Elliot Cohen and the Canadian Forces

After the today’s core seminar, I went to a Changing Character of War presentation given by Professor Elliot Cohen. Focused on examining the American military, especially with regards to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, if offered a familiar but well expressed perspective. All the standard big issues came up: public opinion, the differences between the branches of the military with regards to the conflict, current controversies, military relations with allies, private military firms, and the rest. I asked him afterwards about the perspective he has seen on the Canadian armed forces, among those serving in the United States. His response was a typical one: that they are good people profoundly hamstrung and sapped by a lack of financial and material support. The operational tempo of the Canadian Forces has never been higher relative to its capabilities. As Allen Sens so effectively conveys in his Canadian Foreign Policy lectures at UBC: by almost any measure, both long-term procurement and short-term funding are grossly inadequate.

Right now, Canada has about 62,300 active forces personnel (the 60th largest army in the world) and it is funded at the level of $12.9 billion per year. That is 1.1% of Canadian GDP. We have 114 tanks (obsolete, in Germany), about 300 infantry fighting vehicles, and about 1000 armoured personnel carriers. The Maritime Command has four Victoria Class submarines (diesel, obsolete), three Iroquois Class destroyers, and 12 Halifax Class frigates (the backbone of the navy) – all hampered by completely inadequate helicopter support. We also has 12 Kingston Class coastal patrol vessels, used for things like search and rescue and fisheries enforcement. That is one boat per 16,840km of coastline: the equivalent of 2.38 boats to patrol the entire circumference of the earth.

In terms of airlift capability, the best we have is 32 CC-130 Lockheed ‘Hercules’ combat transports. Stripped of all other cargo, they can carry two Light Support Vehicles (ie. jeeps). We entitled the 2005 International Policy Statement: A Role of Pride and Influence in the World, but when we sent the Disaster Assistance Response Team to Asia after the tsunami, we had to rely primarily on private chartered airlift to deliver the bulk of their equipment to the theatre of operations. We do have five CC-150 Polaris aircraft, but they are incapable of carrying large equipment and lack any defensive capability. One of the five was converted into a VIP transport during the 1990s and two more are slated to be converted into air-to-air refuelling vehicles.

At present, more than 1400 Canadians are deployed overseas: more than 1000 of them in Afghanistan as part of Operation Archer. To field a force of that size, about another 8000 individuals need to be in the process of preparing for deployment or returning from one. The next largest commitment is 190 troops serving in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights. The next largest operations are 32 people each in the Sinai and Sudan. Of the 15 missions ongoing, five involve ten or fewer people. Eleven involve fewer than 20, according to the Canadian Forces webpage. We may have opted to put Canadian peacekeepers onto some of the new pieces of currency, but we haven’t opted to put terrible many out there in the world. In those places we have, they are often equipped at an inadequate level: the lack of armoured jeeps in Afghanistan being a notorious example.

Canada likes to maintain an international image as a helpful fixer and a leader in peacekeeping. We expect to be treated as an equal by our allies and generally considered a contributing member of the internatioal community. We take pride in backing things like the worldwide land mines ban through the Ottawa Process and the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. If that’s a role we want to play – or at least an image we want to maintain – we’re going to need to commit the necessary resources.

While it’s not particularly clear that any of the political parties running in the present electoral campaign is serious about making that commitment, it’s something that Canadians should be asking about. Whether you support the military or not, whether you support peacekeeping and other forms of international military engagement or not, it seems clear that trying to do these things on the cheap is the worst of all strategies. It endangers the lives of those serving while not producing the security which is the object of the mission. Looking at the numbers above certainly makes Stephen Harper’s plan to militarize the Arctic seem particularly wasteful of scarce resources.

“Nothing is more deceitful,” said Darcy, “than the appearance of humility.”

