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Eighty Years On: Is 2016 the New 1936?

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx, 1852

We would all prefer a farce to a tragedy, so let us hope that Marx was right. But he has been wrong a few times in the past, so we must entertain the possibility that what awaits us is tragedy.

The “first time”, in this instance, was the 1930s, when the painfully slow recovery from a global financial crash led to political polarisation, beggar-my neighbour trade wars, and the rise to power of anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist leaders in a number of countries. The consequences included the Second World War, death camps, the first and only use of nuclear weapons, and forty years of Cold War.

Well, we had our global financial crash in 2008, and the recovery has certainly been slow. Average incomes in many Western countries have still not recovered to pre-2008 levels, and the growth of nationalist and racist sentiment is evident in major countries like Britain (the Brexit vote), France (the rise of the National Front), and above all the United States (Trump).

The wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that transformed so many developing countries at the end of the Cold War ended with the failure of the “Arab Spring”, leaving a new dictatorship in Egypt and civil wars across the Middle East. In parts of Asia the process has even gone into reverse (military rule in Thailand, death squads run by populist elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia).

Authoritarian, ultra-nationalist governments hostile to the European Union have come to power in post-Communist Eastern Europe (Fidesz in Hungary, the Law and Justice government in Poland). And a trade war is brewing between the United States and China no matter who wins the US election in November.

You could add to the list of worries a new ruler in China (Xi Jinping) who is more autocratic and readier to play the nationalist card than any other Chinese leader since Mao, and a Japanese prime minister (Shinzo Abe) who promises to remove the anti-war clause from the constitution. Not to mention that addict to high-stakes international brinkmanship, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Quite a list, but does it really mean that we are back in 1936 (fascists in power in Germany, Italy and Japan, civil war in Spain, the Great Purge in the Soviet Union), with the catastrophe of global war just three years away? Or is it just a grab-bag of local problems, failures and worries of the sort that are bound to exist in a world of almost 200 independent countries? Probably the latter.

Right- and left-wing parties are a legitimate and inevitable part of any democratic society, but they both tend to spin off or mutate into more extreme and paranoid versions of themselves in times of economic hardship. It is difficult to argue, however, that the times are really that bad at the moment.

Times are very hard in most developed countries for the old working class, who have been left behind by globalisation, and that is where most of the support for right-wing extremism comes from. But there really aren’t enough of them to take over the state: Trump will not win in November, the National Front will not win next year’s French election, and the Brexiteers in Britain – well, that remains to be seen.

The Middle East is a disaster area, of course, but it is a pretty isolated disaster area, apart from occasional small-scale terrorist outrages in Western countries. To live in fear of a world-wide Islamic caliphate is as delusional as to hope for it.

Democracy is not in retreat in Africa or Latin America, and the pluses and the minuses more or less balance out in Asia (military rule in Thailand and more authoritarian elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia, but more democracy in Burma and Sri Lanka). Nor should we see the triumph of a couple of ultra-nationalist parties in traditionally nationalist Eastern European countries as a sign of things to come in the rest of Europe.

This is not to say that the European Union will survive in the long term without major changes. We are going through a historic shift of the centre of gravity of the global economy from the North Atlantic world to Asia, and many things will have to change as a result.

It is possible that the United States and China might stumble into a military confrontation at some point: that risk is implicit in the kind of power shift that is underway in the early 21st century. But we are not on the brink of any great and awful calamity in the world. It is not 1936.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Right…moment”; and “This is…result”)

The United States of Tatooine

“Tatooine” is, you will surely agree, a pretty stupid name for a planet, but there are so many Star Wars fans that some unfortunate world is bound to end up being called exactly that. Let’s just hope that its inhabitants, if there are any, never find out. On the whole, though, giving more user-friendly names to newly found planets orbiting other stars is a good idea.

There is, for example, a potentially habitable “exoplanet” only sixteen light years from here that is currently known only as Gliese 832c. As any real estate agent could tell you, it would attract a lot more attention if you renamed it “Nirvana”.

