Click with Compassion

That’s what Monica Lewinsky tells us in her moving TED talk that has just come out, a talk that is a call for action against our “culture of humiliation”, magnified by the Internet, where, alas, cyber-bullying is too often the order of the day.

You can see her talk here:
It got a standing ovation, a rare event on TED and (in my view) well deserved.

Before that talk, she had written an essay on Vanity Fair (published in June 2014, you can see it here). Titled “Shame and Survival”, it is brilliantly written and was even nominated for a National Magazine Award for best Essay Writing. In a way, more than the TED talk itself, it constituted for Monica a real comeback, after over a decade of silence as she tried to rebuild her life. Much of what she says in the TED talk is already there, in the essay.

Two things stand out in that essay: one, the headline picture which shows us a sophisticated woman, eons away from the beret-wearing girl with the blue dress that we all remember:

The other thing is something she quotes towards the end of her essay, a snippet from a “New York Supergals” cocktail party conversation held at a chic New York City restaurant, Le Bernardin, in January 1998, to discuss, a week after the scandal had exploded in the media, what it really meant from a female/feminist point of view. That conversation was recorded by writer Francine Prose and published in The New York Observer under the telling title “Supergals Love that Naughty Prez”.

Yes, the feminists took President Clinton’s side – and what a coterie they were: writers Erica Jong, Nancy Friday, Katie Roiphe, and Elizabeth Benedict; Saturday Night Live writer Patricia Marx; Marisa Bowe, the editor of Word, an online magazine; fashion designer Nicole Miller; former dominatrix Susan Shellogg; and their host, Le Bernardin co-owner Maguy Le Coze. 

Monica imagines herself participating in that meeting, inserting in their conversation her own remarks in italics – it’s an interesting exercise in trying to reshape the past, and I quote it here from the VF article:

Marisa Bowe: His whole life is about having to be in control and really intelligent all the time. And his wife is really intelligent and in control all the time. And the idea of just having stupid sex with some not-brilliant woman in the Oval Office, I can see the appeal in that.

Imaginary Me: I’m not saying I’m brilliant, but how do you know I’m not? My first job out of college was at the White House.

Susan Shellogg: And do you think it’s tremendously selfish? Selfish and demanding, having oral sex and not reciprocating? I mean … she didn’t say, “Well, you know he satisfied me.”

Me: And where exactly “didn’t” I say this? In which public statement that I didn’t make? In which testimony that’s not been released?

Katie Roiphe: I think what people are outraged about is the way that [Monica Lewinsky] looks, which is interesting. Because we like to think of our presidents as sort of godlike, and so if J.F.K. has an affair with Marilyn Monroe, it’s all in the realm of the demigods…. I mean, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was Monica Lewinsky’s not that pretty.

Me: Well, thanks. The first picture that surfaced was a passport photo. Would you like to have a passport photo splattered across publications around the world as the picture that defines you?

What you are also saying here is that the primary quality that would qualify a woman to have an intimate relationship with a powerful man is physical attractiveness. If that’s not setting the movement back, I don’t know what is.

Erica Jong: My dental hygienist pointed out that she had third-stage gum disease.

Shellogg: What do you think will happen to [her]? I mean, she’ll just fade out quietly or write a book? Or people will forget about her six months from now?

Nancy Friday: She can rent out her mouth.

Me: (Speechless.)

Jong: But, you know, men do like to get close to the mouth that has been close to power. Think of the fantasy in the man’s mind as she’s going down on him and he’s thinking, “Oh my God.”

Elizabeth Benedict: Do for me what you did to the President. Do that.

Me: (Still speechless.)

Jong: I think it’s a tribute to how far we’ve come that we’re not trashing Monica Lewinsky.

Mmm, yes, of course they were the feminists of 1998. Times have changed (I hope). What strikes me in all this is Monica Lewinsky’s basic contention that “the price of shame” exacted by the Internet is much higher than it would ever have been possible without it.

Hugh Merle’s painting – Scarlet Letter

And perhaps that explains why over here, in Europe and particularly in France, as we watched the scandal unfold in the USA, we wondered why American society was reacting so violently to what seemed like a minor case of “sex at work” – hardly something to write home about. I remember we all figured that Americans were over-reacting to their President’s philandering out of puritanism; after all, those were the roots of American culture, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous Scarlet Letter etc.  etc.

