Eaarth—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben—A New World (2)

 This is the second post in a series on the first chapter called A New World of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth.

3. Chain of Causation

The next part of the first chapter called A New World deals with the next link in the chain of causation. If the rising global average temperatures are responsible for the various phenomena that are exhaustively described in the book and summarized in my previous blog post, then what is causing this rise in global average temperatures?

Figure 1. Global climate change “chain of causation”

The above diagram illustrates the next two links in the chain of causation: the increased global average temperatures are being caused by the rising levels of greenhouse gases that are released in the atmosphere, which in turn is being caused by the release of fossil fuels. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, although there are others, which are talked about in the next section of the chapter on feedback loops.

4. Concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

What is the “safe” level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? In pre-Industrial Revolution days, it was 250 parts per million or 225, and it is 390 ppm now. It was in December 2007 that James Hansen, the planet’s leading climatologist, gave a talk at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco where he concluded that the safe number was 350 ppm, much lower than the earlier proposed benchmarks of 450 or 550 ppm.

A level of 550 ppm gets into territory where there may be “feedback loops” that are discussed in the next section of the chapter (and the next post). I remember the cartoon-within-a-cartoon movie called Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, in which the temperature controller on the oven read, “warm … HOT … VOLCANO HEAT!”.  That’s the territory we are getting into after 550 ppm. This is my own shorthand way of understanding the various levels based on what was written in the book.

Figure 2. Concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere (measured in parts per million)

5. Mitigating Risk

One of the ways of mitigating the risk of rising global temperatures caused by the increase of greenhouse gases emissions would be to get the world’s governments to enact measures to reduce them. However, the measures increased so far are not sufficient. After the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen a group from MIT called Climate Interactive calculated two scenarios:

  • If all government pledges AGREED TO at conference were enacted, then the world in 2100 would have more than 725 ppm carbon dioxide.
  • If all government pledges DEBATED BUT NOT AGREED TO at conference were enacted, then the world in 2100 would have 600 ppm carbon dioxide.

So if the response to climate change continues along its present course, therefore, we have two choices: HOT and VOLCANO HEAT.

The real problem about the area above 550 ppm comes from the process of feedback loops where the release of carbon dioxide sets up effects that in turn release OTHER greenhouse gases such as methane and peat which are even more powerful in their effect. That will be the subject of the next part of the chapter and the next post.

Eaarth—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben—A New World (1)

This looks at the first chapter of the book Eaarth called A New World. Here are the concepts covered in the first chapter.

1. Holocene à Anthropocene

The fates lead those who will – those who won’t, they drag.” Nietzsche

The Holocene period is the geological period we were in until recently which covers roughly the last 10,000 years. During the entire time our human civilization grew and flourished, the average global temperature has been between 58 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

The first major point of this chapter is that we are now leaving that “comfort zone. Bill McKibben mentions the Apollo 8 Earthrise photograph, the iconic photograph taken below, which was the midwife to the birth of the ecology movement.

Since that photograph was taken in 1968, the global average temperature has risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. We no longer live on the same planet as we did back then; hence the term “Eaarth” as Bill McKibben thinks of a new name to call our planet in this new geological period (which some term the Anthropocene).

2. Consequences of higher global average temperature

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre”—The Second Coming, W.B. Yeats

Text section of the chapter outlines some of the consequences for the Earth’s air, land, and oceans of the higher global average temperatures that are occurring. The problem from my standpoint was that the various statistics he gave were mind-numbing, and I tried to make sense of them by showing how they were all connected in the following diagram:

The temperature increase affects the temperature of the land, the water (oceans and fresh water), the air, and the ice which covers the land (mountain ranges such as the Himalayas, the land masses of Greenland and the Antarctic) and the water (the Arctic sea).

The temperature increases in these domains are creating the following effects:

Some of these effects are related; for example, higher temperatures means that the earth’s atmosphere can hold more moisture, part of which it takes from the land. This explains why some portions of the land such as Australia have drought, while other portions are experiencing increasing rainfall.

Now that the various global warming effects have been catalogued, Bill McKibben goes to the next level of the question “Why?”, and shows that the temperature increase is linked to the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.   This will be covered in the next post.  


Eaarth—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben (preface)

In this post I consider the preface to his book, and in the following 4 posts, I will discuss each of the 4 chapters of the book in turn. 

