26 Jun 2009

A World Without Nuclear Weapons

On the 3rd June 2009, a statue of Ronald Reagan was unveiled in the Capitol, giving Senator John McCain the opportunity of a floor statement that serves as an accurate summary of the aims of the Nuclear Security Project.

The Nuclear Security Project claims to be in favour of a world free of nuclear weapons, and yet McCain's speech inadvertently shows how hollow this truly is. Quoting Kissinger and Schultz, "Without the vision of moving toward zero, we will not find the essential cooperation required to stop our downward spiral." Perhaps they really meant 'upward spiral' in terms of the increase in nuclear states and the proliferation of weapons-grade materials. Like one of Zeno's paradoxes, the arrow will never hit the target but we have to look as if we're trying.

"Our highest priority must be to reduce the danger that nuclear weapons will ever be used." Reducing the danger of nuclear weapons is not the same as reducing the number of nuclear weapons. It is true that the USA and Russia have a surfeit of nuclear warheads and that reducing them is purely pragmatic - why blow up the world five times when once will suffice? But McCain goes on to say that nuclear weapons are "still important to deter an attack with weapons of mass destruction against us and our allies," without seeing the logic that every nation on the planet can take the same stance. North Korea and Iran are labeled as 'rogue states' without (unsurprisingly) including Israel.

The protocols that led to detente and the idea of an un-winnable war are still in place. The notion that nuclear terrorists pose a real threat is in the same camp as the phantom targets of the US war on terror. And thus we come to the real aims of the Nuclear Security Project: to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology beyond the current nuclear states. I assume other nations will be added to this nuclear club as and when a friendly nation has the resources and strategic importance. But this is not a tactic unique to the USA, with Russia and China following a similar path of radioactive empire-building.

To seriously imagine that a country such as North Korea is a genuine threat to the USA is laughable. It may be a threat to South Korea but this particular theatre of conflict is ultimately a game between China and the USA. Becoming a legitimate nuclear power takes a lot more technology than knowing how to manufacture warheads and missiles - that part is relatively simple. The really high-grade technology lies in the surveillance systems that can locate a missile launch the second it happens. For all the advanced physics that goes into a warhead, the missile is still subject to old-fashioned newtonian laws of motion. There are now much faster electromagnetic weapons that can be as lethal as nuclear weapons but without the spread of radioactive materials. Perhaps nuclear weapons are actually already obsolete but nobody wants to say so as it would reveal the other gadgets in the world's doomsday arsenal. Perhaps we will have a nuclear-free world one day soon, but I don't think it will stop the arms race.

24 Jun 2009

Geoengineering: More Political and Moral Than Scientific?

Much of the green agenda regarding climate change seeks to reverse the effects of global warming by reversing the trend in carbon dioxide emissions. But what if there was a way to both remove the carbon dioxide and bring average temperatures back down again, without having to stall our polluting economies? Welcome to the world of geoengineering.

Tim Harper, nanotech guru and investor, tells of a debate he attended that looked at such issues. We can already manipulate the weather locally, so why not do it globally? Forget the corporate pain of the carbon tax and the tedium of recycling. We can reflect back some sunlight with a space shield, aerosols or manufactured cloud cover. We can soak up the excess CO2 with genetically modified trees or carbon burial factories. The latter solution is particularly ironic as fossil fuels come out of the ground in the first place. So why is Greenpeace so dead against geoengineering?

Harper describes the Greenpeace position as setting up any number of straw men just to knock them down. However, Harper soon engages in precisely the same tactic: "Just imagine a world where you could carry on as normal, but technology provides a way of cleaning up the mess so we don’t all have to live in teepees and ride bicycles?" I must admit that my own gut instinct is to side with Greenpeace, although rather tempered with my distaste for their own solutions.

The two main arguments against geoengineering is that it may do more harm than good and that it is purely driven by the same economic greed that caused the problem in the first place. Actually, there are many problems (in the plural) that seem to be sidelined in the name of climate change such as chemical, pharmaceutical and electromagnetic pollution, but let's stick to geoengineering the climate for now.

