annually by 2 ppm. Hansen says it should be no higher than 350 ppm to stop catastrophic events such as the melting of ice sheets, dangerous sea level rises and the huge release of methane from beneath the permafrost. This will require drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and even ‘biosequestration’, for example through reforestation, to soak up some of the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.

But even 350 ppm may well be too high, as Hansen himself acknowledges. There may need to be an upper limit of 300 ppm. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, head of the prestigious Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, goes further stating:

‘Our survival would very much depend on how well we were able to draw down carbon dioxide to 280 ppm.’

This would mean giving up fossil fuels completely; a move which would be fiercely and relentlessly opposed by vested interests.

So, if not the current UN process with its 2°C ‘safe limit’, what should be the framework for averting climate catastrophe? For many years now, we have advocated the climate policy known as ‘contraction and convergence’ proposed by the London-based Global Climate Institute led by the indefatigable Aubrey Meyer. By agreeing to a level of, say, 280 ppm, both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations would contract (i.e. reduce) their production of global-warming gases. This would be done by converging to an equitable per-capita basis of shared emission rights: more populous nations would be allowed to emit proportionally more than smaller nations.

Now that the Kyoto Protocol – the previous climate treaty – has expired in 2012, the United Nations is currently considering the best way forward for its climate negotiations. The GCI’s proposal of contraction and convergence is gathering a good head of steam. For the sake of planetary health – indeed humanity’s survival – it should be accepted and implemented.

The Megalomaniacal Megamachine

The mainstream environment movement, with its career campaigners and high-level hobnobbing with power, has largely failed the public. Tony Juniper, former director of Friends of the Earth (FoE), speaks grandly of the ‘two parallel discourses’ of planetary boundaries and economic growth ‘going in polar opposite directions’. That is all too obvious, and has been well-known for decades. He then claims that ‘the profoundest failure of all is our underlying disconnect from the Earth.’

Juniper explains:

‘We work to take on these environmental challenges without having any kind of profound connection with nature. We’ve lost it talking in a mechanistic, policy-oriented way.

‘We’ve tried to make it all about numbers, parts per million, complicated policy instruments, and as a result, we’ve lost something that’s essential. Most people couldn’t tell you the names of country flowers by the side of the road, the birds that are singing. It’s a disconnect in our world view – a failure in our philosophy.’

Being able to name flowers by the side of the road is all good and well. But what about the deep structural causes in economics and politics that generate destruction and stifle change? In the late 1990s, one of us asked Juniper what he thought about the problem of the mainstream media acting as a propaganda system for corporate power. It was clear he had no idea what we were talking about.

Do leading environmentalists really have nothing more astute, inspiring and hard-hitting to say about a global industrial system of destructive capitalism which is consuming the planet? As one of the characters in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang observes in the battle against the corporate assault on nature:

‘We’re not dealing with human beings. We’re up against the megamachine. A megalomaniacal megamachine.’

Feeling ‘a profound connection with nature’ is vital for one’s well-being. But it will not get us very far if we do not also recognise and then dismantle the destructive financial practices of global ‘investors’, institutions of state-corporate power – with the media a key element – and the warmongering ‘adventures’ that are crushing people and planet.

In the week of the Rio 2012 Earth summit, 20 years on from the original jamboree in 1992, George Monbiot writes in the Guardian:

‘So this is the great question of our age: where is everyone? The monster social movements of the 19th century and first 80 years of the 20th have gone, and nothing has replaced them. Those of us who still contest unwarranted power find our footsteps echoing through cavernous halls once thronged by multitudes. When a few hundred people do make a stand – as the Occupy campers have done – the rest of the nation just waits for them to achieve the kind of change that requires the sustained work of millions.

‘Without mass movements, without the kind of confrontation required to revitalise democracy, everything of value is deleted from the political text. But we do not mobilise, perhaps because we are endlessly seduced by hope. Hope is the rope from which we all hang.’

