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Friday, January 28, 2011

Humans left Africa 65,000 years earlier

By Michelle Martin
Posted in Reuters Thursday January 27 14:04 PM EST
Modern humans may have left Africa for Arabia up to 65,000 years earlier than previously thought and their exodus was enabled by environmental factors rather than technology, scientists said on Thursday.

Their findings suggest the migrants followed a direct route to the Arabian Peninsula from Africa, and did not travel via the Nile Valley or the Near East as suggested in previous studies.

An international team of researchers studied an ancient tool kit containing hand axes, perforators and scrapers which was unearthed at the Jebel Faya archaeological site in the United Arab Emirates.

"Our findings should stimulate a re-evaluation of the means by which we modern humans became a global species," said Simon Armitage, of the University of London, who worked on the study.

Using luminescence dating -- a technique used to determine when mineral grains were last exposed to sunlight -- they found that the stone tools were between 100,000 and 125,000 years old.

Hans-Peter Uerpmann of Eberhard Karls University in Tuebingen, who led the research, said the craftsmanship ruled out the possibility the tools were made in the Middle East.

He said the tools resembled those made by early humans in east Africa instead, suggesting that "no particular cultural achievements were necessary for people to leave Africa."

The research, published in the journal Science, suggests environmental factors such as sea levels were more important than technological innovations in making the migration possible.

The researchers analyzed sea-level and climate-change records preserved in the landscape from the last interglacial period -- around 130,000 years ago -- to determine when humans would have been able to cross Arabia.

They found that the Bab al-Mandab strait between Arabia and the Horn of Africa would have become narrower at this time as sea levels were lower, providing a safe route out of Africa both prior to and at the beginning of the last interglacial period.

Uerpmann said the straits may have been passable at low tide, making it likely that the modern humans walked across or travelled on either rafts or boats.

It was previously thought that the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula would have hindered an exodus from Africa but the new study suggests Arabia became wetter during the last interglacial period, with more lakes, rivers and vegetation, making it easier for humans to survive the passage to Arabia.

Although the timing of modern humans moving out of Africa has been the subject of much debate, previous evidence suggested the exodus took place along the Mediterranean Sea or Arabian coast around 60,000 years ago.

See full article http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/331/6016/387
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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Biological Diversity and Resilience: Lessons from the Recovery of Cichlid Species in Lake Victoria

A fundamental feature of the Anthropocene is the inexorable erosion of the self-repairing capacity or adaptive renewal of natural systems because of natural perturbation, exploitation, or management failure. The concept of resilience offers a systematic framework for understanding the dynamics and variables that govern response dynamics of ecosystems. Resilience of haplochromine cichlids is assessed using limnological and biodiversity changes in Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest freshwater lake, over the last five decades. The review explores the resurgence of the haplochromine cichlids using Holling’s adaptive renewal cycle and attempts to illustrate how resilience-based management approaches might learn from an inadvertent management experiment. The introduction in the 1980s of the Nile perch (Lates niloticus), a fecund and voracious predator of the endemic phytoplankton feeding haplochromine cichlids, anthropogenic eutrophication, and deep water hypoxia have combined in a synergistic way to increase the vulnerability of the lake ecosystem to perturbations that were hitherto absorbed. However, the upsurge in commercial Nile perch fishing appears to be enabling the resurgence of the haplochromine cichlids. The resurgence of haplochromine cichlids is characterized by phenotypic plasticity, ecological and life history traits and demonstrates the critical role of response diversity in the maintenance of systems resilience. Resilience of the haplochromine cichlids resides in the requisite functional response diversity and habitat diversity that provide the resources for renewal and regeneration. This paper concludes that management of Nile perch fisheries and control of nutrient loading into Lake Victoria could halt or reverse eutrophication, hence offer the best promise for a diverse, productive, and resilient social-ecological system.

Key words: eutrophication; Lake Victoria; Nile perch; recovery of haplochromine cichlids; resilience; response diversity

see full article http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol16/iss1/art9/

As Doctors Age, Worries About Their Ability Grow

 This is very illuminating. I think it is a must read

By LAURIE TARKAN
Published in the New York Times: January 25, 2011

About eight years ago, at the age of 78, a vascular surgeon in California operated on a woman who then developed a pulmonary embolism. The surgeon did not respond to urgent calls from the nurses, and the woman died.
Even after the hospital reported the doctor to the Medical Board of California, he continued to perform operations for four years until the board finally referred him for a competency assessment at the University of California, San Diego.
"We did a neuropsychological exam, and it was very abnormal," said Dr. William Norcross, director of the physician assessment program there, who did not identify the surgeon. "This surgeon had visual-spatial abnormalities, could not do fine motor movements, could not retain information, and his verbal I.Q. was much lower than you'd expect."
Yet "no one knew he had a cognitive deficit, and he did not think he had a problem," Dr. Norcross continued. The surgeon was asked to surrender his medical license.
One-third of the nation's physicians are over 65, and that proportion is expected to rise. As doctors in the baby boom generation reach 65, many are under increasing financial pressures that make them reluctant to retire.

