26 August 2012
Armstrong and Obama: The Abandonment of the US Manned Space Programme
By Gwynne Dyer
When the first man on the Moon died on Saturday, President Barack Obama tweeted: “Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time.” Armstrong’s final comment on Obama, on the other hand, was that the president’s policy on manned space flight was “devastating”, and condemned the United States to “a long downhill slide to mediocrity.”
That was two years ago, when three Americans who had walked on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, and Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, published an open letter to Obama pointing out that his new space policy effectively ended American participation in the human exploration of deep space.
Armstrong was famously reluctant to give media interviews. It took something as hugely short-sighted as Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation programme in 2010 to make him speak out in public. But when he did, he certainly did not mince his words.
“We will have wasted our current $10-billion-plus investment in Constellation,” he said, “and equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded. For the United States…to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit…destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”
Barack Obama was never a politician with a big international vision. He has experts to do that stuff for him, and of course they are all part of the “Washington consensus,” which is just as parochial as he is. So he cancelled the big Ares rockets that would have taken American astronauts back to the Moon and onwards to Mars and the asteroids. Some other spending programme just yelled louder. Maybe the Navy wanted another aircraft carrier.
If NASA (the National Aviation and Space Administration) wants to put an American into space now, it has to buy passage on a Russian rocket, which is currently over $50 million per seat. By 2015 the Chinese will probably be offering an alternative service (which may bring the price down), and before long India may be in the business as well. But the United States won’t.
There is likely to be a gap of between five and ten years between the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet last year and the first new American vehicles capable of putting a human being into space. Even then it will only be into low Earth orbit: none of the commercial vehicles now being developed will be able to do what the Saturn rockets did 41 years ago when they sent Neil Armstrong and his colleagues to the Moon.
Armstrong was a former military officer who would never directly call the President of the United States a liar or a fool, but his words left little doubt of what he really thought: “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the president’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope.” In other words, don’t hold your breath.
He was equally blunt about Obama’s assurances that the United States was not really giving up on deep space: “While the president’s plan envisages humans travelling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.” Not the return to the Moon by 2020 planned by the Constellation programme, but pie in the sky when you die.
This is not a global defeat for manned exploration of the solar system. The Russians are talking seriously about building a permanent base on the Moon, and all the major Asian contenders are working on heavy-lift rockets that would enable them to go beyond Earth orbit. It’s just an American loss of will, shared equally by Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“I know China is headed to the Moon,” Romney told a town hall audience in Michigan in February. “They’re planning on going to the Moon, and some people say, oh, we’ve got to get to the Moon, we’ve got to get there in a hurry to prove we can get there before China. It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right? And when you get there would you bring back some of the stuff we left?” Arrogant, complacent, and wrong.
Americans went to the Moon a long time ago, but the point is that they can’t get there now, and won’t be able to for a long time to come. Which is why, in an interview fifteen years ago, Neil Armstrong told BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh: “The dream remains. The reality has faded a bit, but it will come back, in time.” It will, but probably not in the United States.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Barack…carrier”; and “He was…die”)
15 August 2012
The Rich, the Poor and the Hungry
By Gwynne Dyer
Two months ago, the United States Department of Agriculture forecast the biggest maize (corn) harvest in history: 376 million tonnes. After two months of record heat and drought in the US Midwest, it has dropped its forecast to 274 million tonnes. So by early July it was predicting that the price per bushel of maize would exceed $8 for the first time in history, and it’s now forecasting $8.90.
The heat wave in Russia, while nowhere near as bad as the one in 2010, is also cutting deeply into Russian wheat production. There will still be enough for domestic consumption, but Andrei Sisov of the Moscow-based farming consultancy SovEcon said last week that he expected Russian wheat exports to drop from 28 million tonnes to only 13 million. For this and other weather-related reasons, wheat prices are on their way up too.
High wheat prices hit human consumers directly, but high maize prices hit even harder in the long run because huge amounts of maize are used to feed animals and provide oil for processed foods. World food prices in general are on the way back up, and it’s beginning to look like a pattern, not a series of accidents.
The last big price spike, in 2007-09, had a huge impact in developing countries, where many people spend around 40 percent of their income on food (compared with only about 10 percent in developed countries). If you’re already spending almost half your income on food and the price soars, you just have to give your children less food – which is why some people see the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” as delayed reactions to the last spike.
Meanwhile, on a different planet entirely, the McKinsey Global Institute, the business and research arm of management consultancy McKinsey & Company, published another report in June. It’s the latest in an endless series of ever-bolder estimates by various “global institutes” of how fast the demand for goods and services is growing around the world.
The themes of McKinsey’s new report, “Urban World: Cities and the Rise of the Consuming Class”, are familiar enough. The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving to Asia; huge numbers of new “consumers” – people with average annual incomes over $3,600 who buy more than just food and basic shelter – will be joining the global market by 2025; there are wonderful opportunities out there for clever investors.
