5 November 2013
The Race to Mars
By Gwynne Dyer
The Curse of Mars also applies to Asian countries. About two-thirds of the attempted missions to Mars have failed, many of them even before leaving Earth orbit, and most of the rest when they tried to land. Japan’s only Mars mission failed in 1998, China’s first try failed when the Russian rocket carrying its Mars orbiter into space fell back to Earth in 2011 – and so India seized the opportunity to be the first Asian country to go to Mars.
Fifteen months after the decision was announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an Independence Day speech from the Red Fort in Delhi, India’s half-tonne Mangalyaan vehicle blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the country’s east coast on Tuesday. It is already in Earth orbit, and within two weeks it will set course for Mars. Unless the Mars Curse gets it, of course.
There is something faintly ridiculous about India and China “racing” to be the first Asian country to reach Mars, but it’s no more ridiculous than the Russian-American space race of the 1960s. Besides, to be fair to the Indian Space Research Organisation, the launch window for making a relatively low-energy transition to a Mars orbit will close before the end of this month, and it won’t open again for more than two years.
Once Mangalyaan gets there, if it does, it will go into orbit around Mars and carry out various scientific experiments, notably a search for methane (an indicator of the presence of life) in the Martian atmosphere. At this point, various arrogant and/or sanctimonious people will point out that the American Mars rover Curiosity has already reported finding no methane on Mars, and that India is too poor to be indulging in such foolishness anyway.
The Indians will reply that NASA, the American space agency, also said that there was no evidence of water on the Moon – until the Indian lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 reported the presence of water molecules in the lunar soil in 2008. They might also mention that if the United States waited until there were no more poor Americans before sending people to the Moon, the first US mission might leave fifty years from now. Or maybe not even then.
The Indian space programme operates on an amazingly small budget (about $1 billion a year), but it has put dozens of satellites in orbit that provide practical benefits for earthbound Indians: remote sensing, flood management, cyclone alerts, fishery and forest management, etc. But that’s all in near space; the question is really whether long-range space exploration is a rational proposition.
Nationalism is part of the motivation behind every country’s space programme, and while it has its comical side it does at least persuade the political authorities to provide the large sums that are needed. China is planning to land a rover on the Moon next month, and is talking about a manned landing there by 2024. That will certainly speed up India’s manned space programme.
Like the old Russo-American space race, the Chinese-Indian one will accelerate the development of new technologies and techniques. It will fill some of the gap left by the loss of momentum in the older space powers, and some useful science will get done. But the biggest reason for welcoming the entry of major new players in space exploration is the one that everybody is too embarrassed to mention: the future of the human race.
Well, almost everybody. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, the private company that aims to dominate the delivery-to-orbit service once provided by NASA, actually wants to create a human colony on Mars in his own lifetime – and he’s 41 now.
He is a serious player, whose large fortune (derived from his creation and subsequent sale of PayPal) is now devoted to manufacturing electric cars and building space transportation systems. Both projects are prospering, and he sees them as providing the financial and technological basis for pursuing his real goal: spreading human beings beyond this single planetary habitat while the launch window for that is still open.
Musk was quite frank about that in an interview with Rory Carroll in The Guardian newspaper last July.”The lessons of history suggest that civilisations move in cycles,” he said. “You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians. We’re in a very upward cycle right now, and hopefully that remains the case. But it might not.
“There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact that it will be open a long time.”
I’ll let you in on a little secret. That is a big part of the motivation (though a rarely admitted part) for half the people who work in any of the national space programmes, including India’s. They value the science, and they may even revel in the glory from time to time, but that’s what it’s really about.
15 Jul 13
A Frog in the Pot
By Gwynne Dyer
If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, so they say, it will hop right out again. Frogs aren’t stupid. Well, okay, but they’re not THAT stupid.
However, if you put a frog in a pot of cool water, and gradually turn the heat up under it, the frog will not notice what’s happening. It will happily sit there until the water boils, and it dies.
Now, I have never carried out this experiment personally – I prefer my frogs’ legs fried – so I can’t vouch for the truth of it. It’s just a story the environmentalists like to tell. Besides, I already knew that human beings have trouble in detecting slow-moving threats. You can watch us failing to do it every day: we persistently ignore the fact that we are running into trouble at a civilisational level, even though the evidence is all around us.
The foundation of every civilisation is an adequate food supply: human beings simply cannot live at the density of population that civilisation implies without a reliable agriculture. But the supply of good agricultural land is limited, and the number of human beings is not.
You can postpone the problem for a while by increasing the yield of the available land: irrigate it, plant higher-yielding crops, fertilise the soil artificially, use pesticides and herbicides to protect the crops as they grow. But even these techniques have limits, and in many cases we have reached or exceeded them. So we are running into trouble. Why isn’t anybody taking action?
Governments everywhere are well aware of the problem: we are now 7 billion people, heading for an estimated 11 billion by the end of this century, and the food situation is already getting tight. So tight, in fact, that the average price of the major food grains has doubled in the past ten years. But everybody finds local reasons to ignore that fact.
