Monday, June 26, 2017

Portugal, Bangladesh, climate change, governance and disasters: compare and contrast

Climate change, or global warming, has, for well over a century, been recognised as increasing average temperatures on Earth, as well as extremes. More recently there has been recognition of other phenomena: heavy rain, intensified droughts, sea level rise and even lightning, including in the Arctic. Dry lightning - sometimes with thousands of flashes a day - is credited with help setting part of the Tasmanian highlands alight in 2016.

Even more recently there has been recognition of the likely social effects of climate change including population displacement and migration,* famine and undernutrition, and war and conflict. There is also growing understanding of the risks to infrastructure. Already, intense heat is making flights from some high altitude locations uneconomic. Mobile phones don't work as well in intense heat, railway lines can buckle. Extreme heat also harms the capacity of emergency workers, especially if in high humidity.

In June 2017, two complex phenomena happened, each with scores of deaths, each related to climate change, but also to poor governance, one in Portugal, one in Bangladesh.

Fires in Portugal: three days of national mourning

On June 18, 2017, 62 people died from burns from a forest fire in Portugal, mainly trapped in cars trying to flee. The fires, in poorly regulated eucalyptus plantations, were triggered by extreme heat, low humidity and "dry lightning" (an electrical storm without rain).

Portugal declared 3 days of national mourning.  

Landslides in Bangladesh: scarcely noticed at the national level

On about June 15, 2017, at least 156 people died from landslides after record-breaking monsoonal rain in the Rangamati district of the Chittagong Hills Tracts of Bangladesh. This loss of life is not purely climate change related. It is in part due to aggressive government policies including deforestation, erosion, and an incredibly high rate of recent population growth. According to official Bangladeshi census data the population of the district increased by almost 50% from 1991 to 2011. 

This population increase is not largely due to a high birth rate (though the birth rate is high) but the "transmigration" from the Bengali plains to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This is effectively a form of land grabbing, a brutal and familiar story of the displacement of Indigenous people, underway in this part of Bangladesh since before partition with India (1947) but accelerating since the 1970s. It has been supported by the Bangladeshi army and other instruments of state. A fundamental driver, of course, is high population pressure on the plains.

As a result of poverty and rapid population growth, many people in the
Chittagong Hills Tracts, both migrant and Indigenous, have been forced to build flimsy houses on unstable hills and in vulnerable locations. This is poorly regulated, if at all. For decades, state resources have favoured the military and the settlers, at the expense of the Indigenous people who are increasingly displaced.

Vulnerable housing: Chittagong Hill Tracts. Source
In Bangladesh, unlike in Portugal, there was little attention paid by the state.** Prime minister Hasina went overseas. Both she and the opposition leader (Khaleda Zia) expressed their condolences for four members of the military who were killed (the military's statement implied these deaths were during active rescue work, but locals say the hillock of their camp collapsed and they were buried), but they said little if anything about the others who were killed. Although Bangladesh received condolence messages from India, Russia, Japan and elsewhere mainstream Australian media appears to have not noticed the landslide deaths.

All the road connections to Rangamati were initially cut due to the wide scale of the landslides. Rangamati could only be reached by water from the Kaptai reservoir. The electricity supply was slow to return, food prices were high, compounded by a shortage of food, fuel and drinking water as well as other essentials. There is fear of an outbreak of water-borne diseases. Parts of Moanoghar, a charity which BODHI supports, were flooded, but the children were moved to safer buildings. Some houses were destroyed near Moanoghar and the adjacent road. Reports: here and here.


An earlier arson attack in the Chittagong Hills in June 2017 (over 150 houses burned) was also scarcely reported in Australia outside of social media. A newspaper report linked the arson to the alleged murder of local Awami League leader Nurul Islam Nayan by two Indigenous men. Two Chakma men were arrested. I have no idea if they are guilty or innocent, but the burning of these houses cannot be justified. At least one Indigenous woman was burned to death.

