Government, energy & environment
Why we don’t like parties anymore
Membership of political parties in Britain is dwindling. In fact, the three main parties together have fewer members than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It is easy to make fun of this. Birds don’t ask for much – they certainly don’t expect you to listen to their boring speeches. But what does this mean in practice?
The political parties are desperate for cash and scandals, such as Conservatives giving away knighthoods and Labour offering House of Lords membership, have not improved their fortunes. If political parties were companies, this would never happen, and they would be taken over or bankrupted. Yet parties do have strong brands – they give structure to elections, allow a change of government, make choices easier. What could take their place?
The decline in party membership is not all the parties’ fault, as The Economist tactfully reminds us. There was a time, for example, when people joined political parties to find a spouse (Now they have the internet). There has been a decline in collective or tribal loyalties: more focus on the individual. Voting no longer occurs along class lines and politics is more consensual – less difference between the values of the left and right. In the last election, 75% of campaigns used volunteers who were not members of the party.
California recently began a system of open primaries, in response to the demise of constituency organisations; Britain could follow this. Voters in an open primary may cast votes on a ballot of any party. The party may ask them to show support for the party's values by contributing to the costs of the primary. When people pay for something, no matter how small, it tends to have more value than when it is given away. How interesting then, that we would rather protect the birds.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 29 September 2012, 'For the birds'. Bagehot. www.economist.com
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Search words: Democracy, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, election, Conservatives, Labour, membership, dictatorship, YouGov, values, subscribers, brand, California, open primary.
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WW2 and the future of Europe
It is common to look for parallels in history for events that are happening now. Perhaps we think what we learned (or didn’t learn) will help us make better choices this time. So it is no surprise that commentators are making comparisons between the second world war and the European crisis. Antony Beevor, a respected historian, is a likely suspect to explore such an idea.
He says firmly, at the outset, that it is wrong to make these comparisons, but understands that WW2 will always be a powerful point of reference. The scale of deaths, the extent of human suffering, and the horror of concentration camps cannot be easily forgotten. So 70 years later, politicians and the media still want to compare this war with the European crisis - and its unpredictability makes it easier to look backwards than forwards.
One thing is clear, says Beevor, the public is as badly informed about the pending European crisis as they were about the early stirrings of war in 1938. This is because politicans had “to sell hope” and they still do. But there are dark signs of trouble in the Eurozone – mass unemployment (especially youth in Spain), political unrest as well as economic collapse in Greece (where they spend hugely on defence), and a burgeoning weight on the Bundesbank of 750 billion euros in claims, equal to a third of German GDP. There is also the significant shift to the extreme right in many parts of Europe.
Some have called for a presidential system with direct elections as the only way to rescue Europe. This form of central control, a kind of elective dictatorship, is exactly what the European project was designed to avoid. The Greeks already abhor the European institutions – and the Germans also, as if this were another form of occupation. As the Greeks fragment towards the extremes of politics, other countries are seeing the decline of centrist parties. Beevor asks if a “dramatic increase in the democratic deficit” will lead to “unrest and even conflict”.
France and America always favoured a centralised Europe, but for different reasons. France wanted it as a counterbalance to America; America wanted to make Europe more like itself – and stabilise the area. Stabilisation is not much in evidence now: the central banks of stronger economies, especially the Bundesbank, have huge ‘counterparty’ risks under Target2, the European payments system. If the value of the euro keeps falling, China and India will start to buy more European companies as Japan once did.
Meanwhile, people have got used to a certain standard of living. They are not going to give it up easily. The distance between rich and poor is constantly gaping wider and capitalism can no longer justify its claim that it will eventually make everybody better off. On the contrary, the wages of the semi-skilled and unskilled are plummeting, and those of the executive suite are rising with global competition. The difference between WW2 and the European collapse is that the first brought people together: the second will tear them apart.
Ref: Prospect (UK), December 2012, 'Europe’s long shadow'. A Beevor. www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/
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Search words: second world war, economic collapse, Nazism, post-military, risk, history, individual, youth unemployment, law of unintended consequences, war on terror, European crisis, depression, Indignados, civil war, defence, euro, parliamentary democracy, centrism, extremists, nationalism, austerity, globalisation, riots, France, United States, Germany, Greece, Spain, compensation, European Central Bank, Target2, depreciation, China, India, capitalism, automation, salaries, Tobin tax, socialism, poverty, Occupy.
Put some algae in your tank
Did you know that the fossil oil we mine actually comes from microalgae living in shallow seas in millennia gone by? Rather than drill for more oil, why not go to the source and start growing it ourselves? This is the brilliant idea of Jonathan Trent, a specialist in so-called extremophiles (things that live in extreme conditions) and a biofuels champion.