Stirring words. But Jonathan Cook, an independent journalist who used to work for the Guardian, notes sagely that:

‘There are no mass protest movements today because “we are endlessly seduced by hope”. And who, I wonder, does most to promote such hope? How unfortunate that he ran out of space when he did – otherwise he might have been able to answer that very question for us.’ (Email, June 18, 2012)

In other words, Guardian columnist Monbiot misses out the crucial role of the corporate media, not least his own newspaper, in endlessly seducing us all by hope.

Cook adds:

‘I was a little surprised by this level of chutzpah from Monbiot. In truth, who or what does he think could be capable of generating such hope and be so practised in the art of seduction? It’s clearly not the politicians: they were around decades ago, when there were serious protest movements. But a wall-to-wall “professional” (ie corporate) media is of much more recent origin. In fact, the rise of such media appears to track very closely the increase in our soma-induced state.’

For years, the corporate media has selected and promoted high-profile green spokespeople – like the Green Party’s Jonathan Porritt and Sara Parkin, Greenpeace’s Lord Peter Melchett and Stephen Tindale, FoE’s Charles Secrett and Tony Juniper, author Mark Lynas and Monbiot himself – who have then come to limit and dominate the environment debate within ‘respectable’ bounds.

In the 1980s, big business openly declared war on the green movement which it perceived as a genuine threat to power and profit. By a process of carefully limited corporate media ‘inclusion’, the honesty, vitality and truth of environmentalism have been corralled, contained, trivialised and stifled. Today, even as environmental problems have lurched from bad to worse, the green movement has virtually ceased to exist. The lessons are obvious. Corporate media ‘inclusion’ of dissent hands influence and control to the very forces seeking to disempower dissent. No-one should be surprised by the results.

The New York Times, June 1, 2012

Rhino poaching is a war of extirmination that will continue until the last rhino is gone, unless the violence is stopped by counter-violence and by any means necessary.

OVER the past 20 years, chimpanzees, gorillas and other great apes have declined the most in areas lacking a security force to protect them. Conversely, parks and protected areas with armed guards and anti-poaching patrols — places like Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo, Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda — have not only retained their ape populations, but have seen population increases.

This connection extends beyond great apes. The Albertine Rift in Central Africa has over the past 50 years demonstrated the benefits of a close tie between law enforcement and the survival of diverse species. In Asia, the government’s training and deployment of park guards in Thailand’s most important reserve, the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, has led to seven years of population stability in tigers and other wildlife, in contrast to dramatic declines in nearby unprotected parks.

This only makes sense. We don’t leave our valuables unprotected. Guards patrol art galleries and museums to secure our cultural heritage. We should be taking the same approach to safeguarding our natural heritage.

The urgency for the training and deployment of guards to protect wildlife across the globe could not be greater. Only last November, Africa’s western black rhino officially became extinct. Wild tiger numbers are down to 3,200 from over 100,000 a century ago. Roughly half of Africa’s elephants have been killed for the ivory trade since 1987. Sadly, the list goes on.

The most effective protection inevitably involves the long-term efforts of committed park rangers patrolling protected areas with the endorsement and support of local communities. Wildlife guards are deployed by the national governments, which gives them the legal authority and mandate to operate and, in some cases, the core financing to do so. Other agencies work in partnership with those governments to give them both technical and financial support to combat poaching.

Nevertheless, for many poorer governments striving against the odds to protect their wildlife, outside support for salaries, vehicles and equipment is crucial. At present, support (not including weapons) comes largely from nongovernmental organizations, with their generous private donors, and from national government agencies like the United States Agency for International Development and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. More money — and the resulting increase in the number and effectiveness of guards — is crucial to the survival of many species targeted by poachers.

Fortunately, relatively small investments can have big impacts. In Thailand’s Huai Kha Khaeng reserve, 200 rangers cover an area of 1,073 square miles for an annual cost of under $5,000 per ranger. The government pays salaries and, with assistance from the Wildlife Conservation Society, provides rations, equipment and training. Two poachers were sentenced last summer to the longest prison terms to date in Thailand for a wildlife crime — one for four years and the other for five. No high-value poaching episode has occurred in the reserve since.

