Monthly Archives: October 2013

Fright night?

At Halloween this year, Jim McNiven’s thoughts turned to his grandson – and a tour he took with the nine-year-old boy at a museum in the American Southwest.

The Titan Missile Museum – built during the Cold War to launch nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles at enemies of the United States – puts to shame the scary ghosts and goblins that prowl North America’s streets each October 31st.

Log in to read McNiven’s account of their adventure, available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions. 

 

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George Packer’s The Unwinding

F&O Packer Unwinding book titleAmerican George Packer of The New Yorker was scorching in his take of the state of his union, talking in Vancouver at a writer’s festival.

Writes Rod Mickleburgh: “He drew gasps from the nearly sold-out crowd at the university’s Frederic Wood Theatre, when he pointed out that Sam Walton’s six heirs will eventually have as much wealth as the bottom 42 per cent of Americans. Meanwhile, incomes for the country’s top one per cent have soared by 256 per cent over the past 30 years, while those of the middle class have nudged higher by a mere 21 per cent.

“These aren’t just numbers,” said Packer. “This is a very bad sign. It’s bad for democracy … It’s starting to feel like the end of an empire.”

Read Mickleburgh’s story in Ex Libris, available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

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A prince, a prostitute, a ranch and a murder

The title of author and historian Brian Brennan’s latest Commentary piece is delectable – if you like your history with a frisson of salaciousness.

He calls it The Prince and the Prostitute — or, “How a British Royal Hid Out in Canada While his Former Mistress Went on Trial for Murder in London.” An excerpt: 

When the heir to the British throne paid his first official visit to Canada in 1919, it was expected he would follow the usual royal routine of shaking hands, making speeches and inspecting troops. What wasn’t anticipated was that Edward, Prince of Wales, would buy a ranch while he was abroad. And what certainly wasn’t predicted was that the ranch would become a convenient hiding place for the prince four years later, when one of his former mistresses went on trial for murder in London.  

The prince’s link to the murder trial has only come to light recently. For 90 years it was believed that when Edward returned to Canada in September 1923 to do some riding, fishing and shooting on his newly acquired 1,400-acre ranch near Calgary, it was just because he needed a break from his royal duties. What wasn’t disclosed, until a retired British judge named Andrew Rose published a book about it earlier this year, was that the prince’s staff wanted him out of the country when his former mistress, a French prostitute named Marguerite Fahmy (née Alibert), was being tried on a charge of murdering her wealthy Egyptian husband at their suite in London’s Savoy Hotel. Author Rose learned about the royal cover-up in 1991 when the woman’s grandson wrote him a letter about it. 

Log in first to read Brennan’s Loose Leaf column, available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

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Five countries between us and global starvation

“Five countries stand in the way of global starvation.” That’s one stark, ugly sentence. It’s from Chris Wood’s latest Natural Security column, and it’s thought-provoking, at least. An excerpt:

wood ag 1

Photo Deborah Jones © 2012

United Nations demographers forecast that by mid-century — in 37 years — there will be more than nine billion humans on the planet, about two billion more than the roughly seven billion of us now. 

This, as we say in Canada, is dreaming in technicolor. It very nearly cannot, and almost certainly will not, actually happen. Instead, the realistic forecast is for widespread famine, plummeting birth and infant-survival rates, and stalling, then falling, human populations. 

To the extent that this grim outlook can be avoided, and our numbers come even close to the U.N.’s dewey-eyed prediction, it will be through the efforts of men and women like those I spent a day with recently. They are people for whom names like Monsanto and Walmart are not dirty words. 

Log in first to read Wood’s column, Goldilocks and Nine Billion Bears, available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

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Goldilocks and Nine Billion Bears

CHRIS WOOD: NATURAL SECURITY
Published October 29, 2013 

F&O wood ag column

Cattle drive, Chilcotin Plateau, British Columbia, Canada. Photo Deborah Jones © 2012

United Nations demographers forecast1 that by mid-century — in 37 years — there will be more than nine billion humans on the planet, about two billion more than the roughly seven billion of us now. 

This, as we say in Canada, is dreaming in technicolor. It very nearly cannot, and almost certainly will not, actually happen. Instead, the realistic forecast is for widespread famine, plummeting birth and infant-survival rates, and stalling, then falling, human populations. 