But we tended to overlook the fact that in 1998, the Internet was not present in Europe the way it already was in the US. And now that the Internet has invaded Europe (and the world for that matter), the philandering of powerful political figures is no longer taken so lightly. The French have notably changed their mind in how they view President Hollande’s whizzing about on a motorbike to see his latest paramour or Dominique Strauss Kahn‘s sexual pranks.

The Internet does change how people view other people’s lives. As Monica Lewinsky says, “how do we cope with the shame game as it’s played in the Internet Age?”

In closing her essay, she tells us that her current goal is to “get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums”. She has certainly started doing that with a bang and should be congratulated for the courage she is showing in coming out. 

So please, let’s follow her advice, let’s call on everyone to click with compassion!

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My Life without You

Ruyters paint brushes

Simone Ruyters, her brushes, one of her paintings

To all my friends and those who enjoy reading my blog: please forgive the silence, my mother passed away on 12 March, she was 101 years old. It’s been very painful for her and of course for her family but now at last, she rests in peace. The last time I talked on my blog about her was on the occasion of her 100th birthday, back in 2013, and  I uploaded a page about her, “Ruyters: A Painter’s Life”, you can see it here (she worked every day until 2009 when she declared she couldn’t see well enough to go on). I found it difficult to keep up with my blog and instead wrote a poem that I dedicate to her:

My Days Without You

The first day of my life without you

I cannot believe it has happened,

Your eyes are closed, your lips don’t move,

You will never smile at me again.

You look so serene in your sleep. Are you still breathing?

I stare at the brown-striped blanket covering your body,

I think I see the cotton threads moving slightly,

But nothing moves.

The second day of my life without you,

The lid comes down over your face.

The Church is dark and peaceful, flowers cover your bier.

This is the last time we are together.

Outside the sun has lit up the spring sky,

Rome looks the way you have always loved it,

You are carried out by four men in a silvery car,

You are gone and I’m left with my tears.

The third day of my life without you,

I see in your house all the things you have loved,

I want to leave them the way they always were,

Yet I cannot, life must go on.

I find your paint box in a corner where you used to work,

The paint has dried in the tubes, unusable.

On the table, your brushes are crowded in pots,

Wooden stems sticking up, like dead flowers.

I don’t want to throw anything out.

I look at your paintings around me, on the walls,

Silent witnesses of your life, they live on.

But I have something more, my memories of you,

Special moments between a mother and her daughter,

Moments that only you and I have lived through,

Moments that will live on as long as I do,

All the coming days of my life without you.

 

DSC05671

Simone Ruyters at her easel, fifty years ago

 

 

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Getting Close to the “Darkest Hour”: Ancient Art Destroyed, Lives Lost, A Voice for Freedom Silenced

We are getting close to Mankind’s “darkest hour”. The Voice for Freedom, silenced in Moscow on 27 February, was that of Boris Nemtsov. It was close to midnight, he was gunned down not far from the Kremlin, as he was walking home from a radio interview in which he had dared to take Putin to task for his warmongering in Ukraine.

Nemtsov was a liberal politician, a fighter of corruption, one of the most important leaders in the opposition to Putin. As a young man, he’d been close to Yeltsin, serving as his first deputy minister and many thought that since he was Yeltsin’s right arm, he would succeed him; instead, Putin, Yeltsin’s left arm, the man picked to spy on several of his colleagues, was the one ultimately chosen – with the catastrophic results we all know.

And of course Putin is behind the failed cease-fire in Ukraine. Merkel and Hollande unwittingly played their part: the agreement they brokered was faulty, the rebels quickly took advantage of the loophole and trapped the Ukrainian army.

As to the situation in Iraq, we can only watch with rising horror as ISIS and like-minded terrorist groups in Libya systematically pursue and behead Christians – putting at stake the very survival of Christians among the Muslims – and, as if this were not enough, destroying ancient art in Mosul, proving to the world that they have sunk to the levels of animals.
Yes, indeed, Yeats’ poem of the Second Coming, with its image of the beast, comes to mind:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The “darkest hour” is the phrase coined by Winston Churchill to describe the desperate moment when Britain stood alone against Hitler, as the Nazi forces invaded France in 1940 and the Soviet Union in 1941. The “finest hour” is perhaps one of his most famous speeches, delivered to the House of Commons on 18 June, 1940 two days after France had sought an armistice.

