The end of international compassion: Haiti and Pakistan

The first version of this was written a few weeks after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, but I felt it was a grim scene to put before others. As events have unfolded after July’s floods in Pakistan, I changed my mind.

As of September 3, 2010, the total aid supplied to Haiti by USAID, State, and DoD Humanitarian Assistance to Haiti for the Earthquake, in fiscal year 2010, was $1,139,632,618. Over one billion dollars, for an estimated 3 million people affected.

For the relief of the 20 million homeless victims of the Pakistan floods, “the U.S. has provided some $345 million in governmental assistance,” having more than doubled the contribution from the amount a month ago”. [as of Sept. 21, 2010].

Why the disparity?

Politicians and pundits have various reasons and excuses, from “it’s too big to comprehend” (“this is a disaster on a scale that people are struggling to understand. One-fifth of the area of Pakistan is reported to be devastated by the current floods, yet aid pledges are slow to appear. The flooded area is the same size as England”, Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, UK), to Pakistan’s bad international rep (“Pakistan is always the bad guy,” Mosharraf Zaidi says in Foreign Policy, to the floods being “a disaster which has unfolded quite gradually” instead of suddenly like an earthquake or a tsunami (UK International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell). Then there’s the unmentionable elephant-in-the-room reasons, “because they’re Muslims” and “they’re helping the Taliban kill our troops in Afghanistan”. These last two carry some weight with certain elements of the general public in, say, America, but not so much with governments which recognize that keeping Pakistan from being further destabilized is important for the West’s own strategic and security purposes. And it’s the response, or lack of it, from governments that is the primary issue.

None of these is of significant importance, I believe, but they’re put forth because the real causes are too distressing to admit. Here is my list of reasons, and they’re not happy reading.

The “quadraplegic” analogy

When you rescue a drowning quadriplegic, you can’t just pull him out of the water, lay him down on the riverbank, and leave.

Haiti rubbed our faces in it, a glaring example: “relief” aid is not enough. Haiti was not a functioning country before the earthquake, and restoring the status quo isn’t really an option. Infrastructure, education, commerce, effective and honest government—all were anemic or non-existent. Worse yet: if the West waved some magic wand to conjure them up upon the ruins of Port-au-Prince, Haiti lacks the trained people, legal structure, and culture to maintain them. So the rescuer takes round his neck the millstone of deep long-term involvement, perhaps for a generation, as in the supposed Chinese proverb about how when you save a man’s life, you become responsible for it.

Afghanistan, Iraq, and pre-flood Pakistan are examples of the same situation: regions upon whom nationhood has been forced, now flying apart from tensions both internal and external, without the resources, desire or culture to transform themselves. And indeed why should they do so, to join a foreign world that would gladly ignore them as it did pre-earthquake Haiti, if it were not for oil and Middle East politics?

The prospect of more frequent disasters affecting more people

Climate change will likely bring more frequent severe weather events and natural disasters (floods, droughts, famines, hurricanes, cyclones, wildfires). As world population increases and clumps together in cities, disasters can affect more people.

Many of the fastest-growing cities are coastal and therefore more at risk for big storms, and “of the 33 cities projected to have at least 8 million residents by 2015, at least 21 are coastal cities that will have to contend with sea-level rise from climate change” as well. (State of the World 2007) In 1994, two-thirds of the world’s mega-cities were located in less developed nations, and the trend was “rapidly accelerating”. The UN predicted in 2008 that in Africa and Asia “the urban population will double between 2000 and 2030: That is, the accumulated urban growth of these two regions during the whole span of history will be duplicated in a single generation. By 2030, the towns and cities of the developing world will make up 81 per cent of urban humanity.” [emphasis mine]

According to UN figures, 324 global cities with a population of over 750,000 experienced rapid growth of more than 20.0% between 2000 and 2010. The fastest-growing city was Abuja in Nigeria (139.7% increase) followed by the Yemenite cities al-Hudayda (108.1% increase) and Ta’izz (94.0%). Of the 324 fastest-growing cities, 53.1% were located in Asia Pacific, 24.4% in Africa and the Middle East, 16.0% in Latin America and the remaining 6.5% in North America, Australasia and Western Europe.