Many doctors, of course, retain their skills and sharpness of mind into their 70s and beyond. But physicians are hardly immune to dementia, Parkinson's disease, stroke and other ills of aging. And some experts warn that there are too few safeguards to protect patients against those who should no longer be practicing. "My guess is that John Q. Public thinks there is some fail-safe mechanism to protect him from incompetent physicians," Dr. Norcross said. "There is not."
Often the mechanism does not kick in until a state medical board has found it necessary to discipline a physician. A 2005 study found that the rate of disciplinary action was 6.6 percent for doctors out of medical school 40 years, compared with 1.3 percent for those out only 10 years.
In 2006, a study found that in complicated operations, patients' mortality rates were higher when the surgeon was 60 or older, though there was no difference between younger and older doctors in routine operations.

Patient advocates note that commercial pilots, who are also responsible for the safety of others, must retire at age 65 and must undergo physical and mental exams every six months starting at 40. Yet "the profession of medicine has never really had an organized way to measure physician competency," said Diane Pinakiewicz, president of the nonprofit National Patient Safety Foundation. "We need to be systematically and comprehensively evaluating physicians on some sort of periodic basis."
Some experts are calling for regular cognitive and physical screening once doctors reach 65 or 70, and a small cadre of hospitals have instituted screening for older physicians. Some specialty boards already require physicians to renew their certification every 7 to 10 years and have toughened recertification requirements. But such policies have met resistance from rank-and-file doctors.
"I do not believe that diminished competence attributable solely to age is a significant factor in the underperformance of most poor-performing physicians," Dr. Henry Homburger, 64, professor of laboratory medicine at the Mayo Clinic, said by e-mail. Mental illness like depression, substance abuse and a "failure to maintain competence through continuing education far outweigh age as causes of poor performance, in my opinion," he wrote.
Others doubt that a single type of exam can be used to assess the performance of doctors from a variety of specialties. "More research is needed for us to define what combination of cognitive and motor issues are important," said Dr. Stuart Green, a member of the ethics committee of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Physicians do have to meet minimal requirements to continue to practice. To renew a medical license in most states, doctors must complete a certain number of hours of continuing medical education every year or two.
This does not impress experts like Dr. Norcross. "You can be asleep during those courses and no one would know," he said.
Even the tougher new policies of specialty boards do not usually apply to older physicians, who, because of "grandfather" clauses, are not required to renew their certification - an expensive, time-consuming process.
They are being encouraged to do so voluntarily, but few do - less than 1 percent of the 69,000 so-called grandfathered members of the American Board of Internal Medicine, for example.
Doctors with mild cognitive impairment may not be aware they have a problem or their performance is flagging. Changes are often subtle at first: a person may not be able to recall words, learn new material, apply knowledge to solving problems or multitask.
These deficits can make it hard to carry out the latest recommendations for diagnosis and treatment, learn new computer-based technology, remember prescribing details about medications, or function well in a stressful environment like the emergency room.
Only when a doctor's behavior starts to become odd are other physicians, nurses and patients likely to take notice.
Medical professionals are supposed to report colleagues' unsafe practices and bad behavior. But doctors are reluctant to confront their fellow physicians, especially their seniors, who may have trained them. "Sometimes we empathize too much and have difficulty making the hard calls when we need to," Dr. Norcross said.
Doctors often cover for physicians who are becoming less sharp, by having another surgeon in the operating room or by regularly reviewing their cases, Dr. Green said.
Dr. John Fromson, associate director of postgraduate medical education at Massachusetts General Hospital, cited a case at another medical center in New England, where physicians noticed cognitive changes in the 77-year-old chairman of internal medicine.
He was highly respected and had trained most of the physicians at the center, so they were reluctant to confront him. Instead, they gave him a retirement party, hoping he would take the hint. "But he didn't," Dr. Fromson said. "He kept on working."
Dr. Fromson staged an intervention, at which four or five of the doctor's close colleagues confronted him as compassionately as they could. "We reaffirmed our concern and caring for him, and asked him to hand over his medical license," he said. "He became quite tearful, but he did."
To lift this burden from peers while protecting patients, 5 percent to 10 percent of hospitals around the country have begun to address the issue of aging physicians more systematically, said Dr. Jonathan Burroughs, a consultant with the Greeley Company, which advises hospitals and health care companies.
"The other 90 to 95 percent are not willing to take this on," he said. In some instances, their efforts have been squashed by a vocal medical staff.
At Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi, Tex., Dr. Karl Serrao, the credentials chairman, decided to move slowly and enlisted the staff's help in drafting a policy for aging physicians. The staff expressed concerns about age discrimination, losing the valuable experience of older physicians and invasion of privacy. Now the hospital's policy states that when doctors 70 and older are up for reappointment, they must undergo cognitive and physical exams that assess skills specific to their specialty.
Dr. Burroughs says that screening physicians may be a more compassionate route than doctors think. "By identifying the issue early enough, it enhances their chance of being able to practice longer," he said. When a cognitive deficit is discussed openly, the physician's practice can be simplified, he can reduce his patient load, and his partners can regularly monitor and assess his work.
"But once something bad happens," Dr. Burroughs said, "he'll get his license taken away."
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Monday, January 24, 2011

Why Africa Needs an Agricultural Revolution

Article by Peter Hazell, posted in the Guardian 24 January 2011.


