Thursday, June 27, 2013

Future climate: wither our weather?

          According to conventional models of climate change, adding greenhouse gases (GHG) like carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will trap heat close to the earth's surface, warming it. Such warming is expected, among other effects, to increase the speed and intensity of the hydrological cycle. The cycle can be visualized as a great wheel turning in the sky. Water vapor absorbs energy from its surroundings (latent heat of vaporization). As the climate warms more energy becomes available to transform water into vapor. A warmer atmosphere is also capable of holding considerably more water vapor than a cooler one: the capacity is strongly dependent upon temperature. These facts imply that precipitations, too, should become more violent too.

                A sped up, intensified hydrological cycle is exactly what we have been witnessing the last few decades. The big wheel in the sky turns faster and faster because the flow rate has increased..

                 Witness recent reports, articles and warnings by Swiss RE, the world's largest "re-insurance" company. (Re-insurers are, in effect, mega-insurance companies which insure smaller client insurers, the insurance company you buy your insurance from). In the financial sector Swiss RE may not be God, but at least an archangel. And they take climate change to be a serious challenge for their industry in the future: 

                   For the past week the (somewhat arid) prairie province of Alberta has been the scene of record breaking floods. 75,000 residents were forced to evacuate the great city of Calgary and only now are returning to the downtown core a week later, often without power. Preliminary property damage estimates range from 3 to 5 billion dollars and direct economic losses are pegged at another 2 billion. That's about 6 billion dollars for a province with 3.6 million people or $1,500 per capita - for a single extreme weather event! These, of course, constitute some of the "hidden costs" of non-sustainable development based on non-renewable energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas. (Another way of viewing such costs: as "hidden subsidies" to pollutors who are deferring the costs of pollution abatement equipment onto the backs of the innocent victims of pollution.)

                  Here's what's really got Swiss RE in a knot. A sped up hydrological cycle raises flood damage risks for flood plain construction, sites near rivers chosen for their scenic beauty for example.

                   Your prime value property may not be worth much if the wheel continues to spin faster and faster..

                   Will the Alberta floods of 2013 be the wake up call..


                    For a 2 minute video of what the mayor of the beautifully (and aptly) named High River, Alberta calls their "catastrophe":

                    Critical infrastructures have been damaged as a result of the water logging and erosion of river banks. A train carrying an environmentally dangerous cargo has been derailed on a sagging flood damaged bridge in Calgary, for example.

                    What will the future climate look like? No one really knows! Even if one can make generalized predictions based on computer models (General Circulation Models), local conditions - microclimate, topology and hydrology - may modify, attenuate or amplify predicted climate change patterns. The Rocky Mountains amplified the effects of heavy rains by concentrating flow patterns on their down slopes and augmenting flow velocities due to gravity. Landslides caused some damage to property. In at least one case hydrology has been modified permanently: a landslide changed the path of local streams..

                     The following article and video describe the convergence of several factors which make for a Perfect Storm. The miracle is that so few lives were lost (four so far)..

                      Here, then, are the real hidden costs of non-sustainable development in Alberta: a plausible scenario, at least. Global warming (GW) leads to wintertime "blocking patterns" in which the jet stream remains static for unusually long periods. This, in turn, can lead to heavier than normal snowfalls, increasing mountain snowpack depth. Then comes the GW warmed spring with higher than traditional temperatures to rapidly melt all that snow. What made 2013 a real bomb was the fact that, this year, spring thaw was delayed. When abnormally rains hit hard last week, they triggered catastrophic melting of the enlarged winter snowpack. I think they call it a Perfect Storm. This is exactly the type of unpredictable, locally variable climatic zaniness that the GW hypothesis claims is in store for us all..

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Montréal rock 'n roll

               In Québec the expression "rock 'n roll" signifies not just the musical style but also has judgemental values close to "badly raised", "delinquent", "of bad reputation"..