My workspace

Realism and neorealism

With a litre of dark coffee beside me and tables heaped with books, I can tell that the term has begun. During my core seminar tomorrow morning, there’s a one in seven chance that I will need to present for fifteen minutes on the differences between realism and neorealism. One approach, I suppose, would be to take Waltz’s conception of ‘thought’ as compared to ‘theory’ and build a presentation out of examining it. By a lucky coincidence, I have a copy of a take home exam for Robert Crawford’s international relations theory course written on that precise topic. You can get a sense of Crawford’s hostility to Waltz from the question itself:

In an obviously self-serving argument, Kenneth Waltz distinguishes between “thought” and “theory” in international relations. What is the basis for this distinction, and to what extent does it further, or undermine, the pursuit of knowledge in world politics?

I don’t know anything about David Williams, but I am pretty sure Jennifer Welsh is no neorealist. Come to think of it, she probably knows Robert Crawford.

I am decreasingly of the opinion that Waltz is ‘wrong’ in the sense normally applied to the word. It’s more that he has quite an unusual project. Waltz identifies theory as “a means of dealing with complexity” and goes on to say that “in making assumptions about men’s (or states’) motivations, the world must be drastically simplified; subtleties must be rudely pushed aside, and reality must be grossly distorted.” What he is doing is fundamentally more artificial than a straightforward attempt at getting a sense of how world politics works and how we might hope to change it. Indeed, that kind of unstructured approach is exactly what Waltz would categorize as “mere thought.” Hoffman says that: “Waltz’s own attempt at laying the groundwork for theory is conceptually so rigorous as to leave out much of the reality which he wants to account for.”

The danger arises when Waltz makes the same move as many sleazy economists. They build theories strongly abstracted from reality (high school dropouts have perfect understanding of the advanced mathematics involved in generating net present values, and other ludicrous assumptions) in the hope of developing a parsimonious explanation of a good part of the phenomena being observed. The devious step is when they come to love their models too well and carry on, by sheer momentum, applying them in situations where their own assumptions make them entirely invalid. Especially when making normative judgements or advocating policy, all those bits of real-world complexity that were deliberately forgotten need to be considered again. Likewise, there is the need for an awareness of how theory itself impacts the world. Otherwise, theory becomes nothing more than “an anti-political apology for brute force and cynicism” as Kalevi Holsti pointedly described neorealism.

Given the passions that tend to get inflamed both within supporters and opponents of neorealism when the subject gets debated, tomorrow’s seminar promises to be an interesting discussion. Indeed, among IR scholars, the position you take with regards to IR theory is one that goes a long way towards defining your personal and intellectual identity. As Robert Walker identified in 1986, theory is never a neutral thing: “Theory is always for someone, for some group, for some purpose.”

In the end, I would contend that ideas pertaining to vital questions about world politics are necessarily ‘thought’ as opposed to ‘theory’ as defined by Waltz. While he would probably agree, using the cover that theory can never be comprehensive, I don’t think that’s an adequate response: at least not if people are going to go around identifying themselves as neorealists. If neorealism is a partial explanation, it cannot comprise our whole intellectual outlook.

Richard Dawkins

Apparently, on Monday February 13th, there will be a lecture in London presented by Richard Dawkins. It’s entitled: “Darwin’s meme: or the origin of culture by means of natural selection” and I would be interested in going if I can find at least one other person who would also be so inclined. It is happening at the Darwin Lecture Theatre, Darwin Building, UCL, Gower Street, London at 6:30pm.

On a related note, Louise apparently knows Professor Dawkins’ daughter Juliet. Regrettably, I did not get the chance to meet either her or her father before Louise made the journey back to Lancaster. Along with Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins is probably the Oxford resident who I would most like to meet.

To do in the next few days:

  • Prepare realism v. neorealism presentation (ASAP)
  • Opt out of another term of college meals in hall (ASAP)
  • Merifield application (Wednesday)
  • Complete ORS application, submit directly to University Offices (Friday)
  • Pay Hilary term fees and battels (Friday)

On the road to a Harper government?