The developing countries know that they are under the gun, because the standard predictions of global warming suggest that it is the tropics and the sub-tropics where the warming will hit food production first and hardest.
A (still unpublished) study carried out by the World Bank some years ago concluded that India (all of which is in the tropics or sub-tropics) would lose 25 percent of its food production when the average global temperature is only 2 degrees C higher. China would lose an astounding 38 percent, even though most of it is in the temperate zone. And all that is before their underground water sources are pumped dry.
Most governments in the developing countries know the facts, but the short-term political imperative to raise living standards takes precedence over the longer-term imperative to curb the warming. So headlong industrialisation wins the policy debate every time, and we’ll worry about the food supply later.
The developed world’s governments do nothing, because until recently they secretly believed that the catastrophe would mostly hit countries in the former Third World. That would unleash waves of climate refugees, plus local wars and a proliferation of failed states, but the rich countries reckoned that they would still be able to feed themselves – and their military could hold the other problems at bay.
But what is becoming clear, just in the past few years, is that the developed countries will also have trouble feeding themselves. Part of the problem is that many of them depend heavily on underground aquifers for irrigation, and the water is running out.
It’s running out even faster in China, India and the Middle East: for example, grain production has dropped by a third in Iraq and Syria in the past ten years. But it is hitting the big producers in the developed countries, too, and especially the United States.
For example, the amount of irrigated land in Texas has dropped by 37 percent since 1975. The amount in Kansas has fallen by nearly 30 percent in the past three years. And now it is becoming clear that the impact of warming will also be much greater than anticipated in the developed countries.
In these countries, the problem is extreme weather causing massive floods and prolonged droughts – like the heat wave that hit grain production in the US Midwest last summer, or the coldest spring in 50 years in England, which has cut wheat yields by a third.
Combine the steep fall in irrigation, the crop losses to wild weather, and the diversion of large amounts of cropland to grow “biofuels” instead of food, and it is not at all certain that the developed world will be able to grow enough food for its own citizens in five or ten years time. So are the leaders of these countries launching crash programmes to stop the warming, cut down on water losses and end the lunacy of biofuels?
Of course not. The smarter ones just reckon that since their countries will still be rich, they will buy up whatever food is available elsewhere and feed their own people that way. It will be other people, in other countries, who go hungry.
And the slower ones? They’re just frogs.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“You can…ready”; and “A still…dry”).
15 May 2013
Pakistan’s New Government: An Older and Wiser Nawaz Sharif?
By Gwynne Dyer
The first time Nawaz Sharif became prime minister of Pakistan was almost a quarter-century ago. His second term was ended fourteen years ago by a military coup that drove him into exile. Now he’s back, a good deal older – but is he any wiser?
Pakistanis seem to think so – or at least Punjabis do. Almost all of the seats won by his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Party in last Saturday’s election were in the province of Punjab, which has more people than all of Pakistan’s other provinces combined.
That weakens the legitimacy of his victory, but with the support of some candidates who won as independents he will have no trouble in forming a majority government. The question is: what will that government do?
It’s a good question, because Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country of 160 million people that has borders with India, Afghanistan and Iran. It is also, in the view of some observers, fairly close to being a “failed state”.
Everybody knows that Nawaz Sharif is conservative, pro-business, and devout – during his second term, he tried to pass a constitutional amendment that would have enabled him to enforce Sharia law – but he hasn’t been tremendously forthcoming about his actual plans for his third term. And some of the things he did say have caused concern in various quarters.
The thing that most worries the United States is his declaration that Pakistan should end its involvement in the US-led “war on terror”. The army in unhappy about his proposal that the government should negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban (who conducted a campaign of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings against the “secular” political parties in the recent election) rather than just fighting them.
And everybody is wondering what Nawaz will do about the economy. The country’s balance of payments is in ruins, and it cannot meet its foreign debt obligations without negotiating new loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Those loans would come with onerous conditions about balancing the budget and fixing the tax system, and they wouldn’t come at all without American support.
Pakistan is technically a middle-income country, but during the outgoing government’s five years in office power shortages grew so acute that most regions are facing power outages for up to 12 hours a day. Millions of vehicles fuelled by natural gas have been immobilised by gas shortages. The country desperately needs foreign investment, but the plague of Islamist terrorism frightens investors away.
Finally, the United States will be withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan next year, and Nawaz Sharif will have to decide what he wants to do about the Taliban in that country (who still have the tacit support of Pakistan’s army). The key to all these puzzles, oddly enough, may lie in the incoming prime minister’s determination to improve relations with India.
India has seven times Pakistan’s population and a booming economy, and it long ago lost its obsession with the agonies of Partition in 1947 and the three wars with Pakistan that followed. But the Pakistan army continues to be obsessed with the “threat” from India – in large part because that justifies its taking the lion’s share of the national budget. If Nawaz could fix Pakistan’s relations with India, a lot of his other dilemmas would also be solved.
