Noam Chomsky’s howl

Recently I discovered that the 89 year old American MIT linguist and leftie Noam Chomsky has been lecturing on the big issues of our time: notably the escalating risks of nuclear confrontation and the disturbing denial culture amongst large segments of the population when the problem of climate change is mentioned. Listening to his analysis it is hard to conceive that our species will avoid annihilation one way or another within a foreseeable future. The Republican Party in the USA is given a central role in Chomsky’s analysis: as the greatest criminal organisation the world has ever known, whose members and leaders are determined to make short term profits while ensuring the ultimate destruction of the planet.

Check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwTQsvhq3ew

and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

 

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An artistic excursion, escaping everyday life

Giving up on several attempts to review my fuzzy memories of May 1968, I turn to my pictures from a recent trip to Jutland. Volumes have been written about the “soixante-huitards” as the French say when referring to my generation, including the causes and consequences of the rebellions in the 1960s in which post-second world war North American and European material wealth contrasted with ferocious de-colonisation struggles in Africa and Asia. I don’t think I have anything significant to add.

Nonetheless, it has been interesting to look at analyses re-visiting the revolution of everyday life, the student demonstrations and the challenges to complacent authorities and repressive norms and values that characterised an era around fifty years ago. In some ways the world was turned upside down. The wide-ranging critiques put forward by a movement of avant-garde artists and social revolutionaries called the “Situationist International” (SI) particularly resonated in my late teenage years in the mid-1970s; when we found out that the personal was political, to coin a phrase…[1]

So it was a surprise to find on the trip to Jutland in April 2018 that Asger Jorn the only Danish member of the SI is honoured at a museum built next to the river in the little town of Silkeborg. After driving through spring forests with beech trees bursting green leaves against a backdrop of rolling hills and beautiful lakes, we spent a couple of hours absorbing the chaotic colours and contortions of Asger Jorn’s ”oeuvre.” Pride of place in the museum is his great howl at the destruction in Stalingrad where Hitler’s and Stalin’s armies slaughtered hundreds of thousands during a winter of combat reducing the city to nothingness: ”no man’s land or the mad laughter of courage.”[2]

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Some Scandinavians like to draw comparisons with Guernica. Asger Jorn (1914-73) was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso and worked briefly with the “brutalist” Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the 1930s. In the museum Jorn there’s a little painting on a ceramic bowl by Picasso, which radiates the master’s charm. It is called: ”hands and fish.”

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From Silkeborg we drove to the North Sea coast in Thy. It is a wild region of sand dunes and windswept beaches. There’s a small-scale fishing trade in the tiny hamlets and I like walking around the boats dragged up on the sand where fishermen sell the catch of the day.

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Returning across Jutland to Aarhus, we spent an enjoyable morning at ARoS the modern art gallery. We started on the top floor, where there’s a spectacular rooftop rainbow designed by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Walking through the multi-coloured structure and gazing across the buildings below in effect turns the whole city into a work of art.

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Descending from the roof we continued wandering through the galleries. Amongst the exhibitions on the lower floors, I particularly appreciated a series of huge pop art paintings by an American called James Rosenqvist, including an enormous image of a meteorite crashing into Monet’s water lilies! That’s what the artist called the painting, believe it or not…

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To follow up we also went to the hothouses in the botanical gardens. Strangely, the lilies in a pond under bright yellow light recalled the pop art exhibition. And the hothouses were drenched by an unusual, almost tropical, spring thunderstorm rumbling across the city for a couple of hours.

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Back at home it was time to contemplate nature’s artworks in our own garden. For a few days at the beginning of May every year pink blossoms are splashed across the canvas of a giant copper beech in the corner by the hedge. It’s a wonderful spectacle…

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Happily there’s plenty to admire from my caravan and through the windows. As the revolutionaries wrote on the walls in Paris in May 68: Nous ne voulons pas d’un monde où la certitude de ne pas mourir de faim s’échange contre le risque de mourir d’ennui…

[1] A key tract by members of SI that provided the arguments underpinning the uprisings and occupations at Nanterre and the Sorbonne in May 1968 was circulated at the University of Strasbourg one and half years earlier. It was called: ”De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et quelques moyens pour y remédier” (Mustapha Khayati, AFGES, 1966). For a comparison between the students’ angry protests and unrest in Paris in May 1968 and the political agenda in Macron’s France in May 2018, see: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/01/paris-student-protesters-raid-1968-uprising-antoine-gerard-guegan

[2] 1968 was also the year of the ”Prague Spring”, when the Czechs and Slovaks tried to develop alternatives to communist party orthodoxy, but were crushed by the Warsaw Pact (Russian) invasion in August. In my old diaries I keep a cartoon from September 1973 showing a wreath sent by Alexander Dubcek to Salvador Allende after Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile…

Collapsing – an April blues

Although it may be a bit exaggerated, I find myself increasingly unable to listen or watch news bulletins, particularly on the mainstream media. The drone of right wing nationalists and the vacuity of centre-right politicians fill me with a mixture of disgust and despair. Many of the views and opinions turn me so far off that I turn off.

