Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Syrian tripwire has been sprung

{A shorter version of this is in the SEN 8/30/13}
As most sane people expected, but only the lunatics wanted, Syria is rapidly turning into a clusterfuck of immense proportions.
Of course, I'm referring to US airstrikes on Syrian military and government facilities, the latest round of gluttonous insanity that has been all too prevalent in our foreign policy circles for years now.
Before I go on, I should add a disclaimer: I'm writing this Tuesday afternoon, after Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement we'd conduct a few days of strikes starting Thursday. It's possible we actually did nothing – something I hope is true. It's also possible that multiple nations are now ablaze, although that's not too likely in such a short time frame. The fact you're reading this obviously indicates the worst potential hasn't been realized (yet, and hopefully never).
That said, I think it's safe to say Washington's reaction, or lack thereof, has introduced a new element of randomness into an already chaotic mess. Kerry was claiming readiness to attack even before there was clarity on what kind of agent was used (some sources claim a nerve gas, some claim an industrial toxin) or on the perpetrator's identity (some ID the Assad regime, claiming desperation in the face of rebel advances near Damascus; others point at the rebels, arguing they saw a chance to bring in the US).
Neither side is one I particularly want to ally with.
Although use of chemical weapons is horrifying, the only way to actually stop the killing there that stands a chance of working requires the US, Russia, China and Iran to all be involved. Anything less might tamp down the violence for a while, but will guarantee the killing resurfaces in potentially even more nasty ways. That's because solitary intervention, especially by the West, won't actually solve the problems that sparked and continue to fuel it.
Those problems are many and of long duration. The longest fuse goes all the way back to the Sunni-Shia split that began developing around 1400 years ago. That's the surface rationale behind the way various Middle Eastern nations have taken sides: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the rebels (mostly Sunnis, with radical Wahhabi-fueled al-Qaeda elements being the best armed) vs the Alawi Assad regime backed by Hezbollah and Iran (mostly Shia, although some Sunnis and Christians support Assad).
To me, this is mostly an excuse being used by leaders on both sides to provoke co-religionists into fighting for causes that won't actually benefit them. Those leaders are using the religious differences as a tool to promote their own political influence in the region, the latest clash in a centuries-long rotation of power among the Iranian Plateau, the Arab lowlands, and the Anatolian highlands.
Layered atop that, and in practice a bigger factor, is the fact this region has long been a focal point of arrogant colonialist game-playing. Even as World War I was raging, the British and French devised a secret plan, called the Sykes-Picot Treaty, to partition the Middle East for their own benefit. It “gave” Iraq, Jordan and Palestine to Britain, and Syria and Lebanon to France, well before they had any sign of success vs the Ottoman forces that ruled the region. The 1916 plan totally ignored the wishes and cultural realities of the people who lived there, and the winners later granted newly-concocted puppet kingdoms to certain leaders even if they had no connection to the area they were to rule (for example, Faisal in Iraq).
Adding to that was the fact Britain had also been under pressure from Zionist Jewish and Christian leaders for a couple of decades to support creation of a Zionist state in Palestine. London did so in the Balfour Declaration and helped hundreds of thousands of European Jews get to Palestine, especially as the horrors of the Holocaust came to light.
Unfortunately, that aid conflicted with promises London had made to Arab allies and the facts on the ground there, and Arabs have never forgotten. At the time, Palestine, today's Israel, was a sparsely populated corner of the Ottoman province of Syria. It was almost entirely Muslim with very few Jews, although Jewish communities were scattered all over the empire, particularly in the cities. The evidence shows they were well-integrated into the Muslim majority and usually practiced their own culture with little trouble until after Israeli independence in 1948.
The post-WW2 years brought a new form of external influence – the Cold War. In 1971, Moscow established a fairly small naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus; the Russians are still there despite the Soviet collapse in 1991*. They've reportedly been renovating it to support larger warships in recent years, and Russian technicians have gone to Syria to operate new air-defense batteries, but how many are there is unknown.
A widespread lack of information is one of the biggest risks US air attacks have. We don't know what treaties Syria has with Moscow, or what Russia is likely to do if its facility or people are hit. Putin has warned the US to stay out of Syria repeatedly, as has Iran, which recently stated a US attack would cause the whole region to become a “ball of fire.”
The confusion of alliances there is unpleasantly reminiscent of those in the Balkans in 1914.
On Tuesday, the Guardian's Julian Borger reported that Washington wouldn't wait for the results of the UN investigation already in Syria, only for a vote in the UK Parliament slated for Thursday.
The same story states, “As presidential systems, the US and French governments do not have the same obligation to go to their legislatures to seek approval to act ….” He's dead wrong about that. Our Constitution specifically gives only Congress the power to declare war. Since the attack in Syria wasn't against us and the UN has not authorized intervention, the president has no authority to act absent such a vote.
Even if “successful” (whatever that means here), such an attack puts us right in the crosshairs of an ancient trait of Arab culture: the Bedouin sense of honor. Under that code, attacks do not go unpunished – a tendency that has often led to very long blood rivalries between tribes. It's true that Israel is widely believed to have bombed a few Syrian convoys and, several years ago, Syria's nearly-complete nuclear reactor, but there's a difference from what Obama's planning. Syria did not react then because Israel did it literally in darkness and never admitted it (which would have triggered the honor issue), but US warships blatantly launching missiles at Syria do not have that culturally-sanctioned “deniability.”
Ironically, Obama's doing it to “save face” as well, since he made the “red line” ultimatum months ago. Under the circumstances, his “honor” means far less than the big-picture consequences, and is definitely not a good reason for war.
As usual, caught in the middle are millions of civilians who'd much rather just live their lives without fear of being blown up, shot or poisoned. For them, this is truly a no-win situation,and most of the statements of concern about their well-being, from all sides, are little more than propaganda.
That's always the case in wars; they're invariably driven by somebody's overweening ego and thirst for power, with “humanitarian concerns” being just a pretext. Unfortunately, such BS will continue until normal people force the warmongers to fight to the death among themselves in steel-cage matches – then we kill the winner when he steps out. War over, no civilian deaths, no massive destruction to rebuild, no innocent people huddling in terror as the next bomb screams down.

