Archive | August 2011

Climate Patterns Determine Violent Conflict

Can the weather cause war? The latest issue of Nature seems to suggest as much. Featured was an interesting article [1] which explored the relationship of El Nino/La Nina weather patterns and conflict events over the past 50 years. El Nino/La Nina (ENSO) is an ill-understood weather phenomena characterized by 5 year cycles of warming/cooling due to fluctuations in warm/cool air pressure. It is usually associated with extreme weather events. Assocations with ENSO have been found for a number of climate related phenomena including hurricanes, rain fall and influenza infection and mortality patterns.

The researchers link the Onset and Duration of Intrastate Conflict [2]dataset with available ENSO data. They find strong associations of ENSO events with conflict events worldwide. Anticipating that the associations may be driven entirely by conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers remove all African conflicts and still discover the same association.

One very interesting result is that the relationship of ENSO to conflict appears to fade away as a country’s GDP increases, though picks back up again for extremely wealthy countries such as the United States. Apparently, it is to a country’s advantage to remain in the middle. Hsiang’s research is important because it mostly confirms that which was already suspected by a number of conflict specialists, namely that environment and human warfare are intimately related[3-11].

Poor countries are prone to food insecurity. A temporary drought, a massive tropical storm and even a small change in climate can result in a famine of broad proportions. It is, therefore, logical to assume that the poorest of countries would be the most sensitive to ENSO events. Middle income countries are able to weather temporary events and are wary to spend precious capital on waging wars. Wealthy countries such as the United States are sufficiently secure enough to deal with climate change and sudden weather events but have access to more than enough capital to wage conflicts to further their own resource and political interests.

Climate change, ever rising numbers of intense weather events, increasing population and declining access to water could theoretically turn the late 21st century into one of the bloodiest eras in human history. The rise of developing economies on the world stage, however, could help mitigate this effect as poor countries develop their internal food and transportation infrastructure. The mass resource grab presently being waged by rising middle income countries such as China, India, Brazil, South Korea and many mid-Eastern states could lead to an exported war of epic proportions, though. The future is uncertain, though, as it always is.

Governments around the world (including our own) are taking the issue of climate change and the possibility for civil and interstate conflict very seriously [12-14]. By all appearances, however, the American electorate and the US political scene is not.

1. Hsiang SM, Meng KC, Cane MA: Civil conflicts are associated with the global climate. Nature 2011, 476:438.
2. Strand H: Onset of Armed Conflict: A New List for the Period 1946–2004, with Applications.Technical report 2006.
3. Cool heads or heated conflicts? Climate change and warfare.(how to prevent climate-induced wars). The Economist (US) 2009, 393:82.
4. Anonymous: Climate and Conflict. FCNL Washington Newsletter 2010:2.
5. Ashley H: Climate change-related conflict forecast. The World Today 2008.
6. Drapeau MD, Mignone BK: Culture, conflict, and… climate? Science (New York, NY) 2007, 316:1564.
7. Lionel J, Hugh M, Neil M, Ian G: Climate change, ill health, and conflict. British medical journal 2011, 342:777.
8. Nordås R, Gleditsch NP: Climate change and conflict. POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY 2007, 26:627.
9. Sondorp E, Patel P: Climate change, conflict and health. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 2003, 97:139.
10. Stephan H: Climate Change, Future Conflict and the Role of Climate Science. RUSI Journal 2005, 150:18.
11. Scheffran J: Climate-induced instabilities and conflicts. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 2009, 6:562010.
12. CNA: National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. 2007.
13. Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. In Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; 2007.
14. Barnett J, Adger WN: Climate change, human security and violent conflict. POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY 2007, 26:639.

Strauss-Kahn, the DRC and the Uncertainty of Rape

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, has been pardoned but the complexities of his case and its broader implications continue on. Not withstanding the David and Goliath style nature of the case, a poor Guniean immigrant is sexually assaulted by one of a member of the wealthiest and most powerful on the planet, the case also unveils the deep politics of rape and sexual assault itself. Many will flock to support the victim believing that not only is it entirely possible that a man like Strauss-Kahn would take advantage of his position for his own sexual fulfillment, but that to leave Ms. Diallo in the dust is to be an accessory to his crime. People want to believe victims of sexual assault. It is in our nature, at least those which I know, to seek to protect the sanctity of women from the evils of violent men.

However, all is not which it may appear. Ms. Diallo’s case has been fraught with controversies, from exagerrated and false stories of gang rape in her native Guinea, to her associations with crack dealers and organized crime. The immediate search for dirt in the background of a sexual assault victim is common to nearly all legal cases of rape, though in this case, the search was more efficient, sufficiently funded, and rife with fruit for the taking.

