On climate change and global warming

The flash floods in Uttarakhand (and in other areas of the Himalayas – but the burst of a glacial lake made things worse in Uttarakhand) and the increasing number of freak weather phenomena in Europe and the US (such as Europe’s extraordinary cold spell this year, or this year’s record number of hurricanes in the US) have given the issue of global warming a prominence which it did not enjoy before. While that is good in itself, I do not expect it to have any real impact on international and national policies. As one expert puts it: “At its root, global warming is the product of the decisions and behavior of 6.5 billion human beings.” While this expert (his name is Anthony Leiserowitz), after having stated this obvious fact, then passionately makes the case for some kind of New World Order, I think it is entirely unrealistic to expect these decisions and behavior to change over the next decades.

While I was travelling from Nepal to Belgium a few days ago (do politicians sincerely believe that a tax on aviation emissions – the IPCC has estimated that aviation is responsible for around 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change – will change the travel plans of people like me – or you?), I had a pleasant conversation with a representative of a major European lamp producer (yes, lamps: the bulbs you are using to light your house). He just came back from a visit to a factory in Chandigarh, India, to which his company had outsourced the production of their energy-saving light bulbs. The man obviously liked his job – a quality which I greatly admire: because a job is so important in one’s life, I think one should really be passionate about it. That being said, the economist in me quickly grasped the irony: we, in Europe, are now saving energy by using energy-saving light bulbs produced in an Indian sweatshop. What’s the energy saved here – if we’re looking at it from a global perspective?

This is obviously only possible because the costs of international transportation have come down so much, and because markets have effectively become world markets. Even labor has become an international commodity now, as anyone who has traveled through a Middle Eastern airport will have noticed: these airports would not be there if it weren’t for the cheap Asian workers they are exploiting – people who are separated for their country and family for at least a year or even more.

I should write a separate post on this but it is clear there are societal costs to the increased international mobility of labor at both ends: domestically we lose jobs and suffer high unemployment – a key ingredient of social malaise – while the temporary or permanent immigrants do earn good money but struggle with integration and other psychological issues and – in the majority of cases – also leave a gap in the social fabric back home (as I live in Nepal, I could tell more than one story about this – but then this post would be way too long). But, again, humanity – despite all of the forms of collective action it is capable of – will not reverse globalization: it does not want to – and even if wanted to, it can’t.

Indeed, the trends we have observed since the end of the second World War will not change. The costs of international transportation will continue to decrease (and, if they would increase – because of rising energy prices or because of some kind of international tax (no, don’t think about it) – they will not increase significantly) and markets – for products, for capital and, importantly, for labor – will become more, not less, integrated. More importantly, no international deliberations will be able to request or force developing countries to not become developed: cities like Mumbai or Kathmandu (or Kabul, if you want a more outlandish example of a burgeoning urban area) will continue to grow, and the ‘middle class’ in all of Asia’s and Africa’s countries will continue to grow and want what they want: a refrigerator, a TV, and a motorbike (or, better, a little car). That will continue to fuel global warming.

European or American politicians are utterly unable to do anything about this. So, yes, the ice sheets covering the Antarctic and Greenland, and the Arctic sea ice, will continue to melt. And, yes, many island nations (the Maldives, the Kiribati islands, the Seychelles,…) and even some nations (Bangladesh – and large parts of Holland!) are under threat. And, yes, there will be more disasters like the ‘Himalayan tsunami’ of June this year (which killed thousands), or like the tornadoes in the US (which killed dozens), or like the floods in Central Europe – which damaged thousands of homes.

Global warming and its consequences are here already – and it’s only going to get worse. As usual, some will be more affected than others. But history has never been equitable – and humanity has never been able to change its course. We will soon be 7 billion. It will only get worse.

On Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

One of the articles in the latest edition of Time Magazine (I am not a regular reader, but so what else does one read on the plane?) is devoted to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Indeed, in this globalized world – with all its crises and more and more people getting involved in them – it would seem that it has become a societal problem in the US.

Apart from the usual talk about the problems and horror which soldiers and development workers have witnessed in a war zone, the article also notes that a large part of PTSD is not related to the difficulties of dealing with bad memories but – quite simply – with the fact that, once you get out of the zone, you no longer have a feeling that one is part of a grander design, that it’s like you’re not trying to make this world a better place any more.

The few people who asked me about how I’ve dealt with bad memories (from Afghanistan, or from my work in Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami) should not bother. I would say that we all see very bad stuff all of the time really (the media around us offer no shelter from horror) but that seeing one of our relatives or friends suffer from an incurable disease (like terminal cancer), or that losing a kid in an accident (or worse), brings much more mental and psychological trauma than the scenes of carnage and disaster (especially because, both in virtual or real reality, the repetition of such scenes numbs you anyway).