Don’t think that the vaunted free-market expansion to developing nations will result in cities with adequate infrastructure and living-wage jobs for everyone. Just as in our own country, the free market is not a tide that lifts all boats. It can be thought of as a rising tide all right, but one flooding an island, where only the rich have the means to get to high ground, while the poorer you are the closer you come to drowning.

The economic growth we hear of in some cities, like Mumbai, does not extend to the ever-more numerous poor. Slums and high-tech companies in high-rises go on side by side. Both of the views below are of Mumbai. The slum occupants and their children are vanishingly unlikely to become participants in the high-tech boom. Rare exceptions, like the poor village-born protagonist in The White Tiger: A Novel by Aravind Adiga, get a chance to claw their way up by committing a crime to get capital, or by an act of fate as rare as a lightning-strike.[Slumdog Millionaire may be a feel-good film (I haven’t seen it) but that would be because it soothes us “Haves” by showing hope for people who as a group really have no chance of significant betterment. But that’s another subject. For a fictional synopsis of rural life, electoral practices, education of the poor, and other aspects of the “world’s largest democracy”, The White Tiger is worth a read. It reminded me of the works of early 20th C. American writers, the “muckrakers” and others, such as Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, and Theodore Dreiser.]


Mumbai slumsENH.jpg

In fact, most of Mumbai is slums, as seen in the census map below. Dark red indicates 60% or more of the area is slum. Light yellow areas are composed of 15% or less slum. The very pale blue areas are mud, and are larger than the white (no slum) portions of the city.

Mumbai Census map.jpg

A disaster affecting any of these huge aggregations of people—who already live without safe housing, running water, sewage treatment, education, and so on—will, as in Haiti, defy traditional relief efforts and require extraordinary commitments. In Haiti, for example, “A preliminary study by Inter-American Development Bank economists indicates that it could cost as much as $14 billion to rebuild Haiti’s homes, schools, roads and other structures damaged” in the earthquake.

Wealthy nations will cry poor except when “charity” is a cover for national security

Poorer nations will be mostly on their own to deal with natural disasters, and the concomitant unrest of their own people. Highly contagious plagues will bring quick reactions from the developed nations, for obvious reasons. Likewise, if the developed nations’ interests or integrity are threatened by mass movements of millions fleeing starvation and lack of water, they will act, though one hesitates to imagine exactly how since meaningful relief of the suffering people is not feasible. I’d expect a return to the old policy of “containment”, this time against populations of defenseless refugees rather than communist ideology.

Today we have, according to the UN, 43.3 million refugees, internally displaced persons, and asylum-seekers worldwide. Pakistan has 1.7 million Afghan refugees, many of whom have been displaced since 1979. In a final blow, less developed nations will continue to be the battlegrounds of choice for wars begun by industrial nations for perceived national security purposes (resource control, demonstrating military dominance, justifying and testing new weapons, etc.).

Tight economic times

The economic condition of most Western nations today could charitably be described as precarious, with the US perhaps worse than most because of long-ignored needs ranging from public education to crime to infrastructure. With a frightening national debt, unconscionable political paralysis, and 10% unemployment that will feed new waves of house foreclosures, we can apparently only watch our country and its people in a race to the bottom where a new Great Depression awaits. In that climate, when word comes of millions starving overseas, the sententious will say “Charity begins at home” and the blunt will growl “Screw ‘em”. The politicians will make soft noises of sympathy when forced to by media exposure of death and destruction, and send token amounts of money and a couple of Navy ships full of surplus commodities and helicopters, to show the flag. Maybe Brazil and China, rising industrial stars, will then be the new cornucopias of aid to the developing world, but I rather doubt it. Unless it is in their national interest.

Inability to ensure that money sent is used as planned

Corruption of every sort flourishes, in inverse proportion to the power of established transparent legal systems that serve all citizens. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, billions may be spent to build things that turn out to be unfinished, shoddy, or even never begun. “More than $5 billion in American taxpayer funds has been wasted — more than 10 percent of the some $50 billion the U.S. has spent on reconstruction in Iraq, according to audits from a U.S. watchdog agency.” The 2008 and 2010 earthquakes in China killed a disproportionate number of children, revealing that many schools were not built as designed because of corruption; built, for example, without re-bar because officials connived at resale of the materials by crooked builders. NGOs often get better value for their money because they send people to be on the spot and help with the work, but utilizing that approach to build, say, ten thousand bridges and 2 million houses in Pakistan hardly seems feasible.

The Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill included efforts to enforce transparency and accountability as to how the money was spent, but enforcing that in Pakistan, over hundreds of locations, seems unlikely to succeed.

Case in point: International response to the Pakistan flood

How has the US responded to the floods that have devastated Pakistan since July 2010? Administration sources have this very week been touting our allocation of $7.5 billion to Pakistan’s humanitarian needs. That sounds swell, but actually this money was dedicated to Pakistan last year in S. 1707, the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill. This bill was signed by President Obama back on Oct. 15, 2009. It provides $7.5 billion in mostly nonmilitary aid to Pakistan over five years,. (Mostly non-military: It does tie some funds to fighting militants, and all the money to a list of specified acts of cooperation with the US including giving the US relevant information from, or direct access to, Pakistani nationals associated with acquisition of nuclear weapons-related materials. [Text of bill here.] Because of such requirements, the bill is seen by Pakistani critics as violating their sovereignty.)

Recently parts of this already-committed money have been re-purposed, with ample publicity, to humanitarian assistance for the flood, and Kerry and Lugar have put forth another bill that would create a new fund to lure private enterprise to Pakistan, but it would use funds already appropriated in the previous aid bill.

How much new money has been directed to Pakistan by the US government, for flood relief and rebuilding? That is hard to know since reports lump re-direction of money already appropriated, in with new aid. According to the Toronto Sun on Aug. 30, 2010, “The United States is the single largest donor to the flood relief, contributing more than $200 million or over 20 percent of the total aid pledged so far”. At least $50 million of that appears to be already appropriated money re-directed from the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill of 2009. And, while I cannot look into the heart of any politician to see how they balanced compassionate response vs. US national security interests, it seems plain that the $7.5 billion of the 2009 Bill would not have been given to any country, however pitiful its condition, unless it had direct connexion with US national security. For the 2009 bill, the motives I would assign are 1) paying off Pakistan’s military and government for letting us cross their borders from Afghanistan to kill and abduct whomever we wish, and 2) heading off the further growth of extremist movements, and public sympathy with extremists, in Pakistan by improving conditions for the populace.

Now, after the floods, the money we are spending is for the second purpose, as various speakers including Sen. Kerry have made clear. Kerry visited Ghazi Air Base, a Pakistani military facility in the area first affected by the floods, met U.S. military personnel taking part in helicopter relief missions, and told reporters “we don’t want additional jihadists, extremists coming out of a crisis.” Again, I’m not accusing anyone of being heartless, only of not backing compassion with significant money except when there is a political payoff. Realpolitik.

Help from other countries has also been slow and small. “Donations to help with flood relief have been dismally low compared with those after other natural disasters, such as the Jan. 12 Haiti earthquake.” (Foreign Policy magazine, Aug. 19, 2010) A former U.N. relief coordinator who managed the international response to the tsunami in South Asia in 2004 said, “We got more in a single day just after the tsunami than Pakistan got in a month.” Muslim nations were not taking up the slack; until Saudi Arabia promised $20 million in late August, “no Muslim nation had given Pakistan more than the $5 million donation made by Kuwait, according to U.N. records”.

Even NGO response is halting. “According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, twenty-two U.S. aid groups have raised a total of $9.9-million [for Pakistan flood work] while within two-and-a-half weeks of the Haiti earthquake, 40 aid groups had brought in a total of $560-million [as of Aug. 24, 2010]”.

An appeal at the UN in mid-September asked for $2 billion, prompting increased pledges from nations including Britain – $210 million, the United States – $340 million and the European Union $350 million. Saudi Arabia said it has now donated $345 million in government and public funds (what is the distinction? public=Islamic charities?). Iran allotted $100 million for its neighbor. It was not clear if the goal had been met. $2 billion sounds like a lot of money (and other funds have been promised by regional development banks and so on), but how does it compare to the need?

It is difficult to establish exact statistics on the scope of the flood disaster there. The UN says 21 million people have been affected, of an estimated population of 170 million. Pakistan’s government now estimates that more than 1.2 million homes have been damaged or destroyed. In addition, crops and foodstuffs in storage have been destroyed, innumerable roads and bridges swept away, and over 17 million acres of Pakistan’s agricultural land has been flooded by often polluted waters.

oxfam map floods PakistanSM.jpg

This map shows conditions as of 9/2/2010 and 9/6/2010. Red indicates severe damage, yellow moderate damage; dark grey areas in northern Pakistan are mostly inaccessible tribal areas with known but unassessed flood damage in the west. Map by UN/OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), from MapAction.

