24 October 2012
Predicting Disaster: A Risky Business
By Gwynne Dyer
Six years in jail and an average fine of over a million dollars: that was the punishment given to six Italian scientists on 22 October for getting their earthquake advice wrong. So what will the expert geologists and vulcanologists in Italy say the next time they are asked about the likelihood of an earthquake? They will refuse to say anything, of course.
More than 5,000 scientists have signed a letter supporting their colleagues who found themselves standing trial for manslaughter in the medieval city of L’Aquila, where 309 people died in an earthquake in 2009. But the case is a bit more complex than it first appears.
People always look for a scapegoat when disaster strikes, and it’s understandable that the bereaved people of L’Aquila wanted someone to blame. Most of them were glad when the six Italian scientists were convicted: at least somebody was being punished for the crime. But it wasn’t exactly the crime that those 5,000 foreign scientists thought they had been accused of.
Even lawyers and judges know that you cannot predict an earthquake with any certainty. What the six were actually accused of was being too reassuring about how likely an earthquake was.
There were hundreds of small shocks around L’Aquila in the weeks before the big one struck, and the six scientists were sent to the city to assess the level of danger. They judged the risk as minor, and one, foolishly, said there was “no danger”.
On the basis of this scientific advice, it is claimed, thousands of citizens decided to sleep in their houses rather than outside – and 309 of them were crushed in their houses a week later when the magnitude 6.3 quake brought them down. So the scientists’ crime was not a failure to predict the quake, but a failure to state clearly that it COULD happen.
It’s still a stupid charge. Half of the really big earthquakes are preceded by a flurry of smaller shocks, true – but such clusters of small shocks are quite common, and only 5 percent of them are followed by a major quake. So the scientists were caught on the horns of a familiar dilemma.
Fail to issue a warning before a big quake, and you will be discredited (and maybe, if you are Italian, charged with manslaughter). But issue warnings every time there is a 5 percent risk, and you will cause 19 needless mass evacuations for every necessary one. You will be “crying wolf”, which is usually counter-productive.
The scientists’s conviction will probably be reversed on appeal, bringing this whole foolish episode to an end. For the rest of us, however, this just illustrates how hard it is for human beings to deal sensibly with big but incalculable risks.
The biggest incalculable risk of a purely natural order that we know about is the mega-tsunami that will be unleashed when the western flank of Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canaries slides into the Atlantic Ocean. In an eruption in 1949, a chunk of rock about 500 cubic km. (120 cubic miles) in size, with a mass of 150 billion tonnes, became detached from the main ridge and slid two metres (7 ft.) down towards the sea.
This is bad news for people living around the Atlantic Ocean. In some future volcanic eruption (there have been six in the past 500 years), that whole mass may slide all the way into the ocean and generate a tsunami that would initially be about 600 metres (2,000 ft.) high.
It would travel outwards in an expanding circle at some 1,000 km. per hour (600 mph), destroying everything on the western coast of Africa in one hour. It would inundate England’s south coast in three, and reach the east coast of the United States, Canada iand Cuba in six. Brazilians would have to wait a little longer. The waves would reach up to 20 km. (13 mi.) inland in low-lying areas. Many tens of millions would die.
So let’s imagine that there’s another eruption on Cumbre Vieja, and a committee of global experts is convened to watch the western flank for signs of movement. Should they advise evacuation along all the vulnerable coasts? That’s several hundred million people. Who will give those people food and shelter? How long must they stay inland? And the economic damage would be huge.
The experts can’t wait until the last minute to give their advice: you can’t evacuate the entire US east coast in six hours. If they advise evacuation, and nothing bad happens, they will be the most unpopular people on the planet. If they don’t, and the worst does happen, they will be seen as guilty of mass manslaughter, just like the Italian scientists at L’Aquila.