What seemed inconceivable a few weeks ago is becoming the stuff of the most cautious news coverage: Canada’s 39th government might be led by the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper. Having just read an endorsement of them in The Globe and Mail, the traditionally Liberal supporting Canadian newspaper, I can see the legitimacy of many of the Globe’s concerns with today’s Liberals. Too much time in government has had a negative effect on the Liberals. Paul Martin has proved, at best, a lacklustre leader who did not bring the kind of political energy or policy changes many of us hoped for in the post Chretien era. What I dispute much more is their conclusion that the Conservatives can be trusted as an alternative.

How then should we look at the question of the Tories in power? The first issue to come up for me is the one of values. While Stephen Harper has tried hard to reinvent himself and bring his party to the centre, it’s reasonable to ask whether they will be able to endure there. A policy platform including things like minimum sentences – as classically counterproductive conservative policy – makes me wonder about this. So too, the possibility of government by a party with its political centre of mass in Alberta.

Ultimately, one cannot wish, as I have often done, that there was an alternative party of government in Canada and then automatically reject one that emerges, looking as though it could fill that role. While I don’t like a lot of what is in the Tory platform, I can respect any party that is able to earn the support of a large number of Canadians and I think Canadian democracy is the stronger for the inclusion of such parties in the process. The presence of real debate and the possibility of losing power are essential in a system of parliamentary democracy.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a relatively short period with the Liberals out of power. Hopefully, during that time, the bulk of the social progress Canada has recently made, on issues like gay rights, will not be reversed. Perhaps a Harper government would also be able to do something to rebuild Canada’s international position: as I dearly hoped Paul Martin would do. In the process of cutting the deficit, Canada has slashed foreign aid and our international diplomatic presence. If Canada is going to maintain its role as a helpful fixer and leader in peacekeeping (a mantle that has already badly slipped), we need to commit to the armed forces at a level that reflects the operational tempo of a Canadian military increasingly committed to a large number of complex places and projects around the world. The danger, or at least a danger, is that the Tories will focus instead on hopelessly misguided policies like militarizing the Arctic: an action that would serve virtually no Canadian interest.

A spell out of government may even allow the Liberals to rebuild themselves: shedding some of the excess that has arisen from a long stretch in government and hopefully reforming its leadership. Obviously, if Martin loses, his position as party leader will become untenable. Given the many successes of these twelve years of Liberal government, and given the relatively painless nature of the transition of power from Chretien to Martin, the latter man would have nobody to blame but himself.

The Animal Lab Protest

Police at Broad Street and Cornmarket

When I walked across central Oxford to return The Life Aquatic, I found the city suffused with a very heavy police presence, on account of the protest that was held today against the Oxford animal lab. Presumably, that was also the reason for the 10m tall, metal-covered and razorwire-topped fence around the lab construction site itself that I saw yesterday. While it’s always a bit unsettling to see hundreds of police officers, this group was much less intimidating than most I have seen. Firstly, they were all in reflective yellow. While I am sure there were other officers dressed in civilian clothes, it is still much more reassuring to see patrols of twenty yellow-jacketed officers with faces uncovered than the black riot gear clad police forces that I’ve seen in Seattle, Washington D.C., Prague, and elsewhere. Secondly, while in North America they would have been bristling with automatic weapons, here they were visibly armed with nothing more than pepper spray and low-profile batons.

With regards to the cause of the protest itself, I’ve said before that I think it’s a misguided campaign: and not only because of some of the objectionable tactics that have been employed by protesters.

While animals do have some level of moral considerability, that does not automatically preclude the moral legitimacy of animal testing for medical purposes. Obviously, it’s not a thing that should be done lightly or capriciously and efforts should be made to minimize both how much such testing takes place and the level of suffering inflicted in the course of it. For the foreseable future, however, animal testing will be a necessary part of medical research and development. There is a balance that must be struck between the development of things like new medicines and surgical techniques, their thorough testing, and the decent treatment of animals. Already, Britain has in place rigorous protection for laboratory animals. British animal labs are inspected more than ten times a year, usually at unannounced times: much more often than in most countries. 85% of medical experimentation in Britain is conducted on rats and only 2% of all procedures cause “severe pain or distress.”

