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China - pollutionHow the world’s priorities have changed over China: not so long ago the US Congress was earnestly debating China’s human-rights record. Today all anyone cares about is that China’s economic wheels keep turning, so it goes on filling its shelves with our goods. Far from worrying about China’s repressive regime, foreign politicians are mainly concerned that it keep a lid on the discontent caused by widespread official corruption. That’s why the outside world got a graphic glimpse of the rioting recently in Hunan last week. The crackdown on the 20,000 or so demonstrators was incredibly vicious, yet remarkably, a BBC TV reporter was allowed to film it. You can be sure that was no accident. Hu Jintao‘s regime is the most media savvy in China’s history: it wanted to show the world that, fine words about justice aside, it has the situation well under control, even if it means sending in a couple of thousand baton-wielding troops and declaring martial law.

It’s a pity China wasn’t as tough on curbing the terrible price exacted by the steep economic growth. Once sleepy rural towns are now boxed in by factories and power plants belch acrid smoke. Even with a face mask it’s hard to breathe when you go outside. The sky is black – cars always drive with their headlights on; the soil is chemically contaminated (vegetables that grow there are covered with ugly black patches); and people are getting sick from skin infections, breathing disorders and cancers. Drinking water is the biggest worry: 90% of China’s water is now seriously polluted.

Europeans also make things worse by sending China all their supermarket packaging and plastic bags. Britain alone dumps around two million tonnes of waste in China every year. What can’t be recycled is melted down in acid baths, or burned, creating noxious fumes and appalling health problems for the locals.

China - pollution streetHowever, China’s main problem is that most of its growth is fuelled by coal. Within a few months, its emission of greenhouse gases will exceed that of America: in 25 years, if left unchecked, it will be twice that of all developed nations put together. Yet China’s leaders remain reluctant to take any steps to stem it, fearing that to curb growth would be to invite social unrest which is crazy since pollution itself is now a prime cause of public anger. Two years ago, there was rioting when four million people had their water cut off following a chemical spill in the Songhua River. Other such accidents, albeit on a lesser scale, occur every other day, and it’s local politicians and businessmen, putting careers and profits before environmental safety, who are blamed for them.

Chinas leaders used to blame the West for global warming, pointing out China has contributed less than 8% of CO2 emissions since 1850. But now they’ve signalled that they’re ready to engage in international negotiations on global warming. Beijing might well commit itself to binding caps on emissions (thereby robbing the US of its key excuse for not doing likewise). Better still, it aims to raise energy efficiency by 20% in four years – mainly by greater reliance on renewable sources and cut-backs in iron and steel production. This is ambitious as these targets far exceed those set by Western countries. Still, there’s an encouraging precedent. In the Sixties, Tokyo and Osaka were as polluted as China’s cities are now, but thanks to tough policies, Japan is now more energy-efficient than any other country. Let’s hope, for the world’s sake, that its neighbour can pull off the same trick.

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“Approximately 80 % of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation, so let’s not go overboard in setting and enforcing tough emission standards from man-made sources.”

Reagan, Ronald
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Students inspect the bootsWhat is your plan for Iraq? At every press conference, interview and fund-raising event, the presidential candidates are all asked this same pointless question. And it’s pointless because next to nothing can be done to salvage Iraq.

A planned withdrawal from Iraq should start now. To say longer is really just an embodiment of the Sunk Cost Fallacy where it is argued that the amount of time, effort, or money already invested in a project justifies the investment of yet more time, effort and money in order to complete the project.

The US no longer has the capacity to determine the outcome of that country’s civil war, so to ask candidates how they would fix it is merely to invite them to talk and talk without saying anything. Instead we should be asking President Bush’s would-be successors whether they can do what he cannot: acknowledge failure in Iraq and look beyond it. Free cupcake

Iraq, after all, was meant to be just the starting point of an open-ended global war on terror. Candidates who still find merit in that original cause should explain how we might prevail in such an enterprise in the wake of the Iraq fiasco. Where might we fight next? What will victory look like? Candidates who are sceptical of further military action, meanwhile, should be pressed to describe their alternative plans for dealing with violent Islamic radicalism. Will they isolate it? Subvert it? And by what means?

