New Facts, and some Opinions

A spat of major new global reports on health, climate, and inequality contain warnings that can be met only by  joint action, the kind of community response that has fallen out of favour lately in much of the West. 

Today Oxfam released, in the lead up to the World Economic Forum that starts Wednesday in Davos, a prediction that would be bizarre were it not so shocking: “Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016,” said the press release for a new report.   “Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More, a research paper published today by Oxfam, shows that the richest 1 percent have seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 percent in 2016. 

Also today, the World Health Organization said 16 million people leave this mortal coil earlier than their natural lifespans would predict — due to “lifestyle” factors that end their lives prematurely, from heart and lung diseases, stroke, cancer and diabetes. The global agency called for government action to end the epidemic. Director-General Margaret Chan said  in a release that by “investing just US$ 1-3 dollars per person per year, countries can dramatically reduce illness and death from NCDs. In 2015, every country needs to set national targets and implement cost-effective actions. If they do not, millions of lives will continue to be lost too soon.” Read more by Alessandro Demaio of The Conversation, in F&O’s Science section: WHO report takes aim at Grim Reaper of “lifestyle.” Notes Demaio, “Non-communicable diseases now kill more people than any other cause across the world; they were responsible for 38 million (68%) of the world’s 56 million deaths in 2012. More than 40% of them (16 million) were premature deaths – that is, the people who died were under the age of 70 years.”

And last week U.S. government agencies released the finding that 2014 was the global hottest year since records began in 1880. “The annually-averaged temperature was 0.69°C (1.24°F) above the 20th century average of 13.9°C (57.0°F), easily breaking the previous records of 2005 and 2010 by 0.04°C (0.07°F). This also marks the 38th consecutive year (since 1977) that the yearly global temperature was above average,” said the analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It noted that both global average ocean temperature and global average land temperatures hit record highs.

Predictions are almost always for chumps, I say. But in the case of these three reports, I will predict our response to them depends on whether the communitarians or the Ayn Randians prevail. Meantime, here’s a video of how we’re cooking the earth.


Reproduced with permission. © Lucille Clerc 2014
Reproduced with permission. © Lucille Clerc 2014

Freedom of expression is still the issue of the year so far, with continuation of the raging debates that began when extremists slaughtered 10 journalists and two policemen on January 7 in Paris, outside the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical  publication.

There has since been an ocean of ink spilled  — but one aspect stands out for me, typified by the broken red pencil image created on January 7 by European artist Lucille Clerc. 

Clerc posted her image on Twitter,  someone spotted it, lifted it, stripped it of colour, and posted the black-and-white version without crediting Clerc onto another Twitter account. And instantly Clerc’s pencils were everywhere on social media, “gone viral,” as they say. At the same time another  image became an instant icon: the black, white and grey “JE SUIS CHARLIE” square by Joachim Roncin of Stylist magazine, also instantly posted, without credit, mostly in black and white. The speed with which people bleached every spot of colour out of Clerc’s red pencils and Roncin’s grey word “Charlie” was stunning. 

Satire and freedom of expression, like most everything, rely on a grasp of nuance — on seeing the shades of grey, if you will. And it’s a sign of how very polarized —  how black and white, if you will — our world has become that these images instantly bled out. They were too complex, I can only assume. I guess black and white faux versions better serve the simplistic viewpoints at the extremes of the political spectrum.

Within F&O this week you’ll find two nuanced pieces: 

The Hidden Complexity of Simplicity, by columnist Tom Regan

I want there to be absolute freedom of speech. I believe that freedom of speech means the freedom to offend everyone. But I can’t ignore that millions of good religious people, and not just Muslims, find the works of publications like Charlie Hebdo offensive, though they’re not going to kill anyone. Is there a way to protect freedom of speech and yet work to find a way not to needlessly offend? I don’t know. It’s complex. It will take hard work solution to find a solution. But try we must.