How does the UN’s goal of $2 billion stack up against the need? A billion is a thousand million. If $2 billion were spent on 2 million flood victims, it would provide $2000 each. But there are 20 million “affected”, so $2 billion is only $200 each. Millions need shelter, food, medical care, and clean water, for an undetermined period. Over a huge area, most human-made constructions have vanished or been damaged beyond repair. It’s estimated that 70% of the bridges in the flooded areas are destroyed, as well as all or most of the roads, schools, water treatment plants, irrigation systems, wells, houses, clinics, stores, small businesses and manufactories, and so on. Of course other organizations have and will provide some money and aid-in-kind, augmenting the UN’s $2B, but even if they doubled the $2B it would be a paltry sum relative to the task.

And after 10 months, how are efforts proceeding in Haiti?

Haiti may have benefited from greater international pledges of aid than Pakistan, but much of it is still “in the mail”. As of Sept. 29 2010,

Not a cent of the $1.15 billion the U.S. promised for rebuilding has arrived. The money was pledged by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in March for use this year in rebuilding. The U.S. has already spent more than $1.1 billion on post-quake relief, but without long-term funds, the reconstruction of the wrecked capital cannot begin. With just a week to go before fiscal 2010 ends, the money is still tied up in Washington. At fault: bureaucracy, disorganization and a lack of urgency, The Associated Press learned in interviews with officials in the State Department, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the White House and the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy. One senator has held up a key authorization bill because of a $5 million provision he says will be wasteful.

Meanwhile, deaths in Port-au-Prince are mounting, as quake survivors scramble to live without shelter or food.

Nor is Haiti getting much from other donors. Some 50 other nations and organizations pledged a total of $8.75 billion for reconstruction, but just $686 million of that has reached Haiti so far — less than 15 percent of the total promised for 2010-11.

The lack of funds has all but halted reconstruction work by CHF International, the primary U.S.-funded group assigned to remove rubble and build temporary shelters. Just 2 percent of rubble has been cleared and 13,000 temporary shelters have been built — less than 10 percent of the number planned.

The Maryland-based agency is asking the U.S. government for $16.5 million to remove more than 21 million cubic feet (600,000 cubic meters) of additional rubble and build 4,000 more temporary houses out of wood and metal.
Source: AP.

Let’s be niggardly with the n-word, but…

but…sometimes it can and should be said.

stingy, sparing, parsimonious, e.g. “serving out the rations with a niggardly hand”.

from niggard
mid-14c., nygart, of uncertain origin. The suffix suggests French origin (cf. -ard), but the root word is probably related to O.N. hnøggr “stingy,” from P.Gmc. *khnauwjaz (cf. Swed. njugg “close, careful,” Ger. genau “precise, exact”), and to O.E. hneaw “stingy, niggardly,” which did not survive in M.E. []

1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), from Fr. nègre, from Sp. negro (see Negro, from Latin nigrum (nominative form niger) “black,” of unknown origin (perhaps from Proto Indo European *nekw-t- “night,”). From the earliest usage it was “the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks” [cited in Gowers, 1965]. But as black inferiority was at one time a near universal assumption in English-speaking lands, the word in some cases could be used without deliberate insult. More sympathetic writers late 18c. and early 19c. seem to have used black (n.) and, after the American Civil War, colored person. Also applied by English settlers to dark-skinned native peoples in India, Australia, Polynesia. The reclamation of the word as a neutral or positive term in black culture (not universally regarded as a worthwhile enterprise), often with a suggestion of “soul” or “style,” is attested first in the Amer. South, later (1968) in the Northern, urban-based Black Power movement. [”You’re a fool nigger, and the worst day’s work Pa ever did was to buy you,” said Scarlett slowly. … There, she thought, I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.” [Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind,” 1936] []

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, radio dispenser of advice and moral judgments, is taking considerable heat for her response to a call involving the word nigger. I don’t even know if WordPress will allow me to spell that word out—and that is what I want to talk about. If you would like to see a transcript of the call and Dr. Laura’s remarks immediately after the call, it is here.