What’s your plan for Iraq? was the right question back in 2002 and 2003. Too bad nobody thought to ask George W. Bush then.

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The motivation for war is simple. The U.S. government started the war with Iraq in order to make it easy for U.S. corporations to do business in other countries. They intend to use cheap labor in those countries, which will make Americans rich. Michael Moore

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Coca SekColombia’s president Alvaro Uribe has been dancing to America’s tune thanks to an annual injection of $600m in US aid, he has beefed up Colombia’s anti-narcotics police, seized record tons of cocaine and extradited 520 drug traffickers to US jails

Hey, this is all good news right? Erm, well he’s gone and overdone it a bit.

He’s has now decided to focus on coca products made by the country’s indigenous Indians, the sale of which, outside Indian reservations, will now be banned. The main item affected is , a coca-based energy drink that looks like cider and tastes like ginger ale, which has become an alternative to the real thing, aka Coca-Cola among Colombia’s kids.

Coca Sek labelClick on the image to see the logo in more detail – kind of like Coca-Cola’s curvy script right?

It’s obvious what prompted this new measure: pressure from Coca-Cola. No matter that the US giant itself uses coca in the flavouring for its own fizzy drink (alegidly): the Nasa Indian tribe, who make Coca Sek, are still being told that their brew infringes the 1961 treaty banning the distribution of products with the slightest trace of coca. So it is that America’s war on drugs is now played out in the supermarket aisles of Colombia.

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[Capitalism] is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous–and it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short, we dislike it, and we are beginning to despise it. But when we wonder what to put in its place, we are extremely perplexed.

John Maynard Keynes

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Italy plus lovely moneyNo other country besides Italy gives in so easily to blackmail. It readily stumps up huge sums in ransoms or insists that terrorists be handed over to get hostages released. Recently, for example, after Repubblica reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo was kidnapped by the Taliban, it immediately put pressure on Afghanistan’s President Karzai to secure his release, and readily took Mastrogiacomo back in exchange for five high-ranking Taliban prisoners.

Sure, other countries negotiate too: we have just done so with Iran over the return of our 15 sailors. But we did not strike such a disgraceful bargain. Under Italian law, the families of Italian kidnap victims automatically have their assets frozen to stop them paying ransoms; but what’s the point, when the government will do it for them?

What really sticks is that they got their man out, but did nothing for his driver and interpreter, who were kidnapped with him and later butchered. The Italian government should now pledge to take care financially of the families of the two victims, and decree a minute’s silence in workplaces in their memory.

However, the Italian government should focus on the long-term consequences of their actions if they want to go on being seen as a civilised country that does not buy and sell the right to life.

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Terrorism is tempting with its tremendous possibilities. It offers a mechanical solution, as it were, in hopeless situations. … the principles of terrorism unavoidably rebound to the fatal injury of liberty and revolution. Absolute power corrupts and defeats its partisans no less than its opponents. A people that knows not liberty becomes accustomed to dictatorship: fighting despotism and counter-revolution, terrorism itself becomes their efficient school. Once on the road of terrorism, the State necessarily becomes estranged from the people.

The Bolshevik Myth by Alexander Berkman in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas (Vol. 1) by Robert Graham, ed. (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005) p. 312.

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Globalisation of the english language - no dictionaries requiredLast year Jacques Chirac pledged to fight the spread of the English language across the world after walking out of an EU summit because a French business leader committed the grave offence of speaking in English. He said at the time:

“We fight for our language… I was profoundly shocked to see a Frenchman express himself in English at the table.”

This provided a vivid illustration of French sensitivity about the decline of the language, which used to dominate the EU. English has overtaken French in Brussels after the arrival of Sweden and Finland in 1995 and the “big bang” expansion of the EU to eastern Europe in 2004. With the internet fast turning English into the world’s first language, Mr Chirac insisted that he would continue to promote French, which is spoken as a mother tongue by 100 million people, a relatively small number. He said:

“You cannot base a future world on just one language, just one culture”

This invariably leads us to question the extent that globalisation has impacted on languages: some languages are increasingly used in international communication while others lose their prominence and even disappear for lack of speakers. Researchers at the Globalisation Research Center at the University of Hawaii have identified five key variables that influence the globalization of languages:

  1. Number of languages: The declining number of languages in different parts of the world points to the strengthening of homogenizing cultural forces.
  2. Movements of people: People carry their languages with them when they migrate and travel. Migration patterns affect the spread of languages.
  3. Foreign language learning and tourism: Foreign language learning and tourism facilitate the spread of languages beyond national or cultural boundaries.
  4. Internet languages: The Internet has become a global medium for instant communication and quick access to information.
  5. International scientific publications: International scientific publications contain the languages of global intellectual discourse, thus critically impacting intellectual communities involved in the production, reproduction, and circulation of knowledge around the world.

