Government, energy & environment

Virtual violence

Back in 1993, analysts at RAND warned: “Cyber-war is coming!” They were a little ahead of themselves and it took another decade for US national security officials to agree and another 4 years before (some believe was) the world’s first cyber-attack in Estonia. By 2011, a past director of national intelligence was warning of a “digital Pearl Harbor”.

Nevertheless, the emotive language around cyber-war is highly misleading. Using Carl von Clausewitz’s widely accepted definition of war - actions should be violent or potentially violent; war is always an instrument to compel one side to accept the will of another; and war always contains a political goal or ambition - then no cyber-attack has ever taken place. Stuxnet (the computer virus attack in Iran) is the one and only potential exception.

Cyber-war might actually result in less violence, not more, because it provides an alternative to physical violence. To date no attack, not even Stuxnet, has resulted in any human casualties. Moreover, potential cyber-attacks are shortlived, hard to repeat sabotage operations, which still rely on traditional spy-craft and human operatives. Indeed, the threat of cyber-attack makes traditional espionage more likely in many cases.

Cyber-attacks can still be substantial - code-induced violence may yet bring down entire systems and infrastructures. But they are largely invisible and lack the symbolic and emotional power of traditional weapons. They don’t undermine a state’s monopoly of force either, although they do have the advantage of psychological disturbance.

If undetected, they can call into question not only systems, but the people who design and operate them.

Using cyber-attack terminology also misleads us because, by constantly warning about the dangers of cyber-war, governments and media encourage the false idea that there can be cyber-peace.

The threat is always there and will not go away. So organisations and individuals need to protect themselves rather than passively rely on governments to take responsibility. Moreover, cyber-war might even be a good thing. It could be argued that cyber-war represents an ethical evolution towards less lethal forms of violence.

Ref: Foreign Affairs (US) November/December 2013, ‘Cyberwar and peace’ by T. Rid.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Cyber-war, war
Trend tags: Digitalisation

Digital degrees

Education and healthcare are ripe for reinvention, say digital commentators, and they have a point. Both suffer from high costs, low productivity and lack of personalisation. But both are professions where the human touch can be indispensible and where the intangible value of brands makes a difference.

Higher education has been a huge success story across the globe. What was once a privilege for the few has been made available to the many. You might argue that access is now too open. Students with less ability are forced into higher education with little or no prospect of future employment when apprenticeships might be more appropriate.

A big change is the availability of low-cost digital alternatives. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), which became widespread in 2012, offer a low-cost alternative to what has become an increasingly costly option. They are available online to anyone regardless of location, which obviously appeals to students in what has become a global market.

However, while low-cost digital degrees threaten low and middle-ranking universities, elite institutions are likely to remain relatively untouched. While the option to attend lectures virtually – or conveniently download for later attendance – is highly attractive, this isn’t the whole story. Charismatic teachers tend to be more charismatic in person and, as one student rather colourfully explained: “the drinking and sex aren’t as good online.”

Another factor potentially limiting the expansion of online learning is government intervention. Many towns and cities rely on their universities to provide local income and employment and they will be wary of letting this go.

So what’s next? Expect a polarisation between elite high-cost institutions on one hand and low-cost digital alternatives on the other, with both stealing ideas from the other. Online universities will set up physical locations for examinations and socialising perhaps, while physical universities will tap into the best of what’s available online.

Many institutions in the middle will struggle to survive while some employers will set up their own universities and start to accept digital degrees. What won’t change is universities will remain “a place for the communication and circulation of thought by means of personal intercourse.” John Henry Newman said this in 1858, although it remains to be seen to what extent intercourse can be made virtual.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 28 June 2014, ‘ Creative destruction’ and ‘The digital degree’.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Education, MOOCs
Trend tags: Digitalisation

Is “global” on the wobble?

