March 17, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
March 17, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
March 17, 2012
Setting off in the predawn gloaming of central Alaska, we were the sounds of swishing snow pants, crunching boots and cold puffs of breath. As sunrise gradually lightened the late November sky, we took visible shape: a single-file parade on a narrow white trail traveling west, deeper into Denali National Park and Preserve. It was three degrees and so still that when we pulled up to rest, I heard no wind, no sibilant leaves, just a barely perceptible ringing in my ears. Tundra swans, kestrels and warblers had all flown south. Grizzlies were asleep in their dens. We tramped over frozen streams and paused to discover water still trickling faintly in hollows below. To the north, a morning blast of pink and orange brightened snow-shrouded Mount Healy at the edge of the Alaska Range; to the south — where the sun is always rising or setting during winter at a latitude just three degrees shy of the Arctic Circle — an alpine ridge remained covered in shadow and alder.
We saw a beaver hut on a frozen pond and moose tracks in snow. Ice frosted the nettles of black spruce and the beard of our leader, Davyd Betchkal, the park’s physical-science technician. Betchkal’s beard recalled that of his hero, the naturalist Henry David Thoreau, at the start of the Civil War. Otherwise he was a 25-year-old Wisconsinite wearing a lime green hat knit by his mother. He and I shouldered backpacks each weighted with 30 pounds of recording equipment. Far up ahead, a park ranger on skis towed more gear by sled.
Our destination was a ridge above Hines Creek, where Betchkal planned to assemble a station to collect a month’s worth of continuous acoustic data documenting an intangible, invisible and — increasingly — endangered resource: natural sound. Our mission was not only to trap the ephemeral but also to experience it ourselves, which at the moment was impossible for three reasons: 1) the chafing of our nylon outfits; 2) the chunking of our military-issue Bunny Boots on ice; and 3) planes.
“If you’re on foot and you choose to focus on the natural quality of the landscape, you’re completely immersed in nature; nothing else exists,” Betchkal said to the back of my head, letting me set the pace as we traipsed steadily uphill. “Then a jet will go over, and it kind of breaks that flow of consciousness, that ecstatic moment.” Meditating on our surroundings, I became a little curious how much farther we had to go. “Don’t think about that — that’s my answer,” Betchkal called ahead cheerfully. “Another answer is that I don’t know.”
An undeveloped swath of land nearly the size of Vermont, Denali should be a haven for natural sound. Enormous stretches of wild country abut the park in every direction save east, where Route 3 connects Fairbanks to Anchorage. One dead end and mostly unpaved road penetrates the park itself. Yet since 2006, when scientists at Denali began a decade-long effort to collect a month’s worth of acoustic data from more than 60 sites across the park — including a 14,000-foot-high spot on Mount McKinley — Betchkal and his colleagues have recorded only 36 complete days in which the sounds of an internal combustion engine of some sort were absent. Planes are the most common source. Once, in the course of 24 hours, a single recording station captured the buzzing of 78 low-altitude props — the kind used for sightseeing tours; other areas have logged daily averages as high as one sky- or street-traffic sound every 17 minutes. The loudest stretch of the year is summer, when hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Denali, embarking on helicopter or fixed-wing rides. Snowmobiles are popular with locals, and noise from the highway, the park road and daily passenger trains can travel for miles. That sort of human din, studies are beginning to suggest, is imperiling habitat — in Denali as well as wilderness areas around the world — as surely as a bulldozer or oil spill. But scientists have so little information about what landscapes should sound like without human interference that trying to correct the problem would be like a surgeon’s wielding a scalpel without knowing the parts of the body, let alone his patient’s symptoms. To restore ecosystems to acoustic health, researchers must determine, to the last raindrop, what compositions nature would play without us.
