A letter from Vladimir: ‘Putin’ the Syrian chemical weapons affaire in perspective

Forgive the pun in the title, you will see another one at the end of this post, it is a weakness of mine. On September 11—the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America—the New York Times posted this remarkable letter from the Russian president Vladimir Putin. After reading it, I decided to wait a while and see how the situation would develop, in order to have a better context for giving an opinion. Now that the UN have released the results of their investigation, here it is.

In the letter Putin begins by stating that there is ‘insufficient communication’ between the American and Russian societies. I’m not really sure what he means by that: is he talking about cultural differences here? Are the phones out of order? A Russian friend of mine did tell me that it can take weeks for a letter to arrive in Russia, so maybe that’s what he’s driving at. Putin then continues by commenting that Russia and America used to be allies during the second world war, and that together they defeated the Nazis. So Putin wants to remind Americans that at one point Russians and Americans used to be comrades? Now my knowledge of historical facts may be limited, but I do recall that Germany first invaded Russia—I daresay a fellow like Stalin probably would’t have been very interested in defeating the Nazis, if they’d simply stayed out of his country. Just something to keep in mind before we start getting warm fuzzy feelings about such historical alliances. Because no sooner did WWII end or the Cold War began, starting with Stalin forming this extremely nasty business called the Eastern bloc. Was ‘insufficient communication’ to blame for that as well?

But all that is understandably left out of the letter of course. Instead, Putin starts talking about the United Nations charter that was drafted after the war, and the Russian veto power granted by it. He then continues to state how unfortunate it would be if the UN went the way of the League of Nations, which dissolved in 1946. That’s interesting, why would he mention this? Is Putin threatening to pull out of the UN if America decides to strike unilaterally? In the next section of the letter, Putin begins listing a few reasons why America should not attack Syria.

Putin writes that many countries are not in favor of a strike against Syria and mentions that such a strike is even opposed by the Pope. Now if you are going to use the Pope as an argument here, shouldn’t you first ask yourself if there is any war the Pope would condone? Certainly not the war on AIDS, for example. So who cares what the Pope thinks anyway. Besides that, many countries are also not opposed to a strike either, making this argument a bit weak.

Putin continues by warning that a strike could completely destabilize the whole middle-eastern region and lead to an increase in terrorist attacks. But then how stable is this region right now? Indeed, it would seem that the region is doing a pretty good job at destabilizing itself already! And even if Putin were right about this, then a strike might still very well put an end to any further indiscriminate gassing to death of innocent men, women and children. Now my morals may not be as lofty as the Pope’s, but an end to indiscriminate infanticide seems in my limited humanist perspective to be well worth a little destabilizing of a few middle-eastern countries.

Putin then says that the battle in Syria has nothing to do with a struggle for democracy, and furthermore that a few of the factions fighting on the side of the rebels have been labeled terrorist organizations by the American government. However, Putin fails to mention that the Hezbollah—another well known terrorist organization—has recently also joined the fight, but on the side of Assad’s regime. So as there are terrorists on both sides of this conflict, one terrorist organization or the other is going to come out on top whether America strikes or not, making this a rather moot point to make. Then Putin writes that the conflict is fueled by foreign nations supplying weapons to the rebels… Excuse me? This coming from the country that is a major supplier of advanced weapons to the Assad regime, and therefore to Hezbollah? Really?

Putin then goes on to write that extremist fighters who joined the rebels from other countries may go home traumatized after the fight and become a problem. Well, to that I would say that extremist who are fanatical enough that they would be prepared to travel abroad and fight some jihadist cause should already be considered potentially extremely dangerous. So this is not a particularly strong argument to make against a possible strike.

Putin also claims there is every reason to believe Syrian rebels gassed their own countrymen to death, thereby soliciting international intervention. This argument just makes no sense to me. But I understand that all scenarios must be considered, so for argument’s sake let’s assume the rebels did carry out the attack. What then to make of the Syrian government delaying UN inspection of the attack site? Why did the government pummel the area with heavy bombardments in the mean time, thus willfully destroying evidence? These hardly seem the actions of an innocent victim of some devious smear campaign, orchestrated by the rebels, determined to prove his innocence. Instead, it makes one look rather suspiciously guilty. In the mean time, Russia has simply rejected the UN report containing evidence that strongly implicates the Syrian government in the attack, instead claiming to have proof that the rebels were behind it all. And from what independent source did they get this proof? Don’t laugh: from the Syrian government—the very same government accused of perpetrating this war crime. And when you also consider that the UN report has been criticized by Russia for being incomplete and biased (of all things) it really becomes rather difficult to keep a straight face.

