State of the World, December 2015

Those who know me are well aware that I usually am pretty tuned into the affairs of the world, and am not afraid of making my views know. Since I finished my PHD, I’ve struggled to deal with the flux of my life, and therefore have stayed further and further from discussing these manners.

But make no mistake, I am paying attention. And it depresses me.

Right now, humanity has almost universally turned their attention to the problems that are going on in Syria. Having one of the largest human migrations into Europe in history will do that. Having terrorist attacks in Paris two weeks before the world’s leaders descend there will do that.

It blows my mind that so much focus has been on ISIS. Calling ISIS a “state” is pretty laughable, when they are basically a bunch of anarchists. To quote Nolan’s Batman “some people just want to watch the world burn“. Why else would a rag tag group of people inhabiting a desert be targeting powerful nations as broad as the United States, Europe, Russia and even China?

Perhaps the most frustrating part of watching the Syria situation is the response from outside actors. Most of the people who are fleeing Syria are not just running from ISIS, the Assad government also bears responsible for this. In response to Arab Spring, Assad crushed those that were protesting. This drew the ire of the United States, but there wasn’t really a good natural ally to go against them, so they pretty much waited things out. Russia, of course, backed Assad, but now also has to deal with ISIS after they bombed one of their planes. Turkey, who backs some of the rebels was not happy that Russia was bombing their allies on behalf of Assad, and shot down one of their planes. The UK has just voted to continue bombing ISIS, though it is not entirely clear what their end game is. Saudi Arabia refuses to provide long term sanctuary to Syrian refugees. They have also used the ISIS distraction as an opportunity to make an incursion into Yemen.

Nobody is talking about the most obvious way to combat the problem – redraw the borders of Syria and Iraq to a way that more reflects local ethno-cultural realities. That was the end result of the Yugoslav Wars in the 90s, and inevitably it will be the end of conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Living in pluralistic countries such as the US and Canada, it is hard for those leaders to fathom allowing the breakup of a country in such a way. However, I don’t really see what the alternative is. These people hate each other, and trying to force them to stay together is going to require some heavy handed oppression (which is what Saddam Hussein did in Iraq, and what Assad is trying to do now). Only when the local actors are content with having their independence can they unite in a way to weed out ISIS. That would require diplomacy, not bombs. That doesn’t really seem to be a popular proposal in the face of people who seek revenge.

Future directions

With the above rant finished, I want to discuss other matters. Today, I was discussing the cultural factors leading to the proliferation of mass shootings in the US. Many things were discussed, such as implementing gun control, reducing the commercial aspect of news media, increasing the quality of education children get, reducing poverty, among other things. One of my friends, who is quite a bit younger than I am, said he wants to become a lawyer, so he can change things.

As an Earth scientist, particularly in the field of climate sciences, I have encountered many people who have entered into the discipline with the idea of changing the world. I have to admit I got into it purely because I love the sciences. I have no illusions that any one result that I make will have much of an impact on world affairs.

That got me thinking, how does one get a voice that can influence world affairs? Going into the sciences, or law, or any other such profession is a noble venture, and I certainly do not want to discourage anyone from following these dreams. However, where are the Martin Luther King Jrs of the world? There are few civilian voices that capture the world’s attention like he did.

In the United States, at least, I believe that in order to have an influential voice, you must either be a celebrity or be incredibly wealthy. And if you have a voice in the US, you are almost guaranteed a global audience.

Don’t believe me? Consider the anti-vaccination movement. The primary vocal opponent of vaccination is Jenny McCarthy, a mid-level Hollywood celebrity, has managed to convince enough people that vaccines are bad that the herd immunity to some diseases is going away. This is despite almost universal condemnation from the medical community. There are enough people who put their trust in what they hear from celebrities that it damages public health in general. And this problem isn’t just in the US, this also has affected Australia.

Perhaps more concerning is the reach of the mega-wealthy. The other day, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he was putting his wealth in a charity trust fund. Make no mistake, this isn’t purely something they are doing out of the kindness of their heart. One comment that really resonated with me about this is that a wealthy person putting their money in a trust allows them to control how their money is spent, with no oversight or accountability. Should we be allowing someone who has a wealth that rivals that of many countries to have such resources? I really hope that Zuckerberg’s goals of creating a more equitable society are honest.

What happens when you combine the mega-wealthy with celebrity? You get Donald Trump. I hope Americans get together to prevent his nomination for President, because he is essentially immune to rational criticism.

As a scientist, I wonder, how can I have influence? Celebrity scientists are a rare occurence. And even then, some, such as Michael Mann, only gained that celebrity because of sustained attacks by other actors. I also do not have the personality or entrepreneurial spirit to become mega-wealthy. I see some of the more prominent members of my research field get a lot of attention in the news, but I would hardly say they are able to significantly change policy of governments. The news reports they have generally are regurgitation of press releases. Maybe dreaming of being a scientist with the ability to influence world affairs is a pipe dream.

These are the things I ponder while I am alone.