Bill McKibben, the nation’s leading environmentalist and founder of the organization 350.org, wrote the book Eaarth to give a message that global warming is no longer a threat but it has rather become our reality.   The purpose for my reading this book is to look into risks involved with rising greenhouse gas emissions.   This happens to be one of the environmental risk factors that are considered to be one of the most likely risks to affect the globe in the next 10 years, according to the Global Risk Report 2012 published by the World Economic Forum.   For details on the methodology of this report, see this earlier blog post:  https://4squareviews.com/2012/05/15/world-economic-forum-wef-global-risk-report-2012-part-2-methodology-2/.

1.  Past is Prologue

In the preface, Bill McKibben states that his first book for a general audience was written in 1989, twenty years before he wrote Eaarth.   Twenty years before that, the novel Stand on Zanzibar by British science fiction author John Brunner won the Hugo award.   The novel had overpopulation as its theme, and as I read it, I hoped that the world in the year 2010 (the year the novel is set in) would not be as much of a dystopia as John Brunner described.

One passage I remember from the book on the subject of overpopulation comes from one of the short chapters interspersed throughout the book called The Hipcrime Vocab, kind of a futuristic version of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary.  It describes overpopulation as “something which everyone talks about as if it will happen in the future, but in reality it happened yesterday when nobody was looking.”

That passage to me explains the premise of Bill McKibben’s book, which is that we need to stop thinking about global warming as a threat that might or might not happen sometime in the future, but rather something which has already started and is part of our reality whether we like or not.   In the field of risk management, risk is technically defined as an event with an uncertain outcome.   Death according to this definition is not a risk because it comes for us all with perfect certainty.    Therefore there is no risk of global warming; there is only the risk we face by not accepting the reality of the situation.

Accepting this reality is admittedly a bit of a shock; it is sometimes mind-numbing that I am living in a world that is fast becoming the kind of environmental dystopia that I was introduced to through science-fiction, whether it be Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner in 1968, the movie Soylent Green in 1973, or the later novels Timescape by Gregory Benford and David Brin’s Earth in 1990.

2.  No succor for the suckers … or for us

In the four chapters of the book, he lays his case for what can be done to mitigate not the risk, but the damage that global warming will do.   There are two types of climate-change deniers, those whom I refer to as the “weak” deniers and those who are the “strong deniers”.   The weak denier is one who admits that global warming, defined technically as the increase in average global temperature, has started to occur, but denies that the cause of the warning is excess carbon dioxide generated by the combustion of fossil fuels.   The strong denier will not even admit that global warming has even occurred, let alone that it is anthropogenic, or man-made, in origin.    The various useful idiots who prattle on about the ridiculousness of the idea of global warming after each major snowstorm in winter are strangely silent after each summer’s heatwave that kills an increasingly large number of people.

Bill McKibben has no comforting words to give succor to the open-minded public, let alone the suckers who fall for misinformation campaigns.   He offers “a valuable slice of acid-tongued reality”, in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle.   Companies that have a stake in the extractive industries that produce fossil fuels may fuel the arguments against global warming, but I assure you that the various experts that contributed to the Global Risk Report 2012 mentioned above take these matters very seriously, as do I.

Let’s listen to what he has to say…

Foreign Service Institute (#FSI) Language Courses–great free resource!

When I am networking, one of the typical “getting to know you questions” that facilitators like to spring on the unwary is “name one memorable fact about yourself.”

Although I was reluctant to do so at first, due to my inbred Midwestern modesty, I now say “I know half-a-dozen foreign languages.”   This is because no matter what else I would say to a person in getting to know them, they would invariably pick up on this one fact that I am multilingual and remember that, and sometimes only that.   “Oh yeah, I remember you, you’re the, um, language guy, right?”    I decided not to resist what works, and so I now use the label of “multilingual” as part of my “branding” while networking.

Okay, so I end up telling people I’m the language guy so they’ll remember me.   But I don’t like to boast, because my skills pale in comparison to one of my personal language-learning heroes, Benny the Irish Polyglot who runs the website http://www.fluentin3months.com/.    I personally prefer the term “multilingual” to “polyglot” because the latter conjures up the picture in my mind of a “thick-tongued parrot”.    In any case, I am fascinated with Benny’s methods and his people-centered approach.

But when people ask me, what do you recommend to study a language, what do I tell them?

One of the things I tell people who want to study Chinese is to go to the Foreign Service Institute’s Language Courses website, http://fsi-language-courses.org/Content.php, because the foreign language courses which have texts and audio to download are well-developed courses and, most important of all for frugal foreign-language fans, free!

I used the Standard Chinese:  A Modular Approach back in college at the University of Illinois.   Its modular approach was geared towards practical language skills, as can be seen by the titles of the modules Orientation, Biographic Information, Money, Directions, Transportation, etc.    The explanations of grammar are very clear in the Comprehension and Production (listening and speaking) tapes, and they are practiced in the Drill tapes and then put to the test in the exercises that accompany each unit.