Putin then follows with more lessons from recent history: the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. He warns the US against interfering in the affairs of other countries and that getting involved in Iraq and Afghanistan was a bad move. Whether that is true in both cases is still a matter of debate and I would say it seems a bit premature to make that assessment right now. But of course going to war in Syria, or anywhere else for that matter, is hardly an enticing prospect. Does Putin seriously think the strike against Syria is a popular option in the White house? Indeed, the negative experiences with Iraq and Afghanistan are precisely why America is not anxious to get involved in yet another conflict. However, turning a blind eye to the mass gassing to death of civilian men, women and children is an even less acceptable course of action.

Putin keeps urging the Americans to choose a diplomatic solution in his letter, and now that the Syrian government has apparently agreed to destroy it’s arsenal of chemical weapons (in return for the USA and allies not shoving a missile up Assad’s ass), a more peaceful path out of this situation has presented itself. For now it seems the Americans are accepting this solution to the crisis, and hopefully it will prove to be a decision that minimizes the number of civilian casualties that still lie ahead in this tragic conflict.

Mr Putin closes his letter with some vague religious statement along the lines that we should remember we are all created equal by God. Interesting. I will leave the reader to consider the current appalling treatment of gays and lesbians in Russia, which was already generally scandalous, but has been significantly exacerbated by the recently enacted and highly controversial anti-homosexual legislation. And then judge for yourself how much stock you want to ‘Putin’ that statement.


A critique of ‘Overpopulation Is Not the Problem’: bursting the ecological bubble.

Quite recently I read an opinion in the New York Times with the remarkable title ‘Overpopulation Is Not the Problem‘. In this article the author—a trained ecologist—argues that there is no such thing as a carrying capacity for mankind on this earth. He begins his argument by stating that humans have always altered ecosystems, and thereby increased the planet’s carrying capacity for mankind. Furthermore, the use of tools, domesticating animals for consumption, agriculture and the practice of cooking food to optimally obtain nutrients are also cited as historic examples of mankind using his unbridled ingenuity to increase the amount of resources at his disposal, thus making larger human populations possible. As a biologist myself, I always thought that the actual carrying capacity was a very difficult thing to determine. In fact, as far as I know scientific literature tells us that the actual carrying capacity is pretty much unknown (see for example the research of J.E. Cohen). I was therefore intrigued by this provocative statement and interested to learn on what profound insights and evidence this bold claim is based.

But I am soon disappointed. Because the author then simply begins extrapolating aforementioned historic achievements far into the future, and that’s where it all goes wrong. He begins by writing that the world population now stands at roughly 7.2 billion people, and that by the year 2050 this number is estimated to increase to 9 billion. But then he quotes the United Nations’ estimate that if—and boy what a big ‘if’, in fact it’s so big it deserves to be written in capitals and bold font—IF rich countries invest a huge amount of money in foreign infrastructure, trade, anti-poverty and food security, then the earth will be able to sustain this number. I just have to laugh at this point—just look at the current state of affairs on our planet! Going from that mess to a global end to poverty, universal fair trade, food security for all and nice roads for everyone to drive on in less than 37 years seems to me nothing more than a fancy for naive dreamers. But even if this all did succeed somehow, and I really hope it does by the way, then I still don’t see how that implies there is no final limit to the carrying capacity of our planet.

The article continues by claiming that future improvements in the social and technological systems will probably triumph over limiting environmental factors. But how can anyone be sure of that? How do past successes guarantee future successes? I would say that sounds suspiciously like an economic bubble—or should I say an ecological bubble? And what kind of living standards are we talking about here? What is to be done about the increased risk of catastrophic pandemics, due to the increase in population density? And growing beef  for untold billions of people hardly seems sustainable, so must we all become vegetarians? How do we make sure there is enough fish in the sea for an infinite number of people? The whole article seems to entirely bypass the question of what kind of quality of life people will have as the population increases. People are also in this regard nothing like bacteria on a petri dish—just enough resources to survive and reproduce is quite simply not good enough for humans. Beyond the bottom-up factors that limit the carrying capacity, such as food and water, the author also seems to ignore the top-down factors such as infectious diseases. Or is as yet uninvented technology always going to be able to take care of that as well?