The Oxford animal lab is also a particularly poor target for public anger, given that it is meant to consolidate existing Oxford labs rather than provide new capacity for animal experimentation. Partly, the move to consolidate has been motivated by the property destruction that has become an unwelcome feature of the protest campaign.

Indeed, that protection extends far, far beyond that extended to the millions of food animals that are slaughtered here annually, as well as elsewhere in the world, to provide for the tables of British consumers. Like other developed countries, Britain has an industrial meat industry that I am certain would shock and appall most consumers if they had a good sense of how it operates. The fact that 75% of American poultry inspectors refuse to eat chicken should be indicative of something. Those concerned with animal welfare should pay greater attention to what they buy and eat, before moving to condemn practices that are necessary for the advancement of important humanitarian goals.

  • As Spencer pointed out on his blog, The Globe and Mail – bastion newspaper of the centre-left in Canada – has given its endorsement to the Tories. It is looking more and more like we’re headed for a Harper government. This is a prospect I find very worrisome.
  • Lots of IR people are apparently going to the James Bond bop at St. Antony’s tonight. (Roham is on the poster.) For my part, I feel more like reading, especially after the enormous eight egg veggie omelet I cooked and ate with Nora.
  • Neal is leaving China tomorrow. I wish him a safe journey back to Vancouver.
  • Going to http://photo.sindark.com/ automatically forwards you to my Photo.net page: where I post my more successful attempts at photography.
  • This FAQ for Canon EOS cameras has some really good information in it, presented in an accessible manner.

Hilary term (unofficially) begins

I know Kung Fu

Today was a microcosm of the whole Oxford experience. I saw Louise off in the morning, then spent a few hours preparing for a statistics exam that was much harder than I anticipated. It included a lot of the kind of math that would be fine with a few practice homework assignments but is daunting to see for the first time during an examination. Likewise, the analysis portion expected an awful lot: given that the marks balance indicates you should spend 45 minutes on it. That said, it’s behind me now and I am reasonably sure I got the 53.8% that I need to pass the course.

Afterwards, a whole swarm of IR M.Phil students descended on The Turf. Spending an hour or so with them reminded me about all the best thing Oxford offers: namely the company of excellent peers. I know I’ve praised the cooperative spirit of this group before, but it’s a make-or-break issue for me. Along with my name on some distant piece of paper, I am working for the respect of these people, and partly because I feel like I am engaged in a cooperative enterprise with them. I am honoured to be part of such a group.

In my pigeon hole today were letters to Mr. Ilaycky (from the Wadham Hall Manager) and Mr. Iinyckyi (from the Graduate Studies Office).1 The first was about my ongoing attempt to opt out of all college meals. The second was my first term official evaluation from Dr. Hurrell. In the spirit of transparency, I reproduce it below:

Milan appears to be settling in very well both to Oxford and to the course. We have had four substantive meetings this term and he has written papers on US foreign policy, WWI, the Middle East, and China. The papers have been very well prepared and based on a good range of reading. We have discussed some of the ways in which he might revise his essay-writing. But, overall, he is a very strong student and this has been an excellent start to the M.Phil.

Nothing too colourful, but it’s good to know that I am working at approximately the right level. The real test comes once I need to start producing original research. Claire, Alex, and I discussed thesis titles while at The Turf tonight. My idea: “Overspecialize and you Breed in Weakness: Fostering Communication Between Epistemic Communities Related to World Fisheries.” It’s a work in progress.

While it feels more than a bit audacious, perhaps I should record my impressions of Dr. Hurrell, just to balance out the record. My conversations with him have been engaging – so much so that I frequently walk out of them feeling really energized and convinced that important and original things can be done here. I appreciate the way our dialogue seems to allow each to feed off the other: a process of conceptual exploration that uses the essay I wrote as a starting point, rather than the singular focus of discussion. Again, the real test will come with the more personal work next year.

Tonight, there is an MCR welcome back party in Wadham. I’ve also been invited to meet up with a group of the M.Phil people. It’s an invitation I feel inclined to accept. Ultimately, the people are a lot more important than having finished an extra couple of hours of reading. Indeed, it is largely my relationships with people in the program that constitute the motivation to do as well as I can.