The ONLY caveat I have about the FSI Foreign Language Courses is that they are old-fashioned in terms of vocabulary.   You are not going to find “software” or “cell phone” in the vocabulary lists, since these courses were developed almost 50 years ago.   Also, the lack of political correctness may be a bit of a cultural shock for some.   In the Spanish course, there is a phrase “la gente aqui es muy sucia” or “the people here are very dirty” which made me laugh out loud, along with “no quiero bailar con la gordita”, or “I don’t want to dance with the little fat girl”.    Nevertheless, if you want to really PRACTICE listening and speaking a foreign language, these courses are very helpful.    I would have them be a supplement rather than a main course for those studying a particular language.   I have used not only the French, German, and Spanish courses and found them helpful in practicing grammar.

But particularly for those wanting to learn both Chinese grammar and vocabulary on a limited budget, I would definitely recommend the Chinese course.

World Economic Forum (#WEF) Global Risk Report 2012 (part 3—X Factors)

The last posts have dealt with the methodology World Economic Forum used to come up with the 50 risk factors and to show how they are interrelated. The purpose of this post is to discuss risk factors that were NOT included in the list of 50, which the WEF refers to as “X factors”. I want to illustrate these X factors with a science fiction series that has been written by John Barnes with the concept of “Daybreak”.

1. Methodology for coming up with X Factors

When the WEF did its survey to ask participants about their estimates regarding the 50 risk factors, they included a blank field for the participants to identify any risk factors which were not included in the original survey. These were factors that represent risks to be watched over in the future. The risk survey has a time horizon of 10 years, but with the rapid growth of technology, it is very possible that certain risks may rise in prominence that most people may not even be aware of today.

2. Examples of X Factors

Here’s a few examples:

 Mega-accidents—rather than industrial accidents having to do with oil or chemicals, accidents of the future may come from genetically modified micro-organisms or nano-scale materials.

 Mis-information—traditional broadcast media collapse, and mass reporting online takes its place

 Neotribalism—Polarized subcultures in the physical world create borderless communities that can affect political regimes in the real world

 Volcanic winter—A major volcanic eruption could alter the Earth’s atmosphere and cool the planet, temporarily but severely disrupting food supply

3. X factors in science fiction—John Barnes’ Daybreak series

There are others that are listed on page 46 of the Global Risk 2012 report, which can be accessed here: http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2012/. However, I chose the above 4 risk factors because they are an integral part of the science fiction series called Daybreak by John Barnes, consisting of the novels Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero. 10 years in the future, there is a growing subculture of resistance against the Big System. This repository of resentment of those who oppose the technological, political, and economic elites grows through the Internet and social media until it reaches critical mass.

On October 28th, 2022, a coordinated release of genetically modified micro-organisms and nano-scale materials (called “biotes” and “nanoswarm” in the novels) is coincided with the kidnapping of the Vice President of the United States and an attempted “911” style mass terrorist attack. The Office of Future Threat Assessment has been studying Daybreak, but their expertise is now critical to the Federal government’s attempted response to that threat. This initial attack is part of a series of attacks that attempt to eliminate the Federal government and the bases of modern civilization itself.

To counteract this threat, it is important to figure out what Daybreak is. One group in the government treats it as if is a terrorist group with a discrete set of leaders. However, some argue that it may be a “system artifact”, an emergent property of the Internet that has somehow become self-aware and is the force manipulating the attacks.

What is left of the government tries to organize the pockets of small-town America that have banded together to protect the remaining resources and one another against the tribes that are growing in the periphery in the absence of any authority.

4. Lessons learned

I didn’t want to add any more descriptions of the plot for those who intend to read the novels. If you are a science-fiction fan I would definitely recommend the novels because they are very good indeed. The multiple characters are well-drawn, and the plot is fast-moving and detailed enough to be quite believable.

The interesting lessons for me having read the novels after reading the Global Risk 2012 report are as follows:

a. The novel shows how risks in one category affect the others. The initial attack is of a technological variety, but the nature of this combination biological/nano-technological attack is that it destroys the infrastructure of society, creating a societal risk. The kidnapping of the Vice President of the United States and the subsequent attacks on the Federal government represent the geopolitical risk of the collapse of global governance.

b. The novel shows that there is a need for imagination when it comes to risk analysis, because there are always going to be X factors which may be negligible now, but which may come to the forefront in the future.

