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Collateral Damage

One of the main causes of death for airline passengers in recent decades is being shot down by somebody’s military. Not the very biggest, of course: accidents account for nine-tenths of all deaths in civilian airline crashes, and terrorist attacks and hijackings cause most of the rest. But a solid 2.5% of the deaths are due to trigger-happy people in military uniforms.

The statistics are pretty reliable for so-called ‘major incidents’ (more than 50 deaths): 1,379 airline passengers killed in civilian planes shot down because they were off-course or simply mis-identified, out of a total of 57,767 deaths in 594 crashes since the first ‘high fatality’ crash in 1923.

The first was an El Al plane that strayed into Bulgarian airspace in 1955, the second an off-course Libyan airliner shot down by Israel over the Sinai Peninsula in 1973. The last of the military shoot-downs in which actual fighters were involved was an off-track Korean Air Lines jumbo jet shot down by a Soviet fighter in 1983. All 269 passengers and crew were killed.

Since then the killing has been done by surface-to-air missiles, with no visual identification. The first of these was in 1988, when the US Navy ship Vincennes, operating illegally in Iran’s territorial waters, shot down an Iran Air jet bound for Dubai with 290 people aboard in the mistaken belief that it was a fighter plane. They all died.

Ukrainian Air Force missiles shot down a Siberia Airlines flight over the Black Sea in 2001 during a military exercise, killing 78. In 2014 Russian-backed rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine shot down a Malaysian Airlines plane and killed all 298 passengers and crew.

And now 176 people, the great majority of them Canadian citizens or residents, have been killed just off the end of the runway in Tehran by a young Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps technician who thought he was shooting down an American drone. At least his commander acknowledged his personal responsibility – “I wish I was dead” – but the Iranian government lied about it for three days.

Technically, this kind of mistake is inexcusable. You don’t even need high-cost military technology: a free Swedish app called Flight Radar 24 will give you real-time flight data on your phone for all civilian airliners in the air in your vicinity. What we are dealing with here is mostly human error – but human error driven by paranoid politics and huge time pressure.

You can’t do anything about the time pressure: decisions really do sometimes have to be made in seconds if you suspect that you have a ‘hostile’ incoming on the radar. The paranoia might be easier to address in principle, but it’s equally inevitable in practice: all the shoot-downs happen in countries that are in acute military confrontations of one sort or another.

And that’s the point, really: all these shoot-downs are fundamentally a political and military phenomenon, not a technical malfunction or mere human error. We live in a far more peaceful world than our distant ancestors did, but our deepest cultural traditions are still tribal. Once a confrontation gets going, we quickly turn into Yanomamo villagers.

You can’t imagine an ‘accidental’ shoot-down of a civilian aircraft over Canada nowadays, for example. Back in the Cold Days, however, there were surface-to-air missile systems in Canada, designed to shoot down Soviet bombers but perfectly capable of making the same sort of mistake that killed a plane-load of Canadians over Tehran last week. Nobody is invulnerable, and nobody is immune to the paranoia.

On the other hand, don’t despair. The great majority of the world’s people now live in countries where the risk of war is very low or entirely absent, and the cities are not surrounded by anti-aircraft missiles. We have already travelled a very long way from the time when every human society lived in constant fear of all its neighbours.

This is still a work in progress. The past century has seen the most destructive wars in history– which was inevitable, given the growth in technology, wealth and population. But it was also the first time that people ceased to see war as natural, honourable, and potentially profitable, and latterly warfare has gone into a steep decline.

There could still be back-sliding, especially if the climate crisis overwhelms us, but so far the trend line is promising. The world’s population has more than doubled in the past half-century, but the number of people killed in war is less than a tenth of what it was in the previous half-century.

However, the planes are much bigger, and there are now around a million people in the air at any given moment, so there are also more people being killed in shoot-downs. It’s never any consolation to tell people that things are getting better on average when they have been devastated by a personal loss. But for what it’s worth, they are.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“You…paranoia”; and “This…decline”)

The ‘Immigrant Problem’

In a recent survey of potential adult migrants worldwide, 47 million said they would most like to move to Canada. There are only 37 million people in Canada. The same goes for Australia: 36 million would like to move there; only 25 million do live there. Most of these would-be immigrants are going to be disappointed. In fact, Canada lets in just 300,000 immigrants a year; Australia 200,000.

Other developed countries are significantly less popular destinations, but potential migrants amounting to around half the existing populations want to move to the United States, France, Britain, Germany and Spain. They too are going to be disappointed.

In its most generous year, 2016, Germany let in a million immigrants, mostly Syrian refugees, but 80 million Germans are never going to let in the 42 million foreigners who also want to live there. Indeed, former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said bluntly last November that “Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message: ‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support.’”

Clinton was mainly concerned about how anxiety about mass immigration has fueled the rise of populism in Western countries. That’s hardly surprising, given how Donald Trump’s tight focus on the alleged criminal and job-stealing propensities of Latino immigrants won over enough formerly Democratic voters in the Rust Belt states to give him the presidency.

