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Promised Land

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Belarus: Another Win for Non-Violence?

19 August 2020

On Monday Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko went to the Minsk Tractor Works, the country’s biggest factory with almost 15,000 workers, and did his tough-guy act: “Until you kill me, there will be no other election.” The horny-handed sons of toil simply replied by chanting “Ukhodi!” – Get Out!

It looked like a restaging of the famous scene in Bucharest in 1989 when long-ruling Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was shouted down by an enraged crowd. Like Ceauşescu, Lukashenko faltered, amazed and bewildered – these people were supposed to be his ‘base’ – and then fled the podium.

Ceauşescu was dead within four days of his last speech, executed by his own colleagues. That probably won’t happen to Lukashenko: the Belarusian uprising is non-violent. Lukashenko is not a Communist either, although his regime has been called ‘neo-Soviet’. But will he be gone in four days? Maybe so.

And maybe not, of course. There could be a Russian military intervention to prevent power from falling into the ‘wrong’ hands, although that seems unlikely. Or Lukashenko might manage to persuade his demoralised ‘security’ forces to do enough killing to clear the streets of the daily demos, though that also seems improbable.

Or the change of regime could just take a bit longer: these things don’t run on rails. After filling the streets with protesters for ten consecutive days, however, the democratic opposition is confident enough of its popular support to form a 35-person ‘coordination council’ of artists, writers and business people to oversee the transfer of power.

It could go quite smoothly if Lukashenko accepts that exile is his best remaining option. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, probably the real winner of the election two weeks ago, says she would become president only long enough to organise a new, free and fair election (which her imprisoned husband would probably win).

But win, lose or draw, there are two encouraging conclusions to take away from the Belarusian events. The first is that winning an election is now the only way of achieving political legitimacy almost anywhere in the world. Apart from China, a few other Communist countries, and a few Arab countries, all countries now require popular consent expressed in a public vote.

Many of those votes are rigged, of course: winning elections is easy if you control the media, the police and the courts. But the principle is now almost universal: it’s now as important to win some sort of election, however flawed, as it was 300 years ago to prove you were the true and legitimate heir to the throne.

Lukashenko won five such elections over 26 years before coming a cropper this time: the point is that the requirement to win an election creates repeated opportunities for non-violent protest to flourish, and often even to triumph. For all the abuses and disappointments, it has made the world a better place.

The second cheering thought is that state-sponsored violence is less effective than it used to be: Lukashenko tried it for two nights, and then backed away from it. The problem is that violence is always ugly, and social media technology has made it much more visible. This might deter some people from activism, but it seems to motivate more people to protest.

The same consideration applies to military force deployed across borders to decide political outcomes elsewhere. This is something the old Soviet Union used to do with complete impunity – East Germany 1953, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 – and as late as 1981 the mere threat of it forced the local Communist regime to impose martial law in Poland.

On one occasion, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the current regime in Russia has done the same thing, but that only worked because most of the local population was Russian and WANTED to be annexed.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin certainly doesn’t want to see Lukashenko overthrown by a non-violent democratic uprising in Belarus – the parallels with his own situation in Russia are alarmingly close – but he probably doesn’t dare to send in Russian troops even if Lukashenko asks for them. To do so could be the trigger for a similar popular movement in Russia.

We are still a very long way from the Promised Land, but the balance of forces has changed, perhaps permanently. It is the dictatorships, not the democratic governments, that must worry constantly about being overthrown, and from Putin in Russia to Sisi in Egypt to Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe to Chan-ocha in Thailand they are very worried indeed.

So we should encourage them all to steal enough money that they can go into exile with an easy mind when their time finally comes. (They must know it may come one day; why else would they bother stealing so much?) And this is where the real problem with Lukashenko could arise: he may not have been corrupt enough.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The same…annexed”)

Solar Impulse

As I write this, Solar Impulse is already in the air on the last 48-hour leg of its remarkable journey: the first round-the world flight by an aircraft that uses no fuel except sunlight. By the time you read it, pilot Bertrand Piccard will probably have landed in Abu Dhabi, to global acclaim. And you can’t help wondering: is this the future of flight?