Since it will always be much likelier that no catastrophe is going to happen this time, the experts will almost certainly issue reassuring statements intended to keep people in their homes. Just like the Italian scientists. And yet some day, next week or a thousand years from now, that mass of rock on Cumbre Vieja will really fall into the sea. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 9. (“People…was”, and “The scientists’…risk”)
8 August 2012
The Fate of Africa
By Gwynne Dyer
Good news from Africa: after two decades of bloody anarchy, Somalia is finally on the mend. There is something resembling a government coming into being in Mogadishu, with much help from African Union troops – although the country’s most popular comedian, Abdi Jeylani Marshale, famous for his parodies of Islamic militants, was assassinated in broad daylight a week ago
Bad news from Africa: the situation in Mali is awful. The military coup in March that opened the way for Tuareg tribalists and Islamist extremists to seize the northern half of the country isn’t really over. The ignorant and brutal young officers who made the coup are blocking the arrival of 3,000 African Union troops, Mali’s only hope of ever regaining control in the north, because it would undermine their own power.
News about Africa that you don’t know whether to cheer or deplore: the major foreign aid donors have finally got fed up with Rwanda’s endless military meddling in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The United States has announced a cut in military aid, and Britain, Germany and the Netherlands are delaying payment of civilian aid, until Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, stops backing a rebel Tutsi militia in his country’s Congolese neighbour.
Everybody sympathises with Kagame’s attempt to rebuild peace and prosperity in Rwanda after the genocide that killed about half of the country’s Tutsi citizens. Everybody understands why he worries about Hutu militias in the eastern Congo. But he has to stop backing murderous Tutsi militias there, and using them to loot Congo’s mineral wealth. (On the other hand, don’t destabilise Kagame’s rule too much or the genocide might resume.)
Too many names, too many places, too much news. Even Africans cannot keep up with the news about their own continent. Is Africa going forwards, sideways, or nowhere at all? Indeed, is Africa any more than a geographical term?
The surfeit of news is inevitable in a continent that contains half a hundred countries. The sense of chronic crisis and chaos is due to the fact that in such a news-rich environment, the bad news will always jostle the good news aside. And yes, there really is an Africa about which you can usefully make large generalisations.
First, the entire continent is finally growing economically. Many African economies stagnated or even went backwards in the first three or four decades after decolonisation, but now there is real growth. Local disaster areas remain, of course, but over the past decade the gross domestic product of those fifty countries has grown at an average rate of 5 percent.
Manufacturing production in Africa has doubled in the past ten years. Seven of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are in Africa. The growth is starting from a desperately low base, in many cases, but the magic of compound interest means that a 5 percent growth rate will double the size of the economy every fourteen years.
So there really is hope that most Africans can escape from poverty in the next generation – but on one condition. The birth rate is declining in most countries, but it must fall faster. The 2008 UN projections saw Africa doubling its population to two billion by mid-century, even assuming that the current gradual decline in African birth rates continues. That means an average population growth over this entire period of almost 2 percent a year.
If the economy is growing at 5 percent and the population is growing at 2 percent annually, that only leaves room for a 3 percent growth in average income. That means a doubling time of about 23 years for African average incomes, so let’s assume that they triple by 2050. That’s not enough.
African average incomes now are so low that tripling them would still not create the degree of prosperity and security that people in other continents are coming to expect. Worse, it would not give African governments the resources to cope with the huge damage that climate change will do to the continent.
The impact of global warming is worst in the tropics and subtropics: huge floods and semi-permanent droughts will become almost routine in these areas. Africa will suffer more than anywhere else, because it is the only continent that is almost entirely in the tropics and subtropics. Feeding the population will become a major problem.
There is enough potential cropland in Africa to feed twice the current population in the present climate, but it’s far from clear that this will remain true in a two-degree-warmer world. If African governments invest enough in agriculture now, they can probably keep everybody fed; if not, the long-term future of the continent is probably widespread political violence and gradual economic collapse.