An African 'green revolution' would generate a number of productive jobs in agriculture and provide a leg up out of poverty for many

Africa's peasants are migrating to the cities in huge numbers because it is becoming increasingly difficult to survive on their farms.

Farmers are trapped into using inefficient technologies; average cereal yields have barely increased in 40 years and farm sizes are shrinking. Although Africans are leaving the farm, far too few are finding productive jobs in the cities. Most are getting poorer, the cost of safety-net programmes is escalating and Africa's dependence on concessionary food imports is growing. As the recent world food crisis has demonstrated, these trends can have catastrophic consequences for the continent's poor.

The situation in Africa today bears some striking similarities with Asia in the early 1960s. Asian countries also wanted to industrialise, but faced with worsening food shortages, slow agricultural growth, and a large agricultural workforce with many peasant farmers, they saw that rapid agricultural growth was a key step along the path to industrialisation.

Asian governments spent 10-15% of their total budget on agriculture each year, investing heavily in agricultural research, irrigation, rural roads and power. They also provided direct policy support to their farmers by shoring up farm credit systems, subsidising vital inputs like fertiliser, power, and water, and intervening in markets to ensure that farmers received adequate and stable prices.

Many of these interventions were targeted to small farms, who enthusiastically adopted the new technologies and typically outperformed larger farms.

The green revolution that these policies inspired helped transform Asia. It pulled the region back from the edge of an abyss of famine and led to regional food surpluses within 25 years. It created huge amounts of productive employment in agriculture and allied industries, lowered food prices, lifted many people out of poverty, and bolstered savings and domestic demand to help grow many nascent industries.

Africa, in contrast, has failed to do the same. African governments and donors have invested relatively little in agriculture. For over 40 years African governments have spent 5-6% of their total budget on agriculture, less than half the share spent in Asia. Donors have also played down agriculture, contributing little more than $1bn per year (in 2004 prices) – a paltry $30 per African farmer – for agricultural development, hardly enough to kickstart an agricultural revolution.

One consequence of this neglect is the appalling state of rural infrastructure in Africa. Africa has only exploited a fraction of its irrigation potential, and the density of rural roads today is a fraction of what Asia had in the 1950s. As a result, African farmers rely almost exclusively on rain-fed farming and face exceptionally high transport and marketing costs that makes a shift to more efficient farming unprofitable.

There is ample evidence to show that yields can be dramatically increased in Africa when farmers have access to improved technologies and markets. Africa's small farmers have also proved themselves no less entrepreneurial or efficient than their Asian cousins when given the opportunity. But exploiting this potential on a large scale would require a quantum increase in public investment in agricultural research and rural infrastructure, and that African governments provide more supportive policies for agriculture, including partnering with private firms to strengthen input-supply systems and food grain markets. As in Asia, Africa's green revolution will need to begin in "bread basket" areas that have the better agricultural potential and market access.

An African green revolution would generate many productive jobs in agriculture and provide a leg up out of poverty for many. By securing family food supplies through higher yields, it would enable many small farmers to free up land and labour for more profitable uses. It would also increase local demand for higher-value foods and non-farm goods and services, creating additional productive employment in rural areas. As in Asia, this would create a growing domestic demand for some of Africa's industries, especially those related to agricultural processing.

Africa must industrialise, but history shows there are few pathways from an agrarian state that do not involve an early agricultural revolution. The alternative favoured by some is to create export-oriented, manufacturing enclaves that, even if highly successful, would barely dent Africa's employment needs, while at the same time consolidating land into large farms and pushing millions of peasants off the land. Asia provides a better model to avoid the catastrophe that would follow from such 1950s thinking.

• Peter Hazell is visiting professor at Imperial College London and a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He will be speaking at IFAD's conference, New directions for smallholder agriculture, which begins in Rome today
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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche- book by James Miller

I think this is a must read for every educated person.

New York Times Book review by SARAH BAKEWELL
Published: January 23, 2011

If the proof of a pudding is in the eating, and the proof of a rule is in the exceptions, where should we look for the proof of a philosophy?

For Friedrich Nietzsche, the answer was obvious: to test a philosophy, find out if you can live by it. This is "the only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves something," he wrote in 1874. It's also the form of critique that is generally overlooked in the philosophy faculties of universities. Nietzsche therefore dismissed the professional discipline as irrelevant, a "critique of words by means of other words," and devoted himself to pursuing an idiosyncratic philosophical quest outside the academy. As for texts, he wrote, "I for one prefer reading Diogenes Laertius" - the popular third-century Epicurean author of a biographical compilation called "Lives of the Eminent Philosophers." If the proof of philosophy lies in life, then what could be more useful than reading about how the great philosophers have lived?

As James Miller shows in his fascinating "Examined Lives," choosing Diogenes Laertius over more rigorous treatises was provocative because it challenged an idea already predominant in Nie­tzsche's time: that a philosophy should be objectively valid, without the need to refer to particular quirks or life experiences on the part of its originator. Diogenes Laertius represents an older tradition, which sees philosophy not as a set of precepts but as something one learns by following a wise man - sometimes literally following him wherever he goes, listening, and observing how he handles situations. The "Lives" offers its readers a vicarious opportunity to try this with a number of philosophers, and see whose way works best.