Even in the current time frame, there may be factors which one may not have thought of which could affect one’s project and even become mission critical.    One of the reasons why I like reading science fiction is because it stimulates my imagination.

I was reminded of Apollo 1 fire, which occurred during a launch simulation test of the Apollo Command Module and killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Frank Borman was one of the Apollo astronauts on the panel investigating the causes of the fire. The fire was technically caused by a spark from a wire which had lost its Teflon coating. The spark ignited highly-pressurized oxygen atmosphere in the Apollo Command Module, and caused the runaway fire. However, when a Congressional inquiry was made and Frank Borman was asked about the causes of the fire, he said it was a “failure of the imagination”. NASA had been considering the risks involved with travel out in space, but had not analyzed carefully enough the risks involved with testing here on the ground.

 The design flaws that caused the fire were uncovered and led to an improved design which would carry the later Apollo astronauts all the way to the moon.   Therefore, it is important to “look forward” and “look backward” when dealing with risks, to be aware of the possibility of unaccounted-for risks, and to make sure the risks that are uncovered are accounted for and mitigated against in future projects.

New Light in #Myanmar—White Elephant or New Tiger? EIU Webinar

These are my notes from an Economist Intelligence Unit webinar that was given this morning by Sumana Rajarethnam, Senior Analyst from Singapore.  The Economist Intelligence Unit gives regular webinars on various key areas that represent a combination of global risk and opportunity.

Move towards political reforms in Myanmar have led to a call for the removal of international sanctions. The removal of these sanctions in turn could lead to greater foreign direct investment (FDI), higher economic growth, and a greater integration of Myanmar in the economy of Southeast Asia. The purpose of the webinar was to talk about the impact and the likelihood of this optimistic scenario.


Before talking about the likelihood of the scenario, what is the impact of this scenario if it takes place? Myanmar has the potential to become the following:

1) A new energy and food source for Asia

Myanmar could become a source of food for Asia because it has twice the amount of arable land as Vietnam (11M hectares). However, the agricultural sector is very poorly capitalized, with little equipment such as tractors, and low fertilizer consumption. Therefore the potential for capital efficiency gains are huge. It is most likely that the agricultural sector will be developed first, to be followed by the development of manufacturing and mining.

The energy sector is also very promising—the natural gas resources are 22 Tcf (Trillion cubic feet) and there are still surveys of additional coastline and offshore sources being conducted.

2) A new consumer market

There are 60 million people in Myanmar, and it has the third largest population in Southeast Asia after Indonesia and Vietnam. The data on current income levels does not give you a good picture of the purchasing power of consumers in Myanmar because there is a large informal economy. If transportation infrastructure could be developed and supply chains established, markets will grow rapidly.

3) A regional transport hub

There is an ambitious $50B project to create transport linkages that is being spearheaded by China. This could bypass the current shipping bottleneck of the Straits of Malacca (between Singapore and Indonesia).

4) A low-cost manufacturing and export base

The labor market has a lot of potential for growth. 65% of the population is under 35 years old. In 1990, Myanmar had hundreds of companies in the state sector which were mostly in the garment industry. Growth here was curtailed by the ban of imports from Myanmar by the US in 2003.

The largest opportunities for investment are in the telecommunication, agri-business, and tourism sectors. It will take more investment on a longer-term scale to take on the construction sector; but this investment in infrastructure is essential for a take-off in the manufacturing sectors. However, if manufacturing sectors, this would lead to the next wave of investment opportunities, which is health care, retail sales for the domestic market, and the banking sector. This is the longest-term investment opportunity, but one with the largest potential return if reforms to take hold and the economic growth creates a burgeoning middle class.

5) Good news for the world

An emerging economy and potentially emerging democratic movement in Myanmar would be a welcome relief to the world which is hungry for good news after the current slate of problems, particularly those in the Eurozone.


Of course, this economic impact can only occur if the political reforms are successful. These reforms hinge on the following factors:

1) Is there real hope for change in the political order?
The President Thein Sein is moving for reform, but the success of this movement depends on the military. At the present, it holds veto power over any changes to the constitution. It is entirely possible that the current reforms are being orchestrated by the military as a form of window dressing in order to lure foreign investment. However, the people in Myanmar would not be fooled by this and opposition to the current form of military rule would continue.

2) Will structural reforms be introduced?

This would happen only if the military agreed to these changes. If the government came under civilian control, the military could be tried for past atrocities. If there were a reconciliation and amnesty movement similar to that which occurred in South Africa, this might give the military the incentive to relinquish control.

3) How will the West respond to changes on the ground?

