Archive for May, 2010

On the X-37B

May 29, 2010

Note: Not the actual X-37B.

Science needs those who disobey it.”

Theodor W. Adorno1

It is said that the U.S. military recently tested the functionality of a machine described by one observer as a ‘space-fighter’2 by launching it with an Atlas V booster-rocket into space.  The Pentagon apparently refers to the device as the ‘X-37B,’ or ‘Orbital Test Vehicle’; it reportedly carries no human pilot.

While the military has been reluctant to share much of any information on the X-37B, Gary Payton, a U.S. Air Force deputy undersecretary for space systems, stated in a 20 April press conference that “[i]n all honesty, we don’t know when it’s coming back [to Earth] for sure.”3 Zhengyan Fang of Takungpao-Hong Kong reports that the X-37B could be used to intercept satellites or fire projectiles at terrestrial targets; putatively, it carries solar panels that afford it enough energy to be able to maintain itself in space for at least 270 days.4

Whatever the X-37B’s test-launch may mean for spectacular interpretations of technological progress, this development should surely be considered an alarming one.  Taken together with recent revelations about the Conventional Global Prompt Strike (CGPS) weapons system the Obama administration is developing—a non-nuclear weapons system that would allow the U.S. to attack any target on the Earth’s surface in less than an hour5—and the U.S. government’s strong penchant for militarism and aggression in general, such developments bode rather badly. The existence of these programs is entirely consistent with processes that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation have referred to as “the international of death,” the “globalization of war and armaments.”6 That such weapons systems as the X-37B and CGPS continue to be developed belies Hegelian accounts that legitimate the present Weltlauf, or world-course. Indeed, in light of this, Walter Benjamin seems correct to claim that, precisely because “things are ‘the status quo,’” we face “catastrophe”7—-this, 70 years after he died while attempting to flee fascists.  “The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the [twenty-first] century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”8

The X-37B is not the X-Wing or B-wing fighters used by the Rebel Alliance.  Rather, it far more resembles a creation of the Empire; its likely utilization will be for imperial—that is, dominative—purposes, ones that promote repression in service of extant domination.  The efforts dedicated to the creation of the X-37B are clearly rather far from Murray Bookchin’s “liberatory technologies”9 or Herbert Marcuse’s “new science,”10 both of which seek to de-link technological development from “systematized horror”11 and, in place of such, hold out the prospect of directing technology toward rational, humane ends.

The importance of subjecting existing technologies to reason is rather great today, given the various barbarous irrationalities that presently reign.  Could the resources used to develop the X-37B and the CGPS not more humanely be directed toward giving providing for the basic needs of the billions of humans who are today violently denied them?  Could they not better be dedicated to launching solar receptors into space, where they could provide abundant energy for all of humanity while allowing for the abolition of fossil-fuel use, which today threatens humanity and life itself with looming catastrophe?

Given the hegemony of barbarism and irrationality in prevailing society, it sadly seems to be that Max Horkheimer’s following characterization of contemporary society, made in the mid-twentieth century, still applies today: “At no time has the poverty of humanity stood in such crying contradiction to its potential wealth as in the present—at no time have all powers been so horribly fettered as in this generation, where children go hungry as the hands of the fathers are busy churning out bombs.12

1 Qtd. in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1997), p. 371

2 Zhengyan Fang, “America’s Space Fighter: New Threat to Humanity,” trans. Daniel Kuey, Takungpao-Hong Kong, 5 May 2010

4 Fang, op. cit.

5 Bill Van Auken, “Obama administration spending billions on new global strike weapons,” World Socialist Web Site, 24 April 2010

6 Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, Nuestra Arma es Nuestra Palabra, ed. Juana Ponce de León (New York: Siete Cuentos, 2001), p. 127

7 Selected Writings. Volume 4: 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003), p. 184

8 Ibid, “On the Concept of  History,” trans. Dennis Redmond, 1940

9 Cf., inter alia, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Oakland, California: AK Press, 2004), The Ecology of Freedom (Oakland, California: AK Press, 2005 [1982]), Remaking Society.(Montreal: Black Rose, 1989)