* Given the potential explosiveness of this situation, I think it's worth noting that an errant US missile hitting the Tartus base and nearby rail center was the final straw leading to nuclear war in Pat Frank's classic novel Alas, Babylon. Although that book is quaintly out-of-date in many respects (it was written in 1959, well before nuclear winter theory), it still serves as a good warning: we'd count ourselves extremely lucky if a nuclear WW3 manifests that gently....

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Forward to the land

{Running in the SEN 8/23/13}

The variety of stuff from our field that was ripe at the same time one day last week. (Also got a few turnips and a peach later.)

Our culture talks a lot about “independence,” “individualism,” “boot-strapping,” and “freedom,” but has an awful lot of features that impede all of those things, most of them tied to money, debt and consumption.
At the same time, it tends to dismiss or ignore people who decide not to play by “the rules” and actually seek some form of self-sufficiency. The exception is if someone can commercialize it. Take agriculture as an example: state law creates protections for commercial farming but doesn't (as far as I can tell) clearly do so for the common-sense right of people to raise food for themselves.
If that's not the true basis of independence, I don't know what would be. With energy, ecological and economic issues being what they are today, we need more people doing that, pretty much anywhere possible, from porch boxes to rooftops to single-acre plots to more traditional farms.
As anybody reading my column knows, I'm not exactly a conservative. But in this regard, I'm glad to see I am, since true conservatism and true conservation overlap heavily when we ignore the capitalist knuckleheads trying to dominate our culture.
When I did a Google search to find some good historical info on the fact our nation's founders were generally proud to be farmers, one of the first sites that turned up started with this observation: “Our founders were farmers: they provided for themselves through hard, honest physical labor. The dissolution of our society began when our ties to the land were ruptured.”
That comes from the Intellectual Conservative website, a column by J. Harris titled “Agriculture and Freedom: An Inseparable Bond.” While I disagree with some of his (or her?) details, this statement is certainly true: “The notion that frail individuals need Big Brother in order to survive would never have crossed a true farmer’s mind, and would surely have turned his strong stomach.  (I speak not of agri-business, by the way—not here or anywhere else; most of what passes for farming today is just another species of statist boondoggle.)”
Absolutely – giant factory farming exists only because of laws and huge subsidies crafted to favor politicians' friends at the expense of actual farmers. The evidence shows something like 80 percent of such subsidies go to a tiny handful of already-rich “farmers,” while more than 60 percent of family farms get nothing, being too small and/or not well-connected-enough to even be seen by Washington.
Actually, though, that's not a bad thing; we all know people who support themselves and help their community thrive “under the radar” in plain sight. But it takes the symbiosis of community and individual – just as collectivism taken to extremes can destroy personal initiative, individualism taken to extremes can undermine community well-being, and thus ultimately destroy the individual. It goes both ways: The community needs to foster self-sufficiency and make it legally easy, favoring local producers over long-distance ones, and otherwise planting seeds for a 21st century agricultural renaissance in preference to 20th century development. The individuals need to prioritize feeding their community at the expense of growing for export or for sale as a commodity to big business.
Such an arrangement probably isn't as profitable in the short term, but it's far more likely to last, especially if we as a community come up with ways to share some of the start-up costs (for example, by creating a tool- and skill-sharing library and encouraging young people to learn agricultural skills).
That's one reason I'm starting this blog to share ideas and start a conversation about these things that a one-way column really can't do too well. Going forward, this column will be mirrored there, with a bunch of other things (not all of them farm related), even though I won't be a staff writer anymore. It'll mean a chance to do something that's been growing in me for a long time: a need to focus more energy on self-sufficiency and deeper community involvement the “observer” status of a reporter doesn't really allow.
Going into something like this, I know Maureen and I are lucky in some key ways – several people we know are willing to share their experience (thanks Dick, Cal and others), she has an agroecology degree and we own our home outright, with no other significant debt. We've been expanding our garden for a couple of years, but have a lot more space to play with and aim to gradually transition toward a mostly-perennial system.
Even though it's definitely a step into the uncertain in some respects – who knows what the weather will do and we're not independently wealthy – it's long overdue. We also feel it's likely to be necessary as the economic, climatic and political games play out over the next several years. Our world is changing in ways for which our present culture does not give us the tools to adapt, since it continues to create dependence on far-flung, faceless entities and slogans rather than interdependence with people we actually know, the land we live on, and the other species sharing it with us.
The former leads to slavery. The latter, to genuine independence. I don't claim to know the route's potholes and curves any more certainly than you do, but I hope you'll join me on the journey.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Welcome ... diving right in