It is probably one of the world’s greatest masterpieces of oratorical art, both defiant and uplifting.

The peroration of that speech, if you substitute references to Britain with the phrases civilization and “human rights”, eerily applies to our situation today.

….However matters may go […], we […] will never lose our sense of comradeship with the [Christians of the Orient] … the Battle of [Human Rights] is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of… civilization. Upon it depends our own […] life, and the long continuity of our institutions… The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us…. If we can stand up to him, all [the world] may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, … including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if [civilization and human rights] last for [another] thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.

What a pity the United Nations continues to be bypassed: our best instrument to avoid war and defend human rights remains sadly unused, as the Big Powers take turns to block the Security Council.

All we have for now are comments from the UN affiliated organizations. Two stand out:

  • One made earlier by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian prince and the first UN human rights chief from the Muslim and Arab world: reacting to the horrific beheadings perpetrated by ISIS, he implored the Security Council to support efforts to overturn ISIS’ “ideology of violence and death” , saying there was no space for it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No space at all.
  • The other from UNESCO. Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s head, condemned ISIS’ destruction of ancient Assyrian art “as a deliberate attack against Iraq’s millennial history and culture, and an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred.”

Naturally, the Security Council also condemned ISIS, but it continues to debate the situation in Syria with no resolution in sight, because of Russia’s and China’s threat to block any action with their veto. Authoritarian regimes band together to trample human rights, no surprise there. 

This week, in a New York Times Op-Ed aptly titled “Unshackle the United Nations”, Amnesty International vigorously called for the Big Powers to stop using their veto when human rights were at stake. “2014 was a catastrophic year”, it said, listing human rights abuses in 160 countries and noting that the Security Council wielded their veto power on the sole basis of “vested interests and political expediency.”

Wounded Syria girl treated at a hospital. See NPR article

The world has become more dangerous than ever, a dark place. Very sad… 

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What’s Wrong with Europe? Ukraine, Greece and Libya: All Unfinished Businesses

Libya is sinking into a fundamentalist Islamic chaos, the cease-fire in Ukraine is breaking down and Greece’s debt problems are far from resolved.

Merkel, Putin and Hollande at the Kremlin (2015)

And this in spite of the the so-called agreement reached in Minsk between Putin and the Merkel-Hollande couple. And in spite of the news coming out late Friday evening (20 February) that the Eurogroup (the Euro-zone 19 finance ministers) had agreed to extend by four months Greece’s bailout, thus avoiding a financial shutdown of Greece.

Anyone following the news in Ukraine can see that the cease-fire hasn’t got a ghost of chance, with Russia still fully supporting the rebels’ advance in the East.  Yet, both Hollande and Merkel confidently talk about taking new sanctions and Kerry echoes them. One wonders how anyone can still believe in the power of sanctions. Surely Putin doesn’t care.

As to the Greek bailout extension, it’s a sham: this coming Monday (23 February), as reported in the New York Times:

“Greece must send its creditors a list of all the policy measures it plans to take over the next four months. If the measures are acceptable, European finance ministers could sign off on an extension of the bailout agreement on Tuesday.”

Varoufakis and Tsipras (Facebook)

Really, a “list of all the policy measures” by Tuesday? And to whom are the said measures supposed to be “acceptable”?

To Germany, of course. The fundamental idea is that a newly elected government in the Euro-zone cannot change the commitments taken by a previous government, i.e. the austerity measures forced upon Greece by Germany. Therefore the new government led by Tsipras and his dynamic finance minister Varoufakis must continue with the reforms and austerity policies called upon by the infamous “troika”, the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Back to square one.