Harper is well aware that geoengineering technologies can either be used within a global cooperative effort to stabilise the environment, or they can be used as weapons. The on-going oil wars will one day come to an end but that is unlikely to stop conflicts over other resources such as water or even clean air. He is also only too aware that as strategic weapons they will be in the hands of the military-industrial complex that really doesn't give a damn about other countries, never mind its own population. So, in his opinion, the best thing to do is to move towards some international agreements over at least the protocols to conduct experiments.

He dismisses as slightly naive the accusation that the drive towards geoengineering is driven purely by money. Sure, making a profit out of technology is not a crime, but in my opinion this is yet another technology of control to be used against humans rather than for the collective benefit. The protocol for introducing any control technology is always the same: problem, reaction, solution. Climate control becomes population control.

Once upon a time, natural disasters were... well, natural. Now, every hurricane becomes the starting point for yet another debate on climate change, greenhouse gases, carbon footprints and the soaring price of umbrellas. The weather does not respect political boundaries; a destructive hurricane for one country can be agricultural manna for a neighbour. Just as with nuclear weapons, those countries who cannot afford the technology will be vassals to those who can.

From what I can see, there is no political will to solve the climate problem except for solutions that increase the power of the state over the individual. Geoengineering takes this one step further to increase the power of some states over others. Harper is right to point out that the arguments are not just scientific but also, indeed primarily, political and moral. But what if he's right? What if we can trash the place in the knowledge we can hire a technological cleaning maid?

2 Jun 2009

Osel Torres: from Buddhist Lama to Film-maker

Born in 1985 and quickly elevated to the position of reincarnated lama, or tulku, Osel Hita Torres has turned his back on Buddhism and now claims to be agnostic.

Both Torres's parents were members of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Founded in 1975 by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, the FPMT teachings are founded on the Tibetan Gelupta tradition.

Barely a year after Lama Yeshe's death, the birth of Osel was heralded as the reincarnation of the Foundation's leading light. Indeed, Lama Zopa had written to FPMT members that their founder was coming back very soon, knowing that Osel's mother was already pregnant. At the age of 14 months the boy was confirmed by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe and given the name Tenzin Osel Rinpoche. With very few Western tulkus in existence there was much media interest in Lama Osel's story and progress. But a tale that seemed to bring together the different worlds of modern Western Europe with the traditions of Tibetan lamaism has turned sour.

At the age of 18 Lama Osel handed back his robes and left the monastic order. This in itself is not unusual or controversial: many Tibetan teachers decide to renounce their monastic vows and step into the secular world. There is nothing wrong with this and all Buddhist schools allow for people to enter a monastery and to leave when the time is right; there is no rule that stipulates that a monk must remain so for life. However, such Buddhist teachers do not lose their status or their titles: once a tulku, always a tulku.

What is unusual with Osel is that he has now made public that he renounces the very organisation that had hoped he would become their new master. He has also turned his back on Buddhism as a whole and now describes himself as agnostic. A recent interview in the Spanish paper El Mundo was then reported in The Guardian newspaper.

"At 14 months I was recognized and taken to India. I dressed in a yellow hat, I sat on a throne, people worshipped me ... I was taken away from my family and put in a medieval situation in which I suffered a lot. It was like living a lie."

The FPMT website has removed all references to their "boy lama", but the internet has a long memory and Google cache still holds the 'offending' pages. It is easier for the FPMT to wipe away the traces of their 'failed' tulku, but it is altogether harder for Osel to forget his childhood.

This strikes me as having some resonances with the story of Krishnamurti, who himself was 'recognised' as a master by theosophists but later rejected the whole notion and went his own way. However, Krishnamurti continued to write about spiritual matters and especially about how one should follow one's own inner journey and not be entranced by apparent 'masters'. As Osel continues to study cinematography, perhaps he will eventually tell his own story in the language of films rather than the written word.

Be careful who you follow.