Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, April 23, 2008

I’m still battling through the wealth of information about geopolitics and conflict-resolution around the world from the International Crisis Group. This “do-tank” employs a unique methodology combining “field-based research, sharply practical policy recommendations, and high-level advocacy.” In particular there are several, in-depth reports on regional conflicts and on thematic issues (for example, I’m still working through an enriching article entitled Understanding Islamism**). Additionally, there are numerous shorter and more circumstantial articles, op-ed pieces and interviews, which provide insight into concrete examples and strategies in flexible resolution of conflicts. Many of this week’s articles are drawn from this second source as I try to get my head around some geopolitical questions. Happy reflective reading!

1.) The Conflicting Tensions of Peace and Justice #1.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) or Cour pénale internationale (CPI), which was established in 1998 by Rome Statute, is an independent, judiciary institution that tries persons for the gravest of crimes, namely, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Based in The Hague, Netherlands, the ICC’s jurisdiction is limited to events taking place since July 1, 2002 and applies only to 105 countries, which have signed and ratified the Rome Statute (notable exceptions are the United States, India, and China). The Court is currently investigating or prosecuting situations in Northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Darfur.

[![][3]][3] In “Justice in Conflict? The ICC and Peace Processes” Nick Grono and Adam O’Brien at the International Crisis Group examine how current investigations and prosecutions by the ICC in Darfur, Northern Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) affect peace processes:

In each case, the ICC has been forced to confront the challenges inherent in pursuing peace and justice simultaneously. What happens – and what should happen – when efforts to prosecute perpetrators of mass atrocities coincide with a peace process? What is the best approach when the price of a peace deal may be a degree of impunity for those most responsible for such abuses? One common and convenient response is to hide behind truisms and make general statements of principle to the effect that no trade-off is required because peace and justice are inextricably linked. Clearly peace and justice are complementary in that justice can deter abuses and can help make peace sustainable by addressing grievances non-violently. But good things don’t always go together, and to present peace and justice as invariably mutually reinforcing is misleading and unhelpful when the difficult reality of peacemaking often proves otherwise.

One route to circumvent the “potential clash between peace and justice” is to pursue a “sequential approach – for example, by getting a peace agreement now, then dealing with justice many years later. This is what has been happening in Latin America a decade or two after transitions to democracy.”

But the fact of the matter is:

to acknowledge the tensions between peace and justice and to recognise that pragmatism and recent history indicate that justice cannot always claim primacy. While impunity for people who have committed the gravest acts of inhumanity is morally repugnant, sometimes doing a deal with perpetrators is unavoidable and necessary to prevent further conflict and suffering. This is partly because the reality of conflict is such that multiple warring parties are likely to have committed atrocities. Unless one party has been utterly vanquished, peace negotiations will often assemble parties responsible for grave abuses and a deal will depend on their agreeing to end the conflict. Because perpetrators are unlikely to want a prison cell as a reward for their hard-won peace agreement, mediators have frequently used amnesties as an incentive.

But the gravity of some numbers is difficult to ignore:

More than four million people have died during the DRC’s civil war and its aftermath. Conflict in Sierra Leone cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The toll in Darfur is increasing daily. It is tempting and understandable to take a righteous stance and say that deals should not be done with those responsible for atrocities. However, it is difficult to tell victims of these conflicts that the prosecution of a small number of people should take precedence over a peace deal that may end the appalling conditions they endure and the daily risks they face.

As such, one shouldn’t forget “the role of prosecutions in preventing future atrocities” and “the very important deterrence impact of international prosecutions, let alone fundamental moral considerations.”

Against the backdrop of these tensions, the authors examine the examine of how peace talks and judiciary proceedings are being played out in Northern Uganda with Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and their mystic leader Joseph Kony.

[![][4]][4]They write: For the first time in around a decade, a sustained peace process is taking place between the LRA and the Ugandan government. The talks are occurring in Juba, Southern Sudan, mediated by the Government of Southern Sudan. One complicating factor in the negotiations is that the ICC is prosecuting the leadership of the LRA. The Court has been condemned by a wide range of international NGOs, academics, mediators and northern Ugandans. These critics argued that the threat of international prosecutions would undermine fragile local peace initiatives; would prolong the conflict by obliterating the LRA’s incentive to negotiate; and would make displaced northern Ugandans even more vulnerable to LRA attacks.