But I know that this response gets me nowhere. Knowing your enemy is useful advice. Yet in these murky times it is not easy to figure out what to do with such knowledge. I have minimal power and influence anyway.

As scientists document the decay and destruction of nature, the media focus on absurd cultural phenomena and entertainment – royal families, celebs and such like – wasting our precious time and insulting intelligence. On another level leaders in America and in Britain are floundering around in their nostalgic fantasies of greatness, retreating from international cooperation and re-establishing barriers to trade. In Russia, Turkey and elsewhere strongmen flex their muscles and assassinate or intimidate dissenters. In other parts of the world military budgets are increasing and the space for civil society and human rights organisations is shrinking. I recently attended meetings with Tanzanian researchers who are afraid of investigating potentially sensitive subjects – the factors driving high teenage pregnancy rates for example – as politicians threaten repressive measures against those undermining “traditional values.”[1]

At the heart of the matter are a series of primitive tribal instincts, which seem to be getting out of control in many regions. The Hungarian general election this weekend exemplifies the unfortunate (misguided) direction many European countries are taking. Sadly, according to opinion polls, thousands of people are prepared to vote for an ugly assortment of neo-fascist tough guys who promise to keep all the baddies away and are hell-bent on dismantling the ”liberal and democratic order.” What will replace it? I fear the prophecies of George Orwell, with boots coming down in human faces forever. Meanwhile in the US of A the “administration” is mobilising the national guard to defend the border with Mexico against “caravans” of destitute central Americans…

Although some global institutions seem to be collapsing, from readings of world history it would appear that the ebb and flow of stability and order have been commonplace over the centuries.[2] So I pin my hopes on new progressive movements confronting the old men in power and their barren ideologies. As the #me too movement against sexual harassment has shown recently, even the social media can be harnessed to enlightened causes. Surely, as the rapid spread of distress and stress amongst the web-fixated, twittering, instagram generation flashes warning lights, there are alternative possibilities for making use of these powerful communication tools, ensuring that they contribute to exchange of ideas. It is necessary to counter anti-democratic manipulation and thought control; as illustrated by the disturbing discoveries of Facebook in cahoots with the sinister “Cambridge Analytica.”. Some economic policy reforms for getting to grips with inequalities wouldn’t be a bad idea either!

[1] The Economist laments the latest developments in Tanzania in the 17th March 2018 issue: https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21738919-strong-constitutions-matter-tanzanias-rogue-president

[2] See for example: ”The Silk Roads – a New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury, 2015).

On the shore of Lake Victoria and at the edge of the Indian Ocean (March 2018)

In March I went to the rock city, Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The purpose of the trip was to gain an impression of two research projects: investigating HIV and associated illnesses such as diabetes; and the economics and ecology of fisheries on the lake. I travelled with members of a consultative committee for development research and spent two days engrossed in discussions with two enthusiastic research teams.

En route to the lake we spent a night at a hotel near Kilimanjaro and ate breakfast on a terrace with fantastic views towards the mountain. It is strange to be at the equator and gaze at a snowy scene!

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In Mwanza we visited laboratories and clinics where the team from the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) are working. Around 5-7 per cent of the population are HIV positive and the research project is designed to determine their susceptibility to other diseases, as well as treatment. It was interesting to get some insights into a subject that I know very little about.

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We stayed at a giant monstrosity beach resort hotel, with water lilies and frogs in ponds.

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On the second day in Mwanza we met the fisheries research team, initially at the fish control lab on the outskirts of the city. Samples of fish are inspected and tested in order to ensure that they are free of diseases and that pollution levels are within limits. The lab was funded by the EU as a trade promotion initiative.

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Then we went to a beach landing site where we learnt about the fishing and processing techniques. Drying small sardines on beaches is common, but very primitive. The researchers are helping to introduce more efficient technologies that will increase the value of the catch.