Italian Military Mission (Olycon)

And the same can be said for Libya. The chaos threatening this country, just 350 km off the coasts of Europe, is a matter of grave concern to Italy: the radical fundamentalist Islamic militia over-running Libya are patterned on ISIS. Threats have already been sent via Twitter to Italy. The wonder is that the rest of Europe doesn’t seem to care. Italy declared its willingness to lead a multinational force to “restore peace and order” in Libya and sought a green light from the UN Security Council – as did Egypt, after it had attacked extremist positions inside Libya a few days ago.

But the Security Council did not respond – in practice, both Egypt and Italy were told to calm down and forget it.

I am worried. The world is fast sinking into anarchy, the West is doing nothing to stop it and not even using its prime instrument to prevent war: the United Nations. After Gaddafi was ousted, no serious effort has been undertaken to help Libya recover and rebuild – a tiny UN mission was sent to Libya, with no means to operate on the ground, and all the UN Representative can do, is warn that Libya is falling apart. Yes, it’s rapidly becoming a failed state like Somalia, and it’s sitting on Europe’s doorstep.

Of the three problems, Greece should be the easiest to fix: write off the debt and forget it. If one is to believe Paul B. Kazarian, one of the “vulture investors” of Hilary Rosenberg’s famous book, the €318 billion Greek debt is worth only one tenth of its value as a result of the series of adjustments to the Greek debt over the years that include restructuring, maturity extensions and interest rate reduction. He argues that if one applied international accounting rules and took into account the assets owned by Greece, the overall net debt figure would fall to €32 billion. “You are suffocating a country with a figure that has no relevance”, he argues, “Just take the fricking loss and move one.”

Not many people agree with him, such views are always scary to conservatives and particularly so in German circles. Yet, historically, sovereign state debts have always been treated this way: that is exactly what happened in the United States, for example when the Second Bank of the United States collapsed in 1836, sending thousands of UK investors scrambling for their money. This was not the end of the United States’ dollar, so why should a Greek (near) default be the end of the Euro?

When will our European leaders wake up and start facing the far more important challenges of Ukraine and Libya? Europe, quo vadis, where are your values, where are you going?

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France, Taking the Pulse

 I spent the past week in Paris and it has opened my eyes.  Several widely-held opinions and ideas struck me:
1. I am not Charlie
I met NOBODY who evinced support for Charlie Hebdo – now with the killings in Denmark, there has been a revival of that “let’s defend freedom of the press” mood, but it is sure to soon pass away. The Charlie Hebdo cover that came out a week after the murders caused everyone to tell me, with emphasis on the “not”, “I am not Charlie”.

You may wonder who I met and to what extent the people I talked to were representative of French people at large. I can’t prove it but I am convinced that they were in fact very representative.

First, everyone in the French opposition to the French President François Hollande felt that way. Even the most rabid supporter of the French government were upset that taxpayer money was used to finance what they saw as a “dirty sheet” (my opinion too, I never bought it) – one that just went ahead and produced yet another disgusting caricature in bad taste, profoundly disrespectful of another religion. And that means about half the French feel that way. If not more: you need to add all the Catholics of France who ave heard Pope Francis exclaim from the Philippines (where he was traveling at the time), that every religion should be respected.

2. The Légion d’Honneur is Not What it Used to Be


I discovered that the very people you’d expect to respect (even admire) the Légion d’Honneur, the top decoration in the country – and I am talking about top diplomats, lawyers, business managers – felt that the Légion d’Honneur was increasingly misused: in fact, the Légion d’Honneur is not what it used to be. They mentioned to me (with ill-disguised disgust) that it is given to athletes because they run faster or jump higher, to celebs because their smiles  go viral on Internet, but it is no longer given to “for the right reasons” to people “who deserve it”. In their view, Thomas Piketty was right to refuse it.

3. The United Nations No Longer Counts

This, to me, is very upsetting, considering that France has historically always been a great supporter of the United Nations since its inception – and France is one of the Five Big Powers at the UN Security Council with veto power (along with the US, UK, Russia and China). I came across this conviction when I listened to a conference given by Ambassador Jean-David Levitte in a private circle – a fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington, Mr. Levitte is a top French diplomat who was French Ambassador to the United Nations (2000-2002) and Washington (2002-2007) and served as Diplomatic Advisor to two Presidents, Chirac and Sarkozy. He talked knowledgeably (of course!) about world politics and the changes since the foundation of the United Nations in 1945, evoking the way ahead, particularly in connection with the on-going Ukraine and Syria crises.
He sees the world as totally changed since World War II. In his view, the United Nations no longer counts. The way ahead, in his opinion, is through setting up  ad-hoc mini coalitions of committed and involved countries, preferably a mix of one or more of the UN Security Council Five Big Powers, the P-5,  plus interested countries.