There are gazillions of stars, and only around three hundred have proper names (Antares, Procyon, Sirius) in any language. Some of the other bright ones are named after the constellation they are in, with a Greek letter or a number to indicate which one they are (Alpha Centauri, 61 Cygni). But most are just a number in a star catalogue. Jerome Lalande’s, published in 1801, had 47,390 stars, Henry Draper’s, published in 1918, listed 225,300.

Gliese 832 was named in a list of 3,803 “nearby” stars (up to 72 light years away) first published by Wilhelm Gliese in 1957, and updated several times since. The “c” was added when Gliese 832 was discovered to have planets two months ago. All very sensible and orderly, but not very romantic. So the International Astronomical Union called in the consultants, and the result was (pause for trumpet flourish) a competition!!

The NameExoWorlds contest, announced last year, will give the global public an opportunity to give more exciting or at least more memorable names to about 300 planets circling other stars. Starting next month, a site will open on which astronomy clubs and other non-profit organisations can register with the IAU, and in October they will be asked to pick 25 or 30 of these planets for the first round of naming.

Starting in December, these clubs and organisations can propose names for the planets and their host stars (only one planet per group), and in March the general public can rank the proposals in an online vote. They’re expecting more than a million votes.

The winning names will be announced at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu a year from now – and Tatooine will certainly be one of the winners, provided that George Lucas gives his permission. (There might be a copyright issue.) But Vulcan will not be one of the names (sorry, Trekkies) because he was a Roman god, and names of religious figures aren’t allowed.

The IAU’s naming rules are the most interesting part of the exercise. Names may not be longer than sixteen characters, they should only be one word, and they must be pronounceable in some known language (though not necessarily yours). They shouldn’t be rude, they must not be of a commercial nature, and the names of pets are not acceptable.

Most importantly, they cannot be the names of living individuals, nor the names of individuals, places or events principally known for political, military or religious activities. Which would have caused a lot of problems if the rule had already been in force during the last big round of naming places.

Imagine that the IAU’s rule had been in force in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when European sailors and settlers were sprinkling names on all the “new lands” in the Americas and Australasia. No New England, no Melbourne, and certainly no El Salvador. No Sao Paulo, no Los Angeles, and no Sydney.

The southernmost Australians dealt with the problem in 1856 by changing their island’s name from Van Diemen’s Land (he was a former governor of the Dutch East Indies) to Tasmania (Abel Tasman was simply an explorer, and safely dead by then). But New Zealand would not pass muster on the word count, and New South Wales is simply ridiculous.

Waterloo in Canada will have to go, as will Washington (both the city and the state) in the United States, and they’ll have to do something about Bolivia too. But the biggest problem will be what to do about the Americas: two entire continents called after an individual who was still alive when they were named.

Amerigo Vespucci, originally from Florence, moved to Spain in 1492 and subsequently became involved in organising various voyages of exploration to the “New World” for the kings of both Spain and Portugal. In 1507 he was credited by the German geographer Martin Waldseemuller with discovering that these lands were not part of Asia, as Columbus had originally believed, but a huge separate land-mass between Europe and Asia.

On his world map of that same year, therefore, Waldseemuller named that land-mass “America”, after the Latin version (Americus) of Vespucci’s first name. But Amerigo Vespucci was still alive – he didn’t die until 1512. The name caught on, as it happened, but Waldseemuller broke the IAU rules.

It’s never too late to fix a mistake, but what shall we call the place instead? I know. How about the continents of North Tatooine and South Tatooine? And, of course, the United States of Tatooine.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11 . (“There…225,300″; and “The southernmost…ridiculous”)

The Decline of the West?

18 February 2013

The Decline of the West?

By Gwynne Dyer

You know the story-line by now. There are one million US-dollar millionaires in China. (“To get rich is glorious,” said former leader Deng Xiao-ping.) Seventy percent of the homes in China are bought for cash. China’s total trade – the sum of imports and exports – is now bigger than that of the United States. “They’re going to eat our lunch,” whimper the faint-hearted in the West.