10 One-Dimensional Man (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1964)

11 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), p. 113

12 “Materialism and Morality,” Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Writings, trans. G. Frederick Hunter et al. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1993), p. 35

Hunger, a specter that haunts Mexico

May 10, 2010

Writing in defense of the concept of a guaranteed means of subsistence in the nineteenth century, the French philosopher Charles Fourier claims that “[t]he first right is the right to sustain life, to eat when one is hungry.”1 Clearly, if we are to examine the present situation in Mexico, as in many other parts of the world, we find this most basic right to be massively violated.

According to the 2008 findings of Mexico’s National Evaluation Council on Social Development (CONEVAL), nearly 49 million Mexicans—over 46 percent of the country’s population—suffered from some form of food insecurity at the time of research. Of these 49 million, 25.8 were subject to what is designated as “light food insecurity,” while 13.7 million suffered “moderate” such insecurity, and 9.3 million “severe.”2 Included within these 49 million are said to be 11.2 million individuals who consume less than the line at which CONEVAL marks the base-line of extreme material poverty, in addition to nearly 2 million “chronically malnourished” children.3 World-Bank statistics from 2006 show that 15.5% of Mexican children under 5 are stunted by malnutrition; for comparative purposes, this rate compares to a stunting-prevalence of 16.5% among children under 5 in Lebanon, or of 15.7% in Thailand.

The differences among the various degrees of food insecurity observed by CONEVAL are abstract, though their implications are hardly so: whether a food-insecure household is listed as suffering from “light,” “moderate,” or “severe” food insecurity depends upon the degree to which respondents answered affirmatively when asked such questions as the following, with severity increasing the more affirmative answers were provided: in recent months, has any member of your household skipped a meal, eaten less than s/he should have, or experienced hunger and gone without eating, due to a lack of means? According to CONEVAL’s findings, populations suffering from “moderate” and “severe” food insecurity seem to be more concentrated in the middle and southeast of Mexico; CONEVAL’s 2008 report4 states that 24.6% of the population of Morelos suffered from either moderate or severe food insecurity at the time of research, while this number amounted at that time to 26.8% in Guanajuato, 31.3% in Michoacán, 27.2% in Puebla, 28.8% in Oaxaca, 25.4% in Veracruz, 26.3% in Chiapas, and 34.5% in Tabasco. Given that the present economic crisis has deepened since the time when the investigations upon which this study was based took place, the current situation today in mid-2010 is likely far more severe.

The existence of hunger on such a scale in Mexico speaks to the material poverty and social marginalization experienced by many of its citizens. The drop-off in remittances from abroad together with the price-inflation and attendantly higher taxes experienced since the onset of the present economic crisis has surely exacerbated food insecurity in the country, as has the increased unemployment rates that have followed from the crisis. Hunger in Mexico seems especially acute among indigenous groups; Coneval’s 2008 report states that 33.2% of indigenous Mexican children under 5 are stunted from malnutrition.5

The effects of being deprived of food are well-known, but they nonetheless bear mention here. In children, hunger results in stunting and inhibits the ability to concentrate and learn. If prolonged, hunger in children can inhibit brain development; such effects, like those related to stunting, are permanent and irreversible. Hunger also contributes to weakened immune systems, and hence problematizes health outcomes. Generally considered, of course, food underpins human society; work, leisure, social interaction, and the creation of art are largely impossible without it.

Some Possible Structural Bases for Hunger in Mexico

One structural factor that may already be contributing to the existence and persistence of hunger in Mexico, as elsewhere—and which will undoubtedly contribute to such far more in the future, if matters are not made radically otherwise—is climate change. Climate change, or global warming, refers to the interference that human activities have had and are having on the Earth’s climate systems since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, which inaugurated growth economies, automation, and the mass-burning of hydrocarbons—oil, gas, and coal. It has been more than scientifically established that the mass-burning of fossil fuels since the late eighteenth century has caused the Earth’s atmosphere to retain more heat than it otherwise would have; these processes have caused the Earth’s average global temperature to increase by at least 0.7° C since pre-industrial times. The continuation of practices that contribute to global warming in the present day and the near future promises warming on a far greater scale, as well.