Islam, blasphemy and free speech: a surprisingly modern conflict. By Ali Mamouri

The persecution of blasphemers as it is done currently is a very recent phenomenon; the Rushdie fatwa was the beginning of this trend.  Many writers throughout different parts of Islamic history have criticised Islamic belief, including the prophet Muhammad and the Quran, without facing persecution. A quick look at the books about sects and creeds in Islam shows a great variety of discussions and debates between Muslims and non-Muslims about the essential parts of Islam. Many include sarcastic language.  The notion of religious actions is problematic; nested within and shaped by other human dimensions, and the sociopolitical background can change any religion.

Other new works on F&O include:

Ghost of murdered mistress haunts Prime Minister of Malaysia, by Jonathan Manthorpe, F&O International Affairs columnist

Murdered Mongolian aspiring fashion model, translator and mistress to the mighty, Altantuya Shaariibuu, may yet get the last laugh. The men who murdered Altantuya in October, 2006, two police bodyguards to Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, who was then the defence minister, were acquitted on appeal in 2013 after a farcical judicial process. The trial was a fine example of the skill with which Malaysia’s judiciary has learned to perform in politically sensitive cases involving the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled the country at the head of the Barisan Nasional coalition since independence from Britain in 1957. So when Malaysia’s Federal Court reversed the acquittal, and upheld their original conviction and the death penalty, it is a signal that the political ground has shifted.

Travels with her Harp: Mary O’Hara, a Brief Encounters column by Brian Brennan

 In 1956, at age 21, Mary O’Hara had the world by the tail. The Irish-born singer-harpist had a recording contract with Decca for her albums of Celtic songs, she was touring internationally, and was happily married to a rising American poet named Richard Selig. Then her world fell apart. Her husband died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma just 15 months after they married, and O’Hara lost her desire to continue performing. She fulfilled her remaining contractual engagements, took vows as a nun, entered an English convent, and stayed there for 12 years. She melted down her wedding ring to solemnize her vows. When she emerged from the convent in 1974, O’Hara was amazed to discover that her recordings were still selling. 

Artists call for buffer zone for Canada’s Gros Morn National Park, a brief with a photograph by Greg Locke

Thirty two well known artists sent an open letter to Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper, and  Newfoundland & Labrador Premier Paul Davis, calling on them to establish a permanent buffer zone free of industrial activity around Gros Morn National Park  and UNESCO World Heritage Site on the west coast of the island of Newfoundland.

Human survival in danger zone, study confirms. By James Dyke

The Earth’s climate has always changed. All species eventually become extinct. But a new study has brought into sharp relief the fact that humans have, in the context of geological timescales, produced near instantaneous planetary-scale disruption. We are sowing the seeds of havoc on the Earth, it suggests, and the time is fast approaching when we will reap this harvest.  The research paper, published in the journal Science, concludes that our industrialised civilisation is driving a number of key planetary processes into areas of high risk. 

Noteworthy elsewhere: 

Google said today was the last day to acquire its Glass Explorer Edition. What’s next? “Future versions,” said Google enigmatically. The team that created Google Glass has “outgrown the lab and so we’re officially “graduating” from Google[x] … We’re thrilled to be moving even more from concept to reality.” The “reality” may be only virtual, if sceptics are correct about the future of Glass. Google Glass finally cracks: it was a product looking for a market writes Paul Levy in The Conversation. “Google Glass has not been the success that was hoped for.” 

Followers of American politics can tune into Tuesday’s State of the Union address on the web site of the White House, here. First, you might scan this Associated Press report about promises president Barack Obama made in 2014 — and how they fared: 5 goals from Obama’s 2014 State of the Union: Yay or Nay? Also, we recommend this as a good read:  State of Union Speechwriter for Obama Draws on Various Inspirations, by Michael S. Schmidt,  New York Times.



Help sustain independent, non-partisan and professional journalism by buying a $1 day pass or subscription to Facts and Opinions. An online journal of first-rate reporting and analysis, without borders, F&O is employee-owned, does not carry advertising, and is funded entirely by readers. Click here to purchase a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. Receive free blog emails via the form on FRONTLINES. Please tell others about us.