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Our discussions concluded at the fish market in Mwanza where buyers gather from all over the region, coming from as far away as the DRC and South Sudan.

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Early in the morning of the third day we were booked on a flight to Dar es Salaam. But there were some delays caused by a spectacular tropical downpour with impressive thunder and lightning. Later as the “Fastjet” plane descended to land there were fine views of the Indian Ocean and the ”haven of peace.”

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Driving around the city I noticed that Tanzanian artists amuse themselves by painting mobile murals, such as this “photo shop style” image on the back of a bus, depicting Gaddafi and Saddam with a female gun-waving figure in between. The bus was in a traffic jam outside one of the largest shopping malls in Dar.

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It’s not easy to determine what the message is!

Kampala: urban landscape

Since returning from a trip to Kampala I have been struggling to find something profound to say about the growth of African cities. The capital of Uganda has an estimated 2 million inhabitants. I was lucky enough to view the city from the air descending to land at Entebbe airport on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. I also travelled to eastern Uganda on the main road to the Kenyan border passing close to the medium sized town of Jinja, which is famous for a dam and hydro-electric installations on the Nile, where the river flows northwards from Lake Victoria. It is around 80 kilometres from Kampala to Jinja and the road is solid with crawling traffic, mostly oil trucks and container wagons hauling to and from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, as well as four wheel cruisers and sugar cane lorries and all manner of motorbikes.

I thought it might be fun to take some ’photos of the urban sprawl and the dense traffic in and around Kampala, but it wasn’t possible to get a good angle. Anyway, I preferred to get some pictures of vegetation and the hilly landscapes of the east. The urban landscapes are not very attractive. The ugliness of unplanned settlements with open drains, piles of waste, tumbledown houses covered with brightly painted adverts for mobile telephones, tangles of electric cables and dirty kids playing by the roadside astounds me. I stared from the window of our car at the scenes of urbanization gotten out of control, wondering how a traffic planner would go about sorting out the mess of congestion and chaos. I marvelled at the patience and tolerance of the workers packed into thousands of miserable mini-vans on their daily commutes.

The world’s cities are growing fast, more and more people are abandoning their rural lifestyles in search of urban delights. There are jobs in the towns and cities, plus bright lights, entertainment, the prospect of opportunities and partners far from the big skies above the fields and huts in remote villages. As migration analysts would say, there are push and pull factors. So Kampala is like a giant magnet pulling people from the surrounding countryside. And I guess once you’re sucked in to playing urban survival games, there’s no turning back!

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Even in Kampala there are green spaces, such as around the restaurant at the Villa Kololo where I stayed for four nights.

Reasons to be cheerful: smiles in Cambridge and Copenhagen

Many of the stories told as my caravan treks around the world have an undercurrent of doom and gloom, especially when I try to make some sense of the increasingly insane inhabitants of our globe. I’m in need of some antidotes…

When my son went to hear David Byrne speaking in Copenhagen recently, I was amused to find out that the ex-lead singer-songwriter in the 1970-80s band Talking Heads has launched a project called ”reasons to be cheerful.”[1] Martin attended the session in January 2018, just after a trip to Cambridge where we celebrated my mother’s 90th birthday. I’m not sure that she was in a very celebratory state of mind as she is frail and fading, but there were some smiling moments, notably when I lined her up with my younger sister (aged 58) and her youngest daughter (aged 15).

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I’m quite pleased with this photo, indeed I guess documenting three generations spanning 75 years is a reason to be cheerful! And of course I’m happy (cheerful) as I have a picture of Martin, a friend of his called Mads and Mr. Byrne himself, smiling on a dark street outside the main library in Copenhagen.

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Checking through my notes I have found the following short description of a Talking Heads concert at the Roundhouse in North London in early 1978. It was probably the most exciting concert I ever went to, more or less reflected in the film called “Stop Making Sense” (which records the Heads performing their amazing and sometimes bizarre repertoire on stage in 1984). I don’t remember who I went to the concert with, apart from a strange girl called Cecilia who lived with my older sister in a flat in London in those days. She was a bit crazy. We got a bit drunk and the evening included a long taxi ride home after the concert. The band was electrifying, the crowd went wild and we sat high up above the stage looking down and got blown away. David Byrne was a bit like David Bowie in those days in that he projected an image of other worldliness, slightly alien, slightly out of place. The big suit and running on stage were effective gimmicks, but the key to the whole was the fantastic sound. I haven’t been to many concerts in London, but as I recall that evening was once in a lifetime (sic).