A woman amid her burnt home in Tintila tries to salvage whatever small things she can. Photo: Prabir Das/Anvil Chakma

We are shortly to send $5,000 to Moanoghar to help. Due to the urgency, approval from the Bangladeshi government (to receive foreign funds) is expected to be much faster than normal. 

The wider significance

Those who have more resources in this world generally have more of its political and other forms of power. They even shape the history books.

Claims of overpopulation are generally dismissed by those with power, including in the scientific literature. The capacity of ingenuity to solve problems is exaggerated. Of course, ingenuity helps, but often ingenuity (and aggression) is used to appropriate resources formerly controlled by others, whether in the British Empire, America, Tibet or the Chittagong Hills.

Climate change, by reducing the increase in crop yields, by eating away at coastal land, and by making an increasing fraction of the planet uninhabitable, including through heat and storms, is reducing the arable land which humans need. Ingenuity (eg desalination, vertical farming and
hydroponics) is only a partial compensation. In the future, while population growth and climate change worsen, more conflict must be expected. This situation could easily get out of control, generating global catastrophe.

We need to act intelligently, co-operatively, and rapidly to reduce this slow burning planetary emergency.


* The work of Norman Myers (who I once met at a three day workshop to mark seven billion day, run by the Foundation for the Future) was for decades criticised as alarmist, not only by climate denialists, but by also by some leading migration experts. My impression is that this criticism is diminishing as sea level rise forecasts and other factors, such as extreme heat, grow increasingly dire.

** This is based on material supplied to me by Bengali speakers. I do not have the resources to check the Bangladeshi media, especially by searching in Bengali. I did search in English, finding a reference to the death of the four soldiers but nothing else.

*** BODHI and BODHI Australia are the NGOs I co-founded in 1989.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Consuming the planet: reasons to be hopeful

In  September I spoke at the 2017 Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine conference, on "Consuming the Planet: reasons to be hopeful".

The outline of my 40 minute talk is in dark red. I have added a few links and comments, in blue.

My slides are at:

This image exists on many websites. So far I have been unable to find the name of the artist

1. “Business as usual” will lead to a deepening emergency, not only for other species but for civilisation. 

There is terrible denial about the risk of widespread conflict on Earth. What we see in Syria, Yemen, Mosul, Libya and elsewhere are tiny foretastes. Stephen Pinker's claim that humans have largely solved the problem of conflict is tragically and absurdly premature. The 21st century is on a trajectory to make the 20th century look benign and peaceful. Pinker is wrong because of the existence of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. 

Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, claimed U.S. bombs "killed off 20 percent of the population" and "targeted everything that moved in North Korea."* In April 2017 Tom O'Connor wrote "These acts, largely ignored by the U.S.' collective memory, have deeply contributed to Pyongyang's contempt for the U.S. and especially its ongoing military presence on the Korean Peninsula."  

“It is still the 1950s in North Korea and the conflict with South Korea and the United States is still going on,” says Kathryn Weathersby, a scholar of the Korean War. “People in the North feel backed into a corner and threatened.” (source)

With President Trump in power the chance of a compassionate and sensible approach to North Korea looks bleak. 

2. Evolutionary forces have rewarded humans that are collectively ingenious but also very aggressive, not only towards the planet but at times other peoples and other groups.

See this recording by Jane Goodall on chimpanzee aggression. As for human consumption of the planet, consider the proximity of the planetary boundaries.

3. The same evolutionary forces have generated and rewarded co-operation, on increasing scales. The challenge for civilisation is to reach a threshold of global co-operation before our options run out and triage strategies lead to a “fortress world” in which human well-being is in very short supply.

