Monday, 25 August 2008

from poverty to power

Anyone with an ounce of humanity cannot fail to be disturbed by the extent and depth of world poverty. The question is, what can ordinary people do about it? A number of approaches are possible ....

We can all donate to a disaster relief fund, sponsor a child or help buy a well for a needy village or literacy classes for an uneducated adult. And it all helps. We may not change the world, but we change someone's world. But most agree this is not addressing the root causes.

We can go one step further, and as well as giving aid, pay a fair wage for the products we get from third world countries. This is the logic behind organisations like Fair Trade, which enable us to buy products where those who produce it are paid a decent price for their labours.

We can agitate for change, by asking our governments to increase their foreign aid to meet the Millenium Development Goals, reduce third world debt and Make Poverty History. We can campaign for fairer trade rules. All this will make a big difference if it happens.

All of these approaches rely on those of us in the rich west being willing to make changes ourselves, or support changes by our governments. But now comes a book which challenges us to look even deeper into the issue.

From Poverty to Power by Oxfam's Duncan Green argues that the biggest barrier to eliminating poverty are non-democratic, and often corrupt governments, which don't allow the poor an opportunity to change their lives. The poor need effective governments working in the interests of all their citizens. I guess it's obvious really, but it needed to be researched and said.

A couple of interesting examples.

  • On this video, we learn that 50 years ago, South Korea was poorer than Sudan; now the average citizen is 12 times better off. It asks why, and the inference is that in South Korea people were given a fair opportunity, while in Sudan their opportunity has been ruined by war, genocide and inequality.
  • Botswana is a poor landlocked country that imports 80% of its food. It has one major money earner, diamonds. Over the 40 years since independence, its per capita GDP has increased a hundredfold. More importantly, a government "for the people" has ensured that the wealth is spent equitably. Many other examples of citizens actively involved in a democracy leading to reducing poverty are quoted by Duncan.

This leaves us with the obvious question: how (if at all) can we help?

I'm not sure, but it seems that we can try to support aid programs in countries which fulfill Duncan's criteria. And perhaps we need to urge our governments to strongly support nations which are moving in the right direction. For too long, the US and the west generally have supported regimes that support the west's perceived strategic goals, even if they are oppressive regimes, and opposed some benign governments if they do not align with the US.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

undoing 200 years of environmental harm

The Murray-Darling Basin is a very important river catchment in Australia. It covers a seventh of the land area of our continent, produces 40% of the nation's agricultural profit, and 70% of our irrigated agriculture. Yet much of the basin is arid, and much of the agriculture relies in rains falling in the eastern ranges and flowing hundreds of kilometres before it is pumped from the river.

Basin map by MDBC.

But almost 200 years of settlement, agriculture and land clearing, and a century of irrigation, have left their mark. Notable changes to the natural ecosystems include:

  • Many of the basin's rivers have had their flows reduced to a trickle at times, changing the riverine ecosystems. Wetlands at the downstream ends of most rivers (including the important Macquarie Marshes) do not receive nearly the required amount of water to sustain large bird populations. And flows to the Coorong, an enormous estuarine area where the Murray reaches the sea, have been so reduced that the ecology is becoming more saline and the whole character of this water body is in danger.
  • Extensive areas of land have been cleared, including critical land along the river banks, changing runoff patterns and decimating habitat.
  • Chemical use in agriculture has led to high nutrient levels with consequent algal growth and occasional fish kills from pesticides or low oxygen levels.
  • As a result, many native fish species, including the iconic Murray cod, have disappeared from many locations, and alien invasive species (including the destructive European Carp) now predominate.

Recently a "Sustainable River Audit" was completed and the results published. There is a lot of work to do:

  • River flows in about half the basin's 23 catchments have been sufficiently changed to have a serious impact on ecology. (This is perhaps not as bad as I might have thought.)
  • The loss of native fish species and replacement with exotic species has occurred at damaging levels in every one of the catchments, with only 3 categorised as being in moderate condition, and the remaining 20 in poor condition or worse.
  • The numbers of macroinvertebrates (basically bugs and grubs) is considered an important ecological measure, because they are a major food source for fish. Their condition more or less reflects that of the fish.
  • In all, only one catchment (the Paroo, in the arid far west, and therefore not so heavily "developed") remains in good condition, two other catchments (also in more arid areas) are in moderate condition. The remainder are assessed as in poor or worse condition.

Other factors affect river health: vegetation, channel erosion, location within catchment, climate, etc, and the first two of these will also be measured in future surveys.

