“I think we’re fucked” and other reasons not to publish a book

Last night saw the launch at the Science Museum of a new book called Ten Billion, by Stephen Emmott. I’m not sure I can recall another book that’s annoyed me this much.

Emmott is head of computation science at Microsoft Research. He’s smart, and clearly makes full use of his mandate at Microsoft to think about big issues. And his book, as the blurb puts it, is “about the potential consequences of the collective activities of the human population as we continue to grow towards ten billion. Its message is simple: We are in real trouble, are heading for deeper trouble, and are failing to do much about it.”

His analysis, in a nutshell, is that: a massive resource scarcity and climate change crunch is rapidly approaching; we’re kidding ourselves if we think that technology is going to let us off the hook without having to face up to any change in our lifestyles; developed world publics are in no mood to consume less; and since we’re not willing to face up to the questions about fair shares in the context of environmental limits, it’s most unlikely that emerging economies will do so any time soon either.

While he gets some of his data wrong, I agree with the broad thrust of this argument 100%. So why the fury? Because of how he finishes the book. Here’s his conclusion (and I’m quoting verbatim):

“We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will.

I think we’re fucked.”

Now, I agree that we’re in for a bumpy ride. I agree that it’s going to take something nonlinear and spectacular to make the transition successfully. And it’s fair enough if Emmott can’t imagine what that might look like; I can’t predict it either.

But the point here is that anyone spinning ‘collapse’ stories like this – and especially anyone who is, like Emmott, an opinion former of considerable influence (as I type, his book is the #1 bestseller on global warming or climate at Amazon) – is creating narrative frames that other people are going to use to make sense of what’s going on, how we get here, and what happens next.

And Emmott’s story is not helpful. It’s toxic.

Stories – myths – are deeply, deeply powerful things. They create our reality as much as they describe it. And the more opinion formers get behind collapse narratives, the more likely these narratives are to become self-fulfilling prophecies, contributing to a mood of despair rather than resolve when shocks open up moments of opportunity.

Thinking that we’re “fucked” is a legitimate intellectual position – but if that is what you genuinely believe, then the responsible course of action is to shut the fuck up about it – and leave the narrative bandwidth to others with something more hopeful to say than you.

What have you got to lose by doing so, if you already think it’s all over? And conversely, what are you adding to public debate if you don’t have the imagination even to admit the possibility of success? Either lead, or get out of the way, as a climate negotiator once put it to the US delegation.

All of which begs the question of what I think a more hopeful narrative would look like, given that I buy Emmott’s analysis of the severity of the situation and the lack of obvious answers. I don’t think there’s a single answer, but I’m personally pretty interested in stuff like this. It’s the transcript of a talk I gave earlier this week, and is a first attempt to put together some thoughts that have been bubbling away for over a year.

The talk was at the annual conference of the very cool Modern Church movement – they were founded in the 19th century to oppose religious fundamentalism from within the church, and these days work on areas like religious pluralism, defence of science, and gender equity. Anyway, work in progress – feedback very welcome.

#NSA: Issues for Congress 16th January 2001

From a Congressional Research Service Report for Congress published pre 9/11.

NSA: Issues for Congress: by Richard A. Best, Jr

On reaching that watershed moment:

The National Security Agency (NSA), one of the largest components of the U.S. Intelligence Community, has reached a major watershed in its history. Responsible for obtaining intelligence from international communications, NSA’s efforts are being challenged by the multiplicity of new types of communications links, by the widespread availability of low-cost encryption systems, and by changes in the international environment in which dangerous security threats can come from small, but well organized, terrorist groups as well as hostile nation states.

On the scale of the problem: finding a needle in a haystack:

These links are not necessarily easy targets given the great expansion in international telephone service that has grown by approximately 18% annually since 1992. Intelligence agencies are faced with profound “needle- in-a-haystack” challenges; it being estimated that in 1997 there were some 82 billion minutes of telephone service worldwide.

On new technologies:

Fiber optics can carry far more circuits with greater clarity and through longer distances and provides the greater bandwidth necessary for transmitting the enormous quantities of data commonplace in the Internet age. Inevitably, fiber optic transmission present major challenges to electronic surveillance efforts as their contents cannot be readily intercepted, at least without direct access to the cables themselves.

On having to use communications data because they can’t break codes:

In some cases, NSA must resort to analyses of traffic patterns–who is communicating with whom, when, and how often–to provide information that may not be obtainable through breaking of codes and reading of plaintext.

On oversight and accountability

NSA and counterpart agencies in a number of other countries, especially Great Britain, have come under much criticism in the European Parliament for allegedly monitoring private communications of non-U.S. businessmen in a coordinated electronic surveillance effort known as Echelon in order to support domestic corporations. Some critics go further and charge that NSA’s activities represent a constant threat to civil liberties of foreigners and U.S persons as well. Though NSA has reassured congressional oversight committees that the Agency complies strictly with U.S. law, these controversies will undoubtedly continue.

