How a Eurasian steppe empire coped with decades of drought

By Diana Crow

The bitterly cold, dry air of the Central Asian steppe is a boon to researchers who study the region. The frigid climate “freeze-dries” everything, including centuries-old trees that once grew on lava flows in Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley. A recent study of the tree-ring record, published in March, from some of these archaic logs reveals a drought that lasted nearly seven decades—one of the longest in a 1,700-year span of steppe history—from A.D. 783–850.

Decades of prolonged drought would have killed much of the grass that the Orkhon Valley’s domesticated horses relied upon. Yet the dominant steppe civilization of the era, an empire of Turkic horse nomads called the Uyghurs, somehow survived nearly 60 years of the drought, a period about seven times longer than the Dust Bowl that devastated the central U.S. in the 1930s.

Based on surviving Chinese and Uyghur documents from the drought years, the study’s authors concluded that the Uyghurs survived by diversifying their economy and using international diplomacy to boost trade.

Rather than driving the Uyghurs to plunder neighboring territories—as other steppe empires tended to do—the drought led them to take advantage of their location on the Silk Road and reinvent their economy. The Uyghurs’ relatively peaceful strategies seem to have staved off total collapse for a surprisingly long time. “They were champs,” says physical geographer and study co-author Amy Hessl of West Virginia University.

Prior to this paper, no one knew that the Uyghurs faced an “epic drought,” Hessl says. The recognition that they did may change the way historians interpret the social, political, and economic strategies of the Uyghurs.

[Read more…]

William Morris’ vision of a world free from wage slavery is finally within reach

Vasilis Kostakis and Wolfgang Drechsler write:

At the beginning of the 21st century, a new world is emerging. Not since Marx identified the manufacturing plants of Manchester as the blueprint for the new capitalist society has there been a deeper transformation of the fundamentals of our socioeconomic life. A new commons-based mode of production, enabled by information and communication technology (ICT), what we now call digitisation, redefines how we (can) produce, consume and distribute. This pathway is exemplified by interconnected collaborative initiatives that produce a wide range of artifacts, from encyclopaedias and software to agricultural machines, wind turbines, satellites and prosthetics…

As recently as two decades ago, most people would have thought it absurd to countenance a free and open encyclopaedia, produced by a community of dispersed enthusiasts primarily driven by other motives than profit-maximisation, and the idea that this might displace the corporate-organised Encyclopaedia Britannica and Microsoft Encarta would have seemed preposterous. Similarly, very few people would have thought it possible that the top 500 supercomputers and the majority of websites would run on software produced in the same way, or that non-coercive cooperation using globally shared resources could produce artifacts as effectively as those produced by industrial capitalism, but more sustainably. It would have been unimaginable that such things should have been created through processes that were far more pleasant than the work conditions that typically result in such products.

Commons-based production goes against many of the assumptions of mainstream, standard-textbook economists. Individuals primarily motivated by their interest to maximise profit, competition and private property are the Holy Grail of innovation and progress – more than that: of freedom and liberty themselves. One should never forget these two everlasting ‘truths’ if one wants to understand the economy and the world, we are told. These are the two premises of the free-market economics that have dominated the discourse until today.

So, is GNU/Linux, the free and open-source software that drives those 500 supercomputers, an exception that proves the rule? What about the Apache HTTP Server, the leading software in the web-server market, or Wikipedia? The legal scholar Yochai Benkler at Harvard University was one of the first to observe that such commons-based projects are by now too common to be considered anomalies. Already a decade ago (when smartphones were a novelty), Benkler argued in The Wealth of Networks (2006) that a new mode of production was emerging that would shape how we produce and consume information. He called this mode ‘commons-based peer production’ and claimed that it can deliver better artifacts while promoting another aspect of human nature: social cooperation. Digitisation does not change the human person (in this respect), it just allows her to develop in ways that had previously been blocked, whether by chance or design. [Continue reading…]

The real villain behind our new Gilded Age

Eric Posner and Glen Weyl write:

The comedian Chris Rock once said, “If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.” Populist revolts throughout the world may not count as street riots, but they do reflect disenchantment with not just our government but also liberal democracy itself.

