Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer has written 1562 posts for Gwynne Dyer

Space 2018: Better Late than Never

It’s going to be a good year in space, and the new players are aiming high. The Indian Space Research Organization intends to send Chandrayaan-2, an uncrewed orbiter, lander and rover, to the moon in March.

In July, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will arrive at its target, the asteroid 162173 Ryugu, in an effort to return samples of this space rock to Earth.

And in June, China will launch the first part of its mission to the ‘dark side’ of the Moon, Chang’e 4, which will position a communications satellite 60,000 km beyond the Moon to provide a link with Earth. That 425 kg. relay satellite will also guide the second element of the mission, a lander and rover, down to a soft landing on the far side of the Moon,
where nobody has gone before.

One benefit of being on the far side is that the Moon blocks out stray radio signals from Earth, so the view of the radio spectrum of the universe is far better. But the Chang’e 4 lander will also carry seeds and insects to test whether plants and animals can be grown on the Moon.

“The container will send potatoes, arabidopsis seeds and silkworm eggs to the surface of the Moon,” explained Zhang Yuanxun, chief designer of the container. “The eggs will hatch into silkworms, which can produce carbon dioxide, while the potatoes and seeds emit oxygen through photosynthesis. Together, they can establish a simple ecosystem on the Moon.” Very simple – but the first step towards a sustained human presence on the Moon.

The older space powers are also breaking new ground. Russia is testing a nuclear engine this year that could cut travel time to Mars from 18 months to just 6 weeks. In October the European Space Agency will launch a mission to Mercury. NASA’s InSight Mars lander will launch in May, and the American agency’s OSIRIS-REx vehicle will rendezvous with near-Earth asteroid Bennu in August and start taking samples for return to Earth.

But the main event of the year, beyond doubt, is the planned launch of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy vehicle from Cape Canaveral. (The launch window opens on 15 January.) “It’s guaranteed to be exciting,” said Musk last July. “There’s a real good chance that it doesn’t make it into orbit….I hope it makes it far enough from the pad that it doesn’t cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win. Major pucker factor.”

This is known as ‘lowering expectations’, but it is also known as realism. Falcon Heavy will boost two-and-a- half times the payload of any existing rocket into Low Earth Orbit: more than 50 tons. Moreover, both the main rocket and the two boosters that are strapped onto it are designed to return to Earth and land, ready for reuse, which would transform the economics of putting things into orbit. If it all works.

It almost certainly will all work eventually, but this is effectively a new design, not just an upgrade, and there are many elements in a big vehicle like Falcon Heavy that cannot be tested on the ground. The aerodynamics are different, the stresses are different, and nobody has ever launched a vehicle with 27 rockets before. The old adage applies: Anything Can Happen And Probably Will.

Yet Elon Musk is also one of the greatest showmen and self-publicists of our time, so he’s an inveterate optimist. In early December he tweeted: “Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.” (That is, a solar orbit like that of Mars, not an orbit around Mars. But everybody knows he does intend to go to Mars eventually.)

It’s easy to get carried away by hope, of course, but after Falcon Heavy comes NASA’s Space Launch System vehicle, which is designed to put 70 tons into Low Earth Orbit, with a follow-on version capable of 130 tons (although its rockets will not be reusable). And Musk’s future plans include the BFR (Big Fucking Rocket) that would really go to Mars.

These are the sort of vehicles we need if we are really serious about getting out into space in a big way. When I watched the last of the Apollo Moon landings on TV in 1972, I assumed that we would be seeing rockets like this by the early 1980s. (See Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Oddysey’, released in 1968, for a perfectly reasonable vision of where we could have been in space technology by the turn of the century.)

Instead the money was cut, and then the Cold War ended. The whole enterprise was mothballed for forty years, except for unmanned interplanetary missions and a low-orbit International Space Station. But this year it does feel like we are back on track and going somewhere. Forty wasted years, but better late than never.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“The container…Moon”; and “This…works”)

Iran: Here We Go Again?

“The people behind what is taking place think they will be able to harm the government,” said Iran’s First Vice-President, Eshaq Jahangiri. “But when social movements and protests start in the street, those who have ignited them are not always able to control them.” And the question is: which people did Jahangiri actually mean, and which government?

The hard-liners in Iran insist (as they always do on these occasions) that the demonstrations that broke out on Thursday and have continued every day since are the work of ‘anti-revolutionaries and agents of foreign powers’. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned anti-government protesters they will face the nation’s “iron fist” if political unrest continues.

But there are actually two governments in Iran. One is the elected government of President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist who won a second term in last June’s election. The other consists of the clerics and Islamic extremists (like the Revolutionary Guards) who serve the ‘Supreme Leader’, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and it’s Khamenei who has the last word in both theological and political matters.

There is always great tension between the two when Iranians elect a reformist government, and Eshaq Jahangiri has always supported the cause of moderation and reform. What he was actually signalling, in his cryptic remark, was his suspicion that the protests about economic conditions were initally incited by the hard-liners to harm Rouhani’s government – and then got out of hand.

