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The Crisis of the Anthropocene: Part 1

by Dr. Sherman Lewis, Professor Emeritus Political Science, California State University East Bay

Overview

Science, though often behind the actual pace of change, is still our best source of information. For the first time in the history of the earth, a species by its own conscious decisions is ending one geological epoch, the Holocene, and starting another, the Anthropocene.

credit: Planet Under Pressure

For decades, scientists have been discovering and warning about a series of interconnected threats to human welfare. In May 2013, the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, consisting of more than 1,000 scientists, signed a consensus report at Stanford University that “Earth is reaching a tipping point.” “The evidence that humans are damaging their ecological life-support system is overwhelming,” said the report. “By the time today’s children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that the Earth’s life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence, will be irretrievably damaged.” Michele Marvier, chair of environmental studies at Santa Clara University, says that “humans dominate every flux and cycle of the planet’s ecology and geochemistry.”

A recent article in Nature stated “Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly, from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary critical transition as a result of human influence.” Human “ ‘forcings’ far exceed, in both rate and magnitude, the forcing evident at the most recent global scale state shift, the last glacial-interglacial transition.” (Be sure to read the David Roberts and David Perlman articles from which the above quotes have been taken.)

Population

From 1950 to 2012 world population tripled, to 7.1 billion, and continues to climb by more than 1.5 million people a week. The world population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. Joseph Speidel, a professor at UCSF’s Bixby Center on Global Reproductive Health, says, “The annual increment is rising quite dramatically. …We are still adding about 84 million people a year to the planet.” The addition in just 62 years will be greater than the human population growth for thousands of years to 1950. The World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, estimates that by mid-century the world will need 70 percent more food, because as people grow wealthier they eat more meat, requiring more grain to feed livestock.

Falling birth rates do not quickly translate into falling growth rates because of “demographic momentum.” The absolute numbers keep rising for decades due to births to the large number of people in their child-bearing years. It took 12 years to add the last billion by 2011 and will take 14 more years to add the next billion, a slow decline in rate allowing a huge increase in numbers.

In developed countries falling birthrates are outweighed by the impacts of increased “problem consumption” per capita. Problem consumption refers to consumption which places the most stress on the earth. The United States is expected to grow from 313 million people to 400 million. California has 38 million people, including 10 million immigrants, and has grown 10 percent in the last decade. By 2050, projections show 51 million people living in the state, more than twice as many as in 1980.

In many less developed countries high population growth is being reduced somewhat by famine, hunger, disease, civil violence, and war. At least 2 billion people are malnourished, which increases death rates and reduces birth rates. Also, given lack of family planning, about half of unplanned pregnancies end in unsafe abortion. Nevertheless, in sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan and Yemen birth rates are exceptionally high. In 2012 U.N. demographers sharply raised their population projections, adding another billion people by 2100, reaching nearly 11 billion. African fertility rates have peaked at more than five births per woman. From now until 2050, poor countries will add the equivalent of a city of 1 million people every five days, said a report last year by the Royal Society, a top British scientific organization.

The Guttmacher Institute, a family planning research group, said more than 40 percent of the world’s 208 million pregnancies each year are unplanned. Half of U.S. pregnancies, about 3 million a year, are unintended, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a Washington advocacy group.

Population growth is primarily caused by the low status of poor women, especially in less-developed countries. Low status refers to a number of related problems—poverty, low education, lack of legal protections, lack of jobs, lack of health care and family planning, and abuse by dominant males. Rising status always lowers birth rates, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or culture.

The Guttmacher Institute said it would cost $4.1 billion a year in the $3.8 trillion U.S. budget to provide family planning for the 222 million women in the world who lack access to family health services. Republicans in the US Congress oppose funding that would allow poor women to choose how many children they have. In 2013 a House Appropriations panel again slashed money for family planning aid.

Biodiversity

As human population waxes, the population of species in nature wanes. Scientists have identified the Anthropocene as the sixth mass extinction in the earth’s 540 million-year history. A quarter of known mammal species, 43 percent of amphibians, 29 percent of reptiles and 14 percent of birds are threatened. African elephants may be extinct within a decade.