You don’t need Snowden when you have the CRS.

Are the g7+ and Donors Heading for a Clash?

g7+ donors foreign aidThe g7+ group of 18 fragile and conflict-affected states has joined together to share experiences and promote a new development framework in what are the most difficult of circumstances. Supported by the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, the group achieved a major breakthrough at the Busan High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in November 2011—an agreement on a New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States. A major part of this is a new orientation to the relationship with donors.

The New Deal priorities what fragile states themselves think are the most important issues to building peaceful and prosperous societies by identifying five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs):

  1. Legitimate politics – Foster inclusive political settlements and conflict resolution
  2. Security – Establish and strengthen people’s security
  3. Justice – Address injustices and increase people’s access to justice
  4. Economic foundations – Generate employment and improve livelihoods
  5. Revenues and services – Manage revenue and build capacity for accountable and fair service delivery

These are meant to frame a country-led, inclusive way of setting national goals and establishing a national development plan. This, in turn, is meant to increase country-donor harmonization and donor co-ordination. Continue reading

Introducing the new Conflict, Stability and Security Fund

There’s some interesting stuff in the latest Spending Round, including the new Conflict, Stability and Security Fund which looks rather interesting (not least because the numbers don’t seem to add up and I  have no idea where the other £217 million comes from). That said…

The Government will provide more than £1 billion in 2015-16 for a new Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). This builds on the success of the Conflict Pool by bringing together existing UK capabilities and resources from across government (including conflict resources worth £683 million in 2014-15) and £100 million of new funding.

The CSSF will fund a broader range of activity to help prevent conflict that affects vulnerable people in the world’s poorest countries, and tackle threats to UK interests from instability overseas. This will include actions the UK delivers directly or through third parties and its contribution to multilateral interventions overseas to help prevent conflict and instability, and support post-conflict stabilisation.

These resources will be used more strategically to deliver better outcomes. Priorities for the Fund will be set by the Government’s National Security Council to ensure a strengthened cross-departmental approach that draws on the most effective combination of defence, diplomacy, development assistance, security and intelligence. This will include funding to ensure the UK can respond quickly to crises. It will also ensure longer term conflict prevention work to tackle the root causes of conflict abroad, such as providing military training and capacity building, human rights training, security and justice sector reform, and facilitating political reconciliation and peace processes.

Interesting because the NSC will now set priorties for the fund rather than the three departments did for the conflict pool (you can read their latest guidance here). Will the Home Office and Intelligence Agencies now have seats at the table – with the MoD, FCO and DFID. And what does this mean for DFID in particular? Other GD folk are much better informed on whats happening at 22 Whitehall but I can’t help feeling that DFID is increasingly part of the national security debate – even if some insiders would rather remain at arms length. This can only be a good thing. There are clear benefits to both the UK and priority countries to have access to DFID’s skills, expertise, and presence in countering terrorism and violent extremism as well as tackling organised crime.  The security and development nexus has always been a sore point and the cause of plenty of arguments between sides – the European Commission, as I type,  is having similar issues – perhaps we have reached a moment when things will really change – for the better.

No hero

From today’s FT:

Having violated his secrecy contracts, Mr Snowden has broken serious laws and should face the music. What he disclosed to The Guardian and Washington Post highlights the breadth of the US National Security Agency’s eavesdropping operation. But he did not uncover any breach of US law. Nor do the contents of the leaks invalidate what the NSA is trying to do. There is much scope to tighten its accountability – not least by cutting down on the number of private contractors with access to highly classified information.

Comparisons to Daniel Ellsberg the celebrated leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, are particularly inapt. Mr Ellsberg first approached elected senators in the hope they would publicise the papers to discredit US conduct in the Vietnam war. When that failed, he leaked to the media. Mr Snowden made no such attempt. More importantly, Mr Ellsberg willingly submitted to US authorities and courted prosecution so he could defend his civil disobedience on home soil. It was declared a mistrial and he went free. In contrast, Mr Snowden had fled to Hong Kong before his NSA leaks were published. Hong Kong happens to be a part of the sovereign territory of China, the world’s largest (and most cyber-active) autocracy. Mr Snowden’s current host is Russia. His next stop is likely to be Cuba.

Too much secrecy can lead to the leaking of information. As government secrecy has grown and has come to involve more people, the opportunities to leak from within expand; and with increased leaking, governments attempt to shore up secrecy. This is particularly important because as classifying secrets becomes more layered and complex, so the potential for leaks grows as well. Secrets become vulnerable to betrayal, which in turn promotes greater disrespect for the system itself. Ultimately leaking appears to reward those people whose motivations may be the most dubious – not those interested in a more sustained and consistent approach to promoting greater openness.

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