Iranians certainly have lots to protest against. Living standards have fallen 15 percent in the past ten years. More than 3 million Iranians are jobless, and youth unemployment is about 40 percent. The price of some basic food items, like chicken and eggs, has recently risen by almost half.

It’s not really Rouhani’s fault. The main problem is that despite the 2015 deal that ended most international sanctions against Iran in return for strict controls on Iranian nuclear research and technology, US financial sanctions remain in place. That has made most banks wary of processing money for Iran or extending credit to its firms, and so the promised economic benefits of the deal never arrived.

It is natural for ordinary people to blame the government when promised economic improvements don’t happen, and so it may well have occurred to hard-liners to exploit that anger to discredit the reformist government. But the anger went deeper than that, and quickly turned into a protest against the Islamic regime in general.

One significant piece of evidence that Jahangiri’s veiled accusation may be true is the behaviour of the state-run media, which are almost entirely controlled by hard-liners. They reported virtually nothing about the much bigger demonstrations in 2009, but they gave front-page exposure to the current protests on the first day of the demos. Then, as the protesters’ demands grew more radical, the state media stopped reporting on them.

In any case, Rouhani is no longer the prime target of the demonstrations, and they are no longer just about prices and jobs. They are protests against the entire regime, and the slogans are explicitly political. Previous outbreaks of protest have been put down by force in 1999, 2003, 2006 and most spectacularly in 2009, but three things are different about the current demonstrations.

The first is that the unelected parallel government of the mullahs, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is no longer sacred and beyond criticism. The crowds have been chanting ‘Death to the dictator” and even “Death to Khamenei”, which is unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. There have even been calls for the return of the Shah who was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1979 (or rather of his son, since he died long ago).

Secondly, for the first time the demonstrations began not in Tehran but in provincial cities. The initial outbreak was in Iran’s second city, Mashhad, which is traditionally seen as a very conservative place. The protests only reached the capital on Saturday – and they have broken out in a dozen smaller cities as well.

And the third thing (which may account for the second) is that the majority of protesters this time are not middle-class students and professionals but lower-class people with very little to lose. This may also be why the crowds are less disciplined and more likely to answer violence with violence this time around.

None of this necessarily means that the Iranian regime is on the brink of collapse. It has already cut off the social media that the protesters use to organise, and it is notorious for its willingness to use force against its own citizens (though a dozen have been killed at the time of writing). Most opposition leaders are in jail or in exile, and there is no visible coordination among the protests.

All the other waves of protest failed; this one probably will too. But once events like this start to happen, especially in the Middle East, almost anything is possible.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“It is…on them”)

Coral Reefs, Assisted Evolution and Geo-Engineering

Whenever I get the chance, I go diving. The whole family are divers, right down to the grand-children: it’s one of the pretexts we use to get together. And we all know the coral reefs are dying.

There are still healthy reefs, and even after they have been bleached they can recover – but only until the next time that sea temperatures rise beyond their tolerance range. Half of the world’s coral reefs are already gone, and the destruction continues relentlessly. The northern 750 km of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef were largely killed by heat stress last year. Global warming will kill almost all of the world’s coral reefs by 2050.

Prof. Madeleine van Oppen’s work at the Australian Instititute of Marine Science and the University of Melbourne is therefore good news. Her team is trying to breed hybrid coral animals and algae that can withstand higher temperatures.

“It is a story of hope, rather than saying: ‘It’s all going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it’,” van Oppen said at Oxford University, where her team presented their latest research at a conference last week. People worry about major interventions in the reef life, she concedes, “but it’s too late to leave them alone, given the pace at which we are losing corals…. It is only a matter of time before the next heatwave hits.”

She calls what her team is doing ‘assisted evolution’, but it’s really just a more intense version of the selective breeding that people have been doing with domesticated species for thousands of years. Van Oppen’s team have been cross-breeding corals adapted to cooler waters with other species from warmer regions to create hybrids that can withstand the coming higher temperatures worldwide.

They are also working with the algae that live inside the coral animals and are their major source of food, because it is when the water gets too warm and the corals expel the algae that bleaching occurs. So one team member, Leela Chakravarti, pushed the algae through eighty generations in the lab, selecting the most heat-tolerant in each generation. The final generation can live in water at 31 degrees C.

The next step, obviously, is to transplant these modified coral animals and algae onto living reefs, which will require regulatory approval. That may not be forthcoming right away, because there will naturally be concerns that these ‘evolved’ animals and plants will out-compete the existing reef life.

They are not different species, however, and the one circumstance in which they are likely to out-compete the existing reef-life is precisely during bleaching events, when they are more likely to survive. But that, surely, is the point of the whole exercise, and there are enough parts of the world with damaged reefs that van Oppen’s team will get permission for their experiments sooner or later. Probably sooner.

It is appropriate to deplore the fact that such experiments have become necessary, but that is where we are and it’s foolish to deny it. Even if all the pledges of cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions made in the Paris climate-change agreement of 2015 are kept, and even if the hope that follow-on meetings will bring deeper cuts in emissions is fulfilled, we are heading for ocean temperatures that will kill most or all of the coral reefs eventually.