For more than 40 years, scientists have used radio telescopes to probe starry regions trillions of miles away for sounds of alien life. But only in the past five years or so have they been able to reliably record monthslong stretches of audio in the wildernesses of Earth. Last March, a group of ecologists and engineers taking advantage of advances in collecting, storing and analyzing vast quantities of digital data declared a new field of science: soundscape ecology. Other disciplines have long observed how various sounds affect people and individual animal species, but no one, they argued in the journal Bioscience, has yet studied the interconnected sounds of whole ecosystems. Soundscapes — composed of biological utterances like birdcalls, geophysical commotions like wind and running water and anthropogenic noises like motors — are “an acoustic reflection of the patterns and processes of the landscape,” the paper’s lead author, Bryan Pijanowski, an ecologist at Purdue University, told me. “And if we can take sound samples and develop appropriate metrics, we might be able to say, ‘Hey, this is a healthy landscape and this is an unhealthy landscape.’ ”
Indeed, though soundscape ecology has hardly begun, natural soundscapes already face a crisis. Humans have irrevocably altered the acoustics of the entire globe — and our racket continues to spread. Missing or altered voices in a soundscape tend to indicate broader environmental problems. For instance, at least one invasive species, the red-billed leiothrix of East Asia, appears to use its clamorous chatter to drown out the native European blackbird in Northern Italy. Noise can mask mating calls, cause stress and prevent animals from hearing alarms, the stirrings of prey and other useful survival cues. And as climate change prompts a shift in creatures’ migration schedules, circadian rhythms and preferred habitats — reshuffling the where and when of their calls — soundscapes are altered, too. Soundscape ecologists hope they can save some ecosystems, but they also realize they will bear witness to many finales. “There may be some very unique soundscapes around the world that — just through normal human activities — would be lost forever,” Pijanowski says — unless he and colleagues can record them before they disappear. An even more critical task, he thinks, is alerting people to the way “soundscapes provide us with a sense of place” and an emotional bond with the natural world that is unraveling. As children, our grandparents could hope to swim in a lake or lie in a meadow for whole afternoons without hearing a motorboat, car or plane; today the engineless hour is all but extinct, and we’ve grown accustomed to constant, mild auditory intrusions. “Humans are becoming an increasingly more urban species, and so we’re surrounding ourselves with concrete and buildings” and “the low hum of the urban landscape,” Pijanowski says. “We’re kind of severing the acoustic link that humans have with nature.”….
March 17, 2012
The Obama administration’s increasing reliance on drones for targeted killings, especially in countries far removed from active combat (e.g. Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan), has raised legal controversies regarding national sovereignty and the limits on permissible forms of warfare. The policy has produced unintended deaths of civilians who are mistakenly targeted or in the vicinity of the target at the wrong time (“collateral damage”). There are also contested reports of follow-up drone attacks at sites of earlier targeted killing, which seem to be directed at those who mount rescue operations or arrange funerals for prior victims.
Military planners imagine a future with drone swarms, squadrons of drones re-targeting after an attack without needing to return to base, and covert surveillance and attacks using micro-drones. These musings are not science fiction. The technologies are well financed and being developed at a rapid pace. Access to drone technology by other countries as well as private-sector actors is certain to expand. Already some 50 nations reportedly possess drones, mainly adapted to surveillance. With the prospects of a dystopian future dominated by such devices, it is imperative that we create the appropriate legal framework to impose limits, if not prohibitions, on their uses.
As with the Bush torture debate, Washington’s political leadership has turned to government lawyers to justify the use of drones. They have responded by developing legal briefs redolent of the notorious John Yoo “torture memos.” There are, however, significant differences between the two contexts that make torture a poor basis for comparison. First, torture has a long history, and its prohibition is enshrined in the International Torture Convention of 1984. Torture is also enumerated as one of the Crimes Against Humanity in the statute of the International Criminal Court. Drone technology adapted for the battlefield is, by contrast, of extremely recent origin. There is nothing in international law regarding drone attacks that is comparable to the legal repudiation of torture.
Second, although there are serious loopholes involving extraordinary rendition and secret CIA-operated black sites, torture as an acceptable tactic of interrogation has been credibly prohibited by President Obama. Beyond this, there is international consensus on what constitutes torture; we don’t have to rely on the narrow conception insisted upon by Bush-era legalists. By contrast, the U.S. military feels unconstrained in making drones central to its operational planning for future undertakings, with sharply escalating appropriations for more and different varieties of them. Some of this revolutionary development is already evident: military missions free of casualties for one’s own forces; subversion of territorial sovereignty; absence of transparency and accountability; further weakening of political constraints on recourse to war.