It’s not just the Chinese who are coming. The Indians and the Brazilians are coming too, with economic growth rates far higher than in the old industrialised countries, but it doesn’t even stop there. There’s also Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia and half a dozen other big countries in what used to be called the Third World that have discovered the secret of high-speed growth. The power shift is happening even faster than the pundits predicted.

As recently as 2009, the “Brics” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) accounted for less than one-tenth of total global consumption. The European Union consumed twice as much, and so did the United States. But by 2020, the Brics will be producing and consuming just as much as either of the older economic zones, and by 2025 considerably more than either of them.

In fact, if you include not just the four Brics but all the other fast-growing economies of the ex-Third World, in just a dozen years’ time they will account for around 40 percent of world consumption. As a rule, with wealth comes power, so they will increasingly be calling the tune that the West must dance to. Or at least that is the Doomsday scenario that haunts the strategists and economists of the West. It’s nonsense, for at least three reasons.

First of all, a shift in the world’s centre of economic gravity does not necessarily spell doom for those whose relative influence has dwindled. The last time the centre shifted, when the United States overtook the nations of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it did not dent Europe’s prosperity at all.

It’s true that by the latter half of the 20th century there were American troops all over Western Europe, but that would not have happened if Europe had not come close to destroying itself in the two world wars (which can be seen as a European civil war in two parts). In any case, the US troops have mostly gone home now, and Europeans live at least as well as Americans.

Secondly, the new centre of gravity this time, while mostly located in Asia, is not a single country with a coherent foreign policy like the United States. The four Brics will never become a strategic or economic bloc. They are more likely to split into rival blocs, although one hopes not. And the Mexicos and Turkeys and Indonesias of this new world will have their own fish to fry.

So it will be a more complicated world with many major players, and the centre of economic gravity will be in Asia, but there’s nothing particularly strange about this. More than half of the human race lives in Asia, so where else should the centre of gravity be? Asia is very far from monolithic, and there is no logical reason to suppose that its economic rise spells economic decline for the West.

Thirdly, descriptions of the future that are simply extrapolations of the present, like the ones at the start of this article, are almost always wrong. If the widely believed forecasts of the 1980s had been right, Japan would now bestride the world like an economic Colossus. The one certain thing about the future is surprises – but some surprises are a little less surprising than others.

Take climate change, for example. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world, home to almost all of the emerging economic powers, will be much harder hit by global warming than the temperate parts of the globe, farther away from the equator, where the older industrialised countries all live.

There is already much anger about this in the new economic powers. Eighty percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin in the atmosphere were put there by the old-rich countries, who got rich by burning fossil fuels for the past two centuries, and yet they get off lightly while the (relatively) innocent suffer. But even if the newly rich wanted revenge, they are too disunited – and will be too busy coping with the warming – to do much about it.

The centre of gravity of the world economy is undoubtedly leaving the old “Atlantic” world of Europe and North America and moving towards Asia, but how far and how fast this process goes remains to be seen. And there is no reason to believe that it will leave the countries of the West poor or helpless.

True, economists in the West often ask the question: “what will we sell the emerging countries in the future that they cannot produce for themselves?” In the runaway global warming scenario, the answer would be “food”, but the real answer is sure to be more complex than that. Never mind. They’ll think of something, because they’ll have to.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“It’s true…Americans”; and “There is…about it”)



2012 Year-Ender

22 December 2012

2012 Year-Ender

By Gwynne Dyer

To begin on a happy note, the world didn’t end this year. December 21st came and went without a sign of the Four Horsemen, leaving the Mayans (or rather their ancestors) with egg all over their faces. It just goes to show the perils of prediction – but why would we let that deter us? Nobody is keeping score.

So, instead of the usual trek through the events of the past year, why don’t we use this year-ender to examine the entrails of recent events for portents of the future? Like, for example, the vicissitudes of the Arab revolutions in the past twelve months.