Miller has now had the superb idea of taking Diogenes Laertius as a model, while simultaneously using this model to test whether such an approach can still offer us anything of value. He covers 12 philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes the Cynic (not to be confused with Laertius), Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche. In each case, he explores the life selectively, looking for "crux" points and investigating how ideas of the philosophical life have changed. Few readers will be astounded to learn that philosophers make as much of a mess of their lives as anyone else. But Miller, a professor of politics at the New School and author of a biography of Michel Foucault, among other books, does not rest with digging out petty failings or moments of hypocrisy. He shows us philosophers becoming ever more inclined to reflect on these failings, and suggests that this makes their lives more rather than less worth studying.

His starting point is Socrates, the most mythologized of all thinkers, the original source of the statement that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and the philosopher whose life became the measure for all others. Early biographers wrote with awe of Socrates' strange, itinerant approach to wisdom; of his habit of hanging around the marketplace striking up conversations with any passer-by willing to talk or of standing motionless in the street all night while he thought a problem through. But what really set him apart was his death, which redefined his whole life. Condemned by a panel of 501 Athenian citizens to kill himself with hemlock, Socrates carried out the sentence with perfect composure and in full rational awareness - or so the myth has it. No greater confirmation of the value of a philosopher's existence could be imagined. As Socrates himself said, "Don't you think that actions are more reliable evidence than words?"

The rest of "Examined Lives"can be read as a history of other philosophers' failures to measure up to this ideal, either in their deaths or their lives. One of Miller's great transitional figures is the Roman court-philosopher Seneca. Living half a millennium after Socrates, he too was condemned to death by suicide. He accepted his fate with Socratic courage, but his death itself was difficult. He slit his wrists before begging for a cup of hemlock and retiring to a hot bath to expire. The messiness of his death reflected a morally messy life. For, while his writings promoted wisdom, balance, restraint and detachment, Seneca himself was forced into numerous compromises in the service of his protégé and employer, the murderous emperor Nero. He even helped Nero plot the murder of Agrippina, the emperor's own mother. The strain was evident. "I am not wise," Seneca wrote; "nor . . . shall I ever be." Yet he also advised his favorite correspondent, Lucilius, to "harmonize talk with life." As Miller remarks, Seneca was "in conflict" with himself.

Other philosophers suffered even more self-division, particularly those who succumbed to mental illness. Diogenes the Cynic lived in a clay jar, masturbated on the street and embraced snow-covered statues. His sanity sounds shaky at best, yet there is no doubting his importance: he inspired the early Skeptics and thus influenced the whole of Western thought. Immanuel Kant, most rational of thinkers, ended his life in an obsessive-compulsive hell, endlessly consulting thermometers and barometers, and stopping dead in his tracks whenever he felt warm on a walk because he was afraid that breaking into a sweat would kill him. And Nietzsche wrote some of his most incisive works while in the early stages of the syphilitic dementia that really did kill him.

The most striking of Miller's subjects is René Descartes, another "transitional" figure and a very strange person. We associate Descartes with the attempt to give mathematical clarity to philosophy, yet he was driven to this by a series of terrifying, irrational visions in 1619, and by life experiences ranging from vagabondage to periods of reclusive withdrawal. He made gripping use of this story in his "Discourse on Method," the very work where he also set out his criteria of total certainty.

As Miller notes, Descartes opened up two divergent paths in philosophy. One was the old tradition, in which one seeks a better life and recounts the search in a personal narrative. The other led to the impersonal discipline now prevalent in universities, which in theory can be practiced by anyone. Yet Descartes himself would barely have understood this separation. For him, a philosophical life required both the quest for precision and the intense personal experience that drove one to it.

Miller concludes that his 12 philosophical lives offer a moral that is "neither simple nor uniformly edifying." It amounts mainly to the idea that philosophy can offer little or no consolation, and that the examined life is, if anything, "harder and less potentially rewarding" for us than it was for Socrates.

Yet his entire book conveys a sense that the genuinely philosophical examination of a life can still lead us somewhere radically different from other kinds of reflection. At the end of his chapter on Descartes, Miller cites the 20th-­century phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, whom he identifies as the major exception to the rule that places most post-Cartesian thinkers on one side or the other of the personal/impersonal divide. Apropos of Descartes, Husserl wrote, "Anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher must 'once in his life' withdraw into himself and attempt, within himself, to overthrow and build anew all the sciences that, up to then, he has been accepting."

It is an extraordinary thing to do: a project that remains "quite personal," as Husserl admitted, yet that reaches in to seize the whole world and redesign it from the very foundation. Perhaps this is what still distinguishes the philosophical life: that "once in a lifetime" convulsion, in which one reinvents reality around oneself. It is a project doomed to fail, and compromises will always be made. But what, in life, could be more interesting?
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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Does Helping the Planet Hurt the Poor?

 
Article by Peter Singer (carried in the Wall Street Journal on January 22 201)
 
All of us who are middle class or above in the U.S. and other industrialized nations spend money on many things we do not need. We could instead donate that money to organizations that will use it to make a huge difference in the lives of the world's poorest people—people who struggle to survive each day on less than we spend on a bottle of water. For decades, that is what I've been advocating we should do.