In the past two decades, growth rates in the United States have fallen to half of what they were in the middle of the 20th century. The share of income accruing to the top 1 percent has nearly doubled since the 1970s, while the share of income going to all workers has fallen by nearly 10 percent.

These are the marks of our new Gilded Age. It’s tempting to blame impersonal market forces such as globalization and automation for widening inequality. But the true villain would be familiar to anyone who lived through the previous one: market (that is, monopoly) power.

The great monopolies of that period — Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the sugar trust, the financial and railroad interests — used their power to corrupt the economy and politics. Market power both reduces growth and increases inequality. Recognizing this, leaders put into place antitrust and worker protection laws.

Today, market power takes new forms, but the solution is the same: antimonopoly laws and laws protecting workers, but updated for the problems of the 21st century. [Continue reading…]

In America’s new civil war, one side must win


Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira write:

This is no ordinary political moment. Trump is not the reason this is no ordinary time — he’s simply the most obvious symptom that reminds us all of this each day.

The best way to understand politics in America today is to reframe it as closer to civil war. Just the phrase “civil war” is harsh, and many people may cringe. It brings up images of guns and death, the bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers.

America today is nowhere near that level of conflict or at risk of such violence. However, America today does exhibit some of the core elements that move a society from what normally is the process of working out political differences toward the slippery slope of civil war. We’ve seen it in many societies in many previous historical eras, including what happened in the United States in 1860.

America’s original Civil War was not just fought to emancipate slaves for humanitarian reasons. The conflict was really about the clash between two very different economic systems that were fundamentally at odds and ultimately could not coexist. The Confederacy was based on an agrarian economy dependent on slaves. The Union was based on a new kind of capitalist manufacturing economy dependent on free labor. They tried to somehow coexist from the time of the founding era, but by the middle of the 19th century, something had to give. One side or the other had to win.

America today faces a similar juncture around fundamentally incompatible energy systems. The red states held by the Republicans are deeply entrenched in carbon-based energy systems like coal and oil. They consequently deny the science of climate change, are trying to resuscitate the dying coal industry, and recently have begun to open up coastal waters to oil drilling.

The blue states held by the Democrats are increasingly shifting to clean energy like solar and installing policies that wean the energy system off carbon. In the era of climate change, with the mounting pressure of increased natural disasters, something must give. We can’t have one step forward, one step back every time an administration changes. One side or the other has to win.

Another driver on the road to civil war is when two classes become fundamentally at odds. This usually takes some form of rich versus poor, the wealthy and the people, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The system gets so skewed toward those at the top that the majority at the bottom rises up and power shifts.

The last time America was in that position was in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. We were on the road of severe class conflict that could have continued toward civil war, but we worked out a power shift that prevented widespread violence. Franklin Roosevelt, the so-called traitor to his class, helped establish a supermajority New Deal coalition of Democrats that rolled all the way through the postwar boom. The conservative Republicans who had championed a politics that advantaged the rich throughout the 1920s and promoted isolationism in the 1930s were sidelined for two generations — close to 50 years.

Today’s conservative Republicans face the same risk. Since 1980, their policies have engorged the rich while flatlining the incomes of the majority of Americans, from the presidency of Ronald Reagan through to last December’s tax overhaul, which ultimately bestows 83 percent of the benefits over time to the top 1 percent. Make no mistake: A reckoning with not just Trump, but conservatism, is coming.

The differences between two economic systems or two classes that are fundamentally at odds could conceivably get worked out through a political process that peacefully resolves differences. However, culture frequently gets in the way. That’s especially true when pressures are building for big system overhauls that will create new winners and losers.

Two different political cultures already at odds through different political ideologies, philosophies, and worldviews can get trapped in a polarizing process that increasingly undermines compromise. They see the world through different lenses, consume different media, and literally live in different places. They start to misunderstand the other side, then start to misrepresent them, and eventually make them the enemy. The opportunity for compromise is then lost. This is where America is today.

