Thursday, December 29, 2011

The New Railroad in Afghanistan

The new railroad from Hairatan to Mazar-i Sharif doesn't run very far but it augurs for a momentous technological change in Greater Central Asia because it can eventually link into the rail networks of north and south.  Assuming that some day Afghanistan will be at peace, we can believe that the rail line will run beyond Mazar into Pakistan as well as Iran, thus linking the rail networks of the Middle East, South Asia, and North Asia. This was a matter of great interest in the nineteenth century when railroads were critical devices of colonial imperialism.  So, finally, it's happening.  The effect of such linkages will effectively reduce distances across the vast span of Eurasia, both in cost and in time of travel.  So this small, modest innovation seems to portend the emergence of a new and different social, economic, and political world in Eurasia. I reproduce here the report of the Associated Press.  RLC [Click on the title below for a link to the source.]
Afghanistan opening first major train service
By KAY JOHNSON, Associated Press – Dec 21, 2011  KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Operators ran the first train down Afghanistan's first major railroad Wednesday, clearing the way for a long-awaited service from the northern border that should speed up the U.S. military's crucial supply flow and become a hub for future trade.
A cargoless train chugged into a newly built station in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday after a 47-mile (75-kilometer) trial run from the border with Uzbekistan, said Deputy Public Works Minister Noor Gul Mangal, who was on hand for the arrival.
The new rail line is the first stage of an ambitious plan to link landlocked Afghanistan to its neighbors' extensive railways for the first time, eventually opening up new trade routes for goods traveling between Europe and Asia.
Afghanistan has never had a functional rail network, though many projects have been begun and later abandoned, victims of maneuvers of the 19th century Great Game rivalry between Russia and Britain, and then political bickering in the early 20th century. Soviet occupiers abandoned a few rail projects in the 1980s, and later years of bitter civil war made such construction impossible.
So the line from the border town of Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif marks a milestone in a violence-wracked country eager for good news on the horizon. It also could be a key route for the U.S. troop withdrawal beginning next year and, eventually, a gateway for Afghan exports that would travel its neighbors, said Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington
"It's actually a big deal. It's very significant both practically and symbolically," Starr said.
In the short term, service will help release a bottleneck at Hairatan dry port that is now holding up goods — including fuel and other supplies for American troops — while they are loaded off of trains and onto trucks for a hazardous journey over Afghanistan's northern mountain roads.
"This port of Hairatan is where the bulk of commercial cargo is coming from into the country, so it is very important," said Juan Miranda, head of Central and West Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank, which funded the $165 million project.
Allowing trains to come straight in will help Hairatan handle up to 10 times as much cargo, from 4,000 tons per month now to 25,000-40,000 tons per month once the service is fully operating, the ADB says. Once in Mazar-i-Sharif, the goods can be transferred to most of the rest of Afghanistan on surface roads.
Uzbekistan's state-owned SE Sogdiana Trans will run the commercial train service, ADB's Afghanistan representative Noriko Sato said.
A U.S. military spokesman says the new railway will be key to supplying American troops — and possibly also withdrawing non-lethal cargo during the American troop pullout set to begin next year.
"We do not have numbers yet, (but) we anticipate that the rail line will be able to speed the transit of cargo into Afghanistan and out of it," said Cmdr. Bill Speaks of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The U.S. has recently shifted much of its supply line to the north from routes going through Pakistan, and the northern routes' importance was brought into sharp focus last month when Pakistan — angered by a disputed NATO strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers — closed its two border crossings for U.S. supplies.
Just three years ago, about 90 percent of nonmilitary supplies to Afghanistan went through Karachi, Pakistan. Today, close to 75 percent of cargo is shipped through the northern network.
Just as the Pakistani supply line has been attacked by insurgents, the newer northern routes through Mazar-i-Sharif and other cities are likely to also become targets. In 2009, Taliban forces in the northern province of Kunduz hijacked two fuel trucks, resulting in a fiery NATO airstrike that killed dozens.
While many fear instability or even civil war in Afghanistan after 2014 when most foreign forces leave, others are busy planning for a future in which the country could be a hub in a New Silk Road reconnecting spice and silk routes from centuries past.
The 10-country Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation project — supported by the ADB along with the U.N., World Bank and International Monetary Fund — envisions a network of some 2,250 miles (3,600 kilometers) of roads and 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) of railway linking China and India to the Middle East and Europe, although the project is far from complete.
For years, Afghanistan's poor roads and rails have been the project's missing link to much of that network.
With the northern Hairatan rail line ready to open for business, Afghan officials are already planning to expand its infant railroad with another proposed line to Turkmenistan to the northwest, Mangal said Wednesday.
He said a delegation would meet with Turkmenistan officials to discuss the expansion at the official inauguration for the Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif line, which he said would come soon though he wouldn't give a date.
"This is the first railway in Afghanistan and of course when we inaugurate it there will be a big ceremony, Mangal said.
Johnson reported from Bangkok.Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