I will say that I think Dr. Laura should apologize, but not for saying a bad word on the radio. For whatever reason, she abandoned her professional role and lost the distance and composure essential to that role. Instead of asking elucidating questions and listening to the caller’s answers, she went off on a rant of her own. As Dear Abby and Ann Landers and others have often decreed, when a spouse hears relatives or friends insulting or taunting his or her spouse, spouse1 must let the relatives/friends know that this is not acceptable, that neither member of the couple will stay to hear such insults and taunts. There are good practical reasons for this, and there is even Biblical justification: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. New American Standard Bible (©1995)

When a black woman married to a white man complained that the word nigger was being used, the therapist-of-the-air should have asked: “How is it being used? Give us an example.” Probably the example will not be a disquisition having to do with Mark Twain’s use of the word in Huckleberry Finn, or the word’s etymology, or a quotation from a black comic using the word. Most likely the remarks are of this nature: “You know niggers, they always/never…” or “Some nigger robbed the convenience store over by where I work…”

These uses are insulting, hostile, and demeaning, like all the other dehumanizing terms used to set some group apart from the rest of us. English has terms like that for Arabs, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, fat people, smart people, stupid people, white people, Hispanic people, gay people, men, women, and people whose ancestors were from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Scandinavia, and so on. Other languages have similar terms for the same list, subtracting the words for the speaker’s religion, gender, sexual preference, appearance, and ethnic origin, and adding ones for us Americans. Sometimes there’s intra-group use of such terms; Dr. Laura went off on that tangent but I will not, it’s irrelevant. When outsiders use the term it is almost exclusively insulting and demeaning. Worst of all, these dehumanizing terms are the mental preparation for pogroms, lynchings, beatings, bombings, murders, war, and ethnic cleansing (a shocking euphemism which deserves its own examination, but not here).

No question, nigger is not a word for everyday use by non-blacks, same as the other group-based terms alluded to above.

But when someone wants to excise words from our language, all of us should resist.

When we begin killing words, where will it end?

Some may say, Better words than people! My reply is that manipulating language is the same as manipulating thought, which in turn changes how we act. Dehumanizing the Other is a preparation for war, violence and mistreatment, whether organized or individual. What’s necessary and positive is to continue to educate people not to use these category-based insulting demeaning words to other people. If you want to call someone lazy then do that, but don’t couple it with an insult to the person’s innate or historic self. I can argue with you about whether I am lazy or not, and if convinced that I am, I can choose to change it, but I will always be a black Scandinavian Catholic gay smart woman, if that is what I am.

If we must substitute the ridiculous circumlocution “the N-word” for nigger, then how do we discuss historical documents that used it? How do we read literature that used it? How do we talk about the word itself and its history that renders it sharp as a sword, clanking with manacles, reeking of hatred and suffering?

James Baldwin used nigger, and not just in the vocative sense (e.g., my example, as some use “man”, “Man, you know I’m…”, “Nigger, you know I’m…”) In fact he and Dick Gregory made a serious movie by that title, and it’s the title of Dick Gregory’s 1990 autobiography. Baldwin and Gregory believed that the word and its various meanings needed to be thought about, talked about, by whites and blacks.

Apparently “the N-word” attained popularity during the OJ Simpson trial, in talking about recorded statements by Mark Fuhrman. Chris Darden, black prosecutor, tried to save Fuhrman’s credibility by letting everyone know how awful he, Darden, thought the word was: “The prosecutor [Christopher Darden], his voice trembling, added that the “N-word” was so vile that he would not utter it. “It’s the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.”

But the Bowdlers who gave us first “the F-word” and then “the N-word” won’t stop there. Broadcasters aid and abet them, probably feeling a little frisson of guilty pleasure at being able to allude unmistakably to words the FCC won’t permit them to utter. And some people make up new “[letter] – words” to dramatize their remarks or because they feel victimized. So we have “the B-word”, and words for C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K and on through the alphabet. Some of the words so represented are offensive, others are as inoffensive as “green”.

Let’s let this “N-word” thing stop and fade away. Many times it will be sufficient to say that a person used a “racial slur referring to black people”. If not, then just say the word. “Candidate Joe Smith singled out a black man in the audience for insult, calling him a nigger and a ‘mono’, Spanish for monkey.” Let’s be grown-ups about language and about how we treat others. Hiding behind alphabetical euphemisms makes us sound like giggling 8 year olds, and prevents us from thinking and talking about the issues that euphemisms cover up.

