24 October 2014


Last month, Scottish voters participated in a momentous referendum in which a majority of the country (97% voting) decided to remain part of the United Kingdom. This reverses an almost unbroken string of devolutionary precedents which began with the North American Revolution in 1776. Does this signal the onset of a counter-trend in world historical terms?

Broadly speaking, in the first instance by 'devolution' I mean the shift of governing power from a central authority to local controlling bodies. The U.S. revolution, a century ahead of its time, was so unprecedented it nearly overshot its devolutionary mark: the Articles of Confederacy would have created 13 independent nations. It took a civil war in the 1860s to rectify this miscalculation and solidify governance in a central authority, albeit one with limited powers—a tension which still haunts our politics to this day.

Recently I republished a map from The Guardian showing the various countries who have, in one way or another, gained their independence from the British monarchic control over time. Here it is again.

(click to enlarge)
Of course, there have been other colonial empires, and in virtually all of them there have been similar devolutionary trends. Besides the reactionary Napoleonic exercises of the 19th Century, the major counter-example in the 230+ years since our Revolution has been the recent experiment in the Soviet Union. Beginning in 1917 and the fall of the Russian Empire, Soviet rulers sought to bring more and more countries and peoples under its sway, provoking a generational Cold War. This project ultimately failed once Gorbachev realized the weight of expansionism (particularly into Afghanistan) and the costs of total control were too great an economic burden for the central authority and the local Russian populace to maintain. And so began a second, reinforcing wave of devolution in the late Twentieth Century, extending the trend to the Baltic states, the -Stans, Belorussia, Georgia, the Ukraine, etc.

It bears noting that current Russian leader Vladimir Putin seems to have some desire to reclaim the lost glories of empire and thus of centralized authority, but his venture into the Ukraine—despite his practically unopposed reclaimation of the Crimean peninsula—is meeting serious resistance both at home and abroad and seems to be showing the folly of resisting the historical devolutionary trend.

Back to Scotland: There are local reasons for the failure of the devolutionary trend in the Scottish referendum, not the least of which involve physical proximity, historical affinity (how random, after all, is the placement of Hadrian's wall?), racial and ethnic and linguistic identity, economic commonality, etc. So it may be fair to say that the recent failure of the plebiscite does not represent a significant halt to the historical sweep of devolution. The British Empire, after all, is pretty much broken up and shows no signs of reversing the larger trend. By all indications, our British cousins no longer have expansionary dreams. They are simply trying to hold onto their nearest and dearest, and their Scots neighbors seem to have bargained for some local political and economic independence as a result of their choice.

There are, however, some current counter-trends, and they can be found in the Middle East and Far East Asia. Significantly, ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State has noisily announced its goal as the reconstitution of the Caliphate, a multi-ethnic regional theocratic empire. The Chinese, having recaptured Hong Kong from the grasp of the British Empire, are still attempting to consolidate their hold on Tibet and are looking fondly toward bringing Taiwan back into the fold. An Occupy-like movement in Hong Kong is vocally resisting this effort, and the Dalai Lama has withdrawn from political leadership in order to draw attention to Beijing's attempts to manipulate the process of selecting his successor and reify its claim to legitimacy in Tibet.


A brief U.S. political note: Historically, the term 'liberal' has always meant favoring democratic policies intended to further devolve power from a central authority held by such entities as royals and plutocrats and dictators, whereas 'conservative' has always meant clinging to the centrality of authority. In the U.S. today, however, conservatives seem to favor policies that devolve power to state and local authorities and away from a strong centralized government in Washington, D.C. (except, of course, in matters of national security). Why is this the case?

To understand this, we need to look at a second, parallel devolutionary trend. Besides the movement of political power, there has grown up a related though hardly identical form of devolution: economic. When the great empires were dismantled, the economic structures that held them in place fell as well. Historically, tribute, in the form of taxes and native resources, found its way back to the centers of power in exchange for continued protection and control—which necessarily did have some benefits in terms of, e.g., physical infrastructure, bureaucracy, institutions. Thus, local populations retained or recaptured ostensible control of their resources and production.

These economic organizations grew up hand-in-hand with empire. The Dutch East Indies company being the prime example. Their allegiance was always to the crown—the central authority from whom they received their charters. When the crowns toppled, these organizations were left in place. They became 'Ronin', that is to say samurais without warlords, mercenary to whatever authority provided them with the most benefits. Many grew extremely powerful in the vacuum left by the devolution of political power, some arguably more powerful than many national governments.

Today, in the U.S., this trend of economic devolution is, if anything, even more powerful than its political cousin. Large corporations operate in- and out-side of national borders. National and local governments compete for their business by lessening the tax burdens and regulatory strictures on these entities—revenue and regulations intended largely to protect local populations. And, left to their own devices, these corporate entities grow even more centralized and powerful—more ungovernable.