[1] https://www.reasonstobecheerful.world

Twelve notes at Christmas, 2017

To whoever might be out there, these are notes for the twelve days of Christmas, fact-based comments on some events and trends in the old (year), as we get ready to ring in the new (2018). There’s a mixture of the positive and negative, ups and downs. Such is life I guess.

In May 2017 I joined a team in Kathmandu evaluating 25 years of Danish development cooperation with Nepal. The country was in the midst of local government elections, which had been postponed many times since they were last held in 1997. It was exciting to get an impression of the enthusiasm to vote and many people I met were upbeat about the prospects for strengthened democratic decision making. 29 million Nepalese citizens have endured a ten year insurgency with around 18,000 killed, a mad and angry prince gunning down the royal family, a series of unstable governments led by either ultra conservatives or by Maoists, the end of a 240 year old monarchy and a massive earthquake, as well as floods and an economic blockade along the border with India. Maybe I’m naïve, but I would like to believe that the successful organisation of both local elections and parliamentary elections later in the year were big steps forward in terms of human rights and economic development in one of Asia’s poorest countries. However, as the commentators always say: challenges remain!

There are challenges in other regions too. In early December I was somewhat shocked to read about the rapidly increasing suicide rates amongst 15 to 19 year olds in the United States of America. What purports to be the land of hope and manifest destiny has recorded a 31 per cent increase in boy’s suicides between 2007 and 2015, while the rate for girls in the same age cohort has doubled. What is going on? Why so much misery? According to some studies reported in the Economist, adolescents who spent more time on Facebook and Instagram were very likely to agree with remarks such as ”the future often seems hopeless.” Other studies suggest that social media can promote happiness, so there’s not necessarily any causal link between depression and addiction to digital rather than face-to-face communication. Nonetheless, the rates of increase in suicides amongst young Americans are alarming.

The human population of the planet reached a total of 7.6 billion (7,600,000,000) in 2017. Of these 2.7 billion or around one third reside in China and India. In the autumn I read Yuval Noah Harari’s 2014 book on the history of homo sapiens over the last 70,000 years – a present from my daughter and her partner – and wondered where we’re heading. Whatever else happens in the coming years, there is little doubt that the steady increase in the numbers of our species has fundamentally altered the planet’s ecosystems. Is the anthropocene the end?

For many years the risks of ecological collapse have been on my mind and I keep a close eye on updates about the impact of climate change. In July 2017 a chunk of ice twice the size of Luxembourg and weighing a trillion tonnes broke off the Antarctic ice shelf, a process called calving. On the other side of the globe, the extent of the Arctic sea ice is considered to be an important indicator of warming rates. The eighth lowest measurement tracked by NASA satellites since the 1970s was recorded in September 2017: 4.64 million square kilometres.[1]

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are not the only dangerous emissions. The air that most of us breathe is saturated with contaminants. A 2016 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded that over 90 per cent of the planet’s inhabitants live in locations where air quality is unacceptable! Some 3 million deaths a year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution. Indoor air pollution can be just as deadly. In 2012, an estimated 6.5 million deaths (11.6 per cent of all global deaths) were associated with indoor and outdoor air pollution together. Nearly 90 per cent of air-pollution-related deaths occur in low and middle-income countries, with nearly 2 out of 3 occurring in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific regions. 94 per cent are due to cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Major sources of pollution include inefficient modes of transport, household fuel and waste burning, coal-fired power plants, and industrial activities. However, not all air pollution originates from human activity. For example, air quality can also be influenced by dust storms, particularly in regions close to deserts. Gasp!

The WHO also publishes reports on other matters, such as infant and maternal mortality. In Denmark, where our grandson Carl was born in January 2017, the under-five (years old) mortality rate is 3.5 per 1000 live births and there are 6 maternal deaths per 100,000 births. But in Tanzania, where I have been involved in selecting some health research projects over the past 18 months, the under-five mortality rate is 49 per 1000 live births and 398 mothers die per 100,000 births. These are dramatic differences between the two countries and illustrate the long road that has to be travelled in reaching the goal of quality health care for all. Underlining the message: in August I attended an awards ceremony at the Danida Fellowship Centre (DFC) in Copenhagen at which the newly appointed director of the WHO Tedros Ghebreyesus spoke about global health challenges and particularly the inequalities in access to care and treatment of both infectious and non-communicable diseases.[2]

There are gloomy scenarios for development in many African countries, not only as a result of minimal health services, but also due to widespread and often long-running, unresolved conflicts. Danish development assistance has been supporting peace-building and conflict resolution efforts in various ways over the last decade or so. The military dimensions of such operations have expanded considerably across the continent. There are over 85,000 African soldiers serving in United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) forces supposedly keeping or trying to build – the distinction is important – peace in numerous countries, notably Mali and Somalia. There’s even an African training centre for these troops; in Ghana.

