Open thread: ballistic missile defence

An episode involving missile defence* from the West Wing holds up very well today. The craggy old American chief of staff is in favour, out of fear of what rogue regimes might do to America. The British ambassador is opposed because it’s impractical, violates international law, and risks worsening the global nuclear weapons situation.

I can see why people like the idea of being able to stop a few missiles launched by North Korea or Iran, or by a rogue commander somewhere. At the same time, I think the dangers of a nuclear arms race make the development and deployment of such a system unwise, even if the major technological hurdles could be overcome. It’s the classic security dilemma: you build something meant to make you safer, potential opponents interpret it as making them less safe (by reducing the credibility of their deterrent) so they build expensive countermeasures. In the end, everyone has wasted money on the race and everyone ends up less safe. It could also tempt decision-makers into recklessness, based on false confidence that the system will nullify any response to their aggression.

We should be working to de-alert and dismantle the nuclear arsenals of the authorized nuclear powers under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Against that backdrop, resisting proliferation to new nuclear states would be more plausible.

* I don’t mean defending things like aircraft carriers from ballistic missiles. I mean systems to protect domestically-located military facilities and population centres from ballistic missile attack, probably with nuclear weapons.

Open thread: decolonization in Canada

Supposedly, Canada is in the midst of a national effort at moving toward reconciliation after centuries of exploiting and oppressing its Indigenous populations. Signs include efforts to protect and investigate crimes against Indigenous women and girls; the renaming of buildings and monuments to people who played a role in Canada’s troubling past; and supposedly efforts to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) – though here, as in so many other areas, there is good cause to question the sincerity of the Trudeau government.

Of course, there has been resistance from white supremacists and others.

It’s encouraging to see Halifax taking down Cornwallis monuments (put a bounty on the Mi’kmaq in 1749) and the Langevin block in Ottawa renamed (helped set up Canada’s genocidal residential schools). I would like to see everything named after Columbus renamed, though ultimately renaming is a small and symbolic part of what decolonization will need to include.

In the long term, Canada needs to recognize that its sovereignty has always been illegitimate – based on coerced treaties that Canada has routinely violated or the naked use of force. The path toward reconciliation can’t be seen from beginning to end in advance, but some of the actions we ought to be taking seem pretty clear, starting with providing services in Indigenous communities comparable to those in the rest of Canada, helping Indigenous peoples built toward self-government, and no longer imposing economic and resource projects on them despite their political and legal opposition.

Ellsberg’s broad conclusion

Yet what seems to be beyond question is that any social system (not only ours) that has created and maintained a Doomsday Machine and has put the trigger to it, including first use of nuclear weapons, in the hands of one human being – anyone, not just this one man, still worse in the hands of an unknown number of persons – is in core aspects mad. Ours is such a system. We are in the grip of institutionalized madness.

Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury; New York. 2017. p. 332 (italics in original)

The women’s rights and temperance movements

Americans probably drank more in the nineteenth century than they had in the preceding century, and drunkenness was widespread. In reaction, by midcentury the temperance movement had become strong, much more pervasive than the movements for either blacks’ or women’s rights. Many advocates of temperance did not support blacks’ or women’s rights, but both abolitionists and feminists usually supported temperance. Advocates of women’s rights usually regarded drunkenness as a male practice which victimized women, subjecting them to cruel abuse. Because divorce was virtually impossible, a woman married to an abusive, alcoholic husband had little protection for herself or her children. Therefore, to advocates of women’s rights, the temperance movement was another radical reform, like women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery, for the protection and emancipation of women.

Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1993. p. 194

B.C.’s latest move against the Kinder Morgan pipeline

When it comes to stopping unsustainable fossil fuel development, anything that creates investor uncertainty can be useful. By that metric, the British Columbia government’s announcement of a diluted bitumen shipment expansion moratorium while it studies how a diluted bitumen spill would unfold is a small contribution to shifting Canada to an acceptable development pathway.