The only new wrinkle in this document is the bit about how 65 percent of “global growth” to 2025 will happen in the “City 600″, as they call it: the world’s 600 biggest cities. And what McKinsey calls “the Emerging 440 cities” – those among the 600 that are in the rapidly developing countries – will account for almost half of the total growth in world demand to 2025.
Then come the numbers. As the emerging economies grow, they’ll all start buying fridges and baby food and, eventually, cars. Whoopee! We’ll all get rich selling things to the Chinese!
But nowhere in the report does McKinsey deal seriously with the impact of a predicted total of 2.6 billion consumers, up from only 0.8 billion now, on world demand for food. Yet meat consumption soars as incomes rise. Feeding animals to produce meat puts huge pressure on grain resources, so all food prices rise, for rich and poor alike.
Combine the rise in meat consumption with an extra billion people and severe constraints of food production, most of them related to climate change, and world food prices in 2025 could be two to three times higher in real terms than they are now. That means that the poorest starve, and that a lot of McKinsey’s promised new “consumers” – those who can spend on other things than sheer survival – don’t make it into the middle class after all.
The same rationing by price is likely to apply to everything else that matters. Indeed, the prices of energy and raw materials, which fell consistently through most of the 20th century, are already back up to where they were in real terms a century ago. There are not going to be 1.8 billion new consumers in thirteen years’ time, and the poor will be more desperate than ever, and political stability in many developing countries will be just a memory.
The demands of consumers, like the sheer number of human beings, can in theory expand indefinitely, but on a finite planet with dwindling resources and a changing climate the cost of meeting consumer demand is going to go up very steeply. It is probably going to get very ugly out there.
And as for China, the poster child for miraculously fast economic growth – well, China has one-seventh as much water and one-tenth as much arable land per capita as North America. When things get tough, that is going to matter a lot.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. “The last…spike”; and “The only…2025″
17 June 2012
Assad’s Russian Defenders: Why?
By Gwynne Dyer
The United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Syria has suspended its peace mission. “The observers will not be conducting patrols and will stay in their locations until further notice,” said the commander of the 300-strong multinational observer force, Norwegian General Robert Mood.
This decision by the observer force is fully justified: its observers were being prevented from visiting massacre sites by the Syrian army, and yet their mere presence created the false impression that the international community was “doing something”. So now the international community will be under even greater pressure to “do something” else about the Syrian tragedy. That means military action against the Assad regime – but the Russians will veto that.
Russian diplomacy is not usually so clumsy. None of the Western great powers will actually send troops to intervene in Syria: the Syrian army is too strong, and the sectarian and ethnic divisions in the country are far too messy.
So why don’t the Russians just promise to abstain in any UN Security Council vote on military intervention? No such vote will happen anyway, and Moscow would expose the hypocrisy of the Western powers that are pretending to demand action and blaming the Russians (and the Chinese) for being the obstacle.
It’s stupid to bring such opprobrium on your own country when you don’t have to, but both President Vladimir Putin’s elective dictatorship in Russia and the Communist Party in China fear that one day they might face foreign intervention themselves. There must therefore be no legal precedent for international action against a regime that is merely murdering its own people on its own sovereign soil.
In reality, there is one kind of justice for the great powers and another for weaker states, and neither Moscow nor Beijing would ever face Western military intervention even if they were crushing non-violent protests by their own people, let alone drowning an armed revolt in blood.
You only have to imagine the headlines that such an intervention would create to understand that the whole proposition is ridiculous. “Security Council votes to intervene in China to protect protesters from regime violence!” “American troops enter Russian cities to back anti-regime revolt!” Such headlines are only slightly less implausible than “Martians invade Vatican City, kidnap Pope!”
But we are dealing here with the nightmare fantasies of regimes that secretly KNOW they are illegitimate. They never acknowledge it in public, and they don’t discuss it directly even in private. But they know it nevertheless, and they understand that illegitimacy means vulnerability.
It doesn’t matter that Russia or China can simply veto any UN resolution that is directed against them. It makes no difference that no sane government in the rest of the world would commit the folly of sending troops to intervene in either of these giants. Paranoid fears cannot be dissolved by the application of mere reason.
Both Vladimir Putin and the Chinese leadership are appalled by the growing influence of the “responsibility to protect” principle at the United Nations, which breaches the previously sacred doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of member states. “R2P” says that foreign intervention can be justifiable (with a UN Security Council resolution, of course) to stop huge human rights abuses committed by member governments.
The Russian and Chinese vetoes on the Security Council give them complete protection from foreign military intervention, but they still worry about it. And they look with horror at the phenomenon of non-violent revolutions that has been removing authoritarian regimes with such efficiency, from the ones that overthrew Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and almost overthrew the Chinese regime in 1989 down to the Arab ones of today.