But this concern for the poor appears to be in tension with the need to protect our environment. Is there any point in saving the lives of people who will continue to have more children than they can feed? Don't rising populations in developing countries increase the pressure on forests and other ecosystems? Then there is climate change. How would the world cope if everyone were to become affluent and match our per capita rate of greenhouse gas emissions?

I take these questions very seriously. My first popular book, "Animal Liberation," published in 1975, argued that we should extend our ethical concerns beyond the boundary of our species. In Australia, my country of birth, I was a founding member of the Australian Greens. So balancing poverty reduction and environmental values is important to me. The problem is how to do it.

Part of the answer—the easy part—is that poverty reduction and environmental values often point in the same direction. It is simplistic to assume that helping more children to survive to reproductive age is bound to increase population in poor countries. Poor parents often have large families so that at least some of their children will survive to take care of them in old age. As parents grow more confident that their children will live to adulthood, they have fewer children. And if reducing poverty makes it possible for families to send their children (especially their daughters) to school, all the evidence indicates that their children will have smaller families.

But we shouldn't pretend that there is bound to be this kind of harmony between economic development and environmental protection. Some development projects provide employment opportunities for the poor but at a high cost to wilderness. From Indonesia to Brazil, vast areas of tropical rainforest have been cleared to grow palm oil and soybeans or to graze cattle, thus destroying entire ecosystems and releasing huge quantities of carbon.

What should we do? Sometimes we should choose to protect the environment and the non human animals that depend on it, even if that denies economic opportunities to some people living in extreme poverty. Areas rich in unique biodiversity are part of the world's heritage and ought to be protected. We should, of course, try to find alternative environmentally sustainable opportunities for those living in or near these areas. But there is no single currency by which we can measure the benefit of saving human lives against the cost of destroying forests that provide the last remaining refuges for free-living chimpanzees, orangutans or Sumatran tigers.

Cost-benefit analysis certainly can't handle this task. Even when economists ignore environmental concerns, their usual method of assigning a value to human lives leads to the ethically embarrassing conclusion that the poor count for less because they earn less and cannot pay as much to reduce life-threatening risks.

Economists also tend to trip up on the issue of whether to discount the future. Suppose we believe that in 200 years, people would be prepared to pay $1 million (in current dollars) to have a virgin forest in their region. Today, however, we can profit by cutting down the forest. If we discount the future value of the forest by 5% per annum, how large a present-day profit would be necessary to cover the loss of a million dollars in 2211? Just $60. Such a discount rate cannot be justified on the basis of the real rate of return on capital. It implies a pure time discount—that is, it implies that the future matters much less than the present.

Giving equal weight to the interests of future generations provides us with strong reasons to be concerned about environmental preservation, as well as about the more immediate concern of reducing global poverty. We should help today's global poor, but not at the expense of tomorrow's global poor. To preserve the options available to future generations, we should aim at development that does no further damage to wilderness or to endangered species.

It is clear, though, that the planet cannot sustain six billion people at the level of the most affluent billion in the world today, especially in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The failure of the major industrialized nations to reduce their emissions to a level that will not cause serious adverse effects to others is moral wrongdoing on a scale that exceeds the wrongdoing of the great imperial powers during the era of colonialism.

According to the World Health Organization, the rise in temperature that occurred between the 1970s and 2004 is causing an additional 140,000 deaths every year (roughly equivalent to causing, every week, as many deaths as occurred in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001). The major killers are climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria, dengue and diarrhea, which is more common when there is a lack of safe water. Malnutrition resulting from crops that fail because of high temperatures or low rainfall is also responsible for many deaths. Fertile, densely settled delta regions in Egypt, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam are at risk from rising sea levels.

In 2007 the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that a temperature rise in the range of 2 to 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2080 would put stress on water resources used by 1.2 billion people. Rising sea levels would expose, each year, an additional 16 million people to coastal flooding. A temperature rise limited to two degrees by 2080 now seems about the best we can hope for, and recently there have been alarming indications that sea level rises could be much greater than the IPCC anticipated.

Perhaps a technological miracle is just around the corner, one that will enable everyone in the world to consume energy at something like the levels at which we consume it, without bringing about disaster for everyone. It isn't ethically defensible, however, to do nothing while hoping for a miracle, given that it will be others, not us, who suffer the gravest consequences if that miracle never arrives.

Some argue that there is little point in the older industrialized nations cutting back on their emissions when China has already overtaken the U.S. as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases; India's emissions are also growing rapidly. The problem is that someone has to take the lead. Otherwise, everyone will hold back to see who goes first, and no one will act.

All the ethical arguments point to the industrialized Western nations taking the lead. On the familiar rule that "if you broke it, you fix it," there is no doubt that these nations bear historical responsibility for most of the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere. Several Chinese think tanks recently produced a report titled "Carbon Equity." They calculated that from 1850 to 2004, the average American put 21 times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the average Chinese, and 53 times as much as the average Indian.