To the extent that this grim outlook can be avoided, and our numbers come even close to the U.N.’s dewey-eyed prediction, it will be through the efforts of men and women like those I spent a day with recently. They are people for whom names like Monsanto and Walmart are not dirty words. 

They are the professionals of big agriculture in Canada, one of a handful of nations that collectively supply more than half of the most important commodities traded in the world’s billion-dollar-a-minute ($1.3 trillion a year) exchange of calories for money. Much of the world’s food already passes through the hands of these sorts of folks. Their ability to achieve prodigious increases in the productivity of dirt is all that stands between the next two generations of humanity and hunger on vast scale.

The event was a day-long seminar presented by an Ontario investment fund, Bonnefield Financial, on the future of Canada’s farmers—better understood as a $48 billion-a-year domestic industry embracing everything from sod growers to vendors of specialized machinery for picking potatoes out of rocky soil and spitting back the stones. Present were agricultural economists and investors’ agents, farmer-entrepreneurs supplying sophisticated, high-value products to demanding global customers, and financial innovators busy figuring out new ways to inject capital into an increasingly capital-intensive industry. (I spoke to the group at the end of the day, with UBC professor Hans Schreier, about water—a subject on which we’ve collaborated.) 

Old Macdonald was not in the audience. But Old Macdonald, with his nursery-school red barn and white fenced yard of smiling pigs and curly-haired sheep are not about to keep even our present numbers fed—let alone another two billion of us.

That figure represents an imagined increase of roughly 30 per cent in human numbers, but implies an increase in human food consumption of at least twice that scale. The reason, mainly, is meat.

As more of humanity becomes wealthier in places like Latin America and Asia and even Africa, the one universal shift in consumer tastes is a rising demand for meat. Putting 1,000 calories of steak on the plate, however, can take up to fifteen times more land and water than the same food value in peas or potatoes.

Put the growing numbers of humans on the planet together with expanding appetites for meatier meals — and then hope to bring even minimally adequate nutrition to the roughly one billion people who are already here and hungry — and you arrive at an actual need for up to twice as much food by 2050 as the world produced in 2012. 

Humanity has doubled and redoubled its food production before. But it’s getting harder. Our species is running up against the limits of available arable land. The returns to selective breeding and its 21st century equivalent, genetic modification, are declining. Not even Monsanto, I heard from the experts at the seminar, is forecasting big new gains in farm yields from miracle genetics.

Five countries stand in the way of global starvation

We’re also on the verge of losing some our most important existing food sources — implying that we’ll need to make those up from production gains elsewhere. Droughts, floods and heat waves more often threaten the yearly harvest across entire breadbaskets: the U.S. south and mid-west; Russia and the Ukraine; India’s Punjab. Our only significant non-farm source of food calories — the world’s oceans — are being driven to exhaustion by over-exploitation and pollution.

Food is fundamental to natural security. The amount that any country can produce of it, in relation to its needs, can be expressed in a general way like this: (land+water)/people = enough/not enough food.

Places with lots of people and not much land or water, like Singapore, say, produce a tiny portion of the food they need. But countries can also have a fair bit of both land and water, but still have so many people they struggle to harvest enough food to feed them all: China, India. Still others have land but not the water (Egypt); or water but no land that isn’t already spoken for (France).

For a country to produce surplus calories for export, it needs to have the ‘Goldilocks’ combination of arable land, fresh water, and few enough people to leave a surplus from domestic harvests for sale to others (a low “population to arable land ratio”).

In all the world, only about half a dozen countries have those Goldilocks qualities: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Russia and the United States. And even in several of those, a variety of climate and other environmental limits loom. (In Canada’s case: warmer days are nice, but much of what’s getting warmer is unfarmable rock or muskeg, while the country’s biggest export crops — grains and meats — are grown in places where declining water supplies are already maxed out.)

Locavore and farm-to-market movements bring desirable qualities to indulgent local consumers. But they cannot feed the hundreds of millions of people living in dry and crowded places like the eastern Mediterranean basin now — and they certainly will not be able to in the future. Many of those places (most of the Arab Middle East) count on industrial-scale harvests in the Goldilocks nations today. Their dependence will only grow.

