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Reading between the lines

Stars in their eyes

Joe Kaplinsky takes a look at some scientific optimists

  • Visions: how science will revolutionise the 21st century and beyond by Michio Kaku, Oxford University Press, UKP 18.99 hbk

  • Mining the sky: untold riches from the asteroids, comets and planets by John S Lewis, Addison Wesley, UKP 10.99 pbk

'The ever-increasing pace of technological change' seems to have become a constant reference point for social, economic and political ideas. The message of the books under review is you ain't seen nothing yet. But they differ from much other commentary in their positive assessment of future possibilities. Instead of seeing technology creating as many problems as it solves, they see it opening up unlimited possibilities for human development. Though their books are quite different, what Michio Kaku and John Lewis share is a sense of the scale of human activity, of how far human civilisation has come and of how far it could go.

Mining the Sky is tightly focused on the exploration of space. Rather than trying to predict the future Lewis's book is an attempt to shape it. Lewis opens with a quote from William Jennings Bryan: 'Destiny is not a matter of chance - it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for - it is a thing to be achieved', and ends with one from HG Wells: 'There is no way back to the past. The choice is the universe - or nothing.' Railing against the spinelessness of our age he is none the less confident that enough individuals will push forward, in the face of opposition from meddling government bureaucrats and short-sighted politicians, to realise the amazing possi-bilities of colonising the solar system and beyond. A professor of planetary sciences and co-director of the space engineering research centre at the University of Arizona-Tucson, he always includes enough technical detail to back up his speculation.

Mining the Sky surveys what we could do in the solar system right now. It starts at the moon (relatively boring), moves through Mars (more exciting) to the asteroid belt (inspirational) and beyond to the outer planets. Towards the end Lewis looks ahead to how we might start a journey to distant stars.

Lewis argues that the barriers to realising our dreams are to be found in society, not in technology. While his passion is directed towards space science, his fury is aimed at those whose sense of crisis stops them thinking big: 'Liberals tell us we are running out of natural resources, and cannot use the ones we have because energy production, mining and industry pollute. Conservatives tell us that we are running out of money and can revive the economy only by slashing funding for research and education and lowering environmental standards. The message of this book will not sit well with either camp.' (pxi)

Lewis contrasts the past optimism of Nasa to its present caution, pointing out that since it took eight years to get to the moon last time, and the present plans would get us there in 'only' 16 years after go-ahead, we are twice as far from the moon now as we were in 1961. He puts this down to the attitudes of officials, whom he likens to the eunuchs who ruled Ming China in the fifteenth century. Just as the Chinese trading fleets had opened the coasts of India and Arabia, had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and were about to break into European waters, the eunuchs called a halt to explor-ation and ordered the treasure boats burned along with plans and records of the explorations. China cut itself off from the world. 'The eunuchs have won the day', declares Lewis. Our problem now, as then, is that our leaders don't have the balls for exploring the new and unknown.

Lewis and his ideas also make an appearance in Kaku's Visions, but set in a wider context. Visions is a broad survey of developments in computer, biomolecular and quantum science. Kaku has dealt with the problem of predicting the future by presenting the consensus among scientists and engineers who are actually producing new technology, set against what he calls the individual prejudices of 'eccentric social critics' such as journalists, sociologists, writers, fashion designers, artists and philosophers, who merely consume it.

Kaku identifies 'three pillars' of science: matter, life and mind. Scientific study of the mind has not undergone the same dramatic transformation as the rest of science, and Kaku focuses on the advances in computing instead. That's okay because he does not pretend that present efforts in the field of artificial intelligence have anything to do with human consciousness (yet), and the future advances he does highlight, from the transformation of the internet into a useful tool to 'quantum computing', are interesting in their own terms.

He draws the material together around two themes. First, that we are moving from the age of discovery into the age of mastery: 'We are on the cusp on an epoch-making transition, from being passive observers of nature to being active choreographers of nature.' (p5) While that may sound like the pessimistic sociology of Ulrich Beck, it comes with none of the fretting over risks and unintended consequences. Kaku is convinced that risk can be defeated. If we can overcome what is, in civilisational terms, our childlike status, we will eventually make ourselves 'invulnerable to any natural disaster' (p326).

Kaku's second theme is 'synergy', the way in which developments all across the frontiers of science feed off each other today. Drawing on a broad range of sources, he presents a useful counter to the idea that knowledge is somehow fragmenting into narrow specialities.

Some of the discussion in Visions about the social consequences of technical advance is not so good. Drawing on impressionable sociologists and management consultants like Lester Thurow, the Tofflers, Kenichi Ohmae and Hamish McRae was bound to produce an assessment of the computer 'revolution' that is more rooted in present preoccupations with social div-ision than in future reality. Kaku's reply to the panic about a split between information haves and have nots is devastatingly simple - 'My own point of view is that we need to increase the size of the pie' (p128) - but it would have been nice if he had developed the point a bit more, rather than let the sociologists have their say.

