Is Saudi Arabia prepared to let oil price drop to $20?

December 20, 2014

Saudi Arabia seems to fighting two battles; one against oil shale and one against the Iran-Russia combination. In the long term both are doomed to failure. At best all that Saudi Arabia can hope for is that

  1. the smaller shale oil producers find it uneconomic to continue production, and
  2. Iran and Russia’s oil production is severely curtailed.

But any such result is bound to be temporary. It may force the reduction of investment in shale oil but Russia and Iran will need to produce more to keep their revenues up. It is unlikely to lead to the permanent impairment of oil production from shale or in Iran and Russia. It may allow Saudi Arabia to take control of pricing for a while but the OPEC monopoly has already gone. And the limited monopoly they can win, can only continue as long as oil price stays too low to make it economic for the shale and tar sands alternatives. The reestablished monopoly will only apply as long as oil stays cheap.

It becomes intriguing now as to whether Saudi Arabia has the nerve to allow prices to drop to as low as $20 per barrel and for how long? The long term benefits to Saudi Arabia are not quite so clear for me. Having a monopoly which does not allow prices to rise seems somewhat useless. Certainly their cost of extraction is so low (less than $5 per barrel) that they could continue making profits, but they would need to keep the price low for many years to see off the competition – and the competition would come back if prices rose again.

Anatole Kaletsky considers this question at his Reuters blog:

…… Low oil prices will last long enough for one of two events to happen. The first possibility, the one most traders and analysts seem to expect, is that Saudi Arabia will re-establish OPEC’s monopoly power once it achieves the true geopolitical or economic objectives that spurred it to trigger the slump. The second possibility, one I wrote about two weeks ago, is that the global oil market will move toward normal competitive conditions in which prices are set by the marginal production costs, rather than Saudi or OPEC monopoly power. This may seem like a far-fetched scenario, but it is more or less how the oil market worked for two decades from 1986 to 2004. ….

….. The key question is whether the present price of around $55 will prove closer to the floor or the ceiling of this new range. The history of inflation-adjusted oil prices, deflated by the U.S. Consumer Price Index, offers some intriguing hints. The 40 years since OPEC first flexed its muscles in 1974 can be divided into three distinct periods. From 1974 to 1985, West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, fluctuated between $48 and $120 in today’s money. From 1986 to 2004, the price ranged from $21 to $48 (apart from two brief aberrations during the 1998 Russian crisis and the 1991 war in Iraq). And from 2005 until this year, oil has again traded in its 1974 to 1985 range of roughly $50 to $120, apart from two very brief spikes in the 2008-09 financial crisis.

What makes these three periods significant is that the trading range of the past 10 years was very similar to the 1974-85 first decade of OPEC domination, but the 19 years from 1986 to 2004 represented a totally different regime. It seems plausible that the difference between these two regimes can be explained by the breakdown of OPEC power in 1985 and the shift from monopolistic to competitive pricing for the next 20 years, followed by the restoration of monopoly pricing in 2005 as OPEC took advantage of surging Chinese demand. ….

……. There are several reasons to expect a new trading range as low as $20 to $50, as in the period from 1986 to 2004. Technological and environmental pressures are reducing long-term oil demand and threatening to turn much of the high-cost oil outside the Middle East into a “stranded asset” similar to the earth’s vast unwanted coal reserves. Additional pressures for low oil prices in the long term include the possible lifting of sanctions on Iran and Russia and the ending of civil wars in Iraq and Libya, which between them would release additional oil reserves bigger than Saudi Arabia’s on to the world markets.

The U.S. shale revolution is perhaps the strongest argument for a return to competitive pricing instead of the OPEC-dominated monopoly regimes of 1974-85 and 2005-14. Although shale oil is relatively costly, production can be turned on and off much more easily – and cheaply – than from conventional oilfields. This means that shale prospectors should now be the “swing producers” in global oil markets instead of the Saudis. In a truly competitive market, the Saudis and other low-cost producers would always be pumping at maximum output, while shale shuts off when demand is weak and ramps up when demand is strong. This competitive logic suggests that marginal costs of U.S. shale oil, generally estimated at $40 to $50, should in the future be a ceiling for global oil prices, not a floor. …

…… So which of these arguments will prove right: The bearish case for a $20 to $50 trading-range based on competitive market pricing? Or the bullish one for $50 to $120 based on resumed OPEC dominance?