Is globalisation under threat? Many signs suggest it is. For example, international trade flows in the last 4 years have lagged the increase in global GDP, described by Capital Economics as “unprecedented in postwar history”.

In the last 20 years, a billion workers have joined the global economy, rather than working in their own domestic industries. This trend has been blamed for mass layoffs, outsourcing offshore, and the availability of cut-price imports.

The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) between America and countries including Japan and Australia, and the TTIP between Europe and America, are both attempts to bolster trade, while keeping out weaker countries or those perceived as threatening, like China. Protectionist measures are increasing, says the independent Global Trade Alert, which has documented nearly 4,000 since 2008.

Migration is now more tightly controlled, except within the EU and between Australia and New Zealand. Australia has taken a hard stance towards migrants attempting to come by boat. Many of Europe’s unemployed, particularly in Spain and Britain, see migrants as a threat to their jobs and wages.

Opponents of globalisation have become more vocal, as evidenced by the resurgence of Scottish nationalism, enthusiasm for the Front National in France and the radical Syriza government in Greece.

Financial flows have fallen most. Cross-border capital flows have slowed from 20% of global GDP in 2007 to a sluggish 6% in the first half of 2014. Banks are wary of cross-border lending, which can jeopardise their financial stability. Many countries are increasingly wary of foreign investors, except Britain, and China has very tight capital controls.

Inflows of speculative “hot money” can pump up house prices, for example in Australia, and cause consumers and businesses to borrow too much. If these global investors then change their minds, a rapid boom can quickly bust. Since the global financial collapse, people have become very cautious about opening themselves up to the vagaries of markets – and the temperaments of the traders who attempt to control them.

The current crisis in Greece only supports a backlash against globalisation. Philippe Legrain’s book, European Spring, among others, attempts some sort of solution to the crisis in Europe. But do these trends mean the end of globalisation? There are lots of signs globalisation is under threat, but that is not the same as saying the end is nigh. Just time for a reset, perhaps.

Ref: CAPX (Centre for Policy Studies, UK), 17 April 2015, ‘The future of globalisation is in doubt’ by Philippe Legrain.
European spring: Why our economies and politics are in a mess — and how to put them right, by Philippe Legrain.
The Guardian, 24 May 2015, ‘Borders are closing and banks are in retreat. Is globalisation dead?’ by H Stewart.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: free trade, GDP, protectionism, capital controls, lending, immigration, agriculture, xenophobia, unemployment, anti-dumping, China, TPP, WTO, foreign investment, digital technology, ‘hot money’, nationalism, subsidies, globalisation.
Trend tags: -

So many people without a home

More and more people in the world have nowhere to live, with 50 million displaced and 16 million refugees. This is shocking enough, but there are no signs this trend for global homelessness will stop.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of people forcibly displaced because of war or persecution in 2014 was 59.5 million - more than the populations of South Africa, South Korea or Spain. It classified them into three main groups: refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people.

There are 16.7 million refugees, half of which are from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. Turkey is the main host country, followed by (not in this order) Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon and Jordan. In fact, 86% of refugees now (70% a decade ago) are hosted by developing countries.

There are 1.2 million asylum seekers, most from Syria, then Democratic Republic of Congo, then Burma – Germany received most of these. Meanwhile, 3.3 million are internally displaced, which means they have lost their homes but are still within their own country. More than half the world’s displaced people are children.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says humanitarian organisations are no longer able to clear up this mess. It needs a political, not a humanitarian solution.

Alexander Betts, Oxford University, says the refugee problem is misunderstood and has been reduced by politicians to trafficking or smuggling. Measures to reduce smuggling – deportation, immigration control - will not remove the problem of people being displaced because of war or persecution. Francois Crepeau, UN migration expert, has been outspoken on the urgent need to address the context.

Betts refers to the ‘boat people’ crisis following the Vietnam War, and said the UN-inspired Comprehensive Plan of Action was successful in resettling millions of people. It worked through an international agreement for sharing responsibility. South East Asia kept borders open and took part in search and rescue, while the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe committed to resettle refugees. The plan also found humane return or legal immigration processes for those not considered refugees.

