Friday, 25 February 2011

Peace: what does it mean?

Peace is often talked about glibly so here are some definitions from WordWeb with my comments in italics:

 1.The state prevailing during absence of war
If people indulge in warlike thoughts and speech this is unlikely to be stable.

2.Harmonious relations; freedom from disputes
Speech helps keep relationships harmonious but  true mutual respect, not just tolerance, is needed for this to last.

3.The absence of mental stress or anxiety
It is desirable to have this state of mind even in war but it will not last unless based on reality. (Believers in God perceive reality as something more than that revealed by the senses and scientific instruments.)

4.The general security of public places
We certainly notice when it is absent, as it is in many towns in Libya at this time.

There is one other definition which is spiritual peace, a kind of harmony with the source of being, which does not seem to be defined directly in the dictionaries I have looked at. Whether this can ever be reached by enough people in the world to prevent war is open to question but it's worth trying for. In 2077 AD it has become clear that our very survival depends on it.

Author, 2077 AD

Sunday, 20 February 2011

North Africa & Middle East: What Next?

The Moslem nations forming the edge of North Africa and the Middle East    (Algeria,  Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia: SEE TABLE ) appear to be characterised by :
  • young populations with a majority below the age of 30 (in the Yemen 50% are 17 or younger)
  • fairly low life expectancy (63.4 in the Yemen)
  • fairly low literacy rate (around 50% in Yemen and Morocco)
  • low GDP per capita 
  • economies which have grown appreciably but are now slowing along with the developed world 
These countries also are forcibly ruled by small powerful elites (often Sunni monarchies), reliant on censorship to preserve order and  beset with corruption. As well as religious divisions (e.g. Sunni vs Shia) there are innumerable tribal divisions (e.g. Berbers, Bedouins, Tuareg) and foreign nationals (e.g. Egyptians, Italians).

Living standards have been rising and progress is being made in education, even of women. Concomitantly, there are growing expectations which if thwarted, as has been happening recently because of the developing world's slow down, can quickly lead to  social unrest of the kind we have seen recently in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, the Yemen and Bahrain, and awareness via the social media of how the western world has been growing in prosperity can only add to the clamour for political reform. So far the discontent, although leading to violent clashes between demonstrators and the authorities, has not resulted in sustained armed conflict.

It is not out of the question that these nations could make a transition to relatively stable societies where  economic expansion and investment is possible, even when the oil revenue diminishes as the world  switches to a low carbon economy and gets what fossil fuels it needs from safer regions.

Most of these states were tolerably stable under colonial rule following the collapse of the 700 year old Ottoman Empire around the time of World War I (1914-18). Even Iraq gave its citizens a reasonably secure (by modern Iraqi standards) life under British rule for 38 years  (c.1920 - 1958), before it was declared a republic and was forced into submission by a succession of dictators up to 2003. Iran achieved a minimally democratic and stable society after the Islamic Revolution (which sprung from a secular one in 1978),, although even this now seems to be exhibiting social unrest.

Unfortunately, to help keep the populations happy, the ruling elites have been releasing extremist Jihad (and tribal?)  groups from captivity. These gentlemen are not noted for their moderation or modest ambitions and there is also, in many cases, fierce rivalry between the various  factions. Their internecine conflicts and barbarities seem to take on a momentum of their own both within and across borders.

 The availability of western arms and military methods is also not likely to bode well for  peace in the region; while Islamic fighters from the Sudan, Somalia and other parts of North Africa are bound to join in, or even initiate, conflict. 

As with most conflicts in today's world events have reached this stage because widely perceived social injustice has been allowed to build up until the population has become unstable. Now all it needs is for a few dominophiles to turn  unstable situations into conflict and make life a misery for millions across the region, if not most of the planet.

Author, 2077 AD

Saturday, 12 February 2011

China: a new Cultural Revolution?

What happens in China is crucial to world peace. The stability of the entire developed and developing world will largely depend on how it behaves in the future. It is buying up resources of all kinds – agriculture, minerals, energy and labour in many parts of the world -  as its population’s living standards grow. See, e.g., the BBC2 TV series 'The Chinese Are Coming'.

China has 10,000 R&D staff working on high speed train technology. It is rapidly supplanting Japan and Germany, with its latest prototype running at over 300 mph. According to a BBC World Service report China will soon have more track than the rest of the world put together, thereby opening up the rural areas to economic development and providing work as well as linking up with Europe.

This is just one example of a range of new leaps forward. There are numerous other technologies where China is either already ahead of the West or coming up fast:
  • Nanotechnology (5000 researchers, largest of any country)
  • Zhongguancun in Beijing, is trying to emulate Silicon Valley
  • Non fossil fuel technology – wind turbines, solar voltaic generation, nuclear
  • Life science as a precursor to medicine and biotechnology
  • Space exploration
The Chinese people have been very inventive at times through history (e.g. gunpowder and magnetic compasses). Possibly they have been held back by a culture and philosophy not conducive to the thriving of science and technology.  Now their rapid advances are being achieved in two ways.

First, the West are planting the seeds of R&D growth into the Chinese society. When a western firm wants to sell in China it has to set up its R&D effort there, as well as manufacturing, and train indigenous engineers and scientists. The technology itself is also directly copied and emulated, frequently with Intellectual Property Rights transferred.

There is also another way that China is competing with the West, which is to follow the example of the peer reviewed academic research which arguably started with the publication of Philosophical Transactions in England in 1665 and led to an exponential growth in scientific knowledge, a fact of which the world only became aware in the 1960s. Many Chinese academics have for decades been working in US and European universities, and can see the effectiveness of the methods used.