Whether market pressures dominate or whether the cartel reestablishes control, we seem to be in for a long period of prices around $40 – 50 per barrel. At this price bio-diesel would need hefty subsidies to survive. Assuming that gas prices continue their link to oil prices, gas becomes the dominating choice as fuel for power generation. Renewable energy will need even greater subsidies which are already being cut back. Not all of this price reduction will be passed on to the transport industry. The pass through of the price cut will be greater in the US than in Europe or Asia. But any pass through is itself a stimulus for consumer spending.

For the stagnating world economy low oil prices can only be a good thing.

European Court’s ruling on obesity is not as idiotic as it may appear

December 20, 2014

Last week the headlines all reported that the European Court of Justice had made a ruling that obesity could be a disability and they all implied that here was another ruling by learned judges which contradicted common sense.

  1. Obesity IS a DISABILITY, rules highest EU court | Daily Mail
  2. European Court Rules That Obesity Could Be a Disability …
  3. Obesity can be a disability, EU court rules – The Guardian
  4. BBC News – Obesity ‘could be a disability’ – EU courts rule
  5. EU court rules that fatness ‘can constitute a disability’ – The …

That was my first reaction too.

But reading the ruling itself (ECJ press release) shows the logic followed by the Court. I have other objections to the whole concept of “equal rights” granted by a society (where equality is not subordinated to justice and where there are no corresponding duties), but there is no fault in the logic followed here:

  1. The EU directive on discrimination prohibits discrimination “based on religion, belief, disability, age or sexual orientation”.
  2. “The concept of ‘disability’ within the meaning of the directive must be understood as referring to a limitation which results in particular from long-term physical, mental or psychological impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers”.
  3. Disability does not specifically refer to obesity.
  4. “…. if, under given circumstances, the obesity of the worker entails a limitation which results in particular from physical, mental or psychological impairments
    which in interaction with various barriers may hinder the full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers, and the limitation is a long-term one, such obesity can fall within the concept of ‘disability’ within the meaning of the directive”.
  5. “It is for the national court to determine whether Mr Kaltoft’s obesity falls within the definition of  ‘disability’.”

If obesity causes impairment which is due to a long-term physical, mental or psychological impairment then – by the very definition of disability – it is a disability in the meaning of the discrimination directive. As it must be. In fact, the Court has just stated the obvious since any condition, whether labelled obesity or anything else, if due to long term physical, mental or psychological impairment is a disability.

The onus will be on an obese person – who wishes to be classified as being disabled – to show that the obesity is due to a long-term physical, mental or psychological impairment.

Perfectly rational and unobjectionable – given the definition of disability.

FBI gets it wrong about N Korea and the Sony hack – deliberately?

December 19, 2014

I was listening to Sean Sullivan of F Secure on BBC radio today and I find his arguments that the FBI has got it wrong quite convincing. The FBI, it would seem, has less evidence of a N Korea connection than the US intelligence services ever had of WMD in Iraq! But they have now stated categorically that it was N Korea and the perpetrators would be hunted down. Unless of course Obama is looking to initiate his own war in his own name while he is still in office. In which case the FBI could have been tasked with getting the evidence to prove the desired conclusion. A simple act of extortion was followed by reference to the movie only after the Press brought it up. 

Industry experts have more credibility for me than the FBI in this case.

Kim hacking

 YahooNews:

Many computer-security experts doubt the validity of the claim that North Korea is behind the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, citing a lack of strong evidence and the possibility of alternate scenarios.

“There’s no direct, hard evidence that implicates North Korea,” Sean Sullivan, a security researcher at Finnish security firm F-Secure, told Tom’s Guide. “There is evidence of extortion (the Nov. 21 email [to Sony executives which demanded money]) and the hackers only mentioned [the movie] The Interview after it was brought up in the press, which they then used to their advantage.”

“Is North Korea responsible for the Sony breach?” wrote Jeffrey Carr, founder and CEO of Seattle cybersecurity consulting firm Taia Global. “I can’t imagine a more unlikely.