There has been much talk about returning water to the river by buying irrigation water from farmers and more efficient water use, but this information suggests that the causes are much more than just over-use of water. Australian governments, national and state, have a record of doing studies and making plans, but generally sitting on their hands. The farming lobby has a lot of influence. We'll see how much is done about this.

Check out the Audit at the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

does belief in god harm us?

Recently I visited a web forum conducted by atheists. Its home page had a slogan: "Believe in God? We can fix that!", so I posted a question - "I believe in God. Why does that need fixing, and how do you propose to do it?"

Of course some interesting discussion ensured, some of which was based around the answers some of the atheist members gave to the first part of my question. They argued that my belief needed fixing because it was harmful to me and to the world. But they gave very little evidence for this claim, so I set myself to test the proposition: Belief in God leads to worse outcomes in the world than non-belief.

To demonstrate that the proposition is true would require four things to be established:

(1) Have theists done worse things in the world than non-theists?

For this we need an overall estimate of the evil things done by both sides, based on competent, objective research.

Killings is one measure of general evil (not the only one, but useful because there are good estimates available). The following 5 references seem to me to be competent and objective estimates of killings committed by various groups over the centuries:

Which has killed more people? Genocides (Wikipedia) 20th century death tolls World War II death count Historian Rodney Stark

It turns out that the number of killings by non-theists in the 20th century alone was estimated to be 75-100 million, much more than the estimated 30 million committed by christians in 20 centuries. These numbers are enough for anyone to be deeply ashamed of, but they definitely suggest the atheist proposition falls at the first hurdle.

(2) Are theism and non-theism significant causes of these atrocities?

This is a pretty difficult one to test, because how can we judge whether the religious belief of someone committing an atrocity is genuine, or whether it was atheism or communism that led to atrocities? But if we want to make an assessment, we have to be circumspect, and rely on good historians.

  • Sociologist and historian Rodney Stark concludes that governments and not the church were clearly responsible for the millions who died in the European conquest of the Americas (where a large number of killings occurred), and that atheism was probably not the main factor in the millions of deaths under Chinese and Russian communism.
  • Nevertheless, atheism was an integral part of Marx-Leninism as this book outlines. It talks of "Lenin's policy of militant atheism". Lenin sent a letter in 1922 where he said that the "protracted use of brutality" was necessary to achieve the promotion of atheism.
  • The following references report on research indicating that religion was not a major factor in most recent suicide bombings (contrary to popular belief): The role of social context in terror attacks Is Suicide Terrorism Religiously Motivated? On the Edge

So the evidence is not totally consistent, but tends to oppose the proposition that it is the religious beliefs that cause the atrocities; rather it seems to be political beliefs.

(3) Is the record of theism and non-theism in the past a reliable indication of the likely behaviour today?

Even if we could establish that either theism or non-theism did evil things in the past, it is the present we are living in, and in which the proposition is being applied. Are things likely to be the same, or different?

This is even harder to gather evidence on. But perhaps where social and international conditions now are similar to when the atrocities were committed, then we may be able to demonstrate some connection between the past and the present. On this basis, Muslim suicide bombing is obviously current, as are thousands of executions a year in China by an explicitly anti-religious Government, far more than for any other country (see Amnesty International figures for this). Next closest in time and social conditions would be the communist killings of the 20th century, with the christian killings of the invasion of South America, etc, obviously from a world very different to today.

It seems that, overall, belief in God is likely to do less harm today than in the past.

(4) How do the beneficial effects of theism compare to the beneficial effects of non-theism?

So far we have only considered evil, but good must also be in the equation.

In history, christians have been at the forefront of much beneficial social reform such as hospitals, education, anti-slavery, etc. Rodney Stark concluded from his study of the rise of christianity in the first few centuries CE that one of the major factors was the christians' superior record in social welfare (there are independent letters of an unsympathetic Roman emperor to demonstrate this), especially in their care of women, children and orphans.

In the present day, many independent studies  show that believers have better mental and physical health and general wellbeing, lower rates of addiction and suicide, lower levels of stress and depression, and recover from surgery more quickly. They also are much more active in community service roles and much more likely to give time and money to charities (for Australia, see new generations and religious belief, for the US see this study). And in Australia, christian groups are by far the largest non-government providers of social services (especially aged care, but also crisis help, dealing with addictions, etc).

This research is summed up in this telling article, "Faith does breed charity" by atheist journalist Roy Hattersley, who concludes: "The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand..... The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us [atheists] free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army."

So on this matter, the evidence again does not seem to favour the atheist proposition.

so what may we conclude?