For example, the way forward for the Syria crisis, he suggested, would be to get together the P-5 plus Germany and include those countries in the region that are most directly concerned: Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. He noted that, while they didn’t “like” each other, they ought to understand that it was in their best (and immediate) interest to see the Syrian situation resolved.

As to Ukraine, the mini coalition, he reminded us, is already at work: Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine (Kiev) with the East Ukraine rebels on the outside and the US benevolently looking on. As he told us that night, he fully expected that when Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko met in Minsk, they would “stop the clock” to ensure they would reach an agreement for a cease-fire. Now we know he was right, and they did: they worked all night Thursday 12 February – a full 16 hours, something unheard of for heads of state and government chiefs.

4. Stopping the Clock


Now let me say something about this gimmick of “stopping the clock”. I know it well, because my uncle worked on the EU Common Agricultural Plan in the 1960s, and I remember he used to work all night long and I’d often meet him after breakfast, walking in his garden and musing about the future of Europe before returning to the (clock-suspended) meeting.  This gimmick was repeatedly employed by European high-level functionaries -including ambassadors – who thus hammered out all the basic agreements needed to build the European Union. Let me emphasize: Functionaries used to do this, not top level politicians. But diplomacy is no longer what it used to be either, and now diplomatic work has been taken over by the likes of Putin, Merkel and Hollande. Personally, I think it’s a mistake: if you discuss at top level you don’t allow yourself the chance of saying, “I must refer back to my capital” which is an elegant way of stalling and gaining time before figuring out the next best move.

Regardless of what the Four Big Guys said to each other in Minsk, Hollande and Merkel came back triumphantly saying (some sort of) an agreement had been (somehow) reached. Whether it will hold up is anyone’s guess. The first cease-fire back in September 2014, as we all know, didn’t last beyond a few days…

5. Mini-coalitions of “Willing Countries” Have Yet to Prove that they Work

As of now, and I am sure that if Mr. Levitte is reading me he would agree, the “mini-coalition” model has yet to prove itself. It works in the short run, but does it work in the long run? It allows for quick decision-making and fast on-the-ground moves, notably in Iraq when Bush and Blair steamed ahead in 2003 and more recently yet, in Libya, with the French-English attacks to dislodge Gaddafi. But what about the aftermath? Iraq, as we all know, dissolved in chaos with ISIS taking over a big chunk of both Iraq and Syria. As to Libya, it’s an on-going chaos, with militia vying for power. Libya, if nothing is done, is going the way of other failed states, like Somalia.

Mr. Levitte suggested that Libya should be “accompanied” on the road to state-building by yet another mini-coalition of willing countries – presumably, he was thinking of France and Italy plus a handful of Arab countries, maybe Qatar?

The question comes naturally: why not strengthen the UN Mission in Libya and give it (for once) the means to operate instead of resorting yet again to a phantomatic coalition of countries whose interests and commitments must necessarily waver with every new election at home and thus vanish overnight. Only the UN can ensure long-term commitment, provided it is given the means to function (i.e. sufficient budget and manpower – the UN has a proven track record of state-building in East Timor and Cambodia – and it has a long experience in electoral assistance the world over).

6. Paris in the 21st Century: the Louis Vuitton Foundation

After all these discussions, it was a pleasure to relax and visit Paris’ latest museum for Contemporary Art, Frank Gehry’s new, stupendous construction, the Louis Vuitton Foundation’s, on the outskirts of the Bois de Boulogne. It occupies a corner of the old Jardin d’Acclimatation – a sort of rural, botanical garden with pigs, ducks and sheep and a Guignol show, great for children. And, seen from the Jardin, the Gehry building looks like a weird, disjointed, alien sailing ship that crashed from the sky:

Within that array of “sails”, there are some terraces you can walk on that give you surprising vistas on Paris – very much a 21st Century town with its skyscrapers of the Defense lining the horizon:

My only regret was the inside of the museum: big rooms, yes, but most without direct light. No attempt is made to take advantage of those “sails”. As a result, the rooms display art very much in the way other museums do, with flat walls and rectangular floor plans. So why bother so much with the outside and not the inside? I had expected to see weird-shaped rooms, things that would leave me gasping…Maybe another time, somewhere else, an architect will surprise us with both the outside and the inside.