An intriguing letter of congratulations from Iran

Below is a statement I received today broadly distributed from Dr. ... , a former official of the the Iranian government under the "progressive" Prime Minister Muhammad Khatami.  Dr. ...  is notable for his efforts to create relations between Muslim and Christian theologians through an institute which he founded and directs in Tehran.  He is also notable for his involvement in the demonstrations against the government of Iran during the 2009 demonstrations, and for the abuse he clearly suffered when he was imprisoned for it.  He went into prison a portly short man and came out many months later evidently 100 pounds lighter.  The time spent in custody and the lost weight clearly discounted the statements of loyalty he made when he was finally released.  Before his ordeal he paid a visit to Washington University in St Louis as well as to Covenant Seminary, whose faculty had visited him in Tehran some months before, so he has friends here who have followed his career and taken note of the abuse he has evidently suffered at the hands of his own government, dominated as it is by a kabal of less progressive Shiite theologians.

Now he is resurfacing as the head of his Institute and making a statement of great interest because it seems to depart from the usual rhetoric of the Islamic Republic.  Here, in his statement of congratulations to Christians in their time of celebration, is a condemnation of dictatorship and even a call for the Islamic regimes of the world to allow non-Muslims to practice their faiths.
The Institute ... is honored to compliment New Year to you and your colleagues. Coincidence of New Year and birthday of Christ shows that religion is the most powerful factor in human life, which has been abused either it is able to solve huge problems of humanity. so that we invite all religions to note common subjects and make dialogue about them, to solve man's problems also to achieve the spirituality. The biggest event of world in the last year, was fall of dictators in Muslim's countries.  Spirit of the struggle against dictatorship was Islam-willing and once again it confirmed the importance of religion in human life. we, in our turn, request of new leaders and authorities in Islamic countries to accept actual share of other religions and their faithfuls, grant them their full rights of citizenship so that all religions will be able to expand intellectuality and theism in the world, to replace peace instead of current violence.  Accept good wishes of my colleagues and me, in the Institute … for New Year. [signed] ... [from] Iran- Tehran
Dr ... is proposing that the "new leaders and authorities in Islamic countries accept ... other religions and their faithfuls [followings], [and] grant them their full rights of citizenship ...."  This plea for tolerance of other religious groups can hardly be other than a challenge to his own government, which famously cannot bear dissent or unauthorized religious practice.  Buried in his congratulations to those of us in the Western world -- I'm sure it went out to his whole address list -- is a  veiled critique of his own political context, one that, as he says, has "abused" religion.  I hope he can be safe in such a place; Der ...  knows by experience how painful it can be to those who embarrass a dictatorial regime.    

Monday, December 26, 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Another gas field discovered in Iran

The Iranians have discovered another large gas field -- they claim 1.4 trillion cubic meters of reserves -- in their Caspian Sea waters.  They already have the largest combination of oil and gas reserves in the world.  The significance of their discovery will lie in what they can make of it.
In any case, the discovery underlies the special difficulties the western world, especially the United States, of course, has in dealing with the Iranian government.  Even though roguish in policy it claims sovereignty over one of the most richly endowed territories on the earth.
Here is the TehranTimes report:
Iran envisages $50b investment to explore oil, gas fields in Caspian Sea 
Iranian oil ministry has envisaged investing up to $50 billion to explore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea, the Mehr news agency quoted a member of parliament as saying on Friday. “In a recent meeting with the oil minister, he elaborately explained on plans to explore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea,” Ali-Asghar Yousefnejad stated. Iran announced on December 11 it has discovered a large gas field in the Caspian Sea with at least 50 trillion cubic feet (some 1.4 trillion cubic meters) of reserves.
 The field, in waters 700 meters deep, lies wholly within Iran’s territorial waters, Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi explained.  He added excluding this new discovery Iran has 11 trillion cubic meters of proven gas reserves in the Caspian Sea
[For more, click on the title above.]

