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Tuesday Topsight, August 1, 2006

Haleakela_1999_Cascio.jpg"The guns of August." For anyone with a background in military/political history, that phrase is redolent with sadness. It's the title of Barbara Tuchman's highly-regarded book on the first world war, but it has come to suggest the sense of foreboding that arises in the early days of a war, especially one that begins at the peak of northern hemisphere summer. The current conflict in Lebanon generates that "guns of August" sadness in me, in part because of what has been lost in the destruction of the fragile re-democratization of Lebanon, and in part because of how much more will be lost as Israel ramps up its invasion, Hezbollah fires off more of its rockets, and Syria contemplates entering the fray -- all egged on (explicitly or implicitly) by an American administration that sees a cleansing fire as the only path to salvation for the region... and if it happens to fit in with their own rapture delusions, so much the better. Rationality may still take hold, and the participants could still pull back from the brink of disaster, but it's hard to be optimistic when civilians are dying.

In 1990, I wrote my Master's thesis in Political Science on the last downfall of democracy in Lebanon; if I can dig up an electronic copy, I'll post it here.

• On Democracy Part 1: I was once told, in passing, by a political science professor that the sign of a successful democratic institution isn't how the winners win, but how the losers lose. Do they accept the results of a fairly-counted vote? Do they seek to claim that national security, or the higher public interest, or the "silent majority" overrules the balloting? Do they attempt to manipulate the vote, or (less obviously) resist those who seek to oversee and guarantee a fair accounting? In short, do they accept that they have lost, and act as a "loyal opposition," trying to perfect their arguments for the next election, or do they resist relinquishing power?

I have the feeling that this will be a set of questions we'll all be paying closer attention to in the months to come.

• On Democracy Part 2: One important tool for insuring the fairness and accountability of political figures is transparency, and the first step to transparency is easily-accessible information. The Sunlight Foundation's new "PopUp Politicians" script makes it easy for bloggers and other website writers to embed links about American politicians into web pages. By adding a single-line script onto the main page template, then an easily-remembered HTML code around a politician's name, any reference to political figures can jump to their Congresspedia pages, their Campaign Finance profiles, and their voting records.

Just mouse-over the sun icon next to the congressperson's name to see how it works:

(my Rep in the House).

As of right now, the PopUp Politicians script only works for current US Members of Congress. The setup is simple enough, however, that I expect to see versions for They Rule (linking to corporate information) or ExxonSecrets (linking to information about bought-and-paid-for "climate skeptics") in the near future.

• Get Ready!: Whether you'll need to deal with an earthquake, a hurricane, a heatwave-related power outage, terrorist attack, or pandemic disease, chances are you'll be confronted by a significant loss of infrastructure support in the near future. Those of us growing up in California learned from an early age to have an emergency kit ready in case of a big quake, but there's no place in the world immune from major disasters. The US Department of Homeland Security set up Ready.gov to provide information on disaster preparation, but it sucks. That's why the Federation of American Scientists organization has built ReallyReady.org as a better, more complete and more useful resource for disaster prep.

ReallyReady includes specific information for people with disabilities, easy-to-use checklists of supplies, and specific instructions for understanding and dealing with a variety of disaster types, from earthquakes, hurricanes and extreme heat to pandemics, "radiation threats," and "explosions." What makes this all the more remarkable is that the whole ReallyReady site was built by an FAS intern in two months, even while the DHS Ready.gov site has struggled for years towards usability.

SustainLane's Warren Karlenzig sees a bigger picture here, and blogs about ways in which society can better prepare for heatwave-related emergencies through better urban design.

• Make Backups!: You may recall a piece I posted a little while back arguing in support of the idea of building an archive for civilization to help overcome a planet-wide disaster. The little secret of the posts here at Open the Future and WorldChanging is that I've been playing with this idea for quite awhile. Back in July, 1999, I wrote a piece called "The Retrospect Project" for a column I had in the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, making more-or-less this same argument.

There must have been something in the water, because at around the same time, a group of scientists in New York and Boston began to assemble the Alliance to Rescue Civilization. As described by an article in today's New York Times:

Cue the Alliance to Rescue Civilization, a group that advocates a backup for humanity by way of a station on the Moon replete with DNA samples of all life on Earth, as well as a compendium of all human knowledge — the ultimate detached garage for a race of packrats. It would be run by people who, through fertility treatments and frozen human eggs and sperm, could serve as a new Adam and Eve in addition to their role as a new Noah.

[...] “It makes sense to protect the things you value,” [Dr. Robert Shapiro, co-founder of ARC] said. “But we, as a civilization, we don’t have anything like that.” [...] “But I’m not here to predict doomsday; I’m here for sanity,” Dr. Shapiro said. “When we’ve gained what we’ve gained, we should fight to keep it."

The "new Adam and Eve" aspect strikes me as a bit silly, and very likely to provide more controversy than value, but the planetary backup theme is exactly right.

Everything we do as environmentalists and as futurists comes down to a belief that human civilization is worth saving. If all we cared about was the Earth, and not the people on it, we could easily ignore the vast majority of incipient ecological disasters. The planet has withstood far greater problems than global warming or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and will undoubtedly do so in the future, too. But if we care about human civilization, our own survival, we need to devote ourselves to maintaining an ecologically diverse, thriving, world. Knowing that some disasters are outside our control, however, it makes sense to devote some attention and resources to ways in which to recover from catastrophe.

Maintenance and backup.

(Photo: Haleakela, Jamais Cascio © 1999)


Keep up the great work on your blog. Best wishes WaltDe


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