Hi, All,
Since I don't much like talking about myself, I'll keep this brief. If you know me, you might recognize some of these columns as ones I wrote for Southbridge Evening News in Massachusetts*; I'll splice those  in occasionally among new things exploring energy, ecology, local and world politics, science & scifi, nuclear weapons & power, history, maps, and pretty much anything else that comes to mind... If you don't, I'm a farmer, journalist, locally-active citizen, unabashedly Green and communitarian, somewhat luddite, anarchist and what I'd call an "optimistic realist" -- I know we CAN solve the problems we face (and there are many), but I'm not sure we WILL.
We'll get into all that in due time. for now I'll dive right in ...
(*In this post's case, I'm writing it here first, but it'll appear in the SEN this Friday.)

Blackout, 10 years after

Over the last few days, NPR and various other media have been revisiting the great blackout of August 2003, where around 50 million people across the Northeast and parts of Canada lost power. Some lost it just for a few hours, some for several days, although New England itself was largely spared.
As might be expected from the mainstream outlets, there's a fair amount of talk from the people who run the current system about the changes they've made to avoid a similar system crash going forward. To them, that means spending millions, even billions, to implement the "smart grid," based largely on electronic metering that sends household energy use data to the utilities every hour or so and more electronics that measure the flows within the system itself. On the government side, the blackout prompted a push to give the regional transmission organizations (non-profit corporations overseeing the grid; ours is ISO-New England) greater authority.
Sounds great, right?
Sounds unnecessarily complicated to me.
Leaving aside the claims of health effects from the meters (which I'm not convinced about) and potential privacy concerns (which could be a problem), this approach only makes the underlying problem WORSE, not better. Yes, it puts more eyes in place to watch and prevent problems. But it still strengthens the centralization of the energy system, and therefore its overall vulnerability, when the real need is to promote a huge increase in distributed generation and storage, with local ownership by communities or private coops, and the like. 
To some degree, there has been investment there, too -- but not enough. That's largely due to strong opposition from the established utilities, fossil fuel firms and their campaign contributions in Congress and at other levels. Here in Mass., there has been a bill languishing in the Legislature for some time that would make it easier for towns to create their own power companies, and that would help if passed (if it's funded). 
Unfortunately, there's also one (S. 1600) that seems, based on my reading, to give existing private utilities monopolies in the name of "competition." It states firms serving areas on Jan. 1, 2013, will have "exclusive obligation to provide distribution service to all retail customers within its service territory, and no other person shall provide distribution service within such service territory without the written consent of such distribution company." It calls for a competitive bidding process to procure power source "not less than every 15 years" but specifically excludes any company or subsidiary that's "regulated by the department," saying those firms cannot "be allowed to use the distribution system of another electric company" without a state "restructuring plan." Later, that bill seems to exempt municipal light plants from having to be part of this arrangement.
None of this goes in the right direction. As we saw in 2007-8, the "too big to fail" mentality -- which is as rampant in the energy sector as in banking -- is a guarantee of big trouble, and should be treated as "too big to be allowed to live." For our own long-term well-being, we need to get away from "big energy" and re-learn how to tap the local energy supplies using companies that are democratically owned. 
True energy independence will greatly vary from place to place, and won't look at all like what the giant oil firms blather regarding making us "Saudi America." While some areas DO have good supplies of oil and gas to support themselves, the worldwide use of them is screwing up our climate. By contrast, almost anywhere can make solar work well -- Germany gets around 20 percent of its power from solar despite having less sunlight than even New England does -- but the panels themselves require rare earths and other materials with a significant energy cost to mine and construct. If they last, logic says they'll make up the difference over time, although I can't claim to know how long that takes. 
For that reason and others (local geography, for one), it might be better to invest instead in wind (if you're in Wyoming, say), tidal power (Nova Scotia and many seacoasts), or small hydro. As history shows, the latter is ideal for New England with our numerous small rivers, and with modern technology, we can use smaller, more efficient turbines that don't require the dams and river disruption the old mills had. A big plus is that it's nearly impossible to centralize -- the hydro network we have encourages local ownership. 
What gets in the way today is a complex state and federal approval process that costs millions, putting it out of reach of the people who most need new power sources. Such facilities should be sited carefully to protect the rivers and serve the community well, but I suspect the process is cumbersome specifically because it discourages independence from the big energy firms. "Energy independence" has never been about independence for you and me or the US as a nation, but about ExxonMobil, National Grid and similar giants being rich enough to ignore our real needs.
It's time we declared our independence of such manipulation and the risk of future energy crashes it all but guarantees.