But even Goldilocks countries will need to grow more in every field if humanity’s story is going to avoid a tragic ending. And optimists at the seminar felt we can get at least part way there with what might be called the ‘just right’ theory: finely tuning every aspect of a farm’s operation to maximize the yield from every one of its plants. 

One speaker at the event described how software, running on the laptops and on-board GPS that are now standard on most tractors, varies the application of everything from individual seeds to fertilizer to suit conditions in the precise few square inches of field where each is applied. The optimal attention maximizes harvest, lowers costs, and reduces wastes like greenhouse gasses and excess nutrients in local streams. His Canadian company works with the likes of Walmart (which has set its food suppliers a steep course of escalating sustainability objectives) and farm operators in Russia and South America, to get the most out of their fields.

It’s an open biological question whether ever-more intensive, larger-scale farming of every available hectare of Earth-dirt can keep our food supply ahead of the busy procreation and additional mouths that it also enables. It’s an open moral debate whether even the prospect of mass human mortality justifies the attempt to feed ever more of us.

But armed with ingenuity and the 21st century’s signature farm technologies of computer power and satellite imaging, some folks are ready to give it a go.

Copyright © 2013 Chris Wood 

Contact: cwood@factsandopinions.com

References and further reading:
1. U.N. Raises “Low” Population Projection for 2050 
2. Bonnefield Financial 
3. Better by the Drop: Revealing the value of water in Canadian agriculture, by Hanspeter (Hans) Schreier and Chris Wood

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Bitcoin brew

F&O bitcoin

Bitcoin entrepreneur Mitchell Demeter buys a medium-roast coffee from barista Chris Fujiki. Demeter’s company installed the “world’s first” bitcoin ATM at the Waves coffee shop in downtown Vancouver. Photo Deborah Jones © 2013

The world’s first ATM capable of swapping bitcoins for any official currency started operating this week in a coffee shop in Western Canada.

Bitconiacs, a storefront currency exchange owned by three 20-something entrepreneurs, claims to be first in the world to set up an automatic teller machine dedicated to the digital currency.

The machine stands flush against a wall at the Waves coffee shop in downtown Vancouver at Howe and Smithe streets. At first glance it looks much like any other automated teller. But instead of using bank or credit cards to distribute cash it lets customers deposit Canadian dollars into their online bitcoin account, or withdraw cash using their bitcoins, via an online exchange.

The coffee shop  is one of some 15 city businesses in the city to accept the digital money.

Bitcoins – sometimes called the currency of the so-called “Dark Web” – are based on an algorithm invented in 2008 by an anonymous computer scientist known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. In recent years bitcoins have become popular in high-inflation countries such as Argentina, in Germany (which recently declared them officially a “private currency,”) and in cities popular with high-tech entrepreneurs. The currency, yet to be regulated by any government, has run into its share of controversies. It’s volatile, has been utilized by drug gangs, and poses challenges for tax authorities. It’s also increasingly embedded in  the investment community, and has drawn interest from a range of activists from libertarians to social entrepreneurs.

Watch for an upcoming Facts and Opinions feature on the new digital currency, and its implications for governments, policy makers and citizens.

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Defending the “black market in human decency”

This essay in the New York Times, Slaves of the Internet, Unite, is a fine defence of the value of writing, art and, yes, journalism.

Tim Kreider, an American writer and cartoonist, quotes Vladamir Nabokov: “Let us not kid ourselves. Let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever.” Responds Kreider: ”  
 
“But practical value isn’t the only kind of value. Ours is a mixed economy, with the gift economy of the arts existing (if not exactly flourishing) within the inhospitable conditions of a market economy, like the fragile black market in human decency that keeps civilization going despite the pitiless dictates of self-interest.”
 
Kreider is calling for creators to stop giving work away for free on the Internet, in a world where no one hands out necessities like free groceries or shelter, or most luxuries.
 
All I would add is that nothing is ever “free.” Often, though, it requires critical thinking to figure out who is paying for it, and to realize there’s a cost to neglecting what really matters.
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Manthorpe on Mozambique’s ageing rebels

Brutal politics and governance in Mozambique are worthy of a Greek tragedy or Game of Thrones-type saga, all on their own. With supporting roles played by a rotating cast of Portugal, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, South Africa and America’s puritanical Christian Taliban, the country previously descended into the macabre. International affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe examines the possibility that recent rebel actions will spark another all-out war.