Still, I wish governments would look squarely at the real problem: the fundamental contradiction between continued fossil fuel exploitation and the climatic stability objectives that states including Canada asserted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, and in their own climate announcements. Making it all about local issues may be politics as usual, but it misses the main ethical issues at play.

Canada is still in denial about climate and the bitumen sands

Canada’s bitumen sands continue to be the largest source of growth in Canada’s greenhouse gas pollution, and the biggest barrier to Canada’s fair participation in a global climate change mitigation strategy.

Not only does continued bitumen sands investment perpetuate an industry which undermines Canada’s claim to be serious about Indigenous reconciliation, but giving the industry specially lax environmental treatment would force other sectors to pick up the slack, if that is even possible given the industry’s relentlessly growing pollution.

An article by University of Toronto professor Danny Harvey and Lika Miao now argues that only an oil sands phaseout would allow Canada to meet its (insufficiently ambitious) 2030 emission reduction targets. They see a complete bitumen sands phase out by 2030 as necessary to meet the targets, alongside major action in sectors like energy generation, and emphasize how meeting the more ambitious temperature targets of the Paris Agreement would require much more aggressive action.

All this highlights the chasm between Canadian politics and what would be necessary to curb climate change. Prime Minister Trudeau either doesn’t understand the relationship between fossil fuel use and climatic stability or is choosing to mislead Canadians for political reasons, continuing to assert that Canada’s fossil fuel reserves are usable. That kind of timidity or misdirection serves us all badly, leaving the bulk of Canadians misled into believing that the industry can somehow be compatible with a stable climate.

Ellsberg’s on America’s nuclear posture

The basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago: Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, aimed mainly at Russian military targets including command and control, many in or near cities. The declared official rationale for such a system has always been primarily the supposed need to deter—or if necessary respond to—an aggressive Russian nuclear first strike against the United States. That widely believed public rationale is a deliberate deception. Deterring a surprise Soviet nuclear attack—or responding to such an attack—has never been the only or even the primary purpose of our nuclear plans and preparations. The nature, scale, and posture of our strategic nuclear forces has always been shaped by the requirements of quite different purposes: to attempt to limit the damage to the United States from Soviet or Russian retaliation to a U.S. first strike against the USSR or Russia. This capability is, in particular, intended to strengthen the credibility of U.S. threats to initiate limited nuclear attacks, or escalate them—U.S. threats of “first use”—to prevail in regional, initially non-nuclear conflicts involving Soviet or Russian forces or their allies.

Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury; New York. 2017. p. 12 (italics in original)

Division among progressives

Truth’s warning that if American women did not get the vote now [in 1866] along with black men, it would be hard to raise the issue of the vote for women later, proved to be prescient, for it was not until 1920 that women finally got the vote nationwide.

Meanwhile it was becoming painfully apparent to Stanton and Anthony that many leaders who had supported suffrage for both blacks and women had decided, as a matter of strategy, to push at present only for suffrage for black men, as in the proposed Fifteenth Amendment. Stanton and Anthony, reacting furiously, refused to support the Fifteenth Amendment. The fiery Stanton declared that giving suffrage to the crude, uneducated, recently freed black slaves without giving it also to educated females would increase prejudice against blacks. In 1869 at a meeting of the American Equal Rights Association, which had supported both blacks’ and women’s right to vote, Stanton, Anthony, and their friends helped to break up the association over this issue, forming the new National Women’s Suffrage Association that was dedicated to working for women’s suffrage only.

In response, late in 1869 Lucy Stone led in forming another new women’s group, called the American Woman Suffrage Association, of a more moderate nature, which favored giving the vote not only to black men, through the Fifteenth Amendment, but also to women, through another amendment. Despite efforts to reunite the two groups, their leaders bitterly attacked each other. They were divided also by other issues that underlined the greater radicalism of Stanton’s group (which was more suspicious of Republicans) and the greater conservatism of Stone’s (which was more willing to work with Republicans). The two groups remained split for twenty years.

Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1993. p. 179