Others also find the FBI evidence very flimsy. It seems that the N Korea narrative is essentially led by the media rather than by the evidence:

 Wired: ….. Despite all of this, media outlets won’t let the North Korea narrative go and don’t seem to want to consider other options. If there’s anything years of Law and Order reruns should tell us, it’s that focusing on a single suspect can lead to exclusionary bias where clues that contradict the favored theory get ignored.

Initial and hasty media reports about the attackers pointed to cyberwarriors from North Korea, bent on seeking revenge for the Sony movie The Interview. This was based on a complaint North Korea made to the United Nations last July about the Seth Rogen and James Franco flick, which was originally slated to be released in October before being changed to Christmas Day. 

But in their initial public statement, whoever hacked Sony made no mention of North Korea or the film. And in an email sent to Sony by the hackers, found in documents they leaked, there is also no mention of North Korea or the film. The email was sent to Sony executives on Nov. 21, a few days before the hack went public. Addressed to Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, Chairwoman Amy Pascal and other executives, it appears to be an attempt at extortion, not an expression of political outrage or a threat of war.

“[M]onetary compensation we want,” the email read. “Pay the damage, or Sony Pictures will be bombarded as a whole. You know us very well. We never wait long. You’d better behave wisely.”

To make matters confusing, however, the email wasn’t signed by GOP or Guardians of Peace, who have taken credit for the hack, but by “God’sApstls,” a reference that also appeared in one of the malicious files used in the Sony hack.

I note that John McCain has declared that this is an Act of War by N Korea. A bi-partisan approach to attack N Korea could be forged. He is already calling for the US to conduct a cyber attack on N Korea (which has the lowest internet usage of any country). When the cyberwar fails, the logical next step would be to bomb Pyongyang and then mount a US-led, coalition invasion from Okinawa. George Clooney and Angelina Jolie could organise a petition from Hollywood supporting such action. All of Hollywood would surely support such decisive action. The coalition could consist of Japan and S Korea at least. Maybe Cuba could be persuaded to join. Sony could have cameras embedded in every military unit.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert could make sure that the liberal population of the US could – for once – support the national pastime of going to war. James Franco and Seth Rogen clearly need special positions; perhaps they could orchestrate the invasion.

I see that the UN General Assembly has already passed a motion for the North Koreans to be referred to the International Criminal Court. The next step would be for the US to call for a special sitting of the Security Council. They could make a PowerPoint show a la Colin Powell, to show the world the evidence they have manufactured, and to get a suitable war resolution passed.

The entire N Korea narrative is probably nothing more than a media inspired narrative.

 

Wolves which adapt to humans will be the wolves which survive

December 19, 2014

The endangered species on earth are mainly those which are failures. Species which fail to adapt to the loss of habitat as the human species succeeds. Natural selection is incapable of ensuring survival of these species when their environment changes so rapidly. But humans represent one of the few species which has demonstrated the ability to handle rapid change. We have adapted by constructing artefacts to maintain optimum conditions in which to live, by the use of medicine and also – though this is in its infancy – by genetic manipulation. We effectively maintain a “tropical” climate around ourselves wherever we are. In our homes, in our transport vehicles, in our work places and in our public places, we maintain benign conditions of temperature, wind speed, humidity and pressure. Whether living in the Arctic circle or in equatorial deserts, we maintain “comfortable”, tropical conditions around us. We use medicine to fight debilitating diseases. And now we are moving towards the prevention of the birth of individuals with faulty genes but also towards the intentional selection of desired genes.

Some species have successfully adapted to the expansion of humans and their changing circumstances. Many bird species, rats, urban foxes (who now differ genetically from “wild” foxes”), urban polar bears, baboons, langur monkeys and even leopards are examples of species which have adapted to take advantage of the changes and thrive in the new conditions. Domesticated species are dependent upon their usefulness to, and the goodwill of, humans. Much admired species such as, rhinos, tigers and elephants have not adapted and face extinction – as all failing species do. From the beginning of life on earth, the rule has been “Adapt or die” and it it still applies.

In the long run traditional “conservation” which is based on trying to freeze a failing species in an unviable genetic pattern, within artificial habitats which are merely prisons, is meaningless and counter-productive. Helping a species has to be about adaptation to the new conditions and not about genetic stagnation in new prisons. It is time we helped these species adapt and stopped just stuffing them into zoos.

