Contrarian views on what you may be worried about

Are most people natural worriers? Or are they just worried because all the worriers around them tell them to be?

Boy, there are a lot of worried people out there nowadays. Almost everything you could worry about, people have exaggerated it to the stature of Godzilla, poised to bring down civilisation as we know it. Popular books and newspaper articles warn of the end of everything we hold dear.

Fortunately, there are some skeptical optimists out there to shed a little perspective on things, put a stop to all the irresponsible fearmongering and help you get back to living your life. I should note that I do not read just to maintain my optimism, I read to maintain a balanced viewpoint on things. When everyone seems to think something is bad, there is always someone else to tell you the good side of things. This post will give you the pessimists’ side of things, followed by a contrarian’s. Both are worth listening to before you decide to worry. (Please follow the links I provide to get my full side of each story.)

Pessimist: Climate change is the biggest threat to our civilisation and the biggest challenge to our generation. It threatens to destroy everything we hold dear.

Contrarian: That is unlikely. To be clear, I am not denying climate change, nor that it could be harmful. What I am not convinced about is that everything is going to blow up in our faces and our grandchildren will be left with nothing. Climate change is one of those issues on which we have too much certainty, too much worrying that the end is near, and not enough debate about the facts.

Furthermore, every generation worries about environmental collapse. When I was young, it was the ozone layer. Thirty years ago, it was global cooling. And so on for the past hundred years. None of these problems has destroyed us yet. I guess we are just more resilient than the doomsayers realised.

Pessimist: We are running out of natural resources. Oil has peaked, wood is disappearing, and wars are brewing over water. We are in big trouble.

Contrarian: The first problem with these arguments is that they are trying to predict the future without firm grounding in the present. Sure, those things could be true, but we are always finding ourselves wrong about them. We thought gold, silver, copper, iron and so on would all run out completely twenty or thirty years ago, and they have not. Oil might have peaked but we do not know. Existence of debate about something (like peak oil) does not mean it has been proven. And water supplies are getting thinner in some places, where there is indeed water war, and greater in other places, as global warming frees up water supplies embedded in glaciers. Besides, how could we run out of water? It could become harder to find for some people, and harder to clean and desalinate, but surely we are not going to run out.

The second problem is that the future changes every day. Predictions by the wisest experts are notoriously unreliable, partly because every time there is a new, disrupting technology, everything changes. For instance, a big environmental problem at the end of the 19th century was horses. Everyone was getting around in horses, but horses were leaving messes all over the streets. Flies were being born in great numbers and spreading disease. What was to be done? Then, the automobile came along and saved the day. The point is, we do not know what new technology is coming or when. Every time a new technology comes along, yes, of course, it causes new problems, but it also solves old ones. The better technology gets, the better our understanding of science is, the more likely we can find our way out of the mess. I admit we could be in trouble, but people talk as if, if we turn on another light or start up another car, society will collapse. We are stronger than that.

Thirdly, I am not worried about the depletion of any of these things. Humankind has proven itself highly adaptive to change, and the depletion of one or another natural resource will be shaken off so we can go destroy something else.

Pessimist: China’s rise is a military and economic threat to everyone else, especially us westerners.

Contrarian: We are really scared of China, aren’t we? But why? First, China is not as “rising” as some might have you believe. As I wrote earlier, China is not about to overtake the United States in anything except instability of its environment.

Second, the rise of China is, for the most part, a good thing. It means a big new market for companies from the rest of the world, and new businesses, ideas, products and so on for the world outside China. The China of Mao’s era or before would not be helping to stop piracy in the Arabian Sea, or terrorism on its Central Asian borders. It means more wealth and, in my opinion, more security, not less.

Third, the rise of this or that country is always feared, and always has been. When Japan was ascendant in the 1980s, the bookstores were full of books saying how powerful it would become and take over the world. How many books do you see about that now? What are you afraid of? That China will take over the world? That Chinese business will be more competitive than your country’s? The only problem I see is that Chinese consumers and businesses will use more and more natural resources and create more and more pollution. But it would be hypocritical of me to tell them to stop trying to achieve a better life.

