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Dysfunction - August 12

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Mad cows (and livid lambs)

Will Storr, UK Telegraph
Marauding elephants, aggressive sea lions, snap-happy crocodiles... As animal attacks on humans reach frightening levels, scientists are beginning to understand exactly what the beasts are thinking. And it's not good.
---
... Elephants haven't always behaved like this [elephant attack in Assam). But in recent years, in India and all over Africa, too, some menacing change has come over them. And not just elephants - it's almost any species. This disquieting pattern has only recently been detected, in part because it is so disparate and weird. But it's now widely accepted that the relationship between humans and animals is changing.

One of the world's leading ethologists (specialists in animal behaviour) believes that a critical point has been crossed and animals are beginning to snap back. After centuries of being eaten, evicted, subjected to vivisection, killed for fun, worn as hats and made to ride bicycles in circuses, something is causing them to turn on us. And it is being taken seriously enough by scientists that it has earned its own acronym: HAC - 'human-animal conflict'.
(10 August 2008)
Hard to blame 'em. -BA


China and India: heartlands of global protest

Paul Rogers, open Democracy
The exponential growth of the economies of China and India has won for these Asian giants a position of global economic and political prominence. But this process has been accompanied by profound internal discontent, some of which takes violent forms. The respective domestic experiences may be very different, but there are enough commonalities to suggest a lesson for the dominant economic model to which both states now adhere.

... China: a tide of protest

China's economic growth over almost two decades has been impressive. It has also been heavily concentrated in the major conurbations, especially on or around the east and southeast coasts. As the economic divisions have widened, so frustration has grown, often taking the form of disputes over land (see Li Datong, "The next land revolution?", 8 August 2007) but an even more common phenomenon has been the incidence of bitter anti-authority activism in the wake of individual incidents.

... These are just a handful of many thousands of examples of violent social unrest in China each year. The great majority is directed against police and government officials, and only a few of them are reported in the media outside the country. There is no one specific cause, but behind the phenomenon often lies intense frustration at the disabling effects and profound inequalities that China's remarkable economic growth has generated.

... India too - China's great neighbour, sometime strategic rival and economic competitor - is also experiencing a wave of social protest triggered by (for example) environmental degradation and land seizures; equally significant, a sustained campaign of organised political violence in India now affects more than half of the country's twenty-eight states.

India: an arc of insurgency

India's high-powered economic growth in the 2000s has been as impressive if not quite as sustained as China's; equally, its results have been most beneficial to the urban middle-classes in the country's urban centres rather than to the rural poor. A striking and largely unexpected feature of these years, however, has been the continued and increasing vigour of the rebellion by the Naxalite guerrilla movement (see Ajai Sahni, "India and its Maoists: failure and success", 20 March 2007).

... An important development in this respect was the merging of several Naxalite groups into the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-M) in 2004. This enabled it to evolve a central strategic direction, valuable for a movement that had hitherto been very dispersed.

The new strategy has as one of its elements a targeting of India's economic infrastructure. In July 2008, for example, Naxalite paramilitaries blew up a stretch of railway track on the Patna-Howrah route; they then waited until it had been repaired and destroyed it again at another site on the same route. All this despite a large security presence less than a mile away.

This focus on vulnerable points of the modern economy's network is facilitated by India's rapid urbanisation; it is also aided by the authorities' inability to ensure consistent supplies of basic services - oil, electricity, transport links - to many of India's people. The combination of an expanding economy and failures of delivery leaves an economy such as India's with very little margin for error in terms of underlying support. The Naxalite insurgents appear to have recognised this.

In addition, the enormous expansion of megacities such as Mumbai and Kolkata has been marked by massive settlements of new arrivals living in precarious conditions and working in the informal economy. The political activists in and around such communities can find a ready response among at least a section of this population, especially when they emphasise the acute divisions of wealth and poverty in modern India.

... In the 2010-2030 period, critical energy shortages and a deteriorating climate will each have profound effects on India and China (see "Melting Asia", Economist, 5 June 2008). These will in turn create the conditions for even greater social unrest than has occurred so far. This is the largely unrecognised significance of India's Naxalites and China's diversifiying social protests.
(7 August 2008)



Outside U.S., credit cards tighten grip

Mark Landler, New York Times
In Turkey, where borrowing money was until very recently a family affair, being in debt carried a fearful stigma. Some here even likened it to the disgrace that drives people to commit the honor killings that still occur in parts of this society.

“People who would kill their sisters or daughters for bringing shame on the family would do anything to avoid being labeled a debtor,” said Nazim Kaya, the president of Consumers Union, an advocacy group that helps those who fall into debt.

But in a cultural shift that has swept aside centuries of tradition, credit cards have become commonplace here. Only three decades ago, Turkey had fewer than 10,000 cards; today it has more than 38 million.

As the American blessing of credit cards became widespread, so did the American curse of debt. Outstanding card debt here ballooned to nearly $18 billion last year, six times the level five years earlier. Default rates spiked and consumer groups protested sky-high interest charges. Newspapers were filled with stories of desperate card holders killing themselves or others.

... “We did not listen to our ancestors’ proverb,” Mr. Kaya said. “ ‘Stretch your leg only as far as your blanket.’ ”

Few American exports have proved as popular as credit cards. In just a generation, they have gone from a totem of Western affluence to an everyday accessory in Brazil, Mexico, India, China, South Korea and elsewhere. More than two-thirds of the world’s 3.67 billion payment cards circulate abroad.
(9 August 2008)
A handful of innovations seem to be the main factors in transforming a traditional society into a consumer (high-energy) society: the automobile, mass media and credit cards. -BA

At TOD's DrumBeat, DownSouth writes:
I have lived in Mexico for the last 7 or 8 years. When I first came here it was pretty much a cash and carry society. If someone drove a nice car, it meant they had money.

Not so any more. Since then the country has been flooded with easy credit, and all anyone needs is a job to land that new auto.

And the change in behavior this causes is astonishing. A person who stands to lose his car and his house if he misses a couple of payments is a person who very much has his nose to the grindstone.

In a credit society like the United States I suppose it is difficult to imagine another way of being. A person who is accustomed to having house payments and car payments really doesn't realize how much freedom, independence and peace of mind he is sacrificing.



Local scientist splits water, saves world, gets on TV

JoulesBurn, The Oil Drum
This might have been a story of how a couple of MIT scientists happened upon a breakthrough discovery in the electrolysis of water; but they didn't (and so it isn't). This might also have been a story about an informed media which correctly and skeptically reports on such scientific discoveries -- in the midst of a public relations barrage from a leading university -- but nobody really expects such journalistic vigilance anymore. Instead, this story will try to examine what (if anything) was discovered, and how this news affects the landscape of the looming energy crisis. In addition, given that a number of encouraging research reports have surfaced suggesting a seamless transition to a hydrogen economy, I will revisit the fundamental challenge posed by moving to alternate liquid fuels: getting used to the idea of diffuse energy. (Some names have been omitted to protect the less guilty).

... Summary

1. Despite the hype, it doesn't appear that Nocera et. al. have made any significant advances in water electrolysis.

2. Even if the researchers drove the cost of the oxygen-evolving anode to zero and its efficiency close to 100%, we are still only marginally closer to being able to produce significant quantities of hydrogen from solar energy.

3. Want to invest in cobalt futures? Too late.
(6 August 2008)
Related from Joseph Romm at Gristmill: 'Major discovery' from MIT unpractical, and ignores present advances in solar baseload.

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