Biodiversity is collapsing because of appropriation of biomass, habitat fragmentation, dewatering of rivers and wetlands, land conversion, pollution, invasive species, over-hunting, and over-fishing. Each year, humans appropriate up to 40 percent of the earth’s biomass, the product of photosynthesis, earth’s basic energy conversion necessary to all life. “Even in poorer nations that don’t have the impact that the average American has on the planet, population as it grows squeezes out other species because people need space to live, and the other species need space to live,” said Jeffrey McKee, an anthropologist at Ohio State University. Other wealthy countries have similar impacts, but less per capita.

California alone has 157 known endangered or threatened species.

Climate

People have altered the composition of the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and causing emissions of other global warming gases like methane. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from about 250 parts per million to about 400, and continues to rise. As the atmosphere holds more heat, temperatures rise, especially at the poles. The seasons move “pole-ward,” with earlier springs and later falls. Increased evaporation leads to more precipitation. On equatorial and temperate land masses, which have little water, droughts are increasing, as in the African Sahel. Increased heat energy in the ocean and atmosphere increases the intensity of extreme weather events. Glaciers, the Greenland Ice Cap, and the poles are melting. The permafrost is melting. More flooding occurs from precipitation, thermal expansion of the ocean, melt water from land-based glaciers, rising oceans, and extreme storms. Many species are affected, moving pole-ward if they can. Some species depend on altitude and run out of up. In the Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica, the golden toad ran out of mountain and was extirpated. Less sea ice is reducing polar bear population, which depend on it to hunt seals. Climate change reduces yields by decreasing rainfall in many large farming areas. Forest fires are increasing in extent and frequency.

Credit: fasteconomy.com

To be covered in Part 2 on Thursday: Cheap Fossils to Auto-dependency and Misconceptions

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The solution to Syria; looking beyond the U.S. and the U.N.

Guest editor: Dr. Sherman Lewis, Professor Emeritus Political Science, California State University East Bay

U.S. policy toward Syria has, from the start, been too simplistic and short term. It has been too highly influenced by domestic politics and U.S. exceptionalism. President Obama’s latest proposal, a limited cruise missile strike on chemical weapons, is like a scalpel without an operating room. The Russian initiative, while better than a U.S. strike and helpful, deals with too little of the problem. Syria certainly has crossed a red line against chemical weapons, evidently more than once, but there should also be action in response to another red line that was crossed, war crimes against civilians.

We need a long term, multilateral strategy to overcome two powerful networks, the secular Baathist Alawite regime under Assad, and the Jihadists. Our previous blog reviewed policy from a U.S. perspective. Here, we present a complex policy in which the U.S. plays an important but limited, less visible role.

Credit: truthdig.com

In wake of the UN’s “indesputable” and “thoroughly objective” report that Syria did use chemical weapons,

most eyes are fixed on the U.S., Russia, and Syria for the next step, but they will not affect the larger, more important problem that has caused many more deaths: the Syrian Civil War. Stopping Assad’s use of chemical weapons is impotent unless it’s part of a larger strategy.

The primary requisite is cooperation among critical anti-Assad stakeholders: the U.S., NATO, the European Union, the Arab League, the gulf states, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Syrian civilian leaders with their various interests, ethnicities and sects, and Turkey. The stakeholders would commit a process taking five to ten years.

First, the Arab League would establish a Task Force with Turkey as its Secretariat. The Task Force, in consultation with Western powers, makes policy decisions. The Secretariat serves as the exclusive spokesperson to the media for the multilateral effort. All other stakeholders and actors take a step back from the media for the sake of multilateral functionality. When asked what the U.S. strategy is, President Obama defers to the Arab League saying that the U.S. will work through the Task Force, and that as conditions change and news develops, the Secretariat will keep everyone updated. The U.S. is a superpower, but must act like it is not. Syrian and Arab national interests need to be the major driving force.

Secondarily, the Secretariat establishes an area in the Hatay area of Turkey north and west of Syria for greater refugee capacity and for political and military operations. The Hatay area is about 20 to 30 miles (30 to 50 kilometers)  wide and seems to have room for a sizable, temporary new town. This area of Turkey has access to the Mediterranean at Iskenderun, and has small airports. The flat areas are farmed, to be avoided, and the barren hills are difficult to use, but still feasible.  The area would be a capital in exile for the FSA and Syrian civilian leaders for political, diplomatic, military, and educational purposes.