Sadly, people have done many evil things to each other, but it appears that belief or disbelief in God are not the major cause of this. We probably can't say for sure that either belief or disbelief in God are likely to lead to bad outcomes, but the evidence tends to suggest that believers contribute more good to society and have done less harm than have non-believers in the past.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

is disbelief in god irrational?

I don't believe that philosophy can prove God, certainly not to someone who wants to disbelieve, any more than it can disprove God's existence. But philosophers still address the question.

Alvin Plantinga is an eminent American philosopher who has long been a champion of an argument that (in summary) goes like this .....

Let us start by assuming there is no God and this natural world is all there is. Then our brains have evolved through natural selection alone. Natural selection works by certain behaviour increasing the probability of survival, which means more of the genes which lead to that behaviour are passed on to the next generation.

Thus, on the assumption we started with, the brain has evolved to choose behaviour that increases our chances of survival, but there is no reason to believe that it has also evolved ways of thinking about more abstract matters that are reliable. Thus our reasoning may be true in some circumstances and false in others, and we cannot trust it.

But it is our reasoning that has suggested the conclusion that no God exists, so the initial assumption is undermined. Plantinga concludes that it is thus irrational to assume a naturalistic belief in the first place.

Of course the argument is criticised by some other philosophers and dismissed by some scientists, but it seems to me to have force. Read a recent discussion of the argument by Plantinga, a discussion of some of the objections, and a discussion of some of the implications.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

dark energy

The words sound ominous - dark energy. Scientists are slowly coming to understand this mysterious feature of the universe.

The matter we can see, composed of protons and neutrons ('baryonic matter'), makes up only about 10-20% of all matter in the universe. The remainder is so-called "dark matter", because it neither emits nor reflects light and so cannot be seen. No-one yet knows for sure what it is (they think it may be small unreactive particles), but scientists know it exists because its gravitational impact can be measured. So there is much more to the universe than we can see, and in fact there is much more than matter - "dark energy" makes up perhaps 70%.

But dark energy is even harder to detect. Quantum physics concerns the interactions of very small particles, which behave quite differently to the objects we can see, and quite strangely to our way of thinking. One aspect of quantum physics is that where there is a quantum field, particles can appear and disappear.

 Quantum fluctuations in apparently empty space cause particles to appear and disappear rapidly. (I use the words "apparently empty" to describe space because particle physicists, who study quantum effects, say that where there is a quantum field, it is far from empty.) This causes empty space to have energy (known as vacuum energy or "dark energy") and to exert a gravitational force. The effect of dark energy can also be measured by its gravitational impact.

Dark energy acts in the opposite way to gravity - it tends to push things apart rather than pull them together, and is responsible for the expansion of the universe. In fact the amount of dark energy is within a very small range that allowed the universe to avoid either blowing apart by expanding too fast, or collapsing in on itself. Dark energy consists of large amounts of both positive and negative energy, and the two cancel out to 119 decimal places, leaving a very small number in the 120th place, allowing the universe to expand relatively slowly. Cosmologist Leonard Susskind comments: "To make the first 119 decimal places of the vacuum energy zero is most certainly no accident." This is one basis of the so-called "fine-tuning" argument that only a designer God could have been responsible for this, although Susskind, in common with many scientists, prefers the multiverse hypothesis.

Stephan's Quintet group of galaxies (Photo: NASA)

Now, Astronomy magazine reports,  scientists have been able to measure the effects of dark energy in areas of space where there is either a high density of galaxies (superclusters) or a dearth of galaxies (supervoids). The dark energy stretches these areas, and this changes slightly the properties of microwave radiation passing through them. Those changes have been measured, and they demonstrate that dark energy exists, although it is still unclear exactly what it is.

Cosmology continues to be an interesting and exciting pursuit to follow.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

global warming - the dirty war

Despite the fact that most experts have long considered global warming to be a fact, there are still global warming sceptics. Now some of the reasons for this are is starting to become clear.

An interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald has outlined how:

1. Exxon Mobil has admitted that it has funded climate change denial groups in an effort to reduce pressure on the company about the impacts of its products (see also this report).

2. A number of claims that throw doubt on global warming have been shown to be untrue, for example:

  • Famous botanist, David Bellamy, said in 2005 that according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Switzerland, most glaciers in the world were growing. However checking revealed that the Service's data shows they are actually retreating.
  • A website claimed the American Physical Society (the premier body of US physicists) no longer accepted the truth of human-induced global warming. However the Society's website says the evidence in favour of global warming is "incontrovertible".

If all that was reported was true, there seem to be parallels with the dishonest and partly successful attempt by tobacco companies to stifle the truth about the links between smoking and lung cancer.

Like the Who sang: "Won't be fooled again!"