BUT, say the pessimists (and I was one of them a couple of years ago), China could be the source of the next world war. No doubt, China’s Taiwan policy could mean a war between China and Taiwan that the United States might step into. But what is the likelihood of that?

Contrarian: First, a war between China and the United States would be immensely costly. The Chinese government and some of its people would be behind a war to regain Taiwan, but they are not so arrogant as to think they could simply defeat the United States in a year or two. Americans, on the other side, are unlikely to want to engage one of the most powerful militaries in the world simply for the sake of Taiwan’s independence.


Second, there are many people from
China in the United States and many from the United States in China. These are people who will do anything to avoid war between the two countries. That means thousands of people saying, “if you want them, you’ve got to go through me.”

What are some other looming wars you may be building a bomb shelter for?

Pessimists: Iran is building a bomb and war is inevitable.

Contrarian: War with Iran is highly unlikely. Aside from a few opportunists, nobody wants it. Iran is not attacking anyone and Barack is not attacking them.

Pessimists: North Korea is shooting rockets and threatening everyone. Won’t they go to war too?

Contrarian: They cannot. Nuclear weapons are so powerful that no one can ever use them. North Korea is a complicated matter but nuclear weapons are among the least of our worries.

Besides, who would want to fight a war when this economic crisis will bring the world to its knees alone? The pessimists, including one of my favourite historians, Niall Ferguson, say that it could lead to depression and war, like the 1929 crash did. (To be fair, Ferguson said “there will be blood”, not “there will be world war”.) I, contrarian, think things are fundamentally different and are not as bad as in the 1930s.

We have lower trade barriers and fewer suffocating regulations than in the days of the Depression. The stock market crash in 1929 was inevitable: stock markets sometimes go up and down slowly, but when they reach such dizzying heights as in 1929, they crash painfully. The crash was pretty big in 1987, too, but then things recovered. The Great Depression was brought on, however, by excessive protectionism and regulation that I do not think we will resort to. Though today there is, of course, a risk of war, none of the major powers are about to become socialist, fascist or communist, and none of them have tariffs even approaching those of the 1930s. You might lose your job, but this economic crisis will not mean the end of the world.

The reason we are told to worry about all these things is that people want to draw attention to their cause, and they know that it is not enough to say “the climate is getting slightly warmer” or “there is a remote possibility of war”. Instead, one person exaggerates, then the next person doubles it, and so on around the circle until everyone is screaming and throwing their hands in the air.

To answer my original question, my guess is that worriers on one end tell everyone else to worry, so they do. Please do not let yourself get caught up in the hysteria.

Eliminating nuclear weapons is a costly distraction

President Barack is expending political capital on trying to eliminate nuclear weapons. I do not think his endeavour is unrealistic, as he understands his vision is a long-term one, but I do think there are far bigger threats to human security than nuclear weapons.

The problem with prioritising the elimination of nuclear weapons and their trade is that they are largely irrelevant. The reason Mutually-Assured Destruction, or MAD, existed was because, if one of the superpowers shot the other with nuclear missiles, the other would have enough time to retaliate. If one country retaliated, the other would follow up with most of its nuclear arsenal and millions would be killed on both sides. No one wanted to risk millions of lives from their own side, so they could not use their nukes. MAD still exists today. None of the nuclear powers is likely ever to use its weapons for fear of the consequences on its own soil. Nuclear weapons have such devastating impacts that they are simply not worth using.

The case of North Korea is particularly pertinent. While it seems like an irrational rogue state with a desire to explode large bombs everywhere, my guess is the North Korean government understands international politics. If North Korea actually killed people with a nuclear weapon, it would be bombarded and flattened. Kim Jong-il can ride the bomb to the moon if he likes, but he has no option to use it down here.