But…

Some three years later, the exact opposite has happened. We are in the midst of the most promising peace initiative in the last 20 years; one that has dramatically improved the security and humanitarian situation in northern Uganda. A landmark cessation of hostilities agreement removed most LRA combatants from Uganda, allowing hundreds of thousands of war-weary civilians to begin the process of resettlement and redevelopment.

These authors argue that the ICC’s investigations are playing “an active, positive role encouraging and reinforcing these regional trends” for four reasons:

First, the threat of prosecution clearly rattled the LRA military leadership, pushing them to the negotiating table. Joseph Kony and the LRA commanders are acutely aware that the ICC hangs as a sword over their heads. The issuance of arrest warrants in particular created an incentive to reach a settlement. It may be that the LRA’s decision to pull most of its troops out of northern Uganda and to issue standing orders not to attack anyone in the area is in part due to deterrence by the ICC. The LRA continues to attack civilians in Southern Sudan, perhaps in the belief that it is beyond the geographic limits of the referral.

Second, the ICC’s investigation made it more difficult for the LRA to enjoy continued support from its key foreign ally, Sudan. Beginning in 1994, Khartoum provided an umbilical cord to Kony in the form of a steady stream of weapons, training and transportation. For Khartoum, the ICC’s case increased the stakes for supporting the LRA and prompted the Government of Sudan to sign a 2005 memorandum of understanding with the Court to cooperate with arrest warrants issued against LRA commanders. Regardless of whether Khartoum actually fell within the orbit of the ICC’s criminal investigation, the threat had a deterrent impact.

Third, the ICC’s investigation raised awareness and focused the attention of the international community, which in turn provided a crucial broad base of regional and international support for the fledgling peace process. One of the key problems of previous peace initiatives was weak external support. Now, in Juba, the international community has stepped up its engagement, and the UN and a number of countries are providing significant support for the talks.

Fourth, the ICC’s attempt to hold the LRA leadership criminally liable for its atrocities in northern Uganda has embedded accountability and victims’ interests in the structure and vocabulary of the peace process…Whether sincere on not, the LRA is being pushed towards accountability on multiple fronts by multiple actors.

In spite of the positive role contributed by the ICC:

the tension between peace and justice comes into sharpest relief when the detailed provisions of a peace deal are being negotiated. Foremost among the obstacles to a Juba agreement (let alone the implementation of such a deal), is the conflict between the ICC prosecutions and the desire of the LRA’s leaders for full or substantial impunity. Kony and his commanders state that they will not do a deal unless and until the ICC prosecutions are dropped. Fear of arrest means that they avoid Juba and issue instructions by satellite phone.

The question, thus, is: “How should it balance the range of competing, and often conflicting, public policy goals in such situations?”

The authors concluded with two claims:

  • The ICC must secure convictions to ensure its credibility and requires
    strong international support to do so****. The ICC needs to secure convictions to ensure its credibility as a deterrent to future perpetrators. This is going to be a challenge. In Darfur and Uganda the Court is going to find it extremely difficult to get hold of those it is prosecuting. And there will always be the risk of its prosecutions being trumped by peace processes.

- Impunity should always be a last resort. The crux of the whole ‘peace versus justice’ debate is what should be done when a warring party (or parties) insists that a prospective peace deal is conditional on a halt to international criminal prosecutions. In these circumstances, the overriding policy issue is whether the important but uncertain prospect of deterring future perpetrators and reducing future conflicts takes precedence over more certain benefits of an immediate end to an ongoing conflict. The first point that needs to be acknowledged is that peace deals that sacrifice justice often fail to produce peace.

[![][5]][5]2.) The Conflicting Tensions of Peace and Justice #2. Nick Grono and Caroline Flintoft at the *International Crisis Group have a paper on “Negotiating Justice to Understand Accountability,” which was presented at Nuremberg Conference: Building a Future on Peace and Justice, 25-27 June 2007. Like we saw in the last piece: * Negotiating justice during a peace process requires the balancing of a range of interests, many of which may not be readily reconcilable. Peace talks often bring together parties with capacity to perpetuate the conflict and inflict further suffering. The primary task of mediators is to neutralise the incentives for a return to conflict, and produce a credible and sustainable peace agreement. **

Additionally:

The value of peace is straightforward. For the society subject to the conflict, it means an end to killing and suffering and the removal of an overwhelming obstacle to development. For those not yet victims of the conflict, it removes the risk of becoming so. For the international community, and particularly neighbouring regions, peace brings an end to actual or threatened destabilisation, decreases the likelihood of state failure and related dangers.