The lifting of sanctions by the European Union is one thing, but the REAL “green light” for foreign investors will be the lifting of sanctions by the US. These sanctions can be done through the executive branch and do not require congressional approval, which is fortunate because that branch of the government is paralyzed by the fact that this is an election year. The fact that Myanmar is promising to stop buying weapons from North Korea will be helpful in convincing the US that it is serious about ending its international isolation.

4) Can the military resolve long-standing ethnic conflicts?

Although these ethnic conflicts are in outlying areas of Myanmar, they effect the entire country because the military has in the past used the suppression of these conflicts as an excuse for why it needs an iron fist and why democratic reforms needed to be postponed. If these conflicts, especially those in the Kachin state, can be resolved, then the military would have no excuse and pressure for democratic reforms in the rest of the country would increase.

The analogy here is with India: India has several local insurgency movements. Those regions with these movements are also those with the least developed economies, which tends to give impetus to the insurgency movements. Myanmar has a chance to break that vicious cycle.


Now that Sumana Rajarethnam has had a chance to discuss the impact of economic reforms, and what political roadblocks need to be removed to empower these economic reforms, what is the likelihood of these actually taking place? He envisions three scenarios, the most likely scenario, the optimistic scenario, and the pessimistic scenario, which are summarized in this chart below.

Scenario Economic Political GDP Growth Likelihood
1) Most likely Investment occurs, but reform lagging
Military in control, democracy does not take firm root, NDL reform party still marginal 7% 60%
2) Optimistic Breakup of state monopolies, reforms implemented Multi-party democracy, NDL not majority but very influential 8.5% 25%
3) Pessimistic Only growth in extractive industries Military cracks down on reforms, sanctions reinstated 5% (current baseline) 15%

The reason why there is hope for Myanmar is that sum of  the moderate and rapid growth scenarios above (the most likely and the optimistic) together represent an 85% probability. The reason why there is hype in the press at the moment is because the optimistic scenario which would lead to the positive outcomes mentioned in part A above has only a 25% probability of occurring.  There needs to be continue international pressure and monitoring of the situation so that the military has an incentive to help make that scenario happen, and to avoid the pessimistic scenario, which would be a backslide to where the country was before this reform movement started.


The key events to watch for in the coming months are:

  1. Aung San Suu Kyi’s upcoming visit to Britain in Norway in June
  2. US’s re-engagement with Myanmar which is being directed by State Department
  3. Myanmar’s progress in reaching reconciliation with Kachin, Karen, Rohinga and other ethnic minorities

I thought this seminar was an excellent presentation on the risks involved in that it laid out the potential that a positive economic scenario would have, it linked that scenario to other risks such as those in the political and societal (infrastructure) arena, and it then laid out the likelihood of three different scenarios.   I appreciated the in-depth analysis provided by the Economist Intelligence Unit, particularly in comparison to the mainstream press which has concentrated on the hype (sole mention of the optimistic scenario without any analysis of its likelihood or the roadblocks to its implementation).

World Economic Forum (#WEF) Global Risk Report 2012 (part 2—Methodology) (2)

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2012 was described in the overview has having the following methodology.

a)  Identify global risks, which are risks that are global in geographic scope, cross-industry relevance, uncertainty as to how and when they will occur, and high levels of economic and/or social impact.

b)  Categorize the global risks into five Risk Categories: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological.

c)  For each Risk Category, rank each risk according to likelihood and severity.

d)  Using the ranking, identify the risks of greatest systemic importance as the Centers of Gravity for each of each Risk Category.

e)  Identify Critical Connectors which are risks that are connected to the multiple Centers of Gravity, and thus link all global risks into one coherent system.

In the last post, I discussed steps a) through c). Now comes the fun part, where the experts take the 50 separate risks and figure out how they are all connected, covering steps d) and e).  The five categories of risk are:

 Figure 1. Global Risk Categories


 Out of the 50 risk factors, the five MOST LIKELY are:

Figure 2. Most Likely Global Risk Factors

Out of the 50 risk factors, the five MOST SEVERE are:

Figure 3. Most Severe Risk Factors

However, these risks have a tendency to affect one another. Within each category, you can see how that would be true for factors of the same type, so one could see that the economic risk factor of failure of financial institutions would affect energy and agriculture price volatility. However, factors of different types can interact with each other, so that, the economic risk factor of energy and agriculture price volatility would tend to create food shortages, which is a societal factor.