Moreover, because of MAD, and because most of the major powers and some minor powers have nuclear weapons, it is possible that the continued existence of such dangerous tools mean a more peaceful world. Nuclear weapons could be the reason there was never a direct conflict between the US and the USSR, or the US and China, or the USSR and China, or interstate violence in Europe during the Cold War. It has not eliminated war, of course, but it has led nuclear powers to some careful stepping when in conflict with each other.

(Of course nuclear weapons are not a perfect deterrent. It was believed that massive militaries among European powers before World War One would prevent war, and in fact it led to war. But nuclear weapons are far more destructive than any number of soldiers in trenches.)

While Barack may help to reduce nuclear arsenals, and even set the treads rolling to bulldoze them all, he may want to spend more time and money cleaning up the world’s most dangerous places. The real worry is not that governments have nuclear weapons, but that apocalyptic religious extremists could. They seem to be the only ones that would use them, and the ones who would be too difficult to retaliate against. Shoring up governmental controls over nuclear technology where it exists would help keep the bombs out of the hands of non-state extremists.

If Barack wants a more peaceful world, he should change his priorities. If we are going to eliminate any weapons, let us start smaller. Barack would be better off focusing on small arms and landmines than nuclear weapons. Guns wielded outside warzones cause 200,000 deaths a year, and millions are produced every year. Arms embargoes, the hobbling of commercial weapons makers, and addressing conflicts individually are all answers to reducing firearm death statistics. Landmines caused 7000 deaths and casualties between 2003 and 2005, most of which were in just four countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Colombia. The worldwide landmine ban and disarmament movement could be given a shot of adrenaline by a president eager to set a name for himself as a man of global peace.

There are other preventable problems that kill. Malaria kills over 1m people a year, AIDS 2m, TB 2m, diarrhea 2m, and so on. Nuclear weapons have a pretty clean record next to disease. So why not switch priorities? Bolster efforts to provide vaccines, water sanitation technology, mosquito nets, condoms and education and you will greatly reduce the instances of death by preventable disease, especially among children. We have all these options to help people that I believe are immensely more urgent than nuclear disarmament.

Destroying stockpiles of nuclear weapons may feel good, but it will probably not solve the real problems, and it might even create new ones.

Amnesty is good, but rights would be better

The government of Nigeria is trying to end the armed struggle in the Niger Delta with an offer of amnesty to rebels. It may do better to give the people the rights to their land.

The struggle in question is largely over oil revenues. The Niger Delta is rich with oil. Two million barrels a day come from the Delta, almost twice as much as from Alberta, and provide 75% of Nigeria’s export earnings. Some of the revenue is redistributed to the people of the Delta, some of it goes to other parts of the government, and a lot of it goes into officials’ pockets. (1)

Oil extraction in the Delta causes environmental damage. The Niger Delta has one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on Earth. The government generally turns a blind eye to large oil companies’ operations, leading to carelessness about oil spills. 72% of oil spills are caused by old pipelines and oil extraction. 28% are due to sabotage. Oil spills have led to the destruction of mangrove forests, crops and aquaculture. (2) The industry has not left the area easy to live in. And the locals have noticed.

Even before independence from Britain in 1960, unrest in the Niger Delta has centered on the rights of the indigenous people. Nigeria’s First Republic gave the regions a large degree of autonomy, including a favourable oil revenue-sharing agreement, but successive dictatorships have left these original agreements long behind. So not only is there environmental damage, which some people would be willing to bear, but the people do not feel they are fairly compensated. Throw in regional and ethnic tensions, separatism and corruption, and you have the makings of a violent rebellion. This rebellion claimed 1000 lives and $24b of damage in 2008 alone. (3)

The Nigerian government recently offered amnesty to the rebels of the Niger Delta. It said that those willing to lay down their weapons would be granted a pardon for any past violence. The biggest rebel organisation, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, has rejected the peace offering. Apparently, MEND is happier with the other side of the government’s statement, that it would crack down harder on rebels who do not take its offer.