The warming of the Earth’s atmosphere provoked by climate change threatens potentially catastrophic effects for human society: it will, if unchecked, cause the melting of the polar icecaps and hence cause sea-levels to rise dramatically, radically diminish the availability of freshwater across the globe by causing glaciers to melt away and rainfall patterns to drop off, provoke more frequent and destructive forest-fires, and acidify the world’s oceans. Its first and most evident effect, though, will be a marked increase in hunger and starvation rates, as Jacques Diouf, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s director, reminded those assembled at the UN climate negotiations that took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, last December. It has been established that a shift toward a hotter world will bring about significant agricultural decline in those societies that find themselves within tropical latitudes; some estimates claim that parts of sub-Saharan Africa will suffer a 50% drop-off in agricultural yield by 2020,6 while others find that agricultural production will simply be impossible in many parts of Central America if average global temperatures increase by an additional 2° C7—an eventuality that is entirely within the realm of possibility, given the entirely inadequate response that human society has presented to the problem of climate change.8 Given these considerations, surely any means by which to diminish present and future hunger rates in Mexico and elsewhere must include strategies aimed at preventing predicted future climate-change scenarios from taking place.

Another factor that is likely hampering the struggle for food security in Mexico is the increasing role granted to biofuels in agriculture. Biofuels are the products of agricultural crops—ethanol and others—that are grown to be used as fuel for human transportation—cars, trucks, boats, and planes. They are being hailed in many circles as a viable alternative to the hydrocarbons that have traditionally fueled industrial mass-transportation systems, given questions regarding the political implications of dependence upon petroleum in addition to uncertainty regarding future supplies of such. The main problem with switching to biofuels, nonetheless, is that the growing of biofuels competes with the growing of crops for food, and hence that favoring the former would have adverse consequences for the latter. It is also the case that biofuels require far more water than other crops, so their mass-production would then divert much-needed water for food-crops. Given such considerations, it is not inconceivable, as the British environmental journalist George Monbiot has noted,9 that the greater purchasing power of those who would drive cars and fly in planes in a biofuel-powered future would have highly negative effects on food security worldwide, bringing about starvation on a mass scale. Biofuel production, in the estimation of former UN special rapporteur Jean Ziegler, is a “crime against humanity.”10

Despite these considerations, the Mexican government aims to have 200,000 hectares of its productive lands dedicated to biofuel production by 2013.11 This is a lower target than the 300,000 hectares by 2012 that was originally planned, though the scaled-down goal seems to have come about because of low oil prices and hence a lack of marketability for biofuels rather than than rational, humane considerations. The aim to have 200,000 hectares set aside for biofuel-production is nonetheless alarming, given its implications for hunger among the Mexican people; such efforts must somehow be resisted and overcome.

Perhaps most generally conceived, it should be said that the existence of mass hunger today in Mexico, as in human society generally, finds its most ultimate basis in the presently dominant mode of economic organization: that of capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system that values private property, the accumulation of wealth, and economic growth above all else; as dramatically evidenced in its recent neo-liberal phase, it requires the exclusion of popular participation over production and consumption decision-making processes to function normally. The unfortunate result of this economic framework, as the renowned North-American philosopher Noam Chomsky has succinctly put it, is that the interests of profit are placed above those of people. The inability of nearly 50 million Mexicans to afford something so basic as food—or indeed, the inability of over 1 billion humans worldwide today to do so—is an irrelevant consideration to the workings of this system and its defenders, as long as profits are to be made. The struggle to do away with the tragedies of hunger and human poverty, then, necessitate the abolition of capitalism, so as to allow for the possibility of an economic system based on need and societal rationality.