The truth is, we will never know what occurred between Mr. Strauss-Kahn and Ms. Diallo. Many are certain that something did occur, though the level of consent is to be debated. What strikes me, though, are the interviews with Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s associates from his French Socialist Party in France who deny without question that Mr. Strauss Kahn could ever commit such a reprehensible act. I am sure that associates of Josef Mengele would make the same denials, rallying in support for his character. The truth, whatever it may be, seems elusive, not merely due to the lack of evidence, but to that which the principal players choose to see. In this way, this simple case of sexual assualt, becomes vastly complex and reflective of political discussions in general, where people choose what to see, what to believe and how to interpret. Those choices often have little to do with the evidence on hand, but rather are informed by social allegiances and political priorities which parade themselves across the media stage in a Roshomon-like procession of discordant stories.

I read an interesting article this morning in Foreign Affairs by Amber Peterman, calling for the systematic collection of data on wartime rape, and was immeidately struck by the connections between evidence of the magnitude and scale of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the case of Mr. Strauss-Kahn. Impassioned stories of rape victims and the savagery of perpertrators make for nice sound bites and work to move people to act, but there is no substitute for rigorous evidence of crimes, a lack of which exists in both Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s case (a video would have helped) and the ongoing conflict in the DRC. Evidence based courts cannot rely on passionate testimonials, nor can policy be drafted on anecdotal horror stories of war. As long as the haze of uncertainty lingers in sexual assault cases, justice will never done and the perpetrators of disgusting crimes of rape will be free to rape again. The perpetrators are smugly aware of this fact, and since time immemorial have used it to their advantage.

Superior State: The Upper Peninsula of Michigan

I just got back from vacation and am having an incredible time motivating myself to return to my regular grind. I never take vacations. My musical “career” and present work have taken me to enough places, that staying home almost feels a luxury. Now that I’ve reached this moderately advanced age, though, I’ve recently felt the need to finally take one. Vacations should come with “post-vacation vacations” to allow a slow and peaceful transfer back to reality.

The Upper Peninsula covers nearly a third of Michigan’s landmass, but only 3% of its population. Most of the land is occupied by State and National Parks, wildlife reserves and forests. Occasionally, one sees a town. Despite the lack of humanity, the UP is one of the most unique places I have ever visited.

Formerly a hot bed of American iron and copper mining, the UP’s economy is now driven by logging and tourism. Log houses, logging trucks and chainsaw stores dot the landscape, along with signs warning one of wandering moose and elk. The population is a mish mash of descendents of the original Finnish settlers, recent imports, seasonal residents and snowbirds and a prominent, though clearly poor, Native American population.

It’s the Alaska of Michigan, a vast unlivable frontier that somehow skates by through the sheer determination of its residents and the economic support of its lower neighbors.

The UP is so vastly different from the lower peninsula of Michigan, that it could almost be a different state. In fact, secessionist movements have long existed in the UP, with a small group calling for the creation of “Superior,” the 51st State of the Union, named after the largest of the five Great Lakes. It is easy to see why. The UP is mostly disenfranchised from State politics. Lower Peninsula concerns with the revival of the manufacturing economy overshadow the resource based economic concerns of the UP. It would appear that the UP is regarded by the State Legislature as merely a source of votes, and not a priority for the resurrection of Michigan’s troubled economy.

We had the opportunity to enjoy some of what the UP has to offer in the way of its amazing National and State Parks. I was able to take a few pictures between bouts of hiking induced exhaustion through the Porcupine Mountains. I will be sure to got back to the UP one day. In fact, I am already planning to visit the mighty Isle Royale next year.

London Riots, the Arab Spring, the African Summer, are we next?

The recent spat of riots in the UK are entirely overdue. While the media is quick to disregard the rioting and looting as the work of a few “thugs,” the wider implications cannot be ignored. Mass unemployment, declining levels of public expenditure, decaying educational infrastructure all have created conditions that leave a young generation of Brits in the dust. It is important to note that lack of foreseeable employment and insecurity are exactly the conditions which led to the so-called “Arab Spring” and later, the “African Summer” as most exemplified by that mass rioting in Malawi of a couple weeks ago.

The stupidity of looting and chaos cannot be denied. However, young people have great difficulty in expressing themselves, often unaware themselves as to why they harbor deep levels of anger and frustration. Verbalizing that frustration in a coherent manner is even more difficult. Things were no different for me when I was a teen and I was just as angry.