A year ago I observed

Perhaps Siberian neo-tigers could be evolved genetically to help herd reindeer and develop a mutually beneficial partnership with man. An occasional reindeer kill would then be quite acceptable. It would be so much more constructive if neo-wolves were helped not to stagnate genetically, but instead to evolve the behavioural characteristics that allowed them to find a way of co-existing with humans and human flocks of sheep.

And now this story suggests that some wolves have already realised that “if you can’t fight the humans it is better to join them”!

BBC:

Villagers in Kazakhstan are increasingly turning to an unusual animal to guard their land – wolves, it’s been reported.

“You can buy a wolf cub for just $500 (£320), they say, and hunters are adamant that if treated well the wild animal can be tamed,” the KTK television channel reports. Nurseit Zhylkyshybay, from the south-eastern Almaty region, tells the channel he bought a wolf cub, Kurtka, from hunters three years ago, and the animal is perfectly happy wandering the yard of his house. “He’s never muzzled, I rarely put him on a chain and do take him for regular walks around the village. Our family and neighbours aren’t scared of him at all,” Mr Zhylkyshybay insists. “If the wolf is well fed and cared for, he won’t attack you, although he does eat a lot more than a dog.”

Nurseit Zhylkyshybay and his wolf

The face of wolves to come

Maybe these wolves will just become another line of dogs or perhaps they are the particular species of neo-wolf which will succeed in developing a mutually beneficial relationship with humans.

 

 

Politically rehabilitated

December 18, 2014

 

Cuban Cigars wallpaper

 

 

Guardians of Peace -1 Sony + Hollywood – 0

December 18, 2014

Well Sony and the US theatre owners caved in and the release of The Interview has been cancelled for now and put off indefinitely. It will not even be released as a Video on Demand. There is a wave of indignant voices about the attack on “free speech”.

By all accounts the film itself was of little artistic merit. It is apparently the imbecilic, tasteless but clever form of humour that teenagers and tabloids love. But I am no longer a teenager and I am bored by the tabloids. So I feel no great sense of loss with the cancellation of the release. It is not a movie that I would have watched anyway.

HuffPo: Sony Pictures will not release “The Interview” on Christmas Day, and the studio has “no further release plans” for the film, this according to a studio spokesperson. It had been speculated that Sony would consider releasing the film either via on-demand services or in theaters at a later date.

Sony announced “The Interview” will not come out as planned in a statement:

In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.  

Sony’s decision caps a whirlwind day, which saw the nation’s five biggest theater chains cancel plans to screen “The Interview.” Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, Cineplex Entertainment and Carmike Cinemas pulled the comedy following a terror threat made Tuesday by hackers who had attacked Sony Pictures.

The indignation is not about the film but about the “spineless caving-in to terrorism”. I am not so sure about that. Big Entertainment, with Sony as a leading light, has been quite ruthless in bullying and killing any move when their music revenues have been threatened by smaller and more innovative players. They have lobbied and obtained extensions of copyright protection to quite unjustifiably long periods. They have brought their clout to bear and cracked down viciously on “piracy” in films and music. Even where the so-called piracy has been quite trivial. Nothing wrong with any of that of course. Any enterprise is justified in protecting its market. But they have relied too much on on their “power” and size. They have used the threat of legal action to terrorise the small entrepreneur who has no possibility of bearing the cost of defending against their big legal guns.

So when a group of hackers brings one of the Entertainment Giants to its knees – mainly because they were complacent and thought thought they were invincible – I may not be moved to cheer but I am inclined to smile quietly. I have a tiny bit of sympathy for the makers of the film but none for Sony. And if the hackers – Guardians of Peace – are really an off-shoot of the North Korean government, it is even more remarkable.

Sweden Democrats try to make nationality a matter of race

December 18, 2014

There is no “Swedish” race – though the Sweden Democrats (SD) would like to think there is.