No end of post errata tonight.

[1] It’s spelled Ilnyckyj. Nobody would ever try to spell it from memory, so all my problems arise from people who try to correct the spelling because it looks overly insane to them. Fair enough, but that’s how it’s spelled.Oh, one thing: walking to the exam today, I saw that a really serious, almost Israeli-security-barrier class wall has been erected around the construction site for the animal lab. While I won’t get into the ethics and politics of animal testing right now, I think the protesters are really missing the point.

Exercising democratic choices

Milan Ilnyckyj with flag, back in Fairview. Photo credit: Meghan Mathieson

I received my absentee ballot this morning, while I was on my way to give Kelly and one of her sisters a quick peek into the Codrington Library. The electoral calculation for me is ridiculously simple. Only two parties have the slightest chance of winning in North Vancouver: the Liberals, with former mayor Don Bell as their candidate, and the Conservatives, with Cindy Silver as their candidate. Between the two parties, I have a strong preference to the Liberals, based heavily on their social policies. While a degree of corruption and the complacency of a long period in power are bad things, they are not the worst of things.

Since the ballot must be received by 6:00pm Ottawa time on election day, I dropped it into the postbox on my way to the Social Sciences Library to study for the statistics test. For any other Canadians in Oxford, or elsewhere abroad, planning to vote (and you really should, democratic participation is important): time is extremely short for requesting and returning a ballot. If you haven’t already done so, fax off your ballot request right now.

Incidentally, every time I have voted in a federal election, it has been from outside Canada. I last voted for Don Bell from the Vatican. I had more faith in timely delivery by their postal system than the Italian one.

One week of break remains

Spencer Keys in Wadham

Anyone who has ever been amused to see the photo of a terrified looking Prince Charles pouring a pint, found in the King’s Arms Pub within Wadham College, might be disappointed to learn that they have the same exact print over at the Angel and Greyhound. I don’t know if either pub was actually the place where the photo was taken, but it certainly diminishes how amusing it is to see it in a second place. It’s like when you’re in Venice and you realize that all the cheap table glass in Murano is identical in each shop and comes from China.

Touring Oxford

This afternoon, I met Spencer and his partner for the World Debating Championships and gave them a walking tour of Oxford. Before carrying on, I should note that Michael Kotrly and his partner won the tournament, a very impressive feat. I know Michael through UBC debate, where I believe I was treasurer during his presidency. My congratulations go out to him for an extremely impressive performance.

The walk, which I recommend to anyone inclined to play tour guide in Oxford, began at Cornmarket and High Street, from which we walked up St. Aldate’s towards the Folly Bridge. Glancing into the Christ Church main quad, we passed The Head of the River and walked along the Isis until the paths diverge northward again along the eastern canal. We followed that up past Magdalen, where I would recommend having a look at the gardens and greenhouses, before turning left and heading back up the high street towards Carfax.

We ducked into University College, through Logic Lane, and passed through two of their quads to see the Shelley Memorial. We then passed St. Mary’s Church and briefly entered the Codrington Library from Radcliffe Square. Leaving the square from the north, we went down Hollywell Street to New College, where I showed them the plague mound and the cloisters (as featured, somewhat incongruously as far as architecture goes, in the most recent Harry Potter film). Leaving New, we walked back up Hollywell Street, had a look through Wadham, the gardens, and library court, before going up Parks Road to Rhodes House and the Natural History Museum.

After looking at the displays there and in the Pitt Rivers museum, we doubled back. One thing I had never noticed before: the Natural History Museum has a stuffed kakapo, of all animals. Those who don’t know what I am talking about are strongly encouraged to read Douglas Adams’ excellent book Last Chance to See.

The last stop of the four-hour tour was The Turf, where we had a pint before the debaters caught their train back to London. It was good to see Spencer. He doesn’t seem to have been too badly grizzled by the extreme responsibilities of his post as President of the UBC Alma Mater Society.