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The “Symbol-breathing” Animal

Papers are now read, grades recorded.  It’s time to consider how well I taught my students the fundamental concepts of my discipline.  [In my courses on "Civil Conflicts" and "Terrorism" and "The Clash of Civilizations" I have gotten used to being asked "What is this course about?" from students who realize that besides the stated topic there is another more abstract one in the course, but they are unsure what it is.  How social life is enabled, it turns out, is not easily taught.]  Judging from the papers students turned in I have done only fairly.  That so few of them really got it reflects on me.  My grade should be, maybe a B-.  One of my colleagues said the other day he would be satisfied if his students would demonstrate knowledge of merely the basic concepts of biological evolution, nothing more.  Me too, for the concept of culture. 

As the last exercise, I told them to write a paper comparing five cases [from those we examined in class], but without using the word “culture.”  When tempted to use the world “culture” they were to deconstruct what they had in mind, to specify its elements.  The point was to force them to identify more exactly the ways that folks in these different settings were engaging with each other and their predicaments by means of symbols.  

It was Ruth Benedict who suggested that culture is to us as water is to the fish of the deep.  Because water is their medium of existence it is fundamental to all they know.  Similarly we human beings dwell in oceans of symbols – layers and layers of forms to which we ascribe meanings.  We perceive through symbols, interpret what we perceive through symbols, react to what we perceive by acting meaningfully, that is, symbolically.  We create our visions, our expectations, our “worlds” through symbols.  

This is no “airy-fairy” world, as some disparagingly characterize such a view, because such a world cannot exist other than materially: Symbols are always material.  They are objects – always objects -- to which we ascribe meaning:  flows of sound are taken to be meaningful utterances, marks on a page, a monument, or on the human body stand for other things.  Material things invested with meaning are the fundamental building blocks of the human imagination. 

I wanted my students to recognize how such intersubjective forms enable social life:  as human beings we draw from funds of symbols representing the understandings we have acquired through experience in order to make sense of the flow of stimuli that bombard us every waking moment.  With these symbolic forms we ascribe significance to those stimuli; we decide how to respond fittingly to the circumstance; and we act so as to convey our intentions, that is, meaningfully.  

However, although trained by experience to perceive and interpret and act in familiar ways we are not automatons; we are agents, able to choose how to perceive, how to interpret, and how to respond.  What we choose to see, and give significance to, and respond to are never the only possible ways to perceive, interpret, and act.    
So the key terms of this frame of reference are,
·        *the repertoire of symbolically constituted understandings available to us,
·        *our own selves as agents,
·        *the context that must be perceived, defined [by using symbols], and responded to meaningfully,
·        *the specific selections from our symbolic repertoire that we deploy in order to cope with the exigencies of the moment, and the reasons for those choices.

The ocean of symbols around us, framing our experience, pervading our thoughts, in fact enabling our thoughts, making it possible for us to conceive of a past and future, even to plan for a future – this is our medium.  Without it we cannot live.  In the absence of it – when we have no sense of significance – we are in danger, for we cannot bear to live otherwise.  

These are the fundamental concepts of my discipline that my students need to grasp.  I hope to do better next time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The talking animal that needs to be heard

A rumination:  The other day I met someone who, according to what I had understood, was coming to see me to find out about my research.  I was of course flattered that anyone would think I was doing something interesting.  But it turned out that in an hour and a half my visitor asked no questions; not one.  In fact, what he did do was talk.  It became clear early on that he was brilliant and had a lot of creative ideas.  He was just talking through his experience and his project, what he was teaching, and what it seemed to mean for his students.  I started taking notes.  Eventually I decided to butt into what he was saying to tell him what I was doing, and then he began to take notes.  As it turned out, we had plenty to share.  It was a great time. 
But what I wondered afterward was why he came.  It required a special effort on his part -- he was from another city and had come to town for other reasons.  So why did he want to see me?  I think it was because he needed to talk, to tell someone what he was doing, what he thought about some issues he considered vital. I was useful to him as a listener.  He needed an audience, someone to pay attention as he worked through his own perception of the issues he cared about.  He came to find someone who would appreciate what he was doing.  Indeed I did, and I fulfilled his need for a sympathetic audience. 
The next weekend I was with a friend who has had a hard life, several tragic events in his life, and again I was obliged to listen.  He is one of those types who talks endlessly, if we let him; but it’s hard to listen for very long because he tends to tell the same stories.  Above all, he seems also to need an audience.
I wonder now about our human need to be heard.  We all seem to need an audience.  In the 1990s hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were established to allow the South Africans to allow the two opposing sides, black and white, to reconcile.  Many of them, especially the blacks, had suffered grievously at the hand of the others. The TRC was supposed to enable the victims to tell their stories, perhaps even to confront their abusers, in hopes of bringing closure to the bitter conflicts of the past and to avoid a hopelessly irresolvable civil war.  The TRC could not achieve all that had been hoped, but at least for some folks the process was cathartic.  Some testified to a sense of relief after just telling their stories to an attentive audience; indeed, what some of them had to say revealed such heinous behavior that the whole country was deeply shaken.  For those folks, having someone listen to their stories, to share the anguish they had felt of having no idea what had happened to their loved-ones, gave them a sense of finality.    
We human beings seem to need to talk, to write, to “say” something, as if we lust for an audience that appreciates us.   I hear that often from my students: they want to write.  I wonder if the quest for a sympathetic listener is universal.  To me it seems as if that quest is intrinsic to what we are as human beings.  Isn't it remarkable that billions of dollars are being spent in search of other creatures like ourselves somewhere out there in the universe?  
That seems to be why some of us write blogs.  I have never questioned why anyone writes a blog:  it is to cry out to be heard.  I began this one in desperation, frantic that our government was making egregious blunders in its Middle Eastern wars. I worried, what would be the outcome of such folly?  So many errors of judgment, so much unjustified arrogance.  I wrote to cry out for sanity.  I felt like Jeremiah: “Oh land, land land! Hear the world the of the Lord!”
So why anyone writes is no mystery to me.  The mystery is why anyone bothers to read blogs. Who listens?  Why does anyone want to know what we say?  Such magnanimous souls they are, just to listen!  I have no idea who they are – and in my case they are few and rare – but to the degree that they leave traces, as if they had really heard me, they have performed a service.
One of the continuing questions of anthropologists is what makes human beings different from all the other creatures we know about.  The more we know, the more difficult it is to specify just what makes us different.  Can the lust to be heard, to have an audience, be one of those qualities special to our humanity?  We all hope that someone out there is listening.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A deeper historical view of how America came to this