Granted, until the 1980s, no one really knew the effect of putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but we definitely knew about it in 1992 when the "Earth Summit" was held in Rio de Janeiro. The U.S. and other major nations signed a declaration promising to keep greenhouse gas emissions below the level that would cause "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." That's a promise that has manifestly not been kept.

Even if newly emerging major emitters like China, India and Brazil were prepared to forget about the past and share the burden of major reductions in greenhouse gases, the only fair long-term basis for such a distribution would be equal per capita shares. On that basis, the U.S. is still emitting four or five times as much as China and at least 12 times as much as India.

There is also a strong moral case for saying that rich nations should cut back on their "luxury emissions" before poor nations have to cut back on "subsistence emissions." India still has more than 450 million people living in extreme poverty, and China over 200 million. No one with any concern for human welfare could ask the world's poor to refrain from increasing their greenhouse gas emissions in order to put more food on the table for their families, when we think little of flying down to the tropics for a winter vacation, emitting more in a week than the typical family in a developing country does in a year. Needs should always take precedence over luxuries.

All of us living comfortably in industrialized nations should use more energy from sources other than fossil fuels, use less air-conditioning and less heat, fly and drive less, and eat less meat. And we ought to start doing these things now, for our own sake, for the sake of the global poor and for the sake of future generations everywhere.

Mr. Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include "Animal Liberation," "Practical Ethics" and "The Life You Can Save."
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Monday, January 17, 2011

How the West Lost-by Dambisa Moyo: reviewed by Paul Collier

By the end of this century, most of the world will be developed: the era of western exceptionalism will be over. How the West Was Lost is a dyspeptic account of what this might imply.

The rosy scenario that most economists would suggest (if they dared to tackle such a large issue) would be that the convergence of the emerging market economies on the west is mutually beneficial: we can all prosper together. Dambisa Moyo, author of the bestselling Dead Aid, is having none of this. She argues that the west has become mired in complacency: each of the drivers of growth – capital accumulation, skill accumulation, and technical innovation – have stalled, and there is no political will to salvage the situation. The market for capital has failed in its core task of finding investment opportunities that offer good returns at acceptable risk.

Moyo is a former employee of Goldman Sachs, and her diagnosis of the recent disasters in financial markets is succinct and sophisticated: "Debt claimants failed in their fiduciary duty to police the equity holders because they were hedged by public policy." Not only did the prospect of bailouts generate moral hazard, but the generous subsidies for home ownership diverted investment into housing, squeezing more productive alternative uses such as infrastructure and innovation.

Above all, in the west, both households and governments got into debt to finance consumption at levels that will prove unsustainable: in contrast, China, both people and government, has been saving at rates without historical precedent. As to skills, Moyo sees complacency in government in the face of declining schooling standards relative to those in the emerging societies.

Among parents she sees folly as they collude in their children's fantasies of becoming sporting or entertainment celebrities rather than getting down to the hard grind of learning how to be productive: in east Asia children spend many more hours doing schoolwork than they do in the west. In the face of these daunting challenges, she sees public policy in the west hamstrung by an obsession with individual rights and a reluctance to face reality. In a telling example from 2009, she contrasts the decisive Chinese response to an outbreak of pneumonic plague with the spineless British response to swine flu. The Chinese government instantly sealed off the affected city and placed it in quarantine, an action almost inconceivable in the west. In contrast, the British government feared a popular backlash and doled out anti-flu drugs, despite the scientific evidence that not only were they unnecessary, but that profligate distribution would help the virus to mutate.

Moyo sees all this ending in tears. The west will lose out in the scramble for finite resources, and so as "the rest" rise "the west" will decline, not just relatively but absolutely.

China has evolved an economic model in which the government guides development, accumulating capital, investing in state-of-the-art productive infrastructure, encouraging science, and buying up global resources. This may not be efficient, in the sense of maximising living standards at any particular moment, but it is effective in driving them relentlessly upwards.

The other emerging economies see that this is successful. They have no love for the west, and so will follow China both as a model and as a political leader. Meanwhile, the west, and in particular the US, is stuck with an excessive faith in market mechanisms, combined with a political system that will push it increasingly into the most dysfunctional aspects of social welfare: dependency of the poor on government handouts, financed by public debt.

Her proposed solution for the US is as radical as is her diagnosis: trade protectionism and debt default. She argues that were America to retreat into autarky and default it would fare much better than the devastation it would impose on China as an exporter and creditor. Moyo is not, I think, seriously advocating these policies; rather, her point is that as a credible threat they would improve American bargaining power vis-a-vis China.

What are we to make of the Moyo thesis? Inevitably, in a short book of such a sweeping nature, there are many hostages to critics. I will let these pass. I do not share Moyo's pessimism, but I applaud her brave alarum against our economic and social complacency: her core concerns are sufficiently close to painful truths to warrant our attention.

She is right that the rise of "the rest" will widen inequalities within the west: it has already. To respond effectively, governments need to reskill our population, combining carrots and sticks so as to get everyone into productive work. She is also right that the psychological shock as the west realises that it is no longer top dog could lead to demoralisation. Britain pioneered western disillusion: famously, having lost an empire, we floundered for two decades struggling to "find a role".

