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Gwynne Dyer

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The End of the American Adventure in Space

15 July 2011

The End of the American Adventure in Space

by Gwynne Dyer

The Sun always shines in space, so it was no surprise when Sir Paul McCartney called the crew of Atlantis, the last Space Shuttle, on Friday and sang “Good Day Sunshine” to them. Later in the day President Barack Obama called and told the astronauts that their mission “ushers in an exciting new era to push the frontiers of space exploration and human spaceflight.” Pity it was all happy-face lies.

The last Shuttle mission actually ushers in an era when the only hope of getting into space for the few remaining American astronauts will be to hitch a ride on a Russian or Chinese rocket. Most of them will have to find jobs elsewhere. And however brightly the Sun shines, the day when the United States finally gives up on manned space flight is not a good day.

US rockets will still put satellites into orbit. The older ones were built by the military or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); the newer models will be built by private companies that claim they can boost cargo into space at a much cheaper price. But they won’t be able to put a human being in orbit for a very long time, if ever.

This is not to say that the US should have kept the Shuttles going indefinitely. They weren’t safe: two of the four original Shuttles were lost, with fourteen crew, in a total of only 135 trips. They were not cost-effective either: they each flew on average only once a year during their thirty years of service.

NASA had perfectly sensible plans to replace the Shuttles. In 2004, former president George W Bush approved an ambitious NASA plan to build a new generation of powerful rockets to deliver people and materials into near-Earth orbit more cheaply, but also to put a permanent manned base on the Moon by 2020.

NASA calculated that the “Constellation” programme would cost about $8 billion a year until 2020 (the US defence budget burns through that much every five days). Maybe the cost would have risen considerably over time, but that’s not such a big deal: creating big, new technology always takes longer and costs more.

When President Obama cancelled the “Constellation” project in 2010, he talked about doing things in a “smarter way,” and how private enterprise would develop “space taxis” that would put people into orbit more cheaply. In reality, however, he was ending federal government support for manned space flight – though he did promise to invest a little more than a billion dollars a year in those “clever” private companies.

That is not serious money: the US defence budget gets through that much every twelve hours. Lacking federal financial support, the clever companies will concentrate on doing things that make a profit. Putting people into space does not make a profit. Not in the short run, anyway, and the bean-counters are notoriously uninterested in the very long run.

The space entrepreneurs – Virgin Galactic, Northrop Grumman, Interorbital Services, XCOR, Orbital Sciences Corp. and all their rivals – make well-honed pitches about how NASA was a bloated bureaucracy, and how private enterprise will do the same jobs more cheaply and more safely. Which may be true for launching communications satellites and the like, but is certainly not true for manned space flight and deep space exploration.

When Christopher Columbus had this idea for a new way to reach Asia, he did not talk to some Spanish fishermen about scaling up their voyages (making a profit at each stage) until eventually they would cross the entire ocean. He went to the Spanish court and got state support for his venture. Almost all of the early European voyages of discovery had state backing, because the profits were not going to flow for quite a while.

The analogy is less than perfect, but it is relevant. Building a permanent space station, establishing a human base on the Moon, designing and funding the first voyage to Mars – such things are not going to be undertaken by clever companies operating out of old hangars at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert. They haven’t the resources, and it makes no commercial sense.

Does it make sense at all? That depends on whether you share the vision of the human future that Arthur C. Clarke brought to his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Back in 1968, most people assumed that that was indeed the future. It is much behind schedule, but many people still think it should be the future: that human beings should escape the confines of this single planet and get out into the universe.

That enterprise has not been abandoned. The Russians, who were the first into space, have not given up on manned space flight despite their relative lack of resources. The Chinese are catching up fast, and the Indians plan to put their first person into orbit in 2015. Even the Japanese are not to be counted out. It’s just the Americans who are quitting.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“US rockets…service”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

The Shuttle “Atlantis” returns to Earth for the last time on 20 July (weather permitting).

Risky Territory

16 June 2011

Risky Territory

by Gwynne Dyer

“We are getting into very risky territory,” said Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, last week. But she acknowledged that we may have to go there anyway.