I take “race” here to be an ethnic grouping based on ancestry. “Swedish” is not a recognised or recognisable ethnic grouping which has any historical basis. There is a loose ethnic grouping of common ancestry across Scandinavia (Norway and Sweden – mainly- and Denmark and to some extent across Finland). These are not the “Vikings” of old, descended directly from the Norse Gods, as the SD would like to think. The inhabitants of Iceland are closer to the SD vision than the Scandinavians. Even this loose Scandinavian ethnic grouping (based on ancestry) has been subject to large amounts of genetic admixing from all over Northern Europe (German, Dutch, Flemish, French, the British Isles) and even much further afield. De Geer and Hamilton and Bernadotte are not Viking in origin.

But the Sweden Democrats are taking advantage of the confusion that is so easy to generate when speaking about “race”, ethnic origins, religion and nationality. But this confusion is evident even in the official record. For example Sweden officially recognises 5 national minorities – mainly defined by language and ethnicity:

Sweden’s national minorities and minority languages

The five recognized national minorities in Sweden are Jews, Roma, the Sami people (which is also an indigenous people), Swedish Finns, and the Torne Valley Descendents (Tornedalians). The historical minority languages are Yiddish, Romani chib, Sami, Finnish and Meänkieli. What is common for the minority groups is that they have populated Sweden over a long period of time and that they constitute groups with a distinct affinity. They also have their own religious, linguistic or cultural affinity and a desire to retain their identity.

These are minorities based on ethnicity (which is a matter of ancestry and is loosely referred to as “race”). The Jews here represent both a religion and a recognised minority. The Samis once practised Shamanism but that has been wiped out by the ideological forefathers of the SD. So if an Ethiopian Jew were also a Swedish citizen, he would have the religion but he would not be part of this recognised minority. But all these minority cultures – while afforded some protection – are still subordinate to the overriding culture of the country. Samis, while maintaining their own sub-culture, are still compliant with the overriding Norwegian or Finnish or Swedish cultures (and laws, rules and regulations) when they happen to be in those countries. One of the failings of all those misguided “do-gooders” who have promoted “multiculturism”, is that they have forgotten to emphasise that sub-cultures in a multi-ethnic society must still – of necessity – be subordinate to an overriding culture (which itself must evolve to incorporate the sub-cultures). There has sometimes been a tendency in most of Europe to support sub-cultures at the expense of the dominant culture, and that has provided many of the right-wing, racist parties the environment in which to prosper.

The SD are now propagating the notion that while these minorities may be Swedish citizens they are not part of their imaginary “Swedish race”. They like to confuse the picture further by referring to their concept of the “Swedish race” as also being the “Swedish nation” and as being something different to “Swedish citizenship”. They are effectively trying to connect “nationality” to ethnicity and to hijack “nationalism” as being the exclusive characteristic of the imaginary “Swedish race”. (Of course all members of SD are naturally assumed to be of this, imaginary, superior “Swedish race” and burning nationalists!).

The Somalis or Syrians or other “new Swedes” who are Swedish citizens may not yet be “recognised minorities” – and may never be. Fundamentally the SD is built on a differentiation by race (ancestry and ethnicity). The unsaid, underlying sub-text of all they say and argue is for a differentiation based on skin colour. They want to promote the concept of the citizens of Sweden being either

  1. those of the “Swedish race” (obviously acceptable though imaginary and unidentifiable)
  2. recognised minorities who are “old Swedes” (and reluctantly acceptable), or
  3. “new Swedes” (who are the bad guys)

Among the SD supporters, the level of “Swedishness” follows this classification. For them, “new Swedes” is a derogatory term which carries the sub-text of skin colour. If they could they would prefer to split the third group on the basis of skin colour with the level of “Swedishness” decreasing with the darkness of skin color. But even they balk at such a blatant differentiation as that. It is quite clear that the SD would prefer to have these 3 groups as 3 classes of citizenship. “New Swedes” (especially those of the wrong skin colour) clearly – in their eyes – are lower class citizens – if at all. I note that the House of Bernadotte only goes back to 1818. (By the SD’s standards, the Royal family should be classified as “new Swedes” and third class citizens). It serves the SD’s cause to separate and isolate the “new Swedes” from the mainstream as much as possible. They would like, for example, ethnicity to be registered for all crimes to further the divide. But the fundamental flaws in the race politics that the SD is trying to promote is that first, there is no such thing as an identifiable “Swedish race” and second, nationality is not a matter of ethnicity. They forget that nationality and citizenship are a matter of residence and behaviour and not of distant ancestry. Immediate parentage can give citizenship but requires residence. And if behaviour is the arbiter, the SD is on shaky ground since it has had more than its fair share of junkies and hooligans.