It seems to make more sense than reducing crucial food production to grow soybeans for ethanol. Algae can clean wastewater, capture carbon dioxide and host sea life, as well as fill your tank. Some species have as much as 70% of their dry weight in oils and can produce nearly a hundred times more oil than soybeans. The question is how to grow algae economically.
Trent says freshwater algae can be grown in wastewater and marine algae can be grown in a combination of seawater and wastewater – so there is no need to compete for freshwater. The UN says approximately 1,500 cubic metres of wastewater is created annually, of which more than 80% is untreated. This provides a perfect nutrient-rich environment for hungry algae. Algae also need light and heat. Photobioreactors (PBRs) made from cheap, flexible floating tubes, provide a fertile environment for algae and can be placed offshore where wastewater is discharged.
NASA and California Energy Commission have already thrown some $US11 million at the project. Now they are looking for a willing host and location to present a demonstration to the world. The good oil, you might say.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 25 August 2012, 'Stop hunting energy, start growing it.' J Trent. www.newscientist.com
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Search words: oil, biofuel, carbon dioxide, soya beans, ethanol, microalgae, transesterification, farming, wastewater, raceways, photobioreactors (PBRs), OMEGA, offshore, NASA, California Energy Commission, wind, solar, wave.
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Who needs nuclear when you’ve got worms?
Here’s another frightening parallel (see WW2 and the future of Europe). The path of cyberwarfare seems to be all too similar to that followed by the atomic bomb. First, the US government invented a new kind of weapon out of fear that somebody else would do it. Second, it did not understand (nor could it) the vast, complex consequences of inventing the bomb. Third, the government called for international cooperation and rules about the invention. Last, the government decided to use its atomic bomb, in spite of a myriad of warnings about its possible implications for peace and security – return to point one.
Cyberwarfare appeared to begin when the US unleashed the Stuxnet attack on Iranian computer systems, particularly the centrifuges used to enrich uranium. But it was the final act in the four-part drama.
First, American experts continually warned that “rogue states” might attack American infrastructure via sophisticated malware. Second, the possible damage inflicted by cyberwarfare cannot yet be known. But computer systems control air traffic control, electrical grids and financial markets, to name at least some crucial ones. Third, computer scientists and engineers have argued for international cooperation and protocols to help curb the arms race of cyberwarfare.
Ironically, America is so dependent on communications and information technology that it could be more vulnerable than other countries. Perhaps it is time decisions were taken away from the military and intelligence officers to recognise its wider societal implications. It might also be wise to listen to what America – or any other power for that matter - is accusing others of doing as it might be what psychologists call “projection”.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 30 June 2012, 'Echoes of the bomb'. K Benedict. www.newscientist.com
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Three controversial ways to avert unrest
One of the wider trends identified at What’s Next is the rise of complex data analysis to explain concepts that previously seemed to be beyond numbers. (See Why data have more crunch these days.) Another area that appeared unquantifiable is history. Rather than take the storytelling viewpoint of most historians, Peter Turchin looks at what is behind the fall of the Roman Empire or why religion spreads. He calls his explanatory science “cliodynamics”, after Clio, the classical Greek muse of history.
One example of cliodynamics is the study in one US university of Google Books to test whether religious faith did in fact decline in England during Victorian times. They discovered a steep drop in the use of the words, ‘God’ or ‘Christ’ after 1850, while the less religiously oriented ‘Jesus’ remained fairly constant. So it appears to be true.
Turchin believes many waves are less dependent on individuals than it might seem – they are just a symptom of an underlying trend. He has also made a controversial prediction that political instability in the US and western Europe will come to a head in the next decade. The peak could be around 2020 and Turchin recognises the timing could be later – but he does not doubt the scale of the unrest.
His methods of averting crisis are controversial also. First he says, increase tax rates on high earners to reduce the widening rich/poor divide. Second, cut immigration, because immigrants tend to slice wages. Third, ensure fewer people go to university, because degrees tend to create elite classes.
Phew! No wonder he is not too popular with people, let alone historians. It will be interesting to see whether any of these three methods happen by themselves. For example, the cost of a university education is becoming prohibitive unless you are happy to be deeply indebted for the rest of your life. Might immigration slow down with economic collapse in the eurozone? As for tax rates, see our story about Google, Apple and Facebook, who pay almost no tax in Britain (Big Tech is just like Big Finance). This has to change!
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 18 August 2012, 'Revolutionary cycles'. B Holmes. www.newscientist.com
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Search words: civil unrest, prediction, mathematics, cliodynamics, Peter Turchin, US, political violence, mathematical ecologist, history, empires, religion, Roman Empire, economic history, data analysis, Google Books, Evolution Institute, population cycle, tax rates, immigration, university education.
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