The question one must ask, however, is when youth uprisings will return to the United States. We have all the conditions necessary, mass unemployment of young people on an unprecedented scale (ssee below) with little hope in sight. Within the past few years, despite a Democratic President and Senate, we’ve seen vast defunding and dismantling of public education and public expenditure which creates jobs. Worse, we have seen the American populace shift to the right, bowing to the politics of fear rather than reason. I can only see things getting worse from here on out.

I recently watched the excellent documentary “The Weather Underground,” and was astounded to see how far we, as a democratic society have actually sunk. The violent and reckless actions of the Weather Underground are certainly deplorable. The dedication to change and the fight against a seemingly invincible power structure of the SDS, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers and the vast participants of the Civil Rights movement, however, are vastly admirable.

I do not see such a struggle occurring among the youth of 2011. They are far too fractured and self interested to mobilize en masse. It is truly ironic that, despite having the largest and most connected communication network in human history, that the American youth are unable to truly connect with one another. In that sense, the powerful have won and haven’t had to kill a single person.

Unemployment by Age Group (U.S.)

Racist Kid Kills Black Man in Mississippi

Excuse the simplification of the title of this blog post.

The news of the death of James Craig Anderson, a 49 year old auto plant worker in Jackson, Mississippi has stirred up so much interest, that it made the national news. For those, not in the know, a group of middle class white teenagers from Brandon, Mississippi, decided, on a whim, to drive to Jackson and assault the first African-American they saw. I assume that this happens much more than the newspapers are willing to report, but this time, parking lot security cameras caught the event on video, allowing the entire country to see the exact depth of racist violence that still pervades in American society a full 40 plus years after Civil Rights.

Personally, I find the event sickening, revolting, and reprehensible, though, having grown up in Mississippi, hardly surprising. What interests me, though, is a single statement by a boasting 18 year old Deryl Dedmon after he savagely ran over a stunned James Anderson:

“I ran that nigger over!”

There it is. The N-word in all its glory doing the deed that it was created to do. Words such as this work to objectify people, to rob them of all that makes them an individual, to disregard their humanity.

At present, I am reading Amartya Sen’s “Identity and Violence” which, in part, addresses the very issues raised by Deryl Dedmon’s brutal killing of Mr. Anderson.

Simplified classifications run deep in common speech. Sometimes they act as place markers for concepts we don’t truly understand or for ideas where we (or our listeners) don’t have sufficient information to parse out any underlying complexities. Sometimes, classifying people can be done with good intentions, such as defining policy that helps Native Americans or in discouraging racial discrimination.

Sometimes, however, they are used as tools of violence. They can demean, isolate and weaken our opponents, by relieving us of the need to understand and recognize the thoughts, the opinions, the very existence of those we don’t like or agree with.

I believe in the inherent goodness of people. Most humans, if given a true choice, would not do evil to other humans provided they understood that their actions truly are, in fact, evil. Labels such as “N****er,” “Liberal,” “Muslim,” “Tea Partier,” (I’m being fair) “Fag,” “Gaijin,” remove the humanity of, well, humans. They allow us to say and do things that we wouldn’t do to those we know and love. After all, commiting violence against people is wrong. Committing violence against objects is somewhat acceptable.

Sen notes that identity and classification allow violence to occur, sometimes even causing it, often even encouraging it. New labels can be applied for self interested means. Note that Rwandans coexisted with one another for centuries, until the poisionous labels of “Hutus” and “Tutsis” pitted neighbor against neighbor, and led to the death of thoursands.

Beyond Sen’s book and Mr. Dedmon’s reprehensible actions, the poisonous political battles in the current United States are filled with the very type of rhetoric that seeks to divide and subject. Blog posts, TV commentators and politicians regular use perjorative terms such as “Liberal,” effectively ending debate and swiping aside political civility. Likewise, Tea Party backed politicians have effectively dug their own grave, by labelling themselves in this case, asking for divisive vitrol from the left. “Muslim” has become a convenient key word to label nearly a quarter of the world’s population which represents a vast landscape of cultures, languages and histories that often have little in common with one another.

We are more than our labels. We can be Americans at once, liberals politically, homosexuals, broccoli eaters, Christians and heavy metal fans all at once. To do what Mr. Dedmon did, to reduce a human being to a single, convenient classification to ease the application of violence against his person, is the root of humanity’s inability to get along. Dedmon killed Mr. Anderson twice, first by killing him physically, then by robbing him of his personhood by loudly boasting to his thouroughly stupid friends.

Let us not be Mr. Dedmon. Let America move beyond the vile and hateful and simplistically stupid rhetoric that has poisoned us for the past 200 plus years.