It should be obvious by now that I am a “new Swede”. But I am a little surprised that so many are taken in by the SD’s view that nationality is a matter of ethnicity. Perhaps they are all supermen who chose their own parents and their ancestry.

Not much sympathy for Sony(Goliath) in their war against GoP (David)

December 17, 2014

I know I am supposed to be against the evil hackers.

But I’m afraid I am only amused by Sony’s predicament in their battle against the “Guardians of Peace” hackers. Sony’s heavy handed approach and their legal threats to those who might disseminate the stolen material only makes them look even more foolish. The battle has a David and Goliath feel about it and David is winning. The indignant squeals of Hollywood celebrities at having their dirty underbellies revealed only adds to the amusement. When Aaron Sorkin (he who does not think much of actresses) takes as much space in the NYT to attack the hackers as the mass massacre of children by the Taliban gets, he only reduces any sympathy one might feel for the “hacked”.

Reuters:

The New York premiere of “The Interview”, a Sony Pictures comedy about the assassination of North Korean President Kim Jong-Un, has been canceled and a source said one theater chain had scrapped plans to show it, after threats from a hacking group.

The hackers, who said they were also responsible for seizing control of Sony Corp’s computer system last month, on Tuesday warned people to stay away from cinemas showing the film starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, and darkly reminded moviegoers of the Sept. 11 hijacked plane attacks on the United States in 2001.

“We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time,” the hackers wrote. “(If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)”

Hollywood celebrities exploited their media access to whinge and whine:

The Guardian:

Various Hollywood figures, including Brad Pitt, Aaron Sorkin and Seth Rogen, have publicly criticised the media for publishing stories based on information hacked from Sony Pictures.

The hack by the group Guardians of Peace revealed email conversations between Sony executives and actors, discussing the likes of Pitt’s wife Angelina Jolie, who was described as a “minimally talented spoiled brat” by producer Scott Rudin. ……. 

Seth Rogen meanwhile, whose North Korea-baiting film The Interview was cited as a catalyst for the hacks by Guardians of Peace, said in an interview that “everyone is doing exactly what these criminals want… It’s stolen information that media outlets are directly profiting from.”

Aaron Sorkin, whose screenplay for an upcoming Steve Jobs biopic was at the heart of one set of hacked emails, has penned a New York Times opinion piece where he asserts that the media is “giving material aid to criminals… the minor insults that were revealed are such small potatoes compared to the fact that they were revealed. Not by the hackers, but by American journalists helping them. …… 

Guardians of Peace have threatened to release another batch of files as a “Christmas gift”, leading to pre-emptive manoeuvres by Sony staff. Co-chair Amy Pascal, whose correspondence has frequently been featured in the hacked emails, has contacted the likes of producer Harvey Weinstein to apologise if any disparaging remarks are leaked, according to Variety.

Any moral or ethics issues over the “stealing” of the information are overridden by the massive embarrassment for Sony in spite of the triviality of the titillating information released. That an electronics and entertainment giant such as Sony could be hacked so easily smacks of incompetence. That overpaid, under-employed Sony executives are having their positions threatened (for their own incompetence) arouses little sympathy.

Sorry – but I don’t perceive any great moral issues here.

“Go GoP”!

A genetic component to extremism and cruelty?

December 17, 2014

One hundred and thirty two children were massacred by seven Taliban heroes in Peshawar yesterday. Three of the seven were suicide bombers seeking paradise who blew themselves up in an auditorium filled with 9th and 10th grade children. It was a public but an army-run school. The Taliban see anything connected with the Pakistan army as a legitimate target – even children. They have targeted and attacked the families of soldiers before. The day before the valiant heroes of ISIS beheaded another 13 people. Last week we heard about the brutal and degrading methods employed by the CIA. Every other day Al Shabab and Boko Haram kidnap, mutilate and kill innocents – often children. One despairs that humanity has not evolved away from this behaviour. Extremism and unfathomable cruelty is dominated by, but is not the exclusive domain of, religious fanatics. We find fanatics about other causes too. There are fanatics prepared to go to extreme lengths for many nationalistic – hence political – causes. Chechnya, the Uighurs, Kurds, the IRA, in Myanmar and of course in the Middle East and Africa. White power, Black power, animal rights, rain forests, abortion and environmental causes all attract some people capable of exhibiting extreme and cruel behaviour.

