Monday, September 18, 2006

Fighting over Water

Reuter's has good news, of sorts. Its been 4600 years since anyone went to war over water. Since two city states in what was is now Iraq fought over irrigation rights, water-driven conflicts have had more bark then bite, in that they are frequently threatened, but never carried out.

But then, the future, it is generally agreed, tends to be different from the past. Climate change, desertification, and increased population in the developing world threaten increased motivation to fight over an increasingly scarce resource that is less essential to human life only than oxygen.

Hydrocarbon rich Central Asia seems more likely to fight over water than oil, of which there is plenty. Arguably such a conflict is already under way in Israel/Palestine. Meanwhile, possession of large water reserves seems to have become grounds for jarringly nationalistic rhetoric. In Canada, it has become a commonplace of public opinion that fresh water reserves (claimed to be the largest in the world) are the national patrimony, and must not be sold internationally. Surely this will become a harder position to justify, if continents golbal warming leads to more frequent drouts elsewhere.

Arguments to the contrary include claims that collaboration is almost always more valuable--water can almost always be reused, for hydroelectric power, irrigation, or municipal supplies. Additionally, fighting over waterways requires fighting over the land that surrounds them. A state conquering these must provide for the occupying populations--including drinking water. Seizing and holding a freshwater supply is a tricky and difficult business.

The question, then, is just how desperate people and their leaders will become.
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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Non-Aligned Movement

Wht becomes of an international body that has outlived its usefulness? That's the obvious question to ask, with the 2006 summit of the Non-Aligned Movement underway in Havana. The organisation made a real sort of sense during the Cold War, as a meeting point for states that wanted alternatives to association with the two superpowers. But with that period long gone, it seems to have become a kind of rogues' gallery of international outcasts. The gang's all here: Iran, Venezuela, Belarus, Burma, Zimbabwe, even reclusive North Korea--everyone's favorite misbehaving regimes are here.

True, they're united by their bad standing in Washinghton. And a bad relationship with the Bush Administration is hardly in itself a reason to resent a government. Nonetheless, these are pretty dodgy folks--with the marginal exception of Venezuela, none of the states just mentioned has even a passable human rights record.

These, of course, aren't the whole lot. India, South Africa, and a host of other state currently well integrated in the global order are present--118 in total, and most of the world's population. But the odd cases seem to dominate the speaking schedule. It's a fair question who's running the show.

What this suggests, to me at least, is that American pressure on these states has forced countries with little in common other then emnity with Washington into league with one another, hijacking a harmless relic of an organisation. It also, oddly, makes the US look like the truly non-aligned state, having as it does few reliable allies outside coalitions of convenience.

Other international bodies that have outlived the bulk of their usefulness often end up in a fairly reasonable condition. The OSCE does little other than monitor a few elections now and then, yet it continues to serve as a pleasant form of tax-free employment for volumes of retired diplomats in Vienna. In any event, the folks in Havana at the moment are probably harmless enough, insofar as the dodgy governments represented have little influence outside their own borders. Still, it seems unfortunate that the only states genuinely and openly resistant to poor American foreign policy are so poorly governed themselves.
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Thursday, September 14, 2006

The British Museum

The British Museum houses what must surely be the largest and most valuable collection of stolen property anywhere in the world. From Bablyon to Egypt, to Greece, to the East Asia, there's no shortage of priceless cultural stuff that belongs someplace else. (It puts Belgium's far more jingoistic Africa Museum to shame.)

The justification for this has usually been the protection of valuables. Turn of the century Egypt, we were asked to believe, was unable to protect its own cultural heritage; hence the British stepped in to do so themselves (and enjoy it on their own turf). Such claims have, at least some of the time, been quite true. In Iraq recently, the British government managed to create the need for the protection of artifacts themselves, by manufacturing a failed state, utterly incapable of protecting its own history. Witness the looting of Bagdad's museums a few years ago. If only they'd stepped in with the same perservationist mindset in that case.

But then, how often does this argument hold up? Are we really to believe that the Greeks are still somehow incapable of taking good care of the Elgin Marbles? And why are they still named after the British general that stole them, anyway? All this vexed me the other day, as a friend and I strolled through the Greek and Mesopotamian galleries of the Museum, shortly before closing. I've often thought that a trip round the world should really end right there, in the Museum's stunning new Great Court. After seeing all cultures and all peoples, one could see their creations, gathered together in one place.

I suppose one can reasonably as whether or not it even makes sense to return these things after so long. I don't know, myself. There's a unique pleasure in being able to see that much in one place. The real tragedy is how many Greeks and Egyptians and Iraqis never get to see their own cultural heritage, because of this leftover of empire. What to do? Perhaps the UK government should think in terms of redressing this. If they learned to think of themselves as responsible for connecting cultural works with their cultures of origin, they might catch less flack for hoarding them. Alternately, it might simply make them more amenable to returning these things. Surely the Greeks have been around long enough to know how to take care of a few statues themselves.