I highly recommend that if you go and visit the museum, take your time to stroll in the Jardin d’Acclimatation next door (your ticket buys you entrance to both): a pleasant walk in nature after so much steel and stone…

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Greece vs. Germany: A Game of Chicken Or Cat and Mouse?

Paul Krugman in the New York Times has called the rapidly unfolding Euro crisis a “game of chicken” (here). I think it’s more like a  cat-and-mouse game played by Germany against Greece, in which Germany is a Big Fat Cat trying to immobilize a darting Greek mouse.

As I explained in my previous blog post, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Finance Minister, Varoufakis, started by refusing to talk to the “troika” (European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission) and traveling all over Europe to raise support for a renegotiation of the bailout that has caused so much suffering in Greece – from unbearably high unemployment (over 40%) to a collapse of the national health system and a 25% shrinking of the economy.

Yes, a darting mouse.

Next, last Wednesday (4 February) , the European Central Bank (ECB) made the first move,  announcing that it would no longer accept Greek government debt as collateral for loans. And the announcement came just before Varoufakis, the Greek Finance Minister, was to visit the ECB President, Mario Draghi.

Mr. Krugman did not see this as a serious move. Yet, it means further pains to the Greek banking system that is already suffering from a run that began last week with Syriza’s victory. No surprise there: wealthy Greeks are all taking their deposits out and with the click of a button sending them to Frankfurt or London.

When that happens, it is in principle the role of the ECB to provide liquidity to the affected banking system and this is normally done by accepting national bonds as collateral,  at a very low cost. Mr. Krugman sees the ECB decision as merely one step in the on-going negotiations – a warning signal that doesn’t substantially change Greece’s situation since it can still have recourse to an ECB special loan program designed to support banks, called Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA). That’s true but the trouble is that it’s much more expensive, about three times as much.

Then, the next bomb exploded: on 6 February, one of the world’s three major rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s, downgraded Greece’s rating from B to B-, practically junk.

The upshot? To raise funds, Greece will now face higher costs on international capital markets.

The reasons given for the downgrade – liquidity constraints on the banking system and prolongation of talks with official creditors for a revised bailout deal –  come as no surprise.  As Standard & Poor’s put it:

In our view, a prolongation of talks with official creditors could also lead to further pressure on financial stability in the form of deposit withdrawals and, in a worst-case scenario, the imposition of capital controls and a loss of access to lender-of-last-resort financing, potentially resulting in Greece’s exclusion from the Economic and Monetary Union.

Needless to say, the Tsipras-Varoufakis travels did not yield the expected returns. Even Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, abandoned the Greek cause, siding with Merkel – alleging the Italian banking system held €40 billion in Greek debt.

The Greeks are taking it well (so far) saying they’ve got sufficient sources of financing.Varoufakis, upon his return, exhibited his usual self-assurance, saying that he had “logic” on his side.

Logic? Yes, if Europe, with its continued demands for austerity, pushes Greece too far against the wall, there won’t be any reason for it to stay in the Euro. In particular, if the ECB doesn’t act as a lender of last resort to Greek banks, why should Greece continue with the Euro? A collapse of the banking system has always been identified as the first thing that would happen to any Euro-zone member leaving the Euro. But if it is already collapsing, why stay in?

I know, for years, I have blogged about the Euro crisis, taking the position that a Grexit (exit of Greece from the Euro) was impossible. Now, I believe it’s entirely possible. The main reason for believing that a Grexit would never happen used to be the so-called “domino effect”: if Greece left, the next in line would be all the Southern European States suffering from the same debt overload and faced with the same urgent need to reform, i.e. Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy. This was such a huge chunk of the Eurozone that it would have caused an avalanche, burying the Euro.