There is a more pertinent, yet discouraging, analogy for creating a legal framework for drones: nuclear weapons. As with nuclear weaponry, the United States and other leading political actors are unlikely to agree to comprehensive prohibitions on the use of weaponized drones, since the demonstrated usefulness of the technology is too enticing to resist. At the same time, the likely result of a failure to prohibit will be a nightmare scenario of rampant proliferation that might prompt a one-sided, ineffectual counter-proliferation regime imposed on the world by the small number of elite, drone-armed states.
After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the colossal scale of the devastation disclosed, there was a momentary embrace of sanity by world leaders and cultural commentators. They realized that living with such weaponry promised a precarious future at best, or, more likely, an appointment with unprecedented human catastrophe, if not apocalypse. This dark foreboding did produce some gestures toward nuclear disarmament: the United States proposed getting rid of the weapons for the present, but retaining the materials, the technology, and the experience needed to dominate any nuclear rearmament race. In other words, it offered the world a Faustian bargain that demanded trust in the dominant geopolitical actor on the global stage and depended crucially on Soviet willingness to accept these terms, an option that never seriously tempted the Stalinist regime.
It should not seem surprising, then or now, that that this kind of one-sided deal failed at ridding the world of nuclear weaponry. Even states closely allied with the United States in World War II—the United Kingdom and France—were unwilling to forego the status and security benefits of becoming second-tier nuclear states. And of course, America’s rivals, first, the Soviet Union and later China, didn’t hesitate to develop their own nuclear capability, interpreting security and global stature through the universal geopolitical prism of countervailing hard power—that is, maximal military capability by which to defend and attack. Thus disarmament faded into the obscurity of wishful thinking, and in its place a costly and unstable nuclear arms race ensued, bringing several close calls with nuclear holocaust. That this worst of all nightmares never materialized provides little reassurance about the future, especially if public and elite complacency about the risks persists.
For most of the world the shadow of drone technology threatens a terrifying vulnerability.
What is less appreciated than this failure to eliminate nuclear weapons is the adoption of a plan B. The United States pushed for the negotiations that led to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was successfully marketed to most states in the world. The NPT represented another one-sided bargain in which non-nuclear states agreed to abandon the nuclear option in exchange for two commitments by nuclear states: first, to share fully the non-military benefits of nuclear technology, especially the production of energy that was expected to be clean, cheap, and safe; and second, to undertake good-faith efforts toward nuclear disarmament at the earliest possible time, and even to work toward the negotiation of general and complete disarmament.
This nonproliferation agreement, although considered a success by some in Western governmental circles, has experienced a number of discrediting setbacks over the years. A few countries with nuclear ambitions stayed outside the treaty and managed to acquire nuclear weapons without adverse consequences to themselves (India, Pakistan, Israel), while others (Iraq, Iran) have been attacked or threatened because they were suspected of seeking nuclear weapons. There has been a failure of will to seek nuclear disarmament despite a unanimous International Court of Justice reaffirmation of NPT disarmament obligations in 1996. There has also been a discriminatory pattern in the geopolitical management of the NPT, most notably in ignoring Israel’s nuclear weapons program while treating Iran’s alleged pursuit of the weaponry as possible justification of preventive war.
This nonproliferation approach has been accompanied by three massive forms of deception that continue to mislead public opinion and discourage serious debate about the benefits of nuclear disarmament, even at this late stage. First, there is the fallacy that the states that do not possess nuclear weapons are currently more dangerous for world peace than the states that possess, develop, and deploy them. Second, periodic managerial moves among nuclear-weapons states, in the name of arms control, are portrayed as steps in the direction of nuclear disarmament, but nothing could be further from the truth. Arms control aims to save money and stabilize reliance on nuclear weaponry by way of deterrence and has nothing to do with getting rid of the weaponry. Third, obtaining a world without nuclear weapons is affirmed as an “ultimate” goal but is not considered a political project that can be achieved in real time by a nuclear disarmament treaty. President Obama endorsed this evasion in his 2009 Prague speech. There actually is no genuine obstacle to phasing out these weapons over the course of a decade or so. The only thing that blocks the elimination of nuclear weapons is the refusal of the nine states with nuclear weapons to abandon the weaponry…
March 17, 2012
In recent weeks, the United States has come under increasing pressure from Latin American leaders to rethink its drug control policy—and specifically, to at least start talking about decriminalization. As analysts such as Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance have pointed out this week, this is a big shift: At first it was just academics and activists advocating for legalization; then it was former heads of state. Now, the sitting presidents of countries including Colombia and Guatemala are demanding that Washington change course. Earlier this month when Vice President Joe Biden visited the region, he got an earful from the leaders of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica to that effect.