However, to do this they need to eliminate misrepresentation in their research papers (see BBC Knowledge magazine, Jan/Feb 2011, p.33) and this in turn requires a reverence for truth, something of which the Chinese Communist Party appears to be only too aware. They are also looking for a self perpetuating ethical system more rooted in the search for truth and more permissive of creativity and innovation than Taoism or Confucianism.  Is it a coincidence that this officially atheist regime is turning a blind eye to the rapid growth of Christianity, the very religion which provided an environment conducive to the growth of science and invention in the West, because God is rational, creative and reveres the truth, and we are made in his image.

There are now estimated to be 100 million Christians in China, more than the 70 million members of the Communist Party. Soon 1 in 10 Chinese will be Christian, mostly evangelicals worshipping outside the officially permitted churches (Protestant and, I believe, Catholic).

There is another reason which could explain the CCP’s tolerance of Christian activity. Social stability. If the property bubbles in Beijing and Shanghai were to burst China might have to sell its dollar reserves which would revalue the yuan and make its exports uncompetitive, thereby causing unemployment in China as well as stagflation in the West. This could precipitate social unrest in a country where expectations of ever rising living standards are high and where there are many fairly young unattached males. It could also cause upheaval in the West.

 A population at least nominally bound by John 13:34-35, even though comprising the whole spectrum of human nature, would, I suggest, be less prone to  slaughter than under  Mao Zedung (70 to 90 million died during the 1949 -1976  period of Mao , who 'boasted' that he had buried 46,000 scholars alive).

This is not just a matter of Christians being glad to see their faith thriving. It could be contributory, or even fundamental, to the way China interacts with the world in the future and moderates or prevents conflict at home.

Author, 2077 AD

Monday, 7 February 2011

Egypt and world peace

The latest trouble spot to hit the headlines is Egypt.  Various factions are demonstrating against the 29 year old Mubarak regime and against each other. From the BBC reports it does seem that the present government has been highly dictatorial, with ruthless killings and tortures of civilians as well as corruption in the police, possibly in a non-democratic attempt to keep non-democratic factions from winning power and abolishing even the semblance of democracy.

The main organised opposition is the Moslem Brotherhood.  Some western sources maintain this has moderated in recent years but it grew out of Islamic Jihad and was considered responsible for assassinating Mubarak’s predecessor, President Sadat, after he had negotiated a historic peace agreement with Israel, to which the Brotherhood is still ideologically opposed. If a Moslem converts to Christianity he or his family is likely to be victimised by the MB, even killed, although how common this is difficult to gauge on anecdotal evidence. Most worrying of all there is firm evidence of elements within the MB desiring an Islamic, non-democratic state and a world Caliphate, with all that this entails for the eclipsing of human rights.

The Brotherhood no doubt has some worthy people in it and has suffered injustices in the past; but we are in the present and at the very least there are serious doubts about the MB's overall objectives and the implications for world stability. If we value human rights and free speech we should be cautious. If any group tries to suppress these hard won attributes of western civilisation it can only mean violent conflict.

(It could be that the MB has indeed radically reformed itself. If so it would be wonderful news; but it's difficult to see how an MB-led government would negotiate flexibly with Israel and the West. However, as Nicholas Taleb argues in The Black Swan, history is full of the totally unexpected.)
The Middle East is held in unstable equilibrium by a delicate balance of diplomatic pressure from the USA, Europe and other parts of the world. It is on a constant knife edge with chaos never far away. E.g. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain, not just Israel, fears Iran and even suggested that the US should bomb it (Wikileaks divulged this) ; Egypt and the UAE have referred to Iran as 'evil' and an 'existential threat'.  Sunni and Shia Moslem factions within Iraq are in seemingly endless internecine conflict, regardless of  how many innocent civilians are killed, even those worshipping in a mosque; Islamic Jihad is using the Yemen as a base; various political and Islamic groups in Palestine are competing, often violently, for power; many Jewish settlers are ideologically opposed to  giving up territory despite international pressure; most countries around Israel refuse to recognise its right to exist; and on top of this Israel has a nuclear capability, with Iran bent on matching this.

Egypt is the largest country in the Middle East with a population of 80 million and, though poor, is fully armed by the USA. What happens there in the next few days, especially if followed by similar upheavals in other Arab states, risks upsetting this precarious equilibrium with unpredictable consequences for world peace. Malevolent minorities are no doubt waiting their moment. It has happened repeatedly throughout history that determined minorities under the direction of those who enjoy dominating others almost for the pleasure of power itself succeed in gaining control over a directionless majority.

[The Knights of Peace as invented in 2077 AD would have located the points of potential instability using sociodynamic modelling, destroyed all ordnance,  non-violently removed the dominophiles (those who love to dominate) responsible for stirring up evil, engaged them in voluntary, interactive 'Enlightenment' and released them back into society even if they did not reform. But we live in 2011, not 2077.]

It is often remarked that the oil in Saudi Arabia and Iraq is a motive for the West to keep the whole area stable. This is at least partly true; but perhaps the people there should be pleased that strings are being pulled behind closed doors to keep it on an even keel. It doesn’t look as though anyone else is willing or even able to do it, and those working for peace are hamstrung by endemic corruption and even hostility from some elements of the western intelligentsia.

So let’s be realistic and recognise that keeping the peace in today’s world is a messy, thankless job. The leaders, advisers and diplomats involved need to have a good grounding in  history,  a strong ethical base and not allow the devious paths they have to follow to distract them from keeping the world in balance. Our peace and freedom depend on them.

author, 2077 AD