Justice is also fundamentally important. But, in the context of peace negotiations, it is intended to serve a greater and more diverse range of purposes. This means that the case for justice (or “accountability” as the terms are used more or less interchangeably in this context) is not always as clear-cut as that for peace, rendering it difficult to accept the claim that justice must always be pursued even at the cost of continued conflict.

While there are several examples of peace being achieved in absence of accountability or justice being demanded, the appearance of the ICC makes such an option less apparent as: “Mediators can no longer consider their job done if they produce a peace agreement that does not explicitly address justice and accountability issues.”

Even though they are used often interchangeably, justice is not exactly synonymous with “accountability.” The latter refers the best way “to operationalise justice norms when negotiating peace after the commission of mass atrocities.”

Accountability is considered to have 6 objectives:

1.) Retribution. Punishing individuals for the harms they have caused, particularly when their crimes were committed on a massive scale, is intended to re-establish (or establish in the first instance) an equilibrium between victims and perpetrators. It is also expected to channel any desire for revenge through legitimate institutions.

2.) Incapacitation or the purging and removing of disruptive actors from a post-conflict society. In this, it is intended that accountability mechanisms will physically remove those who have committed mass atrocities in a society, rendering them incapable of doing so again or spoiling the peace.

3.) Deterrence. Prosecutions have long been believed to have the power to prevent future atrocities. The argument is that if leaders genuinely believe that they are likely to be prosecuted if they commit atrocity crimes, then this will provide a strong (though not always overwhelming) incentive against such conduct.

4.) Truth telling or establishing an accurate historical record. This can help prevent the distortion of facts and misuse of historical examples both domestically and internationally, and provide the related benefit of acknowledging victims of crimes and allowing them to state their experiences publicly.

5.) Institutionalisation of human rights norms. Insisting on prosecution of war crimes and atrocity crimes forces states to recognise the legal and moral force of those norms and entrenches them more firmly in international and domestic legal spheres, bureaucratic and military structures, and in the minds of ordinary citizens.

6.) Accountability serves to delegitimise the individuals responsible for atrocity crimes and help dismantle the institutions they created or used for support.

These objectives are said to play a part “in ensuring the sustainability of peace,” in particular to the benefit of the local community.

On the other hand, local actors “in recent peace negotiations have often been vehement in their desire to minimise accountability mechanisms in favour of reconciliation.”

Universal Jurisdiction is becoming a reality, and as such, the question ultimately turns on, as the authors bring up, “Do deterrence and norm institutionalisation prevent atrocity crimes?There are clearly examples where this has not proved the case, but the status of the ICC has brought new factors into the balancing act of peace and “accountability” or justice. For the authors, the better question is : What are the circumstances in which deterrence is most likely to work?,” which provides more practical responses:

First, it is necessary to understand that the interests of parties to a conflict are different, and this may impact on how effective deterrence may be. A credible threat of prosecution may well be less effective against rebels, at least until the late stages of their rebellion by which time it is too late for them to ameliorate their conduct to escape prosecution. In contrast, when it comes to the calculations of those in power, deterrence may have greater immediate effect. If a credible threat of prosecution for future atrocities exists in the minds of a regime’s leadership, then those leaders have something tangible to lose and arguably will weigh that risk when deciding how to respond to a challenge to their authority.

Second, deterrence will be effective only if the threat of prosecution is sufficiently immediate and credible. Until recently, it was more theoretical than real, as the only vehicles for prosecution were ad hoc international tribunals, or domestic courts.

For the authors, the only way for deterrence to function and for worldwide justice to move forward is through the continued pursuit of prosecution by the ICC. Without the actualization of the Court through support from the international community, the ICC will be “emasculated.”

3.) “A masterpiece in the management of perceptions” David Barstow at the NYTIMES has an extremely important piece of investigative journalism entitled, Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand, which explores how the Defense Department and the Pentagon used so-called military experts, who subsequently talked on numerous TV networks, to testify, promote and sell the Iraq war. While the Vietnam War suffered largely due to media-influenced perceptions of the war, the Pentagon has succeeded in influencing Americans’ perceptions of the war by circumventing journalists through commentary by expert, TV analysts:

To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.