No glaciers on the news

Last night I wanted to see footage on television of the huge island of ice that has broken off of the Petermann glacier in Greenland. It’s the biggest such event in the Arctic for 50 years, launching a massive iceberg that has four times the area of Manhattan and is 600 feet thick. “The so-called “ice island” covers a hundred square miles (260 square kilometers) and holds enough water to keep U.S. public tap water flowing for 120 days.”

I thought that some enterprising Greenlander, perhaps from the Greenland Ice Patrol which monitors ice movement for shipping safety, would surely have gotten aloft and sent us all some live footage showing the area, but apparently not. Merging two clichés, one about cable tv and the other about big-box stores, I thought: “500 channels, but never what you want”.

Online, of course, there are photos like these from NASA.


Real color photo from NASA. I added the orange line around the breakaway ice island. Source.


False color photo from NASA. Source.

And I did find about two seconds of overhead video on YouTube. It’s about 20 seconds into the video, and most of the rest is talking heads taking sides on whether the event is connected to global warming/climate change. Maybe yes, maybe no, does it really matter if each individual event can be connected? Good for politicians and talk-shows.

In the Antarctic, however, there seems to be quite a clear pattern. Nearly all of the world’s glacier ice, 91%, is located there. An international scientific partnership including the US Geological Survey (and the British Antarctic Survey, with the assistance of the Scott Polar Research Institute and Germany’s Bundesamt fűr Kartographie und Geodäsie) has found that

every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating overall from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990. The USGS previously documented that the majority of ice fronts on the entire Peninsula have also retreated during the late 20th century and into the early 21st century.

The ice shelves are attached to the continent and already floating, holding in place the Antarctic ice sheet that covers about 98 percent of the Antarctic continent. As the ice shelves break off, it is easier for outlet glaciers and ice streams from the ice sheet to flow into the sea. The transition of that ice from land to the ocean is what raises sea level. [report dated 2/22/10]

Since 1950, total Antarctic ice loss exceeds 9,652 square miles. Temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen faster than in any other area in the southern hemisphere – a rise that translates to more than five degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the last century.


This image shows ice-front retreat in part of the southern Antarctic Peninsula from 1947 to 2009. Distance bar may be hard to read: it’s 50 miles in 10 miles increments. USGS scientists are studying coastal and glacier change along the entire Antarctic coastline. The southern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula is one area studied as part of this project, and is summarized in the USGS report, “Coastal-Change and Glaciological Map of the Palmer Land Area, Antarctica: 1947–2009” (map I–2600–C). (Credit: Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey). Source.

It is expected that loss of the floating ice shelves will allow the land-based ice to flow faster toward and into the ocean. If the Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt completely, it is estimated that it would add about 23 feet (7 meters) to current sea level. The West Antarctic Ice sheet is believed to be less stable than that covering East Antarctica, because the ice of East Antarctica lies on rock that is above sea level and is thought unlikely to collapse. But the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is on rock below sea level:

“Not just a bit below sea level, it’s 2,000 meters below sea level,” said David Vaughan, a principal investigator with the British Antarctic Survey. “If there was no ice sheet there, this would be deep ocean, deep like the middle of the Atlantic.”

Some scientists have theorized that this makes the WAIS inherently unstable. If the ice sheet retreats beyond a certain point, a positive feedback mechanism should, they say, lead to runaway retreat that would not stop until most of the ice sheet disappears. [Source.]

The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet contains 13% of all the ice on the Antarctic continent, enough to raise current sea levels around 11 feet (3.3 meters). And when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made its climate change predictions, including the “mid-range projection” (mid-range meaning, not the best-case nor the worst-case scenario) that seas will rise 17 inches (44 centimeters), they did not include what the effects would be, if polar ice sheets began to melt faster than in the decade of 1993-2003. This was done because there wasn’t enough known about ice sheet melting and its change over time. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is 6 miles thick in places, so it’s not easy to know what is going on under it and finding out has only recently seemed important to those who fund such expensive research.