Sen A: Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny. Allen Lane; 2006.

Sexual Predator in Ann Arbor Garners National News

The New York Times today ran a short article on a series of recent sexual assaults that have occurred in this quaint, normally safe, University town. The article itself is really nothing of note, but the reactions to the “wave of spiraling crime” and the surrounding quiet hysteria have been intriguing.

My very good friend, Mark, runs a great blog, which features mostly posts of his beloved town of Ypsilanti, which borders Ann Arbor. Mark’s blog keeps me up on Ypsi and all of its complications and successes. Ypsi, by any measure, is, for a town of a mere 20,000 people, one of the most crime ridden areas of the state. Ypsi’s crime rates well exceeds national averages in just about every category. To be fair, crime in Ypsi is not spread uniformly across the city, but restricted to certain areas and demographics, which makes the situation more, not less, demanding of action.

Ann Arbor, on the other hand, is a safe, college town, where women walk alone at night, and crime is mostly restricted to stealing from college kids who don’t lock their doors, or drunken university stupidity. I feel as safe in Ann Arbor as I do in Japan.

What’s notable to me is that crime in Ann Arbor would merit a feature in the New York Times, whereas crime, real endemic crime in Ypsilanti generates zero publicity. Crime in Ann Arbor is like your occasional case of pneumonia, bad and life threatening, but temporary and curable. Crime in Ypsi (and it’s big sister Detroit), with its deep and entrenched social causes, is more akin to a miserable set of chronic afflictions.

I would suggest to the New York Times, that they visit the most troubled areas of Southeastern Michigan and write on what’s been going on here for the past 50 years. Unemployment, the defunding of public education, drugs and economic flight have left the poor of Michigan in a veritable social prison, unable to leave, but unable to make a life here and universally hated throughout the country.

Random sexual assaults, while serious, happen only occasionally in Ann Arbor. In places like Detroit, Flint and Ypsilanti, they happen on a daily basis. The victims are no less real, nor no less damaged.

Articles about threats to the life and welfare of wealthy white people may garner sympathy from other wealthy white people, but really just end up distorting the conversation of social problems in America. The greatest threats to life and welfare are being experienced by the poor on a daily basis and very unfortunately go ignored by the popular press and the electorate. I would beg the New York Times to put things in real perspective.

Debts and the Unending Political Crisis

I’m finding myself rather depressed today reading news of the so-called “debt compromise” that the House and Senate appear to have come to. Basically, in my limited understanding of state budgets and economics, Senate leader Reid, House Majority leader Boehner and the Obama admin have all caved to the most extreme factions of American politics and deliberately kicked the can on the most serious problems that face our country.

Americans wanted tax increases on the wealthy, and comprehensive reform to close tax loopholes that don’t benefit anyone except the most privileged. Instead, what we get is a secret panel of political pundits hiding behind closed doors, making life changing decisions on who will have to bear the brunt of “sacrifice” for the benefit of the country. Schools will be closed, health care for poor people will fizzle out, and old people will be out on the street. The future, if today is any indication, seems nothing but bleak to me.

Closer to home, for me, future cuts will see that research monies will dry up, and a whole generation of educated, capable and dedicated young people will be left behind to serve coffee for a living rather than enter public service.

The economy will dry up as federal investment in infrastructure lies fallow, Tea Party influenced American unwilling or unable to understand the truly tight link between America’s economic successes and government, tax payer funded investment.

We cannot depend on the private sector to provide, for example, schools to raise our underclasses to become economically productive citizens. We cannot depend on the private sector to provide health care to keep America’s employable citizens from falling prey to chronic ills, a bill that gets levied to the tax payer in the form of both direct expenditures on health conditions treated too late, and on the great losses to the economy imparted by a population too fat and too sick to work.

Until Americans start learning the difference between election politics and true governance, nothing will change. The voter is taken by charisma and speculative rhetoric, such as that being delivered by both Romney and Bachmann. “I would have done things differently.” Well, maybe, but you aren’t in office, it’s easy to say what you would have done when you’re not sitting in the drivers chair. Americans love fantasies; so much, that we are willing to bet our futures on them.

I have this awful feeling that this “Tea Party success” of the extreme right wing will lead to the worst in the 2012 elections. Bachmann, politically bright, but intellectually weak, may get the nomination, she may even win the Presidency. Americans, weak in the face of perceived strength that disguises weakness, may even tips the tables of the Senate, leaving the country in the hands of the extreme right for some time to come.

Let us hope, however, that sense prevails.

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