               For the past 18 months, the Charbonneau Commission has been investigating the linkages between organized crime and the awarding of municipal contracts to the Québec construction industry. The existence of construction company cartels with links to the Mafia and to the funding drives of municipal and provincial political parties has been revealed. Cartel members agree upon the price of municipal contracts and who is next on the "list" to get a contract. Prices are inflated and unnecessary cost overruns are incurred with the aid of colluding officials and bureaucrats. For example, the contract's "fair market" price will be inflated by 30%. Inflated costs will be ignored by city employees whose job is to scrutinize contracts - in return for a "cut" of several percent of the total worth of the contract, of course. In general, several layers of corruption may be involved, each peeling off a few percent of the contract's value. The contractors and the mafia roll in the big bucks. Minor players in city hall and consulting firms live a life of perks. 

              Question: if you have an extra 10 grand or so payed under the table per annum, what exactly are you going to do with it? It is, after all, "hot" money. From the responses I've heard from witnesses at the Charbonneau Commission, there is a strong pressure to burn hot money, presumably so it won't show up on ledgers anywhere. So it gets burned on high living for corrupt officials. In the case of ex-mayor Gilles Vaillancourt of Laval, who was a local godfather type figure - "the King of Laval", millions of dollars were allegedly spirited away to overseas tax havens.

King of Laval used mules to smuggle $ to Swiss banks

              Meanwhile the public overpays a neat 30% on city (and provincial) contracts. And then, we are told by the politicians, we need to cut government, education, social services, pensions, rehabilitation programs.. And of course gotta crack down hard on phony refugee claims, welfare bums and recidivist unemployment assurance claimants, all those who try to "game the system". Indeed.. And so Pincocchio's nose grows.. 

                  There is, of course, a price to payed for this silliness, a potentially very high price in social disruption. In the article cited above, a reader poll revealed some exceedingly disquieting statistics:

Do you think the police will ever get to the bottom of corruption in Quebec politics?

9% Yes 130 votes

84% No 1255 votes

6% I'm not sure 93 votes

                  This is scary! With my - apparently - Pollyannaish view of life, I voted unhesitatingly "yes" on the poll question. To me, there is a cyclic element in the life of corruption. The beast grows strong until its depradations become intolerable. Then some knights in shining armor go and kill it and establish a New World Order. Till the beast ressucitates.. In the meantime, one enjoys a period of transparent and progressive government. That's how it's supposed to work, anyway..

                 I was actually looking forward to a period of clean government, following this big house cleaning. With a bit of luck, I envisioned a forward looking, rejuvenated Québec that could actually become a model for other jurisdictions in North America - and elsewhere - to emulate in these early days of the new century..

                 I also took a bit of pride in being Québécois for another reason. I live in a society which has some expectations of governmental transparency, intellectual honesty and fair play. If we did not have this shared - mostly uncounscious - backdrop of assumed moral values, an exercise like the Charbonneau Commission would simply be unthinkable. If we didn't have a Charbonneau Commission, then we would really have a lot to worry about.. :-0

                 The undercurrent of cynicism revealed in the above poll is, to me, very disquieting. While the respondants of the poll do not necessarily reflect the views of the general public, 90% of the respondants believe that our political system is so corrupt it cannot be reformed. Is that not a formula for fascism? Powerless people will seek a superhero, a messiah, who will sweep away the evil Old World Order and institute a New Age of Peace and Plenty. The 20th century, we should recall was awash in blood shed by the neo-messianic movements of deperate peoples whether Marx's utopian Classless Society or the Nazis' (equally utopian!) "thousand year Reich" with its apocalyptic (post-)Christian overtones:

tausendjähriges reich 1 - thousand year Reich

                  Anyway, back to cheerier topics. "Montréal rock 'n roll". In the last few months, several mayors and lesser luminaries have been forced to resign including Montréal's ex-mayor, Gérald Tremblay. Tremblay was replaced by interim mayor Michael Appelbaum who now, himself, is under criminal investigation for fraud, breach of trust, corruption and God knows what else. Fourteen counts, at my last counting. What major American city can outfunk good ol' Montréal rock 'n roll?