Finally, the aspect that has seemed to many the most frightening about climate change predictions: the unknown potential for interactions between complex systems such as wind currents and ocean currents, which could conceivably multiply foreseen effects. (Or, if we were amazingly lucky, cause them to cancel one another out; but we won’t know until it’s too late to do anything about it.) For example, it’s believed that the melting of Antarctic ice shelves is caused by warmer water flowing up underneath the ice. But this water is not from melting ice; rather it comes from deep within the ocean, and climate change may be making it warmer by one of those unforeseen linkages:

Antarctica is encircled by atmospheric currents that largely insulate it from the rest of Earth’s climate and keep it colder than it otherwise would be. Jenkins’ model showed that these circumpolar currents, sometimes called “Westerlies,” “the Screaming 50s,” or “the Roaring 40s,” actually push surface waters out away from the continent. This results from the Coriolis Force, the byproduct of Earth’s rotation that causes cyclonic systems to turn counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. As surface water is pushed away, warm deep water rises to replace it.

If the atmospheric currents speed up, more water is pulled up. Indeed, observations indicate these atmospheric currents have sped up in recent decades in response to global warming. So increased upwelling seems likely.

[Read more in this article which goes into deeper detail than many accounts of climate research for lay persons. It reports on the 2007 the West Antarctic Links to Sea-Level Estimation (WALSE) international workshop.]

It’s this sort of unforeseen multiplier-effect between two systems (each one of which,by itself, strains our capacity to make accurate mental and statistical models), that makes me think efforts to mitigate, and prepare for, climate change should be at the top of every developed nation’s agenda. Of course it’s not at the top of any nation’s agenda, and won’t be, until the effects are severe—not just “extreme weather” like last week’s flooding and unusual heat waves, but unmistakeable (and irreversible) such as significant rise in sea levels. By then secondary results, such as mass migration of tens of millions trying to flee drought and famine, will be well under way and our primate brains will be where they are most comfortable, dealing with what’s right in front of them. Near-term possibilities are construed concretely, long-term ones abstractly, and the consequences of that upon human action are pretty much as you’d expect. Psychologists even have a name for this, “temporal construal”.

We are told that Homo sapiens mostly evolves culturally now, rather than physically. Yet human cultures in industrial nations are mostly under the control of corporate interests which manufacture and sell us “culture” in a form that serves their ends. Government, also, serves them. If corporations were subject to natural selection we wouldn’t have seen no-strings bailouts for banks and financial institutions, instead there would have been widespread failures. If American culture is poorly adapted for survival in coming conditions, and if the few run it for their short-term gain, then chances for “our” success seem slim. Humans are slippery devils, though, enduring and resourceful. And there are still a few groups of hunter-gatherers and nomads left who may well prove far more resilient than any of our proud nations.

The County Fair


We went to our county fair today, and were saddened at how it is shrinking. Even counting time spent eating elephant ears and bento, we were there less than three hours. Everything seems smaller in numbers of exhibits, and generally drained of vitality. It takes a lot of people, many of them unpaid, to put together an event like a fair; and the aspects of human life that a fair represents are not very important to our culture any more. This is the list that comes to my mind, describing a fair: agriculture, livestock, tradition, handcraft, businesses, history, hobbies, the future … community.

Fairs used to be places where the particular identity of the county (or state) was visibly celebrated by exhibiting the products of its soil and water, the activities of its local industries, the skills of its residents, the promise of its youth. Fairgoers left feeling pretty good about where they lived. Kids perhaps saw some future for themselves in the county, whether it was the possibility of a job, an interest in a local college, or a general feeling that “this place has a future and I may be part of it”.

Our county, Jackson County (Oregon) only has a population of 200,000; 75,000 live in the largest town, Medford. Even before the 2008 crash the county’s economy was not in good shape. Construction of new houses (sometimes built “on spec”) was strong, fueled in part by arrival of new residents who had sold homes in California for inflated prices. Institutionally and individually, the county is still struggling to adjust from the demise of the timber industry, yet cannot get it together to protect from development its 8500 acres of orchard land which has historically produced high-value crops for export. Unemployment is above 12% , compared to the rate for the state as a whole, which is 10.5%. Both rates are steady, not improving.

Given all that, maybe the lackluster fair is just an accurate representation of where the county is. Still, if there was a agriculture pavilion, we never found it. If there was a county-sponsored exhibit meant to retain residents and attract new business, we never saw that either.

I did snap some photos, just of things that interested me.











Embroidered Griffon, in the Needlework section.