Every Syrian who wants to be a part of a post-Assad regime is required to spend most of the year there to begin the networking necessary for a functional post-Assad regime. The fractious leadership has to work out its differences and find a way to work together. The FSA and Syrian civilians lack political and diplomatic cohesion and need a place for extended discussion to coordinate civil and military leaderships. They need to agree on who will hold what positions in a post-Assad regime, on what the major policies will be, and on some process for making decisions. This can be developed only over a long period of time. FSA commanders are required to rotate out of Syria for political education and networking. Upon return, they educate their troops about the discipline necessary to get the arms and training they want. Part of that education includes how to relate to the Jihadists, the danger they pose to Syria and Islam, and why the West is so sensitive about them.

With outside military support, the FSA would be able to gradually liberate and secure more nearby areas of Syria. The strategy assumes that military action is necessary to create the conditions for a cease fire and negotiations. When the FSA agrees to critical conditions, the West and gulf states assist it. The Turkish Secretariat manages military assistance from all stakeholders. A select few and trusted FSA fighters receive training and the arms necessary to take out Syrian airplanes, tanks, and heavy artillery. If there are no Assad airplanes, there is no need for the West to have a no-fly zone. The Syrian army will still be strong, but the FSA will have a better chance, and fewer civilians will be slaughtered.

Gradually, as Sunni areas are secured by the FSA, Syrian civilian leaders go from the temporary capital to relatively safe areas of Syria. If civilian leaders want to avoid being frozen out of politics by the FSA, they should take some role in the fighting and get to know the fighters. The liberated areas need to be well-administered and have some economic recovery to show that a future under the FSA and civil leadership can work.

Credit: internacional.elpais.com by Enric González

The Secretariat helps train the FSA and civilians for control and civil administration of liberated Sunni areas. The FSA avoids Alawite areas and does everything possible to avoid communal war, which is a goal embedded by their political education.

Assad commanders and leaders increasingly become subject to International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments. The combination of staying out of Alawite areas and indicting Assad officials gradually develops a wedge to break the Alawite allegiance to Assad. This helps to avoid more communal violence but requires discipline and will lead to a more federated, less centralized Syria. Easing of communal tensions also reduces the intensity of fighting where the Syrian army feels it is defending not just Assad, but its community. Local cease-fires allow the FSA more resources to suppress the most dangerous jihadist operations.

A similar strategy is established to persuade the Russians that a post-Assad situation of decentralization with less fighting is not a power gain for the West and can protect Russia’s economic interests. Similarly, the Iranians need to feel confident that Shiite interests are protected and that an FSA victory improves Iranian security.

Having the Arab Task Force as the leading policy maker is important to prevent the West and particularly the U.S. from imposing its version of the Syrian national interest.

Once Syrian civilians and the FSA have a coherent working relationship, essentially a one-party system over an expanding area of Syria, they negotiate with Alawite communities so that Assad and his officials are removed from power. Once a ceasefire is stable, reintegration begins and, eventually, Syria can achieve some degree of democracy.

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What the Snowden scenario offers us from an international affairs perspective

Edward Snowden’s pursuit for political asylum is captivating from many international affairs perspectives. One that particularly has my attention is to what extent U.S. exceptionalism will attempt to buck not only other states’ sovereignty, but also international rule of law.

Where’s Snowden? Credity: heavy.com

Indeed, this could turn out to be a fascinating showdown indicating which holds more pertinence: the cumulated efforts among international organizations, the relevance of international law, and assistance from human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International versus the once highly favored, yet still proven counterweight, U.S.

Snowden’s claiming under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that he is entitled to political asylum, and that it is the sovereignty of a host nation (in this case Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and potentially Russia) to grant him. Somebody should probably point out the irony in the United States’ prolific reluctance to sign and ratify international treaties, yet still deny rights granted in treaties that they not only signed and ratified, but its former First Lady also championed and authored.

Such duplicity is nothing new coming from the U.S., but the organization and cooperation in the international community could pose a threat that the U.S., especially given its waning clout, is not used to facing.