In this period of the voting cycle it is easy to forget the conditions that brought our country to its tragic and embarrassing condition, in which half our country is near or below the poverty line.  As a public most of us Americans are forgetful of things that took place in even the recent past.  Most Americans forget that Bill Clinton left the country with a budget surplus.  A surplus?  We are a long way from that now.  How did we get to this place?  Here are two assessments by Republicans.

Christopher Buckley [son of Wm F. Buckley] on NOW 3/3/06:
President Bush has now borrowed more money than all other Presidents combined. The spending that he has enacted is amazing. It amazes me that he calls himself "conservative."”

Francis Fukuyama in 2008: 
It is hard to imagine a more disastrous presidency than that of George W. Bush. It was bad enough that he launched an unnecessary war and undermined the standing of the United States throughout the world in his first term. But in the waning days of his administration, he is presiding over a collapse of the American financial system and broader economy that will have consequences for years to come. As a general rule, democracies don’t work well if voters do not hold political parties accountable for failure. While John McCain is trying desperately to pretend that he never had anything to do with the Republican Party, I think it would be a travesty to reward the Republicans for failure on such a grand scale."  

Celebrating Mohammed Bouazizi's gift to the Arab imagination: His own burning body

Salman Shaikh of CNN reviews the significance of what has taken place in the Arab world in the last twelve months.  So much has changed, so much is still unresolved, so much is potential.  This is a time to encourage the authentic appeals for the right of the peoples of the Middle East to choose their own leaders and to hold them accountable for what they do with their country.  They are worthy of our support and encouragement.  RLC
Mohamed Bouazizi: A fruit seller's legacy to the Arab people By Salman Shaikh, Special to CNN updated 9:23 AM EST, Sat December 17, 2011                          
(CNN) -- Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation one year ago was an act which symbolized the frustration and desperation of millions in the Arab world, setting into motion a series of revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa.His was a cry for dignity, justice, and opportunity, which continues to be heard around a region undergoing tumultuous change. In today's Middle East, people matter. Many are now engaged in what could be a life-long struggle to fight long-standing grievances and take greater control of their lives. This process must involve the creation of new democratic political systems, which ensure greater accountability of leaders, and level the playing field of opportunity for all, not just a select few. 
It has been a remarkable year. Three dictators have been toppled and one has transferred power to a deputy. Nonetheless, analysts and policy-makers continue to speak about the slow pace of change in the region and warn of the onset of an "Arab Winter." Such distinctions -- spring and winter -- are misleading. Many seasons will come and go in the transformative years that lie ahead for the Arab world. Revolutions take time to settle. The transformation of societies takes even longer. The colored revolutions of Eastern Europe, two decades on, are still developing. It took centuries for democratic systems to be refined in Europe. We cannot expect democracy in the Middle East to be solidified in only one year. 
Still, across the region, there is cause for concern. Egypt's transition to civilian rule carries major worries, even as Egyptians continue to go to the polls. The concern remains that the ruling military council will relinquish power only under heavy pressure; and Egypt's economy and confidence are in nosedive as the populace awaits civil rule. Syrians meanwhile face a regime intent on killing and torturing its citizens to end their uprising. All this as a largely impotent international community argues over how to stop the increasing violence.In Yemen, many are not convinced by a regionally brokered transition deal, which allows Saleh and his family immunity from prosecution as well as continued political influence. Bahrain continues to reel from the absence of a genuine national dialogue between its rulers and the underrepresented and relatively impoverished majority Shia community. Libya's revolutionaries now face the immediate challenge of building a state from scratch, based on the rule of law and democratic principles. To do so, they are learning, they will first have to put down their guns.  . . . 
[For more, click on the title.]