The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.

Moreover, these experts exploit their privileged exposure to Defense happenings to further their (and their companies’) business ventures. The situation gets hairy:

The Pentagon defended its relationship with military analysts, saying they had been given only factual information about the war. “The intent and purpose of this is nothing other than an earnest attempt to inform the American people,” Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

Five years into the Iraq war, most details of the architecture and execution of the Pentagon’s campaign have never been disclosed. But The Times successfully sued the Defense Department to gain access to 8,000 pages of e-mail messages, transcripts and records describing years of private briefings, trips to Iraq and Guantánamo and an extensive Pentagon talking points operation.

These records reveal a symbiotic relationship where the usual dividing lines between government and journalism have been obliterated.

Internal Pentagon documents repeatedly refer to the military analysts as “message force multipliers” or “surrogates” who could be counted on to deliver administration “themes and messages” to millions of Americans “in the form of their own opinions.”

According the article, this was more than a mere coincidence and represented a systematic attempt to promote a certain view of the world view:

Again and again, records show, the administration has enlisted analysts as a rapid reaction force to rebut what it viewed as critical news coverage, some of it by the networks’ own Pentagon correspondents. For example, when news articles revealed that troops in Iraq were dying because of inadequate body armor, a senior Pentagon official wrote to his colleagues: “I think our analysts — properly armed — can push back in that arena.”

The basic idea centered on “a belief that pessimistic war coverage broke the nation’s will to win in Vietnam, and there was a mutual resolve not to let that happen with this war.” Consequently what was called for was a new approach to marketing the war, namely as Paul E Valley suggested: “MindWar” — using network TV and radio to “strengthen our national will to victory.” And even before the war, this new media strategy was being put in place in order “to make the analysts the main focus of the public relations [and to subsequently to] push to construct a case for war”:

By early 2002, detailed planning for a possible Iraq invasion was under way, yet an obstacle loomed. Many Americans, polls showed, were uneasy about invading a country with no clear connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Pentagon and White House officials believed the military analysts could play a crucial role in helping overcome this resistance.

Torie Clarke, the former public relations executive who oversaw the Pentagon’s dealings with the analysts as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, had come to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called “information dominance.” In a spin-saturated news culture, she argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent.

And so even before Sept. 11, she built a system within the Pentagon to recruit “key influentials” — movers and shakers from all walks who with the proper ministrations might be counted on to generate support for Mr. Rumsfeld’s priorities.

In the months after Sept. 11, as every network rushed to retain its own all-star squad of retired military officers, Ms. Clarke and her staff sensed a new opportunity. To Ms. Clarke’s team, the military analysts were the ultimate “key influential” — authoritative, most of them decorated war heroes, all reaching mass audiences.

The analysts, they noticed, often got more airtime than network reporters, and they were not merely explaining the capabilities of Apache helicopters. They were framing how viewers ought to interpret events. What is more, while the analysts were in the news media, they were not of the news media. They were military men, many of them ideologically in sync with the administration’s neoconservative brain trust, many of them important players in a military industry anticipating large budget increases to pay for an Iraq war.

Even though many expected it, the facts of this planned manipulation get even stickier:

The Pentagon’s regular press office would be kept separate from the military analysts. The analysts would instead be catered to by a small group of political appointees, with the point person being Brent T. Krueger, another senior aide to Ms. Clarke. The decision recalled other administration tactics that subverted traditional journalism. Federal agencies, for example, have paid columnists to write favorably about the administration. They have distributed to local TV stations hundreds of fake news segments with fawning accounts of administration accomplishments. The Pentagon itself has made covert payments to Iraqi newspapers to publish coalition propaganda.

Leaving aside the details of how this system of media manipulation was subsequently managed, it is important to note how the general focus was on making the war appear a certain way. Namely, while doubts about the evolution of the war and of Iraq’s progress were increasing, analyst spin struck hard:

An analyst said at another point: “This is a wider war. And whether we have democracy in Iraq or not, it doesn’t mean a tinker’s damn if we end up with the result we want, which is a regime over there that’s not a threat to us.”

“Yeah,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, taking notes.