Montréals' harried ex-mayor being led to court by provincial police.

                 We'll even give Toronta the Good a run for their money with their (allegedly) crack-smokin' mayor Rob Ford.. Yah, suck it up Toronta..

                   At last notice, the Province of Québec was still debating whether the city of Montréal should be placed under trusteeship. Interesting times!


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Evil Men

                                                Guernica - Pablo Picasso

           This morning on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program, The Current, Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed American author, James Dawes, on the subject of the evil men commit. To listen to the podcast, hit the Listen button..

cbc link: the evil men do

              This interview really drew my attention. The subject of evil invites "philosophical" reflection: not on one act of evil in particular but on all evil acts, on the very nature of evil itself and of humanity's nature..

            James Dawes is an author and professor of English. He is founder of the Human Rights Program at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. For his book, Evil Men, prof Dawes interviewed Japanese vetrans of World War II who had engaged in war atrocities. These were now "sweet, frail old men in their 80s and 90s". But these were special veterans: not only had they participated in atrocities but had they were subsequently "brainwashed" by the Chinese Communists. 

           Most people do not understand what brainwashing as practiced by the Chinese and North Korean Communists was really all about. It is NOT about torture. Prior to be being turned over to the Chinese, the Japanese vetrans were, in fact, tortured and otherwise maltreated by Russian captors. But brainwashing is something different. It's true intention is social reprogramming: changing the life values and goals of the subject, turning him or her into a socialist "new man" or "new woman", a builder of a new world order. Since the goal of brainwashing is to turn an enemy into a friend, the subject is led to sympathize with the sufferings of his captors at the hands of his own country. He is led to develop bonds of sympathy and solidarity with his former enemies. He is enticed to join the socialist movement to build a better world. Inclusion, cooperation and comradship become instruments and goals of social reprogramming.

          Studies of subjects of communist brainwashing show curious aftereffects. The subjects almost invariably return to their home country. Yet they are changed. They are sympathetic to their captors and their goals. The attitudes and values of brainwashed American prisoners of war (Korea) were definitely shifted to the left. Compared to non-brainwashed colleagues, they were far more likely to embrace liberal, progressive causes in the decades following brainwashing. Interestingly, they were more likely to further their education after their release from the army and ended up with a higher socio-economic status than non-brainwashed army colleagues.

          The Japanese vetrans studied by prof Dawes were brainwashed. As happened with brainwashed American POWs, they developed an increased sympathy for the Chinese people and their struggles. They also have worked to make the Japanese government admit its role in war crimes. In their dwindling years, this has become a sort of "mission" for some of those Dawes interviewed.

         Listening to the interview with prof Dawes this morning, recalled the insights my own study and reflection on the issue of human cruelty have led me. Since I have no special qualifications along these lines (except having been raised in an abusive home), I rely on the syntheses and experiences of researchers, survivors and "deep thinkers", those more knowlegeable than me..

         Some tentative conclusions on the nature of human nature and its proclivity for evil seem possible:

1- Human nature is malleable. To some degree people are "shaped" by their environment. Over and over again, one learns that "atrocity training" - training people to commit atrocities - involves destroying the subject's sense of empowerment and control. One cannot do otherwise. The time's demand it. Those who refuse are beaten by their comrades forcing their herd comformity. The authors of The Authoritarian Personality - a classic early study, still cited - claim that a sense of disempowerment or "destiny" was a core, if not THE, core value of the Authoritarian Personality:

         Other "authoritarian" values are imposed upon those trained or encouraged to commit atrocity: stereotypic, "black / white", "us / them" representations of society and political systems, in particular. The "enemy" is presented as unresevedly evil by nature, something less than human. The "other" is denigrated in his / her humanity..