In the Republic of Congo’s Ndoki National Park, the conservation society’s support for ecoguards over two decades has been essential for the protection of what is arguably Africa’s most pristine rain forest — home to critical populations of gorillas, forest elephants and chimpanzees so unacquainted with humans that they approach their fellow primates with no fear. Rangers in Ndoki also enforce agreements that the government has made with logging companies to ensure that hunting and the bushmeat trade do not follow.

These rangers toil in landscapes that are frequently remote, physically tough and dangerous.

Until we provide the resources and security to safeguard the world’s great natural treasures, populations of great apes and countless other species will slowly wink out across the world, and our awe-inspiring natural heritage, the product of millions of years of evolution, will continue its slide into oblivion.


A powerful speech on pathological humanism, the escalating war on animals, and its suicidal and destructive consequences.


From what side has the violence always come? Who are the real thugs, criminals, and “eco-terrorists”? Who is naive enough to think education and legislation can wrest the earth from the grip of unconscionable bloodthirsty corporates, and their client states, armies, and mercenaries? Who still thinks this struggle does not deserve to be called a fucking war? Who believes that activists, indigenous peoples do not have, and should not exercise the right to defend animals and the earth by any means necessary, including armed struggle and guerilla warfare against the corporations shredding this planet and its life forms right before our eyes? Who has not figured out yet what is happening, what is at stake, and how the politics of nature (over control of scarce resources and animal slaughter for profit) is emerging as the most decisive struggles of all? Who still thinks that only love can conquer hate, only light can dispel darkness, rather than realizing only fierce resistance and revolutionary counter-violence can stop implacable planetary omnicide? That Gandhian tactics mostly inapplicable in the Western world are suicidal in the forests of Brazil?


Guardian, Monday June 18, 2012

Death toll of campaigners involved in protection of forests, rivers and land has almost doubled in three years.



Amazon rainforest activists José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo, who were murdered last year.


 The struggle for the world’s remaining natural resources is becoming more murderous, according to a new report that reveals that environmental activists were killed at the rate of more than two a week in 2011.

The death toll of campaigners, community leaders and journalists involved in the protection of forests, rivers and land has risen dramatically in the past three years, said Global Witness.

Brazil – the host of the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development – has the worst record for danger in a decade that has seen the deaths of more than 737 defenders, said the briefing, which was released on the eve of the high-level segment of the Earth Summit.

The group called on the leaders at Rio to set up systems to monitor and counter the rising violence, which in many cases involves governments and foreign corporations, and to reduce the consumption pressures that are driving development into remote areas.

“This trend points to the increasingly fierce global battle for resources, and represents the sharpest of wake-up calls for delegates in Rio,” said Billy Kyte, campaigner at Global Witness.

The group acknowledges that their results are incomplete and skewed towards certain countries because information is fragmented and often missing. This means the toll is likely to be higher than their findings, which did not include deaths related to cross-border conflicts prompted by competition for natural resources, and fighting over gas and oil.

Brazil recorded almost half of the killings worldwide, the majority of which were connected to illegal forest clearance by loggers and farmers in the Amazon and other remote areas, often described as the “wild west”.

Among the recent high-profile cases were the murders last year of two high-profile Amazon activists, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo. Such are the risks that dozens of other activists and informers are now under state protection.

Unlike most countries on the list, however, the number of killings in Brazil declined slightly last year, perhaps because the government is making a greater effort to intervene in deforestation cases.

The reverse trend is apparent in the Philippines, where four activists were killed last month, prompting the Kalikasan People’s Network for Environment to talk of “bloody May”.

Though Brazil, Peru and Colombia have reported high rates of killing in the past 10 years, this is partly because they are relatively transparent about the problem thanks to strong civil society groups, media organisations and church groups – notably the Catholic Land Commission in Brazil – which can monitor such crimes. Under-reporting is thought likely in China and Central Asia, which have more closed systems, said the report. The full picture has still to emerge.