We are therefore already in the situation, at least with regard to coral reefs, that James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, forecast almost forty years ago: that the human race will wake up one day to find that we have inherited “the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer.” The self-regulating natural systems have been knocked out, and it’s up to us to regulate and maintain them.

Nobody would consciously choose such a job. We don’t yet even fully understand the ways that the systems we will have to manage actually work. But the changes we have wrought in the environment are overwhelming the ability of natural systems to maintain themselves in their stable and familiar forms, and so it will be down to us to keep them going.

The word for this, if we are being honest, is ‘geo-engineering’. It’s a very gentle, low-tech kind of geo-engineering, with relatively little chance of major negative side-effects if we get it wrong. We are definitely still on the learner slopes.

The interventions in natural systems will get much bigger, and the penalties for mistakes much more costly, as time goes on. We are probably going to end up trying to regulate the temperature of the entire planet, with megadeaths as the penalty if we fail. But by then there will be no alternative.

Welcome to the future.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 9. (“It is…eventually”)

South Africa: It Could Be Worse

“We have three gangsters, one suspect, and a president who is prisoner of a Top Six that is clearly compromised,” said Zackie Achmat, Aids activist and Nobel Prize nominee, on hearing that Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader and businessman, had been elected president of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC).

It’s hard to celebrate when another billionaire wins an election, but thoughtful people in South Africa are at least relieved: it could have been worse. It could have been Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma, a profoundly corrupt man who has allowed, even encouraged corruption to spread through the higher ranks of the ANC.

There’s no evidence that NDZ is corrupt herself, but it was widely believed that if she won power she would protect her former husband, who is otherwise likely to go to jail after he leaves the presidency. He faces 18 charges of corruption, fraud, racketeering, money laudering and tax evasion relating to 783 payments.

In October the Supreme Court of Appeal reinstated the charges, which Zuma has repeatedly used his presidential powers to suppress or postpone. His former financial adviser, who went to jail for making those payments, says he will testify against Zuma if necessary.

Zuma was counting on NDZ to protect him (they have four children together), and most of the ANC bigwigs who joined him in plundering the economy also backed her bid for the presidency. But Cyril Ramaphosa outmanoeuvred her, and on Tuesday he was narrowly elected president of the ANC.

He’s not yet running South Africa, but in the 23 years since apartheid ended the ANC’s president has usually become the country’s president as well. Zuma can technically stay in power until the next scheduled elections in 2019, but last time the ANC’s president changed, the party immediately “recalled” the sitting president of South Africa (Thabo Mbeki) and put in the new man (Zuma). That may happen again this time – or it may not.

If Ramaphosa becomes president of the whole country soon, there are high hopes that the corruption and the constant subversion of the law will stop, or at least shrink. Billionaires don’t need to steal. And if local and foreign investors believe that Ramaphosa is not only honest but competent, then maybe the economy will manage better than one percent growth.

That would be nice, since it’s a long time since South Africa has seen any real economic growth. But it’s far from guaranteed, because Ramaphosa has been lumbered with a “Top Six” in the National Executive Committee (NEC) – a kind of cabinet – at least half of whom backed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Two of them, David Mabuza, now Deputy President of the NEC, and Ace Magashule, now Secretary-General, are definitely “gangsters”. They have ruled two large provinces, Mpumalanga and the Free State, for a long time; they are both inexplicably rich; and both of them have close ties to the Guptas, a mega-rich family of Indian immigrants who have such influence over Zuma that they have been accused of “state capture”.

Mabuza has also been accused of running a private militia, and there has been an unusually high death rate among his local critics in Mpumalanga. Magashule’s critics have also had some health issues. The two men are definitely part of the problem, not of the solution.

It’s less clear whom Zackie Achmat thought the third “gangster” was, but it could be Jessie Duarte, now Magashule’s deputy. She also has ties to the Guptas, and vigorously defends Zuma’s action at every opportunity. All three were elected by the leadership conference, and Ramaphosa can’t fire them, so his hands are tied – or at best, his freedom of action is severely restricted.

Zuma will therefore probably have another year to feather his nest and undermine the judiciary and the police before the scheduled general election in 2019. Even after that it is questionable how much headway Ramaphosa can make in cleaning up the party.

The great irony here is that Ramaphosa is richer than all of the thieves put together. If he could just have given them all the money they stole (an estimated $40 million in Zuma’s case, but much less for most of them), Ramaphosa would still be rich at the end of it and a lot of these crooks would have done the jobs they were elected for.

Some of them might even have done their jobs well, in which case South Africa would be a different place. But if Ramaphosa had gone down that road, he would probably have ended up trying to buy the courts and the country’s remarkably free media as well, and those are its only safeguards against a descent into total dysfunction.

As an old friend and lifelong ANC member said to me a couple of years ago: “If you had told me in 1984 (in the depths of apartheid) what South Africa would be like now, I would have been delighted. If you had told me in 1994 (the year of the country’s first free election), I would have been in despair.” The right attitude, of course, is somewhere in between.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 13 and 14. (“Mabuza…solution”; and “The great…dysfunction”)