                At the risk of oversimplifying, one might say that the goal of contemporary atrocity training (Rwandan genocide for example) is to bring out the worst in human nature while the goal of Communist brainwashing was to bring out the best (co-operation, solidarity, progress..)

2- Humans are endowed with a strong innate sense of justice. The admission of guilt on the part of the Japanese vetrans allowed Chinese victims to forgive. Curiously, the admission of guilt by the guilty also had a potent "unburdening" effect for survivors of the atrocities: they felt great relief that someone had finally admitted the injustice that had been done to them and their families. We may bury our strong innate sense of justice under a cover of jaded cynicism but as I read in a novel once: cynicism is the last resort of the powerless. It is merely an (unavowed) admission of impotence. Or, as comedian Stephen Colbert sees things:

"Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us."

                  Once again, the cynic is the disempowered wo/man..

                  There is both cause for joy and sorrow in the fruits of the labors of those who have studied human evil. As the case of the brainwashed Japanese soldiers who committed atrocities and later renounced  them demonstrates, human nature is malleable. This fact is a double edged sword. The malleability can bring out great good or great evil. The psychologist Carl Jung held that human nature is morally neutral but in curious way: each one of us, he said, has the capacity both for the greatest good AND the greatest evil. 

                  In the last resort, the fact that humans have a deep innate sense of justice may be out last hope.. 

                  Some other texts I have found useful in the attempt to understand evil:

                  A recently published text summarizing the life work of social psychologist Bob Altemeyer. The Authoritarians is sold as an e-book and is also available for free on-line viewing at the above link at

                   Another classical text on the subject: Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom. This text now appears to have passed into the public domain is also available free on-line:

                       Erich Fromm, New York psychotherapist, social activist and author, wrote numerous texts, essays and papers on the subject of authoritarianism.


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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Book Review: Anthill by E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson: "Anthill" (W. W. Norton, New York, 210), 378 pages.

E O Wilson, the (in)famous "sociobiologist" has written his first novel and it is a winner.

This American scholar has given us a privileged view into the environmental "culture wars" wracking his country and his hopeful view of what can be done to build bridges between the warring camps.

"Anthill" is, at root, the coming of age story of a young, Alabaman ecological activist. Raphel Semmes Cody represents in his birth some of the internal divisions of his culture. His dad is a working class cracker, his mother, the scion of a family of land developers with proud Civil War (Confederacy) roots. She loves her man but is secretly ashamed of her fallen social status.

But Raphael - or Raff, as he always called - is something of a free spirit, a non-conformer. While not a great student, he is drawn from an early age to the life of a naturalist. "His" land is the Nokobee Lake tract of wildland where his family often picnics. A chance meeting of the small family with a biology professor from Florida State University ends up launching Raff for earnest into the life of the natualist scholar. The relationship between Raff and his adopted "uncle Fred" remains one of the anchors and motive forces of his life. Raff goes on to study earth science at Florida State, graduating with honors.

While a student, Raff learned from his land developer uncle (on his mother's side), Cyrus, that the Nokobee Lake tract's days are counted. Sooner or later, within a few years, the wilderness will be razed and covered over with concrete. Since he loves "his" land about as much as his life, Raff decides to go to the best law school, Harvard, - his marks and family connections permit it - to study environmental law in order to protect his land. Raff undoubtedly serves as a foil for author Wilson's own ideas about reconciling the competing worlds of Nature and Progress.

At Harvard, Raff becomes something of an expert in conflict resolution. His goal, as an environmental lawyer, is to reach compromises through which both parties - the environment and those who want to protect it and those promising jobs through "development" - find satisfaction and can live in peace. In the simplest cases, a tract of biodiverse land might be exchanged for one with less ecological importance. Despite his basic good nature and compromising spirit, down deep Raff recognizes that no one is going to defend the land if he doesn't. Passing the buck doesn't count in this most final of "culture wars", the war to save the earth we walk upon from human greed.