For these analysts and the Pentagon, it is / was about putting things in a certain perspective:

Even as they assured Mr. Rumsfeld that they stood ready to help in this public relations offensive, the analysts sought guidance on what they should cite as the next “milestone” that would, as one analyst put it, “keep the American people focused on the idea that we’re moving forward to a positive end.” They placed particular emphasis on the growing confrontation with Iran.

“When you said ‘long war,’ you changed the psyche of the American people to expect this to be a generational event,” an analyst said. “And again, I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job…”

Ensuite,

Days later, Mr. Rumsfeld wrote a memorandum distilling their collective guidance into bullet points. Two were underlined:

“Focus on the Global War on Terror — not simply Iraq. The wider war — the long war.”

“Link Iraq to Iran. Iran is the concern. If we fail in Iraq or Afghanistan, it will help Iran.”

This is a chillingly important document…

4.) The Environmental Question of “Why Bother?” Answered. Everyday seems to bring new news about how our planet is suffering, how we are moving closer and closer to an Armageddon of climatic proportions, and how we—as people, as countries and communities—are really doing nothing. The global warming “crisis,” even to the most environmentally conscious, well-read person, lead to the inevitable questions of “What can I do?” and, ultimately, “Why Bother?.” In an inspiring NYTIMES piece entitled The Way We Live Now. Why Bother?, Michael Pollan writes:

Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?

Moreover, what exactly should I be doing with this overload of conflicting information about doing the right thing for the environment?

There are so many stories we can tell ourselves to justify doing nothing, but perhaps the most insidious is that, whatever we do manage to do, it will be too little too late.

These are troubling questions that Pollan attempts (and, I think, succeeds) to offer a fitting answer—both ideologically and pragmatically. We often try to neglect our personal role to such a large problem:

Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date does seem utterly inadequate to the challenge. It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous [N.B.!], cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live. Why?

Pollan writes:

Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.

Pollan rejects the claim that this Big Problem about global warming should be left to the big players, namely governments and big industry, because our lifestyle as Westerners has much to do with why this crisis has come to be. From him, this lifestyle carries with it a certain mentality that needs challenging.

Thirty years ago, Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and writer, put forward a blunt analysis of precisely this mentality. He argued that the environmental crisis of the 1970s Nothing was likely to change until we healed the “split between what we think and what we do.” For Berry, the “why bother” question came down to a moral imperative: “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”

There’s no avoiding the fact that we are, in some small or large part, responsible for what is today and what will be tomorrow. But even our societal roles lead to a certain disengagement from this responsibility. Because our world is highly specialized, we are unable to see how we, lacking specialization in the field of environmental sciences, could be up to understanding or even impacting such a problem.

For Berry, the deep problem standing behind all the other problems of industrial civilization is “specialization,” which he regards as the “disease of the modern character.” Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: we’re producers (of one thing) at work, consumers of a great many other things the rest of the time, and then once a year or so we vote as citizens. Virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician.

As Adam Smith and many others have pointed out, this division of labor has given us many of the blessings of civilization. Specialization is what allows me to sit at a computer thinking about climate change. Yet this same division of labor obscures the lines of connection — and responsibility — linking our everyday acts to their real-world consequences, making it easy for me to overlook the coal-fired power plant that is lighting my screen, or the mountaintop in Kentucky that had to be destroyed to provide the coal to that plant, or the streams running crimson with heavy metals as a result.

According to Pollan, a large portion of the problem lies with cheap energy. From one thing, cheap energy powers my computer and my virtual, liberal lifestyle, allowing me to be separated us from the local world and from the world in general. Additionally:

Cheap energy allowed us to leapfrog community by making it possible to sell our specialty over great distances as well as summon into our lives the specialties of countless distant others.

Here’s the point: Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult. Specialists ourselves, we can no longer imagine anyone but an expert, or anything but a new technology or law, solving our problems.

The “cheap-energy mind,” as Wendell Berry called it, is the mind that asks, “Why bother?” because it is helpless to imagine — much less attempt — a different sort of life, one less divided, less reliant. Since the cheap-energy mind translates everything into money, its proxy, it prefers to put its faith in market-based solutions — carbon taxes and pollution-trading schemes. If we could just get the incentives right, it believes, the economy will properly value everything that matters and nudge our self-interest down the proper channels. The best we can hope for is a greener version of the old invisible hand. Visible hands it has no use for.