In each of his previous terms, he tried very hard to make peace with India, but was thwarted both times by the Pakistani army. The current military chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is due to retire at the end of this year (after a three-year extension in office), and this will give Nawaz a chance to replace him with someone less committed to perpetual confrontation with India. Then many things would become possible.
An end to the military confrontation would open the door to large-scale Indian investment in Pakistan (including pipelines bringing oil and gas from Iran and Central Asia). It would let Pakistan cut the military budget down to size. And it would end the army’s tacit support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is all about ensuring that Pakistan has a friendly government in Kabul to give it “strategic depth” in its long cold war with India.
The Taliban will inevitably be part of any post-occupation government in Afghanistan, but without Pakistani support they will have to strike a deal with other forces rather than just taking over. That outcome would greatly mollify Washington and make it easier for Islamabad to get new loans from the World Bank and the IMF. It would also make it easier for the government to negotiate some kind of domestic peace settlement with the Pakistani Taliban.
Then, maybe, Nawaz could finally get the Pakistani economy back on track. It’s a long string of ifs, but nobody else on the Pakistani political scene seems to have a better plan.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“India…solved”)
16 May 2012
Tibetans in Flames
By Gwynne Dyer
The number of Tibetans burning themselves to death in protests against Chinese policy has grown very fast recently: the first self-immolation was in 2009, but 22 of the 30 incidents happened in the past year. And while at first it was only Buddhist monks and nuns who were setting themselves on fire, in the past month both a teenage girl and a mother of four have chosen to die in this gruesome way.
The Chinese response has been repression and abuse. The affected provinces have been flooded with security forces, and Communist Party officials have condemned the protesters as anarchists, terrorists and rebels – or, in the words of one official, “rats” born of “weasels”.
The state-controlled media claim that the deaths are orchestrated by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who has lived in exile in India since 1959. They also insist that the Dalai Lama’s real goal is separatism – the revival of the independent Tibet that existed until the Chinese troops marched back in in 1951 – although the protesters themselves demand only the return of the Dalai Lama and respect for their culture and religion.
The Chinese media work themselves up into a lather of indignation about the alleged intention of these “separatists” not only to fracture the sacred unity of the Chinese homeland, but to expel the large number of Han Chinese settlers who have immigrated to Tibet. As the Xinhua News Agency put it: “How similar it is to the Holocaust committed by Hitler on the Jews!”
Well, not similar at all, really. Even though many Tibetans fear “cultural genocide” if the Han Chinese immigrants become a majority in Tibet (and they are probably right to suspect that this is why Beijing subsidises the immigration), there is still a distinction between Panzer divisions and extermination camps on the one hand, and monks and teenage girls burning themselves to death on the other.
Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama goes on doing what he does best: he keeps Tibet before the world’s attention. As part of that process he visits world leaders and collects various honours like the Nobel Peace Prize – and he never attacks the Chinese regime directly.
Instead, he patiently and politely insists that China must respect Tibet’s cultural and religious autonomy. He never demands Tibetan independence, nor does he let his followers in the large Tibetan exile community talk about independence. And, of course, he laments the self-immolations.
Yet the Dalai Lama also believes that he will one day return to Tibet. He is 76 years old, but he is in good health, “so I am expecting another 10, 20 years,” he told a BBC interviewer this week. “Within that (time), definitely things will change”.
What does he think will change? Surely not the attitude of the Chinese Communist regime, which will never allow him to return to Tibet since it fears that would unleash a great wave of anti-Chinese nationalism. Well, then, he must think the Chinese regime itself will eventually change.
Of course he does. Most people who know any history think that. Despite the death of Communist ideology in China, the regime has managed to stay in power for almost a quarter-century since the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, but it has been helped by continuous, high-speed economic growth. Would it survive a major recession?
Nobody knows, but there is certainly a reasonable chance of regime change in China in the next ten or twenty years. And that would be Tibet’s great opportunity, as the Dalai Lama must know.
The precedent is what happened when Communist Party rule ended in the old Soviet Union twenty-one years ago. The Soviet Union was the old Russian empire under a new name, and only about half of its population was ethnically Russian. When it collapsed, all the republics with non-Russian majorities took their independence.
The People’s Republic of China is more homogeneous: 90 percent of its population is Han Chinese. But in the few areas that still have non-Chinese majorities, like Tibet, separation would be possible when regime change happens in Beijing – on two conditions. It would have to happen fast, and it can only happen if the Chinese people do not see Tibetans as enemies.
It has to happen fast because the window of opportunity doesn’t stay open long: once a new regime is firmly established, no politician who wants a long career will take the blame for negotiating “the division of the motherland.” And if the Chinese worry that an independent Tibet would fall under the influence of their great Asian rival, India, or if they are under attack by Tibetan terrorists, they will be very reluctant to let the Tibetans go.
The Dalai Lama certainly knows all this, too. His job, therefore, is to keep the spirits of the Tibetans up while waiting for the window of opportunity to open – and to keep the impatient younger generation from launching some futile “war of liberation” involving terrorist attacks in the meantime. He has been successful in that for a long time, but the wave of self-immolations is a warning that patience may be running out.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The Chinese…other”)