Excerpt:

Threats of a return to one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars came to a head this week when government troops in Mozambique overran the mountain forest base of opposition Renamo rebels.

Afonso Dhlakama, 60-year-old leader of Renamo, the Mozambican National Resistance Movement, escaped with several hundred of his followers into the surrounding forest of the Gorongosa mountains, which have been the group’s headquarters and sanctuary since their founding in 1975.

The following day Renamo fighters attacked a police station in the nearby town of Maringue. Dhlakarma also announced that Renamo will no longer honour the 1992 peace deal, which ended the civil war and brought the rebel group into a multi-party political system.

This climax has been brewing for a year amid Dhlakama’s growing frustration with the political system, which he says favours the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) of President Armando Guebuza.

There have been numerous attacks and acts of sabotage by Renamo fighters on infrastructure and government outposts in the last 12 months. The escalation of petty violence has sent a frisson of apprehension coursing through the boardrooms of the companies involved in Mozambique’s economic boom, fuelled by the natural gas, coal, tourism and agriculture industries.

Those anxieties are natural. Mozambique’s 17-year civil war was one of the most bitter and deadly in recent African history. At least a million people died, and millions more were left destitute or fled into exile in neighbouring countries.

Log in to read the column, available to subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.  

 
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With their dying breath, Mozambique’s rebels lash out

JONATHAN MANTHORPE
Published: October 25, 2013

Threats of a return to one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars came to a head this week when government troops in Mozambique overran the mountain forest base of opposition Renamo rebels.

Afonso Dhlakama, 60-year-old leader of Renamo, the Mozambican National Resistance Movement, escaped with several hundred of his followers into the surrounding forest of the Gorongosa mountains, which have been the group’s headquarters and sanctuary since their founding in 1975.

The following day Renamo fighters attacked a police station in the nearby town of Maringue. Dhlakarma also announced that Renamo will no longer honour the 1992 peace deal, which ended the civil war and brought the rebel group into a multi-party political system.

This climax has been brewing for a year amid Dhlakama’s growing frustration with the political system, which he says favours the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) of President Armando Guebuza.

There have been numerous attacks and acts of sabotage by Renamo fighters on infrastructure and government outposts in the last 12 months. The escalation of petty violence has sent a frisson of apprehension coursing through the boardrooms of the companies involved in Mozambique’s economic boom, fuelled by the natural gas, coal, tourism and agriculture industries.

Those anxieties are natural. Mozambique’s 17-year civil war was one of the most bitter and deadly in recent African history. At least a million people died, and millions more were left destitute or fled into exile in neighbouring countries.

However, the reality is that Renamo’s threats of a return to war are largely empty. The true significance of the events of the last few days is that this is probably the dying gasp of Renamo, which has failed to establish itself as an effective opposition to the undoubted authoritarian and kleptocratic instincts of Guebuza and Frelimo.

The demise of Renamo will simplify the political playing field in Mozambique. Presidential and parliamentary elections next year will be a straight fight between Frelimo and the emergent opposition party, the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM).

MDM is led by Daviz Simango, a disenchanted Renamo member, who founded the party in 2009 with a following of others who had either been purged or tired of Dhlakama’s ineffectual and paranoid leadership.

There is a looming test for MDM in municipal elections next month. At the moment MDM has control of only two municipalities, Beira and Quelimane, but it is fielding candidates in all 53 cities.

If Simango’s candidates do well in the cities, it will give the MDM momentum going into next year’s national elections. However, Frelimo’s grip on power, which it has held since the Portuguese colonial authorities abandoned the country in 1975, is firm and substantial. Frelimo will not be easily defeated, even in truly free and fair elections.

Nevertheless, the impending demise of Renamo marks a potentially positive moment in Mozambique’s transition to a representative and accountable political system.

It has been a long time coming. Portugal’s abandonment of Mozambique and most of its other colonies in Africa and Asia in 1975 marked a turning point in the so-called liberation war in neighbouring Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia and led by the white minority government of Ian Smith.

The new Frelimo regime in Maputo played willing host to the fighters of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which came to be led by Robert Mugabe.

