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Michelangelo and Wikipedia — Image from American Prospect archives — creative commons license

The year 2020 has tested the most significant aspect of humanity that differentiates us from other organisms — the ability for advanced communication. The miasma of misinformation which this year has brought forth from pseudo-science commentary on virology to conspiracy theories about election fraud is astounding. We have also been far more susceptible to misinformation being stuck at home with our computing devices. Overloaded with memes in forwarded messages and torrents of twisted tweets, many of us have found anchorage in authentic information. …


As the current American election drama bedevils the public, understanding the anatomy of conspiratorial thinking with composure, and without contempt, is essential for this country to heal.

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Image by Jackie Ferrentino — Creative Commons License

Conspiracy theories are a symptom of fear and powerlessness. When people are unable to find answers or make sense of uncertainty or turmoil they latch on to whatever fanciful explanation makes sense. An excellent primer on the anatomy of conspiracy theories in the United States was compiled by Peter Knight almost two decades ago and still remains the most academically grounded analysis of the topic. Psychologists have also explored this topic as an example of “confirmation bias” whereby people try to find an explanation for some deeper belief that they may espouse. …


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Trojan Nuclear Power Plant Demolition Print — Kevin Davidson, 2006

The quest for a holy grail of global energy supply remains elusive, but much research continues to be cultivated and curated according to preferences and assumptions about a desired outcome. A recent paper in Nature Energy reflects such proclivities in favor of renewable energy with a clear objective of marginalizing nuclear power. Despite a very elegant hypothesis-driven conceptual framework, the authors have designed a study that diminishes the carbon benefits of nuclear by using a regression analysis that is not well-suited to the core societal question at hand: is the future of nuclear power likely to assist with carbon mitigation? Instead of addressing this question, the authors use aggregate carbon emissions data for countries and compare nuclear energy versus renewable energy dominance for two historic periods until 2014. The correlations are based on asymmetric units of comparison (given that only 31 countries are nuclear power producers while the full sample of countries with renewable portfolios is 123 in their data set). What the analysis does usefully show is that a switch to renewable energy technologies has definitively led to reduced carbon emissions, and that there can be some competition between the energy sources in terms of investment prioritization. Yet, this is where geography becomes a determining factor in considering energy pathways. …


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Lahore Metro Train Project in Pakistan -Developed in Partnership with China

Mass transit projects in cities of the developing world have become hallmarks of development prestige but remain controversial. While many impoverished cities should avoid such massive capital investment, South Asia’s dense, rapidly growing mega-cities are appropriate venues for such projects since the cost-benefit analysis for quality of life in economic and ecological terms usually favors such development. In my home city of Lahore, Pakistan a mass transit metro-train project was opened on October 25, 2020 after several years of delays that ensued from ligation against the development. The litigants were well-intentioned urban citizens who felt that the project was too close to major cultural heritage sites. …


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Wildlife near Chengdu, China, Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

Any global crisis prompts environmental scientists to consider linkages to ecological disruptions. In our rush to gain “panic policy dividends” we need to be cautious about what ecological insights and policy prescriptions we derive from current crisis.

Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg famously said that “the single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus.” The biological entities called viruses exist in the twilight zone between life and non-life and remain an elusive subject of evolutionary study. While the invisible biotic world of microbiology is often synonymous with dread, only around 1% of all microbes can actually cause disease in humans. Within the realm of microbes, bacteria, unlike viruses, have found redemption in our contemporary worldview through their positive role in digestive processes. Viruses have received less attention for their constructive role in ecological sustainability but their virtue should not be completely eclipsed by their vice. Nevertheless, Lederberg’s words appear prophetic in our current pandemic crisis, even though humanity has endured numerous prior pandemics in history.


As the Corona Virus grips the world in panic, I share this short article about how a small country which has thus far escaped a single recorded case of the virus has managed to reconcile with its erstwhile enemies.

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A bridge in honor of a former enemy nation’s leader — Dili, Timor Leste. Photo by Saleem H. Ali

Among the many geographic anomalies of European colonialism are states that have found national identities in defiance of ecological integrity. In these states new fusion cultures emerged that blended indigenous traditions with the language, culture and religion of their colonial masters. Often such states have become enclaves within dominant regional nations and been subject to hegemonic overtures that have led to conflict. The African continent exemplifies such synthetic construction of borders and identities most acutely. There are three Guineas with 3 different languages linked to their colonial history — Portuguese (Bissau), Spanish (Equatorial) and French (Republic of Guinea). …


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Lake Champlain view from Battery Park in Burlington Vermont — a city positively transformed by Bernie

Buzz-words have resonance in America more than most countries because we Americans are known for our parsimonious vocabulary. We love using “like” and then the same word over and over again as a means of modifying its meaning but in our mental template the core meaning often stays the same. Such is the case with “socialism” in America. The word has erroneously become synonymous with communism and no matter what prefix you use like “democratic socialism” — the term remains stigmatic. …


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Bosnian-Serbian Riparian Scene (Photograph by Saleem H. Ali)

Foreign policy views of Nobel peace laureates are frequently questioned for obvious reasons but occasionally literature laureates also find themselves in the limelight with controversies. Recall when the late Caribbean writer V.S. Naipaul won the literature prize in 2001, concerns were raised about his strong views against relations between the West and Muslim countries. Most notably, Sir Winston Churchill won the Nobel prize for literature (not peace) “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”

This year’s Nobel prize in literature was awarded to Austrian writer Peter Handke for his “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” This may seem innocuous enough but Mr. Handke’s periphery has included eulogies for Serbian nationalists, including the indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. His atavistic desire for Slavic nationalistic purity was embodied in a 1996 book titled Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia.


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A mural in the mining town of Antofagasta, Chile (Photo by Saleem H. Ali)

The shocking violence in Santiago, Chile in recent days has alarmed analysts worldwide since this South American nation has been championed as an economic success story — even winning admission to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in 2010. It is also the only Latin American country to have visa-waiver access for its citizens to the United States, which reflects the perception in the U.S. State Department that it has economic and social stability. So what has gone wrong in a country which boasts the world’s largest copper and lithium reserves, and a flourishing agricultural and fishing industry, alongside a robust service sector as well? …


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The quest for learning across cultures must continue — Photo by Saleem H. Ali in Sharjah, UAE

Adding insult to deepest injury, following the Christchurch White Nationalist terror attack, Australian Senator Fraser Anning’s Islamophobic remarks on official parliamentary stationery were shared worldwide on social media and put the Australian electoral process in considerable infamy. Yet, the comments he made about Islam were by no means fringe and have been a recurring theme in Occidental discourse for at least a thousand years and documented by the late historian Edward Said in his classic book Orientalism. The demonization of the Prophet Muhammad as a despot, child molester and misogynist have been repeated with impunity by not only right wing fanatics but by Oxbridge professors and even a Nobel laureate in literature like V.S. Naipaul.

About

Saleem H. Ali

Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment, University of Delaware; Member of the United Nations International Resource Panel

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