The World Economic Forum sees the factors as interrelated in the following way:

Figure 4. Risk Factor Interrelationships

The above is just a schematic diagram, but there can be links between all circles. Those factors that have the most connections WITHIN each risk category are called Centers of Gravity; the Centers of Gravity for the five risk categories are:

Figure 5. Risk Category Centers of Gravity

Finally, those factors that have the most connections BETWEEN the risk categories are called Critical Connectors which link all global risks into one coherent system. For a picture of this, which outstrips my ability to draw within the confines of Microsoft Word, I suggest you go to Figure 3: Global Risks Map 2012, which is page 6 of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2012.

Here’s the link to the report:


In that global risks map, you can get a visual picture of the ecology of the risks that the globe faces. This is one reason why I think the Integral approach is important, because you need to understand the various factors that influence a given problem in order to solve it.

World Economic Forum (#WEF) Global Risk Report 2012 (part 2—Methodology) (1)

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2012 was described in the overview has having the following methodology.

a)  Identify global risks, which are risks that are global in geographic scope, cross-industry relevance, uncertainty as to how and when they will occur, and high levels of economic and/or social impact.

b)  Categorize the global risks into five Risk Categories: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological.

c)  For each Risk Category, rank each risk according to likelihood and severity.

d)  Using the ranking, identify the risks of greatest systemic importance as the Centers of Gravity for each of each Risk Category.

e)  Identify Critical Connectors which are risks that are connected to the multiple Centers of Gravity, and thus link all global risks into one coherent system.

The purpose of this post is to go into detail about steps a) through c) were achieved.

Steps  A, B.  Identify Global Risks and Categorize Them

A survey was done of 50 global risks with 469 world-wide expert and industry leaders, with the question being asked about what the a) perceived impact and b) likelihood for each risk would be over a 10-year time horizon.   The experts were asked answer on a scale from 1 points to 5, with 1 being the lowest impact or likelihood, and 5 being the highest impact of likelihood.   (The survey for the 2012 Global Risk Report has been refined from previous editions where only 37 global risk factors were considered.)

These 50 global risks were put into the following five categories

1.  Economic

2.  Environmental

3.  Geopolitical

4.  Societal

5.  Technological

Step C.  Most Likely and Most Severe Risks for 2012

Based on the responses from the experts, the top five MOST LIKELY global risks for 2012 were the following:

1.  Severe Income Disparity (4.03)—Economic

2.  Chronic Fiscal Imbalances (4.03)—Economic

3.  Rising Greenhouse Gas Emissions (3.88)—Environmental

4.  Cyberattacks (3.80)—Technological

5.  Water Supply Crisis (3.79)–Societal

The higher the number, the greater the likelihood, with the remaining 45 global risks being less than the five listed above.   The top factors seem to be risks relating to the global economy, followed by an environmental risk (greenhouse gases), a technological risk (cyberattacks), and a societal or infrastructure risk (water supply).    The current list of most likely risks for 2012 differs from the list for 2011, which included 4 environmental factors and one geopolitical factor.   This shows that while the environment still remains at the top of the list, those relating to the global economy have risen in prominence this year.  A surprising entry in the list of most likely risks is that of cyberattacks; technological risks have not been among the list of most likely global risks since 2007.

Based on the responses from the experts, the top five MOST SEVERE global risks for 2012 were the following:

1.  Major Systemic Financial Failure (4.08)—Economic

2.  Water Supply Crisis (3.99)—Societal

3.  Food Shortages Crises (3.93)—Societal

4.  Chronic Fiscal Imbalances (3.87)—Economic

5.  Extreme Volatility in Energy and Agriculture Prices (3.81)–Economic

The higher the number, the greater the severity, with the remaining 45 global risks being less than the five listed above.   The top risk relates to the global economy, followed by two societal or infrastructure risks, and then two additional risks related to the global economy.   The current list of most severe risks for 2012 differs from the list for 2011, which three economic risks, 1 environmental risk and one geopolitical risk.   This shows that while the economy still remains at the top of the list, those relating to infrastructure have risen in prominence this year in terms of perceived severity.   The top five risks in terms of severity were listed as being a combination of economic and societal risks for every year since 2007 except for last year, so these have regained attention in the minds of decision makers.

Just from going through the first three steps of the methodology, one can gain an understanding of  the different types of risks that are being considered, the ones that are considered the most critical, and how this perception of risk has changed in the recent past.

 In the next post, I will describe the methodology the report uses to show how these factors are linked, which is part of the process of understanding the economy of global risk. 




My Mother’s Sense of Humor

My own mother passed away a decade ago, but my memories of her are still strong, and I used some of these memories for the Humorous Speech Contest which I entered last Fall.   This entry won the second-place in the area-level competition, and was my first experience at entering a speech contest.    The theme was how my mother and father came from different cultural backgrounds, and how this was reflected in their quite different senses of humor.  