What made today particularly special was seeing a trio of people I have missed a lot over the break. Bilyana is back from her winter break trip home, as are Margaret and Roham. I ran into Bilyana outside Rhodes House while giving the tour and Roham outside the Natural History Museum. We simply must organize a study group for the statistics exam next Friday. Margaret I met after I noticed her light on while walking back from the train station. Though she is mired in work, she still brings a friendly feeling back into the city, as seeing all three friends did. I now believe that term is starting again in a practical, rather than a theoretical, way. It scarcely seemed possible during the days when I wandered an abandoned Oxford from and abandoned Wadham with only excellent conversations with Louise to break the solitude.

Evening in Oxford with Wadham graduates

As part of a general effort to get to know people in my college better, I followed Kelly and her sister Bonnie to the King’s Arms tonight to meet a whole crew of Wadham graduates tonight. Shifting between there and The Mitre, people had a few drinks and conversed. I owe David Patrikarakos for the pint of Guinness he kindly bought me.

Among the graduates who I did not know previously, I was particularly glad to meet a particle physicist working on dark matter and a fellow Vancouverite. In the latter case, the similarities are legion. We both lived near Trout Lake, we both have some connection to North Vancouver high schools (Handsworth and Carson Graham, respectively), and we both did judo with Hiroshi Nishi as an instructor. We both went to UBC and took courses with Dennis Danielson. Given that he did an honours English degree, I am sure we know a lot of the same people.

Incidentally, and before I go on too long about this, there have been a lot of headaches with regards to Wadham people and getting mentioned on the blog. There are those who tremble at the prospect and, when I know who they are, I generally avoid mentioning them at all and certainly avoid saying anything personal. Then there are those who are neutral, those I simply don’t know the position of, and those who are positively irked not to be mentioned. It’s a lot to remember, so my apologies if I slip up from time to time. A few ugly experiences are teaching me to err on the side of caution. If I don’t mention you by name, it’s probably because I barely know you and met you in a context that someone could possibly, maybe find objectionable (like… a pub… gasp!).

Anyhow, the number of Wadham graduate students who I had rarely if ever seen before demonstrates the extent to which a bit more concentration on the social side of college may be warranted. I shouldn’t let my general aversion to loud music and strong aversion to cigarette smoke be too much of a restricting factor. Thankfully, The Mitre is significantly less smoky than the King’s Arms, which is becoming infamous in my mind for an exceptionally high carcinogen count.

The election

Frustrated by scandal and a general sense of dissatisfaction, Canadians want a political party that they can really believe in, rather than support as the least bad option. As the campaign carries on, it is increasingly clear that the Tories are not that party. From mandatory sentencing to militarizing the Arctic, their policies run the gamut from retrograde to foolish. Much as I would love to have an opposition party with a credible chance at serving as a good government, these are simply not them.

The Liberal party deserves some punishment for sleaze and an uninspired agenda under Paul Martin, but the people who would suffer under a Tory government (poor people, people outside Alberta and Ontario) don’t deserve it.

One last note: people should beware direct interpretation of Canadian electoral polls. As I explained to Margaret, the absolute share of the vote has no direct bearing in a Parliamentary system like Canada’s. Since each riding elects an MP and the party with the most MPs is called upon to form a government, all you need in theory is a single-vote win in a plurality of ridings. While that is very unlikely, the same property means that parties with broad national support have an advantage against those with concentrated support. Every extra Tory vote in a solidly blue (Canadian Tories use blue, Liberals use red) riding in Alberta, beyond the winning vote, is effectively wasted. That said, it’s not encouraging to see support for the Conservatives as high as it is, given how their campaign has been unfolding.

  • According the the Royal Mail registered mail tracking service, my Chevening Scholarship application “has been passed to the overseas postal service for delivery.” Fingers tightly crossed.
  • Here’s an entry about electoral security being done right in Wisconsin.
  • Corporate social responsibility, being done wrong by Microsoft.
  • It’s amusing to note just how frequently some people seem to be Googling themselves and following the links to my blog. Either people Googling themselves or someone at a particular IP address Googling someone else on a near-daily basis.
  • Tomorrow morning, I am meeting Louise to do some pre-term reading. I shall be extremely glad for her company.