Some resources are simply finite, once we use them up they are gone. At the moment, mankind is consuming resources at an unsustainable rate and this problem is only exacerbated by a growing global population. That is an issue our ancestors neither faced nor solved, so simply declaring that we will always be able to find ways to increase the carrying capacity just because our ancestors managed to do so in the past, is patently something no one can say with certainty. Another lesson history has taught us is that putting your faith in science and technology to solve all the world’s problems is not only the height of hubris, but may also have catastrophic consequences for our world, as was for example illustrated in Rachel Carson’s classic book ‘Silent Spring’. We don’t merely shape ecosystems, we also destroy them. So indeed the author is quite right when he concludes the last sentence with ‘…the environment will be what we make of it.‘ The article ultimately makes no reference to convincing scientific evidence in support of its main claim and fails to provide truly compelling arguments to justify such an extremely optimistic and rather arrogant Anthropocene outlook. I think a problem as big as overpopulation deserves better than that.


The verdict, the outcry and the law—the good, the bad and the ugly.

The case of Trayvon Martin’s shooting by George Zimmerman has stirred up a lot of emotions in the USA. But while I understand how a verdict of not guilty in this particular case might provoke intense reactions, agreeing with some of these reactions is another kettle of fish altogether.

For example, there are many who will say that Zimmerman could have avoided the fatal confrontation. In fact he had been told by the emergency services not to confront Trayvon Martin, but Zimmerman chose to ignore that advice. So prima facie this point seems to have some merit, he was in his car and could just have stayed there to avoid the whole thing. But that fails to take into account that Zimmerman is a member of the neighborhood watch of the gated-community where he lived, a community that had seen a number of burglaries, thefts and even one shooting in the year prior to this case. So staying in the car would have been a pretty lame thing to do, if you ask me. Besides, what’s wrong with just asking what someone is doing in the area? This is not exactly a public road after all, but a residential area surrounded by a big fence and monitored with a camera surveillance system. And also there is no solid evidence to suggest that Zimmerman intentionally confronted Martin anyway.

Then there are others who will have you believe that the fatal shooting would have resulted in a murder conviction if Trayvon Martin had been white, or even that the whole shooting wouldn’t have happened altogether if that had been the case. Well firstly, it’s not really fair to base conclusions like that on hypothetical scenarios. If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, wouldn’t we all have a Merry Christmas? Secondly, I might have understood this argument if George Zimmerman had been a white man who was in the habit of baking swastika shaped cookies on Sunday mornings, greeting people by shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ at them and spreading neonazi propaganda. But no, Zimmerman is in fact of Hispanic ethnicity and even appears to have dated an African American girl at some point in his life. Not exactly the kind of background easily associated with someone nursing a penchant for racialism. Furthermore, the recording of the call made to the police by Zimmerman shows that he made no reference to Martin’s race until the policeman on the other side of the line asked for that information. So there is simply no concrete indication that racism was a factor in this tragic case. What’s more, we only need to remember the outcome of the infamous O.J. Simpson double-murder trial to see that as far as racial factors influencing justice is concerned, the American legal system has much improved. I think it is now widely believed that O.J. Simpson was guilty of the double homicide, and if that is true we are actually talking about an African American getting away with murder! See? What more could you ask for?

No, the heart of the matter here is that George Zimmerman was legally licensed to own a gun. Not only that, he was also legally licenced to carry his deadly weapon concealed, fully loaded, on his person, out in public. And then finally there is the so-called ‘stand your ground‘ law which says that in any sufficiently serious conflict a person is not required to first try and retreat to safety, but instead is justified to shoot first and ask questions later. Apparently Mr Zimmerman’s lawyers did not even use the stand-your-ground law in his defense, because they argued that Zimmerman never had the opportunity to flee. But nevertheless I feel it is worth mentioning here—even if he could have fled, he would still have been well in his right to shoot. So what we have here then is a deadly set of laws that combine to effectively set the stage for wild-west situations. What evidence there was clearly suggested that Zimmerman simply exercised all his rights, and he was therefore quite justly acquitted of the charges brought against him. Because let’s face it, if you’re going to say it’s ok to carry a loaded gun everywhere and start shooting as soon as you feel threatened, then you are also going to look pretty ridiculous if you start complaining when that actually happens. Yeehaw!