There are about 100,000 commercial flights per day, and the aviation industry burns just under 300 billion litres of fuel each year. Commercial aircraft are responsible for about 2 percent of the human race’s carbon dioxide emissions.

So electric airplanes that burn no fossil fuel would be very helpful, and Bertrand Piccard thinks that this is indeed the future. “I make the bet that in 10 years we will have electric aeroplanes flying with 50 passengers for short- to medium-haul flights,” he said.

“You can fly with no pollution and no noise, and land in urban airports, making no disturbance for the neighbours….And maybe sometime people will say this all started with a crazy idea of flying around the world in a solar aeroplane, and the outcome was useful for everyone.”

But Solar Impulse, with the wing-span of a jumbo jet, can carry just one person. Photoelectric cells on the wings power it during the day, and recharge the batteries that take it through the night (barely)– but its average speed is only 75 km/hr, and it took 17 flights and fifteen months to travel around the world, so we are still a long way from the Promised Land.

You can’t just scale Solar Impulse up and get an electric-powered commercial aircraft that carries 50 people, let alone the 500 passengers that they can jam into a long-haul 747 or A380. The basic problem is coming up with light-weight, high-capacity “traction” batteries – ones designed to provide the main power for large vehicles for a period of hours – and progress on this front has been very slow.

Traction batteries are still nowhere near the weight-to-power ratio that would be needed for an airliner, and there are no signs of an imminent breakthrough. Solar Impulse may equal a Boeing 747 in size, but it weighs only 2 tonnes. (The empty weight of a 747 is 129 tonnes.) So we should not expect electric airliners any time soon, and people are not going to stop flying voluntarily. Is there any hope out there?

Maybe so. Aviation fuel has always been derived from petroleum because no other energy source provides as much power for the same weight. (There are no coal-fired aircraft.) But what the engines need is just a high-octane fuel; they don’t care where it comes from.

There are two other places it might come from. One way is by growing oil-rich algae in giant vats (salt water or waste-water will do), and crushing it to separate the oil, which can then be refined in the usual way to extract an octane fuel. Exxon Mobil and Synthetic Genomics have spent $100 million on this project since 2009, but they still have much work to do in creating the fast-growing, high-oil-content algae that would make it commercially viable.

The other way is by taking carbon-dioxide directly out of the air, and using a catalyst to combine it with hydrogen to create an octane fuel. Several teams have working prototypes of machines that will extract the carbon dioxide from the air at a modest cost in energy, and the hydrogen can be obtained just by splitting water molecules.

In both cases burning the fuel will, of course, produce carbon dioxide, but it will be precisely the same carbon dioxide that was originally taken from the air to combine with hydrogen or grow the algae – so the process as a whole is carbon-neutral. Since this approach would not require replacing or even modifying the entire 25,000-strong fleet of commercial aircraft, it is certainly more promising for the short and medium term.

There is another potential environmental problem linked to fuel-burning aircraft, and that is the “contrails” (condensation trails) they often leave behind them. The contrails are formed by water vapour from the engine exhaust that freezes when the humidity is high and the air temperature is low, usually in the upper troposphere. They can last a long time and spread out until they turn into cirrus clouds covering large parts of the sky.

Such clouds let most sunlight pass through inbound, but reflect heat back to the surface in the night-time. How big an impact contrails have on global warming is still not settled, but it may be as big as the effect of carbon dioxide from aviation fuel. Conventional aircraft can only avoid contrails by flying lower, which means higher fuel consumption and much more turbulence – but electric aircraft would not leave contrails at any altitude.

So congratulations to Bertrand Piccard and Solar Impulse’s other pilot, Andre Borschberg. Maybe we will have electric airliners one of these days, if only somebody can come up with the right battery – but in the meantime we should be working hard on making carbon-neutral fuel.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“There is…altitude”)