On one hand, there were the first truly free elections in modern Egyptian history. On the other hand, judges inherited from the old regime dismissed the lower house of parliament on a flimsy pretext, and then the Islamist president retaliated by ramming through a new constitution that entrenched conservative “Islamic” values against the will of more than a third of the population. Is this glass half full or half empty?

On one hand, Libyans managed to hold a free election even though the country is still overrun by various militias, and Yemen finally bid farewell to its dictator of thirty-odd years. On the other hand, Syria has fallen into a full-scale civil war, with government planes bombing city centres and 40,000 dead. Did the “Arab spring” succeed, or did it fail?

Well, both, of course. How could it have been otherwise, in a world of fallible human beings? But the mould has been broken, and already half of the world’s Arabs live in countries that are basically democratic.

The political game is being played pretty roughly in some Arab countries, but that’s quite normal in new democracies – and in some older ones, too. In the years to come the transformation will deepen, amidst much further turbulence, and most Arab countries will emerge from it as normal, highly imperfect democracies. Just like most of the world’s other countries.

The European Union staggered through a year during which the common currency of the majority of its members, the euro, tottered permanently on the brink of collapse. The financial markets have been talking all year about “Grexit”, the expected, almost inevitable withdrawal of Greece from the eurozone, and speculating on which country would leave next.

They thought it would be Spain for most of the year, but Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to run for office again – “The Return of the Undead”, one European paper called it – switched the spotlight to Italy in November. The possibility that the common currency might simply fall apart, and take the political unity of the European Union with it, could no longer be dismissed.

Meanwhile, secessionist movements flourished in major EU states. In Spain, both Catalonia and the Basque region elected provincial governments committed to holding referendums on independence. The United Kingdom and the recently devolved Scottish government agreed on the terms of a referendum to be held on Scottish independence in 2014. And in Belgium, Flemish threats to secede seemed more plausible than usual.

It’s a mess, in other words, and Europe certainly faces years of very low economic growth. But the EU was always mainly a political project, intended to end centuries of devastating wars in Europe, and the euro was invented to reinforce that political union.

That project still has the firm support of the political elites in almost all EU countries, and they will pay whatever price is necessary to save it. Even in the regions considering secession from their current countries, there is no appetite for leaving the EU. Indeed, the strongest argument of the anti-secessionists is to say that those regions would have to re-apply for EU membership if they got their independence, rather than just inheriting it automatically.

So the European Union will survive, and will even recover its financial stability eventually. It will also remain a major economic player in the world, athough the centre of gravity of the global economy will continue to shift towards Asia. There is even reason to think that Asia’s triumph will arrive somewhat later, and in a rather more muted fashion, than the enthusiasts have been predicting in recent years.

In the last months of 2012 China went through the ten-yearly ritual in which power is handed on to a new generation of leaders, and both Japan and South Korea elected new right-wing governments. North Korea, the nuclear-armed rogue state that lies between them, put its first satellite into orbit, thus demonstrating its ability to build long-range ballistic missiles. And China was almost continuously embroiled in border disputes with its neighbours (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia) in the South China Sea.

The cloud on the horizon is still “no bigger than a man’s hand,” but it is definitely there. We can hope that the world works differently nowadays, and in some ways it really does, but the fears, the nationalist passions, and even the strategic relationships in Asia are coming to resemble those in Europe a century ago, on the eve of the First World War.

Even if an equivalent war never actually happens in Asia, a growing share of the region’s resources may be wasted on military spending. And if there ever were a real war, the destruction would be so great, given current weapons technologies, that the region could lose several decades’ worth of growth. But it will be some years yet before we know if the region is really drifting in that direction.

The world’s drift towards global catastrophe due to climate change is becoming impossible to deny. This northern summer saw prolonged droughts and heat waves ravage crops from the US Midwest to the plains of Russia, and soaring food prices as the markets responded to shortages in food supply.