It didn’t just work for Trump. It helped the Brexiteers win their anti-European Union referendum in the United Kingdom, it brought the populists to power in Italy, and it underpins Viktor Orban’s ‘soft dictatorship’ in Hungary (even though Hungary has never let immigrants in, and they don’t want to go there anyway).

But the fact is that the levels of immigration are not particularly high in the United States and most European countries at the moment. Net migration to the United Kingdom has been stable since 2010; in both the United States and in Germany (with the exception of 2016, in the latter case), net migration is down by half since 2000. Something more is needed to explain the level of anger in these countries.

It is, of course, unemployment, which is much higher than the published (official) figures in every case, and is particularly high in the post-industrial areas that voted so heavily for Trump in the United States, for Brexit in Britain, and for ultra-nationalist parties in Germany. In the United States, according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, 17.5% of American men of prime working age (24-55) are not working.

But unemployment will continue to rise, because it is increasingly being driven by automation. The Rust Belt went first, because assembly lines are the easiest thing in the world to automate, but now Amazon and its friends are destroying the retail jobs, and next to go are the driving jobs (self-driving vehicles). Automation is unstoppable, and the anger will continue to grow.

So you can see why Hillary Clinton is concerned, but she seems unaware that the pressure of migration is also going to grow rapidly.

According to the UN’s International Labour Organisation, there are currently 277 million migrants in the world (defined as people who have left their home countries in search of work, or to join their families, or to flee conflicts and persecution). How many more are still in their home countries but would like to leave? At least a billion, maybe two.

More than half of Kenyans would immediately move to another country if they could, a 2017 survey by the US-based Pew Research Centre discovered. More than a third of Nigerians, Ghanaians and Senegalese are actually planning to emigrate in the next five years, according to the same survey. (Good luck with that!)

Even a third of Chinese millionaires would like to emigrate (half if you include moving to Hong Kong as emigration). And all this is before climate change kicks the numbers into the stratosphere.

The chief impact of global warming on human beings is going to be on the food supply, which will fall as the temperature rises. And the food shortages will not affect everybody equally: the supply will hold up in the temperate zone (the rich countries), but it will plummet in the tropical and sub-tropical countries where 70% of the world’s people live. They will be desperate, and they will start to move.

That’s when the pressure of migration will really take off, and the rich countries are simply not going to let the climate refugees in. Not only would it stress their food supply too, but the numbers seeking to get in would be so large – two or three times the resident population – that it would utterly transform the country’s character. So the borders will slam shut.

It’s a myth that you cannot close borders. You can, if you’re willing to kill people. (Think of the Iron Curtain, which successfully divided all of Europe for 40 years.) And the rich countries will, in the end, be willing to kill people.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“But unemployment…grow”; and “According…two”)

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

Magnetic Reversal: No Panic

For a moment there I thought we had a new global threat to deal with, alongside the old favourites like climate change, nuclear war and pandemics. This would have been welcome from a journalistic point of view, since there is a constant need for scary new topics to write about. Otherwise we would fail in our primary task, which is to provide material to hold the ads apart.

I was also experiencing some personal indignation, since the putative new threat, the imminent reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, was undermining one of the few practical skills I have retained from my early career in various navies: the ability to navigate by magnetic compasses.

My naval career did not extend back to the Age of Sail: we had gyro-compasses and long-range radio positioning systems (although not the full satellite-based GPS of today). However, the navy in its wisdom foresaw that in a major war all the externally-based navigational aids would quickly be shut down or blown away.

We would still have our gyro-compass, which would tell us where True North is – but just one internal power failure and we would lose that too. If that happened, we would have to fall back on the primary pre-20th century navigational tool, the magnetic compass, which does not depend on an external power supply.

Unfortunately, the magnetic compass points to the Magnetic North Pole, which is in a different place from the true North Pole. But it was, for all of my life and indeed for many lifetimes before that, in more or less the same place. The Magnetic North Pole wandered a bit over time, but it followed a fairly predictable path around a relatively small tract of territory among Canada’s Arctic islands.

So all the charts showed the difference (‘variation’) between True North and Magnetic North in the part of the world covered by the chart, and even how much that difference would change each year. We were trained to add the annual shift of the Magnetic Pole since the chart was printed to the local ‘variation’ from True North, and by applying that difference we could steer and navigate accurately using the magnetic compass.

It was a skill for which there was a very limited demand, but potentially useful in an emergency. Alas, the Magnetic North Pole left home about 30 years ago, and is now heading for Siberia at a speed of 60 km. a year.

It is moving fast because it is movements within the Earth’s molten outer core that generate the planet’s magnetic field in the first place. The currents within this vast volume of liquid nickel-iron change from time to time, and when they do they can shift the magnetic poles as well.

Navigators can cope with this because it’s now easy to update the information about changes in the local magnetic variation from True North. The charts are actually computer programs these days, and the relevant authorities are just updating them more frequently than they used to. The worry is that this sort of behaviour by the magnetic pole may be signalling an impending ‘flip’ in which the north and south magnetic poles change places.