The central tension in U.S. politics today, I believe, has to do less with how much political power to devolve to the States and more with how much economic power will devolve to these rogue corporations. U.S. liberals, thus, paradoxically find themselves having to favor policies that promote a strong central economic authority which will reign in unbridled corporate activities. U.S. conservatives and libertarians likewise find themselves in the paradoxical situation of fighting for the further devolution of political power because it favors the concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer corporate hands.

The great national powers now are not so much tools of political as of corporate power. Corporate imperialism is the new tyranny; economic inequality and class warfare are merely indications of this movement. Economic devolution is the central political issue confronting world politics today.

Multinational corporate empires are less easily reigned in by local bureaucrats squabbling over schools and potholes and kickbacks than by sophisticated, centralized taxing and regulatory agencies. And national governments, as we've witnessed since at least the Vietnam conflict and, intensively and explicitly, over the past nearly quarter century in Iraq, best play their role by using their economic clout and war-making powers to open otherwise closed markets to corporate interests.

There is a balance to be struck somewhere between a world order of authoritarian central command-economy governments and the creeping anarchy of rogue corporate fiefdoms wielding absolute control within their spheres of economic influence. I do not pretend to know where that perfect balance lies, but it is, to my mind, the central dynamic at work in both U.S. and world affairs. Scotland, the Ukraine, Hong Kong, Tibet, Syria/Turkey/Iraq/Kurdistan, the fight for control of the U.S. Senate, the struggle against inequality and concentration of wealth, the Occupy movement and, yes, the Tea Party movement, and even Bitcoin: these are some of the contemporary flashpoints in this ongoing historical trend. Watch this space.

15 October 2014

Panthertown Valley

Panthertown Valley is a backcountry wilderness area in Western North Carolina, near Cashiers and Highlands, just off U.S. Highway 64. An easy 2+ hour drive from the ATL, it has become Wisdoc's and my go-to day hiking getaway. It is now part of the Nantahala National Forest and offers miles and miles of trails and dozens of secluded waterfalls. You can hike for hours and hardly see a soul. We've been there five times and have nowhere near exhausted its riches. Just returned from a misty, foggy, rainy long weekend there, fall colors at peak. Word to the Wise: If you go, go first to Highland Hiker in Cashiers and get an up-to-date map.

So, Pics! [As ever, click pic to embiggen slideshow or mouse over pic for secret message]

View from Salt Rock 
Weird Vertical Panorama at The Overlook
Both dogs are in this pic. Can you spot Lily?
Did I mention COLOR?
Bruno & Lily: Boon Hiking Companions
Elbow Falls (= Negative Ions!)

Another in the series "Things Growing on Other Things"
Bruno - 6 months old, enjoying Elbow Falls: His First Hike
"The woods are lovely dark and deep..."
A Sluggish Hornet on Our Canoe
Fog Descends on Hogback Lake
Wisdoc at Hogback Lake

06 October 2014

This Week in Water

Scientists find that the oceans are getting warmer more rapidly than their models anticipated.

Rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are causing rapid warming of the Earth's ocean surfaces, reducing their ability to absorb increased carbon emissions—that is, their ability to cool the planet.

Earth's oceans are acidifying at the fastest rate in 300 million years.

Cambridge University researchers believe the Greenland ice sheet is more sensitive to climate change than earlier estimates suggested. A complete melt would mean rising sea levels up to 7 meters, or 23+ feet.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is headed toward "unstoppable" collapse according to studies using visual data from the Europeans Space Agency.

Miami Beach, a particularly vulnerable low-lying U.S. city, is worried about its annual 'King Tide' which threatens to push an extra foot of water over sea walls and onto its streets.

More than 35,000 walruses were driven ashore in Alaska because of a loss of coastal sea ice, their normal habitat.

Some scientists believe whale poop can help reverse the effects of climate change. It's complicated.

Researchers at the University of Hawaii (full disclosure: my son is a student there in the school of oceanography) are trying to breed super-coral reefs which they believe may pre-empt excess acidification and warming of the oceans.

Scientists have revised and updated their maps of the undersea floor using satellite data, discovering many new mountains in the deepest parts of the ocean.

Scientists from MIT believe global warming could actually ease fresh water scarcity in some parts of the world, but the distribution could be unpredictable and uneven.

For the first time in modern history, the eastern basin of the South Aral Sea—once the world's fourth-largest lake—has completely dried.

Like California and other parts of the U.S. West, the Amazon regions of Brazil are facing unprecedented drought. Rivers there are drying up.

As in parts of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, the Arabian sea has a dead zone from sewage and fertilizer flowing into it from local rivers. It's the size of Texas.

Meanwhile, hundreds died in India and Pakistan from the heaviest monsoon rains in 50 years.

Some of the water molecules in your drinking glass were created before the formation of our sun.

Astronomers have detected water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet in a solar system far, far away. This is a scientific first.