To try to disrupt the ZANU machine and destabilise the Marxist Frelimo government in Maputo, then led by Samora Machel, the head of Smith’s Central Intelligence Organisation, Ken Flower, formed and funded Renamo.

To give some credence to its anti-communist credentials, Renamo espoused a crude form of Christianity, which later brought it support and aid from right-wing evangelical church groups in the United States.

But Renamo was always more feared for its brutality than loved for any Christian charity. Cutting off the lips, noses and ears of suspected opponents, or anyone whose support was deemed insufficiently enthusiastic, was a favourite obscenity.

When white rule ended in Rhodesia in 1980 and Zimbabwe came into being, Flower handed control of Renamo over to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

It was under Pretoria’s handling, with the help of America’s puritanical Christian Taliban, that Renamo reached the zenith of its military potency. However, that too came to an end with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the start of the transition to majority rule.

Dhlakama saw the writing on the wall and in 1992 signed a peace treaty in Rome with Frelimo.

In the 1994 elections it looked as though Renamo might make a credible opposition party, and perhaps even win at the ballot box what it had failed to achieve on the battlefield. In that first post-war election Renamo won 48 per cent of the vote and 112 of the 250 seats in parliament.

In the years since then, however, Frelimo has used its position to amass a substantial fortune from the profits of state assets, create an effective patronage system, and twist the electoral system in its own favour.

Dhlakama, meanwhile, has taken the political low road. While he has legitimately questioned the quality of Mozambican democracy, he has become better known for his purges of his followers. In the last elections in 2009, Renamo won just 16 per cent of the vote and 51 seats.

Dhlakama probably has about 1,000 ageing guerrillas remaining in his army. They can cause some disruption, as they have done with their sabotage attacks in the past year. They have little popular support, however, no outside backers, and cannot mount a full-blown civil war again.

There is, though, deep dissatisfaction among Mozambique’s 25 million people at the growing disparity between the wealth of senior Frelimo officials and their own poverty. The political and administrative systems remain deeply flawed and the fundamentals of the economy are rickety.

There is much on which the MDM can challenge the Guebuza government, if it has the stamina. 

Contact: Jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe

 

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Polio and progress

In most of the world polio is a mere bogeyman, a shadow that drifts through our awareness every October 24, the day global health agencies call World Polio Day. Few suffered, or now recall, the polio epidemics that menaced cities from the late 1800s until 1952, when Jonas Salk invented a vaccine. 

Scientists like Salk, politicians, public health agencies and Rotary International made it a global mission to wipe out poliovirus: they cooperated globally and aggressively attacked a scourge that causes muscle weakness, paralysis and sometimes death. Most of us are lucky today because of them: they were smart.

Lately we haven’t been so smart – and now the bogeyman is becoming a real threat.

Earlier this year health authorities thought poliomyelitis had almost entirely vanished except in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and in those countries, there were 40 per cent fewer cases in 2013 than in 2012, said the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Because the virus only lives in humans, it was hoped that immunization through global cooperation would finish polio off within a generation, and that poliomyelitis would join smallpox as an extinct human disease.

But this month polio surfaced again in war-torn Syria for the first time since 1999, and more than 20 cases have been confirmed, reported the World Health Organization. It was reported again in the Horn of Africa, and a few cases were reported in China.

Meanwhile efforts to stop it elsewhere are being hindered by religious fundamentalists – and the rule of unintended consequences.

America’s “war on terror” coincidentally sparked opposition to vaccines in Taliban territory, after a Pakistani doctor working with the United States reportedly used a fake vaccination campaign to get information from Osama bin Laden’s family.

Pakistani physician Shakil Afridi told a court he used the ruse  of a hepatitis-B vaccination campaign to try and get DNA from Osama bin Laden’s children, in Peshawar. The U.S. said it killed bin Laden in 2011, and last year a Pakistan court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in jail for treason.

Since Afridi’s admission, the Taliban has targeted health care workers delivering vaccines. The latest in some two dozen deaths were from bombings in Peshawar this month, reported the BBC.

Disease control is an example of human “progress,” a disputed and contentious word that’s fallen out of fashion lately. In addition to being out of fashion, “progress” has taken several steps backward.

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones

 

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