The crisis in the Mediterranean can be addressed in similar ways by sharing the burden and relocation of refugees more equally in the EU, building protection and human rights capacities of host countries, and promoting the ability of refugees to contribute to – not just deplete - their host state.

Unless there is some kind of shared commitment, beyond the current, limited propensity to punish people – smugglers, refugees, children – the trend for global homelessness can only continue.

Ref: The Conversation, 24 April 2015, ‘To deal with the refugee crisis you need to understand thecause’, by A Betts.
Al Jazeera, 19 April 2015, ‘Pope Francis asks world to help Italy with migrants’, anon.
UNHCR, 18 June 2015, ‘World faces major crisis as number of displaced hits record high’, D Murray.
The Guardian, 20 June 2015, ‘Global refugee figure passes 50m for first time since second world war’, H Sherwood.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: refugee, Mediterranean, displacement, war, trafficking, smuggling, humanitarian, political, children, Syrians, Turkey, Germany, asylum seekers, persecution, Mare Nostrum, Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), boat people, search and rescue, containment.
Trend tags: Migration

Our growing waste line

We have become very good at wasting things. A recent US report says we wasted 41.8 million tonnes of e-waste last year, the equivalent of 1.15 million heavy trucks in a line 23,000kms long. As you might imagine, the US and China provided the biggest quantities. But on a per capita basis, so-called ‘green’ Norway came top with 28.4 kgs and Switzerland second, at 26.3 kgs.

Top of the list of wasted items was small equipment (vacuum cleaners, microwaves, toasters) at 12.8 million tonnes. Meanwhile, those ubiqitous screens came in 4th with 6.3 million tonnes of the blighters. Less than one-sixth of everything was thought to have been properly recycled. As well as valuable minerals, like iron, copper and gold, was a toxic store of mercury, cadmium and chlorofluorocarbons. This is waste with a high price.

Earlier this year, Thames Water (UK) removed a 10-tonne ‘fatberg’ from a Chelsea sewer, which had caused 400,000 UK pounds of damage. Fatbergs are made up of solidified fat, wet wipes, sanitary items and household waste. These are all things that should never be put down the sink in the first place.

What is to be done about the growing mountain of waste caused by our materialist, throwaway culture? For example, some 33 million tons of food go to American landfills every year – 40% of their food. If you are looking for an innovative, but peculiar solution to food waste, the chef of a New York restaurant, Blue Hill, opened a pop-up restaurant called wastED (ED means education). His purpose was to use all the food scraps that are usually thrown away or considered to be ‘off-grade’.

In fact, Dan Barber says, using the things lying around is what many chefs already do. Imagine this: ‘Cured cuts of waste-fed pig’ with ‘reject carrot mustard, off-grade sweet potatoes, melba toast from yesterday’s oatmeal’. His view is the best cooking comes out of necessity and Americans have never really had to do that (at least not his crowd).

In less fashionable places in the West, there are many people who are already making the most out of the little they have. There is nothing trendy about having to eat out of a bin. It’s so ironic that one half is making a virtue out of re-using waste – and charging for it - while the other half is struggling to survive. Rather than address our obscene problem of waste, perhaps it is worth looking at why we need to buy so much in the first place.

Ref: The Independent, 22 April 2015, ‘10-tonne 'fatberg' removed from west London sewer after causing 400,000 worth of damage’ by H Saul.
United Nations University, 20 April 2015. ‘Global e-waste volume hits new peak in 2014’. Anon.
New Yorker, 28 March 2015, ‘Waste not, want not, eat up?’, by H Goldfield.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: fatberg, sewer, waste, e-waste, US, China, Norway, Blue Hill restaurant, sanitary, screens, whitegoods, disposal, recycling.
Trend tags: -