The discussion of problems associated with genetic technologies is even more uncritical, and Kaku even goes so far as to endorse a ban on germ-line therapy. But what keeps Kaku on track is his sense of the big picture. All of these problems fade away as mere details which will be overcome in the struggle to forge what Kaku calls a 'planetary civilisation'. As yet, according to Kaku, we do not even qualify as a civilisation proper.

The contrast between this vision and the low horizons of an environmentalist outlook is illustrated in Kaku's treatment of future energy supply. Like any good Malthusian he postulates that our energy consumption will grow at a constant rate. A 'modest' growth rate of two per cent per annum implies that our energy consumption will increase by a factor of 10 billion in 1200 years. At this point he parts company with Malthus: rather than using these figures as 'proof' that growth must come to an end, he deduces that on this timescale our civilisation will really consume this much energy, and so must have mastered the entire output of the sun. Growth beyond this will not become impossible either; it will just send us off on our way to mastery of the entire galaxy!

The same sense of unlimited resources is present in Mining the Sky. Indeed, Lewis provides a concrete scheme through which we might capture useful amounts of energy from the sun by constructing massive solar power stations in space, using asteroids as the raw material. The scale of resources available in space is mind boggling. In an attempt to bring it down to Earth Lewis calculates its cash value. The value of iron and steel would come to $7 billion per head at current population levels, nickel $6 billion per head, cobalt $26 billion per head, and that is without counting up the platinum, gold, silver, copper and all the rest. On this sort of income he suggests that we could support an effectively unlimited population on Earth. Of course, it is an elementary mistake to assume that a lump of metal in the sky could somehow transform the social organisation of the planet on which an income depends. It is the same mistake made by economists who believe in 'natural capital'. But ultimately Lewis knows that it is people, not rocks, which count:

'As long as the human population remains as pitifully small as it is today, we shall be severely limited in what we can accomplish. Human intelligence is the key to the future: human beings are not as some would have it, a form of pollution. Having only one Einstein, one Hokusai, one Mozart, one da Vinci, one Shankara, one Poulenc, one Arthur Ashe, and one Bill Gates is not enough. We need - and can have - a million times as many.' (p256)

But to produce geniuses needs more than human bodies. It needs a society that will allow individuals to push forward and which will inspire them to push themselves to, and even beyond, the limits. These books are a solid contribution to creating a culture which could do just that.

Humanitarianism International plc

Para Teare reviews a study that puts aid organisations in Africa on trial

  • Famine crimes: politics and the disaster relief industry in Africa by Alex de Waal, African Rights, UKP 11.95 pbk

Alex de Waal's book, i am reliably informed, has caused a furore among aid workers in what are now called 'non-governmental organisations' (NGOs), by calling for aid to Africa to become more directly political. Aid agencies, which have always insisted that they are neutral, were deeply upset by the suggestion. 'How dare de Waal jeopardise aid by tying it to political ambitions?' was the criticism.

But aid has never been neutral, nor can it be. Aid has always come with certain political and economic con-ditions attached. The recent G8 summit is a case in point. In Birmingham there were at least 60 000 people calling for the major economic powers to cancel the debts owed them by developing countries. A noble gesture, but a gesture just the same - because any country that has its debt cancelled will have to conform to strict conditions on how it runs its affairs, conditions imposed by the IMF or the World Bank. Yet 60 000 people, mostly Christians and aid workers, were demanding this new dispensation. I certainly did not see any banners questioning the right of Western-run institutions to intervene in the affairs of developing countries. To my ears, saying that aid should be political in its intent is like telling the truth, instead of hiding behind a phoney neutrality.

Through the prism of famine, de Waal traces the history and the role of Western humanitarianism in the less developed world, from the initial actions of Oxfam in the Biafra famine of 1968 to today. He shows how the NGOs have mushroomed into influential organisations, courted by the media and supported by donor governments, to the point where they have become major policy-makers in many third world countries - more important even than the national government. His criticism of the NGOs is that, for all their clout, they are not successful in preventing famines. He takes us through country after country in Africa, demonstrating how within each particular context famines are either created, ignored or manipulated.

Where do the NGOs fit in? De Waal shows how the vested interests of the aid workers and their organisations tend to win out over humanitarian ideals. Instead of preventing famine, upholding human rights or helping the poor, aid organisations tend to be more concerned with winning influence and publicity for the charity concerned, or even with enhancing the individual career prospects of those involved. De Waal convincingly argues that international humanitarianism is really about the self-preservation of the 'Humanitarian International'. According to de Waal it makes no difference to aid organisations that African elites manipulate aid and famine alike for their own political purposes, because the aid organisations too are depend-ent on disaster for their existence.