Americans are in for an analogous shock as other economies become dominant, and as other societies offer higher living standards: if you want to see the future visit Singapore, not New York. The divisive and dysfunctional politics of America may become increasingly reminiscent of Britain in the 1970s. To respond effectively may well require a vision that is both tougher and simpler than the principles of market efficiency that have guided economic policy in recent decades: investment needs to be prioritised over consumption.

The difference in vision is well illustrated by infrastructure. The consensus among western economists is that infrastructure offers only low returns and so substantial investment is not worthwhile. American and British infrastructure policies over recent decades have reflected this consensus. Yet a distinguished minority argues that the conventional approach to the measuring of benefits misses all the strategic gains. In contrast to the lousy infrastructure of the US and Britain, China is building high-speed railways. As a result of our investment parsimony and Chinese investment profligacy, the current generation of westerners can consume at a level far above that of the Chinese. But will our grandchildren congratulate us on being so smart?

Paul Collier is the author of The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature (Penguin)
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Friday, January 7, 2011

Enter the Lion Economies of Africa

Change can happen!

Over the past decade sub-Saharan Africa’s real GDP growth rate jumped to an annual average of 5.7%, up from only 2.4% over the previous two decades.

An analysis by The Economist finds that over the ten years to 2010, no fewer than six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa.

The only BRIC country to make the top ten was China, in second place behind Angola. The other five African sprinters were Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique and Rwanda, all with annual growth rates of around 8% or more. During the two decades to 2000 only one African economy (Uganda) made the top ten, against nine from Asia.

Standard Chartered forecasts that Africa’s economy will grow at an average annual rate of 7% over the next 20 years, slightly faster than China’s.

Africa’s changing fortunes have largely been driven by China’s surging demand for raw materials and higher commodity prices, but other factors have also counted. Africa has benefited from big inflows of foreign direct investment, especially from China, as well as foreign aid and debt relief. Urbanization and rising incomes have fuelled faster growth in domestic demand.

However, commodity-driven growth does not generate many jobs; and commodity prices could fall. Hence, African governments need to diversify their economies.

There are formidable obstacles to Africa’s continued progress. These include political instability (Ivory Coast, potentially Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe) the weak rule of law, chronic corruption, infrastructure bottlenecks, and poor health and education. Without reforms, Africa will not be able to sustain faster growth. But its lion economies are earning a place alongside Asia’s tigers.

See full story in the Economist 6th January 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why experts should resist the pressure to make simplistic their advise

“Expert advice is often thought most useful to policy when it is presented as a single 'definitive' interpretation. Even when experts acknowledge uncertainty, they tend to do so in ways that reduce unknowns to measurable 'risk'. In this way, policy-makers are encouraged to pursue (and claim) 'science-based' decisions”. Writes Andy Stirling in an article published in Nature 468, 1029-1031 (December 2010)

Stirling believes that this practice is misguided and that an overly narrow focus on risk is an inadequate response to incomplete knowledge. According to Stirling, a single definitive interpretation leaves science advice vulnerable to the social dynamics of groups and to manipulation by political pressures seeking legitimacy, justification and blame management.

In Stirling’s view, the challenge or question is how to move away from this narrow focus on risk to broader and deeper understandings of incomplete knowledge. Although practical quantitative and qualitative methods already exist, political pressure and expert practice often prevent them being used to their full potential.

Andy Stirling concludes that a move towards plural and conditional expert advice is not a panacea. However, Stirling recognizes the limitations of plural and conditional expert advise and notes that it cannot promise escape from the deep intractabilities of uncertainty, the perils of group dynamics or the perturbing effects of power. But he is convinced that plural and conditional advise differs from prevailing approaches in that it makes these influences more rigorously explicit and democratically accountable.

See full Nature 468, 1029-1031 (December 2010).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

To Beat Back Poverty, Pay the Poor

By TINA ROSENBERG
Posted in The New York Times 3 January 2011

The city of Rio de Janeiro is infamous for the fact that one can look out from a precarious shack on a hill in a miserable favela and see practically into the window of a luxury high-rise condominium.  Parts of Brazil look like southern California.  Parts of it look like Haiti.  Many countries display great wealth side by side with great poverty.  But until recently, Brazil was the most unequal country in the world.

Today, however, Brazil's level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country.  Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians.  Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.

Contrast this with the United States, where from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the increase in Americans' income went to the top 1 percent of earners. (see this great series in Slate by Timothy Noah on American inequality)  Productivity among low and middle-income American workers increased, but their incomes did not.  If current trends continue, the United States may soon be more unequal than Brazil.

Several factors contribute to Brazil's astounding feat.  But a major part of Brazil's achievement is due to a single social program that is now transforming how countries all over the world help their poor.

A single social program is transforming how countries all over the world help their poor.

The program, called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) in Brazil, goes by different names in different places. In Mexico, where it first began on a national scale and has been equally successful at reducing poverty, it is Oportunidades. The generic term for the program is conditional cash transfers.  The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements.  The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention.  The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families.  The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow.