It’s a race. Grow average incomes fast enough and you probably survive the coming storm. Otherwise, you lose all you have gained, and more besides. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“Everybody…resume”; and “The impact…problem”)
20 May 2012
The Triumph of English
By Gwynne Dyer
The second president of the United States, John Adams, predicted in 1780 that “English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the end of this one.” It is destined “in the next and succeeding centuries to be more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age.”
It was a bold prediction, for at that time there were only about 13 million English-speakers in the world, almost all of them living in Britain or on the eastern seaboard of North America. They were barely one percent of the world’s population, and almost nobody except the Welsh and the Irish bothered to learn English as a second language. So how is Adams’s prediction doing now?
Well, it took a little longer than he thought, but last week one of the most respected universities in Italy, the Politecnico di Milano, announced that from 2014 all of its courses would be taught in English.
There was a predictable wave of outrage all across the country, but the university’s rector, Giovanni Azzoni, simply replied: “We strongly believe our classes should be international classes, and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language. Universities are in a more competitive world. If you want to stay with the other global universities, you have no other choice.”
The university is not doing this to attract foreign students. It is doing it mainly for its own students who speak Italian as a first language, but must make their living in a global economy where the players come from everywhere – and they all speak English as a lingua franca.
Many other European universities, especially in Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, have taken the same decision, and the phenomenon is now spreading to Asia. There is a huge shift underway, and it has become extremely rare to meet a scientific researcher or international businessperson who cannot speak fluent English. How else would Peruvians communicate with Chinese?
But wait a minute. Peruvians speak Spanish, the world’s second-biggest language, and Chinese has the largest number of native speakers of any language. Why don’t they just learn each other’s languages?
Because neither language is much use for talking to anybody else. Chinese won’t get you very far in Europe, Africa or the Americas – or, indeed, in most of Asia. The same goes for Spanish almost anywhere outside Latin America. Since few people have the time to learn more than one or two foreign languages, we need a single lingua franca that everybody can use with everybody else.
The choice has fallen on English not because it is more beautiful or more expressive, but just because it is already more widespread than any of the other potential candidates.
Mandarin Chinese has been the biggest language by number of speakers for at least the last thousand years, and is now used by close to a billion people, but it has never spread beyond China in any significant way. Spanish, like English, has grown explosively in the past two centuries: each now has over 400 million speakers. But Spanish remains essentially confined to Central and South America and Spain, while English is everywhere.
There is a major power that uses English in every continent except South America: the US in North America, the United Kingdom in Europe, South Africa in Africa, India in Asia, and of course Australia (where the entire continent speaks it). All of that is due to the British empire, which once ruled one-quarter of the world’s people. For the same reason, there are several dozen other countries where English is an official language.
Of course, the British empire went into a steep decline almost a century ago, but the superpower that took Britain’s place was the United States, another English-speaking country. After another century during which everybody dealing in international business and diplomacy – indeed, any independent traveler who went very far from home – simply had to learn English, the die was cast. English had become the first worldwide lingua franca.
There have been few languages in world history that were spoken by more people as a second language than as a first; English has had that distinction for several decades already. Never before has any language had more people learning it in a given year than it has native speakers; English has probably now broken that record as well.
Most of those learners will never become fully fluent in English, but over the years some hundreds of millions will, including the entire global elite. And the amount of effort that is being invested in learning English is so great that it virtually guarantees that this reality will persist for generations to come.
No other language is threatened by this predominance of English. Italians are not going to stop speaking Italian to one another, even if they have attended the Politecnico di Milano, and no force on Earth could stop the Chinese or the Arabs from speaking their own language among themselves. But they will all speak English to foreigners.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14 (“Mandarin…everywhere”; and “Most of…to come”)
26 April 2012
Sudan Is Not The Norm
By Gwynne Dyer
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has been having some fun with language recently. He has come up with a new name for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the party that has formed the government of South Sudan since it finally got its independence from Sudan last July.