She was talking about geo-engineering, the manipulation of the world’s climate to avoid catastrophic warming. Nobody actually wants to do that, because we don’t understand the climate system well enough to foresee all the possible side-effects. But a large number of people think that in the end we’ll have to do it anyway, because we’re not going to get the warming under control in time without it.

Geo-engineering might involve putting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere (to reflect some incoming sunlight), spraying fine droplets of seawater into low-lying marine clouds to thicken them up (and reflect more sunlight), or painting the world’s roads and roofs white. There are also proposed techniques for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for slowing the acidification of the oceans. In fact, there are dozens of proposals in all.

The topic is now on the table because sixty scientific experts are meeting in Peru on 20 June to begin an exploration of geo-engineering options that will probably end up in the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014. This has caused outrage in some sections of the environmental movement, and 125 organisations wrote an open letter to the IPCC head, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, condemning the whole concept.

“The IPCC…must take great care not to squander its credibility on geo-engineering, a topic that is gathering steam precisely when there is no real progress on mitigation and adaptation,” said the letter. “International peasant organizations, indigenous peoples, and social movements have all expressed outright opposition to such measures as a false solution to the climate crisis.”

Then came a sly suggestion that scientists in this field are a bunch of greedy frauds: “Asking a group of geo-engineering scientists if more research should be done on the topic is like asking a group of hungry bears if they would like honey.” This is clearly a subject that inspires passionate opposition on the left, although the geo-engineers themselves spread right across the political spectrum.

The overwhelming majority of the open letter’s signatories are organisations you have never heard of – Terra-1530 Moldova, the Dogwood Alliance of North Carolina, and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, for example – but they include a few well-known organisations like Friends of the Earth International. Their goal is not just to ban large-scale geo-engineering. It is to ban even small-scale experiments in geo-engineering. Why so angry?

Part of the problem is that there has indeed been “ no real progress on mitigation and adaptation” in recent years, and the enemies of geo-engineering are afraid that efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions will be abandoned in favour of just trying to hold the temperature down artificially. I have never met a geo-engineer who thought that would work, but there is profound suspicion of them among the Greens.

There has been a remarkable reversal of roles in environmental issues over the past century. The old left loved industry, modernity, man “conquering” nature, whereas the old right believed in tradition, conservation and preserving nature. The new left, or large parts of it, hugs trees and romanticises peasants, while the new right, at least in the United States, denies climate change outright.

They are both wrong, and it is not an ideological issue at all. The problem the scientists see, and many other people too, is that an industrialising world of seven billion people poses a grave threat to the very environment it depends on, notably in terms of changing the climate.

Ending greenhouse-gas emissions, reducing population, and adopting sustainable patterns of consumption are the necessary long-term responses to the threat of runaway warming, but they are not happening fast enough to avoid catastrophic changes and mass death. At the moment, in fact, they are not happening at all. So we had better come up with some stopgap measures that give us more time to make the long-term changes.

That is what geo-engineering is about: holding the global average temperature down below the tipping point at 2 degrees C (3.5 degrees F) higher after which we get runaway heating, while we work frantically to get our emissions down and restore the self-regulating, comfortable climate that we have already destabilised. We have not yet begun to work on that agenda seriously, let alone frantically.

On our current course, according a study released by the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research eighteen months ago, the average global temperature will be 4 degrees C (7 degrees F) higher by 2060. If that happens, billions will probably die. If it stays below 2 degrees C hotter, on the other hand, most of them will probably live.

So do the research on geo-engineering now: what works, what doesn’t; what are the side-effects? Do it on a small scale, in local areas, as safely as possible. Because when we are passing through plus two degrees C and the famines are spreading, there will be overwhelming demands to DO SOMETHING NOW to halt the warming.

At that point, we had better already know the answers to those questions, because the technologies will then be deployed, ready or not.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Then…angry”)

An updated version of Gwynne Dyer’s book “Climate Wars” is distributed worldwide by Oneworld.