After WWII there was a hope that humanity had gained maturity from its then recent and immense suffering. Hopes of a fairer world were thwarted by the dominance of short-term thinking by people in the US, supporters of the hardline position of George Kennan and others. As I published in 2000:

"The post war spirit saw not only the Marshall Plan, but new efforts to help the “developing countries.” In 1949, U.S. President Truman’s inaugural address declared:
 “More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas… I believe that we should make available to peace-loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life... Our aim should be to help the free peoples of the world, through their own efforts, to produce more food, more clothing, more materials for housing, and more mechanical power to lighten their burdens. ...Only by helping the least fortunate of its members to help themselves can the human family achieve the decent, satisfying life that is the right of all people.”[4]

Twelve years later, John Kennedy declared, in the corresponding presidential inaugural address:

“To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe, … we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required, not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”[5]

However, sceptics question both the sincerity and institutional support for this presidential rhetoric. In 1948, while working for the U.S. state department, George Kennan wrote: “We have 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security...”[6]

Kennan clearly prevailed, though occasionally voices are faintly heard, calling for greater fairness. This hypocrisy and double standard lies at the heart of the terrorist response.  

The full paper (with references) can be downloaded for free from my personal website, here.

4. Some materialism is necessary for well-being but it is not sufficient. We also need a sense of connection with other people and with nature. Excess materialism harms the planet and ourselves. 

 Happiness does not come only from material goods. Consider Ebenezer Scrooge, rich but unloved and unhappy.

“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
“Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.
“What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

"Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”" [interesting by the way that Dickens describes blind men with dogs in this tale, published in 1843 .. well before the seeing eye dog movement started]
5. There has been a kind of silent coup, globally, by forces loyal to excessive materialism. 

This coup has various names, including neoliberalism, marketism and even communism. Happiness and well-being also depends on feelings of social connectivity and community, and also freedom, including of thought and expression (within limits - but these limits are far broader than the world is evolving towards).

6. Medical and other health practitioners can and should work contribute towards a fairer more world, with more equity, green space and a sense of community, both locally and globally.

7. Even though the challenge is daunting a candle is visible in the dark, there is much that can be done, and doctors, comparatively powerful and privileged, can make a difference.

8. Grappling to find a solution is an antidote for despair

Am I really hopeful? 

Tom Athanasiou (whose 1997 book "Slow reckoning. The ecology of a divided planet", London, Random House was very helpful during the writing of my PhD, "Inequality and Sustainability") recently wrote:

"even at the top, people are becoming terrified."

 "the climate crisis really is going to define the twenty-first century, even more than artificial intelligence and gene editing—and even more, at least in the short term, than extinction itself. In fact, all else being equal, it will only be about ten years before a 1.5°C warming—the maximum that, in Paris, our governments recognized as our proper goal—is physically unattainable. We have a bit more time for 2°C, but not much, and it is important to remember that 2°C is not safe, and may not even be stable.

"The bottom line here is that, bloody though the twentieth century was, the twenty-first century is likely to be worse—and that, if we are going to make it through, we are going to do so within a capitalist social formation. In particular, we are going to have to prioritize stabilizing the climate, while getting past capitalism will take a bit more time. And to achieve this stabilization, we are going to have to do more than just “advance an alternative vision for global society that goes beyond reformism.” We are going to have to draw global emissions down to almost zero, and we are going to have to do so fast."

So, no, I am not very hopeful. But there are people I know of and know who are far more pessimistic than I am. We have to keep trying. Clearly, we need a mix of fear and hope to move forward, an idea I have called a social vaccine.

About the author

Adjunct Professor Colin Butler (BMedSci (Hons), BMed, DTM&H, Dip Epi, MSc (Epi), PhD) has honorary positions at the Australian National University and the University of Canberra. In 2009 the French Environmental Health Association named him as one of “a hundred doctors for the planet”. In 2014 he became the first contributor to the health section of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report to be arrested for civil disobedience, (ridiculed by the conservative commentator Andrew Bolt) protesting the Maules Creek coal mine. He is editor of the book “Climate Change and Global Health” and senior editor of “Health of People, Places and Planet: Reflections Based on Tony McMichael’s Four Decades of Contribution to Epidemiological Understanding”.

In 1989 Colin co-founded the NGOs BODHI and BODHI Australia. These NGOs today work with partners in India and Bangladesh to promote health and development.

In 2014 Colin co-founded Health-Earth.


Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops.

US "war reporters rarely mentioned civilian casualties from U.S. carpet-bombing. It is perhaps the most forgotten part of a forgotten war."