Most of our Fixes columns so far have been about successful-but-small ideas.  They face a common challenge:  how to make them work on a bigger scale.  This one is different.  Brazil is employing a version of an idea now in use in some 40 countries around the globe, one already successful on a staggeringly enormous scale. This is likely the most important government antipoverty program the world has ever seen.  It is worth looking at how it works, and why it has been able to help so many people.

In Mexico, Oportunidades today covers 5.8 million families, about 30 percent of the population.  An Oportunidades family with a child in primary school and a child in middle school that meets all its responsibilities can get a total of about $123 a month in grants.  Students can also get money for school supplies, and children who finish high school in a timely fashion get a one-time payment of $330.

Bolsa Familia, which has similar requirements, is even bigger.  Brazil's conditional cash transfer programs were begun before the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but he consolidated various programs and expanded it. It now covers about 50 million Brazilians, about a quarter of the country.   It pays a monthly stipend of about $13 to poor families for each child 15 or younger who is attending school, up to three children.  Families can get additional payments of $19 a month for each child of 16 or 17 still in school, up to two children.  Families that live in extreme poverty get a basic benefit of about $40, with no conditions.

A family living in extreme poverty in Brazil doubles its income when it gets the basic benefit.

Do these sums seem heartbreakingly small?  They are.  But a family living in extreme poverty in Brazil doubles its income when it gets the basic benefit.   It has long been clear that Bolsa Familia has reduced poverty in Brazil.  But research has only recently revealed its role in enabling Brazil to reduce economic inequality.

The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are working with individual governments to spread these programs around the globe, providing technical help and loans.   Conditional cash transfer programs are now found in 14 countries in Latin America and some 26 other countries, according to the World Bank. (One of the programs was in New York City — a small, privately-financed pilot program called Opportunity NYC.  A preliminary evaluation showed mixed success, but it is too soon to draw conclusions.)  Each program is tailored to local conditions.  Some in Latin America, for example, emphasize nutrition.  One in Tanzania is experimenting with conditioning payments on an entire community's behavior.

The program fights poverty in two ways.  One is straightforward:  it gives money to the poor.  This works.  And no, the money tends not to be stolen or diverted to the better-off.   Brazil and Mexico have been very successful at including only the poor.  In both countries it has reduced poverty, especially extreme poverty, and has begun to close the inequality gap.

The idea's other purpose — to give children more education and better health — is longer term and harder to measure.  But measured it is — Oportunidades is probably the most-studied social program on the planet.  The program has an evaluation unit and publishes all data. There have also been hundreds of studies by independent academics. The research indicates that conditional cash transfer programs in Mexico and Brazil do keep people healthier, and keep kids in school.

In Mexico today, malnutrition, anemia and stunting have dropped, as have incidences of childhood and adult illnesses.  Maternal and infant deaths have been reduced.  Contraceptive use in rural areas has risen and teen pregnancy has declined.  But the most dramatic effects are visible in education.  Children in Oportunidades repeat fewer grades and stay in school longer.  Child labor has dropped.  In rural areas, the percentage of children entering middle school has risen 42 percent.  High school inscription in rural areas has risen by a whopping 85 percent. The strongest effects on education are found in families where the mothers have the lowest schooling levels.  Indigenous Mexicans have particularly benefited, staying in school longer.

Bolsa Familia is having a similar impact in Brazil.  One recent study found that it increases school attendance and advancement — particularly in the northeast, the region of Brazil where school attendance is lowest, and particularly for older girls, who are at greatest risk of dropping out. The study also found that Bolsa has improved child weight, vaccination rates and use of pre-natal care.

When I traveled in Mexico in 2008 to report on Oportunidades, I met family after family with a distinct before and after story.   Parents whose work consisted of using a machete to cut grass had children who, thanks to Oportunidades, had finished high school and were now studying accounting or nursing.  Some families had older children who were malnourished as youngsters, but younger children who had always been healthy because Oportunidades had arrived in time to help them eat better.  In the city of Venustiano Carranza, in Mexico's Puebla state, I met Hortensia Alvarez Montes, a 54-year-old widow whose only income came from taking in laundry.  Her education stopped in sixth grade, as did that of her first three children.  But then came Oportunidades, which kept her two youngest children in school.   They were both finishing high school when I visited her.  One of them told me she planned to attend college.

Outside of Brazil and Mexico, conditional cash transfer programs are newer and smaller. Nevertheless, there is ample research showing that they, too, increase consumption, lower poverty, and increase school enrollment and use of health services.

If conditional cash transfer programs are to work properly, many more schools and health clinics are needed.   But governments can't always keep up with the demand — and sometimes they can only keep up by drastically reducing quality.   If this is a problem for medium-income countries like Brazil and Mexico, imagine the challenge in Honduras or Tanzania.

For skeptics who believe that social programs never work in poor countries and that most of what's spent on them gets stolen, conditional cash transfer programs offer a convincing rebuttal.  Here are programs that help the people who most need help, and do so with very little waste, corruption or political interference. Even tiny, one-village programs that succeed this well are cause for celebration.  To do this on the scale that Mexico and Brazil have achieved is astounding.


Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book "The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism." She is a former editorial writer for The Times and now a contributing writer for the paper's Sunday magazine. Her new book, "Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World," is forthcoming from W.W. Norton
Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone from Zain Kenya

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