Last December, the UN special rapporteur on human rights noted: “Defenders working on land and environmental issues in connection with extractive industries and construction and development projects in the Americas … face the highest risk of death as result of their human rights activities.”

Also see: “Killings of environmentalists appear on rise; conflict over shrinking resources intensifies,” The Washington Post, June 20, 2012

“Conscience precedes the law” – Italian anti-vivisection activist

by Dr. Steven Best, June 16, 2012

Activists around the world need to look to Italian activists as on June 16, 2012, they converged en masse, refused to beg for crumbs, and came together 10,000 strong to demand Animal Liberation.

June 16 animal liberation rally, Rome Italy

In April 2012, Italian activists liberated beagles from Greenhill in a daring action during their last rally. And yesterday, housands of activists swarmed the streets of Rome determined to end vivisection in their country. This demonstration was the largest one yet according to campaign organizers. And in an escalation of tactics, on June 30, activists will set up camp outside Greenhill for two weeks.

Italian activists also took this opportunity show solidarity with NIO and shed global exposure on Wayne State’s dog-torturing degenerate, Donal O’Leary who is no the official global poster boy for vivisecting sadists.

It is time for American activists to model our actions after the Italians.

China’s Surging Middle Class

The growth of the Chinese middle class is staggering, projected to be 2-3 times larger than the entire US population, and the implications are frightening for the inevitable spike in meat consumption and release of climate change gases.



The middle class in China has topped more than 300 million people. And they are a growing factor in the world’s economy.

CNN, April 20, 2012

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — CNNMoney interviewed Helen Wang, author of The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You. A consultant, Wang was raised in China and has lived in the United States for more than 20 years.

Q. Who are the middle class in China?

 A. I define middle class as households with an annual income of between $10,000 and $60,000 U.S. dollars. But income is a little misleading because the cost of living in China is very different. A rule of thumb is a household with a third of its income for discretionary spending is considered middle class.

In China, the middle class is all concentrated in big cities, not like in this country, where a lot of the middle class are in the suburbs. Most people have a college education and relatively stable jobs. There are a lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of white collar workers, working for multinationals or state-owned companies.

They are a lot younger … 20 to 50. A lot of them own homes. Like Westerners, they want everything Americans have.

This new middle class just emerged in the last 15 to 20 years. Fifteen years ago, people didn’t have cars yet. But in the last seven, eight, or nine years … everyone has a car. Some people have more than one car.

Q. How big is the Chinese middle class?

A. It is estimated that it’s more than 300 million — already larger than the entire population of the United States.

About 25% of the population is middle class. It’s about 50% of the urban population.

Q. How did the middle class climb the economic ladder?

A. A lot of it is entrepreneurship. With China’s economy growing over the last 20 to 30 years, there have been a lot of business opportunities.

Some people still go to college and then get good jobs. A lot of multinationals employ these young college graduates. They pay relatively better than Chinese companies. Many foreign companies are contributing to creating the white-collar middle class.

Chinese state companies also employ a lot of people. Their income has more than tripled over the last 10 or 15 years.

Q. How are they changing China?

A. The Chinese are shopping a lot more. Retail is booming like a wildfire in China. There are a lot more consumers and they are demanding a lot more services.

A lot of Chinese, especially younger consumers, are really into the luxury brands. They associate Western luxury brands with quality of life and sophistication. They want gyms, health care clubs and definitely travel. They want to see the world. The restaurant business is doing very well.

The younger generation — people under 30 — they are consuming like crazy. They save zero. They spend all of their salary on a Louis Vuitton purse. A lot of them stay with their parents so they don’t have housing expenses. But once they get married, then they start to save.

Q. Are they concerned about the economy and their financial positions?

A. They know China is growing wildly, and they’re very busy trying to catch this opportunity. They know China won’t grow at this high speed forever and they know the window of opportunity will close. They know government won’t take care of them anymore. They have to take care of themselves.