At some point, one side or the other must win — and win big. The side resisting change, usually the one most rooted in the past systems and incumbent interests, must be thoroughly defeated — not just for a political cycle or two, but for a generation or two. [Continue reading…]

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MIT project claims nuclear fusion power will be on the grid within 15 years

The Guardian reports:

The dream of nuclear fusion is on the brink of being realised, according to a major new US initiative that says it will put fusion power on the grid within 15 years.

The project, a collaboration between scientists at MIT and a private company, will take a radically different approach to other efforts to transform fusion from an expensive science experiment into a viable commercial energy source. The team intend to use a new class of high-temperature superconductors they predict will allow them to create the world’s first fusion reactor that produces more energy than needs to be put in to get the fusion reaction going.

Bob Mumgaard, CEO of the private company Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which has attracted $50 million in support of this effort from the Italian energy company Eni, said: “The aspiration is to have a working power plant in time to combat climate change. We think we have the science, speed and scale to put carbon-free fusion power on the grid in 15 years.”

The promise of fusion is huge: it represents a zero-carbon, combustion-free source of energy. The problem is that until now every fusion experiment has operated on an energy deficit, making it useless as a form of electricity generation. Decades of disappointment in the field has led to the joke that fusion is the energy of the future – and always will be. [Continue reading…]

Fast Company reports:

If the plans go as expected and fusion power plants can finally be constructed, the resulting power would be cheaper than fossil fuels. “We know that for fusion to make a difference . . . it has to be economically competitive,” says Mumgaard. “The exciting part about this technology is that by shrinking the scale and keeping the power the same, we make more ‘power per stuff,’ which makes it much more likely to be economically competitive. The types of materials that are in this are materials that are commodities, and if you add up those materials you get a cost of electricity that undercuts existing energy prices.”

Of course, that’s assuming that everything goes as expected. But some other experts, like Michael Zarnstorff, deputy director for research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, say that the technology is feasible to create within a short timeline. Zarnstorff also says that the growing number of other startups in nuclear fusion, which have received funding from investors like Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos, signals that the industry as a whole could be close to functioning technology.

“In the U.S., what typically happens is that when the science gets to a certain stage you start having startup companies who will try and close the gap,” he says. “You see this in all the energy technologies . . . people are judging that you’re close enough that they’re willing to put their own money into it to try and make a system that will work and can be made commercial. And this is what we’re starting to see.” [Continue reading…]

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Why Amartya Sen remains the century’s great critic of capitalism

By Tim Rogan, Aeon

Critiques of capitalism come in two varieties. First, there is the moral or spiritual critique. This critique rejects Homo economicus as the organising heuristic of human affairs. Human beings, it says, need more than material things to prosper. Calculating power is only a small part of what makes us who we are. Moral and spiritual relationships are first-order concerns. Material fixes such as a universal basic income will make no difference to societies in which the basic relationships are felt to be unjust. 

Then there is the material critique of capitalism. The economists who lead discussions of inequality now are its leading exponents. Homo economicus is the right starting point for social thought. We are poor calculators and single-minded, failing to see our advantage in the rational distribution of prosperity across societies. Hence inequality, the wages of ungoverned growth. But we are calculators all the same, and what we need above all is material plenty, thus the focus on the redress of material inequality. From good material outcomes, the rest follows.

The first kind of argument for capitalism’s reform seems recessive now. The material critique predominates. Ideas emerge in numbers and figures. Talk of non-material values in political economy is muted. The Christians and Marxists who once made the moral critique of capitalism their own are marginal. Utilitarianism grows ubiquitous and compulsory.

But then there is Amartya Sen.

[Read more…]

Blockchain could reshape our world — and the far right is one step ahead

Josh Hall writes:

Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain reads the title of a 2017 book. From currency speculation through to verifying the provenance of food, blockchain technology is eking out space in a vast range of fields.