Given these highly complex interactions, research in this area frequently yields contradictory conclusions. Unable to reach a general agreement, experts in the field have developed several different hypotheses. One model posits a clear correlation between the growing global significance of a few languages – particularly English and Chinese – and the declining number of other languages around the world. Another model suggests that the globalisation of language does not necessarily mean that our descendants are destined to utilize only a few tongues. Still another thesis emphasizes the power of the Anglo-American culture industry to make English the global lingua franca of the 21st century.

To be sure, the rising significance of the English language has a long history, reaching back to the birth of British colonialism in the late 16th century. At that time, only approximately 7 million people used English as their mother tongue. By the 1990s, this number had swollen to over 350 million native speakers, with 400 million more using English as a second language. Today, more than 80% of the content posted on the Internet is in English. Almost half of the world’s growing population of foreign students are enrolled at institutions in Anglo-American countries.

At the same time, however, the number of spoken languages in the world has dropped from about 14,500 in 1500 to less than 7,000 in 2000. Given the current rate of decline, some linguists predict that 50-90% of the currently existing languages will have disappeared by the end of the 21st century. Perhaps Chirac is right to be worried after all?

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Too many choices!Economic libertarians are wedded to choice believing that people should be given free rein to make bad choices as well as good – by smoking, for example, or failing to take out a pension plan. Once they have had time to rationally calibrate the costs and benefits, they will realise that bid choices lead to suffering, and change their behaviour. But this is wishful thinking. Generally, I believe human beings consistently underestimate the future costs of their actions, choosing instant gratification instead. Self control is especially hard in affluent societies, where temptation abounds. Hence the obesity epidemic we are faced with so much cheap, tasty food that it becomes impossible to resist, even when we know it will make us fat. This is why, increasingly, people are looking to the state to help them make better decisions. Smokers have willingly submitted to greater and greater regulation, now consumers want the Government to rein in the junk food industry. Libertarians duly rage against the nanny state, but we increasingly run to it for protection – from ourselves.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK where we have a worldwide reputation for poor health, thanks to our well publicised fondness for warm beer, cigarettes and deep fried fish and chips. But according to an extensive survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, us Brits are actually in better shape than the Americans. Among US citizens aged 55 or over, the likes of cancer, diabetes and heart disease are almost double those in Britain. Even more galling is the the fact that Americans spend $5,200 per capita for health care every year – whereas the British spend just $2,100.

The question is why as some may be tempted to interpret this study as a vindication of socialised medicine, since Britain provides health care free of charge to all its citizens. But that conclusion is debatable when you look more closely at the data. The study actually shows that the wealthiest and best educated Americans – those with access to the best health care – have rates of disease that are comparable to the poorest Britons. The problem, in other words, is not lack of access to doctors. It may be, however, that Britain’s universal health care system puts more of an emphasis on public health and early detection, whereas the profit-driven US system tends to treat diseases without systematically looking to prevent what causes them. Americans need to figure out what they’re doing wrong, otherwise the human and economic costs of their failing health could burden them for decades.

The answer may lie outside the medical care system altogether. Americans exercise less than us Brits and get more nutrition from heavily processed foods – but even after adjusting for differences in rates of obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption between the two nations, the disparities were still stunning. A plausible culprit is different attitudes towards work in our two cultures. The British are far less obsessed with their careers, reserving much more of their time for leisure, their friends at the pub, and family. Americans work harder and longer and take greater risks in switching jobs and starting companies. The benefit of such a vigorous culture is obvious: a more dynamic economy. But the price is relentless, grinding stress means Americans are literally be working themselves to death.

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