Given these structural explanations that find the existing socio-economic system and the power relations it propagates responsible for the hunger crisis in Mexico, it does also bear mentioning that dominant Mexican dietary choices may themselves bear some responsibility for those who suffer hunger today in Mexico. Data from 2002 indicate that, on a per-capita basis, Mexicans consume nearly 59 kilograms of meat a year; this is far short of average for that year for the U.S. (124) or Spain (118), but it is considerably higher than the equivalent to be found in Jordan (29), Morocco (20), Pakistan (12), India (5), or Bangladesh (3)12; cases comparable to Mexico’s per-capita meat-consumption would be that of China (52) and Russia (51).13 As is well-known, the rearing of non-human animals for slaughter and consumption is a highly inefficient process; it is estimated that about 15 kilograms of grain are needed to produce 1 kilogram of meat. In fact, over half of the world’s grain is presently fed to livestock in preparation for their slaughter,14 while some 30% of the world’s arable land is dedicated to the raising of such animals.15 If the rights-claims of the nearly 50 million hungry in Mexico or the more than billion global hungry matter, it would seem that the resources currently dedicated to the raising of animals for slaughter could be more humanely re-directed for the growing of food for human consumption, both in Mexico and elsewhere.

Prospects for the Future

As the German social critic Theodor W. Adorno writes, “[n]o other hope is left to the past than that […] it shall emerge from it as something different.”16 Is it nonetheless likely or even possible for there to emerge in the future something “different” than the hunger suffered in Mexico at present? Under most scenarios that will likely come to pass, it unfortunately seems to be the case that the millions of Mexicans who presently suffer from food insecurity will in the future continue to do so, that many more Mexicans will come to be subjected to hunger, and that hunger will deepen.

Recent estimates by the World Bank indicate that the global economic crisis will continue unabated in the coming years,17, greatly increasing the number subject to extreme poverty and hunger across the globe. A worrying possible eventuality is that Mexico will come to experience the neo-colonial land grabs that speculators from Western, Arab, and Asian countries have been visiting upon Latin American and African societies in recent years: that is, their buying-out of much of the arable lands found in such countries so as to produce food for export to their home countries.18 Present global economic inequalities, combined with the extant market system, entirely allow for this to occur in the Mexican context. The alarming and to-date largely inexplicable recent disappearance of honeybee populations across the globe19 also has disturbing implications for food production in Mexico, as elsewhere, given that honeybees’ contributions to the pollination of the Earth’s plants is clearly central to the continuation of world agricultural production. Furthermore, the possibility that world oil supplies are expected to decline in the coming decades—that humanity has in fact passed ‘peak oil’—also bodes badly for future food supplies, given that many of the fertilizers that underpin the present agricultural-production system are themselves products of hydrocarbons. Were oil supplies to so diminish in the near future, though, it is possible that the specter of climate catastrophe could be averted, seeing as how the consumption of petroleum is the primary contributing factor to such, though the prospect of such a fortuitous outcome in this sense could be negated if the role presently played by petroleum were to be filled by coal and other highly-destructive fuels, such as oil shale and tar sands. It is in any case clear that likely future scenarios of climate change, if not somehow prevented in the here and now, will without question disrupt agricultural production processes across much of the globe and hence bring about hunger and starvation of monumental proportions. Recent proposals to codify the right to food within the Mexican constitution, then, are for all their progressiveness largely impotent, if they leave the power relations and prevailing socio-economic structures of existing society intact.

These grave considerations notwithstanding, it is still not impossible that this myriad of life-negating realities be overturned—that a world, in Adorno’s words, in which “no one shall go hungry”20 be born from the present. The prospect held out by the Global Scenario Group of what it terms a “great transition” toward a world characterized by liberty, equality, and harmony with nature is theoretically still possible. Let us hope it can come to be realized.