Population and the environment

One spectre that has long haunted the environmental debate is that of population size. Partly, that controversy seems to derive from some of the extremely dodgy characters who have made it a top concern. Plenty of very ill-informed commentators have based doomsday scenarios around population growth figures. Still, there are reasonable people taking a similar line and it does seem intuitively obvious that fewer human beings would put less strain on limited resources, all else being equal. Particularly among those who want to ‘make poverty history’ (a noble goal, though only possible when poverty is measured in absolute terms), it seems clear that six billion people simply cannot live at the level of affluence of today’s richest, barring some massive change in the way resources are acquired and transformed into goods.

The classic environmental liberal argument says that as people become richer, their family sizes start to fall. This may be because they are better educated and women gain both access to birth control and the knowledge and freedom to use it. It may be because people in relatively undeveloped economies use large families as a strategy to avoid poverty in old age. With the advent of banking, pensions, and the like, the need to do so diminishes. The evidence for slowing population growth is certainly strong, with the UN projecting that the human population will peak sometime around 2050.

For me, the absolute number of people on the planet is obviously far less important than the conditions under which they live. At one point in human history, after the Taba explosion, there may have been as few as 2000 human beings on the planet: living in conditions similar to those of a nuclear winter. Obviously, population size and quality of life are not perfectly correlated. By that metric, population can perhaps best be thought of in terms of the effect it has on people’s lives: especially those of women and the poor. The Rawlsian strategy of focusing on the effect on the least advantaged does have an intuitive moral appeal to it.

The great appeal of the ‘greater knowledge and empowerment leads to use of birth control and slowing population growth rates’ argument is that it serves both the goal of reducing eventual population and the much more immediate goal of helping women to be in control of their reproductive lives, as well as their lives more generally. Given how a hugely disproportionate amount of injustice is directed towards women worldwide, and given the huge inherent dangers in childbirth, even in the rich world, this seems an almost universally appealing kind of development.

One last fallacy should be addressed, in closing, though it’s one well covered enough already that I doubt it will be unfamiliar to anyone. It’s not the countries that have hundreds of millions of poor people that are using the majority of available resources. Patterns of consumption are not only too high, when it comes to limited resources, but dramatically skewed towards the richest consumers. Each year, humanity as a whole uses as much oil as forms naturally in about 400 years. Taking a look at who is benefitting from that, it is unjust as well as unsustainable.

I suppose the safe, but less than entirely satisfying, conclusion is that we can’t take an issue like population and make sweeping generalizations about it, without more cautious consideration of what the important aspects of the situation are and how they relate to moral judgments and non-moral facts. Still, it’s not a thing we should shy away from discussing, just because some of the questions and implications are uncomfortable.

More bad news for world fisheries

Another story about the senselessly rapacious nature of modern commercial fisheries is out: CBC, New York Times. This, at least, is an area where skeptical environmentalists of the Bjorn Lomborg ilk are dead wrong. To quote from the fish paper (PDF):

Unlike agriculture, where investments in technology and capital can increase long-term yields, the process of technological development in fishing can, in the absence of regulation, only lead to a more rapid depletion of the resource. Fishing can only remain renewable when exploitation does not exceed regeneration.That balance must be at the core of any sensible fisheries policy, such as those that are emerging in Iceland and New Zealand. The comparative barrenness of the North Sea and the Grand Bank shows that this balance has not been respected – even when the states in question are the richest, most technologically capable, and most scientifically advanced in the world.

Dr. Daniel Pauly, of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Fisheries Centre, equates this process of fishing outwards to a hole being burned through a piece of paper. At the centre are the now depleted waters of Europe and much of the Atlantic. Two thirds of Europe’s commercial fish stocks are already outside their biological safety limits, according to Clover, while cod stocks have collapsed from Canada to Sweden. The flames have now reached the coasts of Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand, Africa, and elsewhere. They have reached into trenches and onto sea-mounts previously inaccessible to fishermen.