Q. What is the future of the Chinese middle class?

A. The Chinese middle class may grow to 700 to 800 million, which is 50% to 60% of China’s entire population. In the past, all the predictions have proven to be too conservative.

But on the other hand, a lot of Chinese will be in the lower middle class because education will prevent them from moving up. If young people start going into vocational schools, that’s for lower skilled jobs.

Q. What does that mean for the U.S. and the rest of the world?

A. It means a lot of opportunities for American companies selling in China.

A lot of U.S. companies are doing extremely well in China. While GM filed for bankruptcy a few years ago, their sales in China soared. Chinese consumers helped GM to turn around.

Nike is doing so well, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken. A lot of smaller companies are looking to sell into China. That will help the American economy.

Because of rising wages in China, we are already seeing some manufacturing jobs come back to this country. Those jobs will continue coming back and that will create jobs in the U.S. as well.

The same thing goes for the Western economy in general. Chinese consumers love Italian products. They want Italian products made in Italy.

Q. What are the barriers to entry for those still in poverty?

A. If you are born in urban China, you can go to public school and you enjoy a lot of government benefits. For rural Chinese, they have none of these. If you’re born in the rural area, you can’t even live in the cities. That’s gradually changing. They let the rural people come into the cities to do the work. But there are still restrictions.

There is no future for people who live in the villages. There are still a lot of barriers for those people to move up the economic ladder.

by Vincent West (Reuters)

Hold onto your holsters, folks: shooting a cop dead is now legal in the state of Indiana.

Governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican, has authorized changes to a 2006 legislation that legalizes the use of deadly force on a public servant — including an officer of the law — in cases of “unlawful intrusion.” Proponents of both the Second and Fourth Amendments — those that allow for the ownership of firearms and the security against unlawful searches, respectively — are celebrating the update by saying it ensures that residents are protected from authorities that abuse the powers of the badge.

Others, however, fear that the alleged threat of a police state emergence will be replaced by an all-out warzone in Indiana.

Under the latest changes of the so-called Castle Doctrine, state lawmakers agree “people have a right to defend themselves and third parties from physical harm and crime.” Rather than excluding officers of the law, however, any public servant is now subject to be met with deadly force if they unlawfully enter private property without clear justification.

“In enacting this section, the general assembly finds and declares that it is the policy of this state to recognize the unique character of a citizen’s home and to ensure that a citizen feels secure in his or her own home against unlawful intrusion by another individual or a public servant,” reads the legislation.

Although critics have been quick to condemn the law for opening the door for assaults on police officers, supporters say that it is necessary to implement the ideals brought by America’s forefathers. Especially, argue some, since the Indiana Supreme Court almost eliminated the Fourth Amendment entirely last year. During the 2011 case of Barnes v. State of Indiana, the court ruled that a man who assaulted an officer dispatched to his house had broken the law before there was “no right to reasonably resist unlawful entry by police officers.” In turn, the National Rifle Association lobbied for an amendment to the Castle Doctrine to ensure that residents were protected from officers that abuse the law to grant themselves entry into private space.

“There are bad legislators,” the law’s author, State Senator R. Michael Young (R) tells Bloomberg News. “There are bad clergy, bad doctors, bad teachers, and it’s these officers that we’re concerned about that when they act outside their scope and duty that the individual ought to have a right to protect themselves.”

Governor Daniels agrees with the senator in a statement offered through his office, and notes that the law is only being established to cover rare incidents of police abuse that can escape the system without reprimand for officers or other persons that break the law to gain entry.

“In the real world, there will almost never be a situation in which these extremely narrow conditions are met,” Daniels says. “This law is not an invitation to use violence or force against law enforcement officers.”

Officers in Indiana aren’t necessarily on the same page, though. “If I pull over a car and I walk up to it and the guy shoots me, he’s going to say, ‘Well, he was trying to illegally enter my property,’” Sergeant Joseph Hubbard tells Bloomberg. “Somebody is going get away with killing a cop because of this law.”

“It’s just a recipe for disaster,” Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police President Tim Downs adds. “It just puts a bounty on our heads.”

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