Unfortunately, people get hurt in wars and soon Raff crosses swords with the religious extreme right. He has returned to work for the company of his developer uncle Cyrus as attorney and counsel on land issues. Somehow his work comes to the attention of a fanatical self-ordained preacher, the "Reverend" LeBow, who is convinced that the End Days are here. Jesus wants the world to end so he can establish the Kingdom of God. People like Raff who fight for the earth are therefore serving God's enemy, Satan in person. At first LeBow tries to frighten Raff off with lightly veiled threats of violence. When Raff continues, drawing publicity to himself in ongoing negotiations to develop a strip of the Nokobee Tract while protecting the rest, LeBow decides, simply, to eliminate him.

Wilson, for a first time novelist, shows himself surprisingly versatile in the action packed and graphically violent concluding pages. To Wilson's credit he does not glorify or romanticize violence: he depicts it all its biological, sensorial and existential nastiness. This, I suspect, was intentional.

"Reverend" LeBow and a couple of accomplices have stalked Raff and, as he is leaving the tract after a day of photography and solitary wandering, they confront him and force him to accompany them on a walk to the river flowing from Lake Nokobee. Raffs notes the concealed weapons and decides he has to make a break for it or he will end up in the river as the gators' supper.

So as not to spoil the surprises, I will go no further. However, blood is shed and Raff escapes. He contemplates dropping environmentalism but a call from a collaborator, a local environmental journalist, thanking him for his good work in saving 90% of the Nokobee tract from development, rekindles his sense of duty and mission.

Raff, as expected, bears post-traumatic stress syndrome scars from the attempted assassination. He can no longer enter the Nokobee tract unless he is surrounded by people. However, his boy scout troop serves him well here. On an outing to Nokobee lake, as the sun sets and the boys wait for the bus home, Raff contemplates his world, his land: "Nokobee was here, now and forever, living and whole and serene as he had first found it in his childhood. This was his sacred place.. Nokobee was a habitat of infinite knowledge and mystery, beyond the reach of the meager human brain.. It was his island in a meaningless sea. Because Nokobee survived, he survived. Because it preserved its meaning, he preserved his meaning. Nokobee has granted him these precious gifts. Now it would heal him. In return, he had restored its immortality, and eternal youth, and the continuity of its deep history."
What greater manifesto of environmental activism could one find?

Although Wilson is a noted scholar and has published many books and papers, this is a surprisingly strong first novel: it won the Pulitzer Prize.

I really love Wilson's description of the ideal scholar. In a note to the admissions committee at Florida State, "Uncle Fred", the biology professor who served as Raff's mentor in all things natural, wrote "Raphael Semmes Cody, admittedly has participated in no team sport, or sport of any kind. He plays no musical instrument. He has never been more than two hundred miles from Clayville, Alabama. But then, one recalls, Henry David Thoreau was similarly limited. Like Thoreau, young Cody walks to a different drummer's beat. As his Eagle Scout record shows, he is ambitious and hardworking in a unique way, with goals of his own choosing. I predict that among the ten thousand students admitted this year to FSU, he will someday be one of the alumni whom this university will be most proud."

One of the more surprising and interesting sections of the novel is the section entitled "The anthill chronicles" in which Wilson, drawing from his own studies as a biologist, describes the life an ant colony - from the ants' perspective. It makes for very interesting reading for nature and science buffs.

It's hard to fault "Anthill" much, aside from the odd clumsy or ambiguous sentence. In this novel, Wilson reveals his own liberal, middle of the road, biases and ideology: "Raff lived by three maxims. Fortune favors the prepared mind. People follow someone who knows where he's going. And control the middle, because that's where the extremes eventually meet." It's inspirational message to those struggling for a livable future is tonic and bracing. Let's hope he's right. I willingly give "Anthill" a nine on ten.