I wonder how humans could behave in this “bestial” manner and still be considered human? Is it the “cause” which elicits the behaviour or is it the deviant human who seeks the “cause”? Not every religious fanatic applies to become an ISIS executioner. Not every CIA employee is capable of being a torturer. Some, if not most, people, I think, are not capable of this cruel and “bestial” behaviour.

It suggests to me that there is a genetic component involved here. That does not mean that our genes determine our actual, day-to-day behaviour. But I am sure that it is our genes which determine the unique envelope of behaviours that is possible for each one of us. We may not exhibit all the behaviours within the envelope but all our actual behaviour will be contained within the envelope. I am inclined to believe that there is therefore a combination of genes which brings this kind of extreme and cruel behaviour within an individual’s envelope of possible behaviours, and then into play. Only some humans will have this within their envelope of possible behaviours and only some of them will then actually exhibit the behaviour. Possibly it is nurture and upbringing and exposure which determines if the potential behaviour becomes actual.

There is evidence that being “nice” does have a genetic component. There is little doubt that our social behaviour does have genetic components. Some genes do seem to effect something called the Empathy Quotient and there are clear linkages between empathy and the propensity to cruelty. Matt Ridley speculated in the WSJ about Osama bin Laden’s genes:

…. But, Prof. Baron-Cohen went on, it would at least be interesting to take a look at bin Laden’s MAOA gene (linked to aggression), his AVPR1A and CNR1 genes (linked to emotional expression) and his CYP11B1, NTRK1, and GABRB3 genes, which show some association with how individuals score on a scale called the “Empathy Quotient.” He discovered these linkages in the course of testing his hypothesis that cruelty is generally enabled by a failure of empathy. 

In most cruel people, Prof. Baron-Cohen argues, the “empathy circuit,” which runs through 10 different regions of the brain, goes down either temporarily or permanently, leaving the person with “zero empathy.” The reasons may be partly innate, partly a function of early experiences such as birth trauma or parental neglect, or an interaction of the two.

Not all zero-empathy people are cruel. There is a category of “zero-positive” people, with autism or severe Asperger’s, who lack empathy but show no tendency to unkindness. And not all cruel people lack empathy (bin Laden may be among the exceptions). But if Prof. Baron-Cohen is right, a combination of a brain scan, a genotyping and a case history could “diagnose” many or even most cruel personalities, perhaps even before they commit crimes. ….. 

If we could identify the genes and epigenetic factors which led to “inhuman” cruelty, then what would we do if we diagnosed someone as likely to become a cruel extremist? Would we be prepared as a society to act against an individual because he had the potential to be a terrorist – but before he had committed any terrorist act? And should we be ensuring that he does not pass his genes on?

A New Eugenics perhaps. The rational and logical conclusion if we could clearly identify “unwanted” characteristics would be to eliminate these characteristics in all future generations. We would also have to eliminate the possibility that there is any collateral damage, that some wanted characteristics disappear when the unwanted one is removed. Certainly social skills have been instrumental in the success of the species. But humans without some measure of aggression would probably not have survived. If removing cruelty also removed aggression then we would have to tread very carefully.

Is human cruelty the price the species pays? for what?

Lima Climate conference agreement contains no commitments by anybody

December 16, 2014

The UN Conference of the Parties, Twentieth session, held in Lima Peru from 1st to 13th December 2014 is now over. The conference agreement is well worth reading as an  example of how an exercise with 9,000 delegates from 196 participating countries, could spend some $ 50 million over 2 weeks to accomplish – by their own expectations – absolutely nothing. The only decision of any significance to be taken by the parties is to meet again.

COP20 Lima Agreement (pdf)

But all 9,000 had a great time.

(In my judgement, the lack of accomplishment was a great success).