Moscow and Beijing have convinced themselves that there is a Western “hidden hand” behind these uprisings, even though Western actions (like the US backing for Egypt’s President Mubarak that continued until almost the last minute of the revolution) and Western interests both argue otherwise.
Now, in Syria, they see both of these threats coalescing. First, for eight months, they watch strictly non-violent protests – despite some thousands of killings by the Syrian state – undermine the Assad regime.
Then, when some of the protesters start fighting back and the regime responds with even greater violence, bombarding city centres and committing open massacres of villagers, they hear the Western powers begin to talk about their “responsibility to protect”, with the (deliberately misleading) implication that they are contemplating direct military intervention in Syria to stop it.
So Russia and China will veto any Security Council resolution that condemns the Assad regime, and certainly any resolution that hints at military intervention. Assad must survive, not because he buys a few billion dollars worth of Russian arms and gives Russia a naval base in the Mediterranean, but because his overthrow would be a precedent that, they imagine, might one day be used against them.
Utter nonsense, but it means that the Russians, in particular, will go on taking the blame for the UN’s immobility and lending cover to the West’s pretense that it would act against Assad if only the Russians would get out of the way. They will protect Assad right down to the bitter end – and it may be very bitter indeed.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 12. (“You only…Pope”; “Both…governments”; and “Moscow…otherwise”)
5 June 2012
Why Did They Do It?
By Gwynne Dyer
What if China, flush with its new wealth, opened its doors to mass immigration? It would make sense from an economic and social point of view, because its one-child-per-family policy has produced a young generation far smaller than the one that now does most of the work. China’s population is “ageing” (i.e. its average age is going up) faster than any other country in history, and it could certainly do with some more young people.
If it had an immigration policy like that of the United States, it could fill all the gaping holes in the workforce that will open up when the present adult generation retires, and there would be enough people working and paying taxes to support that older generation in its “golden years”. Otherwise, there will be barely one worker for each retiree, and their post-retirement years will be far from golden.
So let’s suppose China opens the gates. (Stay with me on this.) The immigrants would come, from all over the world. Probably most would be from south and south-east Asia (India, Pakistan, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines), but plenty of Russians would come too. So would Arabs from the slums of Cairo, and Congolese from the slums of Kinshasa, and Mexicans fleeing the bloody war on drugs.
There would be young Europeans coming too, fleeing the 25-to-50 percent youth unemployment rates of Spain, Italy and Greece. Some Americans would also come, like former automobile workers from Rust-Belt states hoping that their skills would find employment in what is now the world’s biggest car-maker. China’s politics wouldn’t deter them; they have already tried being free and poor, and some of them would be willing to trade.
They would all come, and China would be transformed. In fifty or sixty years it would be one of the world’s most diverse societies. Almost all the new immigrants would learn to speak some Chinese, of course, but their children would be fluent in the language. Indeed, they would think of themselves as Chinese, even though their skins were white, brown or black and their religions Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu.
Some tens of millions of them would already have intermarried with ethnic Chinese, if only because there are tens of millions of young Chinese men who will otherwise remain unmarried. (The Chinese have been killing too many of their baby girls.) And everybody would live more or less happily ever after.
I know. It’s never going to happen, because the Chinese would never let it happen. But that’s precisely the point. The Americans have let it happen. Why?
I’m not saying it is a bad thing. Personally, I like it. But it is an extraordinary thing. Sixty years ago the United States was a country whose population was overwhelmingly of white European descent. The only really big minority was the black and mixed-race descendants of African slaves, who accounted for about one-eighth of the population. And then the United States opened the gates very wide.
Last month the US Census Bureau revealed that non-white births in the country narrowly exceeded the number of births to white Americans for the first time. There are some curious kinks in the statistics, such as the fact that Spanish-speaking whites are not counted as white, but the message is clear: the next adult generation in the United States will not be majority white.
So why did the last two generations of Americans, who were still mostly of European descent, let it happen? Did they welcome and encourage it, as a good thing for the country’s future? Or were they just asleep at the wheel?
Some Americans certainly did encourage it, arguing that turning the United States into a microcosm of the whole world was fulfilling its destiny, and that the sheer diversity of its future population would give it a huge competitive advantage in the world. But there were not many people who made that argument, and there is actually little evidence to show that ethnic diversity makes a country more competitive.
Nor did this immense change happen while the old white population was just not paying attention. There were debates about immigration policy all the time, there was plenty of information about where the current immigration policy was leading, and Americans simply let it happen.
One explanation that sounds plausible is that it was about fairness. As descendants of immigrants themselves, they felt that they could not deny others the same opportunities. Many older white Americans were clearly uneasy about the new social reality that was springing up around them, but most of them remained true to their ideals and never mobilised to stop it.
Maybe the last two generations of Americans were a lot less racist than many people – including many Americans – thought. Or perhaps they were all silently aware that only five hundred years ago, none of the births in North America were white.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Some…happen”)