For most people, blockchain technologies are inseparable from bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that has been particularly visible in the news recently thanks to its hyper-volatility. Crypto-entrepreneurs have made and lost millions, and many people have parlayed their trading into a full-time job. But blockchain technology, which allows for immutable records of activities, stored on a ledger that is held not just in one place but massively distributed, has applications in every conceivable area in commerce and beyond. Soon, there will be blockchains everywhere that transactions happen.

While the focus has so far been on currencies such as bitcoin, what’s less well known is the large and growing community of blockchain developers and evangelists, many of whom believe that the technology could herald radical changes in the ways our economies and societies are structured. But there’s a big question at the heart of that community: what might a world built with the help of blockchain technology look like?

Unchain, a large bitcoin and blockchain convention based in Hamburg, seems to have a potential answer. Along with speakers from blockchain startups, cryptocurrency exchanges and a company that purports to offer “privately managed cities as a business”, the conference programme also features Alice Weidel, listed on the site as an “economist and bitcoin entrepreneur”.

In fact, Weidel is the co-leader of Alternative für Deutschland, which recently became the third largest party in Germany’s Bundestag. Weidel’s election campaign in 2017 was the party’s breakthrough moment, and what many have seen as a watershed in German politics – the return of far-right, populist ethno-nationalism to the federal parliament. [Continue reading…]

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In Syria’s war economy the worst of enemies are also partners in business


Century Foundation Fellow, Aron Lund, writes:

After the October 2017 fall of Raqqa to U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab guerrillas, the extremist group known as the Islamic State is finally crumbling. But victory came a cost: Raqqa lies in ruins, and so does much of northern Syria.

At least one of the tools for reconstruction is within reach. An hour and a half’s drive from Raqqa lies one of the largest and most modern cement plants in the entire Middle East, opened less than a year before the war by the multinational construction giant LafargeHolcim. If production were to be resumed, the factory would be perfectly positioned to help rebuild bombed-out cities like Raqqa and Aleppo.

However, although the factory may well hold one of the keys to Syria’s future, it also has an unseemly past.

In December 2017, French prosecutors charged LafargeHolcim’s former CEO with terrorism financing, having learned that its forerunner Lafarge was reported to have paid millions of dollars to Syrian armed groups, including the terrorist-designated Islamic State.

The strange story of how the world’s most hated extremist group allegedly ended up receiving payments from the world’s largest cement company is worth a closer look, not just for what it tells us about the way money fuels conflict, but also for what it can teach us about Syria’s war economy—a vast ecosystem of illicit profiteering, where the worst of enemies are also partners in business.

This work was supported, in part, by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It draws on interviews with Syrian and international experts, diplomats, fighters, and people involved with Lafarge’s operations in Syria, as well as on a wide range of written sources in English, Arabic, French, and Norwegian, including press coverage, company reports, memoirs, and social media.

Lafarge’s behavior, which is now under investigation in France and could result in criminal convictions, was far from exceptional for companies operating in civil-war Syria—or perhaps in any similar war zone. The need to consider opportunistic compromises, dubious deals, and under-the-table payoffs to criminal and violent actors to keep Lafarge’s factory in operation will therefore also be difficult to avoid for others hoping to operate in Syria’s fragmented politico-economic landscape.

The fact that President Bashar al-Assad’s government is now clearly dominant and the Syrian war seem to be moving toward a reconstruction stage will only exacerbate the problem.5 The fighting is far from over and the country remains divided, with rival armed actors ruling several peripheral areas. The most important one is the northern, Kurdish-controlled region propped up by the United States.

As long as these divisions remain in place, many humanitarian and commercial actors will be forced to work under two or more rival regimes, negotiating a path among militant actors who routinely prey on industry, trade, and relief operations. During the war, a new class of conflict traders has emerged to facilitate cross-line connections of this type. Though they hail from different backgrounds and areas, most retain strong links to Assad’s government. As reconstruction money starts pouring in, it will be near-impossible to avoid some level of dependence on these regime-connected fixers and war profiteers—the new kings of Syria’s economy, whose power grows as the Syrian army advances. [Continue reading…]