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Archive for October, 2019

Protests Everywhere

Journalists don’t just travel in packs; they write in packs too. And what they’re writing this week is endless pipe-sucking ruminations about what’s driving the seemingly synchronised outbreak of protests in a large number of very different countries around the world. They can’t see the forest for the trees.

You will doubtless have seen a few examples of this fashion recently. If you lived in the belly of the media beast, like I do, you’d be seeing dozens a day, as journos try to explain the phenomenon with varying degrees of success. Varying from zero to about 1.5 out of ten, in my opinion, but there is clearly something trans-national going on.

A group of young Catalan nationalists, walking out the highway to occupy Barcelona airport two weeks ago, were chanting “We’re going to do a Hong Kong” as if they shared the same cause.

They don’t, actually. You could even say that the protesters in Hong Kong are anti-nationalists, in the sense that they are defending their freedoms against a regime in Beijing that wants to smother them under a blanket of conformist Chinese nationalism. But the tactics are the same in Catalonia and Hong Kong, and the emotions are too.

A striking thing about the tactics, by the way, is that they have moved on from the strict non-violence that characterised would-be democratic revolutions from the mid-1980s until the early days of the Arab Spring nine years ago.

From the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow-jackets) in France who began their protests almost exactly a year ago, down to the protesters in the streets of Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong today, the majority are still non-violent. However, they cannot control (or maybe just don’t want to control) the minority who throw bricks and flaming bottles at the police.

The police, of course, use violence too: tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes guns. People have been killed – in small numbers in most places, but in the hundreds in Iraq and in Sudan. Even bigger blood-baths are possible in Hong Kong (if the regime in Beijing loses its nerve) and in Egypt (if September’s protesters return to the streets).

Another common denominator is that the trigger that sets the protests off is usually something small. The bread price went up in Sudan; metro tickets got more expensive in Chile; a new tax was put on What’s App calls in Lebanon; the price of gasoline rose not very dramatically in France a year ago and in Ecuador last month – and the next thing you know, masses of people are out on the street.

Moreover, when the government backs down and cancels the offending law or charge, as has generally been the case after a few days or weeks, the protesters don’t quit and go home. By then their demands have expanded to include things like full democratic rights (Hong Kong, Algeria and Egypt) or an end to a corrupt system (Iraq and Lebanon) or action on huge and growing inequalities between rich and poor (Chile, France, and Ecuador).

But all this is just taxonomy, not really analysis. It doesn’t explain why this phenomenon is happening at the same time in such different countries. It doesn’t explain why it’s happening now, not last year or in 2022. And it certainly doesn’t tell us where it’s going next.

Nor do I have answers to these questions, and I can’t bring myself to make the usual trite remarks about global media and imitation, or the lingering and unresolved legacy of the 2008 crash, or the fact that 41% of the world’s population is under 25. However, these events are showing us one important thing: we really do have a global society now

You could see it taking shape even three decades ago, in the way non-violent revolutions flashed between countries, bringing some form of democracy to the Philippines, then South Korea, Thailand and Bangladesh, and on to Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union, all in the five years 1986-1991. But the target then was just crude dictatorships; now it’s much broader.

It’s about economic and social inequality as well as political oppression, and increasingly it’s also about generational inequality. Obviously the injustices are more blatant and extreme in Egypt than they are in France, but they are not really very different and the young know it.

Never mind the nationalists and the populists, who are just playing the same divisive old tunes as always. What we have here, despite the multiplicity of languages, religions and histories, is an emerging global society with shared values and ambitions, especially among the young.

There are millions of angry dissenters from this evolving consensus, but for the first time ever we really are becoming one people. That is a comforting thought as we head into the millennial storm of climate change. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“You…on”; and “A striking…ago”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Middle East: Winners and Losers

The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi serves as a symbolic full stop to the many civil wars that have engulfed Syria in the past eight years, although Baghdadi was not personally in charge of anything by the time he died. The outcome of all those wars was already becoming clear, and it is the Russians and Bashar al-Assad who have won.

Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of American troops from eastern Syria makes the Russian victory clear: within days, there were Russian soldiers taking selfies in the abandoned American bases on the Syrian side of the frontier with Turkey.

Trump’s elaborate thanks to the Russian, Syrian and Turkish governments for their aid in the Baghdadi operation was a genuflection before the powers that now really count in the region, but the Russian response was as disdainful as ever. “We are unaware of any alleged (Russian) assistance during this operation,” said Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

The Russian contempt for Trump is understandable, but showing it so publicly is self-indulgent and quite untypical. They clearly have some hold over the man, but why flaunt it? Perhaps their victory is going to their heads, because they can never have expected to win so decisively. But that is a question for another day.

What have the Russians won? Four years after they began providing air support to a Syrian regime that was teetering on the brink of defeat, Bashar al-Assad’s brutal rule once again extends over almost all of Syria. They never had to commit Russian ground troops to combat, and yet they are now the dominant outside power in the entire Fertile Crescent.

Assad didn’t do too badly either. First he cleared the rebels out of all the big cities, then he regained control of all Arabic-speaking rural areas except the northwestern province of Idlib, and now his troops are re-occupying most of the Kurdish-speaking east without a fight.

He never had to fight Baghdadi’s ‘Islamic State’ either. It was a Syrian Kurdish militia with US air support that destroyed the part of IS that was located in Syria. And when Donald Trump pulled US troops out of Syria on 6 October, betraying the Kurds, Russian diplomacy finessed that into another win for Assad.

The Syrian Kurds were immediately attacked by Turkey, which intended to ethnically ‘cleanse’ the Kurdish population from northeastern Syria and replace them with Arabic-speaking refugees from other parts of Syria. It was almost certainly Russian emissaries who persuaded the Kurds to give up their dream of independence and invite the Syrian army back in to protect them from the Turks.

When the Syrian army went back in last week it was accompanied by enough Russian soldiers to deter the Turks from shooting at it, so Syrian troops now control most of the border and ethnic cleansing is presumably off the menu. Turkish troops still hold some bits of Syrian territory that they grabbed last week, but Ankara has publicly stated that it will not try to keep them indefinitely.

It was really the Russians who rescued the Kurds, so you can guess where their loyalty lies now. And remarkably, the Turks are coming around as well.

Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed the jihadi rebels throughout the Syrian civil war and still protects them in their last stronghold in Idlib. He even kept the border with Syria open so that foreign jihadis could cross to join Islamic State. But he is a pragmatist who understands the new realities, and within months he will reopen diplomatic relations with Assad’s regime in Syria.

That will mean that Turkey can no longer provide military protection to the jihadi groups in Idlib (most of whom now acknowledge the leadership of Osama bin-Laden’s old organisation, al-Qaeda). Thereupon the final operation to reconquer Idlib can begin, although it may be done quite slowly and methodically to keep the Syrian army’s casualties down.

The Russians have accomplished everything they set out to do in the region in 2015, and the main risk they face now is over-confidence. They saved Assad and he owes them a lot, but he also owes Iran, which provided and paid for the foreign Shia volunteers who provided vitally needed military manpower when the Syrian army was running out.

They have drawn Turkey away from its old reflexive loyalty to NATO, but it is still a member of the alliance and Erdogan’s political position in Turkey is weakening.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia two weeks ago went well, because Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman has been seeking friends elsewhere after Trump did nothing in response to the recent drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oilfields. But MbS’s position at home is hardly secure either.

The truth is that Russia has won the prize, but the prize is a can of worms.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“The Russian…day”; and “It was…well”)

The Cure for Flygskam

Qantas, the Australian airline, has just test-flown the world’s longest commercial air-route: 10,200 miles (16,500 km.) from New York non-stop to Sydney. There were only 60 passengers aboard the Boeing 787, all in business class, because the plane needed all the rest of the weight for fuel. And, we are told, they danced the Macarena in the empty economy class to stay limber during the 19-hour flight.