This process is concealed by a system of world trade that keeps kitchens and restaurants throughout the developed world supplied with fish, many of which come from thousands of kilometers away. This both perpetuates the process of fishing outwards and conceals the fact that it is happening. (4)

The specific articles above are about some of the species discussed in Charles Clover’s excellent and informative book: The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat: roundnose grenadier, onion-eye grenadier, blue hake, spiny eel and spinytail skate. All have been driven to a level of critical endangerment in less than 20 years.

It should be obvious that this is not a trivial matter. Fish is a critical source of protein in much of the developing world. Evidence from West Africa, in particular, indicates that as industrial fisheries deplete wild fish stocks, rates of malnourishment, protein starvation, and related ailments all increase in parallel. This is a humanitarian disaster that is being openly and obviously manufactured. Moreover, there is no uncertainty about what is happening. Rigorous scientific assessments, like those of the Sea Around Us Project present an extensive and alarming body of evidence that world fisheries are in trouble and that, at present, nothing effective is being done about it.

I’d like to believe that most of us won’t live to see most of the world’s major fish stocks critically depleted but, if that is to be the case, we need to start doing dramatically better than we are now. As many of these articles suggest, the creation and vigorous enforcement of marine protected areas would be a good start.

PS. The linked version of the fish paper is the one submitted for publication in Marine Policy and ultimately rejected. It’s very general for a journal article, but I meant it to be accessible to almost everyone. I am looking for another journal to which I can submit it, probably after it has been edited again.

The Lesson of the Tallinn Occupation Museum

Prison cell door

One lesson you cannot help taking away from the Occupation Museum in Tallinn is that the protection of individuals from government is one of the most essential kinds of security. This is a point that is being completely missed in a wide variety of circumstances, especially as it relates to the so-called “War on Terror.” The question is not whether the government can protect citizens from terrorism, but what the ultimate balance of risks should be. Perhaps giving powers for increased surveillance or ease of detention decreases the likelihood of suffering a terrorist attack, though that is by no means proven. What it certainly does is increase the danger of the arbitrary and unjust use of force against civilians.

Given the enormous power and resources of government, the danger that it is capable of posing to citizens is extraordinary. That is why governmental accountability is absolutely essential. All power entrusted to government simply must be granted in conditional fashion: subject to revocation should it be abused. In turn, the only way we can be aware of the presence or absence of abuse is through public, civilian oversight. Government cannot be trusted to regulate itself, because to do so it to instantly accept a kind of de facto tyranny. Without knowing what is being done, supposedly on our behalf, we run the risk of being subjected to unjustified and difficult to reverse power grabs. There is almost incontrovertible evidence that this has taken place, in almost every developed country, since September 11th. Once again, this point is largely being lost in political debate in the west. As I wrote in the the NASCA Report (PDF), submitted to the Canadian Department of National Defence:

Maintaining openness about the measures being put in place, as well as allowing independent examination and discussion of both threats and responses, is a crucial mechanism for ensuring that an appropriate balance is being struck on matters of security. It is worth recalling that security is always a trade-off: with costs of various kinds rising to greater or lesser degrees as safeguards are created. For those safeguards to be a justified and legitimate part of a democratic society, they must be subject to public awareness and scrutiny. (21)Protection of the individual from unreasonable or arbitrary power – in the hands of government and its agents – is a crucial part of the individual security of all citizens in democratic states. While terrorists have shown themselves to be capable of causing enormous harm with modest resources, the very enormity state power means that it can do great harm through errors or by failing to create and maintain proper checks on authority. (25)

While it’s personally satisfying to have presented a document including such sections to policy makers, I have no way of knowing whether it will ever be taken seriously.

Looking at the photographs above, affixed on the inside of one of a whole line of doors from secret prisons formerly operating in Estonia, drives home the the point of human vulnerability contrasted with the facelessness of power. It’s an image that should stick in our minds when we are choosing to confer legitimacy upon governments, or seeking to withdraw it.