***Sorry for the gap lately folks. It's likely to continue, I'm afraid, until I get situated in London. My best to all my people elsewhere in the would.
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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Exit Brussels

As I spend my last 24 hours in Brussels, the BBC's Mark Mardell, comments in his European Diary (about halfway down) on the fate of Brussels in the face of Flemish nationalism. If Belgium, as secessionists demand, was divided into two EU member states, what on Earth would one do with Brussels itself? Technically it's in Flanders, but it's predominantly Francophone, and is defined not so much by the state to which it is capital as by the international institutions it houses. Mardell cites a recent report by a Flemish nationalist thinktank that recommends the city be jointly administered by both successor states and the EU itself. But would this work? Could Brussels handle that much more bureaucracy? And what would one do with Nato, left out in the cold in the new dispensation? But then, if such an arrangement worked anywhere it would be here, where Belgian national identity is burried almost entirely underneath international institutionalisation.

This will be my last entry from Brussels. Thanks again to all the folks who shared it with me. Best of luck in the future.
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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Belgian Sealing Ban

In my last week in Belgium, I’d like to take a moment to congratulate the Belgian government for a proposed ban on Canadian seal products. The ban is a reaction to Canada’s needlessly brutal annual seal hunt. It’s nice to be reminded every now and again, as a Canadian, that we’re rather less than perfect. With a little luck the ban might make its way down the street from the Congress to the EU institutions.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006


Even in the heady world of multinational enterprise, De Beer’s is a rarified case, a truly odd beast. It runs on something like a 17th century colonial economic model, probably resembling Leopold’s Congo as much as, say, Dow Chemical or the like. Its business model is based on a near total monopoly on the world diamond market, and artificially created scarcity.

Or at least it was. The whole thing started to unravel a few years back, when the company’s longtime head died. That and the appearance of diamonds outside their sphere of influence (from Australia and elsewhere) has shaken the company badly—they now control slightly less than half the global diamond trade, a situation anathema to a business model dependant on monopolization.

Like any good monopoly De Beer’s operates quietly enough. Aside of extraordinarily plush advertising, the company is publicly visible mostly as a diminutive office in London through which something like half the world’s diamonds used to pass (its actually headquartered in Johannesburg). Anyone controlling enough of something doesn’t need to worry too much about selling. De Beer’s has always determined terms of sale unilaterally. Commercial buyers are lucky to have the chance at stones, and are expected to pay whatever is asked.

All this would be little more than an economic inconvenience to Western consumers, if the monopoly did not make the diamond trade almost completely opaque. It’s just about impossible to know where a diamond came from—if it funded an African civil war you’d never know it. The proliferation of conflict diamonds just adds to the colonial overtones of the business, making African warlords and dictators equivalent to the local stooges once employed by European colonial administrations.

But this too is changing. A new system of conflict-free certification is beginning to take hold. There’s nothing perfect about it, but it at least represents a chance for other diamond traders to begin taking up the business practices of the last century, if not the current one.

De Beer’s itself is an almost extravagant vestige of colonialism, a mechanism for the satisfaction of Western luxury tastes designed to operate necessarily at the expense of the third world, while bilking its customers on artificially overvalued goods. It’s a thief on both ends. The effect, really, was remarkable, and still is: a high value commodity from developing countries was sold to wealthy Western consumers in a way that benefited neither of them.

It would be interesting to know how much the company contributed to constructing the cult of the diamond in the West. It wouldn’t be so surprising to find out that they created the market as much as cornered it. In any case, that they’ve lost quite a lot of it is a good thing by almost any standard. With luck, diamond rich African nations will benefit properly from a newly opened and better regulated market—and the rest of us might more easily avoid funding amoral monopolists, tin-pot dictators, and African warlords. I reckon that’s pretty hard to argue with.

**Thanks to a good friend for pointing me toward this one…. Have a safe trip home, and have fun on that side of the pond.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Green Party of Canada

The Green Party of Canada is in political limbo. They're not quite the real thing—they’ve never been elected to any public office—but they're not entirely insignificant either; they teeter on the edge of something big or of nothing at all.

Elizabeth May’s victory in the party leadership race might or might not change that. She represents a turn away from they party’s flirtation with free-market economics, but also comes as the party stands at least a slight chance of actually picking up a seat—if not in parliament then at least in a provincial legislature. That the country’s major polling organizations have started tracking it along with the big four parties, along with mainstream press coverage of the leadership race, suggests the party has arrived, made itself politically relevant.

Presumably, if anyone should be worried, it’s the NDP. Perpetually incapable of reform, and prone to knee-jerk moralizing, it’s the little party that could but couldn’t quite. It’s shackled constitutionally to organized labor. This is something that likely made good sense a generation ago, but seems an anachronism now. Unions are no longer the only game in town on the left, and blue collar union membership is probably more socially conservative than the left would like to let on.

Ideally, the Greens represent not the one-issue platform their name suggests, but a mixed bag, a broad political voice on the left the Canada mysteriously lacks. The NDP have had the breadth of voice for years, but not the depth. I can’t recall the last time I heard a policy speech from an NDP leader that was anything other than a sustained attack on a Liberal (or now Conservative) position. NDP policy has become alarmingly thin on the ground.

The Green Party looks almost set to capitalize on this. If the Liberal leadership goes to a progressive candidate, then the NDP might well be squeezed out between them, as thoroughly as the Tories were in the ’94 election. The left would stay split, but it would be split between two more thoughtful and politically astute actors than it is today.

I’m not sure I’d object.

Aside: apologies for silence lately, folks... I've been tying up a few loose ends. Should be back at it for a bit.
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