I don’t think Greta Thunberg would have been pleased.

There is a Swedish neologism, ‘flygskam’, that has gained some currency among environmental activists in Europe. It means ‘flight-shame’, which is the emotion righteous people should feel if they take a plane trip and contribute to global heating.

Ms Thunberg took a sail-boat across the Atlantic because the fuel that is burned to get each airline passenger to North America causes warming equivalent to about 10% of the average Swede’s annual ‘carbon footprint’. A bit dramatic, maybe, but her point was that flying causes major emissions, and the only way to avoid them is not to fly.

Aviation accounts for around 2.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions at the moment, but the contrails the planes leave in the stratosphere turn into cirrus clouds that reflect heat back to the surface, and that causes an equal amount of heating.

So in reality 5% of current warming is already due to aviation, and industry representatives estimate that the number of people flying annually will almost double (to 8.2 billion) in the next twenty years. By then flying will have grown to 10% of the global heating problem, or even more if we have made good progress on cutting our other emissions. So must we stop flying?

That’s not the way we deal with other climate-related transport problems. We haven’t abolished automobiles; we have just worked on ways of reducing and ultimately eliminating the emissions associated with them. Electric cars now lead the field, but other alternatives may emerge.

By contrast, we are told, there are no alternatives available for aviation.

People have been nibbling around the fringes of the fuel problem, but ‘biofuel’ won’t cut it: it would take an area the size of Australia to grow the plants needed as feedstock for the fuel that aviation industry consumes. Batteries are too heavy to use in electric planes, and there’s no solution for the contrail problem. We’ll just have to stop flying.

Not necessarily. The problem has been neglected, because the aviation industry was too lazy or stupid to look down the road and start preparing for a future that more attentive people could see twenty years ago. But the fuel problem is not insoluble. In fact, it has already been solved. The solution just needs to be scaled up.

A number of people have been working on DAC (Direct Air Capture of carbon dioxide) for more than a decade already, and the leader in the field, David Keith’s Carbon Engineering, has had a pilot plant running in British Columbia for the past three years.

Keith’s business model involves combining his captured carbon dioxide with hydrogen (produced from water by electrolysis). The electricity for both processes comes from solar power, and the final product is a high-octane fuel suitable for use in aircraft.

It emits carbon dioxide when you burn it, of course, but it’s the same carbon dioxide you extracted from the air at the start. The fuel is carbon-neutral. Scaling production up would take a long time and cost a lot, but it would also bring the price down to a commercially viable level.

The contrails and the cirrus clouds in the stratosphere are a considerably harder problem, but there are a number of measures that would help.

The planes are flying so high for two reasons. The air is less dense up there, so you don’t use so much fuel pushing through it. But the main reason, especially for passenger planes, is that there is much less turbulence in the stratosphere than in the lower atmosphere. If the planes flew down there, they’d be bouncing around half the time, and everybody’s sick-bag would be on their knee.

So what can you do about it? Well, contrails only form in air masses with high humidity, and therefore only affect 10-20% of flights. With adequate information, most of those flights could simply fly around them. Alternatively, fly below 25,000 ft. for that section of the flight, and contrails won’t form anyway.

It will be more turbulent down there, so in the long run we should be building aircraft that automatically damp out most of the turbulence. This is probably best achieved by ducted flows of air that instantly counter any sudden changes of altitude or attitude, but if aircraft designers started incorporating such ducts into their designs today, they’d only come into regular use in about fifteen years’ time.

So the order of business is first, carbon-neutral fuels (half the problem solved); second, flying around or under air masses with high humidity (another quarter solved); and finally, turbulence-damping aircraft technology (most of the rest done).

By the way, how is Greta Thunberg getting home again?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 9. (“That’s not…flying”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Catalan Dilemma

The demonstrations, some of them violent, are still going on in Catalonia a week after Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced nine separatist leaders to between nine and thirteen years in prison for sedition. This was the last thing Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez needed three weeks before a national election in which his Socialist Party was already losing ground to right-wing nationalist parties.