Far removed from the frontlines, it is increasingly difficult to listen to the rhetoric of right-wing Danish politicians who have little else to offer the masses but their hatred of foreigners and particularly of refugees from Middle Eastern countries often fleeing wars in which the Danish military have played active roles (e.g. in Iraq, Libya and Syria, etc.). Proposals have been tabled to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (which protects minorities) and from the UN arrangements for sharing refugee burdens between the member states. The High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are over 65 million people on the run, displaced, seeking refuge, persecuted and desperate. Not our problem say the fanatics and anyway most of the refugees and ”irregular migrants” don’t like eating pig meat, so how can they possibly be welcomed and assimilated in the kingdom of the Danes?

Turkey has been in the news a lot in the recent years, both as a result of domestic politics and in terms of international relations. Given the borders with Syria and Iraq as well as the strife associated with the Kurdish cause, it is not surprising that there is so much unrest. But President Erdogan’s clampdown on dissent has been disturbing. Amnesty International estimated that 40,000 people were detained without trial for six months after the attempted coup d’état in July 2016, while 90,000 civil servants were dismissed. The country seems to have become a dangerous place in which to speak your mind and although I have many good memories of exploring Istanbul, I’m in no hurry to visit for the time being…

Meanwhile in the European Union (EU) air travel has become a “common good” (or bad?) and tourism is booming. We flew to Malaga for a week’s holiday, with bus rides to and from Granada where were stayed for four nights. Andalucia has always been a popular destination for northern Europeans seeking sunshine. The Spanish airports authority (AENA) reported an increase in the number of passengers arriving at Malaga airport from 13.5 million in 2006 to close to 17 million in 2016 (an increase of 15 per cent from the year before). We haven’t been there in the summer months, but there were large crowds even in October.

And according to the world forum of elite economists (WEF) Finland has the world’s highest score for ”quality of life”, combining a series of indicators from personal freedom to satisfaction of basic needs. The main drawback is the temperature, which is often very low! Attending a meeting of Nordic evaluators I stayed in Helsinki in November and thoroughly enjoyed an afternoon exploring the city; from the up-market boutiques on ”boulevardi” (a main street) to the semi-underground Rock Church, from the bar on the top floor of the Hotel Torni with fantastic views towards the sea to the chocolates on display at the central Fazer Café. I rounded off my short stay eating pasta with smoked reindeer at Vantaa airport.

“Enfin”, I conclude my stories with Emmanuel Macron – M. le Président de la République – in action in Ouagadougou. At the end of November he travelled to an EU meets AU session in Abidjan with a stopover in the capital of Burkina Faso, where he lectured on current affairs at the university and answered questions from some 1500 students gathered for an unusual opportunity to confront the French leader “face à face.”[3] Thus, while the Americans seem to be encouraging conflict in the world’s hot spots (such as Jerusalem…), while the Germans are staggering towards a post-Angela Merkel era and while the British under a shambolic conservative minority government are wasting time on absurd negotiations to get an exit deal with the EU, the French have adopted a more constructive stance in international relations. In May Macron surprised many by upending the political landscape in France with his movement called “en marche” and winning the elections. Subsequently he seems keen to tackle not only youth unemployment in France but also the spread of terrorist violence in Africa, not to mention global warming. Whether the movement will succeed is an open question, but at least Macron seems to have little time for the narrow nationalist blind alleys down which most politicians seem to be running these days. So I wish him “bon courage!”

By way of conclusion, here’s a view of Helsinki’s fantastic railway station with giants holding lanterns that look like globes in their hands on each side of the main entrance.

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[1] A short video shows what happened to the Arctic ice cover in 2017: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/end-of-summer-arctic-sea-ice-extent-is-eighth-lowest-on-record

[2] http://dfcentre.com/acceptance-speech-by-danida-alumnus-dr-tedros-adhanom-ghebreyesus/

[3] Having spent 2 years as a research coordinator at the Université de Ouagadougou in the mid-1990s, it was fun to watch the speech and the debates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsSIgXofR-E