Libya: Running Out of Options

28 May 2011

Libya: Running Out of Options

by Gwynne Dyer

They swore blind that there would never be foreign “boots on the ground” in Libya, but as NATO’s campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime enters its third month it is getting a lot closer to the ground. It started with Tomahawk missiles fired from over the horizon; then it was fighter-bombers firing guided weapons from a safe height; now it’s helicopter gunships skimming the ground at zero altitude. They’re getting desperate.

In London on 25 May, Prime Minister David Cameron said that “the president and I agree we should be turning up the heat on Libya.” Standing beside him, President Barack Obama declared that, “given the progress that has been made over the last several weeks,” there will be no “let-up in the pressure that we are applying.”

And you have to ask, what progress? The front lines between Gaddafi’s forces and the rebels are still approximately where they were two months ago, except around the city of Misrata, where the insurgents have pushed the besieging troops back some kilometres (miles).

Tripoli, the capital, is still firmly under Gaddafi’s control. There has been no overt defiance of the regime there for many weeks, and the city is not even suffering significant shortages except for fuel. Are Obama and Cameron deluding themselves, or are they just trying to fool everybody else?

Maybe both – and meanwhile they are cranking up the aerial campaign against Gaddafi in the hope that enough bombs may make their claims come true. They must have been told a dozen times by their military advisers that bombing alone almost never wins a war, but they have waded into the quagmire too far to turn back now, and they have no other military options that the United Nations resolution would allow them to use.

They are already acting beyond the limits set by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which on 17 March authorised the use of limited force to protect Libyan civilians. It has become a campaign to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi, and they hardly even bother to deny it any more.

“I believe that we have built enough momentum that, as long as we sustain the course we are on, (Gaddafi) will step down,” said Obama in London. “Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we are able to wear down the regime forces.” Well maybe so, and maybe not, but in either case that’s not what Resolution 1973 said. No wonder Russia condemned the latest air raids as a “gross violation” of the resolution.

Russia did not want to stand by and let Gaddafi massacre innocent civilians, which seemed imminent when the defences of the rebels in eastern Libya were collapsing in mid-March, so it let the resolution pass. So did China, India and Brazil, which would normally oppose any military intervention by western powers in a Third World country. But it was all decided in a weekend, and they did not think it through.

Neither did France, Britain, the United States, Canada and a few other NATO countries, which immediately committed their air forces to the task of saving the rebels. They destroyed Gaddafi’s tanks and saved the city of Benghazi, but then what? There was no plan, no “exit strategy”, and so they have ended up with a very unpleasant choice.

Either they stop the war and leave Gaddafi in control of the larger part of a partitioned Libya, or they escalate further in the hope that at some point Gaddafy’s supporters abandon him. The US Air Force had a name for this strategy during the Vietnam War: they were trying to find the North Vietnamese regime’s “threshold of pain.” They never did find it in Vietnam, but NATO is still looking for it in Libya.

We’ll never know if Gaddafi would really have slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians if Benghazi had fallen. He was making blood-curdling threats about what he would do when the city fell, and he has certainly killed lots of people in the past, but with the eyes of the whole world on him he might not have done it this time.

Nevertheless, that threat was what created the extraordinary (though temporary) consensus at the Security Council. It was, for the West as well as for the other major powers that backed the original resolution, a largely humanitarian action with little by the way of ulterior motives. (And don’t say “oil”; that’s just lazy thinking.)

Gaddafi has been playing by the rules for the last five years, renouncing terrorism and dismantling his fantasy “nuclear weapons programme.” He has been exporting all the oil he could pump. He wasn’t threatening Western interests, and yet NATO embarked on a military campaign that it KNEW was likely to end in tears in order to stop him.

Let us give NATO governments credit for letting their hearts overrule their heads. Let’s also acknowledge that they have been meticulous and largely successful in avoiding civilian casualties in their bombing campaign. But it isn’t working.

So what do they do now? They can escalate for a few more weeks, and hope that the strategy that has failed for the last two months will finally succeed. That might happen, but it’s not likely to. In which case the only remaining option will be to accept a cease-fire, and the partition of Libya between the Gaddafi regime and the “Transitional National Council” in Benghazi.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“We’ll…him”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Libya and Altruism

25 March 2011

Libya and Altruism

by Gwynne Dyer

They have committed themselves to a war, but they have no plans for what happens after tomorrow night. They swear that they will never put ground troops into Libya, so their strategy consists solely of hoping that air strikes on Colonel Gadaffy’s air defence systems (and on his ground forces when they can be targeted without killing civilians) will persuade his troops to abandon him. They don’t even have an agreed command structure.