Catalan separatists are convinced that the evil ‘Spanish state’ as a whole is conspiring to crush their movement, but the Court had little choice because those leaders deliberately broke the law. They held an illegal independence referendum two years ago in which few people except the separatists voted, and used that ‘victory’ to proclaim independence.

Opinion poll always show that a majority of people in Catalonia don’t want independence, but 92% of those who participated in the referendum voted for it. It was cynical manipulation which exploited the fact that the anti-separatist parties in Catalonia all told their supporters not to vote in an illegal poll.

The bid for independence failed when Madrid dissolved the regional parliament and removed the separatists from office. In the subsequent provincial election in December 2017, the pro-independence parties got 47.7% of the vote, so the separatists would probably have lost a real referendum by the same margin.

Yet it was the separatists who formed the next provincial government too, because they enjoy strong support in rural constituencies where almost everybody speaks Catalan. As in most countries, the system gives more weight to rural voters, so the separatists won five more seats in parliament than the pro-Spain parties and are still in power.

The real problem for the separatists is that about half the people in Catalonia are Spanish-speakers who have no interest whatever in seceding from Spain. Some are relatively recent arrivals, but most were born in Catalonia, the children and grandchildren of migrants from other parts of Spain who were attracted by the booming economy.

It’s still one of the richest parts of Spain, and – again as in most developed countries – some of its tax revenues are transferred to help poorer regions of the country. This is bitterly resented by most Catalan-speakers and partly explains the drive for independence, although the most powerful factor is simply ethnic nationalism.

How can ethnic Catalans achieve their goal in a democratic way, however, when half the voters by definition are not interested in it? The only way is somehow to define Spanish-speakers as not really full citizens of Catalonia, and although they never say that in so many words that was their unspoken justification for the manipulation they practised in the 2017 ‘referendum’.

Josep Borrel, Spain’s foreign minister, but himself a Catalan, recently offered a lethal analysis of this attitude: “I think the root of the problem is that the independence movement denies the ‘Catalanness’ of those people who aren’t in favour of independence. When you…claim that only those who think like you are ‘the people’, that’s a totalitarian attitude.”

‘Totalitarian’ is too strong a word, but there’s no doubt that this opinion is widely shared among Catalans, and that it makes Spanish-speakers keep their heads down. You’d never think, looking at the half-million-strong crowds of protesters who have been thronging Barcelona’s streets in the past week, that more than half the city’s residents are actually Spanish-speakers who oppose independence.

On the other hand, you cannot fail to feel some sympathy for the Catalan nationalists, for as recently as 1950 the great majority of the city’s residents were Catalan-speakers. You also cannot ignore the history: Catalans are not oppressed now, but the only language used in the schools and in all official communications in Catalonia under the Franco dictatorship, right down to the 1980s, was Spanish.

None of this has been forgotten by the Catalans, who at one time even feared that their language might be lost. An independent Catalonia might have restricted the arrival of so many Spanish-speakers if such an entity had existed 75 years ago, but it’s too late now.

Those Catalans who respect democracy but want independence therefore face an insoluble problem, and it’s only Spain’s refusal to permit a real referendum that spares them from having to face up to the conflict between these two values. But the Spanish constitution talks of the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’ and does not permit any region to hold a referendum on independence.

This is hardly surprising in a country that has had four civil wars in the past two centuries, but it effectively guarantees that the unrest in Catalonia will continue indefinitely.

So far it has been almost entirely non-violent, but the traditional pro-independence civil society groups, the Catalan National Assembly and Omnium Cultural, are now being outflanked by Tsunami Democratic, a more combative and secretive group. (It was they who occupied the airport last week.)

They are almost all young, they are at home with apps and social media, and they are up for a fight, but Catalonia is still a pretty peaceful place. Long may it remain so.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 10. (“Yet…power”; “It’s…nationalism”; and “Totalitarian…independence”)