The agreement contains 22 clauses:

  • one clause “confirms”
  • three clauses “decide”
  • three clauses “agree”

All the remaining clauses are merely wishes and hopes with no commitments or obligations. Just waffle.

  • one clause “underscores”
  • one clause “urges”
  • one clause “acknowledges”
  • one clause “invites”
  • one clause “encourages”
  • one clause “welcomes”
  • two clauses “note”
  • three clauses “request”
  • four clauses “reiterate”

Looking just at the clauses which “confirm”, “decide” or “agree”:

The only “confirmation” comes first in the agreement and it is to meet again for COP 21 and adopt another agreement! Just a self-serving clause perpetuating the meetings.

The three “decides” also commit to nothing very much. The first “decides that any protocol which is legally binding shall be balanced. (This is a wonderful loophole. Any country which believes the protocol to be unbalanced can then ignore it). The next “decide” is that the working group will make a draft text. (The purpose of this is to make sure that all those working on this text can get paid). The third rather long “decide” only says that a technical examination will continue. Wow! But note that it establishes a framework – and thereby the funding – for “a series of in-session technical expert meetings”. Meetings galore – and the delegates shall have a great time.

There are also three “agree” clauses. The first says that all parties agree that each party will do better in the future. The second merely says that all developing countries and small island states may make special pleadings. The third says that each party may provide quantifiable information on how they intend to contribute. Not a commitment or obligation in sight.

It really is time that these meetings ceased and the IPCC was disbanded.

The clauses (my bold)

Confirms:

  1. Confirms that the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action shall complete the work referred to in decision 1/CP.17, paragraph 2, as early as possible in order for the Conference of the Parties at its twenty-first session to adopt a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties;

Decides:

  1. Decides that the protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with egal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties shall address in a balanced manner, inter alia, mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, and capacity-building, and transparency of action and support;
  2. Decides that the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action will intensify its work, with a view to making available a negotiating text for a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties before May 2015;
  3. Decides to continue the technical examination of opportunities with high mitigation potential, including those with adaptation, health and sustainable development co-benefits, in the period 2015–2020, by requesting the secretariat to:
    (a) Organize a series of in-session technical expert meetings which:
    (i) Facilitate Parties in the identification of policy options, practices and technologies and in planning for their implementation in accordance with nationally defined development priorities;
    (ii) Build on and utilize the related activities of, and further enhance collaboration and synergies among, the Technology Executive Committee, the Climate Technology Centre and Network, the Durban Forum on capacity-building, the Executive Board of the clean development mechanism and the operating entities of the Financial Mechanism;
    (iii) Build on previous technical expert meetings in order to hone and focus on actionable policy options;
    (iv) Provide meaningful and regular opportunities for the effective engagement of experts from Parties, relevant international organizations, civil society, indigenous peoples, women, youth, academic institutions, the private sector, and subnational authorities nominated by their respective countries;
    (v) Support the accelerated implementation of policy options and enhanced mitigation action, including through international cooperation;
    (vi) Facilitate the enhanced engagement of all Parties through the announcement of topics to be addressed, agendas and related materials at least two months in advance of technical expert meetings;
    (b) Update, following the technical expert meetings referred to in paragraph 19(a) above, the technical paper on the mitigation benefits of actions, and on initiatives and options to enhance mitigation ambition, compiling information provided in submissions from Parties and observer organizations and the discussions held at the technical expert meetings and drawing on other relevant information on the implementation of policy options at all levels, including through multilateral cooperation;
    (c) Disseminate the information referred to in paragraph 19(b) above, including
    by publishing a summary for policymakers;

Agrees:

  1. Agrees that each Party’s intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 will represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party;
  2. Also agrees that the least developed countries and small island developing States
    may communicate information on strategies, plans and actions for low greenhouse gas emission development reflecting their special circumstances in the context of intended nationally determined contributions;
  3. Agrees that the information to be provided by Parties communicating their intended nationally determined contributions, in order to facilitate clarity, transparency and understanding, may include, as appropriate, inter alia, quantifiable information on the reference point (including, as appropriate, a base year), time frames and/or periods for implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals, and how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2;

What a waste for a pointless exercise where the key action item (carbon dioxide) has no significant impact on the parameter ostensibly to be controlled. No targets, no tools but a great deal of arrogance.


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