This has happened before – indeed, the Earth’s magnetic field has reversed its polarity at least 183 times before, according to the geological record – and it makes no long-term difference. It will now be the other end of the needle that points to ‘Magnetic North’, but the magnetic field will still fulfil its primary function of trapping the high-energy particles that would otherwise bathe the planet’s surface in radiation.

The scary bit is the transition, which can take as long as a thousand years or as little as one lifetime, because during that transition the strength of the planet’s magnetic field falls to around 5% of normal. If the ozone hole worried you a bit, this should frighten you to death – and the strength of the magnetic field is already falling.

That was my initial reaction to the news. Every decade seems to bring news of yet another way that the universe can kill us. But not, it turns out, this one.

The consensus among scientists is that the surface of the planet is not bombarded by hard radiation during the intervals when the Earth’s internally generated magnetic field all but disappears for a time. Instead, the solar wind itself induces a magnetic field in the extreme upper limit of the planet’s atmosphere (the ionosphere) that stops incoming high-energy particles from reaching the surface.

We may have the opportunity to check the validity of this prediction in the relatively near future, but for the moment there is no need to panic. And if you’re lost in the woods (or at sea), you can still trust your compass. More or less.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“It is…well”)

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

The Khashoggi Tapes

How odd! Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sends an audio recording of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to the governments of all Turkey’s major NATO allies, and the only one that gets it is Canada.

What happened to the copies that President Erdogan sent to the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Germany? Lost in the mail-room, no doubt, or maybe just lying unopened on somebody’s desk. Or perhaps the Turks just didn’t put enough stamps on the packages.

“We gave them the tapes,” said Erdogan on Saturday. “They’ve also listened to the conversation, they know it.” But still not a word out of Washington or London acknowledging that they have heard the recordings, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denied that France has received a copy.

When asked if that meant Erdogan was lying, Le Drian replied: “It means that he has a political game to play in these circumstances.” Like most Western politicians and diplomats, he is desperate to avoid calling out Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as a murderer.

The French have a highly profitable commercial relationship with the oil-rich kingdom, mostly selling it arms, and they don’t want to acknowledge the evidence on the recording (which may directly implicate the Crown Prince) because it could jeopardise that trade.

Erdogan was furious when the French foreign minister issued his denial, and his communications director insisted that a representative of French intelligence had listened to the recording as long ago as 24 October. But it was all just ‘he said/she said’ stuff until Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blew the game wide open on Monday.

Yes, Trudeau said, Canadian intelligence has the recording, and he is well aware of what is on it. In fact, Canadian intelligence agencies have been working very closely with Turkey on the murder investigation, and Canada is “in discussions with our like-minded allies as to the next steps with regard Saudi Arabia.”

Why did Trudeau come clean? One popular theory is the nothing-left -to-lose hypothesis. Last August the tempestuous Crown Prince killed all future trade deals with Canada, pulled thousands of Saudi Arabian foreign students out of Canadian universities, and generally showered curses on the country after Canadian officials called for the release of detained Saudi campaigners for civil rights and women’s rights.

Canada’s bridges to Saudi Arabia have already been burned, according to this theory, so Trudeau felt free to say the truth. But he’s not really free: Canada still has a $13 billion contract to build armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia that the Saudis might cancel, and this is a real contract, not one of Trump’s fantasy arms sales.

Maybe Trudeau is just braver than the others, but his purpose is clear. He waited more than three weeks after getting the recording for the “like-minded allies” to agree to a joint policy towards the murderous prince – nobody believes Khashoggi could have been killed without Mohammed bin Salman’s consent – and then he spilled the beans.

Of course all the major NATO governments have the recordings. They have had them for at least three weeks. They were just dithering over what to do about them, and Trudeau decided it was time to give them a push. Good for him, but what exactly can they do about Mohammed bin Salman’s crime?

It almost certainly was MbS (as they call him) who ordered the killing. Since his elderly father, King Salman, gave him free rein to run the country less than three years ago, he has become a one-man regime. Nothing happens without his approval, least of all the murder of a high-profile critic in a foreign country by a 15-strong Saudi hit squad including several members of his personal security team.

No Western leader (except perhaps Donald Trump) will be seen in public with MbS any more, foreign investment in Saudi Arabia this year is the lowest in several decades, and the price of oil is falling again. So he has to go, if it’s still possible for anybody in Saudi Arabia to remove him from power. But that’s the big question.

The Saudi royal family is no longer a tight, united body that can just decide MbS has to go and make it stick. It’s a sprawling array of people many of whom scarcely know each other, and without the agreement of King Salman any smaller group within the family that organised a coup against the Crown Prince would almost certainly fail.

So he may go on for while despite the disaster of his military intervention in Yemen, his pointless, fruitless blockade of Qatar and even this ugly murder. He wouldn’t be the only killer in power. But the bloom is definitely off this particular rose.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Why…sales”)