This September saw Arctic sea ice cover fall to its lowest ever level: only half of the total area covered by ice in September ten years ago. And October saw Hurricane Sandy devastate much of the US east coast, causing a hundred deaths and over $30 billion in damage. It was the second-costliest tropical storm in American history (after Katrina, in New Orleans, seven years ago).

Yet the global response is as feeble as ever. The annual round of global negotiations on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, held this December in Qatar, merely agreed that they would try to get some sort of deal by 2015. Even if they do, however, it won’t go into effect until 2020.

So for the next eight years the only legal constraint on warming will be the modest cuts in emissions agreed at Kyoto fifteen years ago. Moreover, those limits only apply to the old industrial powers. There are no limits whatever on the rise of emissions by the fast-growing economies of the emerging industrial powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even lemmings usually act more wisely than this.

November brought a week of massive Israeli air and missile strikes against the Gaza Strip, allegedly in retaliation for Palestinian missile attacks against Israel, but the tit-for-tat has been going on for so long that it’s pointless to discuss who started it. And nothing Israel does can stop the growing support for a Palestinian state: in late November the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-voting observer state status by a vote of 138-9.

More worrisome was the threat of Israeli air strikes on Iran, supposedly to stop it from getting nuclear weapons. That would be a very big war if it started: the United States would almost inevitably get dragged in, the flow of oil from the Gulf states would stop, and the world economy would do a nosedive.

But there is no proof that Iran is currently working on nuclear weapons (the US and Israeli intelligence services both say no), and mere air strikes would not cripple Iran’s nuclear industry for long. So the whole issue is probably an Israeli bluff.

A bluff to what end? To get the rest of the world to impose severe economic sanctions against Iran, in the hope that they will cause enough pain to get Iranians to overthrow the present regime. The damage is certainly being done – the value of the Iranian rial collapsed this year – but the power of the ayatollahs is unshaken. They will not be overthrown, and there will not be a war. I think.

And then there’s the United States, where Barack Obama, having accomplished little except health care reform in his first presidential term, was re-elected anyway. The Republican candidate concentrated his campaign on Obama’s slow progress in overcoming the deepest recession in seventy years (which had been caused by the previous Republican administration), but just in time the numbers started to turn upward for Obama.

The economic recovery will probably strengthen in the coming year (unless the United States falls off the “fiscal cliff” in the next week or so), and strong growth will give Obama enough political capital to undertake on at least one big reform project. The highest priority is obviously global warming, but there is a danger that he will fritter his resources away on hot-button issues like gun control.

So much for the big themes of the year. There was also the usual scatter of promising changes like Burma’s gradual return to democracy, the start of peace talks that may bring an end to the 60-year-old war between government and guerillas in Colombia, and the return to the rule of law in growing areas of anarchic Somalia.

Similarly, there was a steady drizzle of bad news: the revolt by Islamist extremists that tore the African state of Mali in half in April, the pogrom against Burmese Muslims in July, and the police massacre of striking miners in South Africa in August.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is probably dying of cancer, and the rules for choosing his successor are in dispute. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin faced unprecedented public protests after the elections last March, but his power still seems secure. The Mars rover landed successfully in August, and is now busily trundling across the Martian landscape. The existence of the Higgs boson was confirmed (or at least tentatively confirmed).

Business as usual, in other words. 2012 wasn’t a particularly bad year; if you think it was, you’ve been reading too many newspapers and watching too much CNN. Their stock-in-trade is crisis and tragedy, so you can always count on them to give you the worst news possible. It wasn’t all that great a year either, but never mind. There’ll be another one along shortly.


This article is 1750 words. To shorten it, you can omit any of the main themes except the first one (on events in the Arab world) — that is, paragraphs 7-12 (“The European…years”); paragraphs 13-15 (“In the last…direction”); paragraphs 16-19 (“The world’s…than this”); or paragraphs 21-23 (“More worrisome…I think”).

Various single paragraphs can also be dropped: nos. 4, 6, 8, and 28.