But now something is changed: starting in March, the ECB will be able to engage in Quantitative Easing (QE), on the model of the Federal Reserve – something it has never done before because the Germans, fearful as always of any growth in sovereign debt, had prevented it. But now, the German red light has turned yellow, and QE is no longer out – indeed, it is in.

This means that if Greece exits the Eurozone, the ECB has the power to stabilize the currency through QE. And Greece is a small part of the game: its GNP is about 2.5% of the total Euro-zone. The ECB surely has now the firepower to handle a Grexit.

So, the outcome could really be a Grexit…Your opinion? Do we want Greece out of Europe? If it goes back to the Drachma, it will find new friends to help its finances: Russia and China – perhaps even Turkey (in spite of historic dislikes…) How will Europeans feel when Greek ports on the Mediterranean are run by the Chinese? When Greek banks recycle Russian money? Where is European solidarity and the dream of a United Europe?

Ask the Germans…

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Climate Change and the Collapse of Western Civilization

To anyone living in Europe, it is truly puzzling that Americans continue to deny Climate Change.  The anger, recklessness and vehemence displayed by American “climate deniers” are something of a mystery. And their favorite argument is that there is no scientific “evidence” of global warming – in spite of the rising number of “extreme” weather events, the floods, the fires and the melting ice, and some of it happening right on their doorstep.

Now, finally, two American scientists – one from Harvard, the other from the California Institute of Technology – have given us the key to the mystery.  Naomi Oreskes who is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University and Erisk M. Conway,  an award-winning historian of science and technology at the California Institute of Technology, have used in their latest book, The Collapse of Western Civilization, a remarkably effective dramatic device. Instead of writing a standard analysis, they have set it in the future, giving it the detached, objective tone of scholarly work. It is intended as the fruit of research by a future scientist looking back on our time and trying to figure out the factors that “explain” how global warming caused the collapse of Western civilization. The year is 2939, and what bothers our future scientist is how the United States, the most powerful country on Earth, was, in spite of its power, unable to reverse climate trends.

Don’t be put off by the dramatic subject. This is a book packed with humour that will make you smile (or perhaps snigger?) and the book description in the Kindle Store perfectly captures the spirit of it:

 “a senior scholar of the Second People’s Republic of China presents a gripping and deeply disturbing account of how the children of the Enlightenment, the political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies, entered into a Penumbral period in the early decades of the twenty-first century, a time when sound science and rational discourse about global change were prohibited and clear warnings of climate catastrophe were ignored. What ensues when soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, drought, and mass migrations disrupt the global governmental and economic regimes? The Great Collapse of 2093.”

The book is clearly a success on Amazon. This is the ranking (as of February 1, 2015):

And it has already garnered 178 Amazon customer reviews. On Goodreads it got 305 rankings (average 4 stars) and 91 reviews. The mainstream media also paid attention to it, in Nature, Scientific American, the New York Times and probably many more that I missed.I particularly liked this comment from Elizabeth Kolbert, the author whose The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History I’ve reviewed in an earlier post. This is what she has to say: “Provocative and grimly fascinating, The Collapse of Western Civilization offers a glimpse into a future that, with farsighted leadership, still might be avoided. It should be required reading for anyone who works — or hopes to — in Washington.”

Yes, can we sway our politicians  or are we destined to perish like the Maya civilization? A few decades of drought, causing an economic collapse and internecine fights, were enough to turn the once-splendid Maya cities into ghost towns by the time the Spanish conquered Mexico. Of course, our civilization is global and it will take much more than a few decades of drought to kill it off. But then, Climate Change is a much more massive event…

Maya site: Palenque

I was so moved by this read that I wrote a review (now on Amazon) that I’m happy to share here:

5.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful Read and a Wake-up Call, January 20, 2015
Delightful read if one may be allowed to use that particular adjective when the subject is so grim. And the authors, two science historians coming from the best universities in America (Harvard and the California Institute of Technology), managed the feat of making serious analysis read like fiction. A real page-turner. Yet it’s not fiction, far from it. The book is in fact reviewing what’s wrong with our society, pin-pointing with deadly accuracy the reasons why we are unable to stop our “civilization” from rushing to “collapse”. This is a book that should be taken seriously by anyone concerned with our future, and in particular by our political leaders.