This debate is long overdue for many practical reasons; every pundit in every relevant country seems to agree that the drug war long ago failed. But there is also a very good ethical reason to start rethinking current US strategy. As the world’s largest consumers of narcotics, the American market has stoked violence, conflict, armed insurgency, corruption, and human rights abuses abroad. It would be akin to if U.S. consumers had bought diamonds from West African warlords in Sierra Leone and Liberia during conflicts there a decade ago. Whether those purchases are legal or not, they’d support groups that take a heavily civilian toll. Today, American money (and guns—another story) are propping up the drug wars faster than any government agencies, U.S. or foreign, can fight back. More than 50,000 have been killed in Mexico since 2006 alone. The president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, expressed the frustration that many in Latin America are experiencing when she told Biden “we demand the United States assume responsibility.”
Of course, one might argue that it’s not up to the United States to help sort out drug war conflicts abroad. And anyway, Washington certainly has contributed money to the cause—more than $6 billion in Colombia and another several billion now in Mexico. Biden promised to ask for more funds to assist countries in Central America during his visit earlier this month.
No amount of aid, however, can de-link the United States from these conflicts—and it’s this piece that has long frustrated many Latin American leaders. The United States isn’t just a foreign country, helping out troubled neighbors. It’s actually the very country whose consumers are keeping the market bouyant. It is part of this equation. So when Mexico goes to war with its cartels, the United States is, essentially, also at war.
In order to extricate itself from this conflict, the United States would have to cease to provide a lucrative market for drugs. And here’s where the argument for decriminalization comes in.
From a practical standpoint, the idea behind decriminalization is twofold. There’s the obvious logic that gets a lot of play: As soon as a substance is legal, the price drops and the profits for those who transport it do too. This is particularly important in the drug market, since the big money is made by the middle men—the very people who live and die on the price in market. The more dangers they face, and the more difficult it is to traffic, the more limited is the supply—and higher the payoff. It’s a high-stakes game, but decriminalizing the contraband would, it’s hoped, crash the market.
The second bit though is, I think, even more important—and often missed when we talk about decriminalization in the American domestic context. Think about the drug trafficking system as an hourglass, with the substance moving from one end to the other. At the source, there are tons of producers of, say, cocaine—the farmers who are growing coca in the Andes region. There’s many of them, so the profits are spread thin; most are barely scraping by. At the other wide end of the hourglass are the dealers in the United States and Europe. There’s also a lot of them; margins are small. But in the middle—the traffickers who monopolize their transport market by annexing territory via violence and intimidation—well, that’s where the money is. That’s also where the violence, corruption, and state—capture takes place in Latin America.
Right now, a lot of resources are devoted to a) stopping production of the raw material (coca or poppy, for example,) and b) arresting and prosecuting the drug dealers. We’re tackling the heaviest and least lucrative ends of the drug trade, and missing out on the middle. What if, instead of putting drug dealers in jail, we used those same resources to help build a better police force in the middle of the trade cycle—say in Honduras and Guatemala—to help prevent the drugs from ever reaching US soil? That’s something decriminalization of posession would allow us to do.
Yes, we’re already training some policemen down south, and helping local governments build “capacity” to fight back. But the efforts are woefully insufficient. Honduras’s internationally-vetted drug control unit is a whopping 42 people. By the way, the newly-released US Drug Control Strategy notes that “79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights departing South America first land in Honduras” on their way to the United States. Good luck guessing who- government or traffickers- has the advantage…