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More signs of rapid climate change

We would like to believe that the leaders of affairs on the earth will recognize impending disaster early enough to avoid it. That is of course the intention of those meeting to deal with climate change.  But as long as major lobbying organizations, for reasons of self interest, seek to obfuscate the issue the prospects are poor -- or so I surmise.  Is there not abundant reason to wonder if they will get it together?  Here is one of the latest warning reports.  RLC

VOA December 10, 2011NASA: Earth's Prehistoric Record Warns of Nearing Rapid Climate Change

A new U.S. space agency study warns the Earth this century could see rapid and catastrophic climate changes if man-made global warming levels are allowed to reach an internationally-recognized so-called “safe limit” of two degrees Celsius.
The NASA researchers examined prehistoric climate conditions during past interglacial periods - the time between ice ages - and compared them with the interglacial period the Earth is currently experiencing. The last interglacial period ended around 115,000 years ago when temperatures were less than one degree Celsius warmer than today, and sea levels were six meters higher.

The scientists say looking at how the prehistoric climate responded to natural changes gives them more insight into determining a dangerous level of man-made global warming for today’s world.  
NASA study leader James Hansen says the findings show that Earth’s climate is more sensitive than even recent estimates suggest. He described the notion of limiting man-made global warming to an increase of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as “a prescription for disaster.”

Recent studies, including those by NASA, indicate the average global surface temperature since 1880 has gone up 0.8 degrees Celsius and is on course to continue rising by 0.1 degrees every decade. 
NASA researchers say global warming of two degrees Celsius would more closely match conditions of an interglacial period that occurred some five million years ago when seas were about 25 meters higher than today. . . .  [For more, click on the title above.]
The problem as I see it isn't the technical possibilities of avoiding a catastrophe but the known experience with how social policy works:  It can work as long as a free and open discussion allows opinion to form around a vital issue, but at a rate determined by the process of information distribution.  Right now we have certain  industries that foresee a loss to their business if serious measures are taken to reverse the trends in CO2 usage, and they [some of them] are working to make sure no consensus that there is a problem develops.  Some in the oil industry [famously, the Koch brothers] seem to be devoted to questioning all research indicating that the world is racing toward a point of no return.  It's hard to know how long it will take for the world, even the oil executives themselves, to decide they had better face the practical consequences of denial.  The day will surely come.  The only issue is whether it comes too late to avoid global catastrophe. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tracking developments on the World Clock

Click on the title above and follow the transformations taking place on our globe by the day, month, year.  Sobering numbers.  

Monday, December 05, 2011

"Carbon Emissions Show Biggest Jump Ever Recorded"

The news should be no surprise, but it is worrisome -- the biggest reason that the likelihood that the world will actually reverse the trend before the systems is beyond recovery is rising, not diminishing.

Source: Global Carbon Project
"Carbon Emissions Show Biggest Jump Ever Recorded"
Global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record last year, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery.
Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003.
The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.
Climate Progress reported on a similar analysis last month (see “Biggest Jump Ever in Global Warming Pollution in 2010, Chinese CO2 Emissions Now Exceed U.S.’s By 50%“).  [For more on the new study click on the title above.]

The profile of CO2 emissions is hardly improving

A chart that appeared in the New York Times yesterday says a lot about what's happening with C02 emissions.

Just to make sure the point come through, I want to put it into words:
  • The US output is still rising but fortunately at a much lower rate;
  • China's output has skyrocketed, from about 2.3 metric tons a year to about 7 metric tons
  • India's output and that of its neighbors has also risen greatly;
  • The Europeans in the mean time have done much better, even in many cases reducing their total output
All this is to say that the treats to global warming are still rising dramatically.  The consequences will be global.

The Times also indicates that generally little is being done to alleviate the problem.  If you click on the title of this note it will link to Robert B. Semple's article on the situation:  "Remember Kyoto? Most Nations Don’t"