Governments often offer amnesty to insurgents as a form of negotiation. China gave amnesty to those who handed in firearms, largely illegal in China, in 2006. Uganda offered not to prosecute Joseph Kony in order to stop the violence done by his army (although the International Criminal Court is not so forgiving). Amnesty is also behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, set up to understand what happened during Apartheid and forgive those responsible. How better to insure against violence? And in a country with a weak legal system like Nigeria’s, it is a reasonable short term solution. The problem that I see, however, is that the people do not own the land they live on.

As I wrote in an earlier post, individual rights are essential to democracy and equality. One of the most important rights, or perhaps the only important right, is the right to property (assuming that one’s body is one’s property). At the moment, the government is spending more and more to protect oil supplies and the people of the Niger Delta are not much happier than before. If they spent that money on cleaning up Nigeria’s justice and law enforcement systems (not an easy task, of course), they could be laying the foundation for giving the indigenous people the rights to their land and its resources.

If you own your own land or other property, you have the final say on what happens to it. You can choose to sell some of it to an oil company, or to contract it out. You can decide that oil extraction is not right for your property, and enjoy the mangrove forests instead. Contracts are enforced, meaning that, if you say that oil or mining companies must clean up any mess they make, not only must they do so, but they will be far more careful than they are now. While I recommend individual ownership of land, communities can come to decisions as to how they feel the land should be utilised. Property rights are the basis of democracy and economic growth in the rich, democratic countries. But they require the rule of law, not of corrupt elites and oil corporations that are above it.

It is clear that the government of Nigeria wants to keep the situation such that the rebels are at bay while it continues to make money off oil. It is not interested in any lasting peace but in the unsustainable status quo: we get money from the oil, they bomb a pipeline; we get more money from the oil, they kidnap a few foreigners. My guess is, the cycle of violence will only end when the people have the right to the land under their feet.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niger_Delta

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_issues_in_the_Niger_Delta

3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7994152.stm

The international politics of Afghanistan’s new Shiite Personal Status law

A new law signed by Afghan president Hamid Karzai is infuriating some people from his NATO allies. The law is controversial because it appears to restrict the rights of married women.

The first thing people need to do is calm down. When passions are aroused like this, we are bound to make mistakes. The biggest danger, I believe, is taking this law to be something it is not. I have not read the law–how could I? It is too long. (Even Hamid Karzai admits he did not read it.) I am not supporting the Shiite Personal Status law, but I am not willing to call it the “rape law”, as many others are doing, because doing so closes the mind. Perhaps the law is not as bad as it seems; it only affects Afghanistan’s 10% Shiite minority. Or perhaps it really is that bad; but if all we have to go on are translated tidbits from newspapers, we do not have the full story.

Assuming the law does trample on women’s rights, which it appears to, I agree that NATO leaders have a role to play in seeing it repealed. Never mind sovereignty: rights are at stake. I agree with critics of the law in asking, why are NATO forces there if not to uphold human rights?

But there could be something more going on here. Recent polls found just under 50% of Americans in favour of the war in Afghanistan, and 71% of Canadians said Stephen Harper should decline if Barack asks Canada to contribute more troops. (Support for the war in France, Germany and Britain is even lower.) As I said in my last post, public support for the war in Afghanistan in Canada and the US, two of the biggest contributors to the mission, could decline rapidly over the next two years or so. If it does, this law could provide the pretext political leaders need to scale down involvement in Afghanistan.

NATO’s civilian leaders are all politicians from democratic nations that can topple governments in punishment for unwanted wars. If there are more laws like this one, it is possible that the governments will say, that’s it, I am taking a stand, the troops are coming home and you are on your own. It is not necessary that anyone reads the laws, it is only important that the leaders speak to the law their constituents think is written. Leaders are sometimes called cowardly if they pull troops because they are dying, but this would provide an excellent pretext for them to be called decisive. And if they can time their decisions in line with elections, they could get reelected. Afghan laws could, at a stretch, be the making, or the undoing, of the Harper and Barack governments.