The Germans and the Irish

What do you get what when you cross a German with an Irishman?   You get someone who goes to the tavern ON TIME. You know another thing you get when you cross a German with an Irishman?  You get me, and my brothers and sister, because my mother is German and my Dad is Irish.

The Lucy Show on television drew a lot of its humor from the different cultures and temperaments between Lucy and Ricky.  In our family, it was the difference between my father and my mother which provided the comedy in our household.

The key elements in my father’s sense of humor were a sense of imagination and the use of satire.  As an example of his imagination, when we were kids, he told us a whole series of stories about his childhood friend Sam Rainwater, who was a Native American.  He described the adventures of many of his ancestors.  We were enthralled by the stories, which my dad would tell us after having a wee bit of firewater, because he would put us in them and give us fake names like “Chief Long Face” for my serious older brother or “Running Mouth for me—for reasons which I probably don’t need to explain.

Imagine my excitement when I finally got to meet the real Sam Rainwater when we went down to Arkansas for my Dad’s high-school reunion.  I asked him about Native American heritage.  He sounded confused:  “We’re not Native American, we’re German.”   You see the Regenwasser family changed their name to Rainwater during World War I when we were at war with Germany.  All my mother could do was look upwards and say, “Ach, du lieber!”

As an example of his sense of satire, later on when I was in college, I came back to my parents’ house in August after summer session was out, and my brother had just left the Navy and was living with them until he could find an apartment in the city of Chicago.

As he was going upstairs after dinner, my Mother leaned over and said, “your brother will be leaving us in September,” with a triumphant smile.  My Dad leaned over and said in imitation of her , “he doesn’t know yet, but…”  We all laughed at this, but then my Mother said in all seriousness “John, I would never kick out any of our children.”  I had to turn to her and say,“Mom, how could you be married to him for so long and STILL TAKE HIM SO SERIOUSLY.”

Now don’t get me wrong, my Mother did have a sense of humor, but she made fun or herself more than others, and it was in general more gentle and childlike.  For example, on our way back from Arkansas on the trip I just mentioned, we passed through Missouri to see our cousins on my Dad’s side who lived in St. Louis.  My Dad’s brother was an actor on a showboat called the Goldenrod, and as we were approaching the Mississippi, my mother said “oh, look, it’s the Goldenrod!”  We all were looking for it but couldn’t find it.  She turned around and said, “MADE YOU LOOK!” and then laughed as she saw our looks of astonishment.

Which side of the family do my brothers and sister take after?   My older brother John is probably the most serious of us all, very much like my mother, and my sister and I are probably somewhere in between.   We appreciate my Dad’s sense of humor but we’re more like our mother in that we make more fun ourselves than others.  In other words, in comedy, humility is often more powerful than humiliation.

But the one who REALLY takes the most after my Dad is my younger brother Ralph.  When my mother was in the hospital with a stroke, he was with her when she passed away.  He called my Dad and the rest of us to come to the hospital.  When my Dad saw her lying there, my Dad sighed, squeeze her hand, and then said, “well, I guess I had better call the funeral home.”  I could see he was having a hard time, because is mind was trying to focus on the conversation, but the rest of him was still processing what had just happened.  The funeral director must have asked what she died from, because he said, “oh, it was … I can’t think straight.  Ralph, what was her medical problem again?”  “What’s her medical problem?  Dad, she’s dead!”   My Dad looked at him and said, “you know what I meant, you smart aleck–oh, I’m sorry I didn’t mean you, I was talking to my son.”  All I could do was look upward and say “ach, du lieber.”

At the funeral, I that I could tell the story I just told you to my Irish relatives, but I dared not let the German relatives overhear it.  When my Dad invited his side of the family to an Irish pub after the funeral dinner, I was happy they honored him by coming to the tavern, because I was able to tell them the story.  But what I really touched by the fact that they honored the spirit of my mother as well, because they all arrived at the tavern ON TIME.

History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 2 (History of Islam) (6)

The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009.  

This final portion of the lecture covers the final wave of expansion of Islam, one that is going on today, that comes through the propagation of the faith through mass media at the end of the 19th century, through electronic media in the 20th century, and the Internet during the 21st.   Prof. Bulliet gives his predictions about the future of Islam, and concludes with his metahistorical musings comparing the unfolding of Christianity to that of Islam. 