The NGOs are not democratic or accountable, nor do they like their work to be tested against any obvious standards. They certainly have many critical evaluations internally but, as de Waal points out, these only ever serve to redouble their efforts, never to question their overall direction. No NGO will publicly admit that it has failed. The NGO world is a tough one where com-petition is fierce, and whoever gets the most publicity gets the most funds. For this reason the most important relationship for the NGOs is with the media, which plays a key role in helping aid agencies get a large international relief response.

De Waal vividly explains how journalists know exactly what a 'famine relief story looks like' and search for the right elements - starving babies, food queues and squalor. De Waal quotes the BBC's George Alagiah: 'Relief agencies depend on us for publicity and we need them to tell us where the stories are. There's an unspoken understanding between us, a sort of code. We try not to ask questions too bluntly, "Where will we find the starving babies?", and they never answer explicitly. We get the pictures just the same.'

De Waal's criticism is that in all of this talk of humanitarianism, the 'famine vulnerable' are the very people whose interests are overlooked. His alternative is an openly political humanitarianism - in other words, he wants Western agencies to play a more proactive role in intervening to ensure that aid is distributed to the right people. He wants consultation, not with authoritarian governments, but with local people, the 'famine vulnerable' themselves.

If de Waal was arguing that African people should mobilise themselves against their governments and start controlling their lives, he would have a point. I would like to think that is what he means. But his proposals sound more like a scheme for leaving the 'famine vulnerable' under the supervision of unaccountable Western-run institutions, instead of unaccountable governments and NGOs. He says he wants famine to be made into an offence - a famine crime - so that those responsible can be tried by an International Tribunal. Such a tribunal has already been used to impose the authority of the 'international community' in Africa, through the trial of those accused of crimes against humanity in Rwanda (see 'Showtrial, UN-style', LM, September 1997).

De Waal's analysis of current NGO strategy is a powerful expose of the imperial condescension behind Western aid. But his own proposals point towards a system of more direct political domination by the West. Is that really the radical alternative that Africa needs?

Para Teare is coordinator of Genderwatch

  • The secret of happy children by Steve Biddulph, Thorsons, UKP 8.99 pbk

Have you noticed how the baby and childcare section of your local bookshop is growing? Hardly a month goes by without a new expert giving us the benefit of their wisdom on such matters as thumb-sucking and bed-wetting, because we seem incapable of coping with these things on our own any more. 'Parent' is now a verb, and 'parenting' is being professionalised.

I have to admit that, being a critic of this new tendency towards 'paranoid parenting' (and a normally anxious parent), I have read them all. The latest of these childcare gurus is Steve Biddulph, a family therapist from Australia, whose new book is modestly titled The Secret of Happy Children (what caring parent could afford not to buy that?). Biddulph generously asserts in the introduction that we should take his advice with a pinch of salt, because 'experts are a hazard to your health! Your own heart will always tell you, if you listen to it, what is the best way to raise your children'. This book is simply his 'love and encouragement' to us. But he begins to turn the screw on the very next page. 'When reading this book you may realise that, by accident, you are hypnotising your children into disliking themselves, and causing them to have problems which may last a lifetime.'

Got a headache? Kids driving you mad, but you are trying hard to remain pleasant? Stop now. 'Don't pretend to be happy or loving when you aren't feeling that way - it's confusing and can make children become evasive and in time quite disturbed.' And you do not want disturbed children, do you? Perhaps you are the 'shy, timid' type of parent who finally blows up only after a lot of simmering? Biddulph helpfully points out that 'it will come as no surprise to you that parents who injure their children are often from this category'. Can you feel your confidence growing even as you read?

But not to worry; his book is full of advice to guide you away from these pitfalls. He spends long pages deploring the way some parents put down their children, and issuing assurances that little Johnny is bound to become a mad axe-murderer because of it. Then, just when you are swearing an oath that you will never treat your children like that, Biddulph issues another warning: 'Some parents, of course, go to the other extreme. They swear never to scold, hit or deprive their own children. The danger here is that they may overdo it, and their children suffer from a lack of control. It isn't easy is it?'

Apart from being a (probably) well-meaning scaremonger, Biddulph is a mine of predictable, half-baked opinion. Inevitably, on 'food and kids' behaviour': 'did you know that poor food intake is thought by some to be the major factor in juvenile crime?' On education: 'thousands of years ago Aborigines were teaching young people on a one-to-one basis and had no failures or drop-outs.' (And no rocket scientists either.)

Biddulph includes at the end of his book a remarkably professional-sounding 'Letter from a mother', who, after a few sessions of family therapy with him, apparently went from being a tranquilliser junky on the verge of killing her children to a happy, confident wife and mother. (He asked her what happens to her body when she gets mad with the kids, and told her to join Parents' Anonymous.) 'It's still hard sometimes', writes the mother, 'but I feel like a new person compared with back then, and the kids are much better for it...So what can I say but THANKS.' Pass the nappy sack...

Virginia Hume

Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998

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