So why is this “coalition of the willing” (which has yet to find a proper name for itself) doing this? Don’t say “it’s all about oil.” That’s just lazy thinking: all the Western oil majors are already back in Libya. They have been back ever since the great reconciliation between their governments and Gaddafy in 2003.

That deal was indeed driven partly by oil, although also in part by Western concerns about Libya’s alleged nuclear ambitions. (Gaddafy played his cards well there, because he never really had a viable nuclear weapons programme.) But do you seriously think that Western governments have now launched this major military operation merely to improve the contractual terms for a few of their oil companies?

Maybe it’s just about local political advantage, then. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was the driving force behind this intervention, and he faces a re-election battle next year. Is he seeking credit with French voters for this “humanitarian” intervention? Implausible, since it’s the right-wing vote he must capture to win, and saving the lives of Arab foreigners does not rank high in the priorities of the French right.

Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain was the other prime mover in the Libyan intervention. Unless the coalition government he leads collapses (which is quite unlikely), he won’t even have to face the electorate again until 2014. So what would be the point in seeking political popularity with a military intervention now? Even if that were a sure route to popularity in Britain, which it is not.

As for Barack Obama, he spent weeks trying to avoid an American military commitment in Libya, and his secretary of defence, Robert Gates, was outspoken in denouncing the idea. Yet there they all are, intervening: France, Britain, the United States, and half a dozen other Western countries. Strikingly unaccompanied by Arab military forces, or indeed by anybody else’s.

There is no profit in this for the West, and there is a high probability (of which the interveners are well aware) that it will all end in tears. There is the danger of “mission creep,” there is the risk that the bombing will kill Libyan civilians, and there is the fact that many of the countries that voted for Security Council Resolution 1973, or at least abstained from voting against it, are already peeling away from the commitment it implied.

They willed the end: to stop Gaddafy from committing more massacres. They even supported or did not oppose the means: the use of “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, which in diplomatic-speak means force. But they cannot stomach the reality of Western aircraft bombing another third-world country, however decent the motives and however deserving the targets.

So why have the Western countries embarked on this quixotic venture? Indians feel no need to intervene, nor do Chinese or Japanese. Russians and South Africans and Brazilians can watch the killing in Libya on their televisions and deplore Gaddafy’s behaviour without wanting to do something about it.

Even Egyptians, who are fellow Arabs, Libya’s next-door neighbours, and the beneficiaries of a similar but successful democratic revolution just last month, haven’t lifted a finger to help the Libyan revolutionaries. They don’t lack the means – only a small fraction of their army could put an end to Gaddafy’s regime in days – but they lack the will. Indeed, they lack any sense of responsibility for what happens to people beyond their own borders.

That’s normal. What is abnormal is a domestic politics in which the failure to intervene in Rwanda to stop the genocide is still remembered and debated fifteen years later. African countries don’t hold that debate; only Western countries do. Western countries also feel guilty about their slow and timorous response to the slaughter in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Nobody else does.

Cynicism is a necessary tool when dealing with international affairs, but sometimes you have to admit that countries are acting from genuinely selfless and humanitarian motives. Yes, I know, Vietnam, and Iraq, and a hundred years of US meddling in Latin America, and five hundred years of European imperial plunder all around the world. I did say “sometimes”. But I think this is one of those times.

Why is it only Western countries that believe they have a duty to intervene militarily, even in places where they have no interests at stake, merely to save lives? My guess is that it’s a heritage of the great wars they fought in the 20th century, and particularly of the war against Hitler, in which they told themselves (with some justification) that they were fighting pure evil – and eventually discovered that they were also fighting a terrible genocide.

This does not mean that all or most of their military adventures overseas are altruistic, nor does it mean that their current venture will end well. In fact, it probably won’t. No good deed goes unpunished.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“That deal…companies”; and “They willed…targets”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.