Revenge is Blind

When I saw the pictures of David Cameron together with Francois Hollande after the Paris massacres, I had an ominous feeling that history was about to repeat itself. I recalled some very similar scenes of Tony Blair with George Bush after 9/11. The connection between the two events was all too obvious at an emotional level. A nation had been terribly wronged and its leader was searching to respond in a way that would satisfy its people. It was an opportunity to make a political statement, to become a hero on the world stage and, of course , to enact revenge for the atrocity. And standing by was this associate country,  that wanted to express solidarity, whose leader also wanted to make some political capital out of the situation and which was ready to join in with the act of revenge.

The thing about revenge is that it does not really care about what it does, only that it does something. Such ‘somethings’ are usually violent and tend to aggravate rather than mitigate the flow of violence around human societies. A person, or nation, seeking revenge has like a ‘red mist’ before their eyes so they do not discern clearly the outcome of their actions. They only know that they must act in response to the wrong done to them. So Blair and Bush determined to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. There was absolutely no connection between Iraq and 9/11 and very little connection with Afghanistan.  And no one planned the outcome of these conflicts with any degree of accuracy.

Similarly the UK parliament spent a day debating whether or not to bomb Syria. They took themselves very seriously and there was some proud grandstanding about how evil our enemies were. More sober voices cautioned that bombing would not achieve the desired end, that there were, in fact, no ground forces in support and that the US-led bombing campaign had already proved ineffective. These cautionary voices were not heard. The politicians voted and the bombers bombed and everyone went home feeling ‘something’ had been done. The utter stupidity of this action will become apparent in the months that follow.

Bombing is a cowardly act that causes terror among civilian populations and destroys valuable infrastructure essential to any rebuilding of society. It also builds the strength of our enemies, who are legitimated by getting a response from the most powerful nations and who recruit more and more members from disaffected elements of Western societies.

There are two vital things we need to recognise if we are to learn the things that make for peace. First of all that all human societies are systems of trust, built around a common sense of community/communities. One of the reasons for the high levels of disaffection in the West is the economic individualism that implicitly undermines our community life. People are searching for a meaningful community. They cannot find it here.

Secondly, the most important positive thing that we can do to is to prove by our actions that the narratives IS tell about the West are wrong. They say, for example, that we are morally degenerate. We could counter this by proving our moral courage through our response to those fleeing the conflict. I am sure that IS hate to see how the German people have so positively welcomed refugees among them. Such a reaction simply does not fit with what they are saying about the West. It is IS, who are saying they are the safe haven for principled people, even if their actions so frequently deny this. Their cause would be seriously undermined by clear evidence of the compassion and courage of Western societies.

Here again, I am afraid that the UK has fallen terribly short. Our miserable and meagre response to the refugee crisis shames us as a nation. In his Christmas address the Archbishop of Canterbury dubbed IS the ‘Herod’ of today. Few will disagree with that, but perhaps we should also be self-critical and make a connection between David Cameron and  ‘Scrooge’ for his failure to respond adequately to the refugees?

Will the Paris agreement deliver? Rohloff Rohloff

On the face of it the Paris summit on Climate Change seems to have been a remarkable success, but already the naysayers are pouring cold water on the celebrations. For some, like James Hansen, the process has been close to fraudulent in its failure to embrace clear strategies for implementation of its goals.

But what is the truth about this process? One way of understanding it is as a ‘System of Trust’.  Every complex act of co-operation among higher animals can be conceived as a system of trust. This includes systems of justice, education, taxation, health care etc. They are all marked out by the need to establish public confidence that they will deliver.

The Paris agreement is interesting because it is an attempt at a wholly new system. Never before have 195 countries come together to try to achieve something so important on such a grand scale. These countries have agreed to a set of goals for the world community in terms of temperature rise and to a protocol for regular revision of each countries pledges, together with monitoring of the progress they are making towards meeting those pledges.

The key question for this, as for every system of trust, is whether the participants in the process can trust the others that they will genuinely work together to meet the agreed goals and, if individual countries fail in that regard, that they will be robustly held to account and forced to reform.

The answer to this question, to some extent, lies in the minds of the conference participants. Did they leave this conference recognising that their own policies needed to change radically and urgently towards a low carbon future or were they relieved to think ‘that’s okay we can go on as we are’.

A similar question hangs over the wider community. Will the fossil fuel industry now recognise that their end is coming and that fossil fuels need to be left in the ground? Will fossil fuel shares trade lower on the market and governments cease to subsidise this industry? These will be the signs of an effective system of trust having been delivered.

The problems with this system of trust may lie in the systems of accountability. The right wing newspapers today ( Dec 14th) are already bemoaning the fact that UK will embrace tough new measures while other countries will fail to deliver. They denounce the agreement as toothless.

At heart the Paris agreement may not be so much an agreement about policies to limit carbon emissions, but an agreement to a process of working together to create and evolve each country’s strategy for delivering on the global goals. If this is understood to be its legacy, then it might indeed be ‘historic’, as so many world leaders have claimed.



Migration and political turmoil – A foretaste of things to come?

The countries at the focus of today’s issues, like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt and Libya, are all marginal in terms of their capacity to support human civilisation. The climate over much of this region is phenomenally hot and semi-arid and, as Stephen Haber of Stanford University has shown, there are substantial economic reasons why such climates tend to produce authoritarian governments. The structure of an irrigation-based economy necessarily favours larger scale enterprises and a landowning elite, while in more moderate climes, rainfall allows ordinary people to grow and store food, leading to a property owning middle class and pressure to develop mediating institutions.  It is difficult for human beings merely to survive in the climate of this region. Any shift in either climate or politics can lead to civil unrest and terrible hardship.

For example, the current litany of migration, terrorism and political instability may be partly caused by the Syrian drought of 2007 -2010 with its consequent mass migration into cities and the ensuing political instability known as the Arab Spring. As climate change develops across the earth, we can expect this pattern to repeat itself in such marginal regions. Climate change can no longer be treated as an isolated ‘climate’ problem. It will affect every aspect of our civilisation.

For a longer referenced version of this post go here

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