The idea of analyzing what is happening in the climate change debate from the standpoint of the future (the book is purportedly written by a future historian located in China in 2393) is particularly effective as it gives a neutral, balanced voice to the whole account. And it is refreshingly novel. The fact that it is short (a mere 100 pages) no doubt also helps. This is both a powerful read and a wake-up call. I found the arguments particularly convincing and being an economist, I especially liked the twist they put on economic concepts, for example, Hayek’s and Milton’s “neo-liberalism” calling it “market fundamentalism” (indeed, those theories are ideologies rather than scientific) or “gross national product” amusingly described as an “archaic” concept.

The humor is there but it is ultimately very dark humor. The message is clear. If we don’t do anything, if we don’t reverse engine and control gas emissions, we are doomed and why this is so is masterfully demonstrated. Many factors are at play and the authors pull them together in a compelling way, using the detached tone of a future historian who is puzzled by the fact that Western Civilization could not avoid collapse in spite of its remakable advances in science and technology.

The reasons for our failure to address climate change are clearly analyzed and deconstructed – and suddenly, reading this brilliant essay, I began to feel like the Mayas must have felt when decades of unexpected drought destroyed their civilization, causing economic collapse, local wars and social chaos. Just like in the case of the Mayas, the reasons we are failing are all linked to each other – to global warming of course, but more importantly, to the way we handle it (or rather do not handle it – we simply deny it’s there).

The book is at its best in explaining exactly why we deny climate change, in pointing to the “internal” causes, things that lay at the heart of our civilization, things that made it once great and that are now causing its fall – like, for example, “reductionism” which is the idea (that began in Descartes’ time) of solving large problems by breaking them down into smaller, more “tractable” elements. The approach has proved powerful to advance knowledge but as the narrator coldly remarks “reductionism also made it difficult for scientists to articulate the threat posed by climate change, since many experts did not actually know very much about aspects of the problem beyond their expertise.” As a result, scientists did not speak in a single voice, climate change continued to be denied, fueled by the interests of the “carbon-combustion complex” – another witty take on Eisenhower’s famous “military and industrial complex” – and political leaders thought they had more time to address it than they really had.

Other contributing factors are also identified, such as over-reliance of scientists on the concept of statistical significance (also termed an “archaic”!) – something that had never occurred to me before and yet totally makes sense. And this is yet another reason why I loved this book: the authors managed to shed new light and come with new insights on an argument, climate change, that I tend to consider “closed”, in the sense that I can’t imagine what more could be added.

Actually, although I gave it 5 stars, I don’t think the book is perfect. It falls in two areas, as I point out here:

There are only two aspects I regret, one, is the reference to just one climate fiction novelist (there are many, climate fiction is a brand new genre and rapidly rising with the likes of Margaret Atwood) but of course, the authors have a right to their own likes and dislikes in fiction; the other, is the premature burial of the United Nations following the collapse of international talks on climate change at some point in the mid-21st century. Personally, I view such a collapse totally unlikely – the United Nations are here to stay, they are indispensable and most likely to preside over the collapse of our civilization rather than being buried before…But those are minor details and don’t detract from the main strengths of this excellent book, which is to unravel the puzzle of climate denial.

Highly recommended.

Yes, regarding the United Nations, I do think the authors got it wrong. The road is long and difficult, but the United Nations could well be the one institution that will help to wake up the world to the danger and save Western Civilization from collapse! But I do take it on board that the authors were writing a worse case scenario and therefore had to somehow delete the UN from the equation.

As to the idea that we will experience Global Collapse as soon as 2093, why not? I suspect it is a little early, but I could be wrong on that one. In any case, in my own book about the future (Gateway to Forever), the story starts in 2222 and global warming is not longer a subject of debate, it’s a fact. Why did I chose that date? Because I rather like the numbers that repeat themselves (!). And I didn’t want to fall in the error Orwell made with his 1984 which was far too close to his publishing date (1948)… But then, he too liked to play with numbers and simply reversed them!

Naomi Oreskes rock climbin at Jackson Hole 2011 (photo Andy Tankersley)

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