12.  The Fourth Big Bang—Mass media and social media

Prof. Bulliet suggests that the fourth inflation begins in the last third of the 19th century, and is continuing on today.   It has to do with the change in the media by which Muslims become acculturated.    If you were a reasonably well-to-do person you might earlier have studied Islam formally in classes on hadith or classes on jurisprudence in formal schools and madrassas ?.  If you were of a different disposition or different social level, your acculturation might largely have been through the Sufi order, where you have a sheikh whom you follow.   But whichever of those forms it took or the other alternatives that were available, they were all predicated upon the idea of face time with the person you were learning from, like the Sufi leader you emulated as a murid, or the sheihk whom you emulated because he was the professor in your classroom.   Because we all know that properly you worship the professor (laughter), and when you see him, you follow him on the campus—ah, the good old days (laughter).   But what happens is that the revolution that had overtaken Christian Europe in the 16th century, that is to say, the print revolution, intrudes into the Muslim world in the late 19th century.   There were earlier newspapers and printing to some extent but they did not extend into the religious sphere.  The religious books really come to be printed in the last third of the 19th century, and then the print revolution has layered upon it the electronic revolution and then the internet revolution of today.  What this means is that, outside of the family circle, fewer and fewer people become acculturated into Islam through face time with a mentor, and more and more through what they read, what they hear on audio tapes, what they see on video tapes, or what they encounter on the World Wide Web.

If you go back to the pre-1860 notion of face time with a mentor, mentors were in a sense gatekeepers of Islam.   They were people who would tell you what Islam was and you trusted them because you knew who they were, who they came from, what their backgrounds were, and who their families were—this was someone whom you could respect.  When you read a book, you don’t know anything about the author.  And when you go to a website which says, “as a Muslim you should do this,” you don’t know who posted that.   The fact is that the most important things that we learn nowadays through print and other media are being mediated to us by people whom we don’t know anything about, and if we knew something about them we would not necessarily be pleased.

This was a great change in Islam; it meant that people who had negligible qualifications to be spiritual mentors could become spiritual mentors, so that the new elite go beyond the old professors and the old Sufi leaders, to include newspaper writers and editors, media personalities, people who write pamphlets and broadsides, and so forth.   You look at these people and you find that a lot of them have credentials for Muslim leadership that would not have been respected back prior to 1860.   The result is that there has been an explosion in the 20th century of ideas of what Islam is.   Islam has become an amazingly diverse religion in the 20th century, and it still becoming more diverse.   A lot of the ideas are ones that Prof. Bulliet personally doesn’t find appealing, but he says that since he is not a Muslim, that is perhaps not relevant.   The other way of saying this is that a lot of these ideas are lacking, and yet there is a marketplace for ideas in which people are drawn to them or repelled by them.  It is very hard to get any sort of geography of how this is happening, although groups are involved rather than simply individual exploration.

13.  The Fourth Big Crunch—The Future of Islam

You have an inflation of the notion of what Islam is that arises from individual communication through the print and electronic media that become available in the 19th century down to the present day.   At the present day, the question is, are we getting to the point where it is going to contract?   This is very interesting, because you are now having within the Muslim world leading figures who are getting very concerned about the broad distribution of new ideas about Islam.   This is something that has been accelerated by the events of 9/11.   Now you are getting groups that say “we really have to put boundaries on this; we have to reassert central control.”   Prof. Bulliet suspects that over time, boundaries are going to be put in place and that this great expansion of Islam will be tamed in some fashion, but that remains to be seen.

14.  Conclusion

Prof. Bulliet wanted to make one final statement on this subject, and that is that all of this description of how Islam has grown and changed over 14 centuries seems to suggest that the world community of Muslims has an innate tendency to pull together.  In other words, you could have another model where you would say, “I think you’re a heretic, you think I’m a heretic; let’s fight for a while and never speak to each other again until eternity.”  That’s the Christian model (laughter), where you are never able to come back together.  “I hate you, and I’ll never talk to you again and let God sort it out;” you have this fissioning model in which religions become more and more diverse.  But with Islam, you have this tendency to come back to something central, and Prof. Bulliet thinks that’s distinctive–that may not be exclusive to Islam, but he thinks it is distinctive.  What he is going to suggest is that because Islam has never had a church, has never had a hierarchy, and has not had a workable political central expression for 1200 years, since 835, it may be that the community of Muslims functions differently in its living of the faith with respect to other Muslims than other religious communities do.

That’s an hypothesis, that there is something special if not unique about the Islamic community over 14 centuries that has caused it to recognize when it is getting overextended and when to pull back.   This is the metahistorical, Big Bang-Big Crunch theory of Islam.