1 Design for Utopia: Selected Works of Charles Fourier (New York: Schocken Books, 1971)

4 Medición Multidimensional de la Pobreza 2008

7 Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008)

8 Steve O’Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6° C rise, reveal scientists,”The Observer, 18 November 2009

9 “Feeding cars, not people,” The Guardian, 23 November 2004

12 EarthTrends, the World Resources Institute

13 Ibid

14 George Monbiot, “Why vegans were right all along,” The Guardian, 24 December 2002

15 Poorva Joshipura, “This Earth Day, go vegan,” The Guardian, 22 April 2010

16 Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), p. 167

18 John Vidal, “How food and water are driving a 21st century land grab,” The Guardian, 7 March 2010

20 Op. cit., p. 156

Climate Change and Challenges for Human Progress

May 8, 2010

This talk, entitled “Climate Change and Challenges for Human Progress,” was presented at the forum “Chiapas Amidst the Food and Climate Crises” on April 29 at the Autonomous University of Chiapas in San Cristóbal de las Casas.  It is just over 18 minutes long; it was dedicated to the memory of Jyri Jaakkola.


In Memoriam: Jyri Jaakkola

May 1, 2010

The 33-year old Finn Jyri Jaakkola—climate activist, revolutionary, human—was murdered on 27 April while participating as an international observer in a caravan destined to the community of San Juan Copalá in the state of Oaxaca, México.  He went as an associate of VOCAL (Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Liberty) in a convoy that was intended to deliver much-needed food and other supplies to the autonomous municipality which has for months been cut off by paramilitary organizations.  The caravan was at a certain point ambushed and fired upon; Jyri and Beatriz Alberta Cariño Trujillo were killed.  Those responsible are said to be members of the Union of Social Welfare for the Triqui Region (UBISORT), an organization that has been said to be a paramilitary group tied to México’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—the party of the present governor of the state of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.1

The present author had the pleasure of knowing Jyri but for a few days, this during the Encounter for Autonomous Life that took place in Oaxaca de Juárez in early April.  He was a member of the Finnish grassroots environmental organization Hyökyaalto as well as of Climate Justice Action, and he partook in protests during the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties in Copenhagen last December.  During the Encounter, he presented an account of the Copenhagen meeting and the activities that took place to resist it, showing pictures of sit-ins and manifestations organized by protestors as well as disturbing images of police brutality directed at such.  He closed his plática, or talk, with a list of demands adapted from those advocated by Climate Justice Action:  that fossil fuels be kept in the ground, that local communities obtain control over their resources, that food-production be localized, that Northern over-consumption patterns be massively reduced, that the concept of ecological and climate debt2 be recognized and that reparations be granted to Southern societies, and that the rights of indigenous peoples and forests be respected.

Jyri was in the audience for the talk “Atmospheric Dialectics,” presented during the final day of the Encounter, and it was he who spurred dialogue after the conclusion of this decidedly depressing speech.  His kindness and warmth will not forgotten.

Jyri expressed to the author his desire to participate in actions surrounding the COP-16 meeting that is slated to take place at Cancún in November and December of this year.  Sadly, he will be able to do no such thing now.  It is perhaps to be hoped, though, that that which will occur at Cancún would have pleased Jyri; in this sense, it may be that we can commemorate him thusly in life, against death.

Beside the talk he gave during the “COP, Cochabamba, and local actions: sources in the struggle against global warming” event held on the second evening of the Encounter for Autonomous Life, Jyri was filmed in an interview by J.P. Sipila while at the Encounter.  It is available here; his section begins at 20:28.

Jyri’s passing brings to mind some of Hannah Arendt’s comments in The Human Condition: “Men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.”3 It is time that we began—that we act to realize Arendt’s affirming negation of her mentor and former lover Martin Heidegger here, that we work to realize “a rational establishment of overall society as humankind.”4 It is to be imagined that Jyri, like the rest of the Earth’s multitude that today suffers brutal repression and violence, would wish for such.

1Octavio Vélez Ascencio, “Desaparecidos, varios de los emboscados en Copala,” La Jornada, 29 April 2010.

2Andrew Simms, Ecological Debt: Global Warming & the Wealth of Nations (London: Pluto, 2009).

3 p. 246

4 Theodor W.. Adorno, “Progress,” Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith, trans. Eric Krakauer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989).