Adam Smith attempted to explain economic happenings by evoking a mysterious force, i.e. the invisible hand, which made things transpire in a certain way. While there are clearly human hands at work throughout the entire economic process, it seemed better to assign a sense of mystery than the Marxist reality of real, material hands and acting minds.

Against this attitude of “letting market forces work things out” and our personal disconnect formulated in the “Why Bother?” question, Pollan tentatively proposes a few reasons to bother and to act:

If you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change, markets for all manner of green products and alternative technologies will prosper and expand. (Just look at the market for hybrid cars.) Consciousness will be raised, perhaps even changed: new moral imperatives and new taboos might take root in the culture. Driving an S.U.V. or eating a 24-ounce steak or illuminating your McMansion like an airport runway at night might come to be regarded as outrages to human conscience. Not having things might become cooler than having them. And those who did change the way they live would acquire the moral standing to demand changes in behavior from others — from other people, other corporations, even other countries.

Moreover:

Going personally green is a bet, nothing more or less, though it’s one we probably all should make, even if the odds of it paying off aren’t great. Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.

I think one of the most interesting connections is that, like in Communist East-Bloc with figures like Havel, people need to look at the environmental crisis and to “conduct themselves as if they were to live on this earth forever and be answerable for its condition one day.”

Practically-speaking, Pollan translates this into several small ideas:

Maybe you decide to give up meat, an act that would reduce your carbon footprint by as much as a quarter.

Or you could try this: determine to observe the Sabbath. For one day a week, abstain completely from economic activity: no shopping, no driving, no electronics.

His final answer is that we should start growing our own food:

Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.

A great many things happen when you plant a vegetable garden, some of them directly related to climate change, others indirect but related nevertheless. Growing food, we forget, comprises the original solar technology: calories produced by means of photosynthesis. Years ago the cheap-energy mind discovered that more food could be produced with less effort by replacing sunlight with fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides, with a result that the typical calorie of food energy in your diet now requires about 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce. It’s estimated that the way we feed ourselves (or rather, allow ourselves to be fed) accounts for about a fifth of the greenhouse gas for which each of us is responsible.

The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

For more “food for thought,” check out the introduction to Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto in PDF-format.

5.) In an article from Time Magazine (24 July 2006) entitled “Time to Start Talking,” Robert Malley at the International Crisis Group critiques the US’s policy in the Middle East:

From early on, the diplomacy of the Bush Administration has been guided by a straightforward logic: engagement is a reward, misbehavior ought not be rewarded; ergo, misbehaving parties are not to be engaged. The thinking is that isolation, ostracism and, if need be, sanctions are more likely to get troublesome actors to change their ways. And so the list of diplomatic outcasts only grows. Today the U.S. does not talk to Iran, Syria, Hamas, the elected Palestinian government or Hizballah.

Since 2000, with the collapse of any Arab-Israeli peace process, the start of the war on terrorism and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, regional actors have lacked a clear compass, rules of the road or a referee. Syria is being told to clean up its act in Lebanon and Iraq; Iran to drop its nuclear program and to stop meddling in its neighbor’s affairs; Hamas to undergo an ideological revolution; Hizballah to disarm. All are perfectly justifiable demands, but none are being accompanied by a clear and appealing incentive for the parties’ taking such actions–other, that is, than avoiding retribution if they do not.

As a result of this diplomatic vacuum, the only factor constraining the behavior of the various parties has been their mutual fear. Israel has been worried that Hizballah might launch Katyusha rockets on Haifa, Syria that Israel might wipe out its army or regime, Hamas and Hizballah that their entire leadership could become fair game. But such apprehension always was at most a feeble restraint, because in an unregulated environment, the only thing more costly than disregarding one’s fears is displaying them.

Instead of cutting people out of the dialogue and limiting a “good players” policy, Malley encourages the U.S. to pursue a politic aimed at dealing with the entire picture with all of players—whether “good” or “bad.” This means talking to Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah as well as Israel and Lebanon in order to formulate a comprehensive package.

But then, such an approach would entail negotiating with all the wrong people about all the wrong things. That, of course, is precisely what the U.S. is adamant it will not do. One does not talk to outlaw actors, let alone bargain with them. The result has been a policy with all the appeal of a moral principle and all the effectiveness of a tired harangue.

Quote of the Week:

“If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is the significance of a clean desk?”

– Laurence J. Peter