“Movement”, in Arabic, is “haraka”, but Bashir has started using the word “hashara” instead. “Hashara” means “insect”, and Sudan’s official media have obediently taken up the abusive term. Everybody remembers that the Hutu regime in Rwanda described the Tutsi minority as “cockroaches” when it launched the terrible ethnic genocide in 1994, and it’s particularly troubling because Sudan and South Sudan are on the brink of war.
The oil town of Heglig, on the new and disputed border between the two countries, has changed hands twice this month: first South Sudan drove Sudanese troops out, then the Sudanese took it back. South Sudan’s government insists that it withdrew voluntarily, but the facilities that supplied half of Sudan’s oil have been comprehensively wrecked.
The war, if it comes, would be over the control of the oil reserves along the undefined border, but it would also be an ethnic conflict. The majority in Sudan thinks of itself as Arab, and looks down on the “African” ethnic groups of South Sudan. Members of the Sudanese elite, conditioned by centuries of Arab slave-trading in Africa, sometimes even use the word “abd” (slave) in private when referring to southerners.
The rhetoric is getting very ugly. Bashir recently told a rally in Khartoum: “We say that (the SPLM) has turned into a disease, a disease for us and for the South Sudanese citizens. The main goal should be liberation from these insects and to get rid of them once and for all, God willing.” It will, he implied, be a total war: “Either we end up in Juba (South Sudan’s capital) and take everything, or (they) end up in Khartoum and take everything.”
This is nonsense: neither side’s army has the logistical support to advance as far as the other side’s capital. But they could certainly kill a lot of people – about two million died in the 22-year war that ended in South Sudan’s independence – and they seem determined to do it all over again.
So what are we to make of this folly? Many people will simply say “It’s Africa. What did you expect?” Others, more sophisticated, will lament that mankind is still trapped in an endless cycle of wars. Almost nobody will say to themselves: “Pity about the two Sudans, but they are just one of the inevitable exceptions to the rule that war is in steep and probably irreversible decline everywhere.” Yet that is what they should say.
War between countries is not the norm in Africa: there are 52 African countries, and only two pairs have gone to war with each other in the past twenty years.
Internal wars are much more common, and some, like those in Rwanda, Somalia, Congo and Sudan, have taken a huge number of lives. But those wars were killing on average more than half million people a year in the 1980s; now the annual death toll from internal conflicts in Africa is around 100,000. It’s not as bad as people think it is, and it’s getting better.
There has been a profound change in attitudes to war not just in Africa, but all over the world. Most people no longer see war as glorious, or even useful. They don’t see it as inevitable, either, and their governments have put a lot of effort into building international institutions that make it less likely.
No great power has gone to war with any other great power in the past 67 years. That is a huge change for the better, for the great powers are the only countries with the resources to kill on a truly large scale: it would take a century’s worth of Africa’s wars at their worst to match the death toll in six years of the Second World War.
This change of attitude has not reached the Sudans, where several generations have lived in a permanent state of war. It is hard to imagine anything more stupid and truculent than the decision of Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, to halt all oil production (although it provided 98 percent of his government’s budget) because Sudan was siphoning off some of the oil.
No, wait. That was no more foolish and aggressive than Omar al-Bashir’s unilateral seizure of much of South Sudan’s oil (which crossed Sudan in pipelines to the sea), just because the two sides had not reached an agreement on transit fees. Now both countries are short of oil, strapped for cash – and about to waste their remaining resources on another stupid war.
But at least the rest of world is trying hard to stop them. Even South Sudan’s closest friends condemned it for seizing the town of Heglig, and forced it to withdraw. The African Union has sent former South African president Thabo Mbeki and special envoy Haile Menkarios to mediate between the two sides. China, which took most of the oil exports from both countries, has sent its envoy to Africa, Zhong Jianhua, on a similar mission.
Who knows? They might even succeed. Miracles happen all the time these days.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 11. (“The war…southerners”; “This is…again”, and “No great…war”)