I think PTSD is more like a personal crisis of sense-making. In my view (but, of course, I can only talk from my experience only) it has a lot to do with the fact that, while one was trying to do good in some incredibly remote place (but often for very selfish reasons: money, a sense of adventure, ego,…), one neglected friends and family, which makes it difficult to re-connect and find the kind of joy which we should all be striving for in our life, and that is to be a meaningful person for our kids, our parents, our larger families and our friends and relatives. It may sound strange, but it took me a long time to accept that I would not be able to change the world and, more importantly, that I should simply try to do a better job when it comes to taking care of those are close to me. I am still not there actually, but I am trying.

I am getting married. I am so happy life is giving me a second chance to do better.

Afghanistan: another post-mortem analysis

The row between President Karzai and the US which accompanied the much-delayed opening of a ‘political office’ by the Taliban in Doha a few days ago, the continued attacks on Afghan and international security forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s immediate focus on an exchange of prisoners as talks between the US and the Taliban seem to be getting underway (five Taliban leaders held in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for one US ‘prisoner of war’ held who knows where) all show that the Taliban have no intention of yielding any concessions: not to the US, and surely not to the current Afghan regime.

That is not much of a concern for the current US administration as Barack Obama had made it clear, even before his first term as US President, that he just wanted the US to cut the losses – in lives and in treasure – and disengage as soon as the Taliban could offer reasonable assurances that they would not abet international terrorism. Hence, as soon as they’ll do that (and, of course, we’ll trust their word – even if there’s no ground whatsoever for doing so), the US will be happy to cut a deal.

As for national terrorism, well… Who cares? It is obvious for all those who want to see (but then many do not) that since the worldwide War on Terrorism started, US interventionism – or international interventionism in general – has not much to show for in this regard. Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are hardly stable, with hard-line Islamic groups threatening whatever improvement was made in terms of political and civil rights as the Arab Spring fanned out. As for Syria, well… As much as I deplore the bloodshed there (the conflict in Afghanistan looks pretty insignificant in comparison), Barack Obama is right in not committing to a military intervention. [If the EU thinks it can help by arming the rebels, let them do so – even if it is not a wise move in my view.] The fight in Syria is a full-blown Islamic war between Sunni and Shia Muslims – and Syria’s minorities, Christian or other, are being crushed in the event. Nevertheless, Barack Obama’s gut feeling about the conflict is correct: stay out! If the West would truly care about human rights and democracy, it should intervene in Saudi Arabia.

That being said, the Taliban’s ambivalence about negotiations – or its outright inflexibility I should say – should obviously worry Karzai, as well as his family and friends and supporters. Let me be straight: I have some sympathy for him. In fact, I admire him – but to some extent only. We should all admire him, if only because Afghan kings and presidents usually end up murdered. More importantly, Hamid Karzai’s personal history is full of bravery and sacrifices – although I do agree that does not justify his erratic behavior.

So what is my prognosis as to Afghanistan’s future? I doubt Afghanistan will hold presidential elections next year. I think President Karzai – who cannot be elected for yet another term according to Afghanistan’s Constitution – will just say it’s too costly and too dangerous for people to vote, and so he will just call it a Loya Jirga – as he did before – and ask the carefully selected ‘elders’ to confirm he can continue without going through the trouble of national elections. And then he’ll preside over another phase of gradual disintegration – one of the many which have marked Afghanistan’s history. Or he might be murdered. Or, else, perhaps I am wrong and there will actually be some kind of elections through which Afghanistan would get another leader – an outcome which the US would surely like to see. Would it make any difference? I don’t think so. Under Afghanistan’s constitutional system, the President is both Head of State as well as Head of Government – which is just one of the many flaws in the current set-up which ensures its non-sustainability – and so that’s a sure recipe for disaster in my view.

The truth is that the Bonn settlement did not integrate the losers of the US-led War in Afghanistan – and now that this War is obviously over (the US got tired of fighting it) – these losers are back with a vengeance. So we’re in for another decade of trouble there. But, again, I think it’s clear to all now that Washington does not look at that as much of a concern anymore: it’s of concern to the Afghans only.

So what went wrong? Well… Washington finally got it: Afghanistan requires a political solution. The problem is: Washington’s decision-makers understood this way too late and so, yes, Washington’s negotiators are basically negotiating the terms of retreat now – if not surrender – and there’s nothing honorable about it.

As I spent more than four years in that country, I pity my Afghan friends. They do have the right to feel betrayed. I also pity those families who have lost relatives there, and those who lost limbs or got permanent trauma – physical or psychological. We all fought an impossible battle there (I myself spent more than four years there)… And that’s the only thing we can be proud of. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

As for Karzai, perhaps he can find himself some safe place to go to. His family got rich enough and so money is not an issue. But perhaps he’ll prefer harakiri. Or perhaps he’ll get murdered. Or perhaps he’ll clear the way for a successor. All of that would be honorable – or, at the very least, more honorable than what the West is currently trying to do – and that is to just get out – regardless of the loss of face and lack of morality it implies. […] But then honor is not something that matters in the post-modern world we’re living in, is it?